The finding of a rare book that you have wanted long is one of the happier moments in life. Whatever we may think of life when we contemplate it as a whole, it is a delight to discover what one has sought for years, especially if the book be a book which you really want to read, and not a thing whose value is given by the fashion of collecting. Perhaps nobody ever collected before
DEATH-WAKE, OR LUNACY
In Three Chimeras
BY THOMAS T. STODDART.
“Is’t like that lead contains her? —
It were too gross
To rib her cerecloth in the obscure grave.”—
Printed for HENRY CONSTABLE, Edinburgh,
And HURST, CHANCE, & CO., London.
This is my rare book, and it is rare for an excellent good reason, as will be shown. But first of the author. Mr. Thomas Tod Stoddart was born in 1810. He died in 1880. Through all his pilgrimage of three-score years and ten, his “rod and staff did comfort him,” as the Scottish version of the Psalms has it; nay, his staff was his rod. He “was an angler,” as he remarked when a friend asked: “Well, Tom, what are you doing now.” He was the patriarch, the Father Izaak, of Scottish fishers, and he sleeps, according to his desire, like Scott, within hearing of the Tweed. His memoir, published by his daughter, in “Stoddart’s Angling Songs” (Blackwood), is an admirable biography, quo fit ut omnis Votiva pateat veluti descripta tabella Vita senis.
But it is with the “young Tom Stoddart,” the poet of twenty, not with the old angling sage, that we have to do. Miss Stoddart has discreetly republished only the Angling Songs of her father, the pick of them being classical in their way. Now, as Mr. Arnold writes:—
“Two desires toss about
The poet’s feverish blood,
One drives him to the world without,
And one to solitude.”
The young Stoddart’s two desires were poetry and fishing. He began with poetry. “At the age of ten his whole desire was to produce an immortal tragedy . . . Blood and battle were the powers with which he worked, and with no meaner tool. Every other dramatic form he despised.” It is curious to think of the schoolboy, the born Romanticist, labouring at these things, while Gerard de Nerval, and Victor Hugo, and Theophile Gautier, and Petrus Borel were boys also — boys of the same ambitions, and with much the same romantic tastes. Stoddart had, luckily, another love besides the Muse. “With the spring and the May fly, the dagger dipped in gore paled before the supple rod, and the dainty midge.” Finally, the rod and midge prevailed.
“Wee dour-looking hooks are the thing,
Mouse body and laverock wing.”
But before he quite abandoned all poetry save fishing ditties, he wrote and published the volume whose title-page we have printed, “The Death Wake.” The lad who drove home from an angling expedition in a hearse had an odd way of combining his amusements. He lived among poets and critics who were anglers — Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd (who cast but a heavy line, they say, in Yarrow), Aytoun, Christopher North, De Quincey —
But a well-wisher
To the game,”
as Scott has it — these were his companions, older or younger. None of these, certainly not Wilson, nor Hogg, nor Aytoun, were friends of the Romantic school, as illustrated by Keats and Shelley. None of them probably knew much of Gautier, De Nerval, Borel, le lycanthrope, and the other boys in that boyish movement of 1830. It was only Stoddart, unconsciously in sympathy with Paris, and censured by his literary friends, who produced the one British Romantic work of 1830. The title itself shows that he was partly laughing at his own performance; he has the mockery of Les Jeunes France in him, as well as the wormy and obituary joys of La Comedie de la Mort. The little book came out, inspired by “all the poetasters.” Christopher North wrote, four years later, in Blackwood’s Magazine, a tardy review. He styled it “an ingeniously absurd poem, with an ingeniously absurd title, written in a strange, namby-pamby sort of style, between the weakest of Shelley and the strongest of Barry Cornwall.” The book “fell dead from the Press,” far more dead than “Omar Khayyam.” Nay, misfortune pursued it, Miss Stoddart kindly informs me, and it was doomed to the flames. The “remainder,” the bulk of the edition, was returned to the poet in sheets, and by him was deposited in a garret. The family had a cook, one Betty, a descendant, perhaps, of “that unhappy Betty or Elizabeth Barnes, cook of Mr. Warburton, Somerset Herald,” who burned, among other quartos, Shakespeare’s “Henry I.,” “Henry II.,” and “King Stephen.” True to her inherited instincts, Mr. Stoddart’s Betty, slowly, relentlessly, through forty years, used “The Death Wake” for the needs and processes of her art. The whole of the edition, except probably a few “presentation copies,” perished in the kitchen. As for that fell cook, let us hope that
“The Biblioclastic Dead
Have diverse pains to brook,
They break Affliction’s bread
With Betty Barnes, the Cook,”
as the author of “The Bird Bride” sings.
Miss Stoddart had just informed me of this disaster, which left one almost hopeless of ever owning a copy of “The Death Wake,” when I found a brown paper parcel among many that contained today’s minor poetry “with the author’s compliments,” and lo, in this unpromising parcel was the long-sought volume! Ever since one was a small boy, reading Stoddart’s “Scottish Angler,” and old Blackwood’s, one had pined for a sight of “The Necromaunt,” and here, clean in its “pure purple mantle” of smooth cloth, lay the desired one!
“Like Dian’s kiss, unasked, unsought,
It gave itself, and was not bought,”
being, indeed, the discovery and gift of a friend who fishes and studies the Lacustrine Muses.
The copy has a peculiar interest; it once belonged to Aytoun, the writer of “The Scottish Cavaliers,” of “The Bon Gaultier Ballads,” and of “Firmilian,” the scourge of the Spasmodic School. Mr. Aytoun has adorned the margins with notes and with caricatures of skulls and cross-bones, while the fly-leaves bear a sonnet to the author, and a lyric in doggerel. Surely this is, indeed, a literary curiosity. The sonnet runs thus:—
“O wormy Thomas Stoddart, who inheritest
Rich thoughts and loathsome, nauseous words and rare,
Tell me, my friend, why is it that thou ferretest
And gropest in each death-corrupted lair?
Seek’st thou for maggots such as have affinity
With those in thine own brain, or dost thou think
That all is sweet which hath a horrid stink?
Why dost thou make Haut-gout thy sole divinity?
Here is enough of genius to convert
Vile dung to precious diamonds and to spare,
Then why transform the diamond into dirt,
And change thy mind, which should be rich and fair,
Into a medley of creations foul,
As if a Seraph would become a Ghoul?”
No doubt Mr. Stoddart’s other passion for angling, in which he used a Scottish latitude concerning bait, 7 impelled him to search for “worms and maggots”:—
“Fire and faggots,
Worms and maggots,”
as Aytoun writes on the other fly-leaf, are indeed the matter of “The Death Wake.”
Then, why, some one may ask, write about “The Death Wake” at all? Why rouse again the nightmare of a boy of twenty? Certainly I am not to say that “The Death Wake” is a pearl of great price, but it does contain passages of poetry — of poetry very curious because it is full of the new note, the new melody which young Mr. Tennyson was beginning to waken. It anticipates Beddoes, it coincides with Gautier and Les Chimeres of Gerard, it answers the accents, then unheard in England, of Poe. Some American who read out of the way things, and was not too scrupulous, recognised, and robbed, a brother in Tom Stoddart. Eleven years after “The Death Wake” appeared in England, it was published in Graham’s Magazine, as “Agatha, a Necromaunt in Three Chimeras,” by Louis Fitzgerald Tasistro. Now Poe was closely connected with Graham’s Magazine, and after “Arthur Gordon Pym,” “Louis Fitzgerald Tasistro” does suggest Edgar Allen Poe. But Poe was not Tasistro.
So much for the literary history of the Lunacy.
The poem begins — Chimera I. begins:—
“An anthem of a sister choristry!
And, like a windward murmur of the sea,
O’er silver shells, so solemnly it falls!”
The anthem accompanies a procession of holy fathers towards a bier;
Was on the lid — a name. And who? No more!
’Twas only Agathe.”
A solitary monk is prowling around in the moonlit cathedral; he has a brow of stony marble, he has raven hair, and he falters out the name of Agathe. He has said adieu to that fair one, and to her sister Peace, that lieth in her grave. He has loved, and loves, the silent Agathe. He was the son of a Crusader,
“And Julio had fain
Have been a warrior, but his very brain
Grew fevered at the sickly thought of death,
And to be stricken with a want of breath.”
On the whole he did well not to enter the service. Mr. Aytoun has here written —“A rum Cove for a hussar.”
“And he would say
A curse be on their laurels.
Was Julio forgotten and his line —
No wonder for this frenzied tale of mine.”
How? asks Aytoun, nor has the grammatical enigma yet been unriddled.
“Oh! he was wearied of this passing scene!
But loved not Death; his purpose was between
Life and the grave; and it would vibrate there
Like a wild bird that floated far and fair
Betwixt the sun and sea!”
So “he became monk,” and was sorry he had done so, especially when he met a pretty maid,
“And this was Agathe, young Agathe,
A motherless fair girl,”
whose father was a kind of Dombey, for
“When she smiled
He bade no father’s welcome to the child,
But even told his wish, and will’d it done,
For her to be sad-hearted, and a nun!”
So she “took the dreary veil.”
They met like a blighted Isabella and Lorenzo:
“They met many a time
In the lone chapels after vesper chime,
They met in love and fear.”
Then, one day,
“He heard it said:
Poor Julio, thy Agathe is dead.”
“Like to a star within the twilight hours
Of morning, and she was not! Some have thought
The Lady Abbess gave her a mad draught.”
Here Mr. Aytoun, with sympathy, writes “Damn her!” (the Lady Abbess, that is) and suggests that thought must be read “thaft.”
Through “the arras of the gloom” (arras is good), the pale breezes are moaning, and Julio is wan as stars unseen for paleness. However, he lifts the tombstone “as it were lightsome as a summer gladness.” “A summer gladness,” remarks Mr. Aytoun, “may possibly weigh about half-an-ounce.” Julio came on a skull, a haggard one, in the grave, and Mr. Aytoun kindly designs a skeleton, ringing a bell, and crying “Dust ho!”
Now go, and give your poems to your friends!
Finally Julio unburies Agathe:—
“Thou must go,
My sweet betrothed, with me, but not below,
Where there is darkness, dream, and solitude,
But where is light, and life, and one to brood
Above thee, till thou wakest. Ha, I fear
Thou wilt not wake for ever, sleeping here,
Where there are none but the winds to visit thee.
And Convent fathers, and a choristry
Of sisters saying Hush! But I will sing
Rare songs to thy pure spirit, wandering
Down on the dews to hear me; I will tune
The instrument of the ethereal moon,
And all the choir of stars, to rise and fall
In harmony and beauty musical.”
Is this not melodious madness, and is this picture of the distraught priest, setting forth to sail the seas with his dead lady, not an invention that Nanteuil might have illustrated, and the clan of Bousingots approved?
The Second Chimera opens nobly:—
“A curse! a curse! 8 the beautiful pale wing
Of a sea-bird was worn with wandering,
And, on a sunny rock beside the shore,
It stood, the golden waters gazing o’er;
And they were nearing a brown amber flow
Of weeds, that glittered gloriously below!”
Julio appears with Agathe in his arms, and what ensues is excellent of its kind:—
“He dropt upon a rock, and by him placed,
Over a bed of sea-pinks growing waste,
The silent ladye, and he mutter’d wild,
Strange words about a mother and no child.
“And I shall wed thee, Agathe! although
Ours be no God-blest bridal — even so!”
And from the sand he took a silver shell,
That had been wasted by the fall and swell
Of many a moon-borne tide into a ring —
A rude, rude ring; it was a snow-white thing,
Where a lone hermit limpet slept and died
In ages far away. ‘Thou art a bride,
Sweet Agathe! Wake up; we must not linger!’
He press’d the ring upon her chilly finger,
And to the sea-bird on its sunny stone
Shouted, ‘Pale priest that liest all alone
Upon thy ocean altar, rise, away
To our glad bridal!’ and its wings of gray
All lazily it spread, and hover’d by
With a wild shriek — a melancholy cry!
Then, swooping slowly o’er the heaving breast
Of the blue ocean, vanished in the west.”
Julio sang a mad song of a mad priest to a dead maid:—
. . .
“A rosary of stars, love! a prayer as we glide,
And a whisper on the wind, and a murmur on the tide,
And we’ll say a fair adieu to the flowers that are seen,
With shells of silver sown in radiancy between.
“A rosary of stars, love! the purest they shall be,
Like spirits of pale pearls in the bosom of the sea;
Now help thee, 9 Virgin Mother, with a blessing as we go,
Upon the laughing waters that are wandering below.”
One can readily believe that Poe admired this musical sad song, if, indeed, he ever saw the poem.
One may give too many extracts, and there is scant room for the extraordinary witchery of the midnight sea and sky, where the dead and the distraught drift wandering,
“And the great ocean, like the holy hall,
Where slept a Seraph host maritimal,
Was gorgeous with wings of diamond”—
it was a sea
“Of radiant and moon-breasted emerald.”
There follows another song —
“’Tis light to love thee living, girl, when hope is full and fair,
In the springtide of thy beauty, when there is no sorrow there
No sorrow on thy brow, and no shadow on thy heart,
When, like a floating sea-bird, bright and beautiful thou art
. . .
“But when the brow is blighted, like a star at morning tide
And faded is the crimson blush upon the cheek beside,
It is to love as seldom love the brightest and the best,
When our love lies like a dew upon the one that is at rest.”
We ought to distrust our own admiration of what is rare, odd, novel to us, found by us in a sense, and especially one must distrust one’s liking for the verses of a Tweedside angler, of a poet whose forebears lie in the green kirkyard of Yarrow. But, allowing for all this, I cannot but think these very musical, accomplished, and, in their place, appropriate verses, to have been written by a boy of twenty. Nor is it a common imagination, though busy in this vulgar field of horrors, that lifts the pallid bride to look upon the mirror of the sea —
“And bids her gaze into the startled sea,
And says, ‘Thine image, from eternity,
Hath come to meet thee, ladye!’ and anon
He bade the cold corse kiss the shadowy one
That shook amid the waters.”
The picture of the madness of thirst, allied to the disease of the brain, is extremely powerful, the delirious monk tells the salt sea waves
“That ye have power, and passion, and a sound
As of the flying of an angel round
The mighty world; that ye are one with time!”
Here, I can’t but think, is imagination.
Mr. Aytoun, however, noted none of those passages, nor that where, in tempest and thunder, a shipwrecked sailor swims to the strange boat, sees the Living Love and the Dead, and falls back into the trough of the wave. But even the friendly pencil of Bon Gaultier approves the passage where an isle rises above the sea, and the boat is lightly stranded on the shore of pure and silver shells. The horrors of corruption, in the Third Chimera, may be left unquoted, Aytoun parodies —
“The chalk, the chalk, the cheese, the cheese, the cheeses,
And straightway dropped he down upon his kneeses.”
Julio comes back to reason, hates the dreadful bride, and feeds on limpets, “by the mass, he feasteth well!”
There was a holy hermit on the isle,
“I ween like other hermits, so was he.”
He is Agathe’s father, and he has retired to an eligible island where he may repent his cruelty to his daughter. Julio tells his tale, and goes mad again. The apostrophe to Lunacy which follows is marked “Beautiful” by Aytoun, and is in the spirit of Charles Lamb’s remark that madness has pleasures unknown to the sane.
“Thou art, thou art alone,
A pure, pure being, but the God on high
Is with thee ever as thou goest by.”
Julio watches again beside the Dead, till morning comes, bringing
“A murmur far and far, of those that stirred
Within the great encampment of the sea.”
The tide sweeps the mad and the dead down the shores. “He perished in a dream.” As for the Hermit, he buried them, not knowing who they were, but on a later day found and recognised the golden cross of Agathe,
“For long ago he gave that blessed cross
To his fair girl, and knew the relic still.”
So the Hermit died of remorse, and one cannot say, with Walton, “and I hope the reader is sorry.”
The “other poems” are vague memories of Shelley, or anticipations of Poe. One of them is curiously styled “Her, a Statue,” and contains a passage that reminds us of a rubaiyat of Omar’s,
“She might see
A love-wing’d Seraph glide in glory by,
Striking the tent of its mortality.
“But that is but a tent wherein may rest
A Sultan to the realm of Death addrest;
The Sultan rises, and the dark Ferrash
Strikes, and prepares it for another guest.”
Most akin to Poe is the “Hymn to Orion,”
“Dost thou, in thy vigil, hail
Arcturus on his chariot pale,
Leading him with a fiery flight —
Over the hollow hill of night?”
This, then, is a hasty sketch, and incomplete, of a book which, perhaps, is only a curiosity, but which, I venture to think, gave promise of a poet. Where is the lad of twenty who has written as well today — nay, where is the mature person of forty? There was a wind of poetry abroad in 1830, blowing over the barricades of Paris, breathing by the sedges of Cam, stirring the heather on the hills of Yarrow. Hugo, Mr. Browning, Lord Tennyson, caught the breeze in their sails, and were borne adown the Tigris of romance. But the breath that stirred the loch where Tom Stoddart lay and mused in his boat, soon became to him merely the curl on the waters of lone St. Mary’s or Loch Skene, and he began casting over the great uneducated trout of a happier time, forgetful of the Muse. He wrote another piece, with a sonorous and delightful title, “Ajalon of the Winds.” Where is “Ajalon of the Winds”? Miss Stoddart knows nothing of it, but I fancy that the thrice-loathed Betty could have told a tale.
MALIM CONVIVIS QVAM PLACVISSE COQVIS.
We need not, perhaps, regret that Mr. Stoddart withdrew from the struggles and competitions of poetic literature. No very high place, no very glorious crown, one fancies, would have been his. His would have been anxiety, doubt of self, disappointment, or, if he succeeded, the hatred, and envyings, and lies which even then dogged the steps of the victor. It was better to be quiet and go a-fishing.
“Sorrow, sorrow speed away
To our angler’s quiet mound,
With the old pilgrim, twilight gray,
Enter through the holy ground;
There he sleeps whose heart is twined
With wild stream and wandering burn,
Wooer of the western wind
Watcher of the April morn!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11