"Late" Losses and the Temporality of Early Modern Nostalgia
ANZAMEMS (Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies)
Shakespeare in his 73rd Sonnet makes famous reference to “bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” Many critics find here a poignant reference to the dissolution and desolation of the monasteries under Henry VIII. The objection is sometimes made that an event which took place some sixty to seventy years before Shakespeare wrote could hardly be described as “late.” Yet are the losses mourned by nostalgia ever anything but recent? In Sonnet 73 and elsewhere, the adjective “late” introduces a nostalgic temporality capable of collapsing large spans of time between the present and the lost object of desire. The essay explores the temporality of lateness through several examples, and chiefly through that of the tomb of Bishop Grandisson (d. 1369) at Exeter Cathedral. In the early 1590s, the Exeter historian John Hooker recorded that “his tombe was of late pulled up, the ashes scattered abroad, and the bones bestowed no man knoweth where.” Although the date of the tomb’s destruction is unknown, such acts of desecration were rare in the later years of Elizabeth’s reign, and the likelihood is that the tomb was destroyed in the 1530s or 40s, along with many other monuments and ornaments of the cathedral. It seems remarkable, then, that in 1630 Thomas Westcote, another Devon historian, should record that “[Bishop Grandisson] was taken up shrouded in lead, not long since, the lead melted, and the chapel defaced.” Even in 1677, well over a century after the probable date of the tomb’s destruction, Richard Izacke would record in apparent distress that “This Tomb was of late ransack'd by sacrilegious hands, his leaden Coffin (in hope of a prey) taken up, the ashes scattered about, and his bones thrown I know not where.” It is unsurprising that eighteenth-century readers of Izacke’s text should have concluded that the destruction of Grandisson’s tomb must have been perpetrated by “the myrmidons of Oliver Cromwell” during the Civil War, rather than a hundred years earlier during the English Reformation. Of course, such uses of “late” do not always, or even generally, indicate that a writer is genuinely deceived as to the passage of time. Rather, for Hooker and Izacke as much as for Shakespeare, the use of the term is self-consciously paradoxical. Like Hamlet’s assertion to Ophelia that his father “died within these two hours,” the description of a century-old act of iconoclasm as recent is calculated to invite an argument. To retort, with Ophelia, that the span of time is actually rather longer is to fall into the nostalgist’s trap. One can dispute the accuracy of a specific memory, but not the vividness with which an event deserves to be recalled. There is no arguing with nostalgia.
This is the author accepted manuscript. The final version is available from ANZAMEMS via the DOI in this record.
Vol. 33 (2), pp. 97-113