Mustaches and Power-Chins: footnotes to “Absalom and Achitophel”

Mustaches and Power-Chins: footnotes to “Absalom and Achitophel”

Rereading “Absalom and Achitophel” and “Mac Flecknoe” this week, which are made much more exciting by the extensive footnotes in the California edition from H. T. Swedenberg, Jr. (citation below). (I’ve become kind of obsessed with the idiosyncratic details in footnotes and introductions; in the New Mermaids edition of Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, for example, editor Tom Davis informs us that “Goldsmith’s appearance and personality got him nowhere with the ladies.”)

Swedenberg’s footnote on George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, gives us fun stuff like this description of him written by Samuel Butler (of “Hudibras” fame):

(I’m bolding my favorite parts and artificially breaking it up into paragraphs to make it easier to read):

George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham

“The Duke of Bucks is one that has studied the whole body of vice. His parts are disproportionate to the whole, and, like a monster, he has more of some, and less of others, than he should have. He has pulled down all that nature raised in him, and built himself up again after a model of his own. He has dammed up all those lights that nature made into the noblest prospects of the world, and opened other little blind loop-holes backward, by turning day into night, and night into day.

“His appetite to his pleasures is diseased and crazy, like the pica in a woman, that longs to eat that which was never made for food, or a girl in the green sickness, that eats chalk and mortar. Perpetual surfeits of pleasure have filled his mind with bad and vicious humours (as well as his body with a nursery of diseases), which makes him affect new and extravagant ways, as being sick and tired with the old.

“Continual wine, women, and music, put false values upon things, which, by custom, become habitual, and debauch his understanding so, that he retains no right notion nor sense of things. And as the same dose of the same physic has no operation on those that are much used to it, so his pleasures require a larger proportion of excess and variety, to render him sensible of them. . . . He does not dwell in his house, but haunts it like an evil spirit, that walks all night, to disturb the family, and never appears by day. He lives perpetually benighted, runs out of his life, and loses his time as men do their ways in the dark: and as blind men are led by their dogs, so is he governed by some mean servant or other, that relates to his pleasures.

“He is as inconstant as the moon which he lives under; and although he does nothing but advise with his pillow all day, he is as great a stranger to himself as he is to the rest of the world. His mind entertains all things very freely that come and go, but, like guests and strangers, they are not welcome if they stay long. This lays him open to all cheats, quacks, and impostors, who apply to every particular humour while it lasts, and afterwards vanish. Thus, with St. Paul, though in a different sense, he dies daily, and only lives in the night. He deforms nature, while he intends to adorn her, like Indians that hang jewels in their lips and noses. His ears are perpetually drilled with a fiddlestick. He endures pleasures with less patience than other men do their pains.” (258-59 n. 541)

I love how his immoral pleasure-seeking is figured here in terms of a monstrously grotesque and diseased body (also notice that nice little ethnocentrism at the end there that casually racializes him in a weird way). Fantastic.

Unfortunately, I have to admit that his father, George Villiers the 1st Duke of Buckingham, had a much more luxurious mustache (click to enlarge):

George Villiers
Truly, it is a thing of beauty.

And all KINDS of juicy stuff about Titus Oates who, you might remember, kind of started (with Israel Tonge, great name) the Popish Plot chaos of 1678 when he testified to a widespread conspiracy to assassinate Charles II, put his Catholic brother James II in his place, massacre the Protestants, and burn London. Swedenberg describes him as “violently choleric and overflowed with self-importance” (268 n. 647) and helpfully notes that “Titus’s face was said to be ‘rainbow-colored,’ ‘vermillion,’ ‘coffee-colour,’ and purple”” (268 n. 649)(HOT).

Mrs. Oates had this to say about her son Titus, in 1679:

“You know . . . I have had a great many children, and by my profession I have skill in womens [sic] concerns. But I believe never woman went such a time [i.e. was pregnant] with a child as I did with him. I could seldom or never sleep when I went with him, and when I did sleep I always dreamt I was with child of the Devil. But when I came to my travail [birth], I had such hard labour that I believe no woman ever had; it was ten to one but it had kill’d me: I was never so any of my other children. Then when he grew up I thought he would have been a natural [mentally challenged]; for his nose always run, and he slabber’d at the mouth, and his father could not endure him; and when he came home at night the boy would use to be in the chimney corner, and my husband would cry take away this snotty fool, and jumble him about, which made me often weep, because you know he was my child.” (265 n. 632)

At age 18 he went to Cambridge, “where one of his fellow students later remembered that Oates and the plague came to the university in the same year” (ibid.). Soon after he became a curate; there he accused one man of sedition and treason and the man’s son of sodomy (both were enemies of his father). These claims were revealed as perjury, and he left to become a chaplain in the navy before being dismissed for accusations of sodomy on the ship. After more failures to succeed in any priestly or educational capacity, he returned to London and took up again with Tonge. Then he spent the next three years (1678-81) using his general mandate mostly to punish his enemies: “[t]he very breath of him was pestilential, and, if it brought not imprisonment, or death, over such on whom it fell, it surely poisoned reputation” (268 n. 664-671).

Eventually, in 1681, his powers were revoked, and in 1684 the king threw him in the Tower of London, were he remained until 1688 when William released him. He died in 1705.

Titus Oates
A chin only a mother could love.

All notes above see:

Dryden, John. The Works of John Dryden Vol. II: Poems 1681-1684. Ed. H. T. Swedenberg, Jr. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. Print.


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