by Godfrey Wordsworth Turner
Does that tropical pastoral tale of Paul and Virginia, the ill-starred lovers of Port Louis, in the Mauritius, whose fate was as tragic as that of any tender pair bewailed by Ovid or Boccaccio, find as much favour with the present generation of youthful readers as it found with their fathers and mothers before them? I think not; I am sure not; still Jacques-Henri-Bernardin de Saint Pierre's sentimental little novel is not, and probably never will be, quite forgotten. He was not a very estimable person, that same Jacques-Henri, it appears. The same may be said, haply, of many authors who have written lines of light, but whose ways have been ways of darkness. Saint Pierre's disposition led him to quarrel with himself, with his friends, with his playmates, with his pastors and masters, with several professions in turn, with more than one European State - in short, with the world and his bread-and-butter. He could not get on at home, he could not get on at school, nor on board ship, nor in the French army, nor in the editorial bureau of a Dutch newspaper, nor even in the good graces of the Empress Catherine the Second, when, having obtained a commission in the Engineer service of Russia, he was marked for Imperial favour. Having been made much of in Moscow, and petted in Petersburg, what was more natural than that this black sheep of a respectable family at Hâvre should pack himself off to Warsaw and espouse the Polish cause? That he had not espoused a Polish princess into the bargain was a mere matter of difference with the lady's family; for of course he quarrelled with every soul of them - most probably with the lady herself. His disagreement with the princess's relations must have been serious, for it was the cause of his leaving Poland, where alone he had any chance of indulging his hatred of Russia and of all Russians who had treated him with indulgence. He tried Prussia next for military employment; and whether or not he actually entered the service of that rising power is not clear; but if he ever did hold an appointment in the Prussian army he held it for a very little while. He was engaged next by his own sovereign, Louis XV., of pious memory, on a mission to the Mauritius; and on his return he gave himself up to literature, beginning with an account of his voyage to the Isle of France. The seeds of his first and only celebrated or successful production, Paul and Virginia, were no doubt sown during that visit to the Tropics; but the work did not appear till long afterwards - seventeen years, at least. Saint Pierre took the democratic side in the Revolutionary epoch, but was honourably opposed to the vicious enormities of the time. And, say the biographers, both in his capacity of professor in the Normal School, established in 1794, and as a member of the Institut National, incurred considerable danger and reproach by the virtuous boldness which he displayed in maintaining the existence of a God. In the consulate and empire he was a great favourite of the Bonaparte family, and received a pension - large enough to have satisfied a less exigent person than himself - from Joseph. He lived to the age of seventy-seven, died on the 21st January, 1814, and was buried with all the honours due to a member of the French Institute.
His pretty story of Paul and Virginia had the distinguished honour of being pirated fifty times in the first year of its publication. A sort of pendant to it is the Indian Cottage, an apologue intended to illustrate the doctrine, that truth and happiness are to be found only in a simple natural life. The scene is Bengal; and, to enhance the value of the instruction afforded by the Eastern as well as the Western tale, an appendix describing the flora of the tropics, mentioned in either work of fiction, is always given in the countless editions. With Paul and Virginia and The Indian Cottage is usually printed, I am sure I don't know why, the amiable Madame Cottin's Exiles of Siberia.
English readers of Paul and Virginia are mainly beholden to Miss Helen Maria Williams, who also took the democratic side in French politics, but who, like Saint Pierre, revolted from the excesses of the Revolution. Miss Williams was a sonneteer, and she managed to introduce, after the manner of her period, certain more or less relevant pieces of her own in the translation of Saint Pierre's story. There are as many as eight sonnets from her pen in that once popular, and still well-known, work. They are brought in like the ballad of Edwin and Angelina, the fable of The Dwarf and the Giant, the allegory of Guilt and Shame, and the immortal Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog, in the Vicar of Wakefield. What would now be thought a head and shoulders way of dragging in a story or a piece of verse-making by way of episode was the fashion with Goldsmith and his contemporaries; nay, was a fashion that lasted into our own era, and was common enough in the earlier books of the modern masters of fiction, who had attentively read the novelists of the eighteenth century, and, in entering an art which was new to them, were naturally and beneficially influenced by those who had gone before. The two very diverse authors, Dickens and Lever, shall stand as examples of this remark. In Pickwick, in Harry Lorrequer, in Nicholas Nickleby, detachable pieces occur in some number, notably near the beginning; they grow fewer as the story becomes consolidated; and, just so, the habit of introducing them at all dies gradually away, and disappears as the mind of the writer becomes more fixed in purpose - more determined in following a prescribed idea. You do not find the characters in Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Bleak House, or The Martins of Cromartin, singing songs about the Widow Malone, Dick Turpin, and the Ivy Green, or telling chatty stories of bagmen, ghosts, queer clients, old mail-coaches, and adventures of wild young cornets and convivial priests.
Nevertheless, it was the fashion once, and nobody can tell but that it may be the fashion again, for novelists to break the thread of an absorbing interest with a By the way, did you ever hear a capital story of a one-horse fly? or a That reminds me of a rather good song which perhaps you would like to hear. Those eight sonnets of Miss Helen Maria Williams had no excuse for their entry into her translation of Saint Pierre's novelette half so good as the excuse they afford me now of talking about sonnets and Miss Helen Maria Williams. I believe she wrote and published fifteen such things in all. How many she may have written without publishing we cannot even guess; and luckily it is quite beside our purpose to try; but I have some interest in maintaining the proposition that she did write more than those fifteen, if only in support of a theory that all people who have made themselves famous by writing sonnets have left behind them a few which never saw the light of print. For, if I do not establish this theory, or something near it, I may fail in the endeavour to engage your attention on behalf of three sonnets, old and yet new - old in discoloured ink, on paper yellow with years, but new, O reader, to the publishing houses and to thee.
Miss Williams, when in Paris, busy with her translation of Saint Pierre, it may be - though the mere suggestion on my part that such actually was the case may be an unpardonable anachronism - was visited by William Wordsworth. The poet gave her a proud reason for the predilection she has recorded in favour of one of her earliest sonnets - that addressed to Hope; for he repeated it to her from memory after a lapse of many years. As I have not the slightest cause to doubt this fact, resting simply and firmly as it does on the word of a most honourable lady, I accept it in controversion of a prevalent belief that Wordsworth never repeated any poetry but his own. The sonnet which he so honoured is not one of those included in the translation of Paul and Virginia; and as the poems of Miss Williams, except through that medium, are seldom seen now-a-days, I will venture to quote this one:-
One of my earliest, kindest, and dearest instructors, Edward Wollstonecraft, had known Miss Williams well, and was an admirer of this and other of her sonnets. She corresponded with Mary Wollstonecraft on those subjects of moral speculation which engaged the pens and tongues of the Blue Stocking Club. It is of Edward Wollstonecraft, who survived his famous relative many years, and died, a very aged man, more than a quarter of a century ago, that I have now to speak. Even in the closing period of his equable and benign existence his extreme and often amusing absence of mind was no symptom of senility; for it had been one of his peculiarities all through a long life, passed in Spain and other countries than his own, but always passed - I say it with my heart's highest reverence and deepest gratitude - in doing good. He was in England when I was a child of very tender years, and stayed in our house till I was nearly seven; and again he visited my father, his nephew, when I had reached the age of fifteen or sixteen; after which time he retired to a small estate in Carmarthenshire, where he died. One of his excellent traits was the love of educating children and grown persons less informed than are most children. It was a much commoner thing in those days than it now is for servants to be wholly illiterate; and wherever, and whenever, the grandly simple benevolence of this venerable man led him to detect a case of that kind, he instantly set himself to work, in his own direct and efficient way, to remedy the defect. My father's household owed much to his labour. A serving-woman who, when not young, and not comely, was unable to tell one letter from another, learned to read well and to write a very neat hand from his tuition; and could draw up the bill of fare for dinner, not in bad French but good English.
The first and third of the sonnets presently to be cited I got by heart from him when I was very young. The gloom and horror of the first did not repel me. So far otherwise was it that it has fixed itself most firmly in my memory. It is necessary to say that a great deal of the verse which was at that time taught me - a willing learner - was designedly of the kind which has been sneered at as maudlin and humanitarian; that my mother herself, a fervent and affectionate disciple of Wordsworth, whose name she bore, had always in her heart, and often on her lips, his precept,
Never to link our pleasure or our pride
With sorrow of the meanest thing that feels;
He prayeth best who loveth best,
All things, both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
How my old preceptor came into possession of three unpublished sonnets I cannot say. Let us suppose that he preserved them as relics of a brief acquaintance with Southey, whom he had met during the latter's visit to the Peninsular. The sonnets had in the first place been taken down in shorthand, either from oral dictation, or from MS. There used to be much harmless merriment in our home at the distractions of my good old friend, and the straits into which he was often led by his stenography. Thus, he would often implore my father, who was then an invalid, not to buy the newspapers, promising to read them all at the club or tavern where he dined, and make extracts. He was as good as his word always; but the extracts which he made, in shorthand, he was usually unable to decipher. I fancy that when he copied the three sonnets he may have been in haste to return the originals, and hurried over the last. At all events, when, some time afterwards, he attempted to transfer them all to longhand, he found his notes of the third sonnet - third as it then stood - illegible. A friend coming to his assistance made out a few words from the faded pencil notes, and carefully wrote out those words in the place they would have filled if the lines had been complete. Thus:-
. . . . . dove with gentle eye, [Innocent] idle, timid, and yet tame, . . . . . . . [deadly] aim; The lark that . . glamour . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . flashing flame to flame . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . love. . . . . . . . . . rooms . . reach Thou, vulture, left to length of [useful] days, . . . .[pride]. . . . .
The words in brackets are those which were doubtful. Innocent was little more than guess-work, but it is so obviously the right, if not the only, word for its place, that a mere blank must have been filled in with that word, preferably to any other. Deadly was somewhat plainer; and the noun might assist us here to a decision. The lark that, was as clear as the bird's own voice; and glamour was only too plain. I have had to relinquish it for clamour; because, although
The lark that in the glamour of the sky
is just a possible line of poetry, it would fit in with no other lines practicable to my scheme of restoration.
The lark that loves to clamour at the sky,
seems to me a line that Southey might have written. The verb clamour is better poetry than carol, or than any verb that signifies, or helps to signify, consciousness of music in a song-bird. To clamour is to call for anything loudly, like a clam or clash of bells; nay, the importunate sound has a further significant relationship. Undoubtedly it is traceable to the same origin as claim, clamo. What the lark loves to do is surely not to make music as music. It is rather to pour his full heart, as Shelley says; and, as he goes on more emphatically to say, in strains of unpremeditated art. Wordsworth, too, in a poem of equal sublimity with Shelley's, has thus apostrophised the skylark:-
Happy, happy liver! With a soul as strong as a mountain river, Pouring out praise to the Almighty Giver!
The lark loves, then, out of his heart's fulness, to cry aloud. That he does so in melody is a beautiful fact for us, but to him it is nothing. He sings only because he must. What he plainly loves to do is to clamour - to make a din as with bells - at the glory that draws him from the ground.
For the space of three lines, this sonnet is now a void; but the next line, which is the eighth, is half legible, ending with the word flame; and as there should be only two lines in the octave, which is the first division of a sonnet, we know that the void has to be filled with lines rhyming to flame and eye. The first two lines of the sestet are also blank, and the third has only one short word in the midst of its barrenness - the word love. Then comes a line with two separated words, the second proclaiming one of the rhymes in the sestet, while the other word, rooms, is so intractable that it might be wished away. The penultimate line is, excepting one dubious word, perfectly plain. The rest is silence, or nearly so.
These disjointed fragments of a sonnet, picked from a page of pencilled shorthand, came last in order, as we have seen. But I have reason to think that the sonnet to which they belonged was properly the second of the triple group - not the third. The sonnets which here stand first and last of the three stood together on one half-sheet; the pieced-out sonnet which has now the middle place, was on a smaller scrap of paper, marked at top with the numeral, 2. Now, that might be a sign that it was to follow the other page, bearing the two sonnets; in which case, of course, our middle sonnet should be last. But might it not have meant that this sonnet was to be No. 2 in the sequence of three? Just so I think it should be read. I say should be read, speaking of it in its present imperfectly perfected state; but I also think that the few and scattered words which I, at least, choose to regard as authentic, have a certain light of their own which would stand best against the gloom of that first sonnet, with its dark, sickening suggestions. And then, again, the sonnet which I place third and last surely contains the climax. Indeed, the placing of the three sonnets in the order I have chosen seems to me in every way justified. I have spoken of them as forming one poem - like Southey's three, on the ship sailing out; the ship in a storm; and the ship returning. And it is also noticeable that, as one poem, they fulfil the old syllogistic notion of the sonnet. Each does this of itself, simply; and then there is a compound process in the whole; as though we should say that each as a sphere revolves on its axis and that all as a system rotate on a central idea. Statement of proposition, which was supposed to be properly the business of the first quatrain of the sonnet; proof of the proposition, which was the business of the second quatrain; confirmation of the proof, which was the business of the first terzet; and drawing the conclusion, which was the business of the second terzet, follow in order; and nothing, I venture to suggest, can be more satisfying as a matter of art than the final solution.
Generally observing the Petrarchian rules, and closing with a distich that does not rhyme to itself, but takes both its rhymes from preceding lines of the sestet, Southey binds himself down to no fixed law of arrangement of rhymes throughout any of his sonnets. Sometimes he changes the rhyme at the second half of the octave, and sometimes he continues it; sometimes he alternates the rhymes of four lines, and sometimes he rhymes the first line with the fourth, and the second with the third as a couplet. Variety in uniformity seems to have been one of his rules. All these three sonnets differ in arrangement of rhymes. Here are their analyses:-
1st Sonnet: in quatrain, lines 1, 4, 5, 7, and 2, 3, 6, 8, rhyme; in sestet, lines 1, 2, 5, and 3, 4, 6. 2nd Sonnet: in quatrain, lines 1, 4, 6, 7, and 2, 3, 5, 8 rhyme; in sestet, lines 1, 4, 6, and 2, 3, 5. 3rd Sonnet: in quatrain, lines 1, 4, 6, 8, and 2, 3, 5, 7 rhyme; in sestet, lines 1, 4, 6, and 2, 3, 5
These differences are much the same that might be found in any three of Southey's, as of Wordsworth's, sonnets taken at random. In only a very few sonnets - as, for instance, in that To the Planet Venus, by Wordsworth, and To a Lark, by Southey - does either poet end with two rhyming lines. Shakespeare's sonnets are all so ended, and so are Sir Philip Sidney's, and Spenser's, and Raleigh's, and, in fact, nearly all the Elizabethan sonnets; which is curious, seeing that their derivation was direct from the Italian. Some of William Drummond's, I think, are of the legitimate form; but Milton, the greatest reflective poet till Wordsworth, after Shakespeare (See note 1) was almost the first Englishman to set the sonnet on its right Italian footing.
As I have referred to Southey's three sonnets, forming one poem, To a Ship - setting out ; in a storm; and returning - I ought perhaps to say that I do not rely on them for support of my theory that the sonnets presently to be introduced are Southey's. The coincidence of structure and arrangement is too poor a piece of evidence, and might even damage my cause. Still, it may be worth while to show by analysis in this case also that the sonnets To a Ship are varied, though the subject is uniform. Thus far, the resemblance is important.
1st Sonnet: In quatrain, lines 1 and 3, 2 and 4, 5 and 7, 6 and 8 rhyme; in sestet, 1, 3, 5, and 2, 4, 6. 2nd Sonnet: In quatrain, lines 1 and 4, 2, 3, 6 and 7 rhyme; in sestet, 1 and 2, 3 and 6, 4 and 5. 3rd Sonnet: 1 and 3, 2 and 4, 5 and 8, 6 and 7 rhyme; in sestet, 1 and 2, 3 and 6, 4 and 5.
The Petrarchian law is broken in the foregoing, inasmuch as there are more than two rhymes to the octave, both of the first and of the third sonnet; but, as I have observed, we have the same purposed varying, and the same Petrarchian end.
The sonnets which follow are addressed To a Vulture. To imagine this loathed, despised, and yet valued officer of health bearing upward the burden of his earthly ignominy to the very Throne of Power and Love, gaining absolution, and descending thus blest and purified to the resumption of his solemn task, would scarce have occurred to a chance poetaster. That the idea is, to critics of the French school,(See note 2) simply ridiculous, I doubt not. Be it so by all means! But now for the poem itself:-
TO A VULTURE.
Unhonoured benefactor of mankind- Live! For the consecration of thy craw To dreadful task of necessary law Grim sanctuary still for thee shall find. A sad and solemn function is assigned To thee from whom we turn with shuddering awe; To whose dire office we would fain be blind. Plunging thy plumeless head, all gaunt and raw Into the hideous feast, batten thy fill! More blest thou art, in making food of ill Than epicures, by ill itself made food. Thou owest nought to Folly's dainty mood: Men hate and spare thee. Hating not, they kill. Live, loathly vulture, doing constant good! The iris-throated dove with gentle eye, Innocent, idle, timid, and yet tame, Is mark for scoundrel pastime's pitiless aim. The lark that loves to clamour at the sky Is caged and crippled, till the happy name "Blithe spirit" is a melancholy lie. The gems of life on golden wings that fly In tropic sunlight, flashing flame to flame, Are spoiled that nature classified may teach In heathen terminology her ways Of beauty, wonder, love, delight, and praise, To men in musty rooms beyond her reach. Thou, vulture, left to length of useful days, A silent sermon to our pride dost preach. What are the joys, O vulture, that requite Thy darker doom accurst of proverb old? Swift as the falcon, as the eagle bold, Darest thou assail, by thy majestic flight, Realms that no scornful vision may behold? There Pity is; Pity, that dwells with Might; And Love, that vilest objects doth enfold. Hide thee awhile in that celestial light! At length, absolved and purified, descend To earthly life and work, beneath no ban, Save only mockery of doubting man, Whose evil word is ever for his friend. He, bound in bands of Folly for a span: Thou, serving God and Nature to the end.
This is my case. Here are two sonnets which contain bold and original thought, expressed in lines of remarkable power. Such lines are, To dreadful task of necessary law; More blest thou art, in making food of ill, than epicures by ill itself made food; Men hate and spare thee: hating not, they kill; and line after line in the last sonnet intensifying towards the close. That fine idea which governs the third, fourth, and fifth lines of this last sonnet is physically suggested by the fact that the vulture ascends out of sight in the clearest sky. Coming from the invisible ether, says the American poet, Longfellow, in describing the vulture's downward swoop. The flight of the vulture is indeed majestic, surpassing even that of the eagle. Another matter of fact, which is poetically treated in the opening lines of the first sonnet, and in the penultimate line, Men hate and spare thee: hating not, they kill, is the customary exemption of all carrion birds from slaughter. In towns and villages where they cleanse the streets, by removing garbage before it has had time to become poisonous under a southern or tropical sun, they are protected by the law. A fine is imposed on any one who is convicted of breaking the vulture's grim sanctuary. That Southey should have noticed this custom in a visit to the south of Europe, and should have brought it into striking contrast with the pitiless treatment, by man, of creatures he does not hate or vilify, was so likely a thing that I can only wonder at the absence from his published works of any poem embodying the twofold idea. And I will go further and say, if I had not other reasons than I care to urge for supposing these sonnets to have been Southey's, I would immensely have preferred to believe them, or two of them, the work of the Master himself, William Wordsworth. A very little wresting of what has impressed itself on me as evidence, would incline me to think that the first and third of the set are as likely to have been Wordsworth's as Southey's; and I forgive the Gallic critic his sneer at this naïve admission.
Edward Wollstonecraft never said that his notes represented sonnets which he knew to be Southey's. If he had said so, I should have made shorter work of my pleading, and simply have asserted the fact. Remember, we are supposing him to have preserved them as a token of Southey; and for aught I can tell Southey might have given them to him as a token of Wordsworth.
Let me briefly hint what justification I might have had in contending that these sonnets - the first and third, that is to say, for in the second there is an interpolation of matter which I avow to be my own - were Wordsworth's. The spirit of poesy, and the spirit of love for the meanest thing that feels, have entered together into the Wordworth blood, as I may perhaps be pardoned for exemplifying by a reference to family records. A Wordsworth to whom I am nearly related - he was my mother's brother - actually swooned the first and only time he saw a pigeon shot; and yet he was personally daring, to the extent sometimes, in his youth, of provoking quarrels with men of a bodily strength and a pugnacity more than equal to his own. He was a man of affairs, who had little time for the amenities of literature; but he wrote excellent verse, such as the following, which was suggested by a visit to the grave of Marshal Ney, from which monument the hero's name had been obliterated:-
Whose mortal ashes here remain No tongue in France dare say: But Silence twines amid her chain The cypress and the bay. The simple word that spoke his name, And despots cower'd to hear, Power from his urn erased: but Fame Emblazon'd Glory there. Now lowly bending o'er his tomb Proud Gallia's genius weeps That here, in Night's eternal gloom, Her country's Glory - sleeps.
Allegory, metaphor, trope, all of the artificial shape and turn which could not easily be avoided by the young poets of that day, do not kill the true spirit of these lines, which were written early in the present century, and are now for the first time printed. The little poem resembles one of those marble monument in which conventional emblem and real human feeling are blended, after a set fashion of art that has become antiquated, though all of truth and beauty in it is as fresh as ever. It was in renunciation of this same kind of art, as applied to poetry, that Wordsworth himself struck out a theory which has been productive of much controversy. Taking too easily for granted that Wordsworth's poetry was all written upon this theory - as if poetry could be written on any theory! - many of his critics have seen a great deal more theoretic simplicity and language of common life in that poetry than ever existed there. And yet undoubtedly there are sudden and unprepared transitions - I am quoting Coleridge's exquisite criticism - from lines or sentences of peculiar felicity (at all events striking and original) to a style not only unimpassioned, but undistinguished. Language which is only proper to prose finds too often place in Wordsworth's poetry. The word benefactor, in the opening line of the first of these mysterious sonnets, is sheer prose; nor can anything more prosaic be well imagined than the line, a sad and solemn function is assigned - a line certainly undistinguished as well as unimpassioned. To fix on any blemish as a proof that this or that poem is Wordsworth's is not a gracious act of pleading, I allow; but the blemish is so peculiar to himself, is so wilful, if I may speak the word, that where argument of identity needs enforcing, such enforcement as this cannot be spared. Would not any other man capable of writing the true poetry in which these defects occur have got rid of them? It was Wordsworth, and Wordsworth alone, who had a mistaken theory, which here and there influenced his poetic compositions, and which might have influenced this composition precisely in the points I have indicated, and in the manner I have attempted to describe.
Such might have been my contention; but such it is not. Having thrown out a suggestion that the sonnets To a Vulture, which are published on my own responsibility, were in greater part written by Robert Southey, I abide by all that I have said in the course of this digression from the tragical history of Paul and Virginia.
Note 1: Lest this may seem too bold an opinion on the part of one so humble and so prejudiced as myself, I hasten to say that De Quincey, with all insistent emphasis of repetition, has pronounced Wordsworth to be the greatest reflective poet since Shakespeare. Chronologically, of course, this shuts out Milton.
Note 2: Nothing that I can remember in authorship ever made my blood boil as did, lately, the estimate of Wordsworth paraded by a French critic, whose dissertations on English literature, displaying wonderful brilliancy of descriptive rhetoric, have had praise enough and to spare. Yet it was nothing new, after all, to depict Wordsworth as an easy-chair philosopher, a spinner of metaphysical cobwebs, a childish chronicler of dull events in a dull style, an utterer of platitude on platitude to make us yawn - or grin. This kind of criticism comes pat enough to the smallest of the smart school, whose business is that of burlesque and travesty. Criticism! I expect no worse myself for answer to this short essay, in which I have incurred ridicule, no doubt, by classing Wordsworth above Milton, by reverently acknowledging my eternal debt to an obscure philanthropic old fogey, and by mentioning, with love and pride, my mother. Criticism! There is a story in Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, towards the end of Cap. XXI., which may be commended to the especial mastication of critics of the waggish breed. It is an account of what befel the author and a Prussian artist, a man of genius and great vivacity of feeling, when the twain visited the tomb of Julius II, and Michael Angelo's statue of Moses - and when a couple of Frenchmen came there too.
Extract from Art Studies of Home Life, by Godfrey Wordsworth Turner
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