Gryll Grange, by Thomas Love Peacock

Chapter 15

Expression in Music — The Dappled Palfrey — Love and Age — Competitive Examination

(Greek passage)

Anthologia Palatina: v. 72.

This, this is life, when pleasure drives out care.

Short is the span of time we each may share.

To-day, while love, wine, song, the hours adorn,

To-day we live: none know the coming morn.

Lord Curryfin’s assiduities to Miss Gryll had discomposed Mr. Falconer more than he chose to confess to himself. Lord Curryfin, on entering the drawing-rooms, went up immediately to the young lady of the house; and Mr. Falconer, to the amazement of the reverend doctor, sat down in the outer drawing-room on a sofa by the side of Miss Ilex, with whom he entered into conversation.

In the inner drawing-room some of the young ladies were engaged with music, and were entreated to continue their performance. Some of them were conversing, or looking over new publications.

After a brilliant symphony, performed by one of the young visitors, in which runs and crossings of demisemiquavers in tempo prestissimo occupied the principal share, Mr. Falconer asked Miss Ilex how she liked it.

Miss Ilex. I admire it as a splendid piece of legerdemain; but it expresses nothing.

Mr. Falconer. It is well to know that such things can be done; and when we have reached the extreme complications of art, we may hope to return to Nature and simplicity.

Miss Ilex. Not that it is impossible to reconcile execution and expression. Rubini identified the redundancies of ornament with the overflowings of feeling, and the music of Donizetti furnished him most happily with the means of developing this power. I never felt so transported out of myself as when I heard him sing Tu che al ciel spiegasti l’ ali.

Mr. Falconer. Do you place Donizetti above Mozart?

Miss Ilex. Oh, surely not. But for supplying expressive music to a singer like Rubini, I think Donizetti has no equal; at any rate no superior. For music that does not require, and does not even suit, such a singer, but which requires only to be correctly interpreted to be universally recognised as the absolute perfection of melody, harmony, and expression, I think Mozart has none. Beethoven perhaps: he composed only one opera, Fidelio; but what an opera that is! What an effect in the sudden change of the key, when Leonora throws herself between her husband and Pizarro: and again, in the change of the key with the change of the scene, when we pass from the prison to the hall of the palace! What pathos in the songs of affection, what grandeur in the songs of triumph, what wonderful combinations in the accompaniments, where a perpetual stream of counter-melody creeps along in the bass, yet in perfect harmony with the melody above!

Mr. Falconer. What say you to Haydn?

Miss Ilex. Haydn has not written operas, and my principal experience is derived from the Italian theatre. But his music is essentially dramatic. It is a full stream of perfect harmony in subjection to exquisite melody; and in simple ballad-strains, that go direct to the heart, he is almost supreme and alone. Think of that air with which every one is familiar, ‘My mother bids me bind my hair’: the graceful flow of the first part, the touching effect of the semitones in the second: with true intonation and true expression, the less such an air is accompanied the better.

Mr. Falconer. There is a beauty and an appeal to the heart in ballads which will never lose its effect except on those with whom the pretence of fashion overpowers the feeling of Nature.1

Miss Ilex. It is strange, however, what influence that pretence has, in overpowering all natural feelings, not in music alone.

‘Is it not curious,’ thought the doctor, ‘that there is only one old woman in the room, and that my young friend should have selected her for the object of his especial attention?’

But a few simple notes struck on the ear of his young friend, who rose from the sofa and approached the singer. The doctor took his place to cut off his retreat.

Miss Gryll, who, though a proficient in all music, was particularly partial to ballads, had just begun to sing one.

THE DAPPLED PALFREY2

‘My traitorous uncle has wooed for himself:

Her father has sold her for land and for pelf:

My steed, for whose equal the world they might search,

In mockery they borrow to bear her to church.

‘Oh! there is one path through the forest so green,

Where thou and I only, my palfrey, have been:

We traversed it oft, when I rode to her bower

To tell my love tale through the rift of the tower.

‘Thou know’st not my words, but thy instinct is good:

By the road to the church lies the path through the wood:

Thy instinct is good, and her love is as true:

Thou wilt see thy way homeward: dear palfrey, adieu.’

They feasted full late and full early they rose,

And church-ward they rode more than half in a doze:

The steed in an instant broke off from the throng,

And pierced the green path, which he bounded along.

In vain was pursuit, though some followed pell-mell:

Through bramble and thicket they floundered and fell.

On the backs of their coursers some dozed as before,

And missed not the bride till they reached the church door.

The knight from his keep on the forest-bound gazed:

The drawbridge was down, the portcullis was raised:

And true to his hope came the palfrey amain,

With his only loved lady, who checked not the rein.

The drawbridge went up: the portcullis went down;

The chaplain was ready with bell, book, and gown:

The wreck of the bride-train arrived at the gate,

The bride showed the ring, and they muttered ‘Too late!’

‘Not too late for a feast, though too late for a fray;

What’s done can’t be undone: make peace while you may’:

So spake the young knight, and the old ones complied;

And quaffed a deep health to the bridegroom and bride.

Mr. Falconer had listened to the ballad with evident pleasure. He turned to resume his place on the sofa, but finding it preoccupied by the doctor, he put on a look of disappointment, which seemed to the doctor exceedingly comic.

‘Surely,’ thought the doctor, ‘he is not in love with the old maid.’

Miss Gryll gave up her place to a young lady, who in her turn sang a ballad of a different character.

LOVE AND AGE

I played with you ‘mid cowslips blowing,

When I was six and you were four;

When garlands weaving, flower-balls throwing,

Were pleasures soon to please no more.

Through groves and meads, o’er grass and heather,

With little playmates, to and fro,

We wandered hand in hand together;

But that was sixty years ago.

You grew a lovely roseate maiden,

And still our early love was strong;

Still with no care our days were laden,

They glided joyously along;

And I did love you very dearly,

How dearly words want power to show;

I thought your heart was touched as nearly;

But that was fifty years ago.

Then other lovers came around you,

Your beauty grew from year to year.

And many a splendid circle, found you

The centre of its glittering sphere.

I saw you then, first vows forsaking,

On rank and wealth your hand bestow;

Oh, then I thought my heart was breaking —

But that was forty years ago.

And I lived on, to wed another;

No cause she gave me to repine;

And when I heard you were a mother,

I did not wish the children mine.

My own young flock, in fair progression

Made up a pleasant Christmas row:

My joy in them was past expression —

But that was thirty years ago.

You grew a matron plump and comely,

You dwelt in fashion’s brightest blaze;

My earthly lot was far more homely;

But I too had my festal days.

No merrier eyes have ever glistened

Around the hearthstone’s wintry glow,

Than when my youngest child was christened —

But that was twenty years ago.

Time passed. My eldest girl was married,

And I am now a grandsire gray;

One pet of four years old I’ve carried

Among the wild-flowered meads to play.

In our old fields of childish pleasure,

Where now, as then, the cowslips blow,

She fills her basket’s ample measure —

And that is not ten years ago.

But though first love’s impassioned blindness

Has passed away in colder light,

I still have thought of you with kindness,

And shall do, till our last good-night.

The ever-rolling silent hours

Will bring a time we shall not know,

When our young days of gathering flowers

Will be an hundred years ago.

Miss Ilex. That is a melancholy song. But of how many first loves is it the true tale! And how many are far less happy!

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. It is simple, and well sung, with a distinctness of articulation not often heard.

Miss Ilex. That young lady’s voice is a perfect contralto. It is singularly beautiful, and I applaud her for keeping within her natural compass, and not destroying her voice by forcing it upwards, as too many do.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. Forcing, forcing seems to be the rule of life. A young lady who forces her voice into altissimo, and a young gentleman who forces his mind into a receptacle for a chaos of crudities, are pretty much on a par. Both do ill, where, if they were contented with attainments within the limits of natural taste and natural capacity, they might both do well. As to the poor young men, many of them become mere crammed fowls, with the same result as Hermogenes, who, after astonishing the world with his attainments at seventeen, came to a sudden end at the age of twenty-five, and spent the rest of a long life in hopeless imbecility.

Miss Ilex. The poor young men can scarcely help themselves. They are not held qualified for a profession unless they have overloaded their understanding with things of no use in it; incongruous things too, which could never be combined into the pursuits of natural taste.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. Very true. Brindley would not have passed as a canal-maker, nor Edward Williams3 as a bridge-builder. I saw the other day some examination papers which would have infallibly excluded Marlborough from the army and Nelson from the navy. I doubt if Haydn would have passed as a composer before a committee of lords like one of his pupils, who insisted on demonstrating to him that he was continually sinning against the rules of counterpoint; on which Haydn said to him, ‘I thought I was to teach you, but it seems you are to teach me, and I do not want a preceptor,’ and thereon he wished his lordship a good-morning. Fancy Watt being asked how much Joan of Naples got for Avignon when she sold it to Pope Clement the Sixth, and being held unfit for an engineer because he could not tell.

Miss Ilex. That is an odd question, doctor. But how much did she get for it?

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. Nothing. He promised ninety thousand golden florins, but he did not pay one of them: and that, I suppose, is the profound sense of the question. It is true he paid her after a fashion, in his own peculiar coin. He absolved her of the murder of her first husband, and perhaps he thought that was worth the money. But how many of our legislators could answer the question? Is it not strange that candidates for seats in Parliament should not be subjected to competitive examination? Plato and Persius4 would furnish good hints for it. I should like to see honourable gentlemen having to answer such questions as are deemed necessary tests for government clerks, before they would be held qualified candidates for seats in the legislature. That would be something like a reform in the Parliament. Oh that it were so, and I were the examiner! Ha, ha, ha, what a comedy!

The doctor’s hearty laugh was contagious, and Miss Ilex joined in it. Mr. MacBorrowdale came up.

Mr. MacBorrowdale. You are as merry as if you had discovered the object of Jack of Dover’s quest:

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. Something very like it. We have an honourable gentleman under competitive examination for a degree in legislative wisdom.

Mr. MacBorrowdale. Truly, that is fooling competition to the top of its bent.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. Competitive examination for clerks, and none for legislators, is not this an anomaly? Ask the honourable member for Muckborough on what acquisitions in history and mental and moral philosophy he founds his claim of competence to make laws for the nation. He can only tell you that he has been chosen as the most conspicuous Grub among the Moneygrubs of his borough to be the representative of all that is sordid, selfish, hard-hearted, unintellectual, and antipatriotic, which are the distinguishing qualities of the majority among them. Ask a candidate for a clerkship what are his qualifications? He may answer, ‘All that are requisite: reading, writing, and arithmetic.’ ‘Nonsense,’ says the questioner. ‘Do you know the number of miles in direct distance from Timbuctoo to the top of Chimborazo?’ ‘I do not,’ says the candidate. ‘Then you will not do for a clerk,’ says the competitive examiner. Does Moneygrub of Muckborough know? He does not; nor anything else. The clerk may be able to answer some of the questions put to him. Moneygrub could not answer one of them. But he is very fit for a legislator.

Mr. MacBorrowdale. Eh! but he is subjected to a pretty severe competitive examination of his own, by what they call a constituency, who just put him to the test in the art of conjuring, to see if he can shift money from his own pocket into theirs, without any inconvenient third party being aware of the transfer.

1 Braham said something like this to a Parliamentary Committee on Theatres, in 1832.

2 Founded on Le Vair Palefroi: among the Fabliaux published by Barbazan.

3 The builder of Pont-y-Pryd.

4 Plato: Alcibiades, i.; Persius: Sat. iv.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24