Thursday, April 06, 2017

I Tread with Steps so Faltering

The Mother to Her Child
by Nathaniel Parker Willis


They tell me thou art come from a far world,
Babe of my bosom ! that these little arms,
Whose restlessness is like the spread of wings,
Move with the memory of flights scarce o’er—
That through these fringed lids we see the soul
Steeped in the blue of its remembered home;
And while thou sleep’st come messengers, they say,
Whispering to thee-and 'tis then I see
Upon thy baby lips that smile of heaven!

And what is thy far errand, my fair child?
Why away, wandering from a home of bliss,
To find thy way through darkness home again!
Wert thou an untried dweller in the sky?
Is there, betwixt the cherubothat thou wert,
The cherub and the angel thou mayst be,
A life’s probation in this sadder world?
Art thou, with memory of two things only,
Music and light, left upon earth astray,
And, by the watchers at the gate of heaven,
Looked for with fear and trembling?

God! who gavest
Into my guiding hand this wanderer,
To lead her through a world whose darkling path:
I tread with steps so faltering—leave not me
To bring her to the gates of heaven, alone !
I feel my feebleness. Let these stay on—
The angels who now visit her in dreams!
Bid them be near her pillow till in death
The closed eyes look upon Thy face once more!
And let the light and music, which the world
Borrows of heaven, and which her infant sense
Hails with sweet recognition, be to her
A voice to call her upward, and a lamp
To lead her steps unto Thee!

Nathaniel Parker Willis was a star journalist and a widely read poet who knew all the major literary figures of his day; but time has not treated him well. Indeed, it wasn't treating him well, despite his fame and success, in his lifetime: people mocked him behind his back, and while his poems were indeed widely read, they were also widely mocked for their sentimentality and affectation.

In any case, I came upon this poem by a sort of research meander. Miriam Burstein had mentioned that the nineteenth century was "the era of persistent misspellings"; as it happens I was intending to search various online repositories for Lady Mary Shepherd -- something I occasionally do in order to see if anything new pops up, which every so often happens -- and the comment made me realize that, while I have searched for misspellings before, it had been a very long time. So I searched Google Books for "Lady Mary Shepard". And what popped up was from a biography of Nathaniel Parker Willis. In particular, it's a selection from his diary; the entry from June 30, 1835 reads:

June 30. Breakfasted with Samuel Rogers. Met Dr. Delancey, of Philadelphia, and Corbin, ditto. Talked of Mrs. Butler's book, and Rogers gave us suppressed passages. Talked of critics, and said that ‘as long as you cast a shadow, you were sure you possessed substance.' Coleridge said of Southey : 'I never think of him but as mending a pen. Southey said of Coleridge: 'Whenever anything presents itself to him in the shape of a duty, that moment he finds himself incapable of looking at it.'

Went to the opera with Hon. Mrs. Shaw and heard Grisi in 'I Puritani', and saw Taglioni: both divine. Visited Lady Blessington's box and Lady Vincent.

After to a party at Mrs. Leicester Stanhope's. Saw Guiccioli, and was stuffed to the eyelids by Lady Mary Shepard about my shorter and scriptural poems.

Which, of course, led me to look at Willis's shorter and scriptural poems, which are, indeed, always competent but usually not great.

The reference to Shepherd is not particularly important, but I collect passing mentions of her in the wild; it's potentially useful information to know something about the interpersonal networks of which she was a part, and what kinds of topics she talked to other people about. And notably you do get information about this, although it is very brief and scattered; we find her talking about the nature of space with an economist (Ricardo), arguing phrenology with a phrenologist (Spurzheim), or, here, talking about poetry with a poet.

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