Thursday 28 April 2016

Charles Cotton

The poet, writer and angler Charles Cotton was born on this day in 1630, in the delightful village of Alstonefield, just over the Derbyshire border in Staffordshire (I've lunched there many times, at The George, with my Derbyshire cousin). Like many Royalist gentlemen in the wake of the Civil War, Cotton sought a quiet life in the country - and he found it in fishing the River Dove with his close friend and writing partner Izaak Walton. Cotton contributed the section on 'how to angle for trout or grayling in a clear stream' to The Compleat Angler, of which later editions also included Cotton's poem The Retirement.
 Otherwise, Cotton was best known in his time for his more or less indecent 'burlesques' of Latin classics, and for his authorship of The Compleat Gamester, a manual of games that was the standard work until Hoyle came along. He also produced a successful (if unreliable) translation of Montaigne's essays, and clearly had a more sensitive side to his nature, responding warmly to the scenery of the Peak District (whose praises he sang in The Wonders of the Peake) and finding, in the valley of the Dove, his paradise on Earth.
 One of Cotton's poems, The Evening Quatrains - with its startling images of an ant as a 'monstrous elephant' and the shafts of an upturned cart as 'the cuckold's crest' - was set to music by Britten as the Pastoral movement of his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. You can enjoy it, arranged for tenor, horn and piano, in this video. I wonder if Cotton's poem, rich in evening imagery (including 'lowing herds'), fed into the creation of Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard...

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