27 June 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/26

Upon the Loss of His Little Finger

Arithmetic nine digits, and no more,
Admits of, then I still have all my store.
For what mischance hath ta'en from my left hand,
It seems did only for a cipher stand.
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 all must follow too.
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.
Farewell, dear finger: much I grieve to see
How soon mischance hath made a hand of thee.

Thomas Randolph

This witty, macabre poem is from the early sixteenth century, when the clever playing-out of conceits, often with spiritual connotations, was much prized. I assume the mischance Randolph mentions actually happened, causing him to lose a finger and then turn life's lead into poetic gold by writing this epitaph. He begins by punning on digits, meaning numerals but also fingers (digit for numbers comes from the Latin digitus for finger, because people would count on them). He is considering 1 to 9 as the digits allowed by arithmetical rules, and consoling himself that he still has all required digits, despite the loss of one finger, which now must represent zero (the cipher of line 4, and perhaps that word, which can also mean writing in a secret code, suggests why he is teasing out various meanings from his finger's loss, trying to figure out what this strange personal mutilation might mean). Zero, a late joiner to the arithmetical game (reaching Europe in the tenth century, via the Islamic scholars resident in the Iberian peninsula), is not considered quite a regular number here; it is the presence that indicates an absence.

Randolph then eulogizes the moral worth of his lost finger: it did not steal, nor pick (pilfer), nor add to the shame of others by pointing out their shame; instead, it demonstrates a useful lesson in impending mortality, reminding the rest of Randolph's body parts of the way of all flesh. In listing the admonished parts, the poet starts with those closest to the finger: the hand, then the arm, and then the parts most like the arm: the leg and thigh, as if each is unconscious of the inevitability of death until reminded by the loss of a part close to or resembling it.

Having considered the arithmetical and moral implications of losing his finger, Randolph moves on to a practical consideration: he used his fingers to count out his five-beat lines (a reminder of the elemental physical nature, the link to the body and dance and especially song, underlying even an elaborate and sophisticated jeu d'esprit like this). Randolph puns on foot meaning a group of syllables making up a metrical unit in poetry as well as the thing you put shoes on: losing his finger might lead to the loss of a (poetic) foot, and indeed the line in which he announced this consequence (Will make a verse a foot too short) is indeed short a foot (that is, it's a four-beat line, contrasted with the five-beat lines in the rest of the poem). This loss is really hitting home for a poet! Despite his playful wit, there is a mournful undercurrent to all his comparisons: the digit that was his finger now stands for zero, the finger's loss is a memento mori incorporated in his body, his poetry will now halt in with missing feet. He concludes with a final farewell to his dear finger, adding one last pun, the effect of which is unfortunately blunted for us because the idiom to make a hand of [something], meaning to make away with or to make an end of [something], fell out of usage a few centuries ago. As with the earlier pun on foot, we now have the lost finger turned into a hand: a synecdochal reminder that the loss of the one finger prefigures the eventual loss of his entire body (and indeed Randolph died young – thirty years old).

This poem is from The New Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse, edited by Alastair Fowler.

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