We have all indulged ourselves with the idle speculation of what one book we should wish to see salved from a literary holocaust or marooned on our desert island with the bags of rice and the kegs of gunpowder. I know a professor whose solution is a History of Greek of Syntax, pure science for intellectual grist and precious scraps of quotation for spiritual savor. I have played with the fancy as often as most; but when the opportunity of trial came, set sail with nothing more satisfying than the Field Service Pocket Book, which weighs 6 1/2 ounces and is an authorized molecule of the 35 lb. to which a subaltern’s baggage is well known to be restricted. It is an admirable compendium, closely printed on thin paper; I soon wished for variety. For months I subsisted on newspapers in languages I imperfectly understood, and on a flotsam of novels washed up by the Aegean or purchased of the librairie française, rue Venezelos; and was hardly conscious of any craving for better fare till luck brought me the Poet Laureate’s Spirit of Man. Its candid covers are soiled now to the hue of our tunics, and its leaves probably smell of stables and stale tobacco; but every printed line is precious. If there be still any Gentlemen of England who sit at home in ease, and hop like elderly sparrows from shelf to shelf of their well-appointed libraries, tell them they do not know what a Book can be.
With my Book before me, and making the most of an ill-stored memory, I beguile my tedium with pleasant speculations. For the Book has–as its compiler all too modestly claims–‘a secondary usefulness in providing material for the exercise of literary judgment, in those who have any taste for the practice’. My taste inclines me to subtleties of rhythm and language; today I desire to know, particularly, wherein resides the literary magic of proper names, and especially of the names of places. The Vallombrosa passage is a locus classicus; and the Book supplies me with another great example:
flies toward the Springs
Of Ganges or Hydaspes, Indian streams;
But in his way lights on the barren plaines
Of Sericana, where Chineses drive
With Sails and Wind thir canie Waggons light.
These are jewels of a far country, and perhaps owe their luster to the mere contrast with their more familiar settings. But there may be more behind. I remember how my childish imagination was stirred by
Hark, the cry is Astur,
And lo, the ranks divide,
And the great lord of Luna
Comes with his stately stride.
But I never asked where Luna was nor what manner of city it might be. A place-name may mean anything or nothing; and so, if it be sonorous, we let it lead our fancy captive into the land of Romance. Stevenson, who had the true gift of travel, tells us he loved a map, not as a diagram of tours projected or imagined, but for the rich ore of its names. He has followed his bent with a rare audacity in. that well-known passage, where he opens the window on barbarous or degraded man by observing the Red Indian,
by camp-fires in Assiniboia, the snow powdering his shoulders, the wind plucking his blanket, as he sits, passing the ceremonial calumet and uttering his grave opinions like a Roman senator.
The association, it should seem, must be vague. Winchester and Shaftesbury, Beverley and Richmond are dear to all our hearts; but we do not seek to coin poetry from our love; or if we do, Macaulay’s Armada may suggest that we shall probably fail. Tennyson judged ill when he
stood upon the bridge at Coventry.
Many English names, for one reason, sit awkwardly in a metrical framework; as Stow-on-the-Wold, or Sutton Courtney, or Temple Bar. Prose, with its wider range and laxer rhythms, can wrest romance from such as these, or from the commonest and least melodious vocables. I think of Stevenson again; of David Balfour on the brig Covenant of Dysart, at the mercy of the three ruffians Hoseason, Shuan, and Riach; saved by a deliverer from the Appin country; gazing, as the mists parted, upon ‘the great stone hills of Skye.’
Turning again the pages of The Spirit of Man I cannot but conclude that poetry must go abroad for this piece of her pageantry. ‘Lap me in soft Lydian airs’–‘In Tempe or the dales of Arcady‘– ‘Silent upon a peak in Darien’–‘Singing of Mount Abora‘–‘Blind Thamyris and blind Maeonides.’ I have hunted conscientiously for a contradictory instance, and have failed to find one. ‘I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous boy’ leaves me more than cold; and ‘O that I were where Helen lies, On fair Kirconnell lea!’ owes little to Kirconnell.
If our native place-names are intractable, the names of persons are even less propitious. Some are precluded by positive cacophony–Matthew Arnold’s ‘Stiggins, Higginbottom, Wragg.’ Many are merely unmelodious, pedestrian, and plain; John Keats is a theme for burlesque. But the Muse seems strangely shy even of Milton and Shakespeare, Marlborough and Chatham. Such names may indeed be introduced, without fiasco, if they are essential to a poet’s meaning:
Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour.
With this key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart.
But they seem at the best to be carried off by the dignity and interest of the thought; seldom to lend any added grace of their own. So it is. no needless convention or affectation of classicism that. has given us Lycidas and Adonais, or all the Julias, Lydias, and Cynthias who in our amorous poetry stand for the Marys and Elizabeths of real love.
One homely name, indeed, Poetry may boldly invoke. Scotland is full as stern and wild as Caledonia, and surely more moving. England is a holy name; thrice sacred now to Poetry, when poets have died in sanctifying her name. The foreign name should not be difficult, nor too outlandish. Shelley, in the poem so entitled, names Mont Blanc; but
piercing the infinite sky
Mont Blanc appears
is impossible in English verse. Keats, bidding us
Stop and consider ! Life is but a day;
A fragile dewdrop on its perilous way,
From a tree’s summit; a poor Indian’s sleep
While his boat hastens to the monstrous steep
brings his poor Indian to shipwreck in a monstrous bathos. And although the ore is precious, the vein may be overworked. Milton, Marlowe, and the late Sir Edwin Arnold, play the trick too often; repetition dulls the edge of fancy, and we lose ourselves in a vacant sonority.
Mihalova, December 1916