15 June 2017

Poetry Thursday - Thule, the period of cosmography

Thule, the period of cosmographie,
Doth vaunt of Hecla whose sulphureous fire
Doth melt the frozen clime and thaw the sky;
Trinacrian Etna’s flames ascend not higher.
These things seem wondrous, yet more wondrous I,
Whose heart with fear doth freeze, with love doth fry.

The Andalusian merchant, that returns
Laden with cochineal and china dishes
Reports in Spain how strangely Fogo burns
Amidst an ocean full of flying fishes.
These things seem wondrous, yet more wondrous I,
Whose heart with fear doth freeze, with love doth fry.

(Anonymous; found in Poems of Science, which has been on my shelves since 1984, when I met one of the authors)

The words sound so wonderful, even without knowing what they mean (Trinacrian Etna??). Attempting to finally "understand" this poem, which I've sort of known about since taking an interest in madrigals back in the balmy 1970s, I found this succinct explanation on the Paris Review site:

This anonymous love lyric about the polar regions was set to a madrigal by the composer Thomas Weelkes in 1600. Four hundred years ago, poets had the luxury of looking at the horizon and marveling at what might lie beyond it. We’ve since lost that hopeful curiosity about the external world. The natural wonder of volcanic eruption is now classified as a natural disaster, and the once romantic Andalusian merchant is now seen as a capitalist pig. Having run out of physical space, exploration has turned inward. Thule is now the period of an interior cosmography. We go there not as heroes, but as a collection of anonymous users. 
The point of the poem—and I think it endures—is that the commonplace grime and dirt of our own feelings is still more powerful and exciting than the Thule of either cosmography.
But more useful was Ruth Padel's expose of the poem (here), which looks at its musical setting and explains some of the wording - why "period", for example ... it came to mean "farthest limit", and Thule came to mean anywhere in the frozen north.

In 1597 Hecla, a volcano in Iceland, erupted for more than six months. Fogo is another volcano, in the Cape Verde islands, off Senegal ... or might it be Tierra del Fuego?

Padel writes:
What this madrigal breathed was a right to the elsewhere, claimed by a culture where everyone was grabbing at places and artefacts that had been written about but not seen. An over-the-rainbow period (“period” in the temporal sense), of making the foreign your own imaginatively and commercially; when blue dishes and scarlet dye were suddenly chromatic in the visual sense; when fabulousness did not stay on the page, or far-off in Thule, but came alive in English words and music.
Many versions of the madrigal are on youtube; try this one, it has a comparatively good sound quality ... but even so the words are difficult to make out!

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