The Surprisal of Death (from Nature’s Picture(s))

The next,1 a virgin’s turn a2 tale to tell,
For youth and modesty did fit it well.

A company of virgins young did meet;
Their pastime was to gather flowers sweet.
They3 white straw hats upon their heads did wear,
And falling feathers, which waved with the air,
Fanning their faces like a Zephyrus4 wind,                      5
Shadowing the sun, that strove their eyes to blind.
And in their hands they each a basket held,
Which baskets they with fruits or flowers filled.
But one amongst the rest such beauty had,
That Venus for to change might well be glad5:                10
Her shape exact; her skin was smooth and fair;
Her teeth white, even set; a long curled hair;
Her nature modest; her behavior so,
As when she moved the Graces seemed to go.
Her wit was quick, and pleasing to the ear,                     15
That all who heard her speak straight6 lovers were—
But yet her words such chaste love did create
That all impurity they did abate.
In7 every heart or head, where wild thoughts live,
She did convert, and wise instructions give,                    20
For her discourse such heavenly seeds did sow
That where ’twas8 strewed, there virtues up did grow.
These virgins all were in a garden set,
And each did strive the finest flowers to get.
But this fair lady on a bank did lie                                     25
Of most choice flowers, which did court her eye,
And every one did bend their heads full low,
Bowing their stalks, which from the roots did9 grow.
And when her hands did touch their tender leaves,
Each10 seemed to kiss, and to her fingers cleaves.11      30
But she, as if in nature ’twere a crime,
Was loath to crop their stalks in their full prime,
But with her face close to those flowers lay,
That through her nostrils those sweets might find way—12
Not for to rob them, for her head was full                       35
Of flow’ry fancies, which her wit did pull
And posies made, the world for to present:
More lasting were, and of13 a sweeter scent.
But as she lay upon this pleasant14 bank,
For which those flowers did great Nature thank,           40
Death envious grew they15 such delight did take,
And with his dart a deadly wound did make.
A sudden cold did seize her every limb,
With which her pulse beat slow and eyes grew dim.
Some that sat by observed her pale to be,                        45
But thought it some false light, yet16 went to see.
And when they came, she turned her eyes aside,
Spread forth her arms, then stretched, and sighed, and died.
The frighted virgins ran with panting breath17
To tell the sadder story of her death,                                 50
The whilst the flowers to her rescue bend,18
And all their med’cinable virtues send.
But all in vain: their power’s too weak; each head
Then drooped, seeing19 they could not help the dead.
Their fresher colors did20 no longer stay,                         55
But faded straight and withered all away.
For tears they dropped their leaves, and thought it meet
To strew her with them as her21 winding sheet.
The airy22 choristers hovered above,
And sang23 her last sad funeral song of love.24                60
The Earth grew proud, now having so much honor,
That odoriferous25 corpse lying26 upon her.
When that pure virgin’s stuff dissolved in dew,27
Was the first cause new births of flowers grew,
And added sweets to those it did renew.                           65
The grosser parts the curious soon did take;
Of it transparent porcelain28 they did make.
Her purer dust they keep for to refine
Best poets verse and gild their29 every line.30
And all poetic flames she did inspire,                                70
So her name lives in that eternal fire.

  1. This poem is taken from Margaret Cavendish’s Natures Pictures, drawn by fancies pencil to the life (London, 1656), reprinted with textual changes as Natures Picture (London, 1671). The first part of Nature’s Pictures (a section entitled “Her Excellencies Tales in Verse” in 1656 and “Several Feigned Stories in Verse” in 1671) is made up of several verse stories, told by different storytellers, similar in structure to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This story follows one about a soldier who marries a woman from the opposing camp, and it is followed by “A Mock-Tale of the Lord Marquis of Newcastles” (the title breaking the frame narrative) gives a fairly unsympathetic depiction of very old woman hit by Cupid’s arrow, who marries a young man and then dies during the consummation of her marriage.

    We chose this poem for the website as, being a narrative poem, it shows Cavendish writing in a different mode than she does in Poems and Fancies. It is also interesting as one of the poems marked (in some copies) as being collaboratively written between Margaret Cavendish and her husband William—in one copy, this assertion is written in her own hand (see the note by line 49).

    The plot of the poem is fairly simple: a beautiful woman is out gathering flowers when she is killed suddenly by a personified Death; she dies among the flowers, which try to save her and then mourn her, and then her body is repurposed, turned both into natural fertilizer and precious objects. We were particularly fascinated by the ending (possibly William’s), in which her body is made to serve both the letter and the spirit of poetry: her memory inspires “poetic flames,” and her dissolved body becomes a “purer dust” which poets use to “gild their every line”—likely a reference to the blotting sand, pin dust, or pounce which was used to dry ink and could sometimes leave a sparkly residue on a page (see the note on line 69 for more detail). It was a common trope that beautiful women inspired beautiful poetry in the seventeenth century, but seldom do we see a woman’s body literally figured as the dust that makes a poetic line literally sparkle.

    We invite our readers to ask, as they read: why would Cavendish write a poem focused not on the life of the woman, but on the afterlife of her body and its re-integration into nature? How do the posthuman aspects of and the sentient flowers in this poem connect to those in Cavendish’s “Of Sense and Reason Exercised in their Different Shapes” (on this website)? Does it change our reading of “Surprisal of Death” to know that the latter 23 lines might have been written by William rather than by Margaret? Can we detect changes of style or of purpose as the authorship changes? We also invite our readers to pay attention to changes of verb tense, and the moments where the poem switches from past tense to present, as if the moment of her death freezes time, or brings us to the reader’s present.

    This poem was edited by Liza Blake and Sean Morgado in a modernized best text edition. We compared the EEBO versions of the 1656 and 1671 versions of the text, as well as several copies of the first edition that Cavendish corrected in her own hand, and made a best-text version of the poem. Textual notes show substantive variants across editions, and note any hand corrections; explanatory notes explain vocabulary and other references, and analyze variants. In most cases definitions come from the Oxford English Dictionary Online.

  2. a] her 1671
  3. They] And 1656
  4. i.e., a westerly wind, or more generally a mild or gentle breeze
  5. for to change] i.e., Venus would be willing to change bodies with the “one amongst the rest,” implying that this particular woman is more beautiful even than the notoriously beautiful goddess Venus.
  6. straight] i.e., immediately
  7. In] And 1671
  8. ’twas] she 1671
  9. which from the roots did] from off the Roots they 1656
  10. Each] They 1656
  11. The change to present tense here is likely a result of her desire to have the couplet be a perfect rhyme. Cavendish alters verb tense or conjugation in other poems for the purpose of making more perfect rhymes.
  12. those sweets might find way—] might their sweets convey. 1656. Note that the “sweets” are the aromas of the flowers, not the flowers themselves.
  13. More lasting were, and of] VVith a more lasting and 1671. The 1671 variant offers a different interpretation of the line: whereas in the 1656 edition both the imaginary “posies” and their scent endure, in the 1671 edition it is only the scent that is long-lasting. Because in early modern English “posies” signified both an arrangement of flowers and poetry, the editors decided to preserve the 1656 variant, as Cavendish refers to the ability of poetry to endure in other poems (see, e.g., “To the Reader” where she thinks about how her poetry may build her a “pyramid of praise”).
  14. pleasant] pleased 1656. Note that if one argues that the 1656 edition was not a typographical error but an authentic variant, then the text could indicate that the bank itself is the subject of “pleased,” possibly giving a posthuman alternative to the line’s meaning.
  15. they] she 1671. Note that the 1656 variant “they” indicates that Death is envious of the flowers’ delight in the presence of the beautiful virgin. The 1671 variant suggests it is the beautiful virgin’s delight which engenders Death’s envy. The editors decided the 1656 variant corresponded better with the previous line, which discusses the flowers’ gratitude.
  16. yet] but 1656
  17. A marginal handwritten note next to lines 49–52 in the British Library’s copy of the 1656 Nature’s Pictures (shelfmark G.11599; also the copy uploaded to EEBO) reads: “Thes verses to [th]e end are my [L]ord marquisses.” Notes like these appear throughout the 1656 Nature’s Pictures in certain copies, though not always in the same places or in the same hand, and attribute sections of the text to her husband William Cavendish, then Marquess of Newcastle. The second edition of 1671 does not mark these lines as a product of her husband’s collaboration. These lines also have a marginal note in the following copies that Blake has consulted: British Library, shelfmark 841.m.25 (“from this plac to the end of this chapter my lord writt”—in Margaret Cavendish’s hand); Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library, shelfmark C 1039:4:ex.1 (“[Fr]om this place [to] [th]e end Written [by] my Lord – Marquisse”); and Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library, shelfmark C 1039:4:ex.2 (“[F]rom this place [to] [th]e end of [th]e [c]hapter is my [L]ord Marquis”). On collaborative authorship between Margaret and William in Cavendish’s second volume of plays, see Jeffrey Masten, “Margaret Cavendish: Paper, Performance, ‘Sociable Virginity,’” Modern Language Quarterly 65 (2004), 49–68.
  18. As the flowers bend to the rescue of the virgin, the poem shifts from describing them as merely seeming to have human attributes (see l. 30), to full-blown anthropomorphism.
  19. seeing] when found 1656
  20. did] will 1656. Note that as with the changing verb tenses in the previous lines, this difference has significant ramifications on the poem’s interpretation: the 1671 “did” keeps you in the past tense of the story (and implies that the flowers suddenly wilt), while the future “will” projects to the future of the flowers’ colors. The editors chose “did” to correspond to the lines around it, which consistently use past tense.
  21. her] a 1671
  22. airy] Aëry 1656. The 1671 edition’s spelling of “airy” gives this line a regular (with respect to the rest of the poem) ten syllables; the 1656 edition’s umlaut makes “Aëry” into a three-syllable word. The difference is between a line made up of two iambs and two anapests (the 1671 version: “the A/ry CHOR/is-ters HOV/ered a-BOVE”), and a line made up of an iamb followed by three anapests (the 1656 version: “the A/e-ry CHOR/is-ters HOV/ered a-BOVE”).
  23. sang] sung 1656, 1671. The editors modernized this to the standard past tense form.
  24. It is not entirely clear whether the airy choristers imagined here are angels or birds; given the vaguely secular nature of the rest of the poem, the editors guess birds, though the poem leaves it ambiguous.
  25. The word “odoriferous” in early modern English means sweet-smelling or fragrant. In hagiography or saint’s lives, a saint’s body would often be described as miraculously preserved or good-smelling, so the fact that her body smells pleasant after her death, in tandem with her quasi-saintly life (see the description of how her words could abate “impurity,” and “convert” wild hearts and heads, and “sow” virtues in others, in lines 17–22), perhaps suggests the virgin is meant to be understood as a kind of (secular?) saint.
  26. lying] to lye 1656
  27. Next to lines 63–65 is a curly bracket emphasizing the triplet (three lines rhyming together); early modern printers often marked triplets in this way.
  28. In both editions of the poem the word used is “Purslain,” but the editors have modernized this as “porcelain” because “purslane” (a kind of succulent) made less sense in the context.
  29. gild their] gild 1671
  30. As was mentioned in the introductory note (see the note on line 1), these lines suggest that part of her body is processed into a “dust” that is used to “gild” or decorate poetic lines. This is likely a reference to the early modern practice of using blotting sand, also called pounce or pin dust, to dry ink, which would sometimes leave behind sparkly residue. For an article on pounce in Cavendish’s books, see Liza Blake, “Pounced Corrections in Oxford Copies of Cavendish’s Philosophical and Physical Opinions; or, Margaret Cavendish’s Glitter Pen,” New College Notes 10 (2018), no. 6: 1–11 (you can access the article here: