The Paradise of Poets
[Note: This is taken From Andrew Lang's Adventures Among Books.]
We were talking of Love, Constancy, the Ideal. “Who ever loved like the poets?” cried Lady Violet Lebas, her pure, pale cheek flushing. “Ah, if ever I am to love, he shall be a singer!”
“Tenors are popular, very,” said Lord Walter.
“I mean a poet,” she answered witheringly.
Near them stood Mr. Witham, the author of “Heart’s Chords Tangled.”
“Ah,” said he, “that reminds me. I have been trying to catch it all the morning. That reminds me of my dream.”
“Tell us your dream,” murmured Lady Violet Lebas, and he told it.
“It was through an unfortunate but pardonable blunder,” said Mr. Witham, “that I died, and reached the Paradise of Poets. I had, indeed, published volumes of verse, but with the most blameless motives. Other poets were continually sending me theirs, and, as I could not admire them, and did not like to reply by critical remarks, I simply printed some rhymes for the purpose of sending them to the gentlemen who favoured me with theirs. I always wrote on the fly-leaf a quotation from the ‘Iliad,’ about giving copper in exchange for gold; and the few poets who could read Greek were gratified, while the others, probably, thought a compliment was intended. Nothing could be less culpable or pretentious, but, through some mistake on the part of Charon, I was drafted off to the Paradise of Poets.
“Outside the Golden Gate a number of Shadows were waiting, in different attitudes of depression and languor. Bavius and Maevius were there, still complaining of ‘cliques,’ railing at Horace for a mere rhymer of society, and at Virgil as a plagiarist, ‘Take away his cribs from Homer and Apollonius Rhodius,’ quoth honest Maevius, ‘and what is there left of him?’ I also met a society of gentlemen, in Greek costume, of various ages, from a half-naked minstrel with a tortoiseshell lyre in his hand to an elegant of the age of Pericles. They all consorted together, talking various dialects of Aeolic, Ionian, Attic Greek, and so forth, which were plainly not intelligible to each other. I ventured to ask one of the company who he was, but he, with a sweep of his hand, said, ‘We are Homer!’ When I expressed my regret and surprise that the Golden Gate had not yet opened for so distinguished, though collective, an artist, my friend answered that, according to Fick, Peppmüller, and many other learned men, they were Homer. ‘But an impostor from Chios has got in somehow,’ he said; ‘they don’t pay the least attention to the Germans in the Paradise of Poets.’
“At this moment the Golden Gates were thrown apart, and a fair lady, in an early Italian costume, carrying a laurel in her hand, appeared at the entrance. All the Shadows looked up with an air of weary expectation, like people waiting for their turn in a doctor’s consulting-room. She beckoned to me, however, and I made haste to follow her. The words ‘Charlatan!’ ‘You a poet!’ in a variety of languages, greeted me by way of farewell from the Shadows.
“‘The renowned Laura, if I am not mistaken,’ I ventured to remark, recognising her, indeed, from the miniature in the Laurentian library at Florence.
“She bowed, and I began to ask for her adorer, Petrarch.
“‘Excuse me,’ said Laura, as we glided down a mossy path, under the shade of trees particularly dear to poets, ‘excuse me, but the sonneteer of whom you speak is one whose name I cannot bear to mention. His conduct with Burns’s Clarinda, his heartless infatuation for Stella—’
“‘You astonish me,’ I said. ‘In the Paradise of Poets—’
“‘They are poets still—incorrigible!’ answered the lady; then slightly raising her voice of silver, as a beautiful appearance in a toga drew near, she cried ‘Catullo mio!’
“The greeting between these accomplished ghosts was too kindly to leave room for doubt as to the ardour of their affections.
“‘Will you, my Catullus,’ murmured Laura, ‘explain to this poet from the land of fogs, any matters which, to him, may seem puzzling and unfamiliar in our Paradise?’
“The Veronese, with a charming smile, took my hand, and led me to a shadowy arbour, whence we enjoyed a prospect of many rivers and mountains in the poets’ heaven. Among these I recognised the triple crest of the Eildons, Grongar Hill, Cithaeron and Etna; while the reed-fringed waters of the Mincius flowed musically between the banks and braes o’ bonny Doon to join the Tweed. Blithe ghosts were wandering by, in all varieties of apparel, and I distinctly observed Dante’s Beatrice, leaning loving on the arm of Sir Philip Sidney, while Dante was closely engaged in conversation with the lost Lenore, celebrated by Mr. Edgar Allan Poe.
“‘In what can my knowledge of the Paradise of Poets be serviceable to you, sir?’ said Catullus, as he flung himself at the feet of Laura, on the velvet grass.
“‘I am disinclined to seem impertinently curious,’ I answered, ‘but the ladies in this fair, smiling country—have the gods made them poetical?’
“‘Not generally,’ replied Catullus. ‘Indeed, if you would be well with them, I may warn you never to mention poetry in their hearing. They never cared for it while on earth, and in this place it is a topic which the prudent carefully avoid among ladies. To tell the truth, they have had to listen to far too much poetry, and too many discussions on the caesura. There are, indeed, a few lady poets—very few. Sappho, for example; indeed I cannot recall any other at this moment. The result is that Phaon, of all the shadows here, is the most distinguished by the fair. He was not a poet, you know; he got in on account of Sappho, who adored him. They are estranged now, of course.’
“‘You interest me deeply,’ I answered. ‘And now, will you kindly tell me why these ladies are here, if they were not poets?’
“‘The women that were our ideals while we dwelt on earth, the women we loved but never won, or, at all events, never wedded, they for whom we sighed while in the arms of a recognised and legitimate affection, have been chosen by the Olympians to keep us company in Paradise!’
“‘Then wherefore,’ I interrupted, ‘do I see Robert Burns loitering with that lady in a ruff,—Cassandra, I make no doubt—Ronsard’s Cassandra? And why is the incomparable Clarinda inseparable from Petrarch; and Miss Patty Blount, Pope’s flame, from the Syrian Meleager, while his Heliodore is manifestly devoted to Mr. Emerson, whom, by the way, I am delighted, if rather surprised, to see here?’
“‘Ah,’ said Catullus, ‘you are a new-comer among us. Poets will be poets, and no sooner have they attained their desire, and dwelt in the company of their earthly Ideals, than they feel strangely, yet irresistibly drawn to Another. So it was in life, so it will ever be. No Ideal can survive a daily companionship, and fortunate is the poet who did not marry his first love!’
“‘As far as that goes,’ I answered, ‘most of you were highly favoured; indeed, I do not remember any poet whose Ideal was his wife, or whose first love led him to the altar.’
“‘I was not a marrying man myself,’ answered the Veronese; ‘few of us were. Myself, Horace, Virgil—we were all bachelors.’
“I said this in a low voice, for Laura was weaving bay into a chaplet, and inattentive to our conversation.
“‘Poor Lesbia!’ said Catullus, with a suppressed sigh. ‘How I misjudged that girl! How cruel, how causeless were my reproaches,’ and wildly rending his curled locks and laurel crown, he fled into a thicket, whence there soon arose the melancholy notes of the Ausonian lyre.’
“‘He is incorrigible,’ said Laura, very coldly; and she deliberately began to tear and toss away the fragments of the chaplet she had been weaving. ‘I shall never break him of that habit of versifying. But they are all alike.’
“‘Is there nobody here,’ said I, ‘who is happy with his Ideal—nobody but has exchanged Ideals with some other poet?’
“‘There is one,’ she said. ‘He comes of a northern tribe; and in his life-time he never rhymed upon his unattainable lady, or if rhyme he did, the accents never carried her name to the ears of the vulgar. Look there.’
“She pointed to the river at our feet, and I knew the mounted figure that was riding the ford, with a green-mantled lady beside him like the Fairy Queen.
“Surely I had read of her, and knew her—
“‘They are different; I know not why. They are constant,’ said Laura, and rising with an air of chagrin, she disappeared among the boughs of the trees that bear her name.
“‘Unhappy hearts of poets,’ I mused. ‘Light things and sacred they are, but even in their Paradise, and among their chosen, with every wish fulfilled, and united to their beloved, they cannot be at rest!’
“Thus moralising, I wended my way to a crag, whence there was a wide prospect. Certain poets were standing there, looking down into an abyss, and to them I joined myself.
“‘Ah, I cannot bear it!’ said a voice, and, as he turned away, his brow already clearing, his pain already forgotten, I beheld the august form of Shakespeare.
“Marking my curiosity before it was expressed, he answered the unuttered question.
“‘That is a sight for Pagans,’ he said, ‘and may give them pleasure. But my Paradise were embittered if I had to watch the sorrows of others, and their torments, however well deserved. The others are gazing on the purgatory of critics and commentators.’
“He passed from me, and I joined the ‘Ionian father of the rest’—Homer, who, with a countenance of unspeakable majesty, was seated on a throne of rock, between the Mantuan Virgil of the laurel crown, Hugo, Sophocles, Milton, Lovelace, Tennyson, and Shelley.
“At their feet I beheld, in a vast and gloomy hall, many an honest critic, many an erudite commentator, an army of reviewers. Some were condemned to roll logs up insuperable heights, whence they descended thundering to the plain. Others were set to impositions, and I particularly observed that the Homeric commentators were obliged to write out the ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ in their complete shape, and were always driven by fiends to the task when they prayed for the bare charity of being permitted to leave out the ‘interpolations.’ Others, fearful to narrate, were torn into as many fragments as they had made of these immortal epics. Others, such as Aristarchus, were spitted on their own critical signs of disapproval. Many reviewers were compelled to read the books which they had criticised without perusal, and it was terrible to watch the agonies of the worthy pressmen who were set to this unwonted task. ‘May we not be let off with the preface?’ they cried in piteous accents. ‘May we not glance at the table of contents and be done with it?’ But the presiding demons (who had been Examiners in the bodily life) drove them remorseless to their toils.
“Among the condemned I could not but witness, with sympathy, the punishment reserved for translators. The translators of Virgil, in particular, were a vast and motley assemblage of most respectable men. Bishops were there, from Gawain Douglas downwards; Judges, in their ermine; professors, clergymen, civil servants, writhing in all the tortures that the blank verse, the anapaestic measure, the metre of the ‘Lay of the Last Minstrel,’ the heroic couplet and similar devices can inflict. For all these men had loved Virgil, though not wisely: and now their penance was to hear each other read their own translations.”
“That must have been more than they could bear,” said Lady Violet.
“Yes,” said Mr. Witham; “I should know, for down I fell into Tartarus with a crash, and writhed among the Translators.”
“Why?” asked Lady Violet.
“Because I have translated Theocritus!”
“Mr. Witham,” said Lady Violet, “did you meet your ideal woman when you were in the Paradise of Poets?”
“She yet walks this earth,” said the bard, with a too significant bow.
Lady Violet turned coldly away.
* * *
Mr. Witham was never invited to the Blues again—the name of Lord Azure’s place in Kent.
The Poet is shut out of Paradise.