Sunday, 13 March 2016

'An Elegy, On the Glory of her Sex, Mrs. Mary Blaize' - Oliver Goldsmith

‘She strove the neighborhood to please
With manners wondrous winning;
And never follow'd wicked ways--
Unless when she was sinning.’

‘An Elegy, On the Glory of her Sex, Mrs. Mary Blaize’
Oliver Goldsmith
(1748)


Oliver Goldsmith was a bit of an all-rounder: a playwright (She Stoops to Conquer, 1771), novelist (The Vicar of Wakefield, 1766), and poet, he also compiled one of the first major scientific studies of the natural world in English, A History of the Earth and Animated Nature (1774).  This poem, however, sees him in a rather more playful mood.

Ostensibly this is an elegy, a sad, reflective poem dedicated to the memory of the eponymous Mrs. Mary Blaize (‘eponymous’ is the correct way to refer to a character named in the title; some people use ‘titular’, but this is not quite the same thing).  It begins with a proclamation of sorrow – ‘Good people all, with one accord, / Lament for Madam Blaize’.  The next two lines are a little strange but no more than confusing at this point: ‘Who never wanted a good word - / From those who spoke her praise’.  It seems like a compliment…except that it’s also a rather meaningless statement.  All it translates to is that anybody who praised Mrs. Blaize…well, they said nice things about her!  It doesn’t actually tell the reader whether anyone did praise her though.

This clever wordplay becomes still more apparent in the next stanza.  Here it is proudly asserted that ‘She freely lent to all the poor – ’; but after the dash, the final qualifying line rather diminishes the compliment since it reveals that she only lent to those of the poor ‘Who left a pledge behind’.  A pledge in this sense means some form of security that they would repay, though whether this is intended to mean simply a promise or to indicate some more practical form of security is left to the generosity of the reader’s interpretation.

My own personal favourite stanza is the next one, in which the pattern of this poem becomes still more obvious through the declaration that the deceased Mrs. Blaize ‘never follow’d wicked ways - / Unless when she was sinning’.  It is a pattern of continual assertion and contradiction, all combining to construct an elegiac tribute that actually reveals remarkably little about the deceased subject.  Even the apparent claim that she received the admiration of the King, when it is said that ‘The King himself has follow’d her’ is undone by somewhat more prosaic explanation that he only does so ‘When she has walk’d before’ him in the street.



He might not look a cheerful chap, but he's a total
genius! This painting of Goldsmith is by Sir Joshua
Reynolds and is, er, borrowed, from the mighty
Wikipedia - for which, many thanks!
The poem’s appeal as a comedic novelty is owing entirely to the matter-of-fact way in which the information is presented.  It isn’t trying to be insulting or nasty.  There may perhaps be a slight satiric edge implied by the adulation of the title, since the admiring declaration that Mrs. Blaize was 'the Glory of her Sex' receives no support from the fatuous and superficial praise offered in the poem.  The satire is more against the convention of proclaiming empty or senseless compliments upon the recently deceased and, certainly by eighteenth-century standards, it is only ever the lightest of satires.  Included in A Nonsense Anthology, edited by Carolyn Wells in 1915, this poem is easily identified as a simple nonsense work, since there seems no point to the poem.  However, it is definitely not ‘nonsense’ in the sense that something like Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ is nonsense (a poem also included in the same anthology).  Goldsmith’s ‘An Elegy on the Glory of Her Sex, Mrs. Mary Blaize’ is a simple poem, achieving humour through the blunt presentation of statements so true that nobody but a comedian would think of saying them.  As always, Goldsmith proves himself to be a consummate literary genius.


You can find this poem:

(Poetry Archive – an exciting website I’ve only recently discovered – definitely worth having an explore!)

(Project Gutenberg is an absolutely fantastic free collection of 51,368 ebooks.  If you follow this link, it will take you to an illustrated edition of Goldsmith’s ‘Elegy’, published in the nineteenth century by Frederick Warne & Co., the same publisher who brought to the world Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies)
 
You can find out more about Oliver Goldsmith:

(Wikipedia! A great place to start finding out about this clever chap!)

(Encyclopædia Britannica – a bit like Wikipedia, only a bit more sophisticated.  This also has links to articles about some of Goldsmith’s other works!)

Information for this blogpost was discovered in:

Glynis Ridley, Clara’s Grand Tour (London: Atlantic Books, 2004)
(This book is about the first rhinoceros to make a grand tour of Europe, way back in the eighteenth century…and yes, it is every bit as awesome as it sounds!  This book really drew my attention to the connection between Goldsmith and Natural History – I already knew he was a literary genius, but this revealed to me how brilliant a scientific mind he had too!  Seriously, check this book out!!)

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

'To Memory' - Elizabeth Singer Rowe


To Memory
 
   Best Gift that Heav’n’s Indulgence could bestow!
To Thee our surest Happiness we owe;
Thou all the flying Pleasures dost restore,
Which but for Thee, blest MEM’RY! were no more;
For we no sooner grasp some frail Delight,
But ready for its everlasting Flight,
E’er we can call the hasty Bliss our own,
If not retain’d by Thee, it is for ever gone.
Thou to the kind successful Lover’s Heart,
A Thousand melting Raptures dost impart,
When yet more lovely than herself, and kind,
Thou bring’st his fancy’d Mistress to his Mind
The flatt’ring Image wears a livelier Grace,
A softer Mien, and more inticing Face.
   Thou from the flying Minutes dost retrieve,
The Joys CLORINDA’s Wit and Beauty give;
Those Joys which I had once possess’d in vain,
Did not the dear Remembrance still remain,
Methinks she speaks, and all my Soul inspires,
Brightens each Thought, and gives my Muse new Fires;
‘Tis she who lends my daring Fancy Wings,
Softens my Lyre, and tunes its warbling Strings.
   Thou only to the Guilty art severe,
Who the Review of their past Actions fear;
But to the Innocent and Virtuous Mind,
Art still propitious, smiling still, and kind,
To Thee we all those charming Pleasures owe,
The Pleasures which from gen’rous Actions flow,
They’re still the Noblest we possess below.  

Elizabeth Singer Rowe
(published in 1737 in Philomela: or, poems by Mrs. Elizabeth Singer, (Now Rowe,) Of Frome in Somersetshire.)

My first introduction to Elizabeth Rowe occurred only recently, whilst sharing a train carriage with Jessica Clement, a PhD student at the University of York whose thesis focuses upon Rowe’s poetry.  Her enthusiasm was extremely contagious, & I couldn’t wait to get hold of some of Rowe’s poetry to read it for myself; when I did, I wasn’t disappointed!
 
Simple, elegant, and often highly poignant, Rowe’s poetry certainly deserves more attention than has traditionally been given to it.  Musing upon the abstract concept of memory in the poem above (for once reproduced in its entirety owing to the almost impossibility of finding a reliable copy online), Rowe delicately yet powerfully points out the sheer wonderment of this attribute that so many of us are so used to taking for granted.

Beginning by praising heaven for this ‘Best gift’, Rowe then notes the ability of remembrance to preserve the ‘flying Pleasures […] / Which but for Thee, blest MEM’RY! were no more’.  She then proceeds to provide examples of the usefulness and worth of memory, presenting her reader with the image of the lover who is able to use memory to bring ‘his fancy’d Mistress to his Mind’; that he furnishes her with ‘a livelier Grace, / A softer Mien, and more inticing Face’ in the process is simply an added bonus, and also a sly reference to the fallibility of remembrance and the way in which it may appear altered through the distorting lens of the rememberer’s own perspective.

Reference is then made to ‘Clorinda’, presumably a friend (or perhaps a classical pseudonym for a friend’s name) who would appear to have died.  The ‘Joys’ of her friendship, Rowe notes, would have been ‘possess’d in vain’ were it not for the fact that she can still remember them and thus receive both pleasure and instruction from her friend even after death.  It is the remembrance of this friendship that also provides Rowe with creative inspiration now, as she writes that the memory of her friend ‘lends my daring Fancy Wings’. 

Completing her survey of memory, Rowe then turns to those who might not find remembrance such a pleasurable experience.  Personifying memory with the pronoun ‘Thou’, she states that ‘Thou only to the Guilty art severe, / Who the Review of their past Actions fear’; that this is morally just is emphasised by her subsequent return to ‘the Innocent and Virtuous Mind’ to whom Memory is ‘still propitious, smiling still, and kind’.

A Note About the Text

The transcription of the poem ‘To Memory’ was taken from the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online digital copy of Elizabeth Singer Rowe’s poems printed in 1737.  I hope that its inclusion here will persuade others to uncover more about this fascinating poet, and to subscribe to what is undisputedly the best digital resource for the study of eighteenth-century literature, the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online database.

You can find out more about Elizabeth Singer Rowe:

(Wikipedia! A useful means of finding information about a writer who currently doesn’t seem to have an entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica online.  Wikipedia certainly has its uses…)

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)
(Yep, this one again – includes a nice little bit about Rowe’s life as well as a few more of her poems)