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Now, my difficulty is plain. My critic, who is also a poet, says Byron is great, and I find fault with Mangan for saying Byron had a great Byronian soul. Here are two of my select authors against me. Plainly, the best thing I can do is say nothing at all about the matter!
Twenty Golden Years Ago is by no means a poetical poem, but there is poetry in it. There is no poetical poem by Mangan. But he has written no serious verses in which there is not poetry.
After giving Mangan’s own verse account of what he was like in his own regard at about forty years of age, I copy what Mitchel saw when the poet was first pointed out to him: —
I never met any one who had known Mangan. Mitchel did not know the name of the woman who lured him on with smiles that seemed to promise love. He always addressed her in his poems as Frances. Some time ago the name of the woman was divulged. It is ungallant of me to have forgotten it, but such is the case. The address at which Mangan visited her was in Mountpleasant Square, Dublin. At the time I saw the name of the lady I looked into a directory of 1848 which I happened to have by me, and found a different name at the address given in the Square. I know the love affair of the poet took place years before his death in 1849, but people in quiet and unpretentious houses in Dublin, or correctly Ranelagh, often live a whole generation in the same house.
Here I find myself in a second puzzle. So long as I thought merely of writing this rambling account of “My Borrowed Poet,” I decided upon trying to say something about the stupidity of women and poets in general.But I don’t feel in case to do so when I glance up at the face of Mangan hanging on the wall, and bring myself to realise the fact that this face now looking so dead and unburied was young and bright and perhaps cheerful when he went wooing in Ranelagh.
Instead of saying anything wise and stupid and commonplace about either poets or women, let me quote here stanzas which must have been written some day when he saw sunshine among the clouds: —
THE MARINER’S BRIDE
This appears among the Apocrypha, and is credited by Mangan to the “Spanish;” but it is safe to assume when he is so vague that the poem is original. It is one of the most bright and cheerful he has given us. The only touch of sorrow we feel is for the poor mother who is about to lose so impulsive and vivacious a daughter. The time of this delightful ballad is not clearly defined, but we may be absolutely certain that we of this moribund nineteenth century will never meet except at a function of a recondite spiritual medium even the great grandchild of the Mariner’s Bride. How much more is our devout gratitude due to a good and pious spiritualist than to any riotous and licentious poet! The former can give us intercourse with the illustrious defunct of history; the latter can give us no more than the image of a figment, the phantom of a shade, the echo of sounds that never vibrated in the ear of man. All persons who believe the evidence adduced by poets are the victims of subornation.
A saw-mill does not seem a good subject for a “copy of verses.” Mangan died single and in poverty, and was buried by his friends. Listen: —
This was the epithalamium of James Clarence Mangan sung by himself.
THE ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER
I bought my copy new for fourpence-halfpenny, in Holywell Street. It was published by George Routledge and Sons, of the Broadway, London. The little volume is made up of a “Preface,” by Thomas de Quincey; “Confessions of an English Opium-eater;” and “Notes from the Pocket-book of a late Opium-eater;” including “Walking Stewart,” “On the Knocking at the Gates in Macbeth,” and “On Suicide.” When it last left my hands it boasted a paper cover, on which appeared the head of the illustrious Laker. At my elbow now it lies, divested of its shield; and I sit face to face with the title-page, as though my author had taken off his hat and overcoat, and I were asking him which he preferred, clear or thick soup, while the servant stood behind filling his glass with Amontillado. How that cover came to be removed I do not know. The last borrower was of the less destructive sex, and I am at a great loss to account for the injury.
I object to the presence of “Walking Stewart,” and “On Suicide,” otherwise I count my copy perfect. With the exception of Robinson Crusoe and Poe’s Tales I have read nothing so often as the Opium-eater. Only twice in my life up to five-and-twenty years of age did I sit up all night to read a book: once when about midnight I came into possession of Enoch Arden, and a second time when, at the same witching hour I drew a red cloth-bound edition of the Opium-eater out of my pocket, in my lonely, dreary bedroom, five hundred miles from where I am now writing. The household were all asleep, and I by no means strong of nerve. The room was large, the dwelling ghostly. I sat in an embrasure of one of the windows, with a little table supporting the candles on one side, and on the other a small movable bookcase. Thus I was in a kind of dock, only open on one side, that fronting the room. It was in the beginning of autumn, and a low, warm wind blew the complaining rain against the pane on a level with my ear. At that time I had not seen London, and I remember being overpowered and broken before the spectacle of that sensitive and imaginative boy in the text, hungry and forlorn, in the unsympathetic mass of innumerable houses, every door of which was shut against him.
As I read on and the hour grew late, the succession of splendours and terrors wrought on my imagination, until I felt cold and exhausted, and had scarcely strength to sit upright in my chair. My hand trembled, and my mind became tremulously apprehensive of something vague and awful; I could not tell what. Sounds of the night which I had heard a thousand times before, which were as familiar to me as the bell of my parish church, now assumed dire, uncertain imports. The rattling of the sash was not the work of the wind, not the work of ghostly hands, but worse still, of human hands belonging to men in some more dire extremity than the approach of death. The beating of the rain against the glass was made to cover voices trying to tell me secrets I could not hear and live, and which yet I would have given my life to know.
I cannot tell why I was so exhilarated by terror. The Confessions alone are not calculated to produce inexplicable disturbance of the mind. It may be I had eaten little or nothing that day; it may be I had steeped myself too deeply in nicotine. All I know for certain is that I was in such a state of abject panic I had not courage to cross the room to my bed. It was in the dreary, pitiless, raw hour before the dawn I finished the book. Then I found I durst not rise. I put down the book and looked at the candles. They would last till daylight.
I would have given all the world to lie on that bed over there, with my back secure against it, warmed by it, comforted by it. But that open space was more terrible to me than if it were filled with flame. I should have been much more at my ease in the dark, yet I could not bring myself to blow out the lights; not because I dreaded the darkness, but because I shrank from encountering the possibilities of that awful moment of twilight between the full light of the candles and the blank gloom.
When I thought of blowing out the lights and imagined the dread of catching a glimpse of some spectacle of supreme horror, I imprudently gave my imagination rein, and set myself to find out what would terrify me most. All at once, and before I had made more than the inquiry of my mind, I saw in fancy between me and the bed, a thing of unapproachable terror; I had not been recently reading Christabel, and yet it must have been remotely from that poem I conjured the spectre which so awed me. I placed out in the open of the room on the floor, between me and the door, and close to a straight line drawn between me and the bed, a figure shrouded in a black cloak, from hidden shoulder to invisible feet. Over the head of this figure was cast a cowl, which completely concealed the head and face. At any moment the cloak might open and disclose the body of that figure. I knew the body of that figure was a “thing to dream of, not to see.” I felt sure I should lose my reason if the cloak opened and discovered the loathsome body. I had no idea what I should see, but I knew I should go mad.
In my dock by the window, and with the light behind my eyes I felt secure. But at that moment no earthly consideration, no consideration whatever, would have induced me to face that ghostly form in the flicker of expiring light. I was not under any delusion. I knew then as well as I know now that there was no object on which the normal human eye could exercise itself between me and the bed. I deliberately willed the figure to appear, and although once I had summoned it I could not dismiss it, I had complete and self-possessed knowledge that I saw nothing with my physical eye. Moreover, full of potentiality for terror as that figure was in its present shape and attitude, it had no dread for me. I was fascinated by considering possibilities which I knew could not arise so long as the present circumstances remained unchanged. In other words, I knew I could trust my reason to keep my imagination in subjection, so long as my senses were not confused or my attention scared. If I attempted to extinguish the candles that figure might waver! if I moved across the floor it might get behind my back, and as I caught sight of it over my shoulder, the cloak might fall aside! Then I should go mad. Thus I sat and waited until daylight came. Then I fell asleep in my chair.
As I have said, the copy of the Opium-eater I then had was bound in red cloth. It was a much handsomer book than the humble one published by Routledge. Since that memorable night many years ago in my high, dreary, lonely bedroom, I cannot tell you all the copies of the Opium-eater which have been mine. I remember another, bound in dark blue cloth, with copious notes. There was a third, the outside seeming of which I forget, but which I think formed part of two volumes of selections from De Quincey. I love my little sixpenny volume for one reason chiefly. I can lend it without fear, and lose it without a pang. Why, the beggarliest miser alive can’t think much of fourpence-halfpenny! I have already dispensed a few copies of the Opium-eater, price fourpence-halfpenny. As it lies on my table now, I take no more care of it than one does of yesterday’s morning paper. When I read it I double it back, to show to myself how little I value the gross material of the book. Any one coming in likely to appreciate the book, and who has not read it is welcome to carry it off as a gift. Yet if I am free with the volume, I am jealous of the author. I do not mention his name to people I believe unwilling or unable to worship him becomingly.
But when I meet a true disciple what prodigal joy environs and suffuses me! What talks of him I have had, and speechless raptures in hearing of him! How thick with gold the air of evenings has been, spent with him and one who loved him! I recall one glorious summer’s day, when an old friend and I (we were then, alas! years and years younger than we are to-day), had toiled on through mountain heather for hours, until we were half-baked by the sun and famished with thirst. Suddenly we came upon the topmost peak of all the hills, and saw, many miles away, the unexpected sea. As we stood, shading our eyes with our hands, my companion chanted out, “Obliquely to the right lay the many-languaged town of Liverpool; obliquely to the left ‘the multitudinous sea.’” “Whose is that?” I asked eagerly, notwithstanding my drought. “What isn’t Shakespeare’s is De Quincey’s.” “Where did you find it?” “In the Opium-eater.” I remember cursing my memory because I had forgotten that passage. When I got home I looked through the copy I then had, and could not find the sentence. I wrote to my friend, saying I could not come upon his quotation. He answered that he now believed it did not occur in the body of the Confessions, but in a note in some edition, he could not remember which. What a sense of miserable desolation I had that this edition had never come my way!
There are only three marks of any kind in my present copy of the Confessions, one dealing with the semi-voluntary power children have over the coming and going of phantoms painted on the darkness. This mark is very indistinct, and, as I remember nothing about it, I think it must have been made by accident. The part indicated by it is only introductory to an unmarked passage immediately following which has always fascinated my imagination. It is in the “Pains of Opium,” and runs: —
How thankful we ought to be that it has never been our fate to sit in that awful theatre of prehistoric woes! There is surely nothing more appalling in the past than the interminably vain activities of that mysterious atomie, Egyptian man. Who could bear to look upon the three hundred thousand ant-like slaves swarming among the colossal monoliths piled up in thousands for the pyramid of Cheops! The bare thought makes one start back aghast and shudder.
I find the next mark opposite another awful passage dealing with infinity, on this occasion infinity of numbers, not of time: —
Upon closer looking, I see an attempt has been made to erase the mark opposite this passage. Joining the fact with the faintness of the line opposite the former quotation I am driven to the conclusion that there is only one “stetted” note of admiration in the book. It is a whole page of the little volume. It begins on page 91, and ends on page 92. To show you how little I care for my copy of the Confessions, I shall cut it out. Even a lawyer would pay me more than fourpence-halfpenny for copying a page of the book, and, as I have said before, the volume has no extrinsic value for me. Excepting the Bible, I am not familiar with any finer passage of so great length in prose in the English language: —
Upon reading this passage over I am glad I am not familiar with any finer one in English prose – it would be impossible to endure it. In these sentences it is not the consummate style alone that overwhelms one, the matter is nearly as fine as the manner. How tremendously the numbers and sentences are marshalled! How inevitable, overbearing, breathless is the onward movement! What awful expectations are aroused, and shadowy fears vaguely realized! As the spectral pageant moves on other cohorts of trembling shades join the ghostly legion on the blind march! All is vaporous, spectral, spiritual, until when we are wound up to the highest pitch of physical awe and apprehension, we stop suddenly, arrested by failure of the ground, insufficiency of the road, and are recalled to life and light and truth and fellowship with the kindly race of man by the despairing human shriek of incommunicable, inarticulable agony in the words, “I will sleep no more!” In that despairing cry the tortured soul abjectly confesses that it has been vanquished and driven wild by the spirit-world. It is when you contrast the finest passages in Macaulay with such a passage as this, that you recognise the difference between a clever writer and a great stylist.
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