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Of Saints and Serpents

It will come as no surprise that EEBO-TCP is packed with references to Ireland (“Ireland” is included in the titles of nearly 1,400 works, and the word occurs close to 70,000 times in the entire corpus). Some of these are simply references to monarchs who rule over Ireland as well as the rest of Britain.  Many explicitly document the centuries of religious and political conflict between the two countries. Other mentions focus on the landscape, geography, and resources of the island, though these, too, have political implications, as these surveys are typically reports to an English ruler on the details of his property to the west.

The title of one 1657 work hints at its grand aims: Irelands naturall history being a true and ample description of its situation, greatness, shape, and nature, of its hills, woods, heaths, bogs, of its fruitfull parts, and profitable grounds : with the severall ways of manuring and improving the same : with its heads or promontories, harbours, roads, and bays, of its springs and fountains, brooks, rivers, loghs, of its metalls, mineralls, free-stone, marble, sea-coal, turf, and other things that are taken out of the ground : and lastly of the nature and temperature of its air and season, and what diseases it is free from or subject unto : conducing to the advancement of navigation, husbandry, and other profitable arts and professions

The work is addressed to

His Excellency OLIVER CROMWEL, Captain Generall of the Common-wealths Army in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and Chancellor of the University of OXFORD.

and indeed covers such ground as the “Shape and bigness of Ireland,” “Of the Heaths and Moores, or Bogs in Ireland,” (with subsections on wet, grassy, waterie, miry, and hassockie bogs), and “The Irish-sea not so tempestuous as it is bruited to be.

1637 English translation of William Camden’s Britannia features an unusal map of Ireland, oriented with the West at the top–this may simply be a practical attempt to fit the plate on facing pages with maximum detail and minimal waste (some other maps in this work receive the same treatment).

Despite the English fascination with Ireland, though, EEBO-TCP has little to say about St. Patrick, whom we celebrate with green beer and corned beef (in the U.S. anyway!) this Saturday. A handful of apparent hits actually refer to sermons given at St. Patrick’s Church in Dublin. The saint himself is featured alongside Saints George, Denis, James, Anthony, Andrew, and David in Richard Johnsons The famous history of the seven champions of Christendom, but he gets the most individual attention in James Shirley’s 1640 play, St. Patrick for Ireland. The first part. Although a sequel is alluded to in the play’s prologue, no such work is known:

StPatrick whose large story cannot be
Bound in the limits of one Play, if ye
First welcome this, you’ll grace our Poets art,
And give him Courage for a second part.

The play opens with the pagan natives of Ireland brooding on the impending arrival of St. Patrick, which has been foretold in the prophecies of priests and nightmares of King Leogarius:

We saw a pale man coming from the sea,
Attended by a Tribe of reverend men,
At whose approach the Serpents all unchain’d
Themselves, and leaving our imprison’d necks,
Crept into the earth, straight all that were with me,
As I had been the prodigie, forsooke me,
My wife, my children, Lords, my servants all,
And sled to this pale man, who told me, I
Must submit too, humble my selfe to him,
This wither’d peece of man: at which, my-thought,
I felt a trembling shoot through every part,
And with the horror, thus to be depos’d,
I waken’d.

St. Patrick does indeed arrive (along with his guardian angel), but is immediately rejected by the king and his court, to which he replies:

You are inhospitable,
And have more flintie bosomes than the rocks
That bind your shores, and circle your faire Iland

Through a series of miracles, however, St. Patrick manages to avoid the king’s plots to murder him, and one by one wins the others–from a servant to the Queen–to his side. The dramatic driving out of the snakes forms the conclusion of this story:

In vaine is all your malice, Art, and power
Against their lives, whom the great hand of Heaven
Daines to protect; like wolves you undertake
A quarrell with the Moone, and waste your anger:
Nay, all the shafts your wrath directeth hither,
Are shot against a brazen arch, whose vault
Impenetrable, sends the arrowes back,
To print just wounds on your owne guiltie heads.
These serpents, (tame at first and innocent,
Untill mans great revolt from grace releas’d
Their dutie of creation) you have brought,
And arm’d against my life; all these can I
Approach, and without trembling, walk upon;
Play with their stings, which though to me not dangerous,
I could, to your destruction, turne upon
Your selves, and punish with too late repentance.
But you shall live, and what your malice meant,
My ruiue, I will turne to all your safeties,
And you shall witnesse: Hence, you frightfull monsters,
Go hide, and burie your deformed heads
For ever in the sea; from this time be
This Iland free from beasts of venomons natures:
The Shepherd shall not be afraid hereafter,
To trust his eyes with-sleep upon the hils;
The travellers shall haue no suspition,
Or feare, to measure with his wearied limbs
The silent shades; but walk through everie brake,
Without more guard than his owne innocence.
The verie earth and wood shall have this blessing
(Above what other Christian Nations boast)
Although transported where these Serpents live
And multiply, one touch shall soone destroy ’em.

The priest who set the snakes on St. Patrick is swallowed up by the earth. Seeing this, King Leogarius, too, declares his loyalty to St. Patrick, who doubts his sincerity, but doesn’t fear him:

I suspect him stil;
But feare not, our good Angels still are neer us:
Death at the last can but untie our frailty;
‘Twere happy for our holy faith to bleed,
The Blood of Martyrs is the Churches seed.

May your St. Patrick’s Day be green and free of snakes!

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