Happy Ascension Day!! Culpat caro; purgat caro; regnat Deus, Dei caro!!!
From the mighty down to the minuscule: May 21 is the anniversay of my Ordination to the Sacred Diaconate in 1967, in the Cathedral Church of Christ in Oxford.
But this twice blessed Day catches many of us 'shut down' because of the Pestilence. What is there left to do but to Piddle (vide OED sub voce) at our enforced leisure?
And where better to piddle than in the Thames-side Villa of Mr Alexander Pope. What greater pleasure than to disembark and walk up the steep lawn to his 'Palladian' yet humble abode, perhaps with Bounce sniffing affectionately round our ankles. D'you know who remodelled this house? James Gibbs, who built S Mary at Bow and S Martin's in the Fields. Gibbs was, like Pope himself, a Catholic; I like to think that, as he designed those churches, perhaps he had in mind how well they were suited to be converted to Catholic Worship when ... er ... the King should have his own again. Later, he built the Radcliffe Camera at Oxford ... did you, by the way, know that Pope once visited the Consulting Rooms of the omnipotent Dr Radcliffe? I bet Dr Radcliffe would have sorted out the Coronavirus even faster than Mr Trump.
So shall we climb the steps up to the front door ... no we won't; because Mr Pope himself has hinted that we should look lower. Know, all the distant din the World can keep/ Rolls o'er my Grotto, and but Soothes my Sleep. So, instead, we go through the door under the low arch ... but stay!! the Enlightenment has been tampering with the Romance of the Grotto! Dr William Borlase, a Cornish antiquary, has collaborated with Mr Pope by providing genuine Cornish granite which is now layered and propped up just as in a genuine Cornish mine. How instructive and improving!
We soon pass into the famed garden and pause by the Shell Temple, entranced. Why are we entranced? Mr William Kent, who has had no little hand in the design of this Estate, has sketched the scene, and what is particularly entrancing us all is a tableau at the foot of a rainbow. Naked (but for a flimsy gauze) is a Goddess ... Goddesses do so like to get their clothes off ...: I suspect this one is Venus Maritima because she is surrounded by merpeople of each sex with the loveliest swishy tails. One of them ... it's what Tritons do ... is blowing a shell (even poor pompous Wordsworth knew that Tritons do that). Why is it that Mr Kent's deft pen so often uncovers such exquisite scenes, Ovid repackaged as by Boucher?
Under the Shell Temple, incense is burning on an altar; my banausic suspicion is that this is to dispel the nasal evidences of a nearby tannery ... is that what Lady Mary Wortley (the cat! the cat!) is refering to in her sarky words "fragrant odours"? Confound the opulent retreats of the repressive Whig Oligarchy! Confound 'Sir' Robert Walpole!! Who needs a Houghton or a Blenheim? Let alone a Herringhausen.
Content with Little, I can piddle here/ On Broccoli and Mutton round the year; /... 'Tis true, no Turbots dignify my boards, / But Gudgeons, Flounders what my Thames affords:/ From yon old Walnut Tree a Show'r shall fall;/ And Grapes long-lingring on my only Wall,/ And Figs from Standard and Espalier join:/ The Devil's in you if you cannot dine.
The spirit, of course, of Horace's Beatus Ille, but without the subversion of Horace's wicked last four lines. And, if Horace was 'refreshing' Archilochus, as papyri suggest, we can be thankful to be living in so much a gentler age than his. Or can we?
Happy Birthday, Alexander Pope, Catholic, Satirist, Wit, Translator and Gardener! And the last truly great English poet until the age of Chesterton and Betjeman!