Monday, 10 March 2014

Analysis: Some References in The Bishop's Apron by W. Somerset Maugham

In the last post, I have looked at the story and the first colonial edition of The Bishop's Apron by W. Somerset Maugham. Even though it was written over a century ago, many pages still make me chuckle. Maugham's acrid humour and subtle characterization of the formidable Theodore Spratte and his family are highly entertaining.

In this post, I will examine two interesting references in the novel about the drinking-cup and a quote attributed to the Swan of Avon.

Poculum, poculum elevatum

O quam bonum est
O quam bonum est
I have a suspicion that as a modern reader I may have missed some of the jokes. For example, almost at the beginning of the book when Canon Spratte expounds his view on his objection to teetotalism, he ends his speech by a Latin quotation:
“O quam bonum est,
O quam jucundum est,
Poculis fraternis gaudere.” (16)

No, it is not from the Bible. At the beginning of the twentieth-century most probably the reading public could still recognize its origin. It is a traditional glee for five voices written in the eighteenth-century, when its genre was still at the height of fashion, by Thomas Arne (1710-1778), the composer of Rule, Britannia! and a version of God Save the King.

It is a convivial glee celebrating the drinking cup [1]:

Latin Text Translation
Poculum, poculum elevatum Drinking-cup, drinking-cup, raised on high
Quod nobis est pergratum. That is so pleasing to us.
Poculum, poculum elevatissimum Drinking-cup, drinking-cup, raised higher still,
Quod nobis est pergratissimum. That is most pleasing of all.
Bibamus, bibamus, bibamus Let us drink, drink, drink,
Bibe totum extra, nil manet intra, Drink it all up, so nothing is left,
Bibe totum extra, nil manet intra. Drink it all up, so nothing is left.
Hoc est bonum in visceribus meis This is good in my insides
Hoc est bonum in visceribus tuis This is good in your insides
Et nos consequimur laudes tuas And we sing out your praises.
O quam bonum est Oh, how good it is,
O quam jucumdum est Oh, how delightful it is,
Poculis fraternis gaudere. To enjoy good fellows’ cups!
O quam bonum est Oh, how good it is,
O quam jucumdum est Oh, how delightful it is,
Poculis fraternis gaudere. To enjoy good fellows’ cups!

This glee is probably making a sly joke of Psalm 133: Ecce quam bonum, et quam iucundum habitare fratres in unum.

This reminds me of the ending of The Moon and Sixpence, when Robert Strickland recites two lines of a poem by Longfellow as if they were Bible quotes.

The Swan of Avon and "Ambition is the last infirmity of noble minds"

The Swan of Avon
The Swan of Avon

At some point of the story, the Canon, as he is most of the time, is very pleased with himself, because his manoeuvres of getting his daughter Winnie to marry Lord Wroxham instead of the socialist Railing prove to be successful; because he is very certain that he would be offered the much coveted bishopric of Barchester; and because he has proposed to Mrs. Fitzherbert. He quotes the Swan of Avon:
"Ambition, says the Swan of Avon, is the last infirmity of noble minds." (225)

The Swan of Avon is Shakespeare, from the tribute Ben Jonson pays to the dramatist and poet in "To The Memory of My Beloved Master William Shakespeare, And What He Hath Left Us":
Sweet Swan of Avon! what a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear,
And make those flights upon the banks of Thames,
That so did take Eliza, and our James!

However, what Theodore attributes to Shakespeare is quite a problematic quote. Most likely it comes originally from Milton's Lycidas:
Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of Noble mind)
To scorn delights, and live laborious dayes;
We are also told that it is handed down from antiquity as: “The desire for fame is the last infirmity of the noble mind” [2], which is very probable, but so far I haven't found more specific information.

Sir John Lubbock (1834-1913) makes reference to it in chapter 1 of his book The Pleasures of Life (1887-1889), linking it to ambition:
If fame be the last infirmity of noble minds, ambition is often the first; though, when properly directed, it may be no feeble aid to virtue.

Nevertheless, this would be the opposite of what the Canon is talking about.

Then we come to J.M. Barrie, the famous author of Peter Pan and a contemporary of Maugham. In fact, this quote "Ambition is the last infirmity of noble minds" is attributed to him on the internet.

It is a line from his play The Twelve-Pound Look published in 1910:
SIR HARRY (quoting from his morning paper).
Ambition it is the last infirmity of noble minds.

Now, here we come to our point. I suspect that this could very well be a quote from newspaper, as Barrie puts it. Maugham is in fact satirizing Theodore, whose knowledge is limited to popular glee, newspaper quote (wrongly attributed to the Bard [3]), and the sailor bold lines he keeps humming. True to his humble origin, he only has the appearance of a gentleman and is by no means an educated man. This hits home when we consider the subtitle of the novel: A Study in the Origins of a Great Family.

This brings us to the second point. Maugham published The Bishop's Apron in 1906, four years earlier than Barrie's The Twelve-Pound Look. If one is to attribute this quote as an original one, Maugham would have more claim to it.

How to quote this:

[1] Kaldis, Cynthia. Latin Music Through the Ages. Illinois: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1999. 65.
[2] Schain, Richard. The Last Infirmity of the Nobel Mind
[3] It is interesting to note that Mirsky does suggest that Shakespeare anticipated Milton's line about fame as the last infirmity of the noble mind. He argues that Hamlet "will order Horatio not to leave him with a 'wounded name,' but to report the 'Story.' It seems as if Shakespeare has anticipated the epigram in Milton's "Lycidas": 'Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise / (That last infirmity of Noble mind).' Fame is the poet's occupational infirmity, not necessarily the Prince's" (92). The lines concerned are in Act 5, Scene 2; after Hamlet dies, Horatio says: "Now cracks a noble heart." Mirsky, Mark Jay. The Absent Shakespeare. New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1994.

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