52:  On Being Melancolie

Nero arrkst me why I’ve told no tales of late.

I sayt, “I’m composing sonnets.  I have no time for trifles.”

Nero cleansed his paws, nibbling between his claws most careful.  I guessed he did not know what a sonnet is.  I told him of my sonnet in honour of my friend Smokie.  And of another I have in mind.  A platonick conceit on my soul.

A head and shoulders miniature portrait of a young man in a black doublet with a wide white collar posing with his hand upon his heart.
A miniature of a young man, believed to be Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586). It’s painted in the style of Isaac Oliver, probably after Sidney’s death. © V&A Museum, London.

Nero looked scornful.

“The great Sirrup Sit-Knee, the flower of our age,” sayt I, “is famed for his sonnets.”

“Be he a man or a cat?”

“A man.  All praise him most high, and strive to emulate him.”

“Then Sit-knee must be gone from this world, and past giving offence to any,” sayt Nero.

“True,” I sayt.  “He died heroick.  The Earl of Essicks [Essex] has his sword.  And his wife, to the great annoyance of Her Majestie.”

We sat a while in silence.

Then Nero sayt, “Your sister says we see little of you because it makes you mopish to think of other poets running after our Earl.  She says it was ever in your nature to be dumpish.”

My sister should learn to hold her tongue.  You would think she had kits enough to keep her busy.  But no, she must spread lies abroad.

I sayt, “Friend, we poets are never mopish or dumpish.  That’s for the common sort.  We are melancolie.”

“Melancolie?” arrkst he, liking the word.

“We long for what we cannot have.  Our loves are unrequited.”

“I long for plump oysters when there’s none to be had,” sayt Nero.

“Then,” sayt I, “think on your oysters and follow me to yonder eglantine.”

White climbing rose

Nero sayt, “I call that a rose.”

A miniature portrait of a young man dressed in black and white, the colours of Elizabeth I. He is standing among white roses with his hand on his heart.
Looking melancolie: a young man, believed to be Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, by Nicholas Hilliard c1587.  © V&A Museum, London.

I sayt, “Eglantine signifies Her Majestie.  All feign to love her. Now we must lay our paws upon our hearts to signify that we are of a poetick disposition, and love-sick.  That makes us melancolie.”

I showed him what I meant by that.

But we cats are not so made that we can put our paws upon our hearts without we lie on our backs.

And when we lie on our backs, our friends think we are inviting them to fight us in play.

Nero leapt on me.  I kicked him off, and told him it was his turn to seem melancolie.

He did it well.

“You have,” sayt I, “the blackest face of woe I ever saw.”  And I leapt on him.

Looking melancolie: the Earl of Southampton in his late teens. Attributed to John de Critz the Elder. (Via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)


A painting of a dappled blue and white cat lying on its back with its paw on its heart.
Looking melancolie: not so straightforward for the Earl of Southampton’s cat.

Then what did we see but the Mad Cat peeking at us over a little wall.  He was standing on his back legs, which he is most apt to do.  He holds his paws at his sides, for balance.

I arrkst him if he could place a paw upon his heart without falling down.

“And think,” sayt Nero, “of your mistress eating an egg, and not offering you a morsel.”

I sayt, “There is nowt more poetickal than a cruel mistress.”

“My good mistress never would be cruel,” sayt he.  “She will call me to my supper soon.”

But our melancolie looks had joyed him, and he came to sit with us beneath the roses.

Editor's Note. Small image of a quill pen.Sir Philip Sidney – Gib’s Sirrup Sit-Knee – (1564-1586) was regarded by his contemporaries as the perfect Renaissance courtier: a soldier, scholar, author, and patron of the arts.

As a writer, he’s best remembered now for his influential sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, and for his essay The Defence of Poesie on the value of imaginative writing.

He died of gangrene as the result of a leg wound received at the battle of Zutphen (in the Netherlands) where he was fighting for the Dutch Protestant cause against the Spanish.  He was married to Frances, the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham; in 1590 she married Queen Elizabeth’s young favourite the Earl of Essex (1565-1601), who’d also distinguished himself at Zutphen.  I think the Earl of Essex and the Earl of Southampton regarded Sir Philip Sidney as what we would call their role model.