Sunday, June 16, 2019

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Poet and Son: Hartley Coleridge (5)

 

The summer of 1820 was not a good time for Samuel Taylor Coleridge (STC) to suddenly have his son on his hands. For the past few years he’d been helping John Morgan through bankruptcy. He poured most of the considerable profits from his play Remorse (performed first in 1813 at Drury and in the following few years at Bristol and Calne) into paying bills. He got loans (some from Unitarian friends in Bristol). His publisher went bankrupt in March 1819 and STC began buying back the rights to his books. Then, in November, Morgan had a stroke, and STC assumed primary responsibility for looking after his wife and sister.

On the positive side, he’d been worried about the effect of all this on his son Derwent’s chances to go to university, but in May 1820 his friend and patron, J. H. Frere, produced £300 and Derwent went up to St. John’s college, Cambridge. Also, STC was in arrears with Gillman, but the good doctor seemed not to care.

STC did what he could for Hartley, arranging lodgings with the Montagus, and introducing him to friends at various newspapers and magazines.

 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

He wasn’t trying to be rid of Hartley — except as a roommate. STC tried to involve his son in some of his literary projects. The first was an essay on meter, described in a letter that August, “My eldest son and myself have been laboring at an Essay on Meter and the possibility of transferring, by compensation and equivalence of effect, the measures of the Greek Dramatists to the English language.” STC gave Hartley the notes that he’d collected on the subject. The second was the elaboration of STC’s metaphysics. Hartley would help in developing the “polar logic” (STC’s supercharged Hegelian dialectics) in theology, criticism and science. He’d shown some interest five years earlier when STC was finishing Biographia Literaria. There’s no sign that Hartley got involved in either project, and in connection with the latter at least one has to admire his wisdom — great reputations, the biggest being that of the philosopher and philologist Owen Barfield (1898 – 1997), have gone down in attempts to show that STC’s philosophy made sense.

For awhile, Hartley worked on an epic poem about Prometheus, but Shelley’s appeared that summer so he dropped it. He did however produce a few first-rate essays for the London Magazine. The Montagus came to like him, but he was always broke, mostly because his drinking and procrastination resulted in few assignments. Also he had the habit, like his father, of disappearing for days at a time. In the early months of 1821 he visited STC at Highgate, once for a few weeks when he got sick, and never told the Montagus where he was.

In June 1821 they ejected him, and he stayed with his boyhood friend from Ambleside school, Robert Jameson, who had become a barrister at the chancery and a protégé of Lord Chancellor Eldon. Jameson was also a protégé of the Montagus and knew the Lambs, so Hartley might have ended up with him for reasons other than their earlier friendship. Jameson was much involved in literary circles; a few years later, in 1828, he and Gillman supervised the publication of STC’s Poetical Works by Pickering Press.

At Jameson’s, Hartley began sonneteering, starting with three sonnets for Jameson that appeared in the periodical press at the time and are placed first in his 1833 collection, subtitled “To a Friend.” In a note to the poems, he identifies Jameson as the friend — “the favorite companion of my boyhood, the active friend and sincere counselor of my youth.” He also says that the poems are “my earliest attempts at that form of versification.” It was the form in which Hartley was to write most of his most admired poems. Here’s the first sonnet:

When we were idlers with the loitering rills,
The need of human love we little noted:
Our love was nature; and the peace that floated
On the white mist, and dwelt upon the hills,
To sweet accord subdued our wayward wills:
One soul was ours, one mind, one heart devoted,
That, wisely doting, ask’d not why it doted,
And ours the unknown joy, which knowing kills.
But now I find, how dear thou were to me;
That man is more than half of nature’s treasure,
Of that fair Beauty which no eye can see,
Of that sweet music which no ear can measure;
And now the streams may sing for others’ pleasure,
The hills sleep on in their eternity.

This is better than any sonnet by STC, though it doesn’t come close to Wordsworth’s best-known sonnets, and the words about the peace that “dwelt upon the hills” are from Wordsworth. Hartley needed to subdue his rhymes, for one thing. However the poem is notable in that it introduces a major variation in the usual theme of a nature poem. The “one life within us and abroad,” spoken of first in STC’s “Eolian Harp,” is much more evident, for Hartley, in his friendship with Jameson than it is in his love of nature. In his youth he is aware of the “one life” as a relationship between himself and nature, but in maturity he understands that the sense of “one life” comes from his relationship with a human first and with nature second. Man “is more than half of nature’s treasure . . . of that fair Beauty . . . of that sweet music.” Without Jameson beside him, the poem says, “the streams may sing for others’ pleasure, the hills sleep on . . . .”

Wordsworth says similar things about Dorothy in “Tintern Abbey,” but in that poem she merely puts the cap on Wordsworth’s engagement with nature, she is not essential to it as is Jameson to Hartley’s.

Note also that Hartley has the idea that we shouldn’t think so much about or go too deeply into our sense of empathy with others and, through others, with nature. There is no analysis of nature’s influence, as there is in Wordsworth’s poems. Hartley’s heart, “wisely doting, asked not why it doted.” The joy of Hartley and Jameson was “the unknown joy that knowing kills.” Hartley may have been thinking of the dangers to poetry of those “abstruse researches” of his father’s that stole “from my own nature all the natural man.” He also may have been thinking of how Wordsworth and STC had backed away from their earlier assertions regarding nature — though he must also have been thinking that as soon as they did back away their poetry declined. Either way, he needed to explore the riddle of why his response to nature and human nature shouldn’t be understood.

The second poem contains a reply to some of his father’s complaints about being “pent mid cloisters dim” in London for most of his time in school, and about seeing “nought lovely but the sky and stars.” In London, Hartley is secure in his relationship with nature because she is present in his friend:

In the great city we are met again,
Where many souls there are, that breathe and die,
Scarce knowing more of nature’s potency,
Than what they learn from heat, or cold, or rain,
The sad vicissitude of weary pain:—
For busy man is lord of ear and eye,
And what hath nature, but the vast, void sky,
And the throng’d river toiling to the main?
Oh! Say not so, for she shall have her part
In every smile, in every tear that falls;
And she shall hide her in the secret heart,
Where love persuades, and sterner duty calls:
But worse it were than death, or sorrow’s smart,
To live without a friend within these walls.

Without friendship, there is no nature in the city. In the third sonnet, Hartley tells how he and Jameson, once they parted as boys, moved like two streams (“rills”) through the landscape, Jameson in Italy and Hartley himself in his “native dell.” Now they are re-united, “O’er rough and smooth to travel side by side.” The three-sonnet sequence ends on a positive note.

However, it was to be rough going, for both the rills. Jameson had just gotten engaged to Anna Brownell and then, on the very month that Hartley moved in with him, had suffered the breaking off of that engagement. She’d left with her father, a painter of miniatures, and one of his students, to travel in Italy. There she kept a diary. When she returned she worked as a governess in a noble family, and worked her diary into a book. In the book she is a young girl with a broken heart traveling through Europe as the governess to a wealthy family. In 1825 the book was published as The Diary of an Ennuye and Robert Jameson and Anna were married. The book made her famous, or rather infamous, in London literary circles. In 1829 Loves of the Poets revealed that Diary was not totally fictional, and London was further scandalized. That year, Robert went overseas, and Anna refused to go.

 

Hartley Coleridge.

Hartley Coleridge.

In his note to the Jameson sonnets in the 1833 book of poems, Hartley mentions that Jameson is married to Anna Brownell Jameson, author of some “very agreeable productions.” He goes on to say, “I trust the sight of this little volume will give rise to recollections that will make him [Jameson] ten years younger.” Ten years earlier would be before marriage to Anna. The relationship continued to be rocky. Jameson returned to England, briefly, in 1833 (maybe he and Hartley reunited and Jameson received the book then), and then left in that same year to take up a position as a judge in Upper Canada. Anna refused to go.

By January 1822, Hartley had been at Jameson’s for five months and was broke, with no help possible from STC. He put his father’s advice aside and accepted the Oxford offer of £300. He paid his debts and gave the leftover money to his mother. In May, John Dawes, Hartley’s old master at the grammar school in Ambleside, wrote to STC, telling him he would like to take on Hartley as an assistant. Dawes had always favored Hartley as his all-time best student; in 1810 when Hartley entered his teens he’d asked STC for the honor of instructing him privately, “without receiving any other remuneration than what arises from the pleasure of the performance.”

STC started pressuring Hartley to go north, but first he wrote to warn Dawes about what to expect. STC’s letter to Dawes is a defense of how he raised his two sons. STC is fairly objective about Hartley, less so about himself. His letter arouses suspicion because it protests too much, and because it ignores the bald fact (a fact that Dawes may not have known) that STC was never much around to raise his boys in the years before they went to school. It answers the accusation that STC should have disciplined his boys more, by way of educing the attitudes and habits required by adult life. But STC explains to Dawes that Hartley was such a good child, “that I did not interrupt his quiet, untroublesome enjoyment by forcing him to sit still, and inventing occasions of trying his obedience—that I did not . . . interrupt his little comforts and sting him into a will of resistance against my will, in order that I might make opportunities of crushing it.”

He does not totally defend his Rousseauian approach; in fact he implies criticism of it. He accuses himself of “perhaps a too delicate manner of applying to [the boys’] understandings and moral sense.” That is, STC has tried, as Rousseau recommended, to see Hartley’s and Derwent’s points of view and talk reasonably to them. By doing this, he fears, “I have in Hartley’s case unwittingly fostered that cowardice as to mental pain which forms one of the two calamitous defects in his disposition.” The other defect (for which STC assumes no responsibility) is “the absence of a Self . . . the want or torpor of a Will, that is the moral Sickness of Hartley’s being and has been, for good and for evil, his character — his moral idiocy — from his earliest childhood.”

It’s notable that STC had never mentioned this as a problem in Hartley’s “earliest childhood.” If he did notice it, as he implies he did, why didn’t he do something about it? He tells Dawes that he didn’t because, overall, Hartley developed well in all the major ways: “he is innocent, most kindly natured, exceedingly good-tempered, in the management & instruction of Children excels any young man, I ever knew; and before God as I say it, he has not to my knowledge a single vicious inclination—tho’ from absence and nervousness he needs to be guarded against filling his wine glass too often.”

The problem with wine, STC goes on to tell Dawes, could be solved simply by Hartley’s removal from London. He is too impressionable to be partying with other young men. Removal from London would also prevent any further attempts at “writing for Magazines etc.” Socializing, and imagining he could make a living as a writer, “are Ruin for him.” Since Hartley actually gave good indication that he could make a living as a writer, this judgment seems harsh, and was perhaps motivated mostly by STC’s need to be rid of Hartley. It puts a damper on the very activity upon which Hartley had pinned all his hopes, and STC must to a considerable extent have been aware of those hopes and their importance to his son.

STC provided Dawes with a good explanation and defense of Hartley’s education and Hartley himself, discounting the obvious contradiction of STC’s harsh judgment of Hartley’s will power and a possible lie about “the management . . . of Children,” a talent that Hartley never had developed in the classroom context as Dawes was shortly to find out. It is possible, though, that on this point STC may have meant only that Hartley liked kids and had always been popular with them, two of the fundamental requirements for good teaching.

In connection with the problem of socializing, STC could have been thinking more about Derwent. Derwent came to London for his holidays in June of 1822, just as Hartley and STC were about to go head-to-head about school teaching. Derwent partied with friends for a week, much more intensely it seemed than Hartley ever had, then went to stay with his father. He was sick with, as it turned out, the typhus that was raging at Cambridge; five young men at his College had already died. STC found a room for him close to Gillman’s, where he could be isolated, and he, Hartley and Gillman nursed him back to health, which took six weeks.

Letters from Sara arrived, asking questions about Derwent and suggesting that STC give Hartley a longer try at journalism because he would not make a good teacher. Wordsworth, she reported, agreed. STC decided they were selfishly trying to foist Hartley on him, not wanting the trouble of his presence in Keswick and Grasmere. Southey sent a much clearer message: he would not have Hartley in his house. This was not because of Hartley’s personality, but because Southey felt it was time that Hartley made his way in the world, and that STC assume his responsibility to help him do so.

STC seems to have accepted Southey’s rather harsh judgment, but he interpreted Wordsworth’s as interference and resented it. However, Wordsworth had a very credible reason for recommending a longer trial at journalism for Hartley. He liked Hartley’s writing. Dorothy noted, about an article entitled “On the Poetical Use of Heathen Mythology” in the February 1822 issue of London Magazine, that the style was “wonderful for a young man — so little effort — no affectation.” This is the impression given by his early sonnets, and overall the Wordsworths were correct: Hartley became known as a critic, biographer and popular historian, though he never achieved the status and certainly not the earnings of his uncle Southey since he didn’t write as much and had trouble with deadlines. He was probably a better practical (rather than theoretical) critic than his father. He was witty and candid — about himself, among other things. There wasn’t a vein of pomposity in him, though he was decisive enough in his opinions, even in his opinions of Southey, Wordsworth and STC.

Gillman realized that Derwent’s illness and the controversy over Hartley were stressing STC, causing him to sneak laudanum. He seems to have spoken to Hartley about this and either insisted or recommended that he not return to Highgate. From Jameson’s, Hartley sent a letter to STC saying flatly that he did not want to become a schoolteacher. He knew his mother, Southey and Wordsworth were against his returning to the North and used that as an excuse — even though he was almost certainly behind Sara’s agitating for another try at journalism in London. But his main reason for wanting to stay in London was “I felt a physical incapability of exerting the necessary authority, and preserving the necessary distance, among a set of boys, in whose number there much needs be found high spirits, and intractable natures. In regard to my future plans, I shall not decide until I have heard from you. It is my wish to make another trial of my talents in London.”

STC’s reply on July 1 1822 was unequivocal and more than a touch peevish: “You have tried — nay, that is scarcely true; but you have made the experiment of trying—to maintain yourself by writing for the Press—and the result—I do not know, what conclusion you have drawn from it—has been such, as makes me shrink, and sink away inwardly, from the thought of a second trial. . . . What remains but something of the School kind? If you have thought of something else, let me know it. And . . . what must my suffering be when I see the growing alienation in Mr. Gillman [STC tactically explains that this is especially due to Derwent] . . . . To Mr. Dawes exclusively you must look and apply yourself.”

This is, of course, a condemnation not just of Hartley himself, but of his journalistic writings. Feeling he was on a roll, STC had it out with Derwent too, as soon as Derwent recovered. Derwent was now making demands to have friends over to the Gillman’s for dinner, complaining that he got invitations but was helpless to reciprocate. STC pointed out that, in view of his fourth class results at university, maybe there was too much reciprocating going on, too much “coxcombry,” too much “dandyism.” He suggested that Derwent had a tendency to use people — that if he had, say, stayed in touch with the Gillmans during the year, they might have been more receptive to the idea of entertaining his friends during the holidays. This was good advice and probably timely, but the way in which it was delivered made Derwent angry, and Derwent was nowhere near as forgiving as his brother. He had no reason to be loyal, never having had much contact with his father, and his needs, including now his university expenses, were provided for by other men. His mother increasingly made demands that he show STC some respect. He politely but resolutely ignored these requests.

Early in October Hartley asked STC for some money to pay off his debts so he could leave London. They agreed to meet later in the day, so STC could provide some funds and say goodbye, it seems. Hartley never turned up and STC was never to see him again.

But STC had his way, and by 19 October 1823 Hartley was working at Ambleside school and staying with Dawes. He then moved to the Red Lion Inn, and then to the home of a friendly farmer. Dawes tells Dorothy Wordsworth he is obviously inexperienced but “very steady.” Hartley wrote to his father saying all was well, and Sara wrote confirming this. STC was happy, justified in his decision though troubled by Hartley’s evident reluctance to write letters and divulge information and suspicious that this was because of the way he had pushed him off.

During his first teaching year Hartley sometimes turned up in society at Brathay Hall on Lake Windermere. The daughter of the wealthy family that occupied the cottage through the autumns described him, indicating that she liked him and liked being liked by him. She regarded him not as attractive, not as intelligent or inspired, but as (surprisingly) a saint:

Late in the evening I saw such a figure as I had never seen before glide noiselessly into the bright drawing room, small, dressed in black, with thick, long, raven hair almost on his shoulders, in such a manner as to fill up the space between, and to give the upper part of his form a peculiar preponderance over the lower. In his manner of approaching the lady of the house, his stiff, slow, silent bow, a sort of distressed shyness in his countenance, and a depreciating politeness . . . in his whole demeanor there was something strange and unusual. His humorous air of simplicity, his slow measured words, and general eccentricity of manners and appearance, was at first a signal for merriment. But that evening was the beginning of an affection which existed between us in uninterrupted continuance as that of a brother for a young sister, and was on my part fed yet more by the beauties of his moral nature, than by my high appreciation of his intellect and his genius.

The Ambleside school closed in 1824, and Hartley helped Dawes with a few almost-grown-up youths preparing for college. Dawes retired and, in 1825, Hartley was taking in young pupils, in partnership with a Mr. Suart, who rented the accommodations. There were 14 students in all, and one of them was William Wordsworth Jr. But by April 1826 the school was in trouble; Hartley, as Derwent put it later, “was unable to maintain the necessary discipline.” Parents pulled their kids and Suart, who had rented a large space, went bankrupt. Hartley took the blame, saying in a letter to his mother “For all the duties of a preceptor, except the communication of knowledge, I am as physically unfitted as dear papa for those of a horse soldier.”

He was correct. Eleven years later he briefly resumed teaching, this time at the Sedberg School, as the assistant to Isaac Green. This school was well established; Hartley could concern himself much more with knowledge than with discipline. He was in every way a success. In 1838 he filled in as Head Master from March to midsummer. He was remembered by one student, Thomas Blackburn, as “what I conceived Shakespeare’s idea of a gentleman to be . . . . He was dressed in black, his hair, just touched with grey, fell in thick waves down his back . . . his shrill voice . . . . He sat among the boys, came late to school in morning and afternoon . . . . I never knew the least liberty taken with him, though he was kinder and more familiar than was then the fashion with masters. Outside he never mixed with the boys, but was sometimes seen, to their astonishment, running along the field with his arms outstretched, and talking to himself.” Blackburn also remembered “his love of little children, his sympathy with the poor and suffering, his hatred of oppression . . . .”

Hartley’s reference, in his letter to Sara, to STC as a horse soldier is telling — STC had been set up at Cambridge by his brothers but ran through his money and ran away, joining the dragoons, where he caused nothing but trouble until his brothers rescued him. The brothers forgave him, as they always did, but would STC be as forgiving? To his own son? Sara wrote STC to take Hartley back because he would have better writing opportunities in London, but a few months later implied that she was glad STC had sent Hartley north. She’d noticed something: “In the vale of Grasmere he is much beloved and cared for by his many friends there.”

Four of those caring friends were the Wordsworths, and Sara appreciated this and began to see her rivals for her husband’s affection in a new light. She and Asra became good friends.

An 18 October 1826 entry in Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal says that Suart’s school is “done up. Hartley writes for magazines.” In 1827 Hartley moved from Ambleside to Grasmere and lodged with a Mrs. Fleming, the widow of a farmer. She became devoted to him and he to her. He entered into what seems to have been a happy period of his life, though it involved a lot of drinking and vagabondage. He earned some money from his writing and was given some by his mother. He stayed away from her, however, and from the family except Derwent who visited occasionally (and who was now doing well as a student). Asra and Mary Wordsworth sent news to Sara: “from time to time we have heard of him, calling at this house or that — where he was supplied with a meal — and housing at night in Barns etc.” The Wordsworth’s “commissioned everyone likely to see him with a message requesting him to come to Rydal Mount.” He never did.

Hartley wrote to everyone but STC. He didn’t turn up, even, when his beloved sister married a cousin, Henry Nelson Coleridge, in Keswick in 1829. STC didn’t turn up either — she was given away by Southey, who also paid the bills for the wedding. When Hartley’s mother went south that year to live with Sara and her husband, she passed through Grasmere and visited the Wordsworths, hoping to see Hartley. The Wordsworths had spread the news of her arrival hoping Hartley would hear it. But though she prolonged her visit hoping to see him, he never appeared. She left money with the Wordsworths to help him out. He wrote an apologetic letter, but she was never to see him again.

Like his father, Hartley avoided people about whom he felt guilty. The more he stayed away, the guiltier he felt. His letters and poetry express this guilt and contrition, but other than that he seems to have found in his isolation a kind of productive peace. An entry in his diary for Sunday, July 25, 1830, presents a fairly bright picture of his life. He records the weather (heavily overcast), and that he rose at nine, found his breakfast ready, and saw John Wordsworth going to church (John had become a clergyman). He hailed John and then determined to hear the sermon. On the way he found himself thirsty and stopped at the Red Lion to take “a sober potion of John Barleycorn” (a small amount of beer and/or whisky). Amazingly (he implies) he got to church on time. He found the sermon admirable but wondered if John (or anyone) should preach in Wellingtons. After church he went for a walk, had a glass of wine with Mrs. Fleming, worked on an essay, had a bacon-and-egg dinner (“nothing better”), read about Byron’s last years, smoked a pipe and went to bed.

His lyrics and sonnets over the decade from the time he left London to the publication of his poems in 1833 cultivate the theme of friendship in nature that he expresses in his sonnets to Jameson. In “From Country to Town,” written in July 1832 in Leeds, where Hartley went briefly to compile his poems for a publisher there and write some biographies of prominent northerners, he reiterates the message of his early nature poems to Jameson. Nature, he says, is present in Leeds where everyone is busy “getting and spending” (Wordsworth), “in her best home, the lowly-loving heart.”

In another poem, on the occasion of New Year’s, he acknowledges the artificiality of the celebration, but affirms that it is important to encourage hope and that the conviviality of the celebration does just that: “Kind hearts can make December blithe as May/And in each morrow find a New-Year’s day.” He also celebrates the melancholy he feels in nature, welcoming the arrival of November: “I gladly wish thee welcome, for thou wear’st/No flaunting smile to mock pale Melancholy.” Hartley loved to nurse his sad feelings, but he found happiness with friendly people.

His main theme is childhood — the wonders of his own childhood, and the miseries of being locked forever into childhood:

No child, nor man,
Nor youth, nor sage, I find my head is grey,
For I have lost the race I never ran:
A rathe December blights my lagging May;
And still I am a child, though I be old,
Time is my debtor for my years untold.

He gives various reasons for his situation. The first is that his childhood was so wonderful and that children themselves are wonderful. Who wouldn’t want to be eternally among them. Hartley loved children — on his deathbed he asked to hold one of his neighbor’s infant daughters and his request was granted (which I’ve always thought was noble of the neighbor, since Hartley was dying of complications that set in when he came home drunk on a cold night and caught bronchitis). Hartley is always at his best when describing children. Here’s his version of “Ode: Intimations,” where the baby arrives from “the unknown place of unborn souls.” Earth, the “homely mother,” doesn’t force herself too quickly on the infant, as she does in Wordsworth. The babe is “merry” rather than serious:

But soon
The hospitalities of earth engage
The banish’d spirit in its new exile;—
Pass some few changes of the fickle Moon,
The merry babe has learn’d its Mother’s smile,
Its Father’s frown, its Nurse’s mimic rage.

Another explanation given by Hartley for his situation is that he has failed to earn a woman’s love, and so has had to “face the sad sentence, that my life must wean/From dear domestic joys.” At best, women love him for his sake, not for their own — that is, they feel sorry for him. As a result, he avoids them because he doesn’t want to take advantage of their nursey instincts. Like a lot of insecure lovers, he doesn’t want to “brave distain,” but far more than that he doesn’t want to “taint the quiet of that mind,” to “soil the luster of that face,” or “drive that laughing dimple from its place/Or heave that white breast with a painful sigh.”

A third reason that he continues in childhood is that he feels useless, that he hasn’t had much success and so can’t hold up his end of a relationship as he desperately wants to do, which makes him want to isolate himself:

Well could I bear to be deserted quite
Less should I blame my fortune were it worse;-
But taking all it yet hath left me friends
For whom I needs must mourn the wayward spite
That hides my purpose in an empty purse,
Since what I grateful wish, in wishing ends.

His ultimate hope, he says, is in Faith. Though he indulges too easily in “the mere mendacity of self-contempt,” he claims that that “has not so far debased me, but I know/The faith, the hope, the piety, exempt/From worldly doubt, to which my all I owe.” No bitterness, in other words, no descent into cynicism.

Hartley does not define Faith theologically but through his experiences with his local Christian congregation, and his general feeling of friendliness and conviviality when he is with others. He admits that he has not worked very hard to resolve his own problems, has indeed fallen in love with them, so his need for faith is not so strong that he has to explore it. In Hartley, the mysteries are always best left untouched in poetry, especially the mystery of Faith (an acceptable kind of Hope).

Again, he has an excuse. Poetry is not what it used to be. “The notes of thought-suggesting lyres” like those of his father and Wordsworth — the shade of Wordsworth is always, more than that of STC, cast across Hartley’s poetry — are heard, but “the strong soul, the self-constraining will/the rugged root that bare the winsome flower/Is weak and wither’d.” If we were “fays” (fairies — Hartley often described himself as “fay”), lurking as stories have it in flowers or seashells, we would be sustained by contemporary poetry. Because we are real people, the verse of “our pretty modern Philomels” does not suffice.

One poem, “Expertus Loquitur,” explains that some of these “Philomels” write for money. Hartley himself, speaking from experience as the title has it, has been cursed with a “knack” for what he always referred to as “numbers,” and has for so long been captivated by the activity that he is unfit for anything else. He has trapped himself into having to make a living by writing verse:

There never was a blessing or a curse,
So sweet, so cruel, as a knack of verse.
When the smug stripling finds the way to rhyme,
Glad as the wild bee ‘mid a bed of thyme . . .
Pleased with himself, and pleased with all mankind,
Sure of the praise which partial friends bestow,
He breathes in bliss, if bliss may be below.

Pass some few years — and see where all will end.
The hireling scribe, estranged from every friend,
Or if one friend remain, ‘tis one so brave,
He will not quit the wreck he cannot save;
The good man’s pity, and the proud man’s scorn,
The Muse’s vagabond, he roams forlorn.
Thought, wit, invention, tenderness have left him,
All wealth of mind, save empty rhyme, bereft him,
Yet write he must, for still he needs must eat —
Retail fantastic sorrow by the sheet;—
Sing in his garret of the flowery grove,
And pinch’d with hunger, wail the woes of love.
Oh may all Christian souls, while yet ‘tis time,
Renounce the World, the Flesh, the Devil, and Rhyme.

This was accepted as a joke. Hartley couldn’t be said to have written for money. He wrote to please. STC himself was pleased with his son’s book, and proud of its dedication to him. He was also pleased that the reviews were good. The merits of the book, recognized by the critics, are that it is easy to read and yet not facile in that the poet comes across as an interesting case. This is where Hartley really shines, in the quality of his light-hearted self-portrayal. The quality is evident in Hartley’s knowledge and comically candid admission of his own limits.

There is nothing like this in STC and Wordsworth. They spoke prophetically, with consummate rhetoric, their personalities disappearing into their poetry. Reading Hartley, you got interested in him, and you had to like him.

 

John Harris

John Harris

John Harris is the author of 'Small Rain," "Other Art" and "Tungsten John." He lives in Prince George, B.C.

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