The Hunter and his Quarry

The Scottish poet William Drummond of Hawthornden is best known for his development of the madrigal. 

Briefly, the madrigal is a ten-line poem whose lines are either six or ten syllables long, although there is no strict rule as to their arrangement. The poems’ relation to the musical form of the madrigal is unclear, but we can see that these relatively short poems lend themselves to intense expressions of emotion. Drummond’s poems are on the gloomy side, bordering on the morose, but often brilliant – as in the case of this unnamed madrigal, written in the second or third decade of the seventeenth century:

The world a-hunting is,
The prey poor man, the Nimrod fierce is Death;
His speedy greyhounds are
Lust, sickness, envy, care,
Strife that ne’er falls amiss,
With all those ills which haunt us while we breathe.
Now if by chance we fly
Of these the eager chase,
Old age with stealing pace
Casts up his nets, and there we panting die.                                                                                                                                        (New Oxford Book of 17th Century Verse, Ed. Alastair Fowler, Oxford, 1992)

The poem starts with the image of a hunt.The hunt one must imagine as one of the kind practised by the British upper classes, where the local gentry (or nobility, or sometimes royalty) gather with their horses and hounds and chase a fox or a deer over hill, dale, and moor; or hunt down birds with rifle and nets. The hunt was all at once– and, to the extent it persists, still is– an important social event; a leisure activity, the central leisure activity, it sometimes seems, of the British upper classes; and even a sort of pseudo-military muster, a kind of training for men who, in wartime, might fight at each other’s side.
I don’t know whether Drummond participated in such events – he had famously eschewed the court of London to become a man of letters in his hereditary seat in Scotland, though he surely cannot have spent all his time at his study writing – but he would certainly have been familiar with them. James VI and I, the king his father served, was notorious for his interminable hunts, often spending days at a time away from the capital, leaving business to his overworked and under-appreciated secretary of state, Lord Walsingham. James was fond of stepping bare-foot into the gore of a newly slain deer; a practice his doctors told him would do no end of good to his various ailments.
Life could be great in the early seventeenth century if you were a king, though perhaps not so much fun if you were a deer. As distasteful as the image of a king ankle deep in gore might seem to us, the image at least speaks to the purported intimacy between hunter and quarry. Indeed, the image of a hunter and hunted often appeared in love poetry. Petrarch, I think, began the association of hunting with wooing, but the most well-known hunting-themed love poem in English is Wyatt’s ‘He who so lists to hunt,’ in which the hunter demurs from catching his prey when he notices a tag on her neck reading ‘noli mi tangere.’ This is widely believed to mean ‘don’t even think about bedding Anne Boleyn (and try to pretend you haven’t already!) now she’s shacking up with Henry VIII’. Richard Lovelace, a contemporary of Drummond’s, made the hunting/romance analogy even more explicit in his paean to chubby ladies,

The Bella Bona Roba’, asking Cupid,
Then Love, I beg, when next thou tak’st thy bow,
Thy angry shafts, and dost heart-chasing go,
Pass rascal deer, strike me the largest doe

Other poems in that vein, could, I’m sure, be found. But Drummond’s poem uses a hitherto underexposed aspect of the hunt, one in some ways more in tune with modern perceptions: that is, the persecution of the animal, and, from the creature’s point of view, the horror. Drummond is not some kind of early animal rights activist, mind – the hunt is what I.A. Richards with his useful terminology, would call the “vehicle” of the metaphor, the source of its imagery; the true subject of the poem, what Richards would call the “tenor” is the hardness of life, and the very certainty of death.
Death, in fact, is the hunter. Drummond dramatizes, and perhaps dignifies man’s futile struggle with death by evoking a noble, even mythical vision of his hunter. Nimrod is a figure from early in the Old Testament, a great-grandson of Noah and a renowned hunter. Greyhounds too were considered the very noblest of dogs, fast, agile, muscular and fiercely protective. There is an enigmatic reference to a divine greyhound in the first canto of Dante’s Inferno:

She [the she-wolf] mates with many creatures, and will go on
Mating with more until the greyhound comes
And tracks her down to make her die in anguish.
(Dante’s Inferno, Transl. Mark Musa, Penguin, London, 1984)

If the she-wolf is a kind of symbol of the terrible vicissitudes of life, and the work of the devil in the world, then the greyhound seems to be the work of divine justice that will redeem man’s suffering. For Dante – if you can excuse my stuttering understanding of theology – there was suffering and danger in our fallen world, but there was God and God’s justice too. Another famous Catholic wrote a short epigram using the image of dogs and wolves in a similar way, albeit with a decidedly political bent:
Qui fugat ore lupos. Quid malus? Ipse lupus.
What is a good prince? He is the sheepdog who puts the wolves to flight by his barking. What is a bad one? The wolf itself.
(Thomas More, Trans. Timothy Kendall (1520/1577) Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, Ed. David Norbrook, Penguin, London, 2005)
There is much that is interesting about More’s couplet, by the way. More was eventually sent to his death by Henry VIII, for refusing to endorse the King’s break with Rome. This poem, however, was written before the king’s ‘great matter’ turned England’s spiritual life upside down, so it is certainly not a comment on the reformation. Although it could be read as a justification of political or religious violence, it is significant that the sheepdog simply scares the wolves away, he does not attack them. If there is a trace of political commentary in there, More could be reminding a monarch keen on the overseas aggression of his prime duty – the protection of England. Before his supernumerary marriages exhausted his energies and England’s diplomatic resources, Henry’s all-consuming, and horrifically expensive, passion had been the recapture of England’s one-time possessions in France. Ipse lupus, indeed.
I digress. Dante and More both position the dog – the noble greyhound, the staunch sheepdog – as a protector against a great enemy, whether that is an infernal or an earthly foe. In Drummond’s poem, the roles have switched somewhat. The world is hunting us: his greyhounds, personifications of all the ills that may befall a man, hunt us too. This reflects a deeply pessimistic view of life, part of which is in the temper of the poet himself – Drummond, we have established, was not a cheerful poet – but also, perhaps, reflective of a loss of faith in the divine order of the universe, a certainty that had underlain the unchallenged Catholic imagination of Europe before the reformation that separates Dante and More from Drummond. In fact, for a poet who wrote some very good religious poetry, a man no less of a Christian than Dante or More, Drummond here strikes a note strikingly similar to the pre-Christian pagans, or certain post-Christian poets of a world-weary bent – that is pessimistic, fatalistic, doom-laden.
In in the tranquillity of the airs of Hawthornden Castle, there may have been the tang of something sinister in the air. Midlothian is not so far north of what we now call the Scottish Borders, once known as the Scottish Marches. In its time, with the most northerly counties of England, it was one of the most violent areas in Europe, ravaged by continual cross-border pillaging and clan warfare, often with tacit support from a monarch on either side of the border who wanted to preoccupy the other. There’s a certain romance attached to the memory of the Border Reivers who prowled the marches but trying to live a settled existence among thieves, murderers, rapists and kidnappers, must surely have made the law-abiding, and the weak, feel like prey at the mercy of forces beyond their control. The Reivers occasionally hunted each other too, invoking the kind of blood feud we might more readily associate with the mountains of Montenegro and Albania. When the real wars came, the Lothians, meanwhile, with their proximity to Edinburgh, were often the scene of the most vicious reprisals of occupying English armies. Drummond’s poem describes universal human experiences, but it seems to have been influenced by the site of its composition. I imagine the folk memory of such events – living memory in some cases – sat deeply in the minds of the people of 1620s Midlothian.
And Drummond was right to imagine that such horror was a permanent aspect of human existence, even if sometimes in abeyance. 1620s Scotland must have seemed peaceful compared to even the recent past: with a Scottish King on the English Throne, ruling over the three kingdoms of his realm, both reiving and Anglo-Scottish wars seemed to be a thing bygone days; the religious tumults and persecutions of the Reformation seemed too to have passed their worst pitch. But over on the continent, the great powers were locked into the first decade of what would be remembered as the Thirty Years War, one of the nastiest in European History. James I and VI’s prevarication and pacifism had kept his Kingdoms out of the fighting, but thousands of mercenaries from England, Ireland and, most of all, Scotland fought alongside continental troops over the rubble of destroyed German towns. The war was characterised by gruelling, bloody battle tactics – the “push of pike” that crushed or stabbed lines of soldiers to death en masse, and by the return of the routine persecution of civilian populations that had not been seen since Roman times.
That same kind of strife would, twenty years later, cross the North Sea and consume the nations of the British Isles. Drummond would live to see religious fanaticism consume Scotland, an English Army march north, a Scottish army occupy the North of England, a full-on civil war across the three kingdoms, the judicial murder of a King, and the subjugation and humiliation of Scotland. For himself, a Royalist and an Episcopalian in Calvinist Scotland that – initially – sided with the king’s enemies he was hounded by those who questioned his religious credentials and coveted his ancestral lands. He survived to tell the tale, but his vision of man as prey looked truer than ever in the decades following the writing of the poem.