Sunday, December 29, 2019

Or like some road-side pool

I opened up my Victorian flower calendar again, and my eye fell on this poem, under the heading of Maple -- Reserve.*

A wretched thing it were to have our heart
Like a broad highway or a populous street,
Where every idle thought has leave to meet,
Pause, or pass on, as in the open mart ;
Or like some road-side pool, which no nice art
Has guarded that the cattle may not beat
And foul it with a multitude of feet,
Till of the heavens it can give back no part ;
But keep thou thine a holy solitude,
For He who would walk there would walk alone,
He who would drink there must be first endued
With single right to call that stream his own ;
Keep thou thine heart, close fastened, unrevealed,
A fencéd garden, and a fountain sealed.

The poem begins by recommending control of the thoughts we allow into our heart. It's an idea that was long overdue the revival that has come about in our own times; as mindfulness, the re-engineering of mental habits by NLP, rejection of negative or judgmental thoughts, and so on.

So far, this is a poem about limiting what we allow in to our hearts.  But towards the end, especially in the word "unrevealed", it starts to be about what we allow out; what we let other people see or know about ourselves.

Practically, the two are connected, because human interaction is a two-way thing. (And yes, we are talking relationships, attachments and temptations fully as much as we are talking about a commerce of supposedly abstract thoughts and ideas.)

"The heart" had become a precious repository, something separate from the mind. It was the seat of deep emotions, values, convictions and doubts. One did not automatically speak from it.

But this control on what we give out introduces a new and less comfortable aspect of the matter. The religious life, the cultivation of the heart, so easily descends into hypocrisy and self-deception: the religious heart may perhaps contain nothing but holy thoughts, but even if it does not, it should continue to appear holy.

"He" means the Lord... and there's something unintendedly charming and comic about the momentary image of a thirsty snorting Lord with his muzzle in the water, not sharing his pool with the cattle.

But still, I can't help thinking, too, that the "He" who relishes a private saunter might well be a husband or father, while the heart in question might well belong to a wife or daughter.

But let's not limit it. This idea of the heart's virginity went further. For Victorian gentlefolk everything that was truly of value, everything that gave meaning to existence, needed to be guarded, preserved, policed. Always the danger of infiltration, of pollution, of dilution. This last perhaps the most critical of all. You could end up without a class structure!

Reserve doesn't seem quite right to describe this poem, nor does the title "Retirement" used in the 1919 Oxford Book of Victorian Verse.

The poet was Richard Chenevix Trench (1807 - 1886), also a philologist (a proponent of what became the OED),  Dean of Westminster Abbey and finally Archbishop of Dublin, the city of his birth. He was also the father of 14 children.

This poem appears (headed merely "Sonnet") on p. 4 of the 1910 volume Sonnets and Elegiacs, and on p. 36 of the 1865 Poems, Collected and Arranged Anew. In both these books it is the fourth sonnet of a set of six about the Christian life. But this set is evidently one of the new arrangements, because some of these sonnets (though not the one above) had appeared in the 1838 collection Sabbation, Honor Neale, and Other Poems.


The fifth sonnet gives rise to another debate across the centuries.

To feel that we are homeless exiles here,
To listen to the world's discordant tone,
As to a private discord of our own,
To know that we are fallen from a sphere
Of higher being, pure, serene, and clear,
Into the darkness of this dim estate --
This thought may sometimes make us desolate,
For this we may shed many a secret tear.
But to mistake our dungeon for a throne,
Our place of exile for our native land,
To hear no discords in the universe,
To find no matter over which to groan,
This (oh ! that men would rightly understand!)
This, seeming better, were indeed far worse.

Of course Trench is mainly referring not to the natural world but to that spiritual temptation the World: the world as social construct, the seat of worldly temptations, of secularism and economic power.

Nevertheless,  it's remarkable how, since Trench's time, awareness of environmental destruction has quite altered our sense of spiritual home. This planet, we belatedly realize now, is precisely our native land. As its creatures, we can live nowhere else. Nor can we deny our kinship even with the human world of capital, consumerism and greed. That's just as much a part of nature as the rest is. We understand all too clearly our complicity in its behaviours and their consequences; and that the dreadful story unfolding in our own time is the work of ordinary human animals like ourselves, not for the most part especially wicked but attached to our lifestyles and zealous for our own families and the tribes we identify with.

And, on the other hand, we see that the claim of human transcendence, of "higher being", comes to be productive not of spirituality but of other forms of gravity-defying transport (such as jet-planes and fast cars), or of the hands-free illusions of modern consumerism and mass culture.


Trench's works are available online, thanks to the Hathi Trust (His excellent Wikipedia entry has links to them). I've been relishing reading his introductory chapters to a volume of selected translations of Calderón.

Flicking through the titles of his poems, in bulk, gives an impression of bounteous production in the Tennyson-Arnold-Browning mould. More obviously than any of those others, he was a follower of Wordsworth. As in this delightful poem:


We walked within the Church-yard bounds,
   My little boy and I --
He laughing, running happy rounds,
   I pacing mournfully.

"Nay, child ! It is not well," I said,
   "Among the graves to shout,
To laugh and play among the dead,
   And make this noisy rout."

A moment to my side he clung,
   Leaving his merry play,
A moment stilled his joyous tongue,
   Almost as hushed as they.

Then, quite forgetting the command
   In life's exulting burst
Of early glee, let go my hand,
   Joyous as at the first.

And now I did not check him more,
   For, taught by Nature's face,
I had grown wiser than before
   Even in that moment's space :

She spread no funeral pall above
   That patch of churchyard ground,
But the same azure vault of love
   As hung o'er all around.

And white clouds o'er that spot would pass,
   As freely as elsewhere ;
The sunshine on no other grass
   A richer hue might wear.

And formed from out that very mould
   In which the dead did lie,
The daisy with its eye of gold
   Looked up into the sky.

The rook was wheeling overhead,
   Nor hastened to be gone --
The small bird did its glad notes shed,
   Perched on a grey head-stone.

And God, I said, would never give
   This light upon the earth,
Nor bid in childhood's heart to live
   These springs of gushing mirth,

If our one wisdom were to mourn,
   And linger with the dead,
To nurse, as wisest, thoughts forlorn
   Of worm and earthy bed.

Oh no, the glory Earth puts on,
   the child's unchecked delight,
Both witness to a triumph won --
   (If we but judged aright,)

A triumph won o'er sin and death,
   From these the Saviour saves ;
And, like a happy infant, Faith
   Can play among the graves.

Another poem that caught my attention was this:

 Written on the First Tidings of the Cabul Massacres, January, 1842 .

WE sat our peaceful hearths beside;
Within our temples hushed and wide
We worshipped without fear:
With solemn rite, with festal blaze,
We welcomed in the earliest days
Of this new-coming year.

O ye that died, brave hearts and true,
How in those days it fared with you
We did not then surmise;
That bloody rout, which still doth seem
The fancy of a horrid dream,
Was hidden from our eyes:

But haunts us now by day and night
The vision of that ghastly flight,
In shapes of haggard fear:
While still from many a mourning home
The wails of lamentation come,
And fill our saddened ear.

O England, bleeding at thy heart
For thy lost sons, a solemn part
Doth Heaven to thee assign!
High wisdom hast thou need to ask,
For vengeance is a fearful task,
And yet that task is thine,

Oh, then, fulfil it, not in pride,
Nor aught to passionate hate allied;
But know thyself to be
The justicer of righteous Heaven;
That unto thee a work is given,
A burden laid on thee.

So thine own heart from guilty stains
First cleanse, and then, for what remains,
That do with all thy might;
That with no faltering hand fulfil,
With no misgiving heart or will,
As dubious of the right.

That do, not answering wrong for wrong,
But witnessing that truth is strong,
And, outraged, bringeth wo.
'Tis this by lessons sad and stern,
To men who no way else would learn,
Which thou art set to show.

This refers to the chief disaster of the first Anglo-Afghan war in January 1842. A force of 4,500 British Troops and 12,000 Indian camp followers had entered Afghanistan to intervene in a succession dispute (this was all about paranoia about Russia filling a power vacuum). The wretched expedition was ill-disciplined and poorly led. The British occupation was resented for many reasons, but the officers' flagrant debauching of Afghani women was perhaps the flash-point that led to the whole force being wiped out, virtually to a man.

British feeling demanded the "Army of Retribution", which briefly re-occupied Kabul in September 1842. Its official act of retaliation was, I suppose, temperate ("not answering wrong for wrong"): they destroyed the great covered bazaar.  Unofficially, they looted the whole city. The troops had already carried out brutal reprisals in the villages near where they had found the remains of the previous army.

Richard Chenevix Trench

[Image source:]


" A wretched thing it were to have our heart
   Like a broad highway on a populous street. "
    The meeting of the two friends a couple of days before the great nuptial event was as joyous as a reunion of lovers. They sat hand in hand, looking at each other and criticising each other in that frank, feminine fashion which, between real friends, is always so kind and partial, so flattering and pleasant.  ....

This is from Dust and Laurels: A Study in Nineteenth Century Womanhood, by Mary L. Pendered (New York, 1894). Without reading the whole book (though I'd like to), I don't fully grasp the relevance of the epigraph, but Vera is certainly defending her wounded heart from her friend Sylvia's happy but searching hypotheses.


* Frederic Shoberl (The Language of Flowers with Illustrative Poetry, 1835) wrote: "The maple has been made the emblem of reserve, because its flowers are late in opening and slow to fall".  (Two rather surprising claims!)

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