Entry 22: Unhallowed Ground- Comparisons are odious. Why? Hugh Mackay, a prominent Australian social commentator, makes the point, in a newspaper article from 2005, that to argue that only Aborigines have a genuine attachment to sacred sites as opposed to the inauthentic attachment of the Anglo-Celts to their footy grounds, war memorials and suburban plots is rubbish. He argues that a sense of place is essential to everyone’s identity. Uluru is sacred to its custodians and Gallipoli is holy ground for generations of Aussies.
Comparisons are odious is a saying which was in fairly common use at least five centuries ago, and not just in the English speaking world. Cervantes, in Spain, is credited with its use at about the same time as John Donne in England. In his poem The Comparison, Donne presents us with two women: the first is the mistress of the poet, where beads of sweat are compared to pearl carcanets. (Such as the jewelled chokers found enhancing the slender necks of aristocratic and royal ladies of the time) The second is the mistress of another where, instead, Rank sweaty froth thy mistress’ brow defiles,/Like spermatic issue of ripe menstruous boils…
He continues in this vein for more than two dozen lines and concludes; Leave her, and I will leave comparing thus/She and comparisons are odious. This is not a man you would want to cross! But to uncover the origins of the saying, comparisons are odious, we will have to go back almost two hundred years before the Elizabethan Era to John Lydgate of Bury, a contemporary of Chaucer, who wrote a little-known but fascinating exploration of animals and their place in creation; in particular, their relationship to humankind.
The title of this obscure tome? The Debate of the Horse, Goose and Sheep. To the modern urbanised ear, this seems a slightly ridiculous title and so it did to mine until I began to explore it in more depth. I am indebted to Jeremy Withers of Iowa State University who wrote an engrossing commentary on the poem entitled The Ecology of Late Medieval Warfare in Lydgate’s The Debate of the Horse, Goose and Sheep. The subject of the debate is: which of these three animals was of most use to humans? The Horse claims pre-eminence because it is an emblem of chivalry: who cannot but thrill to the image of a knight in shining armour mounted upon a stately steed and advancing under fluttering banners into honourable hand-to-hand combat.
Reality was not so pleasant; war-horses and draft horses were killed in enormous numbers during the Hundred Years War. The Goose advanced its claim by reference to the supply of feathers to furnish the fletchings of the hundreds of thousands of arrows needed in the seemingly unending conflict. The Battle of Agincourt proved in bloody detail the effectiveness of the English and Welsh bowmen against the aristocratic, mounted French knights who thought they would have easy game that day.
The Sheep, whose position was put by a Ram because the former was so meek, counters the military utility of the others by playing the Jesus card (Lamb of God, wouldn’t you know) and claiming that peace is superior to war. The Horse vehemently asserts that wool, as a premier commodity of the time, fuelled the war efforts of various protagonists. The poet, among all the contenting arguments, reveals the very large impact of human society, and particularly, warfare on the bodies of huge numbers of animals in the late Medieval period.
In this fable, a lion and an eagle act as judges and declare each of the animals should be deemed equal. This is not an idealistic, modern-seeming concern with animal rights or welfare but rather an affirmation of the medieval concept of knowing your place and keeping to it. But, to conclude, I will shift the animal metaphor to that of a large herbivorous ape which has a fearsome reputation that is not at all in keeping with its gentle nature and which, alas, is approaching extinction and may live on only figuratively for future generations: the 800-pound gorilla in the room is, as always, Shakespeare.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/ Thou art more lovely and more temperate:/Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,/And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
The sound and sense of Sonnet 18 has, it seems to me, quasi-magical powers. In fourteen lines we have been left one of the most affecting accounts of mortality where the preservation of beauty in the golden amber of verse is effortlessly described in the lines, But thy eternal summer shall not fade… So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. He knew, didn’t he, that his lines would be read and revered long after he and the object of his admiration were dust.