Friday, June 26, 2015

several poems of great merit - Isabella Bird gives a glimpse of a strange time and place

A side issue from A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains in the category “the past is an alien place.”  Even 19th century Victorians are alien.  Isabella Bird becomes close to a genuine mountain man, Mountain Jim Nugent, a violent, dangerous drunk who is murdered a year after Bird leaves Colorado.  He lost an eye to a grizzly bear – “the loss made one side of the face repulsive, while the other might have been modeled in marble.”  He is an Englishman, and when he cleans himself up has beautiful golden curly locks.  He is also – this is the alien part – a poet:

"Jim" shortened the way by repeating a great deal of poetry, and by earnest, reasonable conversation, so that I was quite surprised when it grew dark…  I wrote to you for some time, while Mr. Nugent copied for himself the poems “In the Glen” and the latter half of “The River without a Bridge,” which he recited with deep feeling.  It was altogether very quiet and peaceful.  He repeated to me several poems of great merit which he had composed, and told me much more about his life.  (Letter XVII)

In the 1870s this was all entirely normal.  No idea what poems those are that Mountain Jim copied.

The book’s great comic interlude features a second poet.  Bird and a couple of silver miners fear they will be trapped in their Estes Park cabin for the winter, to the extent that they are rationing their provisions.  To their surprise, a young man, a “theological student,” appears, an additional mouth to feed.

This “mouth” has come up to try the panacea of manual labor, but he is town bred, and I see that he will do nothing.  He is writing poetry, and while I was busy to-day began to read it aloud to me, asking for my criticism.  He is just at the age when everything literary has a fascination, and every literary person is a hero…  (Letter XV)

The poet is lazy, worse than useless, doing no work and losing the milk cow when he tries, and a parasite, sneaking food at night.

He has eaten two pounds of dried cherries from the shelf, half of my second four-pound spice loaf before it was cold, licked up my custard sauce in the night, and privately devoured the pudding which was to be for supper.

Worst of all, he shows Isabella Bird his published poetry:

In one there are twenty lines copied (as Mr. Kavan has shown me) without alteration from Paradise Lost; in another there are two stanzas from Resignation, with only the alteration of “stray” for “dead”; and he has passed the whole of Bonar's Meeting-place off as his own.  Again, he lent me an essay by himself, called The Function of the Novelist, which is nothing but a mosaic of unacknowledged quotations.

A post-modernist ahead of his time.  This epsiode would not be so amusing if the plagiarist caused everyone to starve to death, but everything worked out all right.  Mr. Kavan is not a hard case like Mountain Jim (he “makes the best bread I ever ate”), but still.  In those days Rocky Mountain silver miners could identify passages from Paradise Lost.  I’m not sure I can do that.  A strange, alien time.


  1. Perhaps your observations point to a sad commentary on how cultural literacy has deteriorated over time; I think even modestly educated folks in the 19th century and earlier would make many of us (i.e., me) feel rather uneducated.

  2. Yes, there is a taste of decline in these passages. They are from an unusual time, when poetry - and not just anything, but Tennyson and Longfellow and Milton - had a mass audience, or something close to it, read for pleasure and read widely.

  3. That bit about the theological student poet at the end could make for a great snow-bound murder mystery, and sounds like it almost did.

  4. The murderer would turn out to be everyone, including the milk cow.

  5. I'm certain that I have this book or something else by Isabella Bird in my TBR stack. As usual, you have me interested in picking it up right away, but I bought two more California gold rush books while on vacation this past week.

  6. This book is a perfect one to save, to keep on the stack until the time is right for a vacation in Colorado.