Strange Sights Much Sought, Strange Things Much Bought


On Translation

December through the eyes of an Elizabethan poet.


Hendrick Avercamp, Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters, ca. 1608.

It is now definitely December. Another November survived, and a grim November it was, too, the month Thoreau used to call November Eat-heart—days “as will almost oblige a man to eat his own heart,” in which “you must hold on to life by your teeth.” “You can hardly screw up your courage to take a walk … If you do feel any fire at this season out of doors, you may depend upon it, it is your own.” Even the life-affirming Nicholas Breton goes dark: “Now begins the Goshawk to weed the wood of the Pheasant, and the Mallard loves not to hear the bells of the Falcon. The winds now are cold, and the Air chill, and the poor die through want of Charity.”

Breton, ca. 1554–1626, was a prolific Elizabethan poet, friend to Edmund Spenser, with a penchant for powerfully balanced rhythms (“Sing a dirge on Spenser’s death, / Till your souls be out of breath”), but he’s justly forgotten today. Justly except for his fantastic Fantasticks: Serving for A Perpetuall Prognostication (1626). Along with lesser vignettes on the elements, seasons, hours, and major holidays, Fantasticks contains twelve little descriptions of the months that deserve to be immortal.

Starting in January, when “Time begins to turn the wheel of his Revolution,” Breton’s vivid natural and social descriptions march steadily through the year: “the Squirrel now surveyeth the Nut and the Maple, and the Hedgehog rolls up himself like a football”; in June, “the little Lads make Pipes of the straw, and they that cannot dance, will yet be hopping”; in September, “the winds begin to knock the Apples’ heads together on the trees, and the fallings are gathered to fill the Pies for the Household.” Each month ends with a kicker as balanced as a brace of oxen: May “is from the Heavens a Grace, & to the Earth a Gladness. Farewell.”

Here is December:

IT is now December, & he that walks the streets, shall find dirt on his shoes, Except he go all in boots. Now doth the Lawyer make an end of his harvest, and the Client of his purse. Now Capons and Hens, beside Turkeys, Geese and Ducks, besides Beef and Mutton, must all die for the great feast, for in twelve days a multitude of people will not be fed with a little …. Now are the Tailors and the Tiremakers full of work against the Holidays, and Music now must be in tune, or else never: the youth must dance and sing, and the aged sit by the fire … The Footman now shall have many a foul step, and the Ostler shall have work enough about the heels of the Horses, while the Tapster, if he take not heed, will lie drunk in the Cellar. The prices of meat will rise apace, and the apparel of the proud will make the Tailor rich. Dice and Cards, will benefit the Butler. And if the Cook do not lack wit, he will sweetly lick his fingers. Starchers and Launderers will have their hands full of work, and Periwigs and painting will not be a little set by, strange stuffs will be well sold, strange tales well told, strange sights much sought, strange things much bought, and what else as falls out. To conclude, I hold it the costly Purveyor of Excess, and the after-breeder of necessity, the practice of Folly, and the Purgatory of Reason.

I haven’t run across many capons or ostlers this season, but costly Excess rings a bell—this is all recognizably my December. At the same time, as with any Elizabethan English, paying attention to moments of static, the words that seem not quite right, turns up interesting things. Why will Dice and Cards benefit the Butler? Because a butler was originally a bottler: the main servant in charge of the wine cellar and serving the drinks. “Now plums and spice, Sugar and Honey, square it among pies and broth”: To “square it” is to strut or swagger, perhaps from squaring your shoulders or squaring up to box. “And Gossip I drink to you, and you are welcome, and I thank you, and how do you, and I pray you be merry”: A “gossip” was a “god-sib,” a sibling or relative in a foster relationship—your child’s godmother or godfather, for instance, was your gossip. From there the meaning spread to close friends (Breton’s chatty December pub-goers toast to friendship), especially the female friends present at a childbirth, and from there to idle or malicious chatterers and their chatter, by the sexism that eventually turns almost any English word with feminine associations nasty.

Still, more interesting than the glimpse of language past is that of life past and the life that lives on—the dirty shoes, the starchers and launderers and tiremakers, the Folly of shopping for strange stuff. Of course the language and the life go together, and you lose one when you lose the other. A few years back, there was a short-lived outcry when somebody noticed that the 2008 Oxford Junior Dictionary had quietly cut a number of words. A young person apparently no longer needs to know catkin, brook, minnow, acorn, buttercup, heron, almond, ash, beetroot, bray, bridle, porpoise, gooseberry, raven, blackberry, tulip, and canter, and the culling—sorry, “deletions”—made room for celebrity, citizenship, bungee-jumping, committee, compulsory, block graph, attachment, and database, among others.* I doubt capon and ostler are in there either. You can’t blame the dictionary folks; they’re probably right.

Beyond the vocabulary, there’s the death of Breton’s rhythm. Singsongy in much of his poetry, the echoes and symmetries in his calendar express a sturdy rootedness in the rhythms of the world. This grounding makes “perpetual prognostication” possible: it says this is how the months will always be. I don’t think I hear rhythms like it anywhere today, even in children’s books, pop songs, or rap, the three places in our culture where poetry has gone to live. We have less faith now in our future Decembers. To conclude, I hold it a Messenger of ill news, and a memory of Comfort. Farewell.

*Lists taken from the fine essay “A Counter-Desecration Phrasebook” by Robert Macfarlane, in Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and Its Meanings (2010).

Damion Searls, the Daily’s language columnist, is a translator from German, French, Norwegian, and Dutch.