Friday, March 31, 2017

’T is a most beauteous Strait

Towards the end of his life Henry Wadsworth Longfellow oversaw a 31-volume anthology, arranged geographically, called Poems of Places.  It can be read in its entirety on Bartleby.  The poems begin in England - in Aldborough to be precise, which comes first alphabetically in a list of English places.  Three poems by Crabbe are followed by something by one of the many lesser poets that bulk out the volumes and give the anthology its wide reach: Capel Lofft - lawyer, poet and patron, dismissed by Byron as 'the Maecenas of shoemakers and preface-writer general to distressed versemen' - whose poem begins 'THOU awful sea! upon this shingly beach / Of Aldborough I pace...'  Longfellow's America is not reached until Volumes XXV–XXIX, traversing the country from Maine to White Pine Nevada. 

Inevitably, perusing the contents pages, one is drawn not to the familiar poetic locations but to more far flung locations: back in 1874, what English verse was he able to find on Africa?  This continent is covered in Volume XXIV and the vast majority of its poems concern 'The Barbary States' and Egypt.  There are fewer poems about Central and Southern Africa than there are, earlier in the book, about specific London Streets and Taverns.  However, here are some lines from one of them, written by Thomas Pringle, a Scottish poet and abolitionist, who lived in Cape Town in the early 1820s.  They refer to a South African species, the yellowwood tree (podocarpus elongatus).  The original printing of the poem describes it as a 'Caffer Song' from the 'rocky cleugh of Eland':
DEEP in the forest lies hid a green dell,
Where fresh from the Rock of Elks blue waters swell;
And fast by that fountain a yellow-wood tree,
Which shelters the spot that is dearest to me.
This blog has moved freely between real and imagined landscapes and so it is with Longfellow's anthology.  The volume devoted to 'Oceanica' mostly comprises coral islands, tropical nights and Arctic seas that existed in the imaginations of Victorian writers.  However there are three poems on New Zealand by its fourth Premier (1862-3) Alfred Domett, who had been a friend of Browning before emigrating, and several on Australia by Henry Kendall.  The lines below, describing the coast of Tasmania, were written by John Dunmore Lang, another native Scotsman, who arrived in Sydney in 1823.  The Eden it describes seems as imaginary as the ideal islands dreamt by poets who never left Europe. 
’T is a most beauteous Strait. The Great South Sea’s
  Proud waves keep holiday along its shore,
And as the vessel glides before the breeze,
  Broad bays and isles appear, and steep cliffs hoar
With groves on either hand of ancient trees
  Planted by Nature in the days of yore:
Van Dieman’s on the left and Bruné’s isle
Forming the starboard shore for many a mile.

But all is still as death! Nor voice of man
  Is heard, nor forest warbler’s tuneful song.
It seems as if this beauteous world began
  To be but yesterday...

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