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School of Night

School of Night

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Published by Frederick Turner

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Published by: Frederick Turner on Feb 28, 2009
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01/29/2013

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THE SCHOOL OF NIGHTby Frederick Turner1593 was a plague year in England. A plague makes nothing matter: the black noise of apparently random and horrible death amid blooming health and plenty drowns out the subtlervibrations of moral and political significance.They come, they go, they trot, they dance: but no speech of death. All that is good sport. But if she [that is, Death] be once come and, on a sudden and openly, surprise either them, their wives,their children, or their friends, what torments, what outcries, what rage, and what despair cloththen overwhelm them? . . .At the stumbling of a horse, at the fall of a stone, at the least prick with a pin, let us presently ruminate, and say with ourselves, What if it were death itself?–from John Florio's translation of MontaigneEngland herself was sick: the euphoria of 1588 at the defeat of the Spanish Armada had souredby 1593; Philip Sidney, the stellar fire of English civilization, had died at Zutphen; Raleigh wasin disgrace; Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, with its odor of brimstone and despair, was touring theprovinces. At a performance of the play in Exeter the actors noticed there was one devil toomany in the damnation scene: they closed the show and left the place in terror, and the actorAlleyn wore a cross thereafter when he played Faust.In London, if we can trust Jonson's portrait in The Alchemist, the plague year had a mood of manic charivari, of picaresque atrocity, unbridled lust and ingenious crime. Law was ridiculed orin abeyance. The hero was the cony-catcher, the spy, the con-man, the Felix Krull. That year thetrial of Christopher Marlowe for atheism took place, marked by the treachery of the playwrightThomas Kyd to his erstwhile roommate and the lurid half-truths of the informer Richard Baines.Marlowe was not convicted because he was murdered first, in one of those tavern brawls he gotinto, like Shakespeare's Mercutio:Benvolio: . . .For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.Mercutio: Thou art like one of these fellows that, when he enters the confines of a tavern, clapsme his sword upon the table, and says "God send me no need of thee!" and by the operation of the second cup draws him on the drawer, when indeed there is no need.The quarrel was over the bill for a day's drinking. Touchstone in As You Like It is referring to
 
this incident when he describes the ill effects of neglect upon a poet: "it strikes a man as dead asa great reckoning in a little room."Many of the great hopes of the previous decade had come to nothing. The fantasy of wealth fromthe New World had fired the imagination of the age:And cheerfully at seaSuccess you still enticeTo get the pearl and gold,And ours to hold, Virginia,Earth's only paradise.To Faustus, if he is resolute, his magic will bring...from America the golden fleeceThat yearly stuffs old Philip's treasury.Sir Epicure Mammon, that plague year, waits in expectation for the alchemist Subtle to produce"the flower of the sun, / The perfect ruby, which we call elixir":Now you set your foot on shoreIn Novo Orbe: here's the rich Peru:And there within, sir, are the golden mines,Great Solomon's Ophir!But the American elixir had turned out to be a fraud. Raleigh's Virginia expedition had perishedon the shoals and shores of Hatteras, and what gold had entered the European economy hadfueled rampant inflation. We can imagine it in modern terms: the revulsion against the spaceprogram in the seventies, perhaps even the inflationary interbellum Germany of George Groszand Thomas Mann. The excitement of a new world has turned into a fever and thence into asickness.Perhaps we can glimpse the same confrontation with the abyss in the religious and philosophicalsphere. However terrifying, the seizure of religious power by Henry VIII and Elizabeth musthave felt like an intoxicating liberation to those who thought about such things: we had takencontrol over our own spiritual lives, the human arrangements of law and state were, all along, theearthly embodiment of the laws of the cosmos, there was a divine stamp upon social intercourse.The minor loss of the rituals of the old church had been more than compensated for by themagnificent spectacle of court and theatre; the cult of the Virgin Mary was replaced by the cultof the Virgin Elizabeth; the translation of the Bible into English did not demystify the Word of God but gave it greater dignity, so splendid was the English of the translation.But after all, what was this human world but a quintessence of dust? Man does not live by words
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alone: he must be nourished by the Eucharistic bread of heaven. The theatre is not a church. Thequeen is aging: her pageantry and painting can no longer conceal it. Perhaps the safest thing todo with the Word of God is to make it into an iron rule for life, as the Puritans did, and soovercome the uncertainty of this new world.Even in the sciences the boundaries of the world have cracked, giving us a glimpse of a voidbeyond. No use covering up our eyes with our hands like Michelangelo's damned soul: theRenaissance pride of knowledge makes us peer between our own fingers:Let not light see my black and deep desiresThe eye wink at the hand; yet let that beWhich the eye fears, when it is done, to see.Thus the deicide Macbeth. The optical research that produced the telescope was already inprogress; the many comets of the time were being carefully observed and mathematicallyrecorded. The new philosophers were prying into the privates of God.It was in this context that a remarkable gathering came together around Walter Raleigh, exiledfrom the court and living in the pleasant country estate of Sherborne in Dorset. There manyyoung gentlemen and intellectuals flocked to him, to "fleet the time carelessly, as they did in thegolden world." Shakespeare's court of Aragon in scholarly retirement is surely a portrait of them;and so perhaps is the exiled duke and his retinue in As You Like It. They called themselves TheSchool of Night and affected black apparel, like Jaques' melancholy garb or Hamlet's "suits of sables." Melancholy, with its fine edge of madness, genius, and suicidal boldness of speculation,was their humor.Who were they? First, of course, Raleigh himself. Raleigh wore black velvet, with a myriadpearls sewn on loosely so that in a press they would fall and roll among the crowd, to be foughtover as he passed on, with his gold earring, his princely perfume. Raleigh's heart, so his mythwent, was broken by the Queen. She called him "Water," making fun of his name, and he, in hisepic love-poem to her, called himself "Ocean" and her the queen of night, Cynthia, the moon,who controlled the wild tides. The Queen had flown into a jealous rage when she found out abouthis secret marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton, and had exiled him from court. His mood rangedfrom the elegiac to the bitter:Like truthless dreams, so are my joys expired,And past return are all my dandled days;My love misled, and fancy quite retired–Of all which passed the sorrow only stays.
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