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Farewell, dear finger: much I grieve to see how soon mischance hath made a hand of thee.

February 11, 2010

The seventeenth century was unique in English poetry, as much for its minor as for its major writers. Lyric poets, for the most part anyway, wrote without a view toward the marketplace. And there existed a kind of generally shared idiom, and ease within forms, that hasn’t characterized poetry in English since the Restoration—so far as I’m concerned anyway. I have in mind such poets—lesser lights, most of them—as styled themselves “Sons of Ben” [Jonson], and who produced a body of work as charming in its address, as clean in its diction, as variable in its forms, and as facile and relaxed with a line or a couplet as one might well expect poetry to be. They perfected the Cavalier style. The following poem, by Thomas Randolph, is a splendid little example. The loss of the pinky finger of his left hand in a tavern brawl occasioned it.

As printed in Alastair Fowler's fine anthology of Seventeenth Century Verse (Oxford UP).

Not much more is known about Randolph than can be contained in an entry in the estimable Dictionary of National Biography: From the Earliest Times to 1900, published, since 1917, by the Oxford University Press, or in the introductory matter to W.C. Hazlitt‘s edition of Randolph’s works in 1875; or, again, in the introduction to perhaps the only truly “scholarly” edition of Randolph, done by John Jay Parry for Yale and Oxford jointly in 1917. The Internet Archive reports, as of this writing anyway, that some 284 copies of the digitized version of Hazlitt’s edition have been downloaded, while some 3 have of the Parry edition (one of the latter number being, presumably, the copy I myself downloaded while typing these sentences). The library at Doshisha University in Kyoto, where I work, has the Parry edition. But so far as I can tell it was never checked out until this morning (2/10/2010), when I fetched it up myself from the basement only to find that the pages had yet to be cut; which fact afforded me the bookish pleasure of cutting those pages I wished to see, starting with the table of contents.

You will want to know the particulars as to why and how Randolph lost the little finger about which the poem above is written; and I shall take up its structure and theme in due course. But first a bit about his life, which I gather from the aforementioned DNB.

The pin marks Randolph's birthplace, due south of London.

Randolph was born in Hamsey, near Lewes, in Sussex, England in 1605 (his baptism took place on June 15 of that year). He was something of a prodigy and wrote, at the age of nine, in verse, a “History of the Incarnation of Our Saviour.” He studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, which granted him a master’s degree in 1632. While still at university he paid call at the Devil Tavern in London, where Ben Jonson was known to hold court, and in reply to a challenge that he order his own quart of sack, plead poverty in “an improvised verse,” whereupon Jonson, in affectionate pity, adopted Randolph as one of his “sons.” After 1632, Sidney Lee, author of the entry in the DNB on Randolph from which I draw these details, reports that the poet “indulged with increasing ardour in the dissipations of London literary life,” pointing out that “in two poems he recounted the loss of a finger in an affray which followed a festive meeting.” His friend Thomas Bancroft, we are told, “lamented that ‘he drank too greedily at the Muse’s spring.'” Lee adds that “creditors harassed him, and his health failed. He was attacked by smallpox, and, after staying with his father in 1634 at Little Houghton, Northamptonshire, he paid a visit to his friend William Stafford of Blatherwick.

A sketch of Randolph, as reproduced from a 17th century edition of his works by William Hazlitt in his.

There he died in March 1635, within three months of his thirtieth birthday, and on the 17th he was buried in the vault of the Stafford family, in an aisle adjoining the parish church.” By this time he had authored a play satirizing university life and celebrating tippling, titled “Aristippus.” (From this source, the DNB reports, Milton borrowed, in “”L’Allegro,” the line “blithe, buxom and debonair.”) Randolph’s play “Jealous Lovers” was acted before Charles I and the Queen in 1632, and published the same year, together with prefatory verses written for a number of his friends. Other accounts exist of the “affray” in which Randolph lost his finger, the most charming among them that of William Winstanley in his Lives of the Most Famous English Poets (1687): “His extraordinary indulgence to the too liberal converse with the multitude of his applauders, drew him to such an immoderate way of living, that he was seldom out of Gentlemen’s company, and as it often happens that in drinking high quarrels arise, so there chanced some words to pass betwixt Mr. Randolph and another Gentleman, which grew to be so high, that the Gentleman drawing his Sword, and striking at Mr. Randolph, cut off his little finger, whereupon, in an extemporary humour, he instantly made these verses”—that is, the poem printed above, to the details of which I now turn. One doubts its extemporaneity, but then again such ease as this was simply assumed amongst Randolph’s company. But now the poem. (For reasons that will become clear at the end of this entry, I highlight each enjambed, or run-on, line in red.)

Arithmetic nine digits, and no more,
Admits of: then I still have my store.
For what mischance hath ta’en from my left hand,
It seems did only for a cipher stand.

“Digit,” as Randolph knew, is from the Latin “digitus”: finger. Or, as the O.E.D. has it in sense 1: “One of the five terminal divisions of the hand or foot; a finger or toe. a. In ordinary language, a finger. Now only humorous or affected“—or, I hasten to add, medical, as any man knows who has undergone a “digital” examination of the prostate. “Cipher” of course is, again as the O.E.D. has it, “An arithmetical symbol or character (o) of no value by itself, but which increases or decreases the value of other figures according to its position. When placed after any figure or series of figures in a whole number it increases the value of that figure or series tenfold, and when placed before a figure in decimal fractions, it decreases its value in the same proportion.” It is interesting to note that “cipher” might well mean, as Randolph uses it, “a symbolic character, a hieroglyph,” or, in fact, a kind of enigma. The concept of zero as we know it developed first in India and in the Muslim world, and was imported fully into English only in the 12th century, via Latin translations of Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmīi’s writings on arithmetic. In any case, Randolph has the wit to point out that he has his full share of arithmetic yet: 1-9. He is missing—quite literally—nothing, for in the ancient Latin system of numerals what now we signify as 0 was rendered with the word nulla (i.e., “nothing”). So, yes, Randolph still “has his store.” But having said as much, he turns the “departed joint” first to purposes of wry self-congratulation—which is really just satire of others by indirection—and then into a into a kind of memento mori:

"Vanitas," Philippe de Champaigne (1602–1674), wherein all is reduced to: Life, Death, and Time.

But this I’ll say for thee, departed joint,
Thou wert not given to steal, nor pick, nor point
At any in disgrace, but thou didst go
Untimely to thy death only to show
The other members what they once must do:
Hand, arm, leg, thigh, and must follow too.

“Members” here means what St. Paul uses it to mean in Romans 7:22-24: “For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” The affray that led to the loss of the finger may have been a drunken brawl, but, lo, it only served the better to Christianize and chasten Thomas Randolph, who now shall have always ready at hand his own memento mori. But next, in the third part of the poem—argumentatively speaking—we strike upon the best lines:

Oft didst thou scan my verse, where, if I miss
Henceforth, I will impute the cause to this.
A finger’s loss (I speak it not in sport)
Will make a verse a foot too short.

Here, the wit is peculiar to poetry and to poetics. Into this otherwise perfectly iambic pentameter poem Randolph drops a tetrameter line at precisely the right point: four feet, not five, “Will make a verse a foot too short“—eight syllables, for four metrical “feet,” the only such line in the poem. The poem here does what it speaks of; form and theme come together. “Verse” used to mean simply “line,” though now we seldom use the word in that sense. The poet advises us parenthetically that he “speaks” “not in sport.” But of course he both does and doesn’t. He doesn’t because losing a finger is no laughing matter, but he does because part of the wit here depends on the fact that, in scanning the feet of any given line of verse, we let our fingers do the walking, our “digits”—the things we always count with. So, should the poet come up lacking, mistakenly laying in a tetrameter line where a pentameter line ought to be, well, he knows where to “impute the cause”: to the man whose sword bereaved him of his “little finger,” the one that marks out “five” (as we Westerners count anyway: I notice that in Japan folk begin with the pinky and end with the thumb). And yet the best of all is left to the terminal couplet:

Farewell, dear finger: much I grieve to see
How soon mischance hath made a hand of thee.

Here, Randolph uses an idiom that had largely fallen out of use after the turn of the 18th century, according to sense 45b. of the word “hand” in the O.E.D: “to make a hand of (with): to make away with, make an end of, ‘do for’. Obs. or dial.” The same “mischance” that “hath ta’en” his finger from his hand has “made a hand” of his finger. Randolph, be it remembered, wrote another poem on the loss of his finger, which reads as follows in Parry’s edition, following the old spelling. This time the whole of the poem is in iambic tetrameter, some of which have so-called “weak” or “feminine endings,” falling as they do on unaccented syllables (“dissever,” etc.). In short, Randolph writes in “four-fingered lines,” so to speak, a bit of play the poet could count on his contemporaries, and fellow Sons of Ben, instantly to recognize, and also to enjoy (again, enjambed lines are marked in red):

On the losse of his Finger.


Cover of the 2003 edition published by Doubleday Religion (825 pages).

How much more blest are trees then men,
Their boughes lopt off will grow agen;
But if the steel our limbs dissever,
The joynt once lost is lost for ever.
But fondly I dull fool complain,
Our members shall revive again;
And thou poor finger that art dust
Before the other members, must
Return as soon at heavens command,
And reunited be to th’ hand
As those that are not ashes yet;
Why dost thou then so envious sit,
And malice Oaks that they to fate
Are tenants of a longer date?
Their leafes do more years include
But once expir’d, are nere renew’d.
Therefore dear finger though thou be
Cut from those muscles govern’d thee,
And had thy motion at command,
Yet still as in a margent stand,
To point my thoughts to fix upon
The hope of Resurrection:
And since thou canst no finger be
Be a deaths head to humble me,
Till death doth threat her sting in vain,
And we in heaven shake hands again.

Here, Randolph again takes up the idea that his lost finger shall be, for him, a memento mori (or “death’s head,” as he terms it here). It will always stand in the “margent” or margin of (let’s say) the book of his life to point his thoughts in the right direction: toward the Resurrection. Note that, here, Randolph, at least in fancy, subscribes to the Roman Catholic notion that, on the Judgment Day, our bodies shall be raised from the dead and made whole again to rejoin our souls, at least if we are pious. This may yet have been within the embrace of Anglicanism at that Caroline date, broad church that it was; and may yet be. But in any case, the idea is set down in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Part 1, Section 2, Article 11): “We firmly believe, and hence we hope that, just as Christ is truly risen from the dead and lives for ever, so after death the righteous will live for ever with the risen Christ and he will raise them up on the last day. Our resurrection, like his own, will be the work of the Most Holy Trinity: If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who dwells in you. The term ‘flesh’ refers to man in his state of weakness and mortality. The ‘resurrection of the flesh’ (the literal formulation of the Apostles’ Creed) means not only that the immortal soul will live on after death, but that even our ‘mortal body’ will come to life again.” The scriptural justification for this belief, highlighted in blue in the passage just quoted, lies in Romans 8:11: “But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you” (King James Version). And so, as Randolph says in parting, he will “in heaven shake hands” again with his lost “finger.” The play is in the preposition “with”: he’ll both greet—that is, “shake hands” with—his familiar old “member” again, and thereafter also shake hands using it again, reattached where it once dwelt, “governed” by his own native muscles, each he time he meets a fellow Christian in that “undiscover’d country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns,” as Prince Hamlet has it. This explains why Randolph calls his envious complaint against the oak—namely, that its limbs, once lopped off, grow back again—both “fond and foolish” (a redundancy of sorts: “fond” often meant “foolish” in the 17th century anyway). His “members,” like those of any living tree, “will revive again” when death vainly cuts him down, as indeed it did in 1635. So, even as I write, and as you read, these sentences, somewhere in Heaven, Thomas Randolph sits, counting out his pentameter lines, perfectly, with the full five fingers of his left hand. I wonder whether I will be reunited in the afterlife with the appendix I lost to the knife at age 16, and with the wisdom teeth a dentist so painfully bereaved me of at age 18.

One last thing about the poetry here reviewed. Notice that both are written in rhyming couplets, but that the couplets remain relatively open, in the fashion of Jonson’s in such poems as “Inviting a Friend To Supper.” It was only after the Restoration that the closed couplet (sometimes called the heroic couplet, when the lines are pentameter) came to dominate English verse. The most striking of Randolph’s open couplets are these, from the first of the two poems on the loss of his finger:

But this I’ll say for thee, departed joint,
Thou wert not given to steal, nor pick, nor point
At any in disgrace, but thou didst go
Untimely to thy death only to show
The other members what they once must do…

Here, one “argumentative” or “rhetorical” unit extends beyond the boundary of the couplet over five full lines. Look for this sort of thing in vain, for the most part, in couplets written after John Denham and John Dryden refined the closed (or “heroic”) couplet, and after Alexander Pope perfected it. It wasn’t until John Keats read Homer in George Chapman‘s translation, rather than in Pope’s, that he felt himself fully emancipated from the deft but highly patterned and “closed” Augustan style of the 18th century. Following are some lines from Chapman’s translation of Book One of the Odyssey (1616). I highlight each enjambment in red:


George Chapman, engraved portrait by W. Hole, from the frontispiece to The Whole Works of Homer.

The Cloud-assembler answer’d: “What words fly,
Bold daughter, from thy pale of ivory?
As if I ever could cast from my care
Divine Ulysses, who exceeds so far
All men in wisdom, and so oft hath given
To all th’ Immortals throned in ample heaven
So great and sacred gifts? But his decrees,
That holds the earth in with his nimble knees,
Stand to Ulysses’ longings so extreme,
For taking from the God-foe Polypheme
His only eye; a Cyclop, that excelled
All other Cyclops, with whose burden swell’d
The nymph Thoosa, the divine increase
Of Phorcys’ seed, a great God of the seas
She mix’d with Neptune in his hollow caves,
And bore this Cyclop to that God of waves.
For whose lost eye, th’ Earth-shaker did not kill
Erring Ulysses, but reserves him still
In life for more death. But use we our powers,
And round about us cast these cares of ours,
All to discover how we may prefer
His wished retreat, and Neptune make forbear
His stern eye to him, since no one God can,
In spite of all, prevail, but ‘gainst a man.”

Here is Pope’s 1726 rendition of the same passage in “closed” or “heroic” couplets (again, I highlight enjambments in red):


Alexander Pope, portrait by Michael Dahl ca. 1727. National Portrait Gallery, London.

“Daughter! what words have pass’d thy lips unweigh’d!
(Replied the Thunderer to the martial maid;)
Deem not unjustly by my doom oppress’d,
Of human race the wisest and the best.
Neptune, by prayer repentant rarely won,
Afflicts the chief, to avenge his giant son,
Whose visual orb Ulysses robb’d of light;
Great Polypheme, of more than mortal might?
Him young Thousa bore (the bright increase
Of Phorcys, dreaded in the sounds and seas);
Whom Neptune eyed with bloom of beauty bless’d,
And in his cave the yielding nymph compress’d.
For this the god constrains the Greek to roam,
A hopeless exile from his native home,
From death alone exempt—but cease to mourn;
Let all combine to achieve his wish’d return;
Neptune atoned, his wrath shall now refrain,
Or thwart the synod of the gods in vain.”

In the 24-line passage from Chapman I find 13 strong enjambments, for a ratio of 54%. In the 19-line passage from Pope’s translation I find 1, for a ration of .o5%. The difference registers how much poetry in English changed—at least in one major respect—from the early 17th to the early 18th century. The ratio of enjambed lines to “closed” ones in the 42 lines of poetry quoted here from Randolph is, by my reckoning anyway, 28%, which, as it so happens, is exactly the ratio I find for Jonson’s “Inviting a Friend to Supper” (mentioned above, with a link); which only goes to show how comfortably Randolph took his place among the Sons of Ben.

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