Bad Verse and Country Matters …

One of Clark’s favoured books, something that he orders, borrows, swops, sell and even intends to print, is a sixteenth-century tract called A Hundred Points of Good Husbandry by a chap called Thomas Tusser. Clark mentions Tusser numerous times in his letters to his bookseller and publisher John Russell Smith, and seems interested not just in the early editions but in later reissues; in a letter to Russell Smith dated August 1840 Clark mentions that he has seen a copy of the 1744 edition in Bell’s magazine, and says that he would some day like to see this edition. Clark certainly printed Tusser’s will, which would have been sold by Russell Smith in his Old Compton Street shop, and, several times in his letters, indicates that he seriously considered printing a new edition of the husbandry.

A hundreth good pointes of husbandrie (ESTC S95606) was first printed in London by Richard Tottell in 1562, and a copy of this edition definitely passed through Clark’s hands. It is without doubt the kind of publication that would have appealed to his tastes. Tusser’s interests are in agriculture, domestic management and the proper, moral conduct of servants, children, and other members of a household: all topics that Clark refers to frequently, and with quite strong opinions, in his correspondence. Tusser advises, too, on marriage and on thrift: subjects that occupy Clark greatly: “Spend none but thine own howsoeuer thou spend, / for bribing and shifting haue neuer good end”. Its also likely that Tusser’s use of verse as opposed to prose would have pleased Clark, who found himself attracted to rustic, provincial language and poets of the countryside and to the likes of John Clare and John Hollamby. In fact, Tusser’s verse not only appealed to Clark: he felt compelled to defend it, privately at least. He records in a letter of 19 November 1839 to his bookseller and patron John Russell Smith the following incident: “Lord Braybrooke, at the Saffron Walden Agricultural Meeting the other day, was wicked enough to mention my old friend Tusser in the following manner – ‘Then, again, the Agricultural poet, Tusser, who wrote the Hundred … good points of Husbandry – I do not say whether the points were good, but certainly nothing can be more wretched than the verse’”. Clark is despondent on behalf of his “old friend”, remarking “poor Tusser!”, but there is no sense that he spoke up on his behalf!

Indeed Tusser’s tract, though interesting from the point of view of reading habits and attitudes towards information and the transmission of knowledge in the sixteenth-century, is technically quite flawed. However, there is a certain charm to the volume, (I should say that I recently consulted the 1571 edition), and it does allow the reader to be transported into an idealized, productive and morally sound Sylvan England that is somehow free from political and religious struggles and contentions. Tusser’s simple axioms, presented in couplets and in short, pithy verses, invite acceptance rather than speculation: “No labor, no meate / No host, dye in streate”, but also reveal some of the real issues and concerns that impacted equally on country and city dwellers and we are never too far removed from the reality that one bad harvest can be utterly devastating, a reality that would have remained unchanged for Clark and his parents in nineteenth-century rural Essex. And Tusser himself is concerned not with rhetorical flourish but with plain speaking, as articulated in the preface dedicatory (to Lord Paget of Beudesert):

What other thing lookest thou then?

Graue sentences herein to finde?

Such Chaucer hath twenty and ten,

Yea thousands to pleasure thy mynde.

What looke ye, I pray you? Shewe what,

Tearmes painted with Rethorike fine?

Of makers of Englishe looke that,

But neuer in me nor in mine.

Tusser, with his husbandry, also issued a tract called The Book of Huswiferie; Clark refers to this only in passing. Indeed for a confirmed bachelor, Malthusian and marriage-sceptic this may have had little interest, despite its antiquity and its rendering in Clark’s precious blackletter!

-CG

 

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