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A Fool Of Quality Post by :Peter_Kacarski Category :Essays Author :Maurice Hewlett Date :November 2011 Read :3322

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A Fool Of Quality

Tom Coryat, the "single-soled, single-souled and single-shirted observer of Odcombe," having finally bored his neighbours in the country past bearing, was volleyed off upon a tempest of their yawns to London. Exactly when that was I can't find out, but I suppose it to have been in the region of 1605.

In London he set up for a wit, was enrolled in "The Right Worshipful Fraternity of Sireniacal Gentlemen," who met at "The Sign of the Mere-maide in Bread Streete"; had John Donne and Ben Jonson among his convives, and may well have seen Shakespeare and heard him talk, if he did talk. How he appeared himself we can only guess, but I conceive his position in the society to have been that of Polonius in the convocation of politic worms, as one, namely, where he was eaten rather than eating. That, if it was so, may have determined him to make a name for himself by what was his strongest part, namely, his feet.

In 1608 he, the "Odcombian leg-stretcher," did indeed travel "for five months, mostly on foot, from his native place of Odcombe in Somerset, through France, Savoy, Italy, Rhetia, Helvetia, some parts of High Germany, and the Netherlands, making in the whole 1975 miles." He started on the 14th May and was in London again on the 3rd October, and if indeed he did travel mostly on foot, I call it a very creditable performance. The result was a book more talked of than read. "Coryat's Crudities, hastily gobbled up in five months' travels ... newly digested in the hungry aire of Odcombe in his county of Somerset, and now dispersed to the nourishment of the travelling members of this Kingdom." So runs the text of a Palladian title-page, surrounded by emblems of adventure which support a vera effigies of Tom himself. He shows there as a beady-eyed bonhomme of thirty-five or so, with a Jacobean beard, and his hair brushed back and worn long, like that of our present-day young men.

The book published, the Sireniacal Gentlemen took off their coats and took up their battledores. Their gibes and quirks are all printed in my edition, and are better reading than the book itself. Coryat was a cockscomb and scorned a straight sentence. A rule of his was: "Never use one adjective if three will do." So far as I know he was the first Englishman who travelled for the fun or the glory of the thing, unless Fynes Moryson anticipated him in those also, as he certainly did in travelling and writing about it. But I think it more probable that Moryson went abroad to improve his mind. I don't think Coryat had any notion of that. Foppery may have moved him, vanity perhaps; in any case there can be no comparison between them. Moryson is thorough, Coryat is not. Moryson is often dull, Coryat seldom. Moryson was a student, Coryat a cockscomb. Moryson was a plain man, Coryat a euphuist of the first water. I haven't the least doubt but that Shakespeare met him at the Mermaid--he called himself a friend of Ben Jonson's--and took the best of him. You will find him in Love's Labour's Lost as well as in All's Well. For a foretaste of his quality take a small portion of his first sentence, the whole of which fills a page: "I was imbarked at Dover, about tenne of the clocke in the morning, the fourteenth of May 1608, and arrived at Calais ... about five of the clocke in the afternoone, after I had varnished the exterior parts of the ship with the excrementall ebullitions of my tumultuous stomach...." There is more about it, but that will do. Shakespeare can never have missed such a man as that.

Coryat's abiding sensation throughout his travels was astonishment, not at the things which he saw, but rather that he from Odcombe in Somerset should be seeing them. He can never get over it. Here am I, Odcombian Tom, face to face with Amiens Cathedral, with the tombs of the kings at Saint Denis, at Fountaine Beleau cheek by jowl with Henri IV., crossing in a litter the "stupendious" Mont Cenis, pacing the Duomo of Milan, disputing with a Turk in Lyons, with a Jew in Padua, to the detriment of their religions, "swimming" in a gondola on the Grand Canal: here I am, and now what about it? There is always an imported flavour of Odcombe about it. He brings it with him and sprinkles it like scent. He is careful at every stage of his journey to give you the mileage from his own door; his measure of a city's quality is its worth to him as a gift were Odcombe the alternative. Few cities indeed survive the test. Mantua stood a fair chance. "That most sweet Paradise, that domicilium Venerum et Charitum," did so ravish his senses and tickle his spirits, he says, that he would desire to live there and spend the remainder of his days "in some divine meditations among the sacred Muses," but for two things, "their grosse idolatry and superstitious ceremonies, which I detest, and the love of Odcombe in Somersetshire, which is so deare unto me that I preferre the very smoak thereof before the fire of all other places under the sunne." So much for Mantua; but Venice, before whose "incomparable and most decantated majestie" his pen faints--Venice beats Odcombe, or something very much like it. He decides that should "foure of the richest mannors of Somersetshire" have been offered him if he would have undertaken not to see Venice, he would have gone without the manors. Odcombe, you see, is not put in question here. He was afraid to risk it.

When he came home he hung up his pair of shoes in the chancel of Odcombe Church, and they may be there to this day for all I know.

The Sireniacal Gentlemen made great sport of him.


If any aske in verse what soar I at?
My Muse replies The praise of Coryat----

so John Gyfford begins,

A work that will eternise thee till God come
And for thy sake the famous parish Odcombe----


so George Sydenham ends. Ben Jonson is not represented at the revels, and Inigo Jones lets his high spirits run away with him beyond the bounds of modern printing. Donne is not at his best:


Lo, here's a man worthy indeed to travell
Fat Libian plaines, strangest China's gravell;
For Europe well hath seen him stirre his stumpes,
Turning his double shoes to simple pumpes.

--the wit of which escapes me. Better is the conceit of

What had he done, had he e'er hugged th' ocean
With swimming Drake or famous Magelan,
And kiss'd that unturn'd cheeke of our old mother,
Since so our Europe's world he can discover?


The "unturn'd cheeke of our old mother!" The New World should be pleased with that.

In 1615 he made a much further flight, and was to be heard of at "the Court of the most Mighty Monarch, the Great Mogul," whence he wrote to, among other people, the High Seneschal of the "Right Worshipful Fraternity of Sireniacal Gentlemen that meet the first Friday of every month at the Signe of the Mere-maide in Bread-Streete." In this particular letter he greets by name Mr. John Donne, "the author of two most elegant Latine Bookes," Master Benjamin Jonson, the poet, at his chamber in the Blacke Friars, Mr. Samuel Purkas, and Mr. Inigo Jones, and signs himself "the Hierosolymitan--Syrian--Mesopotamian --Armenian--Median--Parthian--Persian--Indian--Leggestretcher of Odcomb in Somerset." The news he gives of "the most famigerated Region of all the East, the ample and large India," is various and occasionally incredible, but none the worse perhaps for that. You must allow the leg-stretcher to be something also of a leg-puller. The Great Mogul had elephant-fights twice a week, we learn. He might well do so if we could believe that he maintained three thousand of them "at an unmeasurable charge." Proceeding, nevertheless, to measure it, Coryat finds it works out at £10,000 a day, which is pretty good even for the Mogul. He also had a thousand wives, "whereof the chiefest (which is his Queene) is called Normal." I like her name. Coryat rode on an elephant, "determining one day (by God's leave) to have my picture expressed in my next book, sitting upon an elephant." But the voyage to the East was one too many for "the ingenious perambulator," and he died of a flux at Surat in December, 1617. Certain English merchants offered him refreshments. "Sack, sack, is there any such thing as sack? I pray you give me some sack." They did; the dysentery was upon him at the time. Even as Sir John might have done did he, and was buried "under a little monument." Sic exit Coryatus, says his biographer.

No sooner was he dead than his fellow Sireniacks fell upon his reputation and tore it to shreds.


He was the imp, whilst he on earth surviv'd,
From whom this West-World's pastimes were deriv'd;
He was in city, country, field and court
The well of dry-trimm'd jests, the pump of sport.


So writes the Water Poet. Another wag trounces his Crudities:


Tom Coriat, I have seen thy Crudities,
And methinks very strangely brewed it is,
With piece and patch together glued it is;
And now (like thee) ill-favour'd hued it is.
In many a line I see that lewd it is,
And therefore fit to be subdued it is--


and much more to the same effect.

Coryat's "natalitial place," as it happens, is very near to mine, and I find something to love in a man who can never forget it. He was a cockscomb, he was an ass; but he preferred the West of England to Italy. He called James I., our king, the "refulgent carbuncle of Christendom," and Prince Charles "the most glittering chrysolite of our English diademe" Both are hard sayings.


(The end)
Maurice Hewlett's essay: Fool Of Quality

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