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Catnachery Post by :bushman Category :Essays Author :Maurice Hewlett Date :November 2011 Read :3149

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Catnach was a dealer in ballads. His stock line was the murderer's confession, and his standard price half a crown. I don't know that there is a Catnach now, or a market for Catnachery, but people collect the old ones. You find them in county anthologies, with one of which "The Kentish Garland, Vol. II., edited by Julia H.L. de Voynes, Hertford: Stephen Austin and Sons, 1882," I lately spent a pleasant morning in a friend's house. I should have liked Volume I., though it could not by any possibility have contained worse matter. That is my only consolation for missing it, because there are bad things and bad things, and if a thing of literature is bad enough, it may well be as entertaining as the best. I have long felt that there was a future for Half-hours with the Worst Authors. It might prove a goldmine to a resolute editor, and I hope I am not betraying a friend when I say that one of mine has laid the footings of such a collection as may some day add lustre to his name.(A) If I don't mistake, I can put him on to a thing or two now which he will be glad of.

(Footnote A: He is here following Edward FitzGerald.)

Every bad ballad has its archetype in a good one, and all ballads of whatsoever quality, can be pigeonholed under subjects, whether of content or of treatment. My first specimen from Kent could be classified as the Ballad Encomiastic, or, at will, as the Ballad of Plain Statement, in which latter case it would be considered as a ballad proper and derive itself passim from Professor Child's book. In the former case you would have to go back to Homer for its original. It calls itself "An Epitaphe"--which it could not be--"uppon the death of the noble and famous Sir Thomas Scott of Scottshall, who dyed the 30 Dec. 1594," and begins thus:

Here lyes Sir Thomas Scott by name--
O happie Kempe that bore him!

Kempe is his mother.

Sir Reynold with four knights of fame
Lyv'd lynealy before him.

The poet chooses to treat of ladies by their surnames, for we go on:

His wieves were Baker, Heyman, Beere,
His love to them unfayned;
He lived nyne and fiftie yeare.
And seventeen soules he gayned.

Seventeen children, in fact--but

His first wief bore them every one,
The world might not have myst her--

A very obscure line, at first blush rather hard on Baker, and flatly contradicted by what follows:

She was a very paragone,
The Lady Buckhurst's syster.

Nothing could be more succinct. Now for Beere:

His widow lives in sober sort,
No matron more discreeter;
She still reteines a good report,
And is a great housekeeper.

Apart from his valiancy as a consort Sir Thomas seems to have done little in the world but be rich in it. The best that can be said of him by the epigraphist is contained in what follows:

He made his porter shut his gate
To sycophants and briebors,
And ope it wide to great estates,
And also to his neighbours.

That does not recommend Sir Thomas to me. I suspect himself of sycophancy, if not of briebory, and it may well be that he shut out others of his kidney in order that he might have free play with the great estates. But that is not the poet's fault, who had to say what he could.

My next example should be styled the Ballad of Extravagant Grief, and will be found at its highest in the Poetical Works of John Donne. I can find nothing greater than his--

Death can find nothing after her, to kill
Except the world itself, so great as she,

in "A funerall elegie upon the death of George Sonds Esquire who was killed by his brother Mr. Freeman Sonds the 7 of August 1658." Freeman Sonds, a younger son, hit his brother George on the head with a cleaver as he lay in his bed, and thereafter dispatched him with a three-sided dagger. He then went in to his father and confessed his fault. "Then you had best kill me too," said the father; to whom the son, "Sir, I have done enough." He was hanged at Maidstone, full of penitence and edifying discourse. The elegy begins in Donne's circumstantial manner:

Reach me a handkerchief, another yet,
And yet another, for the last is wet.

Nothing could be better; but he must needs outdo his usual outdoings, call for a bottle to hold his tears, finally require that--

The Muses should be summoned in by force
And spend their all upon the wounded corse--

which presents a rather comic picture to the imaginative reader.

The elegist, reserving blasphemy for his conclusion, now becomes foolish:

In thy expyring it was made appear
In bloody wounds the Trinity was here.

Where was the Trinity, you ask? In the wounds, naturally, which, made with a three-edged dagger, showed red triangles. But there were twelve wounds: therefore--

The gates thro' which thy fertil soul did mount
To blessed Aboad came to the full account
Of Twelve, or four times three; and three
Hath ever in it some great Mysterie.

Obviously. Here is his peroration:

Great God, what can, what shall, man's frailtie thinke
When thy great goodness at this act did winke?
But thou art just, perhaps thou thoughtest it fit;
And Lord, unto thy judgment I submit.

Any comment must fail upon the sublimity of that great "perhaps."

Elkanah Settle might have written that, as he did undoubtedly another, "On the untimely death of Mrs. Annie Gray, who dyed of small pox":

Scarce have I dry'd my cheeks but griefs invite
Again my eyes to weep, my hand to write,
Which still return with greater force, being more
In weight and number than they were before.

A touch of Crabbe there--but enough of innocent death, which was not in Catnach's line of business. He dealt in murder, from the convicted murderer's standpoint. For us the locus classicus is the Thavies Inn Affair; but from the Kentish Garland I gather "The Dying Soldier in Maidstone Gaol," a later flower, written and published no longer ago than 1857.

The dying soldier was Dedea Redanies, so called, though probably his name should be spelt as it is rhymed, Redany. He was a Servian (not a Serbian) from Belgrade, engaged in the Second British-Swiss Legion, an armament of which I never heard before. Quartered at Shorncliffe, and goaded by jealousy, he stabbed his young woman, and her sister, on the cliffs above Dover, gave himself up, was tried and duly hanged. I hope that is a plain statement, but none which I could make could be plainer than Dedea's rhapsodist's:

Oh, list my friends to a foreign soldier
Whose name is Dedea Redanies--
My friends and kindred had no idea
That I should die on a foreign tree.
I loved a maiden, a pretty maiden,
In the town of Dover did she reside--
I sweetly kissed her and with her sister
I after killed and laid side by side.

That is admirably said, but not at all advantaged by subsequent re-statement in something like fifteen verses. The colossal egotism of the notorious criminal, however, provides him with a conclusion oleaginous enough for a scaremonger of our own day, with a confusion of summject and ommject very much after his heart. "O God," he whines--

O God receive me, from pain relieve me,
Since I on earth can no comfort find--
To stand before thee, let me, in glory,
With poor Maria and sweet Caroline.

I should like Sir Conan Doyle to treat of this modest proposal in a present lecture.

(The end)
Maurice Hewlett's essay: Catnachery

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