05 September, 2006

Peri Bathous: two notes

Peri Bathous, or the Art of Sinking in Poetry (1727), officially a joint production of the Scriblerus group, is now safely attributed to Alexander Pope. It's a pastiche of Longinus' Peri Hupsous (On the Sublime) as mock-eulogy of the heroic mediocrity of various contemporary poets, and it's very funny. As Pope writes in his introduction, 'While a plain and direct road is paved to their υψος, or sublime; no track has been yet chalked out to arrive at our βαθος, or profund'. Hence the word bathos, for which the OED cites this passage, with the definition 'Ludicrous descent from the elevated to the commonplace in writing or speech; anticlimax'. Which is all well and good, but something else obsessed my brain, upon finally reading the work—or rather, two things.

1. Some cute Augustan high-society vocabulary. Pope cites this fabricated passage as an example of overwrought language:
Lac'd in her Cosins new appear'd the Bride
A Bubble-boy and Tompion at her Side,
And with an Air Divine her Colmar ply'd. . .
Pope draws attention to four words here: cosins, bubble-boy, tompion and colmar, which he defines as 'stays, tweezercase, watch, fan'. We resort, again, to the OED. The four words, it notes, also appear in the Art of Politicks, by my fellow Old Wet, James Bramston. It also notes, in the entry for 'bubble-boy', that 'Warburton says the passage is quoted from one of Pope's own juvenile poems, in which case its date would be c 1704'. Where do the words come from? Well, the cosins was named after its maker, though the OED provides no more information. Tompion, likewise, was the name of a 'noted watchmaker in the reign of Queen Anne', and is found eponymously as late as Dickens. Colmar may be from the name of a town in Alsace, or 'perhaps of a different origin'. Bubble-boy, or bubble-bow, is certainly the most interesting:
[app. f. BUBBLE + BEAU as if 'beau-befooler': cf. quot. 1712.]

A lady's tweezer-case.

[1712 ARBUTHNOT John Bull (1755) 3 Charles Mather could not bubble a young beau better with a toy.] 1727 POPE, etc., Art Sinking 94 Lac'd in her Cosins new appear'd the Bride, A Bubble-bow and Tompion at her side. 1807 Month. Mag. XXIV. 550 Why was it called a bubble-boy? Probably the word is a misspelling for bauble-buoy, a support for baubles.

2. Some unusual typography. This page, on vulgarity in poetry:

First of all, the use of asterisks is rather curious: after 'the very Bathos of the human Body', the reader expects something like 'that is to say, *** and ****', representing (for instance) cock and cunt, if we allow a numerical discrepancy between asterisks and letters. But instead the text dissolves into a veritable sea of stars, the night-sky inverted, with only the phrase Hiatus magnus lachrymabilis: 'a great mournful hiatus', the last word a pseudo-Hellenic form of the correct Latin, lacrimabilis. Pope evokes a firmament of obscenity. Then there are the half-illegible Greek characters, which baffled me, until I looked up Edna Leake Steeves' erudite commentary in her 1952 critical edition. It turns out that the Greek words are Κιββερισμος and Ολφιελδισμος (the last character of each word is in fact an ο-σ ligature), or Kibberismos and Olphieldismos. Here's Edna:
Cibberism and Oldfieldism. A letter is dropped in Oldfield's name. Anne Oldfield (1683-1730) had played her first big role in 1704 as Lady Betty Modish in Cibber's Careless Husband, and was from then on associated with the group of actors about Cibber and the famous triumvirate at Drury Lane who are ironically apotheosized in the opening of Chapter XVI of Peri Bathous. . . Pope's reference here to Cibberism and Oldfieldism reflects upon the ribaldry and equivocality of the comedy roles in which Cibber and Mrs. Oldfield won applause.

No comments: