08 September 2010

The Old, Old, Very Old Man

Fig. 1: "Old Tom Parr," from the National Portrait Gallery, London

My apologies for my long absence. I undertook a complicated yet necessary re-cataloging of the Cabinet that temporarily shut down my Ethernet. But no matter - I am back, with a story for the ages!

As promised, I bring you a full-length edition of the Cabinet on Thomas Parr, who I first tracked down in the antique folio The New Wonderful Museum, etc. The Lives of Great and Celebrated Characters of All Ages and Countries (1860) observed that Parr was "one of the oldest post-diluvians, of whom we have any authentic account." Although no Methuselah or even a Lamech, Parr was reputed to have lived 152 years, from 1483 to 1635, his lifespan allegedly encompassing the reign of ten English kings and queens.* It was royal courtier and decidedly not round-headed Sir Thomas Howard brought Parr to London from his native Shrewsbury, Shropshire (currently home to ex-prime minister patriarch Leo Blair, Sr.!).

Fig. 2: Supercentenarian seeker Sir Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Norfolk, 21st Earl of Arundel, 4th Earl of Surrey, 17th Baron Segrave, 16th Baron Mowbray, and 11th Baron Maltravers (1526? – 1646)

Parr quickly became a celebrity among the London glitterati and had his likeness painted by royal portraitists Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck. He entertained his audiences with tales of how he had not married until he had aged fourscore years. 

Fig. 3: The equally eccentric bard and boatman John "The Water Poet" Taylor composed a lengthy poetic ode to Parr, called "The Old, Old, Very Old Man" with a suitable prose preface.

Here is a favorite extract from Taylor's poem:

So this Old Man, his limbs their strength have left,
His teeth all gone (but one), his sight bereft,
His sinews shrunk, his blood most chill and cold,
Small solace, Imperfections manifold:

Yet still his sprits possess his mortal Trunk;

Nor are his senses in his ruins shrunk,
But that his Hearing's quick, his stomach good,
He'll feed well, sleep well, well digest his food.

He will speak heartily, laugh, and be merry;
Drink Ale, and now and then a cup a Sherry;
Loves Company, and Understanding talk,
And (on both sides held up) will sometimes walk.

And though old Age his face with wrinkles fill,
He hath been handsome, and is comely still,
Well fac'd; and though his Beard not oft corrected,
Yet neat it grows, not like a Beard neglected;

From head to heel, his body hath all over,
A Quick-set, Thick-set nat'ral hairy cover.
And thus (as my dull weak Invention can)
I have Anatomiz'd this poor Old Man.

Fig. 4: Parr reportedly slept 22 hours a day to ration his remaining life-force. Portrait attributed to Rubens, 1635.

Much as in the case of exceptionally old people from the Andes or Caucuses, perhaps the rarefied air of the Clee Hills of Shropshire** was responsible in part for Parr's alleged longevity. Like Pocahontas Rolfe, once in the hellish cesspool of bad air that was seventeenth-century London, Old Tom soon succumbed to illness. Perhaps dropsy, the gripe, consumption, gout, or a POISONED bowl of cherries with milk.

Fig. 7: Parr hanging out with his comely young wife and two dead infant children. From The Book of Wonderful Characters.

On the order of the king, Parr was buried in the illustrious confines of Westminster Abbey, alongside the likes of Newton, Darwin, and Chaucer (but not his beheaded patron, Charles I!). An autopsy was done soon after his death, and modern physicians reckon that, based on the postmortem, Parr likely was only around seventy years old, unfortunately. But three score years and ten was still a pretty respectable age in a time when people died from getting rained on and were pressed to death.

Fig. 5: Parr wearing his patented*** 'Age-Defying Helmet' From The Old Book Collector's Miscellany, 1873.

Despite his highly questionable longevity, Parr's cultural afterlife has been surprisingly vigorous, particularly for a man whose sole claim to fame was his great age. In addition to appearing in such nineteenth-century classic compilations as The New Wonderful Museum and The Lives of Great and Celebrated Characters, a recent film (2006) was made about his life, taking its name from The Water Poet's versified celebration. Also, a scotch whisky, named Old Parr, is named after the venerable geriatic.

Fig. 6: Long-life elixir.

So, in the words of The Water Poet, "I lay down the pen, leaving it to whomsoever can, or will, make more of this old man than I have done." See you next time, same Cabinet time, same Cabinet channel!

* Edward IV, Edward V, Richard III, Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles I, although, in my opinion, the first three shouldn't really count, since their reigns add up to only 2 of the 152 years of Parr's life (1/76th).

** Many well over 1,500 feet!

*** Joke's on you. There weren't patents back then!

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