Plague, fire, war – and bark

Cowper

(George Romney, William Cowper (1792): © National Portrait Gallery)

On another 19 March (1788), the poet William Cowper wrote to his friend the Reverend Walter Bagot, ‘The Spring is come, but not I suppose that Spring which our poets have celebrated. So I judge at least by the extreme severity of the Season, sunless skies and freezing blasts, surpassing all that we experienced in the depth of winter. How do you dispose of yourself in this howling month of March? As for me, I walk daily be the weather what it may, take Bark, and write verses.’[1]

Cinchona

https://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/p/perbar29.html

Similarly, I walk with the Librarian daily (‘be the weather what it may’) – the park is noticeably busier but the cemetery is still pretty quiet – though I tend to write prose more often these days – and I’ve never knowingly taken ‘Bark’. Nor was I even sure what it meant. My dictionary offered ‘cinchona’ and I gather that this was Peruvian bark, the source of quinine. Roy Porter notes that it was brought to Europe between 1630 and 1640 or thereabouts, possibly by Jesuit missionaries, the reason for its being known as ‘Jesuits’ Bark’ – and also the reason why ‘staunch Protestants like Oliver Cromwell’ refused to take it. Porter adds that cinchona, demonstrably effective against fevers, was introduced into the London Pharmacopoeia in 1677.[2]

In August 1685, the diarist (among much else) John Evelyn visited Mr Watts, ‘keeper of the Apothecaries Garden of simples at Chelsea where there is a collection of innumerable rarieties of that sort, particularly beside many rare annuals the tree bearing the Jesuit’s bark, which had done such cures in quartans’.[3]

[‘Quartans’ refers to a form of malaria resulting in a fever which recurs every third day – by inclusive reckoning, the fourth day, so Latin quartanus, of the fourth]

Samuel_Pepys

(Samuel Pepys)

Recalling that Evelyn’s famous contemporary, Samuel Pepys, also lived through a period of war, plague and fire, I looked up his 19 March 1665 entry, though the Great Plague broke out in earnest a little later than that, so the record of that particular ‘Lords Day’, begins: ‘Mr Povy and I in his coach to Hide parke, being the first day of the Tour there – where many brave ladies. Among others Castlemayne lay impudently upon her back in her coach, asleep with her mouth open. There was also my Lady Kerneeguy, once my Lady Anne Hambleton, that is said to have given the Duke a clap upon his first coming over.’[4]

No reference to applause there, I suspect.

Plague, fire and war: that’s to say the second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667, when the peace treaty gave the Dutch a monopoly on nutmeg); it was a period thickly populated with conflicts. In another, later time of war (c. 19 March 1915), D. H. Lawrence wrote enthusiastically to Ottoline Morrell of his novel The Rainbow, having had the first 71 pages typed: ‘It really puts a new thing in the world, almost a new vision of life.’[5]

Lady_Ottoline_Morrell

(Ottoline Morrell)

A positive, anyway, a blow on behalf of the ordinary universe. A new thing in the world. Happy birthday, then, to Philip Roth, born on this day in 1933: ‘But back in bed he thought, The burden isn’t that everything has to be a book. It’s that everything can be a book. And doesn’t count as life until it is.’[6]

Yes. One more 19 March. 1941 this time, when Penelope Fitzgerald (by then a producer in the BBC Features Department) kept her friend Hugh Lee (‘Ham’) up to date: ‘The BBC is not exactly tedious, in fact it is rent with scandals and there are dreadful quarrels in the canteen, about liberty, the peoples’ convention, &c, and the air is dark with flying spoons and dishes. Miss Stevens poured some tea down Mr Fletcher’s neck the other day. He knew Freud who told him the term inferiority complex was a mistranslation and there was really no such thing. I have to eat all the time to keep my spirits up so I am getting quite fat.’[7]

Whatever it takes to keep your spirits up at the moment, I’d say, is just fine.

 
Notes

[1] William Cowper, Letters and Prose Writings, Volume III: 1787-1791, edited by James King and Charles Ryskamp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 128.

[2] Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present (London: Harper Collins, 1997), 233.

[3] John Evelyn’s Diary, quoted by Miles Hadfield, A History of British Gardening (London: Penguin Books, 1985), 143.

[4] Samuel Pepys, The Shorter Pepys, selected and edited by Robert Latham (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1993), 446-447.

[5] Letters of D. H. Lawrence II, June 1913-October 1916, edited by George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 308.

[6] Philip Roth, The Anatomy Lesson (1984), in Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and Epilogue 1979-1985 (New York: Library of America, 2007), 443.

[7] So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 22.

 

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