Tuesday, April 07, 2020

'All Illnesses Are Taken for the Plague'

A reader has sent me the title poem in Geoffrey Grigson’s Montaigne’s Tower (Secker & Warburg, 1984):

“Was it really here, in this tiled room
In this tower that Montaigne wrote?
I hope that it was so. Never was there
A place better for recalling, I would say —
For being benign and wise, for loving
In words. I see him back a chair
Across these tiles, and stand and stretch, and then
Descend this newel stair, and going
Slowly as if arthritically outside.
He looks down, with feeling he sees again
How exceedingly sweet is this meadowed
Small valley below and how half-reddening
Vines in such a light cast straight
Black bars of shadow in row after row.”

There’s much to admire here starting with “for loving / In words,” which is among the chief reasons we do what we do, isn’t it? Close to my own experience is “going / Slowly as if arthritically outside.” The final lines suggest confinement, the bars of a prison. Montaigne’s withdrawal from public life in 1571 to the Tower of his château in the Dordogne is viewed that way by some.

His friend Etienne de La Boétie had died in 1563, probably of the plague. Among writers few have lived lives so thoroughly mingling the public and private, the civil and scholarly, as Montaigne, who published the first edition of his Essays in 1580. A year later he took office as mayor of Bordeaux. In 1585, during his second term, he fled the city to avoid the plague, which would kill roughly half, some 14,000, of its inhabitants. In 1586, the plague and the French Wars of Religion (1562-98) prompted him to leave his château for two years. In the introduction to his translation of the Complete Essays (1957), Donald Frame says Montaigne was forced to “take his family away and lead the unhappy caravan from place to place for six months,” during a time of not only plague but savage religious warfare.

Montaigne never devoted an essay exclusively to the plague. That was not his way. He was not a journalist. In a late essay, “Of Physiognomy,” he writes:

“Both outside and inside my house I was greeted by a plague of the utmost virulence . . . I, who am so hospitable, had a great deal of trouble finding a retreat for my family: a family astray, a source of fear to their friends and themselves, and of horror wherever they sought to settle, having to shift their abode as soon as one of the group began to feel pain in the end of his finger. All illnesses are taken for the plague.”  

And this: “Here a man, healthy, was already digging his grave; others lay down in them while still alive. And one of my laborers, with his hands and feet, pulled the earth over him as he was dying. Was that not taking shelter so as to go to sleep more comfortably?”

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