Pretence. Part II - The Library

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A.  —If then, in sooth, Pretension and Pretence,
  The coxcomb's half, the worldling's double sense,
  If these our age divide, or jointly share,
  Compelling to confederate or to bear;
  To court Pretension, while we scorn its pride,
  Pretence detect, and yet conspire to hide;
  How sweet, my friend, as now, to steal away,
  And give to frankness one unblushing day.

  Chased from yon spreading oak's serene alcove
  By modish nymph, our Dryad of the grove;

  But, luckier far than Horace in his walk,
  Escaped yon worldling's overweening talk;
  Peaceful with books, come, let this shrouding room
  Receive us to its window-tinted gloom;
  Such, Lambeth! as thy towers have harboured long,
  Like cowlèd monk amid the city's throng—
  Here, from intrusion free of pride or pelf,
  Here let us range, at will, each silent shelf;
  And, odours round while tattered bindings cast,
  Inhale the dying gales of centuries past.

  Lo! here around, the minds of every age,
  Pilgrim and bard, theologist and sage.
  Some forth have fared, to paint, with faithful pen,
  The modes and cities of far distant men;
  Some choose a quest, more deep, if more confined,
  And sound each process of the thinking mind;
  Or quit that more abstracted search, to sean
  Event or act of individual man;
  Or legends old, or languages explore,
  And guide from age to age, from lore to lore.
  These watch the eternal planets eyeling by,
  And win the wondrous wisdom of the sky;

  These sift each smallest growth of earth or air,
  And find, not less, ennobling knowledge there.
  Here too are they who own no single thrall,
  But catch, to re-transmit, the lights of all;
  Now, track the One intelligence and rule
  From system vast to tiniest molecule;
  And now a yet more blessed lore impart,
  And fix the principles, and mould the heart.

  How oft, at evening, when the mind, o'erwrought,
  Finds, in dim reverie, repose from thought,
  Just at that hour when soft subsiding day
  Slants on the glimmering shelves its latest ray;
  And pensive breeze, from dewy jessamin,
  Through open casement, scarcely felt, steals in,—
  Along those darkling files I ponder slow,
  And muse, how vast the debt to books we owe.

  Yes! friends they are! and friends thro' life to last!
  Hopes for the future! memories for the past!
  With them, no fear of leisure unemployed;
  Let come the leisure, they shall fill the void;
  With them, no dread of joys that fade from view;
  They stand beside us, and our youth renew;

  Telling fond tales of that exalted time,
  When lore was bliss, and power was in its prime.
  Come then, delicious converse still to hold,
  And still to teach, ye long-loved volumes old!

  Yet here commix, at will, the old and new,
  Grave first-editions and the last review.
  All sizes, as all ages, crowd the wall,
  Sermons from Oxford, pamphlets from Whitehall;
  Huge quarto tomes, that curve the groaning shelves,
  Sedate octavos; petit-maître twelves;
  Here thick black hides some ancient sage enfold;
  Here last year's witlings fade in green and gold.

  Yon folios, jerkined, clasped, in stout array,
  Were all renowned polemics in their day;
  Right fierce were they to argue or to rail,
  Nor boded once yon spider's dusky veil.
  But thou, polemic though thou wert, o'er thee,
  Thou mild as learned, mitred Jeremy!
  If ever that dark spinner chance to stray,
  With pious hand I brush the film away. 

  More near, and often stirred with reverent hand,
  No cobwebbed race, immortal poets stand.
  Their leaves, by Time's own autumn tinted o'er,
  Come turn we now, and fondly taste their lore;
  With curious eye oft pausing to survey
  Where the shy worm hath worked his ancient way;
  And, undiverted then by fresh review,
  A hermit-student, went his volume through.

  Due honour to the stout-built Man of Prose!
  Reasoner on facts! who scorns to feel, but knows!
  Yet be it mine, who love not less the true,
  To lead, well-feigning bards! my hours with you;
  And sick, long since, of facts that falsify,
  And reasonings, that logically lie,
  With you live o'er my wisely-credulous youth,
  And in your fictions find life's only truth.

  And sweet 'twill be, or hope would so believe,
  When close round life its fading tints of eve,
  To turn again our earlier volumes o'er,
  And love them then, because we've loved before;
  And inly bless the waning hour that brings
  A will to lean once more on simple things.

  If this be weakness, welcome life's decline!
  If this be second childhood, be it mine!

  Yet to the radiance of new-risen mind
  Nor stupidly, nor insolently blind,
  And no mere praisers of departed hours,
  We hate no day, because more bright than ours.
  But, as the pilgrim, worn with toil or time,
  Will fondly hanker for his native clime,
  And wins, or hopes to win, reviving powers
  From first-loved fields and childhood's simple bowers,
  E'en so do we reclaim our youthful light,
  To us more mildly healing, if less bright.

  Who has not loved, erewhile, to pause and look
  On childhood's record in some old school-book,
  Name—or grim portrait scrawled in ink—agen
  Awakening memories, which had slept till then?
  What if the spirit shrink in sudden grief,
  When the eye lights on some remembered leaf,
  With parent, or beloved friend, once read,
  The, now, for-ever-parted—or the dead!
  Though for brief space the stroke be still severe,
  Not long we shun the line that wakes the tear,

  But, stealing back to that love-hallowed page,
  With its own balsam its own wound assuage.

  Digression o'er, turn once again to see
  These witnesses of many a century.
  Yes! ages—present—past—are mingling here;
  Yet, welcome elders! still to me most dear.
  As when along some gallery's pictured line
  Frown statesmen old, and modern beauties shine;
  Though Reynolds there bestow his breathing skill,
  Hard-featuring Holbein holds the fancy still.

  Now—doubly sweet such refuge found with books!
  To stray with mild Piscator up the brooks;
  With Cowley muse beneath the greenwood tree,
  Or taste old Fuller's wise simplicity.
  Or if his Worthies, though removed their span,
  Smack yet too strongly of the living man,
  Then backward turn to question Homer o'er,
  Or dream of storied ages, rolled before;
  Faint-glimmering now, like far-off beacon light
  O'er misty ocean scarcely read aright. 

  But if, perplexed by history's fabling theme,
  Vexed thought would float entire on fancy's stream,
  To me more dear than all the East e'er gave,
  Those nightly tales, Arabia's gift, I crave
  With Sinbad let me wander, sailor bold,
  And hear his mighty marvels, ten times told;
  Or read again of Morgiana, who
  The robber-chief with whirling dagger slew;
  Or, fondlier lingering, through charmed hours prolong
  "Of Thalaba the wild and wondrous song."
  Thrice summoned, scarce I quit those Genii bowers,
  Most loved, as most unlike this world of ours.

  To us the mere material world is all;
  Our pride; our tax; our pleasure and our thrall.
  Science, whom scarce the circling spheres may fold,
  Chained to a desk we hire to scheme for gold;
  Drag from his heights Imagination down,
  To please, for daily bread, the modish town;
  And daintiest Art, the dreaming child of Grace,
  Wake from her dream to paint some idiot face.
  Virtue herself, born guest of Heaven's high roof,
  Gift of the Godhead; gift at once and proof;

  E'en Her, blind bigots of our planet birth,
  E'en Her, we fain would fetter down to earth;
  Just mark where Bat-Expedience flits at height,
  And meanly, there, would bound her eagle-flight.

  From such a world, all touch, all ear, all eye,
  What marvel, then, if proud Abstraction fly;
  Amid Hercynian shades pursue his theme,
  And leave the land of Locke to gold and steam?

  But thou art not of those who, hence and thence,
  Glean for low ends their pic-nie scraps of sense;
  A lofty thinker, proud thy thirst to slake
  At truth's well-head, unbribed, for truth's own sake;
  Or art thou of the race still more unfit
  To wrestle with the clans of worldly wit;
  One, whom ere yet thy youngling thought could reach
  To wield sweet verse, or e'en well-painting speech,
  Some unseen presence fed with many a dream
  Won from old bard, or caught from cloud or stream;
  And still, though turmoiled mid the things that are,
  Still dost thou love to muse on Good and Fair;

  And, faith outworking from far names sublime,
  The brethren-band of every age and clime,
  To thy young heart's first creed of virtue cling,
  Nor stoop to think her an unreal thing;
  Oh! prize those dreams, oh! guard that creed of thine;
  But guard it hid within thy bosom's shrine;
  To clasp, at silent eve, at unwatched morn,
  But let not garish day detect to scorn.

  And scorn it will. For, while on viewless wings
  Thou soarest 'mid thy high imaginings,
  The future, not the present, is thy lot;
  Thou livest in a world that knows thee not.
  Of this be warned; nor yet of this alone;
  Those who once loved shall mock thee or disown.
  Lo! one and all the former friendly band,
  Who stand in lofty place, or wish to stand,
  Look on, and "do confess they wonder much
  They e'er could hold companionship with such!
  'Tis true, those dreams of Good, in earlier youth,
  Might wear—did wear—a sort of look of truth;
  But forty years should surely tame the brain,
  Such reveries at forty scarce are sane,

  And hurt one's fortune, when they last such while!"
  —Then hug they their own wisdom with a smile.

  "But books, thou say'st, shall shield thee; and when men
  Neglect or scorn, thou'lt turn to books agen;
  And, safe from all that slight and all that sneer,
  With truth and wisdom nurse high musings here."

  And blest it were with them, if wise and true,
  Once more to live and candid youth renew;
  But truth and wisdom guide not every pen;
  In trust we flee to books, and find them—men.
  And here, e'en here, 'mid this conventual gloom,
  And sacred, as might seem, Pretence finds room,
  Mid ancient tomes niched in, and learned dust,
  To offend the moral or the taste disgust;
  And plies herself a hundred worldly ways
  For petty interest, or as petty praise.

  The sordid tribes who say and then unsay,
  And flatter or asperse, and each for pay,
  Of these, though here full rife, no talk we hold,
  But leave them—glad to leave them—to their gold. 

  Mere pelf Furilio scorns, and burns for fame;
  But easier finds to filch than build a name;
  So picks and steals from authors little read,
  As birds of carrion banquet on the dead.

  Such rob in silence. Some, hard rogues, abuse
  The very victims they design to use.
  Some praise to steal; but cloak in such disguise,
  The stolen babe might cheat a mother's eyes.
  Thus Gulo, at a feast, tactician fine,
  Hints the fish stale on which he schemes to dine;
  Yon limner thus, with skill to understand,
  Views the great product of some master's hand;
  Extols each firmer touch, each finer trace,
  The strength of muscle and the turn of grace;
  Then to his task; where, if not line by line,
  He steals the spirit of the whole design.
  Changes perhaps a gesture, helm, or gown,
  For posture, arms, or drapery of his own;
  And having wrought a picture not amiss,
  Brings forth the pilfered piece and calls it his.

  And not Pretence alone, in borrowed dress,
  Pretension comes to taint these shelves no less,

  And, false to mere-affected softened down,
  Infects alike the laic and the gown;
  And, as herself more slender, wadded more,
  Struts in such robe as nature never wore;
  Whate'er the theme more pleased to seem than be,
  And verse and prose one wide hyperbole.

  Behold her there, where, scorning sponge or file,
  She o'erinforms yon bard's plethoric style;
  And with strange freight of similes, far sought,
  Cumbers all o'er his shallow waves of thought.
  'Tis true, by fits e'en mighty Homer slept,
  Then from repose to freshened force up-leapt;
  But bard nor critic now give truce to vigour;
  Each syllable must strive; each word be figure.

  So fame is won. Nor only poet's rhyme
  Must feed on flowers and flutter in sublime;
  But, like false head that froths on sickly beer,
  When drugs belie sweet malt and hop austere,
  Church-briefs themselves with tropes are mantling o'er,
  And humble prose is humble prose no more. 

  Yet strip, more oft, from each its fine brocade,
  How mean the mould of thought beneath displayed!
  Thus, posset-stirred, old January pranks
  In youthful hose too wide for shrunken shanks;
  Thus when, the booth without, some bumpkin's eye
  Hath fed on pictured monster, ten feet high,
  Giant or huge Bonassus, from his lair
  Hurling at once three hunters high in air,
  Let in, his visage takes most rueful touch,
  To find that In and Out unlike so much.

  From them—the grandiose or superfine,
  In various guise who travesty the Nine;
  And them, who thus in petty pilferings deal,
  And them, yet more, who slander while they steal;
  But most from such as serve men's hates for hire,
  And burn with coals from off the Muse's fire,
  Oft would I flee, beyond all printing's reach,
  Back to the golden days of simple speech,
  When yet of Press no prophecy could wot,
  And e'en preserving Manuscript was not.

  Oh! blessed days, too blest again to see,
  Alike from authors and from critics free.

  Then talk to simple topics was addrest;
  Who best dispatched the boar, or cooked him best;
  Which fur was found the warmest, wolf's or bear's;
  If turf or clay best fenced from wintry airs;
  Who foremost his bold spear in battle bore,
  Or dared his vessel farthest from the shore.
  Then none sat, chair-bound, forced to hear or say
  Of this man's sermon, or of that man's play;
  Nor inly yawned, while evenings ran to waste
  In wise discourse on learning or on taste.
  Then, too, no promised guest, engaged to dine
  With scribbler-host, so tempted by his wine,
  Was bound, as now, in rueful compliment,
  To read that host's dull book before he went.

  Yet minds were then, as now, with fruitage fraught,
  And wit could point his jest, while wisdom thought;
  And each passed current, for delight or law,
  In gay allusion or the solid saw.
  Yet whoso thus aspired to please or teach
  Was strained to hang his fame on passing speech;
  Such transient fame as living breaths afford;
  A fleeting glory from a winged word! 

  So sped the unwriting age. Came Cadmus then,
  To leave in doubt if worse his lettered pen,
  Or serpents' teeth that grew to armèd men.

  For smothered hates could now find seemlier vent,
  And stab with peaceful-looking instrument.
  Yet Wit and Wisdom hence advantage gained;
  Their Spoken would have flown; their Writ remained;
  And them the pen most served, if not alone;
  —As gems we set, but slight the meaner stone.
  Nay, when, as chance it would, the hungry scribe
  Was won to toil for Folly's tempting bribe,
  The ephemeral birth just fluttered, and was gone;
  Bavius soon passed, while Maro still lived on.

  The great Emathian conqu'ror bade infold
  Iliad and Odyssee in cist of gold!
  Nor less did every age, in safest crypt,
  Strive to preserve the darling manuscript.
  But when the wild barbarians, horde on horde,
  Surged on, and letters died beneath the sword;
  Then every secret nook, designed to save
  The fondly-reverenced scroll, became its grave,

  Where lost it lay, through mouldering years of gloom,
  Like mummy-king, forgotten in his tomb.

  Princely Lorenzo, who not scorned the gown,
  But wreathed the scholar's with the statesman's crown,
  With generous quest explored them, where they lay,
  And gave each glorious vellum back to day.
  They came, like heralds from some far-off clime
  Of ancient fame, ambassadors from Time;
  And who but burned to unseal their trusted lore,
  And turn the high dispatches o'er and o'er?
  Nay, then, 'twas held no scorn to copy out,
  And pause, and pore, till texts were free from doubt;
  Genius himself on such slow task might moil;
  Where great the End, ne'er vulgar is the Toil.

  Oh matchless line of years, whose generous strife
  Reared man's reviving mind to perfect life.
  Then Petrarch's native lay refined on love;
  Then Angelo the' impetuous chisel drove;
  Then Oracles, that stirred young Raphael's breast,
  Spoke forth in colours, clear as words, exprest;

  And Learning, made no coldly gainful art,
  Was Sacrifice, and offered from the heart.

  When first, our questing age to scourge or bless,
  Ingenious Faust had framed the wondrous press,
  And taught to each, intent on good or ill,
  To waft on volant leaf the thought at will,
  Along the skies what dubious omen sailed,
  What prophecy or greeted, or bewailed?
  Or who might guess from whence the power was given,
  Upsent—from hell—to tempt, or dropt—in love—from heaven?

  Come back, long-toiling Faust! come back and see
  The produce of thy Good-and-Evil tree;
  Count o'er its mingled fruits of joy and pain,
  Then say if thou wouldst plant it o'er again!
  Thou too, wise Caliph Omar! who art said
  All Alexandria's ovens to have fed,
  Visit our shelves once more. Where'er we look
  Pamphlet on pamphlet, book buds out on book;
  Turn wheresoe'er we will, new volumes sprout;
  Some of fair promise; most lack clearing out.

  Come, then, thou Critic-Caliph—come again,
  Nor decimate; but take the nine in ten!

B.  —The ground thus cleared, you plant your own instead,
  And shrewdly gain one chance of being read.

© John Kenyon