Tuesday, 22 May 2012

A Droll Macaw with a Lyric Tongue.

Isn’t it astonishing how the lyric voice can often spring from a fount of less than heroic proportions.

I’m thinking of Swinburne here.

For Maupassant, his first impressions were of a poet short and thin ‘with a pointed face, a hydrocephalous forehead, pigeon-chested, agitated by a trembling which affected his glass with St Vitus’ dance, and talking incessantly like a madman.’

Swinburne was abnormally short with narrow sloping shoulders and tiny hands and feet. His eyes were green, and his disproportionately large head was topped by a great aureole of bright red hair. His appearance, plus his habit of fluttering his hands and hopping about as he excitedly talked, provoked a contemporary to compare him to ‘a crimson macaw’ who was ‘quite original, wildly eccentric, astonishingly gifted and convulsingly droll.’

From this droll macaw issued sublime lyrics:
Vicisti, Galilaee. 
Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath;
We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death.
Laurel is green for a season, and love is sweet for a day;
But love grows bitter with treason, and laurel outlives not May.

I think we may assume that in describing laurel as ‘green for a season’ Swinburne did not speak ‘horticulturally’, as Wilde would say, but employs a metonym for the short-lived crown of bay leaves awarded to an energetic young poet whose ‘green fuse’ is destined to fizzle out.
However, considered strictly horticulturally, what can one make of this celebrated quatrain?
Pale as the duskiest lily’s leaf or head,
Smooth-skinned and dark, with bare throat made to bite,
Too wan for blushing and too warm for white,
But perfect-coloured without white or red.

I think the Linnaean system of classification would be defeated, in this case, by observations more fervid than evidential.


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