Ben Jonson's Witches' Song

More of my work on Volume 2 of Matthew Gregory Lewis's 1801 anthology, Tales of Wonder. Here is Ben Jonson's wonderful "Witches' Song" from 1609. The witches recite a veritable botanica of plants used in witchcraft, including the mandrake root. I have annotated the entire poem to make clear all of its references to the witch lore of antiquity and of the 1600s. These stage witches were quite believable to Jonson's audiences. The Masque production must have been lavish, calling for a dozen witches to sing out these lines.

The Witches’ Song
     From the Masque of Queens, presented at Whitehall, Feb. 2d, 1609

I have been all day looking after
A raven feeding upon a quarter;1
And, soone as she turn’d her beak to the south,
I snatch’d this morsell out of her mouth.

I have beene gathering wolves haires,
The madd dogges foames, and adders eares;
The spurging2 of a deadman’s eyes:
And all since the evening starre3 did rise.

I last night lay all alone
On the ground, to heare the mandrake4 grone;
And pluck’d him up, though he grew full low:
And, as I had done, the cocke did crow.5

1. Quarter. A piece of an animal’s carcass, or, more suggestively, a piece of a human body that has been drawn and quartered. Each part of a quartered body contains one limb (arm or leg) and whatever else came detached with it.
2. Spurging. Decaying matter foaming up or being exuded.
3. Evening starre. Venus.
4. Mandrake. Mandrake, or “May Apple” has a root resembling a human form. Folklore asserted that mandrakes grew spontaneously under gallows, where the sperm of hanged men supposedly fell into the ground and produced mandrakes.
5. Cocke did crow. Witches’ activities are often interrupted by the rooster’s crow, announcing the coming day. The rising sun dispelled all supernatural activities. Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain are 19thcentury musical works depicting this sudden interruption of witch frenzy by the coming of day.

Mandrake root, from de Bry’s Florilegium Renovatum et Auctum, 1641.

And I ha’ beene chusing out this scull
From charnell houses6 that were full;
From private grots,7 and publike pits;8
And frighted a sexton9 out of his wits.

Under a cradle I did crepe
By day; and, when the childe was a-sleepe
At night, I suck’d the breath;10 and rose,
And pluck’d the nodding nurse by the nose.

I had a dagger: what did I with that?
Killed an infant to have his fat.
A piper it got11 at a church-ale,12
I bade him again blow the wind i’ the taile.13

6. Charnell houses. Buildings or vaults used as a repository of bones. Bodies were routinely removed from European churchyards after twenty years’ interment to make room for more burials; only the rich and powerful were allotted permanent graves. Bones were either piled up in the open air in a bone-yard, or stored in a charnel house or ossuary. Skulls were readily available for pilfering from such places.
7. Private grots. A grotto, cave, or crypt owned by a family and used as a mausoleum.
8. Publike pits. Common graves for paupers, potters’ fields, or mass graves used for hasty burial of victims of epidemics or warfare.
9. Sexton. A church official responsible for buildings and grounds, bell-ringing, and care of the churchyard. A position frequently occupied by an elder, with little by the way of duties and a great temptation for sleep, idleness and drunkenness.
10. Suck’d the breath. Witches were accused of smothering infants, often in the shape of a cat. Cats, atttracted to the smell of milk on babies’ mouths, would occasionally visit an infant’s cradle: hence, cats as witches or witches’ familiars caught the blame for crib deaths. This folk belief still prevails in the Appalachian region of the United States.
11. A piper it got. The witch used the dagger to puncture a bagpipe.
12. Church-ale. In the 16th Century, English churches dispensed ale on key festival days such as Easter, Christmas and Whitsuntide.
13. Wind i’ the taile. Possibly obscene.
A murderer, yonder, was hung in chaines;14
The sunne and the wind had shrunke his veines:
I bit off a sinew; I clipp’d his haire;
I brought off his ragges, that danced i’ the ayre.

The scrich-owles egges and the feathers blacke,
The bloud of the frogge, and the bone in his backe
I have been getting; and made of his skin
A purset, to keep Sir Cranion in.15

And I ha’ beene plucking (plants among)
Hemlock, henbane, adders-tongue, 16
Night-shade, moone-wort, libbards bane; 17
And twise by the dogges was like to be tane. 18

14. Murderer . . . in chaines. The bodies of murderers, traitors and other serious offenders were left exposed to the elements, to be picked over by crows. This gruesome display served as a warning to would-be offenders.
15. Sir Cranion. Probably the witch’s familiar, a demon assuming the form of a small animal.
16. Hemlock, henbane, adders-tongue. Hemlock describes a variety of poisonous plants, the Mediterranean form of which was used to poison Socrates. Henbane is a narcotic and poisonous weed, Hyoscyamus niger, believed to kill poultry. Adder’s tongue is a fern (Ophioglossum) whose structure suggests a snake’s tongue and mouth.
Night-shade, moone-wort, libbards bane. Deadly Nightshade
(Atropa belladonna) is a poisonous and narcotic plant. Moonwort is a small fern whose fronds have a crescent shape, believed to be a treatment for the bite of a mad dog. Libbards-bane, from Leopard’s bane, is a member of the Aconitum family to which wolfsbane also belongs, a source of paralyzing strychnine.
18. Tane. Taken.

I from the jawes of a gardener’s bitch
Did snatch these bones, and then leap’d the ditch:
Yet went I back to the house againe,
Kill’d the blacke cat, and here is the braine.

I went to the toad, breedes under the wall,
I charmed him out, and he came at my call;
I scratch’d out the eyes of the owle before;
I tore the batt’s wing: what would you have more?

Yes: I have brought, to helpe your vows,
Horned poppie, cypresse boughes, 19
The fig-tree wild, that growes on tombes,
And juice that from the larch-tree comes,20
The basiliske’s bloud,21 and the viper’s skin:
And now our orgies let’s begin.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts