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   Chapter 9 BOYHOOD POETRY AND METRE

The Adventure of Living : a Subjective Autobiography By John St. Loe Strachey Characters: 29513

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


If I am to be exact, this chapter should have the sub-title of "Poetry and Metre," for poetry, other people's and my own, and an impassioned study of the metrical art, were the essential things about my boyhood. Between the ages of twelve and eighteen, at which time I may be said to have become grown-up, Poetry was my life.

My schoolboy period was not passed by me at school, except a term and a half at an excellent private school-one which still flourishes-the MacLaren School at Summertown. Rather reluctantly, for he was horrified by the bullying and cruelty which went on during his own day at English schools, my father consented to my mother's desire that we should go to school. After he had taken many precautions, and had ascertained that there was no bullying at Summertown, my elder brother and I were despatched to the school in question.

I was quite happy, got on well with the schoolmasters and with Mrs. MacLaren, the clever Scotswoman who ran the school, and gave satisfaction in everything except learning. In this matter I developed an extraordinary power of resistance, partly due, no doubt, to my bad eyesight. I was pronounced, in reports, to be a boy who gave no trouble and who was always happy and contented, and appeared to have good brains, and yet who, somehow or other, was easily surpassed at work by boys with inferior mental capacity.

My schoolfellows, I believe, thought me odd; but I made friends easily, and kept them. Though I could be "managed" by anyone who wanted to get something out of me, I was never put upon or bullied, because if attempts were made to coerce me, I was, like the immortal Mr. Micawber, not disinclined for a scrap. I stood erect before my fellow-boy, and when he tried to bully me I punched his head. Mr. Micawber's comment is too moving not to be recorded. "I and my fellow-man no longer meet upon those glorious terms." I and my fellow-schoolboy did occasionally meet upon those glorious terms, greatly to my enjoyment.

It happened, however, that there was an outbreak of scarlet fever in the school, and my father became anxious, and removed us at once-somewhat, I think, to my regret, but probably for my good. It was ultimately decided that my brother and I, instead of returning to MacLaren's, should, as I have already mentioned, go to the house of a clergyman, Mr. Philpott, who was the vicar of a neighbouring village, Chewton Mendip. The Vicarage was close to Chewton Priory, the house of my mother's closest friend, Lady Waldegrave.

Though Mr. Philpott was not an educational expert, in the modern sense, he was a man of good parts, fond of the arts, and something of a man of the world. His wife was a woman of great nobility of character and also of considerable mental power. She combined the qualities of a self- sacrificing and devoted mother with a certain ironic, or even sardonic, touch. She was a daughter of Mr. Tattersall, the owner of Tattersall's sale-rooms, and at her father's house she had become acquainted in the latter part of the 'fifties and the early 'sixties with all the great sporting characters of that epoch. Of these she used to tell us boys plenty of strange and curious anecdotes.

Chewton Mendip was only seven miles from Sutton, and so while there we were in constant touch with our own home life. We had also the amusement of seeing my father and mother when they went over, as they often did, to dine and sleep, or stay for longer visits, at the Priory. Lady Waldegrave was a great entertainer, and the house was thronged, not only with her country neighbours but with numbers of smart people from London-people such as Hayward, Bagehot, Lord Houghton, on the literary side, and men like Sir Walter Harcourt on the political. Again, picturesque figures in the European world, such as the Comte de Paris, the Due d'Aumale, were often guests, and there were always members of the Foreign Embassies and Legations. For example, it was at the Priory that I first saw a real alive American, in the shape of General Schenk, the United States Minister to the Court of St. James. I remember well his teaching the whole houseparty to play poker-a game till then quite unknown in England.

It was in the interval between leaving school and going to Chewton to the Philpotts that I began to read poetry for myself. Before, I had only loved it through my father's and Leaker's reading to us from Shakespeare, Scott, Byron, Spenser, Coleridge, Southey, and the old Ballads. When, however, I discovered that I could read poetry for myself, I tore the heart out of every book in the library that was in verse. Though my parents would have thought it an unforgivable crime to keep books from a child of theirs, for some reason or other I used to like in the summer-time to get up at about five or six o'clock (I was not a very good sleeper in those days, though I have been a perfect sleeper ever since), dress myself, run through the silent, sleeping house, and hide in the Great Parlour. There in absolute quietness and with a great sense of grandeur I got out my Byron or my Shelley, and raced though their pages in a delirium of delight. I can recall still, and most vividly, the sunlight streaming into the Great Parlour window, as I opened the great iron-sheathed shutters. Till breakfast-time I lolled on the big sofa, mouthing to myself explosive couplets from Don Juan. I am proud to say that, though I liked, as a boy should, the sentimentalism of the stanzas which begin

'Tis sweet to hear the watchdog's honest bark

I was equally delighted with

Sweet is a legacy, and passing sweet

The unexpected death of some old lady.

The ironic mixture of emotion and sarcasm fascinated me.

No sooner were Byron, Shelley, and Keats explored than I fell tooth and nail upon Swinburne, Morris, and Rossetti, and every other possible poet of my generation. I forget the exact date on which I became enamoured of the Elizabethan dramatists, but it was some time between fourteen and sixteen, and when I did catch the fever, it was severe.

As everyone ought to do under such circumstances, I thought, or

pretended to think, that Marlowe, Beaumont, Fletcher, Ben Jonson,

Webster, and Ford were the equals, if not indeed the superiors, of

Shakespeare.

That was a view with which my father by no means agreed, but with his kindly wisdom he never attempted to condemn or dispute my opinions. He left me to find out the true Shakespeare for myself. This I ultimately did, and ended by being what, as a rule, is wrong in literature, but, I think, right in the case of Shakespeare, a complete idolater.

But though hand-in-hand with Charles Lamb I wandered through the Eden of the Elizabethan playwrights, I by no means neglected the Eighteenth Century. Quite early I became a wholehearted devotee of Pope and at once got the Ode to the Unfortunate Lady by heart. I dipped into The Rape of the Lock, gloried in the Moral Essays, especially in the Characters of Women and the epistle to Bathurst on the use of riches. Gray, who was a special favourite of Leaker's, soon became a favourite of mine, and I can still remember how I discovered the Ode to Poesy and how I went roaring its stanzas through the house. Such lines as

Where each old poetic mountain

Inspiration breathes around

or

Hark, his hands the lyre explore,

were meat and drink to me. The Elegy in a Country Churchyard quickly seized my memory.

Nobody could avoid knowing when I had made a poetic discovery. I was as noisy as a hen that has laid an egg, or, to be more exact, I felt and behaved like a man who has come into a fortune. For me there were no coteries in Literature, or if there were, I belonged to them all. If I heard somebody say that there were good lines in the poems of some obscure author or other, I did not rest satisfied till I had got hold of his Complete Works. For example, when Crabbe was spoken of, I ran straight to The Tales of the Hall and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I even tasted The Angel in the House when I heard that Rossetti and Ruskin, and even Swinburne, admired Coventry Patmore. Though largely disappointed, I even extracted honey from The Angel, though I confess it was rather like a bee getting honey out of the artificial flowers in the case in a parlour window. Still, if I could only find two lines that satisfied me, I thought myself amply rewarded for the trouble of a search. It is still a pleasure to repeat

And o'er them blew

The authentic airs of Paradise.

I felt, I remember, about the epithet "authentic" what Pinkerton in The Wrecker felt about Hebdomadary-"You're a boss word."

I have no recollection of what made me take to writing verse myself. It was the old story. "I lisped in numbers, for the numbers came." My first lisp-the first poem I ever wrote-of all the odd things in the world was a diminutive satire in the style of Pope. Throughout my boyhood I was an intense romanticist, and full of Elizabethan fancies, imaginings. and even melancholies-I use the word, of course, in the sense of Burton, or of Shakespeare. Yet all the time I read masses of Pope. The occasion for my satire was one which must be described as inevitable in the case of one eager to try his hand at imitations of Pope. By this I mean that the satiric outburst was not provoked by any sort of anger. I merely found in some of the circumstances of the life around me good copy. One of the things I liked particularly in Pope was the Epistle describing the Duke of Chandos's house, the poem which begins-

At Timon's villa let us pass a day,

Where all cry out what sums are thrown away.

And there, straight in front of me, was the Priory, Lady Waldegrave's grandiose country-house. I heard plenty of criticism of the house. Its nucleus was a Carpenter's Gothic villa, built originally by a Dean of Wells, bought by Lord Waldegrave in the 'thirties or 'forties, and then gradually turned by Frances, Lady Waldegrave, into a big country-house, but a house too big for the piece of ground in which it was set. The skeleton of the roadside villa was alleged by the local critics to show through the swelling flesh that overlaid it. Here was a chance for the satirist, and so I sharpened my pencil and began:

Oh, stones and mortar by a Countess laid

In sloping meadows by a turnpike glade,-

A Gothic mansion where all arts unite

To form a home for Baron, Earl or Knight.

The rest is lost! Considering that I was only twelve, and that Pope was little read by the youth of the 'seventies, my couplets may fairly claim to be recognised as a literary curiosity.

It is hardly necessary to say that the moment I found I could write, and that metre and rhyme were no difficulty to me, I went at it tooth and nail. The more I wrote the more interested did I become in metre, and it is not too much to say that within a couple of years from my first attempt, that is by the time I was about fourteen and a half, I had experimented not only in most of the chief measures, but in almost all the chief stanzas used by the English poets. To these, indeed, I added some of my own devising. In this way Prosody early became for me what it has always been, a source of pleasure and delight in itself. I liked discovering metrical devices in the poets, analysing them, i.e. discovering the way the trick worked, and in making experiments for myself. The result of this activity was that I had soon written enough verse to make a little pamphlet. With this pamphlet in my pocket and without consultation with anybody-the young of the poets are as shy as the young of the salmon-I trudged off to Wells, the county town, five miles distant across Mendip. How I discovered the name of the local printer I do not know, but I did discover it, and with beating heart approached his doors. After swearing him to secrecy, I asked for an estimate. He was a sympathetic man, and named a price which even then seemed to me low, and which was in reality so small that it would be positively unsafe to name to a master-printer nowadays.

As far as I remember, I did not receive a proof, but my delight at seeing my verses come back in print was beyond words. I remember, too, that I received a flattering note from my first publisher, prophesying success for future poetic ventures. But, though very happy, I believe, and am indeed sure, that I did not entertain any idea that I was going to become a poet. Possibly I thought the trade was a bad one for a second son who must support himself. It is more probable that I instinctively felt that although it was so great a source of joy to me, poetry was not my true vocation. Perhaps, also, I had already begun to note the voice of pessimism raised by the poets of the 'seventies, and to feel that they did not believe in themselves. I distinctly remember that Tennyson's "Is there no hope for modern rhyme?" was often on my lips and in my mind. His question distinctly expected the answer "No." It is little wonder, then, that I did not want to be a poet, and I never envisaged myself as a Byron, a Shelley, or a Keats.

The thing that strikes me most, on looking back at my little volume of verse, is its uncanny competence, not merely from the point of view of prosody, but of phraseology and what I may almost term scholarship. The poems did not show much inspiration, but they are what 18th-century critics would have called "well-turned." That would not be astonishing, in the case of a boy who had been well-educated and had acquired the art of expression. But I had not been well-educated. Owing to my ill-health my teachers had not been allowed to press me, and I was in a sense quite illiterate. I could hardly write, I could not spell at all, and nobody had ever pruned my budding fancies or shown me how to transfer thoughts to language, as one is shown, or ought to be shown, when one learns the Greek and Latin grammars and attacks Latin prose or Latin verse. My teaching in this direction had been more than sketchy. The only schoolroom matter in which I had made any advance was mathematics. Euclid and algebra fascinated me. I felt for them exactly what I felt for poetry. Though I did not know till many years afterwards that when Pythagoras discovered the forty-seventh proposition he sacrificed a yoke of oxen, not to Pallas Athene but to the Muses, I was instinctively exactly of his opinion. I can remember to this day how I worked out the proof of the forty-seventh proposition with Mr. Battersby, a young Cambridge man who was curate to Mr. Philpott and who took us on in mathematics. The realisation of the absolute, unalterable fact that in every right-angled triangle the square of the side subtending it is equal to the squa

res of the sides containing it, filled me with the kind of joy and glory that one feels on reading for the first time Keats's Ode to a Nightingale or one of the great passages in Shakespeare. I saw the genius of delight unfold his purple wing. I was transfigured and seemed to tread upon air. For the first time in my life I realised the determination of an absolute relationship. A great window had been opened before my eyes. I saw all things new. My utter satisfaction could not be spoiled by feeling, as one does in the case of the earlier propositions of Euclid, that I had been proving what I knew already- something about which I could have made myself sure by the use of a foot-rule or a tape-measure. I had acquired knowledge, by an act of pure reasoning and not merely through the senses. I felt below my feet a rock-bed foundation which nothing could shake. Come what might, a^2 = b^2 + c^2. No one could ever deprive me of that priceless possession.

At that time I did not see or dream of the connection which no doubt does exist between mathematics and poetry-the connection which made the wise Dryden say that every poet ought to be something of a mathematician. Needless to say, my teachers did not see the connection. They were simply amazed that the same person should become as drunk with geometry and algebra as with poetry. Probably they consoled themselves by the thought that I was one of the people who could persuade themselves into believing anything!

It is of importance to record my precocity in the use of measured language, from the point of view of the growth of my mind. It will, I think, also amuse those of my readers who have written poetry for themselves in their youth (that, I suppose, is the case with most of us) to observe my hardihood in the way of metrical experiment. Here is the Invocation to the Muses which served as an Introduction to my little book. It will be noted that I have here tried my hand at my favourite measure, the dactylic. Towards anapaests I have always felt a certain coldness, if not indeed repulsion.

TO THE MUSES

(1874)

Come to my aid, Muses love-laden, lyrical:

Come to my aid, Comic, Tragic, Satirical.

Come and breathe into me

Strains such as swept from Keats' heaven-strung lyre,

Strains such as Shelley's, which never can tire.

Come then, and sing to me,

Sing me an ode such as Byron would sing,

Passionate, love-stirring, quick to begin.

Why come you not to me?

Then must I write lyrics after vile rules

Made by some idiot, used by worse fools-

Then the deuce take you all!

(?tat. 14.)

I have to thank Mr. Edmund Gosse for inspiring this attempt. I hope he will forgive even if he does not forget. I had made a shopping expedition into Bristol, and went to tea or luncheon at Clifton Hill House where lived my mother's brother, John Addington Symonds. It happened that Mr. Gosse was a visitor at the house on the day in question, and that to my great delight we all talked poetry. I saw my chance, and proceeded to propound to these two authorities the following question: "Why is it that nobody has ever written an English poem in pure dactyls?" Greatly to my surprise and joy, Mr. Gosse informed me that it had been done. Thereupon he quoted the first four lines of what has ever since been a favourite poem of mine, Waller's lines to Hylas:

Hylas, O Hylas! why sit we mute,

Now that each bird saluteth the spring?

Tie up the slackened strings of thy lute,

Never may'st thou want matter to sing.

I hope I am not quoting incorrectly, but it is nearly fifty years since I saw the poem and at the moment I have not got a Waller handy. With the exactitude of youth I verified Mr. Gosse's quotation the moment I got home. I took my poetry very seriously in those days. I rushed to the Great Parlour, and though then quite indifferent to such a material thing as fine printing, I actually found the poem in one of Baskerville's exquisite productions.

The poem next to my dactylic Introduction was a dramatic lyric, partly blank verse and partly rhymed choruses, in the Swinburne manner. In my poem the virtuous and "misunderstood" Byron is pursued and persecuted by the spirits of Evil, Hypocrisy, Fraud, and Tyranny, but is finally redeemed by the Spirit of Good, whose function it is to introduce the triumphant poet to Shelley.

There follows another dramatic lyric on Shelley's death, which takes the form of the death-bed confession to his priest of an old sailor at Spezzia. The old man, according to a story published in 1875, was one of the crew of a small ship which ran down the boat containing Shelley and Williams, under the mistaken impression that the rich "milord Byron" was on board, with lots of money. Here the style is more that of Browning than of Swinburne. A few lines are quite sufficient to show the sort of progress I was making in blank verse.

What noise of feet is that? Ah, 'tis the priest.

Here, priest, I have a sin hangs heavy. See

There by the fishing-nets that lovely youth,

I killed him-oh, 'twas fifty years ago,

Only, tonight he will not let me rest,

But looks with loving eyes, making me fear.

Oh, Father, 'twas not him I meant to kill,

'Twas the rich lord I coveted to rob,

He with the bright wild eyes and haughty mien.

Imitation of Browning was by no means a passing mood with me. A year before I tackled my Shelley and Byron poems, I had written a piece of imitation Browningese which is not without its stock of amusement, considering what was to be the fate of the versifier.

JEAN DUVAL'S LAST WORDS

Jean Duval has presented himself at a Paris newspaper office, asking for employment; this being refused him he makes a last request, offering to sell his muse, which he had hoped to keep unhired. This also being refused, his want of bread overcomes him, and he curses the Editor and dies.

A plague on all gold, say I,

I who must win it, or die.

Here goes, I'll sell my Muse.

You may buy her for twenty sous.

No, I'll write by the ream,

Only give me your theme,

And a sou more for a light

To put in my garret at night.

Garret!-ah, I was forgetting,

My present's a very cheap letting

Under the prison wall,

Just where it grows so tall.

Why don't I steal, you say?

Oh, I wasn't brought up that way.

Will you give me the twenty sous?

Come, it isn't much to lose.

You won't? Then I die. Ah, well,

God will find you a lodging in hell.

(?tat. 14.)

The melancholy which belongs to the young poet, a melancholy which had to be feigned in my case, was reserved for sonnets of a somewhat antinomian type. Here is an example.

SONNET

(1875)

O why so cruel, ye that have left behind

Life's fears, and from draped death have drawn the veil?

Oh, why so cruel? Does life or death avail?

Why tell us not?-why leave us here so blind,

To tread this earth, not sure that we may find

Even an end beyond this worldly pale

Of petty hates and loves so weak and frail?

O why not speak?-is it so great a thing

To cross death's stream and whisper in the ear

Of us weak mortals some faint hope or cheer?

Or tell us, dead ones, if the hopes that spring

From joyous hours when all seems bright and clear

Have any truth. O speak, ye dead, and say

If that in hope of dying, live we may.

(?tat. 15.)

A metrical essay of which I am more proud is a poem written at the end of 1874, or possibly at the beginning of 1875. With a daring which now seems to me incredible I undertook to write in that most difficult of measures, the Spenserian stanza. The matter of the composition is by no means memorable, but I think I have a right to congratulate myself upon the fact that I was able at that age to manage the triple rhymes and the twelve-syllable line at the end of each stanza without coming a complete cropper. I could not do it now, even if my life depended on it.

TO THE POWERS OF SONG

I

Spirit, whose harmony doth fill the mind,

Deign now to hear the wailing of a song

That lifts to thee its voice, and strives to find

Aught that may raise it from the servile throng

Who seek on earth but living to prolong.

For them no goddess, no fair poets reign,

They hear no singing, as the earth along

They move to their dull tasks; they live, they wane,

They die, and dying, not a thought of thee retain.

II

Thou art the Muse of whom the Grecian knew,

The power that reigneth in each loving heart;

From thee the sages their great teachings drew.

Thou mak'st life tuneful by the poet's art.

Without thy aid the love-god's fiery dart

Wakes but a savage and a blind desire,

Where nought of beauty e'er can claim a part.

Without thee, all to which frail men aspire

Has nothing good, is but of this poor earth, no higher.

III

Unhappy they who wander without light,

And know thee not, thou goddess of sweet life;

Cursed are they all that live not in thy sight,

Cursed by themselves they cannot drown the strife

In thee, of passion, of the ills so rife

On earth; they have no star, no hope, no love,

To guide them in the stormy ways of life;

They are but as the beasts who slowly move

On the world's face, nor care to look for light above.

IV

I am not as these men; I look for light,

But none appears, no rays for me are flung.

I would not be with those that sit in night;

I fain would be that glorious host among,

That band of poets who have greatly sung.

But woe, alas, I cannot, I no power

Of singing have, all my tired heart is wrung

To think I might have known a happier hour,

And sung myself, not let my aching spirit cower.

(?tat. 14.)

A bad poem, though interesting from the number of poets mentioned, is a satiric effort entitled The Examination. It supposes that all the living poets have been summoned by Apollo to undergo a competitive examination. The bards, summoned by postcards, which had just then been introduced, repair to Parnassus and are shown to the Hall. Rossetti and Morris, however, make a fuss because the paper is not to their taste. Walt Whitman, already a great favourite of mine, "though spurning a jingle," is hailed as "the singer of songs for all time." Proteus (Wilfrid Blount) is mentioned, for my cult for him was already growing. Among other poets who appear, but who have since died to fame, are Lord Lytton, Lord Southesk, Lord Lome, Mrs. Singleton, and Martin Tupper. In the end Apollo becomes "fed up" with his versifiers, and dismisses them all with the intimation that any who have passed will receive printed cards. The curtain is rung down with the gloomy couplet:

Six months have elapsed, but no poet or bard,

So far as I know, has yet got a card

Another set of verses, written between the ages of fourteen and fifteen, which are worth recalling from the point of view of metre include some English hexameters. I was inspired to write them by an intense admiration of Clough's Amours de Voyage, an admiration which grows greater, not lesser, with years.

As I have started upon the subject of verse, I think I had better pursue the course of the stream until, as the old geographers used to say about the Rhine, its waters were lost in the sands, in my case not of Holland but of Prose.

From 1877 to the time when I actually entered Balliol, at eighteen and a half, I went on writing verse, and was fortunate enough to get one or two pieces published. Besides two sonnets which were accepted by The Spectator-sonnets whose only raison d'être was a certain competence of expression-was a poem entitled Love's Arrows, which was accepted, to my great delight, by Sir George Grove, then the Editor of Macmillan's Magazine, a periodical given up to belles-lettres. The poem may be best described as in the Burne Jones manner. I shall not, however, quote any part of it, except the prose introduction, which I still regard with a certain enthusiasm as a successful fake. It ran as follows:

At a league's distance from the town of Ponteille in Provence and hard by the shrine of Our Lady of Marten, there is in the midst of verdant meadows a little pool, overshadowed on all sides by branching oak-trees, and surrounded at the water's edge by a green sward so fruitful that in spring it seemeth, for the abundance of white lilies, as covered with half-melted snow. Unto this fair place a damsel from out a near village once came to gather white flowers for the decking of Our Lady's chapel; and while so doing saw lying in the grass a naked boy; in his hair were tangled blue waterflowers, and at his side lay a bow and marvellously wrought quivers of two arrows, one tipped at the point with gold, the other with lead. These the damsel, taking up the quiver, drew out; but as she did so the gold arrow did prick her finger, and so sorely that, starting at the pain, she let fall the leaden one upon the sleeping boy. He at the touch of that arrow sprang up, and crying against her with much loathing, fled over the meadows. She followed him to overtake him, but could not, albeit she strove greatly; and soon, wearied with her running, fell upon the grass in a swoon. Here had she lain, had not a goatherd of those parts found her and brought her to the village. Thus was much woe wrought unto the damsel, for after this she never again knew any joy, nor delighted in aught, save only it were to sit waiting and watching among the lilies by the pool. By these things it seemeth that the boy was not mortal, as she supposed, but rather the Demon or Spirit of Love, whom John of Dreux for his two arrows holdeth to be that same Eros of Greece.-MSS. Mus. Aix. B. 754. Needless to say, it was a pure invention and not a copy, or travesty of an old model. I was egregiously proud of the scription at the end which, if I remember rightly, my father helped me to concoct. A certain interest has always attached in my mind to this piece of prose. To read it one would imagine that the author had closely studied the translations of Morris and other Tenderers of the French romances, but as far as I know I had not read any of them. The sole inspiration of my forgery were a few short references in Rossetti and Swinburne. This shows that in the case of literary forgeries one need not be surprised by verisimilitudes, and that it is never safe to say that a literary forger could not have done this or that. If he happens to have a certain flair for language and the tricks of the literary trade, he can do a wonderful amount of forgery upon a very small stock of knowledge. After all, George Byron forged Sonnets by Keats which took in Lord Houghton-a very good judge in the case of Keats.

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