Letters on Literature, by Andrew Lang

Of Vers De Societe

To Mr. Gifted Hopkins.

My Dear Hopkins — The verses which you have sent me, with a request “to get published in some magazine,” I now return to you. If you are anxious that they should be published, send them to an editor yourself. If he likes them he will accept them from you. If he does not like them, why should he like them because they are forwarded by me? His only motive would be an aversion to disobliging a confrere, and why should I put him in such an unpleasant position?

But this is a very boorish way of thanking you for the premiere representation of your little poem. “To Delia in Girton” you call it, “recommending her to avoid the Muses, and seek the society of the Graces and Loves.” An old-fashioned preamble, and of the lengthiest, and how do you go on? —

Golden hair is fairy gold,

 Fairy gold that cannot stay,

Turns to leaflets green and cold,

 At the ending of the day!

 Laurel-leaves the Muses may

Twine about your golden head.

 Will the crown reward you, say,

When the fairy gold is fled?

Daphne was a maid unwise —

 Shun the laurel, seek the rose;

Azure, lovely in the skies,

 Shines less gracious in the hose!

Don’t you think, dear Hopkins, that this allusion to bas-bleus, if not indelicate, is a little rococo, and out of date? Editors will think so, I fear. Besides, I don’t like “Fairy gold that cannot stay.” If Fairy Gold were a horse, it would be all very well to write that it “cannot stay.” ’Tis the style of the stable, unsuited to songs of the salon.

This is a very difficult kind of verse that you are essaying, you whom the laurels of Mr. Locker do not suffer to sleep for envy. You kindly ask my opinion on vers de societe in general. Well, I think them a very difficult sort of thing to write well, as one may infer from this, that the ancients, our masters, could hardly write them at all. In Greek poetry of the great ages I only remember one piece which can be called a model — the AEolic verses that Theocritus wrote to accompany the gift of the ivory distaff. It was a present, you remember, to the wife of his friend Nicias, the physician of Miletus. The Greeks of that age kept their women in almost Oriental reserve. One may doubt whether Nicias would have liked it if Theocritus had sent, instead of a distaff, a fan or a jewel. But there is safety in a spinning instrument, and all the compliments to the lady, “the dainty-ankled Theugenis,” turn on her skill, and industry, and housewifery. So Louis XIV., no mean authority, called this piece of vers de societe “a model of honourable gallantry.”

I have just looked all through Pomtow’s pretty little pocket volumes of the minor Greek poets, and found nothing more of the nature of the lighter verse than this of Alcman’s —[Greek text]. Do you remember the pretty paraphrase of it in “Love in Idleness”?

“Maidens with voices like honey for sweetness that breathe desire,

Would that I were a sea bird with wings that could never tire,

Over the foam-flowers flying, with halcyons ever on wing,

Keeping a careless heart, a sea-blue bird of the spring.”

It does not quite give the sense Alcman intended, the lament for his limbs weary with old age — with old age sadder for the sight of the honey-voiced girls.

The Greeks had not the kind of society that is the home of “Society Verses,” where, as Mr. Locker says, “a boudoir decorum is, or ought always to be, preserved, where sentiment never surges into passion, and where humour never overflows into boisterous merriment.” Honest women were estranged from their mirth and their melancholy.

The Romans were little more fortunate. You cannot expect the genius of Catullus not to “surge into passion,” even in his hours of gayer song, composed when

Multum lusimus in meis tabellis,

Ut convenerat esse delicatos,

Scribens versiculos uterque nostrum.

Thus the lighter pieces of Catullus, like the dedication of his book, are addressed to men, his friends, and thus they scarcely come into the category of what we call “Society Verses.” Given the character of Roman society, perhaps we might say that plenty of this kind of verse was written by Horace and by Martial. The famous ode to Pyrrha does not exceed the decorum of a Roman boudoir, and, as far as love was concerned, it does not seem to have been in the nature of Horace to “surge into passion.” So his best songs in this kind are addressed to men, with whom he drinks a little, and talks of politics and literature a great deal, and muses over the shortness of life, and the zest that snow-clad Soracte gives to the wintry fire.

Perhaps the ode to Leuconoe, which Mr. Austin Dobson has rendered so prettily in a villanelle, may come within the scope of this Muse, for it has a playfulness mingled with its melancholy, a sadness in its play. Perhaps, too, if Horace is to be done into verse, these old French forms seem as fit vehicles as any for Latin poetry that was written in the exotic measures of Greece. There is a foreign grace and a little technical difficulty overcome in the English ballade and villanelle, as in the Horatian sapphics and alcaics. I would not say so much, on my own responsibility, nor trespass so far on the domain of scholarship, but this opinion was communicated to me by a learned professor of Latin. I think, too, that some of the lyric measures of the old French Pleiad, of Ronsard and Du Bellay, would be well wedded with the verse of Horace. But perhaps no translator will ever please any one but himself, and of Horace every man must be his own translator.

It may be that Ovid now and then comes near to writing vers de societe, only he never troubles himself for a moment about the “decorum of the boudoir.” Do you remember the lines on the ring which he gave his lady? They are the origin and pattern of all the verses written by lovers on that pretty metempsychosis which shall make them slippers, or fans, or girdles, like Waller’s, and like that which bound “the dainty, dainty waist” of the Miller’s Daughter.

“Ring that shalt bind the finger fair

Of my sweet maid, thou art not rare;

Thou hast not any price above

The token of her poet’s love;

Her finger may’st thou mate as she

Is mated every wise with me!”

And the poet goes on, as poets will, to wish he were this favoured, this fortunate jewel:

“In vain I wish! So, ring, depart,

And say ‘with me thou hast his heart’!”

Once more Ovid’s verses on his catholic affection for all ladies, the brown and the blonde, the short and the tall, may have suggested Cowley’s humorous confession, “The Chronicle”:

“Margarita first possessed,

If I remember well, my breast,

  Margarita, first of all;”

and then follows a list as long as Leporello’s.

What disqualifies Ovid as a writer of vers de societe is not so much his lack of “decorum” as the monotonous singsong of his eternal elegiacs. The lightest of light things, the poet of society, should possess more varied strains; like Horace, Martial, Thackeray, not like Ovid and (here is a heresy) Praed. Inimitably well as Praed does his trick of antithesis, I still feel that it is a trick, and that most rhymers could follow him in a mere mechanic art. But here the judgment of Mr. Locker would be opposed to this modest opinion, and there would be opposition again where Mr. Locker calls Dr. O. W. Holmes “perhaps the best living writer of this species of verse.” But here we are straying among the moderns before exhausting the ancients, of whom I fancy that Martial, at his best, approaches most near the ideal.

Of course it is true that many of Martial’s lyrics would be thought disgusting in any well-regulated convict establishment. His gallantry is rarely “honourable.” Scaliger used to burn a copy of Martial, once a year, on the altar of Catullus, who himself was far from prudish. But Martial, somehow, kept his heart undepraved, and his taste in books was excellent. How often he writes verses for the bibliophile, delighting in the details of purple and gold, the illustrations and ornaments for his new volume! These pieces are for the few — for amateurs, but we may all be touched by his grief for the little lass, Erotion. He commends her in Hades to his own father and mother gone before him, that the child may not be frightened in the dark, friendless among the shades

Parvula ne nigras horrescat Erotion umbras

Oraque Tartarei prodigiosa canis.”

There is a kind of playfulness in the sorrow, and the pity of a man for a child; pity that shows itself in a smile. I try to render that other inscription for the tomb of little Erotion:

Here lies the body of the little maid

  Erotion;

From her sixth winter’s snows her eager shade

  Hath fleeted on!

Whoe’er thou be that after me shalt sway

  My scanty farm,

To her slight shade the yearly offering pay,

  So — safe from harm —

Shall thou and thine revere the kindly Lar,

  And this alone

Be, through thy brief dominion, near or far,

  A mournful stone!

Certainly he had a heart, this foul-mouthed Martial, who claimed for the study of his book no serious hours, but moments of mirth, when men are glad with wine, “in the reign of the Rose:” 9

Haec hora est tua, cum furit Lyaeus,

Cum regnat rosa, cum madent capilli;

Tunc mevel rigidi legant Catones.”

But enough of the poets of old; another day we may turn to Carew and Suckling, Praed and Locker, poets of our own speech, lighter lyrists of our own time. 10

9 Pindar, perhaps, in one of his fragments, suggested that pretty Cum regnat Rosa.

10 See next letter.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lang/andrew/letters/chapter11.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:03