For the brief and perhaps best years of my life, when I was mother to a very young child, I found myself most nights in the company of poets, wits, storytellers, moralists, advisors, and pundits-lite who offered their words up to my son and myself for our pleasure, our safety, our welfare, our betterment, and our instruction. I never doubted for a moment that Margaret Wise Brown had written The Runaway Bunny because she foresaw a time when my son might doubt the fierceness of his mother’s love and need the reassurance that it was not only eternal but all-powerful: “If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said the mother, “I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”
And how many other poets and storytellers explained the essentials to us! How to tie a shoe. How to grieve a pet. How to sleep in the dark. How to count to ten. How to stand up for yourself. How to be a friend. How to eat food you fear.
We had a lot of books, and there were a lot of years, a lot of bedtime stories, and then he got a driver’s license and a girlfriend and my library shelves seemed strangely bare of books that had been written with a reader’s well-being in mind. In fact, I realized, I could run my fingers down the length of four bookshelves full of the contemporary poetry I love and not find more than a volume or two that seemed to have been written with a reader in mind at all, let alone that reader’s life.
That’s why I love Thomas Tusser. His thousands of lines of poetry more than prove to us that he was devoted to the art, that his poetic ambitions were great, but you can’t read one of those lines and not know that he has taken up the craft for your sake, that he is writing to tell you something, and that he wants what he’s saying to matter to you, to make your life richer, easier, safer, and in all ways more understandable. True, Tusser is a didactic poet, and although “didactic” may have earned its bad reputation (Poe named didacticism as the worst of the poetic heresies), in the case of Tusser we are reminded that poetry which educates can also be beautiful, meaningful, and fun. When I turn to the Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, after a longish spell spent reading contemporary poets, I am startled to encounter a poet who is writing to me, for me, and who has chosen poetry as a way to communicate — across distance, time, and space — with me (the reader) in his mind.
It’s believed that Thomas Tusser was born around 1524. He died in 1580. He was an educated man who, through a variety of circumstances, found himself spending his life as a farmer. By most accounts, he was not successful at it, but he must have loved it. His long poem on Good Husbandry records a country year in rhyming couplets, and his advice and observations pretty much cover everything from the lending of tools to the castration of roosters, the nature of the afterlife to the ten characteristics (via negation) of the perfect cheese:
Not like Gehazi, dead white, like a leper
Not like Lot’s wife, all salt
Not like Argus, full of eyes
Not like Tom Piper, “hoven and puffed”
Not like Crispin, leathery
Not like Lazarus, poor
Not like Esau, hairy
Not like Mary Magdalene, full of whey or maudlin
Not like the Gentiles, full of maggots
Not like a Bishop, made of burnt milk
In his poetry, Tusser comes across as what he was said by his contemporaries to have been — a thrifty, intelligent, kind man, who wants you to succeed. His work is full of weather-lore, country customs, maxims and proverbs (“Sweet April showers, / Do spring May flowers”), and comforting predictions right alongside dire warnings. The poetry lets us know that he has learned his lessons the hard way, and that he wants to save his readers that trouble if he can.
And although Thomas Tusser doesn’t seem to care much about whether he’s reaching great poetic heights, he often reaches them. Part of this is his musical ear, but the rest might be attributed to the reverence he has for his material, the respect with which he approaches his reader, and, of course, the everyday hallowedness of life and work on the farm. Robert Southey called him a “good, honest, homely, useful old rhymer.” Clearly, that’s what Tusser wanted to be.
What a noble ambition when it is combined with an empathetic spirit! That Tusser’s book was to be found on the mantles of so many farmers in his day speaks to how much Tusser had to say to his peers; and, although both poetic traditions and agricultural ones have changed greatly since his period, what we learn from Tusser today, and from the real relationship, the true communication, he sought to have with his reader — well, what we have to learn from Tusser shames and thrills me with its honest compassion, its urgent desire to be of service, and its plain, sane, sacred ambition to write poetry that will be read, remembered, and understood.