Wednesday, October 3, 2007

George Darley: minor early Victorian poet

George Darley (1795-1846) revered both Keats and Shelley, and imitated both here and there. He was a mathematician as well as a poet, although I don’t detect any math in his poems. His poetic art is in his music. Imagine you’re reading them aloud.

Here’s one of a series of poems about mermen and mermaids, maybe my favorite poem of Darley’s:

The Mermaidens’ Vesper Hymn

Troop home to silent grots and caves
Troop home! And mimic as you go
The mournful winding of the waves
Which to their dark abysses flow.

At this sweet hour, all things beside
In amorous pairs to covert creep;
The swans that brush the evening tide
Homeward in snowy couples keep.

In his green den the murmuring seal
Close by his sleek companion lies;
While singly we to bedward steal,
And close in fruitless sleep our eyes.

In bowers of love men take their rest,
In loveless bowers we sigh alone,
With bosom-friends are others blest, -
But we have none! But we have none!

Is this actually about anything? Loneliness, sexual restlessness (or a fantasy of female restlessness). But also, mermaids. When I see a poet described as “musical”, I can’t always hear it. I sure can with Darley. Some of his poems are close to pure song, meaningless, merely beautiful.

Darley’s one long work, Nepenthe, is another fantasy, with an incoherent mythological plot, and a dozen beautiful poetic nodules:

From Nepenthe

Hurry me, Nymphs! O, hurry me
Far above the grovelling sea,
Which, with blind weakness and base roar
Casting his white age on the shore,
Wallows along that slimy floor;
With his widespread webbed hands
Seeking to climb the level sands,
But rejected still to rave
Alive in his uncovered grave.

If I remember correctly, the dreaming poet is being flown from Egypt to, um, somewhere else, over the Mediterranean. Here, there is not just music but original imagery. The sea foam is the ocean’s “white age”, the waves on the beach are “his widespread webbed hands”, the blind ocean raves “Alive is his uncovered grave”. Obscure is too kind a description of the story of Nepenthe, but it’s full of passages like this one which live independently from the whole.

Darley frequently published anonymously, and his most famous poem was mistaken for a genuine early 17th century production. It begins:

A Ryghte Pythie Songe

It is not beautie I demande,
A chrystalle browe, the moone's despaire,
Nor the snowe's daughter, a whyte hand,
Nor mermaide's yellowe pryde of haire.

You might think that the title would signal that the archaicisms are a joke, but for decades Palgrave’s Treasury had this authored by “Anonymous 17th Century”. All of those extra “e”s clouded the anthologist’s mind.

Hey wait, there’s another mermaid.

1 comment:

  1. The prairie quilterOctober 3, 2007 at 3:58 PM

    I love your choice of poema!