Thursday, December 24, 2020

A Parting

I came to this book by way of Coleridge and Wordsworth, both of whom are profiled, usefully if somewhat eccentrically, in its pages, but stayed for its other pleasures. One of the most memorable pieces here is "Recollections of Grasmere," which relates an incident from late 1807 when a couple named George and Sarah Green became disoriented on their way homeward during a snowstorm and perished, orphaning six children, the eldest of whom, a girl of nine, eventually went for help when the parents failed to return. William Wordsworth made a poem out of it, and his sister Dorothy wrote her own prose account (harder to find but said to be superior even to the one here). De Quincey skillfully sketches the background, describes the rugged upland landscape where the Greens lived, and narrates the difficult search that ended in the discovery of their bodies. He ends with an intriguing proposal for the construction of a system of "storm-crosses," equipped with bells, to prevent similar tragedies.

Among the other local characters described here is a brilliant self-taught philologist named Elizabeth Smith, who died in obscurity at the age of twenty-nine, not before mastering French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, German, Greek, and Hebrew and aquiring "no inconsiderable knowledge of the Syriac, the Arabic, and the Persic." Her headstone, which De Quincey calls "the scantiest record that, for a person so eminently accomplished, I have ever met with," declared simply that "she possessed great talents, exalted virtues, and humble piety."

The most affecting piece, however, is one devoted to De Quincey's friend Charles Lloyd, a promising but troubled young writer and family man whose "mysterious malady" — some kind of mental or nervous disorder — led to long periods of inhuman confinement in an asylum. (De Quincey improbably links Lloyd's illness to his Quaker upbringing.) At one point, Lloyd escaped and fled to De Quincey, who offered to shelter him from the pursuers who were expected to come. Lloyd declined the offer and set out again, with De Quincey accompanying him part of the way.
We set off on foot: the distance to Ambleside is about three and a half miles; and one-third of this distance brought us to an open plain on the margin of Rydalmere, where the road lies entirely open to the water. This lake is unusually shallow, by comparison with all its neighbours; but, at the point I speak of, it takes (especially when seen under any mode of imperfect light) the appearance of being gloomily deep: two islands of exquisite beauty, but strongly discriminated in character, and a sort of recess or bay in the opposite shore, across which the shadows of the hilly margin stretch with great breadth and solemnity of effect to the very centre of the lake—together with the very solitary character of the entire valley, on which (excluding the little hamlet in its very gorge or entrance) there is not more than one single house—combine to make the scene as impressive by night as any in the Lake country. At this point it was that my poor friend paused to converse, and, as it seemed, to take his leave, with an air of peculiar sadness, as if he had foreseen (what in fact proved to be the truth) that we now saw each other for the final time. The spot seemed favourable to confidential talk; and here, therefore, he proceeded to make his heart-rending communication: here he told me rapidly the tale of his sufferings, and, what oppressed his mind far more than those at this present moment, of the cruel indignities to which he had been under the necessity of submitting...

In vain I pressed him to return with me to Grasmere. He was now, for a few hours to come, to be befriended by the darkness; and he resolved to improve the opportunity for some purpose of his own, which, as he showed no disposition to communicate any part of his future plans, I did not directly inquire into. In fact, part of his purpose in stopping where he did had been to let me know that he did not wish for company any further. We parted; and I saw him no more. He was soon recaptured; then transferred to some more eligible asylum; then liberated from all restraint; after which, with his family, he went to France; where again it became necessary to deprive him of liberty.
The essay closes in bravura fashion with De Quincey listening to the uncanny murmuring of the River Brathay, where he and Lloyd had walked together in better times:
Often and often, in years after all was gone, I have passed old Brathay, or have gone over purposely after dark, about the time when, for many a year, I used to go over to spend the evening; and, seating myself on a stone, by the side of the mountain river Brathay, have staid for hours listening to the same sound to which so often Charles Lloyd and I used to hearken together with profound emotion and awe—the sound of pealing anthems, as if streaming from the open portals of some illimitable cathedral; for such a sound does actually arise, in many states of the weather, from the peculiar action of the river Brathay upon its rocky bed; and many times I have heard it, of a quiet night, when no stranger could have been persuaded to believe it other than the sound of choral chanting—distant, solemn, saintly. Its meaning and expression were, in those earlier years, uncertain and general; not more pointed or determined in the direction which it impressed upon one's feelings than the light of setting suns: and sweeping, in fact, the whole harp of pensive sensibilities, rather than striking the chord of any one specific sentiment. But since the ruin or dispersion of that household, after the smoke had ceased to ascend from their hearth, or the garden walks to re-echo their voices, oftentimes, when lying by the river side, I have listened to the same aerial saintly sound, whilst looking back to that night, long hidden in the frost of receding years, when Charles and Sophia Lloyd, now lying in foreign graves, first dawned upon me, coming suddenly out of rain and darkness; then—young, rich, happy, full of hope, belted with young children (of whom also most are long dead), and standing apparently on the verge of a labyrinth of golden hours. Musing on that night in November, 1807, and then upon the wreck that had been wrought by a space of fifteen years, I would say to myself sometimes, and seem to hear it in the songs of this watery cathedral—Put not your trust in any fabric of happiness that has its root in man or the children of men. Sometimes even I was tempted to discover in the same music a sound such as this—Love nothing, love nobody, for thereby comes a killing curse in the rear. But sometimes also, very early on a summer morning, when the dawn was barely beginning to break, all things locked in sleep, and only some uneasy murmur or cock-crow, at a faint distance, giving a hint of resurrection for earth and her generations, I have heard in that same chanting of the little mountain river a more solemn if a less agitated admonition—a requiem over departed happiness, and a protestation against the thought that so many excellent creatures, but a little lower than the angels, whom I have seen only to love in this life—so many of the good, the brave, the beautiful, the wise—can have appeared for no higher purpose or prospect than simply to point a moral, to cause a little joy and many tears, a few perishing moons of happiness and years of vain regret!
NB The Penguin edition of Recollections of the Lakes and Lake Poets shown above, which dates from 1970, is apparently now out of print. There are other editions available, but one does have to wonder, what is the mission of the Penguin Classics if a book like this no longer belongs on their list?


Tororo said...

So many partings in 2020. Could we wish for 2021 to be a year of fewer separations, and more reunions?
Anyway: I simply wish you the best, dear Chris.

Chris said...

And you as well, Roland. Merci.