To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Monday, August 23, 2010

Outsider Poems, a Mini-Anthology in Progress (17): Ranter Visions, from Abiezer Coppe, A Fiery Flying Roll (1649)

[with a commentary by John Bloomberg-Rissman on Coppe and the Ranters]

***Behold, behold, behold, I the eternal God, the Lord of Hosts, who am that mighty Leveler, am coming (yea, even at the doors) to level in good earnest, to level to some purpose, to level with a witness, to level the hills with the valleys, and to lay the mountains low.

High mountains! lofty cedars! it’s high time for you to enter into the rocks and to hide you in the dust for fear of the Lord and for the glory of his majesty. For the lofty looks of man shall be humbled and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the Lord ALONE shall be exalted in that day.***

Hills! Mountains! Cedars! Mighty men! Your breath is in your nostrils.

Those that have admired, adored, idolized, magnified, set you up, fought for you, ventured goods and good name, limb and life for you, shall cease from you.

You shall not at all be accounted of (not one of you), ye sturdy oaks who bow not down before eternal Majesty—Universal Love, whose service is perfect freedom, and who hath put down the mighty (remember, remember your forerunner), and who is putting down the mighty from their seats, and exalting them of low degree. ***

And the prime leveling is laying low the mountains and leveling the hills in Man.

The eternal God, the mighty Leveler is coming, yea come, even at the door; and what will you do in that day?***

Mine ears are filled brimful with cries of poor prisoners, Newgate, Ludgate cries (of late) are seldom out of mine ears. Those doleful cries, Bread, bread, bread for the Lord’s sake, pierce mine ears and heart, I can no longer forbear.

Wherefore hie you apace to all prisons in the kingdom.

Bow before those poor, nasty, lousy, ragged wretches, say to them, your humble servants, sirs (without a compliment), we let you go free and serve you, &c.

Do this or (as I live, saith the Lord) thine eyes (at least) shall be bored out, and thou carried captive into a strange land.

***Loose the bonds of wickedness, undo the heavy burdens, let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke. Deal thy bread to the hungry, and bring the poor that are cast out (both of houses and synagogues) to thy house.

Cover the naked: hide not thyself from thine own flesh, from a cripple, a rogue, a beggar, he’s thine own flesh. From a whoremonger, a thief, &c., he’s flesh of thy flesh, and his flesh and whoredom is flesh of thy flesh also, thine own flesh. Thou mayest have ten times more of each within thee than he that acts outwardly in either. Remember, turn not away thine eyes from thine OWN FLESH.

Give over, give over thy midnight mischief.

Let branding with the letter B alone.

Be no longer so horridly, hellishly, impudently, arrogantly wicked as to judge what is sin, what not, what evil and what not, what blasphemy and what not.

For thou and all thy reverend divines, so-called (who divine for tithes, hire, and money, and serve the Lord Jesus Christ for their own bellies), are ignorant of this one thing:

That sin and transgression is finished, it’s a mere riddle that they with all their human learning can never read.

Neither can they understand what pure honor is wrapped up in the king’s motto, Honi soit qui mal y pense. Evil to him that evil thinks.

Some there are who are accounted the offscouring of all things, who are Noble Knights of the Garter. Since which—they could see no evil, think no evil, do no evil, know no evil.

ALL is religion that they speak, and honor that they do.

* * *
A strange yet most true story; under which is couched that Lion whose roaring shall make all the beasts of the field tremble, and all the kingdoms of the earth quake. ***

Follow me, who last Lord’s day, Septem. 30, 1649, met him in open field, a most strange deformed man, clad with patched clouts; who looking wishly on me, mine eye pitied him; and my heart, or the day of the Lord, which burned as an oven in me, set my tongue on flame to speak to him, as followeth:

How now friend, art thou poor?

He answered, yea Master very poor.

Whereupon my bowels trembled within me, and quivering fell upon the worm-eaten chest (my corpse, I mean), that I could not hold a joint still. And my great love within me (who is the great God within that chest or corpse) was burning hot toward him; and made the lock-hole of the chest, to wit the mouth of the corpse, again to open, thus:

Art poor?

Yea, very poor, said he.

Whereupon the strange woman who flattereth with her lips and is subtle of heart said within me,

It’s a poor wretch, give him twopence.

But my EXCELLENCY and MAJESTY (in me) scorned her words, confounded her language, and kicked her out of his presence.

But immediately the WELL-FAVORED HARLOT, whom I carried not upon my horse behind me, but who rose up in me, said:

—It’s a poor wretch, give him sixpence and that’s enough for a squire or knight to give to one poor body.

—Besides (saith the holy Scripturian whore), he’s worse than an infidel that provides not for his own family.

—True love begins at home, &c.

—Thou and thy family are fed as the young ravens, strangely, though thou hast been a constant preacher, yet thou hast abhorred both tithes and hire; and thou knowest not aforehand who will give thee the worth of a penny.

—Have a care of the main chance.

And thus she flattereth with her lips and her words being smoother than oil; and her lips dropping as the honeycomb, I was fired to hasten my hand into my pocket; and, pulling out a shilling, said to the poor wretch,

Give me sixpence, here’s a shilling for thee.

He answered, I cannot, I have never a penny.

Whereupon I said, I would fain have given thee something if thou couldst have changed my money.

Then saith he, God bless you.

Whereupon with much reluctancy, with much love, and with amazement (of the right stamp) I turned my horse head from him, riding away. But a while after I was turned back (being advised by my Demilance) to wish him call for sixpence, which I would leave at the next town at one’s house, which I thought he might know—Sapphira-like, keeping back part.

But (as God judged me) I, as she, was struck down dead.

And behold the plague of God fell into my pocket, and the rust of my silver rose up against me and consumed my flesh as with fire; so that I and my money perished with me.

I being cast into that lake of fire and brimstone.

And all the money I had about me to a penny (though I thought through the instigation of my quondam Mistress to have reserved some, having rode about 8 miles, not eating one mouthful of bread that day, and had drunk but one small draught of drink, and had between 8 and 9 miles more to ride ere I came to my journey’s end; my horse being lame, the ways dirty, it raining all the way, and I not knowing what extraordinary occasion I might have for money). Yet (I say) the rust of my silver did so rise up in judgment against me, and burnt my flesh like fire; and the 5th of James thundered such an alarm in mine ears, that I was fain to cast all I had into the hands of him, whose visage was more marred than any man’s that I ever saw.

This is a true story, most true in the history.

It’s true also in the mystery.

And there are deep ones couched under it, for it’s a shadow of various, glorious (though strange) good things to come.

Well!—to return—after I had thrown my rusty cankered money into the poor wretch’s hands, I rode away from him, being filled with trembling, joy, and amazement, feeling the sparkles of a great glory arising up from under these ashes.
After this, I was made (by that divine power which dwelleth in this Ark or chest) to turn my horse head—whereupon I beheld this poor deformed wretch looking earnestly after me; and upon that, was made to put off my hat, and bow to him seven times, and was (at that strange posture) filled with trembling and amazement, some sparkles of glory arising up also from under this, as also from under these ashes; yet I rode back once more to the poor wretch, saying, Because I am a King I have done this, but you need not tell anyone.

The day’s our own.

This was done on the last LORD’S DAY, Septem. 30 in the year 1649, which is the year of the Lord’s recompenses for Zion, and the day of his Vengeance, the dreadful day of Judgment. But I have done (for the present) with this story, for it is the latter end of the year 1649.


The selection above is taken from a regularized-spelling version of Abiezer Coppe’s [First] Fiery Flying Roll (1649, according to Lady Day Dating; the Thomason Tract copy in the British Library [E.587 (13,14)] is dated January 4, 1650, and Thomason’s dates are very accurate).

Abiezer Coppe is often identified as a Ranter; it is important to remember that Ranter is a term of abuse that was given to certain radical Christians who believed that adherence to the Law was inessential for salvation (aka antinomians). Those who labeled Coppe and others like him Ranters constituted what John Carey describes as ‘authority’. To take at face value what Authority had (and has) to say about the Ranters (most notably Coppe, Laurence Clarkson, Joseph Salmon, Jacob Bauthumley …) would be akin to accepting as unbiased all that was said by Spanish Falangists about the Barcelona anarchists during and after the Spanish Civil War.

The emphasis on “sin” (in which the Ranters did not believe) in the description of them found in The Norton Anthology of English Literature Archive [on-line] could have been written by said Authority: “…extremists, like Abiezer Coppe (1619–1672) and his fellow Ranters, held that the elect, saved by grace and inhabited by God, are perfect, are incapable of sin, and have a religious duty, by sinning freely, frequently and publicly, to demonstrate their sanctity. Drawn largely from the ranks of apprentices, distressed urban artisans, and itinerants of various sorts, Ranters flourished from 1649 to about 1654: some cursed and blasphemed constantly, others drank to excess, smoked strong tobacco in their meetings, ran naked in the streets, and fornicated openly, often, and with multiple mates.”

Authority was right; what else is this spitting in the face of Calvinist proprieties besides apocalyptic antinomian class warfare? Of interest here too – and even more so in the present context – is Ranter language, which supplies the context for Ranter behavior. As The Norton puts it again, “They earned their name, Ranters, by their random, hectic, ‘inspired’ discourse, rooted heavily in the Bible and the experiential; the Ranter prophetic voice attempts to escape from the usual forms and conventions of language.” (The later relation to William Blake might also be noted.)

“‘My great desire (and that wherein I most delight) is to say and see nothing’ [Joseph Salmon, Heights in Depths and Depths in Heights, 1651]. The naming process becomes hollow, void of meaning, and for [Laurence] Clarkson [(1615–1667)], even the imagination, when employed, is nothing compared with the infinite state of knowing God within: To ‘arise into the Letter of the letters’ … is to outstep oneself.’” [Both quoted by Nigel Smith in the introduction to his A Collection of Ranter Writings from the 17th Century (London: Junction Books, 1983)]

Whereas Wittgenstein was forced (by philosophical convention?) to close his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus with “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”, the Ranters refused such silence, and preferred to engage fully with “the breath’s transparent coinages” (Gustaf Sobin).


Ed Baker said...


I was just about to say that

what America needs RIGHT NOW are more Ranters and Ravers
and a coupling Quondam Mistress

damn few of us left!

Marie Marshall said...

It is very interesting to surf in, looking for poetry, and find Coppe's words staring me in the face. When it comes to 17c dissent I prefer the cogent theology of George Fox; but these ringing words of Coppe's remind me that everything was up for grabs during a period in which dissent was louder than it had ever been in England - louder than it is now in Britain - with such religious movements (used loosely) as Ranters and such political movements (again) as Levellers.

I mentioned Fox. It is interesting to note that the Quakers drew many Ranters to them eventually, and became one of the handful of dissenting groups to survive after the mid 17c. They survived not by acquiescing with the powers that be, but by soaking up the persecution quietly and stoically.

I'll be back to this blog.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this, Jerome!

A propos of your interest in Blake, and his connection with antinomianism, have you read E P Thompson's marvellous final book "Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law"?

In it he describes his interview with a Muggletonian the last living representative of 17th century antinomianism. Fascinating!

Unknown said...