TC TO JANE BAILLIE WELSH; 27 May 1822; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18220527-TC-JBW-01; CL 2:115-122.
TC TO JANE BAILLIE WELSH
3. Moray-street, 27th May, 1822.
My dear Friend,
I kept looking out for you or your Mother, almost every day last week; not once suspecting that you could visit Edinr and leave it, without communicating that event to so important a person as myself. It were unprofitable, not to say absurd, to make any kind of outcry about this occurrence now; and very absurd to charge you with any blame in the matter: another time, however, I hope for better fortune.
I have little leisure for writing to-day; only I could not defer sending you Sismondi's book, which I hope you will peruse with some profit as well as enjoyment. It is equally remote from the nonsense of Atala, and from the rude, melancholy vastness of that famous work—otherwise in truth so full of gross deformities. Sismondi is a lively, dapper, elegant, little fellow full of good sense and learning and correct sentiment: he resembles our Jeffrey somewhat—a clever man, with rather less of natural talent than Jeffrey has, and about ten times as much knowledge and culture. You must read his Treatise, if possible; were it but for the sake of the Italians, in whose literature he is extremely versant.
It gives me great pleasure to find you so hearty in our poetical project: I trust good will come of it to us both. Hardly any creature is born without some thrills of poetry in his nature, which practice & instruction might enable him to express: and surely it were delightful, if when the mind feels so inflamed or overpowered in the various turns of this its confused and fluctuating existence,—astonished at the stupendous aspect of the universe—charmed, saddened, tortured in the course or in the prospect of its own great and gloomy and mysterious destiny,—it could embody those emotions, which now serve only to encumber and depress it, in music and imagery, in “thoughts that breathe & words that burn”;1 so gratifying, by employing, its own best faculties; and brightening its own sensations, by causing all around to share in them. Nature, it is true, makes one right Poet seldom—scarcely in the hundred years; but she makes a thousand rhymers in the day, with less or more of poetry in each. Our attempt then is not too arduous: I predict, that if we persevere, we shall both succeed in making very tolerable verses, perhaps something more than tolerable; and this itself I reckon a very pleasing & harmless & very ornamental acquirement. Many a time I have wished that, when ruining my health with their poor lean triangles & sines & tangents & fluxions and calculi, I had but been writing any kind of doggerel however weak: it would have imp[r]oved the understanding, at least mine I am sure, quite as much or more—that is[,] left it where it was; and now, I might have been inditing odes and dithyrambics by the gross! The past is gone for aye: but—“better late than never!”—as the adage runs. Do not think me altogether crazy: I am no poet, “have no genius,” I know it well; but I can learn to make words jingle when ever I think fit; and by the blessing of Heaven, we two will try it now in concert as long as we like.
I wish therefore you would meditate some plan, some terms & conditions for carrying it on. Shall we prescribe the subject alternately? And should it be a specific subject that is prescribed—or merely the class of subjects to which it must belong—“a descriptive piece,” for instance,—“an incident—pathetic—tragical—ludicrous”—“a character—great—bad—&c”—or some descriptive piece—some incident—some character? Or shall it merely be that each is to give in a certain quantity of verse within a stated time? Settle all this to your own satisfaction—or leave it all unsettled if you like better. I have yet had no time to consider the business properly, or even to select a proper topic for our coup d'essai [first effort]. The most plausible task I can hit upon is a little article to be entitled The Wish,2 wherein we are to set forth respectively the kind of fate and condition we most long for—and have some feeble expectation of attaining. Yours will be very different from mine, I know: It will be curious to compare notes, if we both deal honestly—which is not necessary, however. Try this; and send it along when ready—with another theme, so it be an easy one.
These little parergies [work done on the side] and recreations will do you no harm, I am persuaded; yet I cannot help still wishing too see you employed in some more serious composition, while your stock of knowledge from books and other sources must be augmenting so rapidly. Did you think any thing about the essay on Mad. de Staël? I am still of opinion that it would be a very fine exercise for you; and one you are well prepared for, having studied all her writings and feeling so deep an interest in all that concerns her. What is to hinder you from delineating your conception of her mind; saying all you feel about her chara[cter] as a thinker, as a poet, and still more as a woman; comparing her in all these respects both with the ordinary throng of mortals, and with all the distinguished females you have heard or formed any idea of? I really wish you would begin in sober prose, and do this for me as honestly and correctly as you possibly can. I inquired after her life for you to-day; but it could not be had: however, if you engage to execute this undertaking, or otherwise desire to see the book, I will certainly find it. Consider this, at any rate; for I am eager about it, being convinced it would prove useful to you.
The interest you take in my unfortunate projects I feel with the gratitude due to your kind treatment of me on all occasions. That historico-biographical one3 is still in embryo, but not yet abandoned. It seems quite indispensible that I should make an effort soon; I shall have no settled peace of mind till then. Often it grieves me to be besieged with Printers'-Devils wanting Copy (of Legendre) a “most scientific” treatise on Geometry which I unhappily engaged to translate long ago)—with small boys studying Greek, and the many cares of life; when I might be &c. Till August, I cannot even get this Book fashioned into any shape, much less actually commenced. Meantime I read by snatches partly with a view to it. If ever, which is just possible, I get the mastery over these difficulties, which it is hard to strive with but glorious to conquer, I shall experience many an enviable feeling at the thought of having vindicated Jane for the encouragements she gave me.— Excuse this silly idea—for it is pleasant to me; and this dull letter, which I have already spun out too long.— I am ever your's,
I am already too late for the Coach; so I shall take time enough with your translation of “The Fisher.” Be sure to send me abundance of such “trash” as your verses on the sunset, and those from Atala; it is of the kind I like.
If Shandy understood articulate speech, I would gladly return his compliments; for he is a dog of worth undoubtedly. He would give me welcome wherever he met me, which is all he can do, poor fellow,—and more than every one of our human friends can do.
You should take a long ride, every day—your mother should insist on it.
The Fisher [underscored twice] is a very happy and ingenious translation, in many places; tolerable in all, considering the shackles you had to move in. I need not point out the weak parts of it; you see them clearly enough yourself, as I observe. It is more difficult to point out a remedy; scarce possible perhaps, without a farther departure from the letter of the original. Some alterations I have attempted with poor success. The chief ones are founded on a slight misconception, you seem to have fallen into, with regard to the scene of the poem, which I apprehend to be not a river but the Sea; our hero not being an Amateur Angler but a vulgar hard-working Fisherman, plying his craft in a dingy Coble, afloat upon some fair bay (that of Naples, for example), where the beauty of the deep & the influence of the climate conspire to produce in the mind a certain indiscribable longing for the ocean, a kind of affection for it, which (Mad. de Staël thinks—see her Corrinne—& Germany) Goethe has very ably represented & shadowed forth in this small tragedy.
|The Fisher by Jane||Variations by Hypercriticus Minimus.6|
|The water rush'd the water swell'd A Fisher sat thereby;||The water rush'd the water swell'd; A Fisher floating there|
|He looked upon the rod he held, His heart was full of joy.||Calm gaz'd upon the hooks he held; Felt little joy or care.|
|His eye he gave, his ear he gave To watch the flowing stream;||Cool to the heart, no heed he gave But to his flick'ring lines;|
|When lo! above the parted wave A water-nymph was seen||When lo! uprising from the wave A beauteous mermaid shines.|
|She softly spoke, she softly sang, “Ah cruel! wherefore wish|
|With wit of man & wiles of man To lure my harmless fish?|
1st. Stanza. sass daran [an underscored twice]; and the man was very dull at first, or at best quite composed,—the more credit to the Enchantress ! The “various rendering” is as bad as need be, except this advantage.
2nd St. Variation somewhat nearer the German—otherwise not so good. “Mermaid” or “sea-nymph”
3d. St. Good.
|“Couldst thou but know how merrily The Trout plays in the deep,||Couldst thou but know how merry plays The minnow down below,|
|Thou wouldst go with me speedily His cool abode to seek||Thou'dst haste with me where pleasure stays|
|To hide from toil & woe.|
|“Doth not the Moon, doth not the Sun In ocean love to bathe?||Bends not the Moon to dip,—the Sun Wave-gilding, in the Main?|
|And do they not more bright become When they have breath'd the wave?||And doubly bright their race to run Return they not again?|
|“Doth that deep Heaven lure thee not That wave of lucid blue?||Does Heaven's vast dome not lure thee Here glass'd in lucid blue?|
|Doth thine own image lure thee not Into eternal dew?”||Does not the face here shadow'd lure th[ee] Down to eternal dew?|
|The water rush'd, the water swell'd, It lav'd his naked foot;|
|His heart with fond desire was fill'd As at love's soft salute.|
|She spoke to him, she sang to him His love of earth was o'er||She sang, she charm'd tho' awing h[im] More wild his bosom burn'd;|
|With gentle force she drew him in He ne'er was heard of more.||Half leaning—she half drawing him He sank and ne'er return'd.|
4. Very fair as it stands. Var “Minnow” may be “small Trout.”
5. Good, except “breath'd [the] wave.” Wellenathmend is a word which I do not well understand, nor I suspect [Goe]the himself. It seems to signify “breathing out waves,” “blowing them out gently”— “wave-gild[ing” is] but little more violent or irregular. Var. first line might be “Bathes not the moon—the lovely [sun]
6. Very good—only feuchtverklärte: Das feuchtverklärte Blau means the “blue of Heav[en] transfigured (or represented more beautifully) on the waters.”— 7. Very well.— 8. Last line ba[d as] you say; third line well. Da war[']s um ihn geschehn means literally “all was over w[ith] him”—“he was hastening to his ruin inevitably”: There is no getting of it in. Last line might be [“He] Sank to rise no more.”