Monday, August 22, 2011

And See the Land Where Corals Lie

I can see him walking amid the shadows. He breathes in the heady odours of buckram, Morocco, vellum and calf. There are manuscript pages and a book in his left hand as he walks along humming quietly to himself, thinking of an odd passage from an ancient obscure work, the sheltered light glinting off his spectacles as the dust motes rise and fall invisibly between the bookshelves as he passes.

That is my imaginary vision of Richard Garnett in his lair, the British Museum, a phantom amidst the stacks, shifting books and papers in an endless round.

Ford Madox Ford in one of his many books of biographical and autobiographical impressions described him as "a queer, very tall, lean, untidily bearded Yorkshire figure in its official frock-coat and high hat." I wrote about Richard Garnett not too long ago in a post about
Robert Louis Stevenson, and having recently re-read the above mentioned book of memories and impressions by Ford Madox Ford, the author provides a further dimension to his passing physical description of Dr. Garnett, one which I failed to remember. It would have been apt for my post on Stevenson as it included a reference to umbrellas:

Having a passion for cats, Egyptology, palmistry and astrology, the great scholar could assume some of the aspect of deaf obstinacy that distinguishes cats that do not intend to listen to you. He cast the horoscopes of all his friends and reigning sovereigns; he knew the contents of a hundred thousand books and must have stroked as many thousand "pussies" pronouncing the "pus" to rhyme with "bus." He was inseparable from his umbrella with which he once beat off two thieves, when at five in the morning he had gone to Convent Garden to buy the household fruit. He was the author of the most delightful volume of whimsico-classical stories that was ever written and the organiser of the compilers of the catalogue of the British Museum Library--an achievement that should render him immortal if his Twilight of the Gods fails to do so.

In the older post on Stevenson, I quoted a poem he wrote on the other side of the world in his tropical paradise, thinking of his old friend Sidney Colvin and his visits to Colvin's home attached to the British Museum. I feel I should round off this brief revisit with a poem by Richard Garnett, who in his dusty comfortable haunt, thought of Robert Louis Stevenson in his exotic lotus land and wrote a sonnet about him after the young author died in 1894. It was published in his The Queen and other Poems, 1901:

Robert Louis Stevenson

Wondrous as though a star with twofold light
Should fill a lamp for either hemisphere,
Piercing cold skies with scintillation clear,
And glowing on the sultry Southern night;
Was miracle of him who could unite
Pine and the purple harbour of the deer
With palm-plumed islets that sequestered hear
The far-off wave their zoning coral smite.
Still roars the surf, still bounds the herd, but where
Is one to see and hear and tell again?
As dancers pause on an arrested air
Fail the fast-thronging figures of the brain;
And shapes unshapely in dim lair,
Awaiting ripe vitality in vain.

It is interesting to read the line "the far-off wave their zoning coral smite," for it recalls Richard Garnett's poem Where Corals Lie, written in his youth and published with many other poems in his Io in Egypt and Other Poems, 1859. Edward Elgar used Where Corals Lie in a song cycle, Sea Pictures, Opus 37. Perhaps I should leave this post with a recording of Janet Baker singing the song:

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