Friday, January 30, 2015

Lethargy blamed for death of Daniel Defoe at age 70

Most people know Daniel Defoe’s name as the author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders. But his novels were only a small part of Defoe’s hectic life, which ended in a fatal lethargy. Defoe, whose real name was Foe, added the “De” to sound more aristocratic. He was born in the parish of St. Giles Cripplegate in London sometime between 1659 and 1662 to a family of Presbyterian Dissenters, and his father was a candle-maker and butcher. In his early chidhood Daniel lived through both the Great Plague and the Great Fire. He attended schools run by Dissenters, who were constantly hassled by the government, which wanted everyone to worship in the official Church of England.


Defoe became a merchant, dealing in hosiery, woolen goods, and wine, among other things, and he acquired enough wealth to settle in a country estate. He also raised civets, valuable for making perfume. He married Mary Tuffley, a London merchant’s daughter, who brought with her a dowry valued at what would be $500,000 today. His marriage survived for fifty years and produced six surviving children.

Despite his initial success, and his wife’s fortune, Defoe was not a prudent businessman—some said his dealings were often shady—and he soon was wallowing in debt. He also involved himself in political causes, usually on the anti-government side, was in constant hot water with authorities, and landed in prison five times. When William and Mary took the throne in 1688, Defoe became a trusted adviser and propagandist for them, and he worked as a spy on the Continent and in Scotland. 

All the while he was writing novels, political and religious tracts, satires, and works on the occult—some 400 titles in all, under 200 pseudonyms, including such fanciful names as Sir Malcontent Chagrin, Jeremiah Dry-Boots, Count Kidney Face, Lionel Lye-Alone, and Sir Fopling Tittle-Tattle. Notable among his novels is his epic Journal of the Plague Year, in which he recreates with grisly details the horrors of the disease that killed 70,000 people in London. 

The Journal provides insight into Defoe’s almost masochistic fascination with death. “In the plague pits,” he wrote,  “there were 16 or 17 bodies, some were wrapt up in Linen Sheets, some in Rugs, some little other than naked…but the Matter was not much to them, or the Indecency much to anyone else, seeing they were all dead, and were to be huddled together in the Common Grave of Mankind, as we may call it, for here was no Difference made, but Poor and Rich went together.”

In April of 1731 Defoe was hiding from creditors, living in a seedy boarding house in Ropemakers Alley, a rundown section of Cripplegate near where he was born. He came down with a flu-like illness and died sometime on the night of April 24-25 at the age of seventy. 

The doctor who attended him ascribed his death to lethargy.
Lethargy, though commonly thought of as mere lack of energy, is in fact a pathological condition of deep unresponsiveness that can be accompanied by anemia, iron deficiency, insomnia, apnea, narcolepsy, allergies, dry skin, constipation, dizziness, chest pain, blurred vision, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, and disorders of the heart, lungs, or thyroid. Defoe blamed lethargy for the death of a character in Moll Flanders. Some people thought it more likely that Defoe had died either of a stroke in his sleep or of typhus acquired during a prison stay.

He was buried at Tindall’s Burying-Ground, now Bunhill Fields, in north London, under the name “Mr. Dubow,” erroneously inscribed by the cemetery clerk.

Friday, January 23, 2015

First Poet Laureate John Dryden, 68, Felled By A Gangrenous Leg

Waspish wit, playwright of acclaimed comedies and tragedies, deft translator of the classics, and England’s first Poet Laureate, versatile John Dryden also knew how to straddle the changing political and religious currents of seventeenth-century Britain. Born August 9, 1631, in Northamptonshire, in Oldwinkle near Thrapston, as the eldest of fourteen children, he grew up in Titchmarsh in a family of strong Puritan beliefs. He was sent to Westminster School, where the prevailing religion was high-church Anglican. Dryden easily adapted to its ceremonial style before going on to Trinity College Cambridge, where he was once again enveloped in austere Puritan sentiments.

After a rigorous education in classics, mathematics, and rhetoric, he graduated at the top of his class in 1654 and went to London. In addition to embarking on a career as a poet, he found work as a secretary and translator in the anti-royalist Puritan Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, along with fellow poets John Milton and Andrew Marvell. When Cromwell died in 1658, Dryden wrote an ode in tribute and marched in the funeral procession.

When the monarchy was restored in 1660, Dryden had no problem in switching his allegiance to King Charles II, and even wrote several glowing poems about the restoration. By 1662 he was well enough known as a writer to be elected to the Royal Society (although he was soon dropped for non-payment of dues), and in 1668 he was named Poet Laureate.

In 1685 the Catholic King James II ascended the throne, and Dryden, with chameleon-like alacrity, became a member of the church of Rome. He celebrated his conversion with a long poem called The Hind and the Panther, in which the Church of England was depicted as a panther and the Roman Catholic Church as a hind (the female of the red deer):

            A milk-white Hind, immortal and unchanged

            Fed on the lawns, and in the forest ranged;

            Without unspotted, innocent within,

            She feared no danger for she knew no sin.

Dryden clung to this faith even after James was deposed and the Protestant William and Mary became monarchs. Even though his Catholicism now deprived him of many of the perquisites he previously enjoyed—including his laureateship—he remained an apparently devout believer for the rest of his days. One of his biographers, however, noting the worldliness of most of Dryden’s literary output, maintained “that though religion was an interesting topic of discussion to him, he had very little of its spirit in his heart.”

In 1663 Dryden married Elizabeth Howard, member of a noted royalist family, with whom he had three sons. The marriage must have had more downs than ups, because Dryden penned this epitaph for his wife (although she outlived him by fourteen years and died a lunatic):

            Here lies my wife: here let her lie!

            Now she's at rest, and so am I.

The first English author to earn his living from writing, Dryden turned out copious comedies, tragedies, poems, and translations. A pioneer in Restoration drama after 1660, he enjoyed his greatest theatrical acclaim with the tragedy All for Love, a version of the story of Antony and Cleopatra. Among his many other plays were The Wild Gallant, The Indian Emperour, The Conquest of Granada, Marriage à la Mode, Don Sebastian, Amphytrion,  and Arung-Zebe.  Dryden also found success with his satires Mac Flecknoe, The Medal, and Absalom and Achitophel; his heroic poetry commemorating historic events; his translations of Homer, Virgil, Plutarch, Ovid and Boccaccio; and modernized adaptations of Chaucer’s poems.

Long afflicted by gout, Dryden suffered a related attack of erysipelas in his legs in December of 1699. An acute skin infection also known as cellulitis, this ailment was not treated and it grew into a fatal gangrene. The Rev. John Mitford, in his 1847 biography of Dryden, described his last days:

                        He had been for some years harassed by attacks of gravel [a urinary infection] 
     and gout. In December, 1699, the erysipelas appeared in his legs.  In the April following, 
     in consequence of neglecting an inflammation of his feet, a mortification ensued, of 
     which he died after a short illness at three o’clock on Wednesday, the 1st of May, 1700, at 
     his house in Gerard Street.  He behaved during his last moments with composure and  
     resignation to the Divine will.  He expressed, at his advanced period of life, no anxious 
     wish to have existence prolonged; he took a tender and affectionate farewell of his 
     afflicted friends; and he died in the profession of the Roman Catholic faith.

Dryden was sixty-eight. He was buried in the yard of the College of Physicians, but after a few days was disinterred and placed in Westminster Abbey, in Poets’ Corner next to the tomb of Chaucer. No monument marked his grave until 1720, when one was erected by the Duke of Buckingham, John Sheffield.

Friday, January 16, 2015

François Rabelais, Monk With a Dirty Mind, Died Seeking “The Great Perhaps”

A monk with a dirty mind, François Rabelais started his clerical life as a Franciscan friar, later became a Benedictine scholar of Greek, Latin, and philology, and finally quit monasticism to become a physician.

His lasting achievement, however, is the bawdy and satirical Gargantua and Pantagruel, a mock-heroic tale of the fantastic adventures of two giants. It is filled with satirical jabs at religion and social propriety, scatological jokes, and sexual innuendoes, and it was widely regarded as obscene and heretical--giving rise to the adjective Rabelaisian. Rabelais prudently thought it was a good idea to publish it initially under a pseudonym—Alcofribas Nasier—an anagram of his real name.

Rabelais was born around 1490 (nobody bothered to record exactly when) near Chinon in western France. His father was a vintner and innkeeper, inspiring young François with his lifelong appreciation of the restorative properties of wine. “There are more old drunkards than old physicians,” he wrote.

Unmarried, he led a nomadic existence, moving among several academic and medical jobs in Montpellier, Lyon, Metz, Turin, Rome, and Paris.  In Lyon (and possibly elsewhere) he fathered two children in an affair with a widow (whose name nobody bothered to record).

Skirting the edge of heresy with his scandalous writings, Rabelais was protected from ecclesiastical censure by several high-ranking church officials who were his longtime friends. He offended not only Catholics but also Protestants and was roundly denounced by John Calvin. Although there is no reason to think that Rabelais did not remain a faithful Roman Catholic, it is clear that his views were deeply influenced by humanism and skepticism.

Rabelais died in Paris on April 9, 1553, in his mid-sixties, probably of a heart-related ailment. His will flippantly stated, “I have nothing and I owe a lot—the rest I leave to the poor.” Irreverent until the end, his last words reportedly were “Draw the curtain, the farce is played out.” Then, with his typical doubt-tinged faith in an afterlife, he added, “I go to seek the Great Perhaps.”

Friday, January 9, 2015

Tragedian Seneca, 69, Suspect in Anti-Nero Plot, Committed 3-Way Suicide

Adviser to the notorious Roman Emperor Nero, author of many influential tragic plays, frequent commentator on the meaning of death, and a suspected conspirator in a plot to assassinate Nero, Seneca ended his own life in a three-part suicide: slitting his wrists, then swallowing poison, and finally suffocating in a hot steam bath. 

He was born in 4 B.C. in Córdoba on the Iberian peninsula to a wealthy rhetorician known as Seneca the Elder and his wife, Helvia. A sickly child, young Seneca was sent to Rome, where studied rhetoric and Stoic philosophy and was looked after by his aunt (whose name is not known). The two of them lived for fifteen years in Egypt, and in 31 A.D. returned to Rome, where Seneca was elected a magistrate.

The Senecas, both father and son, had trouble with the Emperors.  The Elder got into a dispute with Caligula, who spared his life only because he was so old.  When Claudius succeeded Caligula, he banished Seneca the Younger to Corsica for having an affair with Caligula’s sister, Julia Livilla. In exile, Seneca wrote his Consolationes, consoling a friend on the loss of her son. Death, and how to prepare for it, occupied much of Seneca’s works throughout his career.

By 49 A.D. Seneca was back in good graces with the royal family, and Caligula’s sister, Agrippina the Younger, who was Claudius’ fourth wife, invited him to Rome to tutor her 12-year-old son, Nero.  When Claudius died in 54 A.D.—probably poisoned by his wife—the ambitious Agrippina finagled the imperial succession for Nero instead of Claudius’ older son, Britannicus, and Seneca became the young Emperor’s adviser.  Agrippina turned against her son and began urging Britannicus to depose him. Nero had Britannicus poisoned and then, with the complicity of Seneca, he engineered the murder of his mother. According to the historian Tacitus, Seneca then wrote a glowing defense of Nero’s actions to present to the Senate.

Although a Stoic who believed contentment was achieved by a simple, unassuming life, Seneca did not shy from palace intrigue, and he became enormously wealthy by currying favor with the Emperor and by masterminding a scheme in which money was lent on extortionate terms to the aristocracy in the Roman province of Britain.

Seneca’s notable plays, which had great influence on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama in England and on the works of Corneille and Racine in France, included such tragedies based on Greek mythology as Herculess Furens (The Madness of Hercules), Troades (The Trojan Women), The Phoenician Women, Phaedra, Thyestes, Agamemnon, Oedipus, and Medea. British revenge tragedies, beginning with Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and culminating in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, owe their inspiration to Seneca.

Seneca’s views on death are embodied in his many essays and epistles, with such titles as “On the Shortness of Life,” “On the Terrors of Death,” “On Despising Death,” and “On Old Age.” In them he expresses such Stoic views as:
            Life is long enough, and it has been given in 
     sufficiently generous measure to allow us to accomplish 
     great things if we use our time well.

            If you are angry with your slave, or your master, or 
     your patron, or your employee, just wait a little while. 
     Death will come, and that will make you all equals.

            Since wailing cannot recall the dead, and sadness 
     cannot alter fate, and death, once it comes, is permanent, 
     our grief is futile and should cease. 

            The wise man does not hasten his death, but when it 
     comes he should make a graceful exit.

Alas, Seneca’s exit was none too graceful. In 65 A.D. a Roman statesman named Piso hatched a plot for Nero’s assassination. At least forty senators and other officials were conspirators, and although Seneca was not directly involved, Nero suspected him along with the others—and ordered him and his wife Pompeia Paulina to commit suicide.  The usual way was to slit one’s wrists, and both of them did so. Nero ordered Pompeia spared and her wounds were bound up. As for Seneca, his blood coagulated and wouldn’t flow. He then took poison, which was also ineffective. Finally, in desperation, he drew a hot bath in hopes that it would encourage the flow of his blood. Instead, at last achieving success in doing away with himself, he suffocated in the steam from the bath. He was sixty-nine.

During the Middle Ages, Seneca’s writings were very popular because of the views he expressed in his essays “On Anger” and “On Clemency,” which echoed the teachings of Christ.  Some overly enthusiastic Christians even insisted that he had been converted by Saint Paul and that his final bath was an attempt to baptize himself.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Comic Playwright Menander, 50, Drowned Near His Luxury Villa at Piraeus

It must be a terrible feeling to know that you had written more than a hundred smash-hit plays and some idiot lost all but one of them.  That was the unlucky legacy of Menander, the Greek dramatist who specialized in “New Comedy”—emphasizing situation and behavior, as opposed to the political satire and broad sexual and scatological humor of “Old Comedy.”

Although he was a prolific author who might be regarded as the Neil Simon of Athenian theatre, during the Middle Ages the manuscripts of almost all his plays were lost, destroyed, or hidden away so well that no one has ever found them.  What remains of Menander’s work is one full-length play called The Old Grouch, a little more than half of five others, and mere fragments of the rest of his output.

The son of wealthy parents, Menander was born in a suburb of Athens around 341 B.C.  After his schooling in Athens with one of Aristotle’s pupils, he began to write plays, which were produced throughout Greece. An admirer of Euripides, he emulated him by featuring the lives of everyday people in his plays, turning daily incidents like marital jealousy and unrequited love into comic, rather than tragic, situations. Menander probably also shared Euripides’ humanist views and regarded death as the inevitable and natural end of individual existence.

Menander is responsible for coining many popular phrases, such as “Only the good die young,” “The die is cast,” and “Evil company corrupts good character”—a maxim that is quoted by St. Paul in Corinthians I.

Menander’s pre-eminence in Athenian theatre was regularly challenged by rival playwright Philemon, who often bested Menander in competitions—allegedly through bribery and political favoritism rather than the quality of his plays. Despite this competition, Menander enjoyed great success and wealth, and lived luxuriously in a villa in Athens’ seaport, Piraeus.

 It was his proximity to the sea that cost Menander his life. One day in 291 B.C., he was swimming in the harbor near his home and drowned. Whether he suffered a sudden seizure such as a heart attack or stroke, or was merely overcome by the water’s currents, will never be known.