Botany’s Poets Laureate

The tea flower came to symbolize a Poet

I wager not many botanists have heard of Nahum Tate (Britain’s poet laureate from 1692 into 1715), Abraham Cowley, or Girolamo Fracastoro. Tate (formerly spelled Teate) was inimitably neoclassical and romantically optimistic, part of his notoriety resting on rewrites of King Lear, Othello, and Hamlet so as to have happier endings. But beyond recasting Shakespeare, Tate returned time and again to regaling us with plant related couplets.

Much of his early industry was given to creating English translations of Latin poetry. Early on, in 1686, Tate cut his teeth in translating Fracastoro’s pastoral poem on Syphilis (1530), which gives long-winded praise to Guaiacum, the “holy wood” that came into popularity as a putative treatment for syphilis, the “French Disease.” Following extended praise of many plants, the poem turns full force in dedicating pages of verse to the precious “holy wood”, the guaiacum. (See extracts at the end of this report. See also Thomas Nashe, 1599 in the Chronicle menu, TimeLine)

Just three years later, Tate compiled an English translation of Abraham Cowley’s six books on plants. plants… The beginning of Book IV is both cheerful and pastoral:

HAPPY the Man whom from Ambition freed
A little Field and little Garden feed.
The Field do's frugal Natures Wants supply,  
The Garden furnishes for Luxury.  
What further specious Clogs of Life remain,  
He leaves for Fools to seek, and Knaves to gain. 

Freeing himself from translation, in 1700 Tate composed his own poem in praise of a plant, his well-known Panacea, a Poem on Tea in Two Cantos  (HNT 18503). 

Tate’s preface tells us:  “The Tale in the First Canto of this Poem, was taken (as Romantic as it may seem) from the Chinese History, and, with Very modest Fiction, accommodated to my Subject; to make the Discovery and production of the TEA-TREE more wonderful and surprizing. Which, being in itself of most admirable Virtues, and certainly One of the greatest Blessings of Nature, 1 may as well suppose it to have been Miraculously Produc’d, as Fracastorius his West-Indian Tree, which his Poem tells us was Deûm manibus Sata, Semine Sacro,   In the final elements of this preface, Nahum claims the Tea Tree is as marvelous as Fracastoro’s Guaiacum (which is discussed in the Chronicle TimeLine entry for 1530.)  Nahum’s verse moves ahead to claim: 

Tip Tea sustains, Tea only can inspire
The Poet’s Flame, that feeds the Hero’s Fire. 

The two cantos are followed by a shorter poem, “The Tea-Table”, which begins: 

Hail Queen of Plants, Pride of Elysian Bow’rs ! 
How shall we speak thy complicated Pow'rs ? 
Thou Wond’rous Panacea, to asswage 
The Calentures of Youth’s fermenting Rage, 
And Animate the freezing Veins of Age.

Note the curious connection between the word Tea and Tate’s surname at birth, Teate (tea sustains, tea only can inspire….) I cannot believe the association escaped Tate, whose minister father was a supporter of Cromwell. In his own mind, tea may have become a crest and emblem.

As promised, the lines below are from Tate’s translation of Fracastoro….

SYPHILIS: OR, A POETICAL HISTORY OF THE French Disease. Written In Latin by FRACASTORIVS. And now Attempted in English by N. TATE. 1686;view=fulltext

Lines from Tates translation spell out Fracastoro’s recounting of the myths and mysteries surrounding Guaiacum. Called Lignum Vitae, the tree was renowned for it dense, strong wood, so strong as to dull the saw and repel the axe. Legends state collectors resorted to blowing trees apart with gunpowder, since the active ingredient was to be steeped from the wood:

My weaker Muse shall think her Office done,
Of all these wonders to record but one:
One single Plant which these glad Lands produce
To specifie and shew it's sov'reign Use,
By what adventures found, and wafted o'er
From unknown Worlds to Europe's wondring shore.
Far Westward hence where th'Ocean seems to boil
Beneath fierce Cancer, lies a spacious Isle,
Descry'd by Spaniards roving on the Main,
And justly honour'd with the Name of Spain.
Fertile in Gold but far more blest to be,
The Garden of this consecrated Tree:

Its Trunk erect, but on his Top is seen,
A spreading Grove with Branches ever Green;
Upon his Boughs a little Nut is found,
But poignant and with Leaves encompass'd round;
The stubborn Substance toothless makes the Saw,
And scarcely from the Axe receives a flaw;
Dissected, various Colours meet your view,
The outward Bark is of the Laurel hue;
The next like Box, the parts more inwards set,
Of dusky grain but not so dark as Jet;
If to these mixtures you will add the Red,
All colours of the gaudy Bow are spread.
This Plant the Natives conscious of its use
Adore, and with religious Care produce;
On ev'ry Hill, in ev'ry Vale 'tis found,
And held the greatest Blessing of the ground
Against this Pest that always Rages there,
From Skies infected and polluted Air:
The outward Bark as useless they refuse,
But with their utmost force the Timber bruise,
Or break in Splinters, which they steep a while
In fountains, and when soak'd, in Vessels boil,
Regardless how too fierce a fire may make
The juice run o'er, whose healing Froth they take,
With which they Bath their Limbs where Pustles breed,
And heal the Breaches where dire Ulcers feed.
Half boil'd away the Remnant they retain,
And adding Hony boil the Chips again:
To use no other Liquor when they Dine,
Their Countries Law, and greater Priest enjoyn:
The first Decoction with the rising Light
They drink, and once again at fall of Night;
This course they strictly hold when once begun,
Till Cynthia has her monthly Progress run,
Hous'd all the while where no offensive Wind,
Nor the least breath of Air can entrance find.
But who will yield us credit to proceed,
And tell how wondrous slenderly they Feed;
Just so much Food as can bare Life preserve,
And to its joint connect each feeble Nerve:
Yet let not this strange Abstinence deter,
And make you think the Method too severe.
This Drink it self will wasted Strength repair,
For Nectar and Ambrosia too are there;
All offices of Nature it maintains,
The Heart refreshes, and recruits the Veins.
When the Draught 's tane, for two hours and no more
The Patient on his Couch is cover'd o'er;
For by this means the Liquor with more ease,
Expells in streams of Sweat the foul Disease.
All Parts (O prodigy!) grow sound within,
Nor any Filth remains upon the Skin;
Fresh youth in ev'ry Limb, fresh vigour's found,
And now the Moon has run her monthly Round.
Page  62What God did first the wondrous use display,
Of this blest Plant, what chance did first convey
Our European Fleet to that rich shore,
That for their Toil so rich a Traffique bore,
All languish'd with the same obscene Disease,
And years, not Strength distinguisht the Degrees;
Dire flames upon their Vitals fed within,
While Sores and crusted Filth prophan'd their Skin.
At last the Priest in snowy Robes array'd,
The Boughs of healing Guiacum display'd,
Which (dipt in living Streams) he shook around
To purge, for holy Rites the tainted Ground.
Hail heav'n-born Plant whose Rival ne'er was seen,
Whose Virtues like thy Leaves are ever green;
Hope of Mankind and Comfort of their Eyes,
Of new discover'd Worlds the richest Prize.
Too happy would Indulgent Gods allow,
Thy Groves in Europe's nobler Clime to grow:
Yet if my Streins have any force, thy Name
Shall flourish here, and Europe sing thy Fame.
If not remoter Lands with Winter bound,
Eternal Snow, nor Libya's scorching Ground;
Yet Latium and Benacus cool Retreats,
Shall thee resound, with Athesis fair Seats.
Too, blest if Bembus live thy Growth to see,
And on the Banks of Tyber gather thee,
If he thy matchless Virtues once rehearse,
And crown thy Praises with eternal Verse.

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