Printers’ Pie


Printers have persecuted me without cause.
The Printers’ Bible, Ps. cxix, 161

Voltaire in England said, an Englishman,
To tell St George’s life, always began
Back with the dragon’s birth. Full marks for wit,
And true enough, perhaps; but sometimes it
Is the best possible way to tell some tales.
Mr John Salisbury’s grandfather in Wales,
Welsh as they make them, an authority
On prosody, in sixteen hundred and three
Published the Psalms of David in the true
Welsh metres and the purest Welsh he knew.
They proved unpopular and, being a crank,
He swore he had his countrymen to thank,
Abandoning their ancient minstrelsy
For vile, new-fangled scansions. In fury he
Begot a son to inherit and pass on
His eccentricities to his son, John,

Mr John Salisbury, craziest of his clan,
A shady, cantankerous, over-weening man,
Half simpleton and more than half a crook,
All his schemes failed, as when he undertook,
Tool of some stock-jobbers, to spread about
Wild rumours in the City, which cast doubt
On the Exchequer bills, poor rascal, he,
He, went to jail: the swindling crew went free!
Printer and editor of the Flying Post,
The Trade disliked him. He was hated most
By another odd-man-out, a printer too,
Sam Wesley’s brother-in-law and poet, who
Lived at the Black Raven in Prince’s Street
With his Elizabeth, his dear helpmeet
In pastoral bliss, for all their married life,
This prosperous tradesman and his capable wife
Lived high romance and played out, game and set,
The loves of Iris and of Philaret.
At home exchanging tender billets-doux,
When parted rising to the Tragic Muse
Of adverse Fates, with lovers’ hearts at odds,
Estranging hurricanes and hostile gods.
Each passion in turn played its exalted part
And all was lambs and love and noble heart.
Once only was there any threat to this
Feast of fine feelings and uxorious bliss,
When a bold poetess of Tunbridge Wells
Ensnared her Philaret with poetic spells.
The hapless swain surrendered on the spot;
The fortress struck its flag without a shot.
He printed her ‘inimitable verse’
And praised her wit, her eyes and, what was worse,
Wrote in high style to her, whom he addressed
As the PINDARICK LADY in the West
And Madam Singer and PHILOMELA too.
I quote him, just to show what love can do
In laying waste a printer’s tender heart
And ravages upon the poets’ art.
In vain alas! in vain my Fate I shun,
I read and sigh and love, and am undone:
Circaean Charms, and FEMALE ARTS I prove,
Transported all, to some NEW WORLD of Love,
Now my Ears tingle, and each thick-drawn Breath,
Comes hard as in the AGONIES of Death!
Back to the Heart the purple Rivers flow,
My swimming Eyes to see, my Feet unlearn to go;
In every trembling Nerve, a short-liv’d Palsy Reigns,
Strange Feavers boyl my blood, yet shudder through my veins.
Tyrannous Charmer hold!—’ I too break off—
His case, you see, was serious enough.

Iris, non-plussed, since she did not aspire
To sybilline verse, however held her fire;
This serpent in her Arcady, she knew
Would over-reach herself—they always do—
And sure enough, besotted Philaret
Was lured to Tunbridge and the Siren’s net,
And Iris, though the poetess professed
Platonic love alone, was not impressed,
Platonic fiddlesticks! she thought and swore
To circumvent and rout the rhyming whore.
Unwisely at this point, her rival chose
To venture on the treacherous ground of prose.
For on the very day that Philaret
Arrived at Tunbridge Wells, by love beset,
Iris received, and greeted with a cheer,
The insolent epistle, quoted here,
With sly intent to goad her and arouse,
Enclosed with one to Philaret, her spouse:

“Your servant Madam,” wrote taunting bitch,
“I know full well you have a FEMENINE itch
To break this open and to read it too,
Though addressed to your husband, not to you.
Women will meet the Devil face to face
Rather than not, it is our sex’s case,
It seems your husband is in Tunbridge—Yes!
And lyes here all night too as I confess.
Ne’er cry for that though, but, this matter read,
Light candle, don your night-dress, go to bed
And dream some pretty Dream there; you was better
By half than stand there reading this simple letter.
Not that there’s hurt in it; you need not take
Offence ma’am, or be jealous for my sake,
For though your spouse and Angel prove to be,
Keep your Philosopher, for all of me.
And so good-night, dear madam, say your prayers.
Tomorrow morning, when you go downstairs,
Send off at once for what news may be found
To Tunbridge, whither I’m already bound
Stealing away to give yourself the slip:
And much good may it do your ladyship!”

Iris, though nerved to play Roxana’s part,
Scorning to take her rival’s taunts to heart,
Though somewhat nettled, was content to read
This impudent and scarcely literate screed,
Deciding calmly to adopt the strain
Of an unruffled and genteel disdain,
Veiled in well-bred insouciance and ease,
Which ladies use as weapons when they please.
She sat down instantly to her reply
And sent it post before the ink was dry:

“You was not, Ma’am, mistaken when you thought
I should break ope that letter, as I ought.
It is a freedom we women take, to save
Obliging husbands of the sort we have.
I took your sage advice; the letter read,
Sent it this night to Tunbridge, went to bed
And there lay thinking, as you may be sure,
With pleasure on those innocent and pure,
Virtuous friendships which, I know, subsist
Betwixt my Philaret and his Platonist.
Let some who know him not suspect a snare
Lest that the Sex should creep in for a share,
But here, dear Madam, what ill could befall?
Nature and Art have made you dear to all,
Yet Philaret I know, beyond all dread,
Though charmed by Wit, is faithful to my bed,
Of which he has given Testimonies, yes,
Dare I affirm it, even to excess.
I hope then, Ma’am, your friendship may endure
More strong and lasting.
I am, believe me, your
Most humble servant. To my latest breath,
Your friend and well-wisher,
These letters, printed with ingenuous zest,
Dunton’s own reminiscences attest;
What passed at Tunbridge, though, is not revealed;
But Iris rested mistress of the field
And Philaret henceforth, from his amorous breast,
Tore the Pindarick Lady of the West.
She vanishes entirely from his page
Where once again the loving pair engage
And with fresh zeal the pastoral game is played,
Which reconciled Arcadia with Trade.
Each morn at breakfast they renew the strain
Of innocent sport as shepherdess and swain,
Garnish connubial life, enhance its bliss
Counting their flocks and round it with a kiss;
And if by day, the ledger and the stove
Enforce brief intermission of pastoral love,
They can be sure each eve, with fresh delight,
As swain and shepherdess to re-unite.

Honest John Dunton, worthiest of men
And worst of poets might have graced the pen
That gave us Quixote, had he known the pair.
If pastoral with chivalry may compare.
Knowing this side of John, he may seem quite
As crazy as La Mancha’s famous knight;
But, at his place of business, Philaret
Was a ‘warm’ man, respected, free from debt,
Pious, with just a temperate touch of zeal,
Generous to want, close-fisted in a deal
Shrewd in his projects, in his judgement sound
That love is not what makes the world go round.
Sound enterprise at home brought just reward
And wise investments when he went abroad.

But when his faithful shepherdess at last
Left him for waters still and pastures grassed
With the immortal green of heaven, where
She passed in grace to the Good Shepherd’s care,
He published in the year one-seven-o-five
The curious work that keeps his name alive,
The Life and Errors of John Dunton, graced
With complimentary verses, in the taste
Of the encomiums usual in that day,
By university scholars (both M.A.).
It was a guileless, garrulous, rambling book,
Written with gusto, for he plainly took
As much pride in his errors as in all
His modest achievements. He records the small
Beer of a tradesman’s life and works as though
He heard around him angel trumpets blow.

Among the themes of this meandering pen
Mr John Salisbury crops up again.
By now, my reader, you as like as not
Thought him in my meanders quite forgot,
An accusation I will not deny:
My narrative itself is ‘printers’ pie’.
No, now to take his place upon the scene,
I quote this gem of purest ray serene
From Dunton’s notes on printers and their ways
For whom, he has in general only praise.
This single case of folly and of crime
Renders his foe immortal for all time.
It was a printer’s quarrel, a printers’ pie
Of calumny whose climax was the cry
Of sheer exasperation which I cite
Almost verbatim. If I could not quite
Fit everything to metre or preserve
The essential tone and rhythm, its lyric verve,
I keep, I hope, the flight of this sublime
Anathema—and add some spice of rhyme.
And if, as verse, it makes the reader groan,
It could not be much worse than Dunton’s own.
Just Objurgation, heavenly Maid, descend
To smite and spare not, even where none defend!
With thy grim music orchestrate this blast;
Let Rage inspire John Dunton’s Muse at last;
Illumine, too, in mine what things are dark,
Lest rising to my theme I miss the mark
And what is low, support and elevate!
“Mr John Salisbury was a desperate
Hypergorgonick Welchman. He would dress
As ’twere in Print, to have the Ladies say:
Only Look! What a delicate shape and foot
That Gentleman has!—He was (I must confess)
A silly, empty, morose fellow, with conceit
As much, and with as little reason for it,
As any man that ever I knew. To boot,
He was the first to print the Flying Post
To the grief of his Author (and his cost)
Did often feed it with STOLN Copies. He
Went to Law with the Stationers’ Company
Only to keep him from the Livery Fee.
He would hector the best Man of the Trade but now
He lies as HUSH and Quiet as a Body would wish
In the New Burying Place.”

How marvellous! How
I relish that, “Hush and Quiet as a Body would wish!”

It all becomes a different kettle of fish,
Since the New Burying Place, three centuries old,
Holds Mr John Salisbury as good as gold
And, in the self-same grave-yard, free from fret
At last, lie Iris and her Philaret;
And all is well and, what is more, all’s one.

What a miracle it is, when all is done
And, sometimes on occasion against all chance,
Emerging from the hazards of circumstance,
Voices of the anonymous humble dead,
Ring out authentic, with what they really said
As, for example, transferred from Warwickshire,
The local speech still ringing in Shakespeare’s ear,
Some real grave-digger at Elsinore survives
Among the plethora of imagined lives.
Speaking what mostly lies beyond our reach:
Outlook and idiom of local speech.

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