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Thursday 1 January 2015

Robert Herrick: To his saviour. The New yeers gift


Bit of a traffic jam while out on the bike today #Cumbria #sheep: image via Oliver Turvey @OliverTurvey, 29 December 2014

That little prettie bleeding part
..Of Foreskin send to me:
And Ile return a bleeding Heart,
..For New-yeers gift to thee.
Rich is the Jemme that thou did'st send,
..Mine's faulty too, and small:
And yet this Gift thou will commend
..Because I send Thee all.

Robert Herrick (1591-1674): To his saviour. The New yeers gift, from Noble Numbers, in Hesperides: or, The Works Both Humane & Divine of Robert Herrick Esq, London, 1648

#sheep waiting for hay tonight! That's the start of the feeding #winter: image via andrew prentice @floorsblackies, 29 December 2014

"@hendyshepherd1: Ewes going for their holidays to some winter grass " Gorgeous group of females! #sheep: image via Marlene M Bell @ewephoric, 27 December 2014 Texas, US

Kunming, China. A performer in a ram costume looks at his phone backstage during a performance to celebrate the new year, which is the year of the sheep in the Chinese zodiac calendar: photo by Wong Campion/Reuters via The Guardian, 1 January 2015

Melilla, Spain. An African migrant celebrates after crossing the border from Morocco to Spain’s North African enclave and arriving at CETI, the short-stay immigrant centre
: photo by Reuters via The Guardian, 1 January 2015

Nagato, Japan. Workers wearing protective suits prepare to cull chicken on a farm after the H5 avian flu virus was detected: photo by The Asahi Shimbun via The Guardian, 1 January 2015

 Two more B.C. farms affected by #avianflu outbreak: image via Canoe @Canoe, 10 December 2014


tpw said...

Happy New Year, Tom. But, just for the record--I don't think I'd want to be exchanging gifts with Herrick.

TC said...

Terry, a super Happy New Year and Special Distinguished Service Award for being the only person in the universe with the courage to speak publicly upon this tender poetical subject -- and yes, those were my sentiments exactly.

In Herrick's religious poems, including this little celebration of the Feast of the Circumcision (January 1st), the ceremonial details, historical, anthropological, archeological, drawn from classical or Christian ritual, are accommodated to a larger communal purpose of relating human life and experience to the cosmos. He was a country parson in remote unlettered Devon, performing poetic ceremonies that called back beyond Early Modern times to an older world from which much of their symbolic resonance is drawn. The visible, sensible and physical details, the literal things, appear in these poems with a mysterious solemnity that has little if anything to do with the actual Anglican ritual of the poet's day; surgical circumcision was in fact no part of Anglican ceremonial practise in Stuart times; the anachronism is deliberate, and the physical explicitness creates a strangeness.

His New Year's gift, "that prettie little bleeding part of / Foreskin", for which he will return a "bleeding Heart", is a vivid reminder of the literal pain and blood involved in ritual circumcision, inflicted upon an innocent child, the Infant Christ.

Herrick's contemporary Lancelot Andrewes, principal overseer of the language of the King James (or Authorized version) Bible, saw the circumcision as “the signature of Abraham’s Seed,” inscribed in the infant Christ’s flesh, and Christ's (implied) voluntary submission to the ritual, as a redemptive sacrifice, on behalf of humanity. Christ voluntarily submits to the ritual, “That so He, keeping the Law, might recover backe the chirographum contra nos, the handwriting that was against us; and so set us free of the debt.”

The imagery of the circumcision ritual, for Herrick, is finally a part of the complex binding of mystery that connects the human with the sacred.

It is the loss of this connection in late capitalist society which Ezra Pound had in mind in writing:

Faun's flesh is not to us,
Nor the saint's vision.
We have the press for wafer;
Franchise for circumcision.

from "E.P. Ode Pour L'election De Son Sepulchre"

As to the implied contractual arrangement in the circumcision ritual, Herrick's poem inevitably tempts the modern critic to find a comic occasion in his poetic version of the ceremony.

"... he is in fact proposing a trade: his bleeding heart for Christ’s bleeding netherbits...

"This is in many respects a Beowulfian tit (ahem) for tat. Christ’s rich foreskin for Herrick’s small, faulty heart. Obviously metaphorical size is an issue here—Herrick’s heart, his all, can’t compare to this tiny part of Christ’s body. The trade emphasizes Herrick’s inadequacy. But it’s also a request for literal sacrifice in exchange for metaphorical faith—not exactly a bargain, on Christ’s end."

-- Lili Loofbourow: "Christ's Foreskin and Other Gifts"

For period context:

David L. Jeffrey: A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature: see pp 141-143 on circumcision ritual in English poetry

tpw said...

Thanks for all this explication, Tom.

Nora said...

Thanks for the explanation, Tom! Reading the poem, I couldn't help be reminded of Exodus 6:30, though I suppose that has very little to do with the Feast of the Circumcision.

TC said...

Terry, don't call it explication, call it Fun! (Who needs eyeballs after 80 anyway?)

And thank you for your Biblical exegesis, Nora. It seems we've both been having a hermeneutic sort of post-holiday season, as it were. (Let's not call it a hangover and get an IV drip like everybody else.)

That bit of Exodus, though -- whew.

Exodus 6:29-30

That the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, I am the LORD: speak thou unto Pharaoh king of Egypt all that I say unto thee.

And Moses said before the LORD, Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips, and how shall Pharaoh hearken unto me?

Is it only because we're from the vicinity of Baghdad by the Bay that that seems a little .... what would be the word?... well, a little like that, to us.

"Strictly speaking" (?), however, chapter and verse on the circumcision imperative (male penile, not oral) is a passage in Genesis which accounts for the holy snip snip mandate as part of a contractual arrangement with the Big Dude.

(Weirdly enough, the idea of bargaining with God seems pretty common in the OT. The putative human motive I get... But why would God want to do such deal? Or for that matter any deal at all? And has memory finally lost its mind forever, or didn't Kate Bush once have one of her hyperventilating hits about just that? But, Jeez... surely she couldn't have been thinking circumcision?? The horror!)

Genesis 17: 9-12

And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations.

This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised.

And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.

And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed.

This Bible God, though, I esk ya... will he never shut up about deals and money?

Not bad enough the bloody snip snip on babies in grass diapers?

Coincidentally, as it seems we're on Exodus all of a sudden, have you heard Egypt has just banned the new Rupert Murdoch/Ridley Scott remake of Exodus, with all white suburban born Western actors?

Now as Planet Earth turns out to be a company town formerly known simply as Hollywood, it's not out of the question that movie gossip will interest our general readership (?!) even more than circumcision chat.

And this, after all, is a family entertainment site.

So here's the wonderful latest, by way of the Guardian (Kevin Rawlinson, 30 November):

Rupert Murdoch has defended the decision to cast white actors in the lead roles in Ridley Scott’s new Egypt-based film Exodus: Gods and Kings by claiming that all of the Egyptians he knows are white.

In a tweet, the Australian media mogul, whose 20th Century Fox firm is the film’s distributor, wrote: “Moses film attacked on Twitter for all white cast. Since when are Egyptians not white? All I know are.”

After he was heavily criticised by other users of the site, he added: “Everybody-attacks last tweet. Of course Egyptians are Middle Eastern, but far from black. They treated blacks as slaves.”

And that was followed by a third tweet on the subject, which read: “Okay, there are many shades of color. Nothing racist about that, so calm down!”

After he was the subject of yet more criticism, Murdoch changed his tack, tweeting that he wanted to “change the subject”.

His comments come after director Ridley Scott attributed the casting decisions to a need to attract financial backing.

“I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up,” he told Variety.

In a curt response to Murdoch’s tweets, the respected media diversity organisation Writers of Colour wrote simply: “Sigh.”

billoo said...

"This Bible God, though, I esk ya... will he never shut up about deals and money?"


If you pay your debts He might!

TC said...


Yes, I suppose the stain is deep, the mark permanent, the debt ineradicable.

There used to be that saying, "Put it on the cuff".

What happened to all those old useful sayings now that we need them?

billoo said...

Dunno, Tom, perhaps with the God of the accountants we're always counting our losses.

The view you express is too pessimistic-even for me! Much prefer[he says, putting his Muslim hat on]Rumi's:

Every beautiful form you have seen, every meaningful word you have heard-be not sorrowful all this must be lost; such is not really the case. The Divine Source is immortal and its outflowing gives water without cease; since neither the one nor the other can be stopped wherefore do you lament?...from the first moment when you entered this world of existence, a ladder has been set up before you...

The useful sayings..think they were lost in the war against cliches!

TC said...

No, no, but I don't see cliches, I see metaphors -- I don't do ladders any more -- spirit willing however notwithstanding &c.

(And here I'd thought my eleventh hour new years resolution to be a kinder gentler person was radiating cosmically everywhere!)

billoo said...

No, I didn't mean that, Tom. It's just that 'sayings' come across as so many cliches to those hooked on a particular understanding of authenticity/originality.

Okay, maybe not ladders, but what about bridges? (same thing, really. No?)

"And here I'd thought my eleventh hour new years resolution to be a kinder gentler person was radiating cosmically everywhere!"

You're beginning to sound like God!

Khair...always liked Milosz's 'he is not permitted to sadden his brother..'

Mose23 said...

That little prettie bleeding part

I love the nursery speak quality of this line; almost pushes things over to the bathetic.

Yes, this divine economy is fairly bonkers but it's easier to make headway here than it is with our 21st century job.

TC said...

First time I've ever reminded anyone of God. Must have been hanging around with the wrong people all these years!

Yes, that nursery-speak of Herrick's is a one-off.

That little prettie bleeding part

Can't think of another poet capable of getting away with that. Or wanting to.

Such is genius.