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Smelling to heaven

What do you think about when you are on the sixth kilometer of a ten kilometer run (or, in my case walk-jog), as you try to keep your mind off legs and lungs that are beginning to protest?

For a few years I’ve been taking on the annual mass run in Victora, the Times-Colonist 10K (I love the way the name of the paper archives an attitude that saw colonialism as splendid). At about the fifth kilometer the route takes us along the coastline of the Juan de Fuca Strait, where we are rewarded by a view of the peaks of the Olympic mountains in the US, a scant 20 kilometers away.

But you can’t stop to admire the view. Instead, my mind wandered back to the day before when I picked up my gear – t-shirt, and the clever chip that times me to a hundredth of a second. Sponsors of the race often provide freebies, and this time it was mini-packs of men’s deodorant. I took a couple, of course, just in case there were sniffer dogs in the last kilometer making sure that nobody smelly was allowed to cross the finish line. But as I was making my way along with the thousands of other runners, I started to think about odors in general, and body odors in particular, with my usual tendency to summon up random Shakespearean quotes from the rag-bag of my very approximate memory.

I thought, of course, of Claudius and his rank offence, smelling to heaven (Hamlet TLN 2312), and that astonishing line from Sonnet 94, “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”

Somewhere around Mile 0 (the beginning of the 7821 kilometers of the Trans-Canada Highway), as I started on a gentle downhill stretch, I found myself thinking about the whole question of smells and Early Modern life. We tend, of course, to imagine the period as incredibly smelly. People washing very little, middens beside the houses, chamber pots emptied from second floor windows onto the street, Fleet Ditch as an open sewer running through London. Check out Ben Jonson’s poem on it: “On the Famous Voyage” – the text is available on the site of SewerHistory.org. It’s also worth looking at Andrew McRae’s article “‘On the Famous Voyage’: Ben Jonson and Civic Space.”

I’m sure that if we were somehow teleported back to the middle of Shakespeare’s London we would be assailed by all kinds of smells we would find offensive, but I think it’s important to remember that, like so many things, smell is a function of what we are used to. I’m never comfortable with movies that create a meticulously “medieval” scene with relentlessly muted colours, lots of muddy streets, and so on, because our eyes have been educated to far more vivid wavelengths. Those who lived in the period would have perceived as colorful what we see as pale, because their eyes were accustomed to a more muted palette of colors. The same must have been true of smells.

This is not to say that there were not stinks enough in Shakespeare’s world. Even on Prospero’s well-controlled island they penetrate: Caliban smells like a fish, and later, when Trinculo has been led through the mire by Ariel, he is upset that he smells “all horse-piss, at which [his] nose is in great indignation” (The Tempest, TLN 1984-5). If this were not bad enough, Shakespeare suggests that sin smells ranker even than fish, as my title, adapted from Claudius’s confession, implies. And the righteously indignant Lord Salisbury in King John, finding the body of Arthur beneath the castle’s walls, speaks of the moral stench in what he takes to be a murder:

Away with me, all you whose souls abhor
Th’uncleanly savors of a slaughter-house,
For I am stifled with this smell of sin. (TLN 2116)

(In typically Shakespearean fashion, Salisbury is both right and wrong: King John did intend to murder Arthur, but in fact his death was the result of the young prince’s attempt to escape.)

Not all in Shakespeare’s olfactory imagery is unpleasant, however. There are good smells too, for without them a rose by any other word (or Q1’s “name”) would not smell as sweet. There is the fragrance of herbs and flowers, and, as Bottom/Pyramus reminds us (after suitable prompting from director Quince), the odor of a lover’s breath:

Quin. Speake Pyramus: Thysby stand forth.
Pyra. Thisby the flowers of odious sauours sweete.
Quin. Odours, odorous.
Py. Odours sauours sweete.
So hath thy breath, my dearest Thisby deare.
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, TLN 895-9)

The savors of fresh Pacific air and the odorous fields of almost Wordsworthian daffodils and bluebells at the bottom of Beacon Hill raised my spirits and my energy far more than the freebie deodorant. I got to the finish line without incident, my t-shirt suitably sweat-wet, but irresistably fragrant.

– Michael Best, Coordinating Editor

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