“He was of a middling stature, pretty strong sett, roundish faced, cherry cheek't, hazell eie, browne haire. He was in his conversation very modest, and of very few words: and though he loved wine he would never drinke in company, and was wont to say that, `he would not play the good-fellow in any man's company in whose hands he would not trust his life.’”
And Aubrey on John Denham (1615-1669), the poet and courtier:
“He was generally temperate as to drinking; but one time when he was a student of Lincolne's-Inne, having been merry at the taverne with his camerades, late at night, a frolick came into his head, to gett a playsterer's brush and a pott of inke, and blott out all the signes between Temple-barre and Charing-crosse, which made a strange confusion the next day, and 'twas in Terme time. But it happened that they were discovered, and it cost him and them some moneys. This I had from R. Estcott, esq., that carried the inke-pott.”
This is gossip, of course, glorious, irresistible gossip (like much of James and Proust), and we wouldn’t trade it for a sample of Marvell’s or Denham’s DNA. We cherish Aubrey’s Brief Lives not for its historical veracity, as though lives could be reduced to actuarial tables, but for the vigor of the prose (“a frolick came into his head”) and the homely details about people who lived half a millennium ago. We can thank Aubrey for telling us Shakespear [sic] “had been in his younger yeares a schoolmaster in the countrey.”
Aubrey was a sort of journalist before such a trade, or Daniel Defoe, even existed. He chronicled lives and in his notebooks often scrawled in the margins “quaere,” legal Latin for “inquire” or “query.” He would report a rumor, a would-be fact, and remind himself to dig further and verify it. My edition of Brief Lives and Other Selected Writings (The Cresset Press, 1949), comes with an introduction by the great Anthony Powell:
“His own writing is the best index to his character. He found difficulty in sustaining narrative…but his style is inimitable. Most of what is now reproduced was only intended to be unsifted material, scored in the original with `quaere’ or `from so-and-so’ to show Aubrey’s own uncertainty. When reporting first-hand, he sometimes confuses dates, but his good faith can be relied upon absolutely.”
I was sent back to Brief Lives after reading “John Aubrey’s Antique Shop,” by George Szirtes (New & Collected Poems, Bloodaxe Books, 2008):
“Certain objects find their way down here—
Grogged in glamour, porcelain faces peer
through flecks of emulsion and faint dust on collars;
shoes go manky, mortuary, scuffed;
the clocks with marbled gingerbread and barley
tell no time but one, the hour of breaking.
And one could find yet bigger, better, richer:
a bellows-organ say with some keys missing
that some doughty Noncomformist household
bright as a button, collars starched resplendent,
trained to Wesley, Lanier and Newton.
“As I’ve forgotten who once said of Andrewes,
his sermons were too playful. I believe it.
`Here’s a pretty thing, and there’s a pretty thing’
argues a serious lack of seriousness.
In Hell everybody goes dirty all the time.
I once knew a girl as clean as linen.
What would happen to all these did not
Such idle fellows as I note them down?”
Szirtes quotes the concluding sentence of Aubrey’s life of Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626):
“He had not that smooth way of Oratory, as now. It was a shrewd and severe animadversion of a Scotish [sic] Lord, who, when King James asked him how he liked Bp. A.’s sermon, sayd that he was learned, but he did play with his Text, as a Jack-an-apes does, who takes up a thing and tosses and playes with it, and then he takes up another, and playes a little with it. Here’s a pretty thing, and there’s a pretty thing!”