A Scottish Romanticist of 1830
[Note: This is taken From Andrew Lang's Adventures Among Books.]
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
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:—
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 Gérard de Nerval, and Victor Hugo, and Théophile Gautier, and Pétrus 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.
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—
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 Comédie 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
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 to-day’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!
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:—
No doubt Mr. Stoddart’s other passion for angling, in which he used a Scottish latitude concerning bait, impelled him to search for “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 Chimères of Gérard, 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:—
The anthem accompanies a procession of holy fathers towards a bier;
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 Agathè. 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 Agathè. He was the son of a Crusader,
On the whole he did well not to enter the service. Mr. Aytoun has here written—“A rum Cove for a hussar.”
How? asks Aytoun, nor has the grammatical enigma yet been unriddled.
So “he became monk,” and was sorry he had done so, especially when he met a pretty maid,
whose father was a kind of Dombey, for
So she “took the dreary veil.”
They met like a blighted Isabella and Lorenzo:
Then, one day,
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 Agathè:—
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:—
Julio appears with Agathè in his arms, and what ensues is excellent of its kind:—
Julio sang a mad song of a mad priest to a dead maid:—
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,
it was a sea
There follows another song—
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—
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
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—
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,
He is Agathè’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.
Julio watches again beside the Dead, till morning comes, bringing
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 Agathè,
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,
Most akin to Poe is the “Hymn to Orion,”
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 to-day—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.
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.