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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Four Deadly Serious Allusive Sources Underlying Jane Austen’s Anything-But-Silly Dying Poem

When Winchester Races first took their beginning
It is said the good people forgot their old Saint
Not applying at all for the leave of SAINT SWITHIN
And that WILLIAM OF WYKEHAM’s approval was faint.
The Races however were fixed and determined
The company came and the Weather was charming
The Lords and the Ladies were SATIN’D AND ERMINED 
And nobody saw any future alarming.--
But when the old Saint was informed of these doings
He made but one Spring from his Shrine to the Roof
Of the Palace which now lies so sadly in ruins
And then he addressed them all standing aloof.
When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal! By vice you're enslaved
You have sinned and must suffer, then farther he said
These races and revels and dissolute measures
Let them stand--You shall meet with your curse in your pleasures
Set off for your course, I'll pursue with my rain.
Ye cannot but know my command o'er July
Henceforward I'll triumph in shewing my powers
Shift your race as you will it shall never be dry
The curse upon Venta is July in showers--'.

I’ve previously written posts in which I’ve made the argument, in various ways, that Jane Austen’s last poem, “Winchester Races”, reproduced above, is anything but a silly joke, and in particular that it had at least two significant literary/historical subtexts:

The Biblical story of Sodom & Gomorrah, with St. Swithin replacing the Hebrew God in the role of vengeful, punishing supernatural being; and

Gilbert White’s account, in his very famous book that JA knew well, of the 1367 visit by the Bishop of Winchester, William of Wykeham, to the priory at Selborne, in which the self-righteous Bishop (whose crypt is extremely close to Jane Austen’s burial spot) sternly rebuked that priory for so-called widespread licentiousness, included hunting parties and also “garments edged with costly furs, with fringed gloves, and silken girdles trimmed with gold and silver. "
It is beyond coincidence that, in addition to the principal St. Swithin motif, JA also mentions William of Wykeham’s “faint approval” of the Winchester Races, and then just happens to mention leisure activities involving horseback riding and frivolous people fashionably dressed (“The Lords and the Ladies were satin’d and ermined “), the very things that good Bishop condemned so strongly.

For more detail, here are link to my two most relevant posts on those first two allusions:

Today, I want to bring forward, in observance of the recent anniversary of JA’s death (and also the coincidentally fitting end of our long group read of JA’s letters in Janeites & Austen-L)  two more deadly serious allusive sources I now also see in JA’s last poem:

When I first picked up on the first-above allusion in JA’s last poem to Genesis 13, the story of God raining fire and brimstone down on Sodom and Gomorrah, it never dawned on me that the Hebrew Bible’s Genesis 13 was also a source for Matthew 11:19-30, obviously a much later Christian Biblical passage (which Google Books indicates was actually been read in some English churches the Sunday before JA died, as part of the cyclical liturgical calendar), on or about the same time as the Feast of St. Swithin! Which suggests to me that perhaps the Feast of St. Swithin over time took on the idea of a punitive rain from the contemporaneous Gospel lectionaries.

Specifically, Matthew’s Jesus seems to be channeling Genesis 13, with his fire-and-brimstone imprecations against the unrepentant towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum:

Matthew 11: 19-27
The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children. Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not: WOE UNTO THEE, Chorazin! WOE UNTO THEE, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.  But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.  And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.
At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes….

Indeed, JA was the greatest proficient at hiding things from the so-called wise and prudent, while revealing them to so-called babes.
And for that matter Matthew also has Jesus distinctly channeling remembering Genesis 13 four chapters earlier in 7:24-26 from the Sermon on the Mount:
Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.  And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:  And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.

How resonant both of these passages are to JA’s last poem, and how much more likely that this resonance was intentional on JA’s part, given that these passages were probably read aloud in sermons in churches in Winchester not long before JA’s death!

But that’s not all. As I should have realized much sooner, especially given the Shakespearean subtext of Cassandra Austen’s first letter to niece Fanny after JA died, there just had to be some Shakespeare hidden in JA’s poem, given that he was surely part of her constitution till the day she died:

You may be surprised to learn that JA may have been inspired to develop all of her elaborate hidden calendars for all six of her novels by Shakespeare himself! I.e., it appears clear to me that Shakespeare went to some trouble to arrange a hidden calendar in Romeo & Juliet , such that the tragic young lovers Romeo and Juliet just happen to die on July 15, St. Swithin’s Day!! For this calendrical insight, I am indebted to scholar Demitra Papadinis, who in her recent annotated edition of the Bard’s early tragedy worked out that hidden calendar hidden in plain sight in Shakespeare’s play.  
How in plain sight? Because her inference is based in part on the various references in the play to other dates in the liturgical calendar (such as St. Lammas Day), and in part on what the Prince says at the end of the play, as he surveys the carnage in the sepulcher:

A GLOOMING peace this morning with it brings;
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon'd, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

It was also a dark and stormy night on July 18,  1817, and ever since, for all Janeites, the premature death of Jane Austen has always been “a story of more woe.”

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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