Friday, 27 February 2015

The New Realistic Novel by Samuel Johnson.

Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds (1775).
The New Realistic Novel is an article by Samuel Johnson for his periodical The Rambler, and was published on Saturday, March 31st 1750. The Rambler was all his own work, and unlike other popular periodicals of the time (The Spectator, for example, or The Tatler) it was more academic in style, and he wrote on a variety of subjects from morality, politics, religion, and literature. Examples include:

  • Stoicism (1750)
  • Pastoral Poetry (1750)
  • Sorrow (1750)
  • Capital Punishment (1751)
  • The Need for Enterprise (1751)
  • The Need for General Knowledge (1751)
  • A Rural Tyrant (1751)
  • 'Rules of Writing' (1751)
  • A Prostitute's Story (1751)
  • An Astute Young Lady (1752)

There were, in total, 208 articles, each quite short, and The Ramber ran between 1750 to 1752 at the time when Johnson was working on A Dictionary of the English Language, which was later published in 1755.

The New Realistic Novel was the fourth article for the periodical and in the collected edition it was titled 'The modern form of romances preferable to the ancient. The necessity of characters morally good'. Johnson begins,
The works of fiction with which the present generation seems more particularly delighted are such as exhibit life in its true state, diversified only by accidents that happen in the world, and influenced by passions and qualities which are really to be found in conversing with mankind.
This he refers to as "the comedy of romance", which is achieved "without the help of wonder". The learned Dr. Johnson continues by applauding this new 'movement':
Why this wild strain of imagination found reception so long in polite and learned ages, it is not easy to conceive; but we cannot wonder that, while readers could be procured, the authors were willing to continue it: for when a man had by practice gained some fluency of language, he had no further care than to retire to his closet, let loose his invention, and heat his mind with incredibilities; a book was thus produced without fear of criticism, without the toil of study, without knowledge of nature, or acquaintance with life.
There is a danger, however, not simply that authors become "just copiers of human manners", but that immoral heroes and heroines corrupt the minds of young readers whose minds are "not informed by experience, and consequently open to every false suggestion and partial account". Former styles with "the help of wonder" were of no danger because no reader could identify with characters or situations,
But when an adventurer is levelled with the rest of the world, and acts in such scenes of universal dramas as may be the lot of any other man, young spectators fix their eye upon him with closer attention, and hope by observing his behaviour and success to regulate their own practices, when they shall be engaged in the like part.
Johnson goes on, therefore, to issue caution: "It is therefore not a sufficient vindication of a character that it is drawn as it appears, for many characters ought never to be drawn". As a consequence of those characters being drawn "we lose the abhorrence of their faults, because they do not hinder our pleasure, or perhaps, regard them with some kindness for being united with so much merit".

He concludes this essay by extolling virtue in literature:
In narratives where historical veracity has no place, I cannot discover why there should not be exhibited the most perfect idea of virtue; of virtue not angelical, nor above probability, for what we cannot credit, we shall never imitate, but the highest and purest that humanity can reach, which, exercised in such trials as the various revolutions of things shall bring upon it, may, by conquering some calamities, and enduring others, teach us what we may hope, and what we can perform. Vice, for vice is necessary to be shown, should always disgust; nor should the graces of gaiety, or the dignity of courage, be so united with it, as to reconcile it to the mind. Wherever it appears, it should raise hatred by the malignity of its practices, and contempt by the meanness of its stratagems: for while it is supported by either parts or spirit, it will be seldom heartily abhorred.
This essay is a particularly enlightening read and I'm glad this happened to be my first 'Johnson'. The idea that realistic novels should encourage virtue is an old fashioned belief now but it says a lot about the times in which it was written. Contemporary 'fans' of Samuel Johnson's works included Samuel Richardson (author of Clarissa, 1748) and Charlotte Lennox (author of The Female Quixote, 1752), but I wonder what some of my favourite authors would have made of this piece. Would Johnson have condemned Émile Zola, for example? His novels do sometimes make for a bit of a rough read, but his contemptible characters are not without their purpose, and some (I won't get into specifics) condemn themselves by their own lack of virtue even if the corrupt world they inhabit does not.

Jane Austen, who would have been nine when Johnson died, was another writer influenced by Johnson and I can't help but think from this short essay of Johnson's that he would have approved of her works. The time frame in which Johnson was writing was the 'Neo-Classical Period', specifically the 'Age of sensibility' (known too as the 'Age of Johnson'), but though Austen was writing later in the 'Romantic' period her works reflect more 'Neo-Classical' styles and concerns, particularly in (I dare say) Sense and Sensibility (1811). Finally, if I'm thinking about some of my favourite authors: Austen would have passed Johnson's test, and perhaps Émile Zola might have done, but Emily Brontë would not. I am certain he would have condemned Wuthering Heights (1847).

As for others: what would he have made of modernists? Surely James Joyce would not pass the Johnson test, but perhaps Woolf might have done; perhaps he would have been interested and excited by the psychological 'realism' of writing. It's hard for me to say. I think having read this essay it will stay with me and I'll often wonder if the books I am reading would have been approved by Johnson.

Next week for the Deal Me In Challenge I am delighted to say I got the King of Diamonds, which is The Wasps by Aristophanes (the play I ought to have read when I mistakenly read The Frogs). I adored The Frogs so I'm very happy to be reading another Aristophanes so soon!

For now, here is Johnson's article in The Rambler vol. 1, published in 1801 (the article can also he read here on Virtual Salt).

Thursday, 26 February 2015

The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë by Daphne du Maurier.

The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë by Daphne du Maurier was a chance discovery. I found a picture of the cover online whilst searching for something else (Charlotte Brontë related, I think) and there it was, and I bought it straight away. It was written by Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca (1938; said by some to be a re-telling of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre), The Birds (1963), Don't Look Now (1971), and many other novels and short stories. The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë is her 1960 biography of Branwell Brontë. 

Branwell Brontë is, of course, the brother of Anne, Charlotte, and Emily Brontë. He was the fourth child of Patrick and Maria Brontë. born on 26th June 1817 and died 24th September 1848, a year younger than Charlotte (born 21st April 1816), a year older than Emily (born 30th July 1818) and three years older than Anne (born 17th January 1820).

But du Maurier begins the biography not with his birth but his death:
He died on Sunday morning, the 24th September, 1848. He was thirty-one years old. He died in the room which he had shared with his father for so long, and in which, as a little boy, he had awakened to find the moon shining through the curtainless windows and his father upon his knees, praying. The room, for too many months now, had been part refuge and part prison-cell. It had been refuge from the accusing or indifferent eyes of his sisters, refuge from the averted gaze of his father, whose offer of help in dressing spelt reproach. 
Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Brontë by Branwell Brontë
Already, in the Preface, du Maurier has written about the "infernal world" -
Mr. Bronte, their father, writing to Mrs. Gaskell after she had published the biography of his daughter Charlotte, told her: "The picture of my brilliant and unhappy son is a masterpiece." He did not understand, any more than Mrs. Gaskell, that the "brilliance" existed to a great extent in his own imagination, the pride of a lonely widower in the extraordinary precocity and endearing liveliness of a boy whose supposed genius disintegrated with the coming of manhood; whose unhappiness was caused, not by the abortive love- affair described by Mrs. Gaskell with such gusto, but by his inability to distinguish truth from fiction, reality from fan- tasy; and who failed in life because it differed from his own "infernal world.
If any single quote could sum the book up it is this. Branwell is deluded in his belief of his own creative genius and obsessed with the "infernal world", the fictitious world, of Angria.

In 1826 when Branwell was nine, his father brought home with him toy soldiers. Du Maurier writes,
His father had brought home for him a present of some toy soldiers. Tearing open the box, he had run to his three sisters, and had given each of them one of the little wooden figures. Immediately the soldiers had assumed names and person- alities, and round them the four children had built some of their most cherished games. Out of them, indeed, had grown the heroic figures whom the sisters later wove into their tales. The soldier whom Charlotte had dubbed Wellesley was now Rochester, lover of Jane Eyre. Parry, Emily's soldier, was Heathcliff, alone on Wuthering Heights. Anne's soldier, Ross, had become Arthur Huntingdon, whose wife fled to Wildfell Hall. Only Sneaky, his own soldier, later to become Alexander Percy, remained hidden and unknown.
Map of Angria by Branwell Brontë (1830-31).
Branwell was 'in charge of' these soldiers and he allocated them to his sister, and from these games they played Angria was born and they led to a variety of stories written by the siblings: My Angria and the Angrians, for example, and Tales of Angria, which included 'Mina Laury', 'Stancliffe's Hotel', 'The Duke of Zamorna', 'Henry Hastings', 'Caroline Vernon', and 'The Roe Head Journal Fragments'. The great capital, Glasstown and Verdopolis, was created however Anne and Emily were banished from it, and so they created their own island, Gondal, from which the Gondal poems were inspired.

The character of Branwell's own soldier, Alexander Percy, remained with Branwell for his entire life and had quickly become an idealised version of his own self and image, as well as, most importantly, who Branwell wanted to become.

The life of Feild [sic] Marshal
the Right Honourable Alexaner [sic] Percy
by Branwell Brontë (1835)
Branwell had always been very creative, but what he lacked was talent. Nevertheless for much of his life he had faith and hope and he believed in his own genius; he sought and waited for recognition that never came. When Charlotte wrote to Robert Southey (the Poet Laureate of the time) he wrote to William Wordsworth (who was to become Poet Laureate in 1843), however, owing no doubt to the clumsiness of Branwell's letter, did not reply (Wordsworth remarked to Southey that Branwell's letter contained "gross flattery and plenty of abuse of other poets.") Branwell wrote too to Hartley Coleridge (the eldest son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge), another one of Branwell's idols.

But, despite best efforts, Branwell's literary efforts have never been recognised as genius, though some of his poems are often included in Brontë poetry collections and there are editions of the Brontë's juvenilla which include Branwell's works. Similarly his artistic achievements were unsuccessful and his goal to be admitted into the Royal Academy of Arts was never realised, though he did for a time work as a portrait painter. Aside from these, he held other positions: 'assistant clerk in charge' at Sowerby Bridge railway station, then later 'clerk in charge'. Du Maurier writes,
A clerkship on the railway in 1840 must have seemed as promising to a young man then as a position in an atomic-energy centre would today. To ignore the railway was to ignore progress, to close an eye to the future. There was money to be made in the railways, and the post of booking-clerk at a small station might lead to a better-paid and more important job in one of the large towns like Man- chester or Leeds. Branwell, if he did well, could be earning a comfortable income in ten years' time, with leisure in his spare hours for writing.
However he was dismissed following the discovery of a deficit in the accounts (most likely a porter had stolen the money whilst Branwell neglected his post). Another job, tutoring the son of Reverend Edmund Robinson (who Anne also worked as a governess for) also proved unsuccessful, owing perhaps to his infatuation with Lydia Robinson, Edmund's wife (though this is not the only theory).

All of this failure is explained by du Maurier in terms of the "infernal world" in which he inhabited. The death of his young sisters Maria (1814 - 1825, who became for Branwell a substitute for his mother who died in 1821) and Elizabeth (1815 - 1825, less than a month after Maria) affected him greatly: du Maurier writes of her death,
He was not even allowed to kiss her good morning or good night. On the 6th of May, 1825, his aunt told him that Maria had gone to join Mama. She, too, was safe in the arms of Jesus. She would suffer no more. If so, why the grief? Why the worn anguished eyes of Papa? And why would not God and Jesus listen to Papa who had prayed, night after night, that Maria might be spared? "Maria is better where she is," they told him. But lying alone on her bed, grown shrunken and small and very pale, flowers in her lifeless hands, her eyes closed, Maria was not better where she was, Maria was worse, far worse, and once nailed in the coffin, and carried to the church and put out of sight beneath the flagstone, she would surely awaken through fear of the darkness and try to push the stone, and the stone would not move.
Branwell Brontë, self portrait.
This led to a crisis in faith from which Branwell never recovered. He became a disturbed adult who turned to drink and later drugs:
Branwell may have taken his first dose of laudanum for any of these reasons. The fear of a convulsive attack seizing him in Liverpool, as it possibly had done in London four years before, would be enough to send him to the nearest pharmacy. His father noted in the volume of Domestic Medicine that tic douleureux are French words signifying a "painful convulsive fit," and they should be pronounced "tic doolaroos." In those days opium could be obtained with the utmost ease for a few pence. Anything that dulled pain, or the apprehension of pain, and stimulated the imagination too, was likely to attract Branwell; besides, the very fact that opium had inspired Coleridge and de Quincey gave the drug a romantic flavour. If de Quincey could take fifty-three ounces of laudanum on one of his peak days, then it could not harm Branwell to take three. It was something that would not be noticed at home, either. It was different from drinking.
His death seemed inevitable: he died on 24th September 1848 of "chronic bronchitis and marasmus" (wasting of the body). In December of that year, Emily too died, then in the following May Anne died, leaving Charlotte without her siblings.

The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë is a great read, although I cannot comment on its accuracy. There are some odd-sounding theories within it, for example Wuthering Heights was written by both Emily and Branwell. Also, du Maurier is highly critical of Branwell's writing. I don't think I'm a particularly good judge of poetry, but I do think at times she was unnecessarily harsh. Furthermore, the almost poetic inevitability of his death presented was perhaps not so, though du Maurier herself discredits several 'myths' of the Brontë, such as the belief that Emily was desperately homesick whilst travelling to Belgium with Charlotte. Indeed, naturally, there are many references to the sisters themselves, and the impact of their success on Branwell's fragile state of mind. It adds a new dimension to my understanding and knowledge of the sisters, their creativity, their travels, as well as their day-to-day lives. It doesn't quite read as a biography, perhaps more as an imaginative though historically based, narrative. But I did love reading it and it's an absolute must for Brontë fans!

Finally, here are some of the paintings by Branwell Brontë:

Emily Brontë
Henry Forster of Denholme
Horse with rider
Isaac Kirby
John Feather
Landscape with cottage, river, and bridge
Landscape with figures
The Lincolnshire Link Boy
The Lonely Shepherd
Margaret Hartley
Further Reading

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Perkin Warbeck by John Ford.

I've been reading some of John Ford's plays for Fanda's Renaissance Month (part of the Literary Movements Challenge) and so far I've read:
Perkin Warbeck is my final play, and whilst I can't say I thoroughly dislike John Ford, reaching the final play in my book has rather come as a relief! That said, there are still plenty of other Ford plays I've yet to read:
  • The Witch of Edmonton (written with Thomas Dekker and William Rowley; printed 1658)
  • The Sun's Darling (written with Thomas Dekker; printed in 1656)
  • Love's Sacrifice (1633)
  • The Fancies Chaste and Noble (1638) 
  • The Lady's Trial (1639)
  • The Queen (dubious authorship; printed 1653) 
  • The Spanish Gypsy (dubious authorship; printed 1653)
I won't rule out reading these one day. For now, though, to Perkin Warbeck.


Perkin Warbeck is John Ford's fifth solo play and was published in 1634. It's a historical play based on Perkin Warbeck, a pretender to the English throne.

The Princes in the Tower by John Everett Millais
Perkin Warbeck (1474 - 1499) claimed, from 1490, that he was Richard of Shrewsbury, the Duke of York, and so the son of Edward IV who died in 1483. Edward IV was succeeded by Edward V, his son, who died, uncrowned in the same year. Following Edward V was Richard III, and next Henry VII who reigned from 1485 to 1509 (to be succeeded by Henry VIII). It was, in short, Henry VII's claim to the throne that Warbeck threatened.

Richard of Shrewsbury, along with his brother Edward (who was to become Edward V), was imprisoned in the Tower of London when Edward was 12 and Richard 9 (they have subsequently been dubbed 'The Princes in the Tower'). It was claimed that this was in order to prepare Edward for his duties as King, however the Lord Protector, Richard of Gloucester (Edward IV's brother) who was caring the boys claimed the right to the throne and he became Richard III. The fate of the two brothers is a mystery, though, in 1674, the skeletons of children were found in a stairway within the Tower of London, and King Charles II, believing that they were of Edward and Richard, ordered that they be buried in Westminster Abbey. Later, in 1789, the coffins of two children were found within the vault of Edward IV and his wife Elizabeth Woodville. It was believed that these were the coffins of the two other children, George, Duke of Bedford, and Mary of York, however their remains were later discovered elsewhere (St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle, I believe), so these two coffins in the vault of Edward IV are unknown.

Perkin Warbeck.
So there is a very potted history of Richard of Shrewsbury, whose identity Perkin Warbeck assumed from 1490 (and those who have read William Shakespeare's Richard III, 1592, will already be familiar with this story). At this time, the fate of Richard of Shrewsbury was unknown and so Warbeck was able to convince some people and even gain support and followers; Margaret of York (the sister of Edward IV and Richard III) was one supporter (she was against the new House of Tudor headed by Henry VII, and, wishing to see the House of York continue to rule England, she also backed another pretender - Lambert Simnel). Warbeck was also received by James IV of Scotland, Charles VIII of France and other European monarchs, so his claim to the throne and his threat to Henry VII was very plausible. And it is this period that John Ford writes about in Perkin Warbeck.

It was written at a time when historical plays were out of favour. Ford writes in the Prologue:
Studies have, of this nature, been of late
So out of fashion, so unfollowed, that
It is become more justice to revive
The antic follies of the time that strive
To countenance wise industry....
Unlike some of Shakespeare's histories, Ford is credited with presenting a fairly accurate portrayal of events (though there is an instance where Warbeck meets Simnel, the aforementioned other 'pretender', which is unlikely to have happened), however the character Perkin Warbeck is rather romanticised and presented as a sympathetic character.

The play opens with King Henry VII discussing the state of affairs - how he is rightfully King, yet his position is frequently challenged and his reign is unsafe. He talks of Perkin Warbeck and Margaret of York (or Margaret of Burgundy), at which the Earl of Oxford observes
Margaret of Burgundy
Blows fresh coals of division.

It is a dark and unsettled opening, almost like Shakespeare's Hamlet (1603); Ford paints these troubled times very well.

Act II.
It is not until Act II where we meet Warbeck himself. The scene is in Scotland where King James IV is to receive Warbeck at the Duke of York. Warbeck wins King James over to his cause, whilst King Henry struggles to deal with rebels. As this is going on, King James arranges a marriage between Warbeck and his distant relative Lady Katherine Gordon (Lady Catherine Gordon, daughter of George Gordon, 2nd Earl of Huntly). Naturally great tension is caused between Scotland and England, and there are threats, all at the time when there are already uprisings in Cornwall. Warbeck, now married to Katherine, travels to Cornwall in order to gain their support and hopes he will ultimately take the throne.

Most of us know there has never been a King Perkin of England, so the end should come as no surprise, but I won't go into any details so as not to spoil the play for new readers. This period was a very complex time, and so the play is rather complicated. I did enjoy it but it was a struggle and I think I might have done better to know more about the time before I read it rather than read up about it afterwards. But the period itself was fascinating, full of darkness, treachery, and excitement, so it's hard not to enjoy Perkin Warbeck. It is one of the best of the four I've read, though my favourite has to be 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. The other two, The Lover's Melancholy and The Broken Heart were not such good reads. All the same it's been very interesting to read these four plays by John Ford.

And so my Renaissance February comes to an end! Next month is the Enlightenment and I'm planning on reading Voltaire's Letters on England. That's not such a long book so I may look for one or two more books: I'm even considering Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, though this is one of my most intimidating reads on my Classic Club list! I think I should, though... 

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Home of the Gentry by Ivan Turgenev.

Ivan Turgenev by Ilya Repin (1874).
Home of the Gentry (Дворянское гнездо), also known as The Nest of Gentlefolk or The House of Gentlefolk, is the 1859 novel by Russian writer Ivan Turgenev (Ива́н Серге́евич Турге́нев). I haven't read Turgenev for many years and I don't believe I've ever written anything about any of his works. He wrote many short stories, novels, and plays; perhaps his best known novels are On the Eve (Накануне, 1860), Fathers and Sons (Отцы и дети, 1862), and Home of the Gentry. His short story collection, Sketches from a Hunter's Album (Записки охотника, 1852), was credited as changing the Russian public's opinion of serfdom, which was eventually abolished by Tsar Alexander II in 1861. He was a Realist, was admired by American novelist Henry James, and associated with Émile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, and Alphonse Daudet. His relationships with Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy were, however, strained: whilst travelling in Paris together, Tolstoy called him a bore, and Dostoyevsky parodied him in his 1872 novel The Devils (Бесы) in the character Karmazinov. Finally, in 1979 Nikolai Stepanovich Chernykh discovered an asteroid and it is named 3323 Turgenev, after Ivan Turgenev. 

As for me, having read Fathers and Sons and On the Eve (both of which I'd like to re-read), I'd say I very much enjoy Turgenev's work and Home of the Gentry (Turgenev's second novel) is possibly my favourite so far. It's about a nobleman, Fyodor Ivanych Lavretsky, who returns home "to the provincial town of O..." (Oryol, perhaps? Oryol was the home of Turgenev) having learned that his wife, Varvara Pavlovna, has had an affair. On returning to "O..." he visits his cousin Marya Dmitrievna Kalitina and meets her daughter, Liza. He falls in love, and later learns that Varvara has died. He declares his love to Liza, and she reciprocates, however Fate is most unkind...

Home of the Gentry is a very gentle book, melancholic, and full of music: one can almost hear the strains of the piano not quite breaking the stillness of the novel. It's about love, loss, disappointment, and even boredom: Lavretsky struggles to find a purpose and is often thwarted, and this theme is often reflected in the music. Of Lemm, the German musician also visiting the Kalitinas, Turgenev writes,
Alas! the music turned out to be complicated and painfully strained; it was clear that the composer had striven to express something passionate and deep, but nothing had come of it; the effort had remained an effort.
This almost sums up Lavretsky. And in other times, happier times, the nightingale sings,
Everything was hushed in the room; the only sound was the faint crackling of the wax-candles, and sometimes the tap of a hand on the table, and an exclamation or reckoning of points; and the rich torrent of the nightingale's song, powerful piercingly sweet, poured in at the window, together with the dewy freshness of the night.
Sound and music is such a great part of Home of the Gentry and I regret not making a little list of the music and composers that are mentioned (I do remember Chopin, Beethoven, and Schubert are mentioned). When I come to re-read it I will, but for now I'll say music is the key to it. In happiness:
"She loves me, she will be mine." Suddenly it seemed to him that in the air over his head were floating strains of divine triumphant music. He stood still. The music resounded in still greater magnificence; a mighty flood of melody--and all his bliss seemed speaking and singing in its strains. He looked about him; the music floated down from two upper windows of a small house.
Times of excitement:
The waltz she had played was ringing in her head, and exciting her; whatever position she might find herself in, she had only to imagine lights, a ballroom, rapid whirling to the strains of music--and her blood was on fire, her eyes glittered strangely, a smile strayed about her lips, and something of bacchanalian grace was visible over her whole frame.
Times of ecstasy,
The sweet passionate melody went to his heart from the first note; it was glowing and languishing with inspiration, happiness and beauty; it swelled and melted away; it touched on all that is precious, mysterious, and holy on earth. It breathed of deathless sorrow and mounted dying away to the heavens. Lavretsky drew himself up, and rose cold and pale with ecstasy. This music seemed to clutch his very soul, so lately shaken by the rapture of love, the music was glowing with love too. "Again!" he whispered as the last chord sounded.
And at times of regret:
But Lemm sat a long while on his bed, a music-book on his knees. He felt as though sweet, unheard melody was haunting him; already he was all aglow and astir, already he felt the languor and sweetness of its presence . . but he could not reach it.
"Neither poet nor musician!" he muttered at last ... And his tired head sank wearily on to the pillows.
It brings characters together, literally in the music evenings hosted by Marya Kalitina, and in conversation between the characters, too. For this, the union of prose and music, I love Home of the Gentry. The characters are so well drawn; it's truly a compelling read even with the moments of melodrama. I'm looking forward to reading more Turgenev; I think for my next read will be Sketches from a Hunter's Album


Further Reading

Friday, 20 February 2015

To A Skylark by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Evening Telegraph
(Monday 8th July 1929)
To a Skylark is a 105 line poem by the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and it was published in 1820 accompanying his five act drama Prometheus Unbound, which also contained several other poems: The Sensitive Plant, A Vision of the Sea, Ode to Heaven, An Exhoration, Ode to the West Wind, An Ode, written October, 1819, before the Spaniards had recovered their Liberty, The Cloud, and Ode to Liberty. I read it for the Deal Me In Challenge, in which, so far, I'm getting a disproportionate amount of poetry!

A skylark is, of course, a bird: a little bird slightly larger than a sparrow, which may be found in the UK and parts of Europe (the Skylark's song can be found on the RSPB website). Mary Shelley, the wife of Percy Shelley, describes how they heard the Skylark one evening in Italy:
In the Spring we spent a week or two near Leghorn (Livorno) ... It was on a beautiful summer evening while wandering among the lanes whose myrtle hedges were the bowers of the fire-flies, that we heard the carolling of the skylark.
A Skylark.
The poem opens,
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.  
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.
Illustration to the final verse
by Jessie Marion King.
[The poem can be read in full here]

Shelley goes on to write of this unseen little skylark filling the air with "music sweet as love". The poem is full of Godly and heavenly images, and suggests a parallel with God - that which is unseen may still be believed by faithful for its evidence exists all around us. Nothing, he writes, can be compared with the skylark -
What thou art we know not;
What is most like thee?
From rainbow clouds there flow not
Drops so bright to see
As from thy presence showers a rain of melody. 
He goes on further to address the skylark as if he was addressing God and asks questions on perfection, happiness and sadness, and contrasts the free bird with the constrains humanity faces - 
With thy clear keen joyance
Languor cannot be:
Shadow of annoyance
Never came near thee:
Thou lovest: but ne'er knew love's sad satiety.
W. J. Neatby's illustration for
Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats
It is an extraordinarily beautiful poem that may be likened to Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats (written in May 1819) in that both poets use a bird as an allegory to explain the human condition, however the poets have an opposite experience: Keats writes of "a drowsy numbness" and contrasts the happy sound of the nightingale with his own state whereas Shelley writes of pure and ecstatic joy and appeals to the skylark to teach him of happiness:
Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow
The world should listen then, as I am listening now.
1902 edition of
Poems of the Past and Present.
Some years later Thomas Hardy wrote of Shelley's poem - Shelley's Skylark (this poem was published in 1901 in Poems of the Past and Present and was written in 1887). In it Hardy writes of the inspiration the skylark provoked but denies its immortality:
The dust of the lark that Shelley heard,
And made immortal through times to be; -
Though it only lived like another bird,
And knew not its immortality. 
Hardy concludes,
Go find it, faeries, go and find
That tiny pinch of priceless dust,
And bring a casket silver-lined,
And framed of gold that gems encrust;  
And we will lay it safe therein,
And consecrate it to endless time;
For it inspired a bard to win
Ecstatic heights in thought and rhyme.
To a Skylark has been an interesting read, not just for the poem itself but because it is a contrast, a reply even, to Ode to a Nightingale by Keats, and has itself inspired another poet, Thomas Hardy (none of these poems I have read before). I've read other poems by Keats and Hardy, but I think this may have been my first by Percy Shelley. I do have a collection of Shelley poems, and I think I would like to read them very soon.

The manuscripts of To a Skylark by Percy Shelley.

Next week for Deal Me In an essay: 'The Realistic Novel' by Samuel Johnson.

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