Monday, 30 May 2016

Birthday Boy

The man with the splendid mustachio is Alfred Austin, born on this day in 1835. Poet, author, journalist and well-connected public figure, Austin has the reputation of being the worst Poet Laureate ever appointed (at least until Andrew Motion came along). His elevation to the laurels, following Tennyson's death, was widely believed to be a political appointment - Austin was very close to Lord Salisbury - and a slap in the face of the aesthetic tendency (the appointment came in the midst of the Oscar Wilde trials).
 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.






7 comments:

  1. "The thought-reading was rather a success; he announced that the hostess was thinking about poetry, and she admitted that her mind was dwelling on one of Austin's odes. Which was near enough." Saki, "Reginald's Christmas Revel"

    I don't know whether the sonnet you give counts as the work of a bad poet. It does seem good evidence for the argument that the time for sonnets had ended long before.

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  2. Thanks George - Austin does seem to have been a bit of a byword from the start.
    The wondrous Dave Lull has sent me this - Ambrose Bierce's judgment of Austin:

    ENGLAND'S LAUREATE
    DOUBTLESS there are competent critics of poetry in this country, but it is Mr. Alfred Austin's luck not to have drawn their attention. Mr. Austin is not a great poet, but he is a poet. The head and front of his offending seems to be that he is a lesser poet than his predecessor—his immediate predecessor—for his austerest critic will hardly affirm his inferiority to the illustrious Nahum Tate. Nor is Mr. Austin the equal by much of Mr. Swinburne, who as Poet Laureate was impossible—or at least highly improbable. If he had been offered the honor Mr. Swinburne would very likely have knocked off the Prime Minister's hat and jumped upon it. He is of a singularly facetious turn of mind, is Mr. Swinburne, and has to be approached with an orange in each hand.
    Below Swinburne the differences in mental stature among British poets are inconsiderable; none is much taller than another, though Henley only could have written the great lines beginning,
    Out of the dark that covers me,
    Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
    I thank whatever gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul—
    and he is not likely to do anything like that again; on that proposition
    You your existence might put to the hazard and turn of a wager.
    I wonder how many of the merry gentlemen who find a pleasure in making mouths at Mr. Austin for what he does and doesn't do have ever read, or reading, have understood, his sonnet on
    LOVE'S BLINDNESS.
    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.
    The influence of Shakspeare is altogether too apparent in this, and it has as many faults as merits; but it is admirable work, nevertheless. To a poet only come such conceptions as "orient eyes" and feet that "flutter the dark."
    Here is another sonnet in which the thought, quite as natural, is less obvious. In some of his best work Mr. Austin runs rather to love (a great fault, madam) and this is called
    LOVE'S WISDOM.
    Now on the summit of Love's topmost peak
    Kiss we and part; no further can we go;
    And better death than we from high to low Should dwindle, and decline from strong to weak. We have found all, there is no more to seek;
    All we have proved, no more is there to know; And Time can only tutor us to eke
    Out rapture's warmth with custom's afterglow. We cannot keep at such a height as this;
    For even straining souls like ours inhale
    But once in life so rarefied a bliss.
    What if we lingered till love's breath should fail! Heaven of my earth! one more celestial kiss,
    Then down by separate pathways to the vale.
    Will the merry Pikes of the Lower Mississippi littoral and the gamboling whalebackers of the Duluth hinterland be pleased to say what is laughable in all this?
    It is not to be denied that Mr. Austin has written a good deal of "mighty poor stuff," but I humbly submit that a writer is not to be judged by his poorest work, but by his best,—as an athlete is rated, not by the least weight that he has lifted, but by the greatest —not by his nearest cast of the discus, but by his farthest. Surely a poet, as well as a racehorse, is entitled to the benefit of his " record performance."
    1903.

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  3. I'm not sure I understand what "... has to be approached with an orange in each hand" means, but I intend to employ it at the earliest opportunity.

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  4. A sensible precaution when you're around poets - you never know when they're going to turn...

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