Sunday, March 13, 2011

Parallel - Sustaining Corn

In his Natural History Bacon wrote:

"There be certain cornflowers, which come seldom or never in other places unless they be set, but only amongst corn; as the blue-bottle, a kind of yellow marigold, wild poppy and fumitory...So as it should seem to be the corn that qualifyeth the earth and prepareth it for their growth".

Again, in his Novum Organum:

"If it be said that there is consent and friendship between corn and corncockle or the wild poppy, because these herbs hardly come up except in ploughed fields; it should be said that there is enmity between them, because the poppy and corn-cockle are emitted and generated from the juice of the earth which the corn has left and rejected; so that sowing the ground with corn prepares it for their growth".

Now compare King Lear 4.4.1-6

Cordelia (of her father):
  Alack! 'Tis he: why he was met even now
  As mad as the vex'd sea; singing aloud;
  Crowned with rank fumiter, and furrow weeds,
  With Hardock, hemlocks, nettles, cuckoo-flowers,
  Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow
  In our sustaining corn

Comment: Editors have read "sustaining" as a platitudinous reference to the fact that  corn sustains human life. But that has no relevance in the context; nor in any of his other 35 references to corn does Shake-speare ever preface "corn" with "sustaining" or any similar adjective. There was no need even to mention that the weeds grew among corn since, if he had decked his hair with any weeds, that would equally have been evidence of madness. So why does Shake-Speare put the weeds among corn? The likely answer is that by "sustaining" he meant, as least primarily, that the corn sustains the furrow weeds, as in the Bacon passages. "Our sustaining corn" need not imply "corn which sustains us"; the corn was ours in any event because it was cultivated, not wild. It is true that this effect of corn upon weeds would seem to have no relevance in the context either. But it is just possible that Shake-Speare saw Lear as corn which sustained idle weeds - that is, his two ungrateful daughters. Even if this was not on his mind, it was his wont to make interesting comments on nature, en passant - and corn's role in sustaining the furrow weeds is far more interesting that its sustenance of human life.

Shake-Speare could not have borrowed from Bacon whose two works in question were not published till years later. And Bacon could not have found in the play (first published in 1608) his theory as to why corn sustains furrow weeds.

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