Gryll Grange, by Thomas Love Peacock

Chapter 23

The Two Quadrilles — Pope’s Ombre — Poetical Truth to Nature — Cleopatra

(Greek passage)

Alexis: Tarantini.

As men who leave their homes for public games,

We leave our native element of darkness

For life’s brief light. And who has most of mirth,

And wine, and love, may, like a satisfied guest,

Return, contented, to the night he sprang from.

In the meantime Mr. Falconer, after staying somewhat longer than usual at home, had returned to the Grange. He found much the same party as he had left: but he observed, or imagined, that Lord Curryfin was much more than previously in favour with Miss Gryll; that she paid him more marked attention, and watched his conduct to Miss Niphet with something more than curiosity.

Amongst the winter evenings’ amusements were two forms of quadrille: the old-fashioned game of cards, and the more recently fashionable dance. On these occasions it was of course a carpet-dance. Now, dancing had never been in Mr. Falconer’s line, and though modern dancing, especially in quadrilles, is little more than walking, still in that ‘little more’ there is ample room for grace and elegance of motion.

Herein Lord Curryfin outshone all the other young men in the circle. He endeavoured to be as indiscriminating as possible in inviting partners: but it was plain to curious observation, especially if a spice of jealousy mingled with the curiosity, that his favourite partner was Miss Niphet. When they occasionally danced a polka, the reverend doctor’s mythological theory came out in full force. It seemed as if Nature had preordained that they should be inseparable, and the interior conviction of both, that so it ought to be, gave them an accordance of movement that seemed to emanate from the innermost mind. Sometimes, too, they danced the Minuet de la Cour.

Having once done it, they had been often unanimously requested to repeat it. In this they had no competitors. Miss Gryll confined herself to quadrilles, and Mr. Falconer did not even propose to walk through one with her. When dancing brought into Miss Nipher/s cheeks the blush-rose bloom, which had more than once before so charmed Lord Curryfin, it required little penetration to see, through his external decorum, the passionate admiration with which he regarded her. Mr. Falconer remarked it, and, looking round to Miss Gryll, thought he saw the trace of a tear in her eye. It was a questionable glistening: jealousy construed it into a tear. But why should it be there? Was her mind turning to Lord Curryfin? and the more readily because of a newly-perceived obstacle? Had mortified vanity any share in it? No: this was beneath Morgana. Then why was it there? Was it anything like regret that, in respect of the young lord, she too had lost her opportunity? Was he himself blameless in the matter? He had been on the point of declaration, and she had been apparently on the point of acceptance: and instead of following up his advantage, he had been absent longer than usual. This was ill; but in the midst of the contending forces which severally acted on him, how could he make it well? So he sate still, tormenting himself.

In the meantime, Mr. Gryll had got up at a card-table, in the outer, which was the smaller drawing-room, a quadrille party of his own, consisting of himself, Miss Ilex, the Reverend Dr. Opimian, and Mr. MacBorrowdale.

Mr. Gryll. This is the only game of cards that ever pleased me. Once it was the great evening charm of the whole nation. Now, when cards are played at all, it has given place to whist, which, in my younger days, was considered a dry, solemn, studious game, played in moody silence, only interrupted by an occasional outbreak of dogmatism and ill-humour. Quadrille is not so absorbing but that we may talk and laugh over it, and yet is quite as interesting as anything of the kind has need to be.

Miss Ilex. I delight in quadrille. I am old enough to remember when, in mixed society in the country, it was played every evening by some of the party. But Chaque âge a ses plaisirs, son esprit, et ses mours.1 It is one of the evils of growing old that we do not easily habituate ourselves to changes of custom. The old, who sit still while the young dance and sing, may be permitted to regret the once always accessible cards, which, in their own young days, delighted the old of that generation: and not the old only.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. There are many causes for the diminished attraction of cards in evening society. Late dinners leave little evening. The old time for cards was the interval between tea and supper. Now there is no such interval, except here and there in out-of-the-way places, where, perhaps, quadrille and supper may still flourish, as in the days of Queen Anne. Nothing was more common in country towns and villages, half-a-century ago, than parties meeting in succession at each other’s houses for tea, supper, and quadrille. How popular this game had been, you may judge from Gay’s ballad, which represents all classes as absorbed in quadrille.2 Then the facility of locomotion dissipates, annihilates neighbourhood.

People are not now the fixtures they used to be in their respective localities, finding their amusements within their own limited circle. Half the inhabitants of a country place are here today and gone tomorrow. Even of those who are more what they call settled, the greater portion is less, probably, at home than whisking about the world. Then, again, where cards are played at all, whist is more consentaneous to modern solemnity: there is more wiseacre-ism about it: in the same manner that this other sort of quadrille, in which people walk to and from one another with faces of exemplary gravity, has taken the place of the old-fashioned country-dance. ‘The merry dance, I dearly love’ would never suggest the idea of a quadrille, any more than ‘merry England’ would call up any image not drawn from ancient ballads and the old English drama.

Mr. Gryll. Well, doctor, I intend to have a ball at Christmas, in which all modes of dancing shall have fair play, but country-dances shall have their full share.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. I rejoice in the prospect. I shall be glad to see the young dancing as if they were young.

Miss Ilex. The variety of the game called tredrille — the Ombre of Pope’s Rape of the Lock — is a pleasant game for three. Pope had many opportunities of seeing it played, yet he has not described it correctly; and I do not know that this has been observed.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. Indeed, I never observed it. I shall be glad to know how it is so.

Miss Ilex. Quadrille is played with forty cards: tredrille usually with thirty: sometimes, as in Pope’s Ombre, with twenty-seven. In forty cards, the number of trumps is eleven in the black suits, twelve in the red:3 in thirty, nine in all suits alike.4 In twenty-seven, they cannot be more than nine in one suit, and eight in the other three. In Pope’s Ombre spades are trumps, and the number is eleven: the number which they would be if the cards were forty. If you follow his description carefully, you will find it to be so.

Mr. MacBorrowdale. Why, then, we can only say, as a great philosopher said on another occasion: The description is sufficient ‘to impose on the degree of attention with which poetry is read.’

Miss Ilex. It is a pity it should be so. Truth to Nature is essential to poetry. Few may perceive an inaccuracy: but to those who do, it causes a great diminution, if not a total destruction, of pleasure in perusal. Shakespeare never makes a flower blossom out of season. Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey are true to Nature in this and in all other respects: even in their wildest imaginings.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. Yet here is a combination by one of our greatest poets, of flowers that never blossom in the same season —

Bring the rathe primrose, that forsaken dies,

The tufted crow-toe and pale jessamine,

The white pink, and the pansie freakt with jet,

The glowing violet,

The musk-rose, and the well-attired woodbine,

With cowslips wan, that hang the pensive head,

And every flower that sad embroidery wears:

Bid amaranthus all his beauty shed,

And daffodillies fill their cups with tears,

To deck the lauréat hearse where Lycid lies.

And at the same time he plucks the berries of the myrtle and the ivy.

Miss Ilex. Very beautiful, if not true to English seasons: but Milton might have thought himself justified in making this combination in Arcadia. Generally, he is strictly accurate, to a degree that is in itself a beauty. For instance, in his address to the nightingale —

Thee, chauntress, oft the woods among,

I woo to hear thy even-song,

And missing thee, I walk unseen,

On the dry smooth-shaven green.

The song of the nightingale ceases about the time that the grass is mown.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. The old Greek poetry is always true to Nature, and will bear any degree of critical analysis. I must say I take no pleasure in poetry that will not.

Mr. MacBorrowdale. No poet is truer to Nature than Burns, and no one less so than Moore. His imagery is almost always false. Here is a highly-applauded stanza, and very taking at first sight —

The night-dew of heaven, though in silence it weeps,

Shall brighten with verdure the sod where he sleeps;

And the tear that we shed, though in secret it rolls,

Shall long keep his memory green in our souls.

But it will not bear analysis. The dew is the cause of the verdure: but the tear is not the cause of the memory: the memory is the cause of the tear.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. There are inaccuracies more offensive to me than even false imagery. Here is one, in a song which I have often heard with displeasure. A young man goes up a mountain, and as he goes higher and higher, he repeats Excelsior: but excelsior is only taller in the comparison of things on a common basis, not higher, as a detached object in the air. Jack’s bean-stalk was excelsior the higher it grew: but Jack himself was no more celsus at the top than he had been at the bottom.

Mr. MacBorrowdale. I am afraid, doctor, if you look for profound knowledge in popular poetry, you will often be disappointed.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. I do not look for profound knowledge. But I do expect that poets should understand what they talk of. Burns was not a scholar, but he was always master of his subject. All the scholarship of the world would not have produced Tarn o’ Shanter: but in the whole of that poem there is not a false image nor a misused word. What do you suppose these lines represent?

I turning saw, throned on a flowery rise,

One sitting on a crimson scarf unrolled:

A queen, with swarthy cheeks and bold black eyes,

Brow-bound with burning gold.

Mr. MacBorrowdale. I should take it to be a description of the Queen of Bambo.

The Rev. Dr, Opimian, Yet thus one of our most popular poets describes Cleopatra: and one of our most popular artists has illustrated the description by a portrait of a hideous grinning Æthiop. Moore led the way to this perversion by demonstrating that the Ægyptian women must have been beautiful, because they were ‘the countrywomen of Cleopatra.’5 ‘Here we have a sort of counter-demonstration, that Cleopatra must have been a fright because she was the countrywoman of the Ægyptians. But Cleopatra was a Greek, the daughter of Ptolemy Auletes, and a lady of Pontus. The Ptolemies were Greeks, and whoever will look at their genealogy, their coins, and their medals, will see how carefully they kept their pure Greek blood uncontaminated by African intermixture. Think of this description and this picture applied to one who Dio says — and all antiquity confirms him — was ‘the most superlatively beautiful of women, splendid to see, and delightful to hear.’6 For she was eminently accomplished: she spoke many languages with grace and facility. Her mind was as wonderful as her personal beauty. There is not a shadow of intellectual expression in that horrible portrait.

The conversation at the quadrille-table was carried on with occasional pauses, and intermingled with the technicalities of the game.

Miss Gryll continued to alternate between joining in the quadrille-dances and resuming her seat by the side of the room, where she was the object of great attention from some young gentlemen, who were glad to find her unattended by either Lord Curryfin or Mr. Falconer. Mr. Falconer continued to sit as if he had been fixed to his seat, like Theseus. The more he reflected on his conduct, in disappearing at that critical point of time and staying away so long, the more he felt that he had been guilty of an unjustifiable, and perhaps unpardonable offence. He noticed with extreme discomposure the swarm of moths, as he called them to himself, who were fluttering in the light of her beauty: he would gladly have put them to flight; and this being out of the question, he would have been contented to take his place among them; but he dared not try the experiment.

Nevertheless, he would have been graciously received. The young lady was not cherishing any feeling of resentment against him. She understood, and made generous allowance for, his divided feelings. But his irresolution, if he were left to himself, was likely to be of long duration: and she meditated within herself the means of forcing him to a conclusion one way or the other.

1 Boileau.

2 For example:

When patients lie in piteous case,

In comes the apothecary,

And to the doctor cries ‘Alas!

Non debes Quadrilare.’

The patient dies without a pill:

For why? The doctor’s at quadrille.

Should France and Spain again grow loud,

The Muscovite grow louder,

Britain, to curb her neighbours proud,

Would want both ball and powder;

Must want both sword and gun to kill;

For why? The general’s at quadrille.

3 Nine cards in the black, and ten in the red suits, in addition to the aces of spades and clubs, Spadille and Basto, which are trumps in all suits.

4 Seven cards in each of the four suits in addition to Spadille and Basto.

5 Dr Pauw, the great depreciator of everything Ægyptian, has, on the authority of a passage in Aelian, presumed to affix to the countrywomen of Cleopatra the stigma of complete and unredeemed ugliness. — Moore’s Epicurean, fifth note.

6 (Greek phrase)— Dio,.vlii. 34.

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