Monday, 30 May 2016
Austin - like many others of his age - specialised in the hymning the glories of the English countryside, of England itself, and of the happy condition of being an Englishman. His poems are stirring stuff - or would be if they weren't so dull and overlong. However, he could turn his hand to shorter forms and write an elegantly correct sonnet like this one:
Now do I know that Love is blind, for I
Can see no beauty on this beauteous earth,
No life, no light, no hopefulness, no mirth,
Pleasure nor purpose, when thou art not nigh.
Thy absence exiles sunshine from the sky,
Seres Spring's maturity, checks Summer's birth,
Leaves linnet's pipe as sad as plover's cry,
And makes me in abundance find but dearth.
But when thy feet flutter the dark, and thou
With orient eyes dawnest on my distress,
Suddenly sings a bird on every bough,
The heavens expand, the earth grows less and less,
The ground is buoyant as the ether now,
And all looks lovely in thy loveliness.
That is not the work of an actually bad poet, is it? But Austin's reputation for sheer badness is all that survives of him, bolstered by two undoubtedly bad quotations. One is the famous couplet from a poem on an illness of the Prince of Wales: 'Flash'd from his bed the electric tidings came, / He is no better, he is much the same.' The other is from Austin's first poem as Laureate, Jameson's Ride: 'They went across the veldt / As hard as they could pelt.'
All very amusing, but in fact neither of these was written by Austin. The first was an anonymous parody that was popularised by the mischievous E.F. Benson (of Mapp and Lucia fame), who was happy to pass it off as Austin's own work. The second is a distortion of what Austin wrote, which was 'So we forded and galloped forward / As hard as our beasts could pelt, / First eastward, then tending northward, / Right over the rolling veldt.' Which is pretty bad (especially the third line), but no worse than much of what another laureate - William Wordsworth - wrote.