Monday, 4 September 2017

Psychedelic rhino

So Anne Southwell, the poet, in her commonplace book at the Folger Shakepeare Library, has amongst other things a page and a half of notes from Edward Topsell’s bestiary The historie of foure-footed beastes (1607). What is fun about this is how she distills Topsell’s 750-page book into a few lines. Here, for example, is how she summarises his 2200-word description of the rhinoceros:

Of the Rhinoceros.

The Rhinoceros is of a monstrous shape and of a Beautifill couller for he is yellowe speccled with purple his feet are like an Elaphants so is the shape of his bodie, his eares like a swine his Bodie is all ouer as if he weare in compleat armour, his head is like a horsses and out of his nose there comes a horne which is longe, strong and sharpe with which he fights, his naturall envye is against an Elaphant he is taken only by virgins, and vpon a virgins lapp he will fale asleepe, and so is taken.*

Yellow speckled with purple! Wouldn’t it be worth seeing that? What a shame that Topsell’s version of the famous picture is in black and white: but with the eye of faith you can see the speckles.

Perhaps that’s how she got there from his less exciting statement that ‘his back is distinguished with certaine purple spots vpon a yellow ground’. Topsell also relates – with a little more caution than she does – the story about the virgins, but does not mention that a rhino will fall asleep on a virgin’s lap: a recipe, one might imagine, for squished virgin.

*Folger MS V.b.198 fo. 68r.

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