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Poem of the week: An Epitaph on the Death of Nicholas Grimald by Barnabe Googe

Poem of the week: An Epitaph on the Death of Nicholas Grimald by Barnabe Googe

An Epitaph on the Death of Nicholas Grimald

Behold this fleeting world, how all things fade,

How every thing doth pass and wear away;

Each state of life, by common course and trade,

Abides no time, but hath a passing day.

For look, as life, that pleasant dame, hath brought

The pleasant years and days of lustiness,

So Death, our foe, consumeth all to nought;

Envying thief, with dart doth us oppress.

And that which is the greatest grief of all,

The greedy gripe doth no estate respect,

But where he comes he makes them down to fall;

Nor stays he at the high sharp-witted sect.

For if that wit or worthy eloquence

Or learning deep could move him to forbear,

O Grimald, then thou hadst not yet gone hence,

But here hadst seen full many an aged year;

Nor had the muses lost so fine a flower,

Nor had Minerva wept to leave thee so;

If wisdom might have fled the fatal hour,

Thou hadst not yet been suffered for to go.

A thousand doltish geese we might have spared,

A thousand witless heads death might have found,

And taken them for whom no man had cared,

And laid them low in deep oblivious ground:

But fortune favours fools, as old men say,

And lets them live, and takes the wise away.

The Lincolnshire-born poet, translator and statesman Barnabe Googe (1540-1594) was apparently the first English writer to have a collection of poems published under his own name, albeit unintentionally. During Googe’s absence on a diplomatic embassy to Spain, a friend, Laurence Blundeston, gathered together his early poems and sent them to the printer’s. The resultant volume, Eglogs, Epytaphes and Sonnettes (1563) includes this week’s poem mourning the death of fellow poet Nicholas Grimald.

Googe’s choice of the generic term “epitaph”, derived from the Greek words for “over a tomb”, is indicative. The poem may not be brief, but it has a certain Protestant briskness of tone. Rictor Norton explains in An Era of Idylls (The Homosexual Pastoral Tradition) that, in the “Eglogs” (Eclogues), Googe was suspicious even of heterosexual emotion, and attributed it to female powers of enchantment. He considered heterosexuality acceptable largely because it provided a check on homosexual desire.

The Epitaph for Grimald contains no portrait, projects little sense of intimate relationship. Googe redirects his personal loss through the proclamation of Grimald’s intellectual and literary prowess. The “wit” Grimald displayed may have included sparkling conversation, but this would strictly be a later interpretation of the word, which originally was synonymous with knowledge.

The expressiveness of the opening lines is restrained, the figures mundane. “Each state of life, by common course and trade, / Abides no time, but hath a passing day.” By “state of life” Googe means “estate”, the professional life reflecting an individual’s particular social standing. The qualification “by common course and trade” doesn’t appear to advertise any metaphorical elaboration which might heighten the pathos of the “passing day”. Life is represented somewhat archly, perhaps, as “a pleasant dame”. Could the weapon Death wields (line eight) be the same as Cupid’s – a dart? Perhaps the “dart” in this case refers to the speedy movement of Death as an “envying thief”. But it might possibly imply a new dimension to Death and “his” actions.

At this point, alliteration moves in and intensifies the mood, with the consort of “greatest grief” and “greedy gripe” prefiguring the name, Grimald. I liked the use of the noun “gripe” to suggest not a complaint but someone (Death) who mindlessly grips and grasps. This sentence builds into a lament that Death doesn’t hesitate to assault “the high sharp-witted sect”. In choosing the word “sect” Googe neatly encapsulates a significant and topical religious subtext.

Now, a direct address abruptly occurs: “O Grimald …” This newly personal expression of regret isn’t withdrawn, but soon comes to be shared by the Muses and Minerva. The emotion is more impressive than the argument that, if only Grimald’s talent and wisdom had been a preventive against death, he would have lived long and fulfilled his potential. Making the obvious point that “wit”, “worthy eloquence” and “learning deep” are no protection is an indirect, perhaps self-protective way for Googe to celebrate those qualities in his friend.

Anger seems to erupt in the last sestet. The emphasis on the worthlessness of Grimald’s survivors is heightened: “A thousand doltish geese we might have spared, / A thousand witless heads death might have found.” Googe might possibly have a few examples of such “geese” in mind, if not the rhetorical “thousand”. He envisages acting in partnership with Death to remove “them for whom no man had cared”. Implicitly, the man who “cared” for Grimald is the speaker. He wishes the others away , “laid … low in deep oblivious ground”. As ever, the emphasis of loss falls on the dead man’s intellectual qualities. But the aphoristic last couplet – quoting an actual Latin proverb, “Fortuna favet fatuis” – seems less a slick flourish than a bitter, even self-lacerating, reflection. The detached tone of the epitaph has evolved. Googe shows he can write from strong emotion. It’s not apparently erotic emotion, but it amounts to more than a passion for Protestant virtue.

I’ve used this source for the modernised version of Googe’s text.

Source: theguardian.com