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Chapter 4 • Prophecy Anent that, think again about those freakish eggs, shaped like heads and served up to the royal valets in London.1 Their juxtaposition with the gruesome story of Hall’s execution effects a “tincture” that dyes the minor curiosity with the suggestion of violent death.2 What the real valets (if there were real valets) thought is irrecoverable, but the report implies that a weird portentousness afflicts the characters in Usk’s chronicle as much as it afflicts the chronicle itself: if Usk saw only one of the eggs, he was not present when they were served, but if he saw that one, then a valet carried it away—an untidy operation that bespeaks a sense of their significance. The previous chapter suggested that the conscious artistry of such uncanny moments means that they are not unconscious symptoms; but artistry on an imposing scale is precisely what we might suspect if Adam Usk’s secret is not his secret but history’s: the idea that future events are portentously foreshadowed by present ones implies they are designed. The portent is a unit of enigmatic meaning, extensible into prophecy, and England saw a glut of both in Richard’s and Henry’s reigns.3 Portent is a common, though not an inevitable, component of chronicling; some scholars have incautiously suggested that its occasional appearance tells us about the task historiography expected itself to do; and it has been suggested that Usk’s use of portent and prophecy shows him shouldering this task with relish.4 54 Chapter 4 Such descriptions of Usk do seem likely on their face. He knew some of the most lurid prophecies, and his chronicle, even before it quite gets under way, shows vatic energies barely controlled. At this point it seems haunted not by the past but by the future. On the blank pages between the (C) continuation of the Polychronicon and Usk’s own, there are memoranda that play a florid and unrestrained fantasia on historical and prophetic resonances of Usk’s names. He jumbles quotations from Bible and canon law and satirical verse with keening stridency, and, precisely at the moment he makes prophecy clang together an impossible combination of affects, he creates a true authorial signature from matter in the Merlin prophecies: Behold, throwing away the spade of all wretchedness, how glorious in his virtues becomes Adam. Usk—of this name the prophet Merlin sang, “The River Usk through seven months will seethe, and by its boiling heat the fish will die and serpents will burden the land”—interpreting “serpents” in their good signification, as I take it, according to that gospel passage, “Be wise as serpents.” Of whom does Merlin sing this? I believe it to be the earl of March.5 He goes on to identify Edward III with Merlin’s “boar,” but these opening lines overwhelm all that subsequent detail. There is not just prophetic material here, but a louring prophetic air. The straining Merlinian style usually drops into banality, through unskillful devices too frequently and obviously repeated. Usk revives their capacity for horror by the paradoxical device of taking the most menacing details in bono: by insisting that transparently nasty things—the river afflicted and boiling, the fish massacred, the land heavy with serpents— really mean nice things, he reinvigorates their nastiness, inflicting the scene on readers and then asking them to like it. The details, though drawn from Geoffrey of Monmouth, clearly are chosen to replicate images of the terrifying central section of John’s Apocalypse, when the angel Prophecy 55 casts the fire to earth from the censer and the seven angels sound their trumps; at the second of these, “a great star fell from heaven, burning as it were a torch, and it fell on the third part of the rivers,” so that “the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter” (Rev 8:10-11), when the woman clothed with the sun—who herself has a crucial cameo in Usk6 —is persecuted by “the dragon . . . that old serpent, who is called the devil and Satan” (12:9), and concludes when the “vials of God’s ire” are poured out on the earth, the third vial “upon the rivers and the fountains of waters; and there was made blood,” and the sixth “upon that great river Euphrates; and dried up the water thereof” (16:4, 12). As apocalyptic languages will, this folds...


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