Sunday, November 20, 2011

Memories of The Golden Treasury

Strange as it may seem these days, there was a time when reading poetry together could be a form of family entertainment.

When I was a child, I would often sit with my father as he read aloud his favourite narrative poems from The Golden Treasury, a compilation of verse by F. T. Palgrave, first published in 1861.  I would be completely captivated by the rhythms of the language and the images it invoked.
Although much of this poetry has fallen out of favour and is considered old-fashioned, or just too pompous or jingoistic for modern tastes, some of it remains popular today. Who can mention the Crimean War without the temptation to quote at least a couple of these famous lines from The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson?

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.


Loss of the Royal George, Spithead, 1782


An early poem in this genre of tragic military or naval disaster was Loss of the Royal George by William Cowper. The poem was also set to patriotic music by George Handel.
Toll for the Brave!
The brave that are no more!
All sunk beneath the wave
Fast by their native shore!

... But Kempenfelt is gone,
His victories are o'er,
And he and his eight hundred
Must plough the wave no more.

Other narrative poets have also slipped into obscurity.
T[homas] Campbell wrote about episodes from the Napoleonic era. Stirring stanzas such as these from Hohenlinden can apply to any battle before or since.
Then shook the hills with thunder riven,
Then rushed the steed to battle driven,
And louder than the bolts of heaven
Far flashed the red artillery. ...

And redder yet those fires shall glow
On Linden's hills of blood-stained snow,
And darker yet shall be the flow
Of Iser, rolling rapidly.
Campbell's Ye Mariners of England and Battle of the Baltic were my early introduction to the exploits of Britain's great naval age. I defy anyone to read such poems aloud and not be moved in some way, by the metre and use of language at least if not the content.

'Hearts of oak!' our captains cried, when each gun

From its adamantine lips
Spread a death-shade round the ships,
Like the hurricane eclipse
Of the sun.  ...
Brave hearts! to Britain's pride
Once so faithful and so true,
On the deck of fame that died
With the gallant good Riou:
Soft sigh the winds of heaven o'er their grave 
While the billow mournful rolls
And the mermaid's song condoles
Singing glory to the souls
Of the brave!
 
Grandpa by John Faed, 1876 (private collection)

Robert Southey's poem After Blenheim had special attraction for me as it featured two children, Peterkin and Wilhelmine, who unearthed a skull and took it to their grandfather, Old Kaspar. He told them the story of the battle, how he dug up soldier's bones with his plough and how the countryside was laid waste with the loss of many innocent lives. But Old Kaspar does not seem to bear hatred or indignation, just a simple confusion and resignation to the unfathomable nature of war. Only with the excuse of it being "a famous victory" can the grandfather answer the children's probing questions. Written in 1798, its message is timeless and as relevant today as it ever was.
'It was the English,' Kaspar cried,
Who put the French to rout;
But what they fought each other for
I could not well make out.

...'Why, 'twas a very wicked thing!'
Said little Wilhelmine;
'Nay ... nay ... my little girl,' quoth he,
'It was a famous victory.
And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win,'
'But what good came of it at last?'
Quoth little Peterkin: -
'Why, that I cannot tell,' said he,
'But 'twas a famous victory.

Derek Jacobi gives an excellent reading of the complete poem here.


Burial of Sir John Moore, Cassells Illustrated History

Another sombre offering that might seem a strange sort of poem to read to a child was The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna by Charles Wolfe, but it didn't disturb me in the least as I almost revelled in its drama and Gothic melancholy. (Like Admiral Kempenfelt of the Royal George, or Captain Edward Riou who rates a single line in Campbell's Battle of the Baltic, Sir John Moore is another largely forgotten figure from British history.) 

Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corpse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O'er the grave where our Hero we buried.
...
Slowly and sadly we laid him down,
From the field of his fame fresh and gory;
We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone -
But we left him alone with his glory.

Stones were raised to Sir John Moore later and here are some photographs of his grave as it is today at A Coruna.

And finally, with recent media reports that the coffin of Sir Francis Drake could soon be located in the Caribbean, it is worth mentioning that other rousing work Drake's Drum by Sir Henry Newbolt that I greatly enjoyed as a child, its most famous stanza being: 

Take my drum to England, hang et by the shore,
Strike et when your powder's runnin' low;
If the Dons sight Devon, I'll quit the port o' Heaven, 
An' drum them up the Channel as we drummed them long ago.

Youtube of the sung version of Drake's Drum by Sir Thomas Allen.

And the real drum itself can be seen at Drake's home, Buckland Abbey.