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Asprezza.

A PAEAN TO THE PIONEER OF THE MADRIGAL.

By ANTHONY HOWELL.

Like the Idalian queen,
Her hair about her eyne,
With neck and breast’s ripe apples to be seen,
At first glance of the morn
In Cyprus’ gardens gathering those fair flowers
Which of her blood were born,
I saw, but fainting saw, my paramours.
The Graces naked danced about the place,
The winds and trees amazed
With silence on her gazed,
The flowers did smile, like those upon her face;
And as their aspen stalks those fingers band,
That she might read my case,
A hyacinth I wished me in her hand.”

—Madrigal by William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649).

Torquato TassoGALILEO, APPARENTLY, WAS NO slouch when it came to literary criticism. He calls into question the courtly style of heroic poetry derived from Petrarch, as exemplified by Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, where a new rhetorical figure or device is introduced with each line:

“One defect is especially common in Tasso as a result of a great lack of imagination and a poverty of ideas: it is that, as he is often short of matter, he is forced to proceed by piecing together ideas having no dependence on or connection with one another; whence his narrative appears more often like a picture in inlaid woodwork than in oil colours. For inlaid work being a placing together of little pieces of diverse colours, which cannot be joined together or combined so smoothly that their edges do not remain sharp and harshly distinct, necessarily makes the patterns dry and crude, without fullness or relief.”

Elsewhere in his commentary on the poem he observes,

…This great pedant clings to this anchor, that verba transposita non mutant sensum, and takes no account of the dangers; indeed the greater the obscurity, the more beautiful the artifice appears in his eyes…”

Concerning the flow of the narrative that should grease the wheels of the heroic epic Tasso and his emulators are aiming for, Galileo goes on to say, “we may take pleasure in various ‘figures’ in a ballet or in a dancing school; but on the other hand it would seem highly unsuitable if a gentleman on his way to church or to the law-courts were to change his pace every hundred yards or so by cutting one or two capers, leaping into the air, and then proceeding on his journey.”

I glean these gems of perception from The Italian Element in Milton’s Verse – an essay written by F.T. Prince and published by Oxford in 1954 (and withdrawn from Nottingham City Libraries in 1998 – and probably from other libraries – as apparently being of no relevance to the new millennium).

Taking his lead from Bembo, an earlier literary pundit, Tasso prefers Petrarch – and pure style – over Dante’s robust narration in The Divine Comedy. Bembo advocated a poetry of decorum. To me, it’s the style of the court, versus rapportage, and as such essentially abstract and “mannered.” It’s a style that might have been booted out by republicanism – with the French Revolution ushering in the realism of La Comédie Humaine, but then, in a rakish Bonny Prince Charlie sort of way, doesn’t it re-surface as an emphasis on wordplay, abstraction and the material qualities of the form – rather than urgency of meaning – in the Bohemia of the Salon des Refuses, which paved the way for modernist abstraction?

For all Galileo’s opprobrium, new rhythms and inventive elisions had been introduced that would transform verse making, particularly by Giovanni Della Casa (1503-1556). His verse is distinctive because of his use of asprezza (“roughness” or “difficulty”) which Tasso considers an essential quality for achieving the high style of the heroic epic. Della Casa may be a mannerist poet, and out of fashion today (he wrote an amusing and universally popular treatise called The Galateo – on good manners!), but I find this notion of asprezza intriguing.

IN POETRY, IT DENOTES a difficulty, even an obscurity, in the sense and an equivalent difficulty of disjunctive aspect in the style. Prince elaborates: “The word asprezza, ‘roughness’, represents one of Tasso’s overriding principles. The style he delineates aims at difficulty. Sense and metre have to be preserved; but all the devices of language and versification described by Tasso are intended to produce a certain difficulty, even an obscurity, in the sense, and an equivalent difficulty, even a roughness, in the sound.”

Roughness or difficulty or sourness. Can it be associated with Shibusa, the notion of roughness in Japanese aesthetics? This is a healthy roughness of texture and a sense of irregular asymmetrical form – which allows the potter to “slip the grid” of some binding overall concept.

De Huuck CourtyardAcerbic good taste — this roughness or “effort” — may be contrasted and placed in opposition to sprezzatura – a quality cited by Baldassare Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier, where it is defined as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it”. It suggests a certain smoothness in the diction. You can see how Dryden rejects Donne’s harsher tones for increased sprezzatura, nonchalant flow. But perhaps this only succeeds in making his verse more bland. Think of the easy curves — almost a “sweetness” — to be found in English idealised landscape versus the roughness, brooms and buckets as evidence of hard work, to be seen in some Dutch courtyard painted by Pieter de Hooch. Perhaps what may be required is an equilibrium — a balance to be struck between these forces – not so much in terms of a middle ground as using one to offset the other.

John Ashbery expresses something related to this in a poem about the writing of poetry:

……Now one must
Find a few important words, and a lot of low-keyed,
Dull-sounding ones. She approached me
About buying her desk. Suddenly the street was
Bananas and the clangor of Japanese instruments.”

And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name (from Houseboat Days)

Bembo and Tasso wrote treatises concerning the devices appropriate for a “magnificent” style, and Milton drew on these and on the poetry of Della Casa. Prince mentions a few of these devices: the accumulation of elisions, the transposition of words and phrases, a distortion therefore of natural word order, the suspension of sense, possibly placing the resolution of an idea, its predicate, at the start of the next verse (Tasso admires Della Casa for “separating the words that are commonly placed together”), and adding into the poem the name of the person to whom it is addressed (a trait that persists in the poems of Frank O’Hara).

Prince shows how, for Tasso, difficulty or roughness in the sound of the verse may be “due to accumulated consonants, to the collision of open vowels which must be elided to give an acceptable rhythm, or to the collocation of open vowels which are given their full value… Asprezza ‘is also a common cause of greatness or gravity’, because such effects ‘are like one who stumbles, walking through rough paths: but this roughness suggests I know not what magnificence and grandeur’.”

ANOTHER QUALITY TO BE found in Tasso and Della Casa is the use of complex stanzas, in particular the madrigal form, which Milton developed in his poem “On Time” :

Fly envious Time, till thou run out thy race,
Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,
Whose speed is but the heavy Plummets pace;
And glut thy self with what thy womb devours,
Which is no more then what is false and vain,
And meerly mortal dross;
So little is our loss,
So little is thy gain.
For when as each thing bad thou hast entomb’d,
And last of all, thy greedy self consum’d,
Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss
With an individual kiss;
And Joy shall overtake us as a flood,
When every thing that is sincerely good
And perfectly divine,
With Truth, and Peace, and Love shall ever shine
About the supreme Throne
Of him, t’whose happy-making sight alone,
When once our heav’nly-guided soul shall clime,
Then all this Earthy grosnes quit,
Attir’d with Stars, we shall for ever sit,
Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee O Time.”

THIS MADRIGAL-BASED POEM uses pentameter with trimeter. And look at the “difficult” elision “t’whose”. It also “suspends the sense” to its very last word — so it’s taking its cue from Tasso and Della Casa. But Milton must also have read Ben Jonson’s friend William Drummond of Hawthornden, who, according to Prince, was

…the only poet writing in English who had closely imitated the madrigals and epigrams of Tasso and his followers; Milton was not likely to be impressed by his pedestrian versions of these witty trifles. Yet his own more ambitious use of the form follows its essential features. In both these poems (“On Time” and “At a Solemn Musick”) he builds up a triumphant epigrammatic close, which is marked by an Alexandrine; both have an element of ‘wit-writing’, though this is outweighed by a religious gravity and fervour.”

Wm DrummondHere, I must part company with Prince. Unlike him, I am no Catholic, and while I admire Lycidas, when it comes to madrigals I yawn at Milton and prefer the ‘wit-writing’ more deliciously revelled in by Drummond.

It seems to me that Drummond is the Della Casa of English literature. He is a poet to whom I return again and again, and surely Keats did too?

“World, plain no more of Love, nor count his harms;
With his pale trophies Death hath hung his arms.”

Thus ends one of Drummond’s sonnets, which is imbued with a melancholy that prefigures Keats. Another one of his melancholy sonnets is a fine version of Statius’s poem (Sylvae 5.4) about insomnia:

Sleep, Silence’ child, sweet father of soft rest,
Prince, whose approach peace to all mortals brings,
Indifferent host to shepherds and to kings,
Sole comforter of minds with grief opprest;
Lo, by thy charming rod all breathing things
Lie slumb’ring, with forgetfulness possest,
And yet o’er me to spread thy drowsy wings
Thou spares, alas! who cannot be thy guest.
Since I am thine, O come, but with that face
To inward light which thou art wont to show,
With feigned solace ease a true felt woe;
Or if, deaf god, thou do deny that grace,
Come as thou wilt, and what thou wilt bequeath,
I long to kiss the image of my death.

But Drummond was by no means an inveterate depressive. He entertained Ben Jonson at Hawthornden when he walked to Scotland, and jotted down the views of this eminent Londoner in conversations to be found in the Oxford complete edition of Jonson which offer a veritable cornucopia of pure chit-chat:

Being at the end of Lord Salisbury’s table with Inigo Jones, and demanded by my Lord why he was not glad, ‘My Lord’, said he, ‘You promised I should dine with you, but I do not’, for he had none of his meat…He hath consumed a whole night in lying looking at his great toe, about which he hath seen Tartars and Turks, Romans and Carthaginians, fight in his imagination…”

The influence of Della Casa’s devices and Italian theory can be sensed in the following sonnet:

Alexis, here she stayed; among these pines,
Sweet hermitress, she did alone repair;
Here did she spread the treasure of her hair,
More rich than that brought from the Colchian mines;
She set her by these muskéd eglantines.—
The happy place the print seems yet to bear;—
Her voice did sweeten here thy sugared lines,
To which winds, trees, beasts, birds, did lend their ear:
Me here she first perceived, and here a morn
Of bright carnations did o’erspread her face;
Here did she sigh, here first my hopes were born,
And I first got a pledge of promised grace;
But ah! what served it to be happy so,
Sith passéd pleasures double but new woe?

THE POEM STARTS by naming the person to whom it is addressed. He does it in a very Frank O’Hara way, for he is clearly writing about lovers (like “Flore”in a couple of other poems) and friends (like “Alexis”, his poet sparring-partner), referring elsewhere to “those madrigals we sung amidst our flocks.” The names are pseudonyms or keys rather than mere classical references. And it is pleasant to think that in all probability Hawthornden was then seen as a writers’ retreat, just as it is in reality today.

One can also get hold of a thread running from the Shakespeare of A Midsummer Night’s Dream right through to Keats in those “muskéd eglantines”. Then there is the Drummond trade-mark build-up of nouns — in the eighth line of the poem above — taking words out of their common order. And then there is the twisted genius of that “double but”.  It conjures up the image of a Scots billy-goat taking it out on your sorrows.  So sweetly does the rhythm accommodate this nonchalant inversion that it can easily slip by unnoticed. But to get the full Italianate flavour, turn to the poet’s “Madrigals and Epigrams“. Here we can find examples of asprezza in English together with most of the devices utilized by Della Casa.

This is a poetry made out of word-music…a music made out of words, not notes.

This is a poetry made out of word-music – by which I mean, a music which requires no change in tone, a music made out of words, not notes. Its values have sunk so far under the radar these days that you have to inform yourself as to what these might be (but this was always the case with a poetry of decorum).

Drummond’s poetic madrigals should be recognised as masterpieces. Mind you, their decorum is all about literary innovation — he is quite happy for the sense to refer to the snot dripping from Camilla’s nose – in the most perfect style!

But take “The Quality of a Kiss”:

The kiss with so much strife
Which I late got, sweet heart,
Was it a sign of death, or was it life?
Of life it could not be.
For I by it did sigh my soul in thee;
Nor was it death, death doth no joy impart.
Thou silent stand’st, ah! what thou didst bequeath
To me a dying life was, living death.

3, 3, 5, 3, 5, 5, 5, 5. That’s the stresses per line, the juxtaposition of rhythms characteristic of a madrigal (though the order can be varied). Note the collocation of similar vowel sounds in line 5, the inversion of the rhythm in line 6 that brings two strong stresses together – death, death – in this five-stress line, and do recognise the asprezza of line 7 – it is really quite difficult to say with no stress being placed on the ah.

THE MORE I HAVE got into picking up on these things, thanks to Prince’s perceptive essay, the more they resonate as values to be appreciated. I add them to my list of plastic values in verse making — already I try never to follow a word which ends in an s with a word which begins with another, I take due care balancing definite and indefinite pronouns, I am wary of excessive use of plurals, and where Yeats would repeat a word if he meant the same thing, I am likely to look for an alternative. Many of my younger contemporaries go all out for expressionism and pungency of subject. This leads to an impoverishment of our art.

The choice of three stresses and five is intriguing in the madrigal. Since they are both primes, a doubling of the one does not create the other. This releases a unique interplay. Take “Upon a Bay Tree, Not Long Since Growing in the Ruins of Virgil’s Tomb”:

Those stones which once had trust
Of Maro’s sacred dust,
Which now of their first beauty spoil’d are seen,
That they due praise not want.
Inglorious and remain
A Delian tree, fair nature’s only plant,
Now courts and shadows with her tresses green:
Sing Iö Paean, ye of Phoebus train,
Though envy, avarice, time, your tombs throw down,
With maiden laurels nature will them crown.

Here again, in the eighth line, we get asprezza as a collocation of vowels — as I read it four e sounds, followed by a final a.

Botticelli-primaveraI also get an image, and Drummond is a master of images. Madrigals were by tradition often inspired by works of art — one senses that Drummond had made the grand tour, and his imagistic force is best seen in the most anthologised of his madrigals: “Like the Idalian queen…” My guess is that Botticelli’s Primavera was its subject. The imagery is powerful too in his magnificent madrigal-based song, “Phoebus, arise”:

Night like a drunkard reels
Beyond the hills to shun his flaming wheels…”

There is also an interesting tension between the clichés of Renaissance usage and what is observed. His poem “Upon a Glass” begins:

If thou wouldst see threads purer than the gold,
Where love his wealth doth show,
But take this glass, and thy fair hair behold…”

The poem continues in this conventional vein, but ends

No, planets, rose, snow, gold, cannot compare
With you, dear eyes, lips, brows, and amber hair.”

BUT HE NEVER SAID the threads of her hair were gold! Is this what Prince means by “wit-writing”? This could be interpreted as the play of the mind in a poem – since wit meant “mind” as well as clever quippery. The poems are actually packed with concepts. One senses the desire to break with protocol at the same time as one writes “with decorum”. Let me conclude with a sonnet – “Beauty’s Idea”:

Who would perfection’s fair idea see,
Let him come look on Chloris sweet with me.
White is her hair, her teeth white, white her skin,
Black be her eyes, her eyebrows Cupid’s inn;
Her locks, her body, hands do long appear,
But teeth short, belly short, short either ear;
The space ‘twixt shoulders, eyes, is wide, brows wide,
Strait waist, the mouth strait, and her virgin pride;
Thick are her lips, thighs, with banks flowing there,
Her nose is small, small fingers; and her hair,
Her sugared mouth, her cheeks, her nails be red;
Little her foot, pap little, and her head.
Such Venus was, such was the flame of Troy.
Such Chloris is, my hope and only joy.”

Drummond should be recognised as a pioneer: a poet prepared to experiment in his day, who made the madrigal his own.

Am I right in thinking this is one of the oddest poems in our language? It feels like a fight between metaphor and clinical description. It touches on the proportions of some antique canon of beauty – but cannot resolve how to describe Chloris, and concludes pretty lamely on a cliché. Nevertheless one senses an intellectual struggle, a willingness to attempt something new. Drummond should be recognised as a pioneer: a poet prepared to experiment in his day, who made the madrigal his own. He is far more than a footnote in criticism devoted to Milton or Jonson. And his willingness to engage with the difficulty of asprezza has only been equalled here in England in more recent times by the poetry of Charles Madge and William Empson.


Anthony HowellAnthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of  The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here.

Note: On this page, an editing error was corrected and an author addition accommodated – 18 November 2015.

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