Saturday, February 12, 2011

`The Time of Patience'

In the Pacific Northwest, February is like January but shorter. We had a pleasant frost one morning, prompting my seven-year-old as we crossed the crunchy lawn to say it sounded as though we were walking on snails. No snow has fallen since early January, and that was a pathetic dusting. Early mornings are uniformly gray. Dawn is a lighter shade of gray. Fog lifts mid-morning.

In upstate New York I looked forward to February’s brief thaw, knowing March could turn into a monster. You could smell the earth again and the skunk cabbage flourished. Not here. The seasonal spectrum is narrow. The sun is still low, little higher than at the solstice. Signs of spring are modest – more juncos, a few snow drops. For these reasons I was pleased to discover Fantastics: Serving for a Perpetual Prognostication (1626) by Nicholas Breton (c. 1555-c. 1626). In his day Breton, friend to Shakespeare and Jonson, was a bestseller of sorts, a popular writer in an age when even a smaller percentage of the population than today was able to read. He wrote verse and prose prolifically, and seems to have been nearly forgotten within a generation of his death.

In Fantastics, Breton produced a prose grab bag, an early incarnation of the “character book,” witty profiles of human types, a form championed later in the seventeenth century by John Earle, Thomas Fuller and Sir Thomas Overbury. Breton includes a prose calendar, giving each month a character of its own, and in doing so becomes a pioneering nature writer:

“It is now February, and the sun is gotten up a cock-stride of his climbing. The valleys now are painted white, and the brooks are full of water. The frog goes to seek out the paddock, and the crow and the rook begin to mislike their old makes. Forward coneys begin now to kindle, and the fat grounds are not without lambs. The gardener falls to sorting of his seeds, and the husbandman falls afresh to scouring of his plowshare. The term-travellers make the shoemaker’s harvest, and the chandler’s cheese makes the chalk walk apace. The fishmonger sorts his ware against Lent, and a lamb-skin is good for a lame arm. The waters now alter the nature of their softness, and the soft earth is made stony hard. The air is sharp and piercing, and the winds blow cold. The taverns and the inns seldom lack guests, and the ostler knows how to gain by his hay. The hunting horse is at the heels of the hound, while the ambling nag carrieth the physician and his footcloth. The blood of youth begins to spring, and the honor of art is gotten by exercise. The trees a little begin to bud, and the sap begins to rise up out of the root. Physic now hath work among weak bodies, and the apothecary’s drugs are very gainful. There is hope of a better time not far off, for this in itself is little comfortable. And for the small pleasure that I find in it, I will thus briefly conclude of it: it is the poor man’s pick-purse, and the miser’s cut-throat, the enemy to pleasure, and the time of patience. Farewell."

The prose is sweet, not soppy, attuned to English folkways and the natural world, town and country. Breton is not profound but his tone is intelligently folksy, more like E.B. White (whose appeal has always baffled me) than Thoreau. His description of February comes closer to March or even April in the Northeast, except for that second-to-last sentence. “The time of patience” sounds like February in the Northwest.

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