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Famous Today, Forgotten  Tomorrow

On Sept. 7, I had the great pleasure of attending the marriage of my oldest daughter to a wonderful young man, and the more taxing pleasure of writing a poem for the occasion. I could write an entire article about the event or what went into my composition, but neither would be in keeping with what I imagine as my readers’ expectations. So I will concentrate, rather, on an odd development at the wedding.

I’m talking about receiving a gift from one of the bride and groom’s friends: a handsome volume of poems. She had been directed by her mother to present it to me, her flattering assumption being that I of all people she could think of would know how to use it. It seems the book had originally (and anonymously) been presented to the mother’s own great grandfather. It bears the inscription: “Christmas Tree, 1884,” and I picture its lying under lower branches some 130 years back, wrapped in holiday paper.

Its contents were produced by an Englishman, Martin Farquar Tupper, a contemporary of Tennyson and, in this country, Longfellow. He is, of course, utterly forgotten, no matter the inscription on his headstone: “Although he is dead, he will speak.”

But in his time Tupper was a more than considerable presence, a member of the Royal Society, recipient of a special gold medal for his literary accomplishments by the King of Prussia, and most impressively, a popular writer. The man sold books! I mean he sold them in such quantity as to make any contemporary poet blink with envy. His Proverbial Philosophy (imagine the use of such a title today in other than a satiric manner) went through 40 British editions in three decades, and just under a million copies were sold in the United States. The mind boggles.

The volume I received is notable primarily for how beautiful it is as a physical object; we moderns could envy that as well. But the only commentary on his oeuvre that I could find is by W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame:

Tell me, Henry Wadsworth, Alfred, Poet Close, or Mister Tupper,

Do you write the bonbon mottoes my Elvira pulls at supper?”

But Henry Wadsworth smiled, and said he had not had that honour;

And Alfred, too disclaimed the words that told so much upon her.”

“Mister Martin Tupper, Poet Close, I beg of you inform us”;

But my question seemed to throw them both into a rage enormous.”

“Mister Close expressed a wish that he could only get anight to me.

And Mr. Martin Tupper sent the following reply to me: —”

“A fool is bent upon a twig, but wise men dread a bandit.”

Which I think must have been clever, for I didn’t understand it.

I can’t seem to identify “Poet Close,” though Tennyson and Longfellow’s names remain familiar. Why should this tiny bit we know of Tupper come by way of ridicule? Well, let me quote a verse or two. I select at random, but the book at large is in every sense symptomized by the following:

Few and precious are the words which the lips of wisdom utter;

To what shall their rarity be likened? What price shall count their worth?...

They be chance pearls, flung among the rocks by the sullen waters of Oblivion,

Which diligence loveth to gather, and hang around the neck of Memory ... etc.

Somewhat remarkably, especially for Tupper’s era in British verse, we hear no rhyme, detect no metric regularity. But then, that’s equally true of Walt Whitman, whom we rightly idolize, so it can’t be adequate reason to dismiss Tupper. Surely enough, his “verse” seems like so much prose arbitrarily cut into line-units, which is what many seem to think distinguishes free verse in any case. But if I were able here to recite aloud any passage, say, from Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed, that magisterial elegy to the slain Abraham Lincoln, I think the great man’s cadences and his lyrical energies, so lacking in Tupper, would quickly manifest themselves.

Instead, we can poke fun at Tupper’s rather clumsy handling of metaphor: Words of wisdom are likened, quite predictably and thus tritely, to pearls. But then the pearls are flung among rocks. What flings them? The waters of Oblivion, which something called diligence (search me) hangs around the neck of Memory. Pearls-waters-rocks-neck. Get it? Neither do I. Perhaps, as Gilbert put it, the formulation was “clever, for I didn’t understand it.”

And yet I think our chief objection to Tupper’s poetry is its moral certitude. Here is a speaker who feels entirely at ease with making pronouncements on what Wisdom is. And again, he does not shrink from using such other abstractions as oblivion and diligence and memory. We simply don’t trust that sort of stance anymore, and why not?

Well, however conscious I am that I’m reducing immense cultural transformations to simplism here, I’d venture that the political and military violence of the last century (which, alas, abides into this one) has a lot to do with our mistrust. Not long after Tupper’s heyday, the shocking cataclysm that we name Word War I came to pass; that was the one, remember, that our nation entered in order to “make the world safe for democracy.” Then World War II. And to this day, we leap into conflict on the basis of equally abstract slogans and catch-words: Security, Freedom, Human Dignity, Axis of Evil, or what have you. I don’t necessarily grind a particular political ax when I note that such lofty rhetoric rarely accords with what transpires on the blood-soaked ground. Socialist worker’s paradise didn’t work out so well, either, did it?

Skepticism toward that type of abstraction, or any, really, was expressed by the ruminations of Hemingway’s protagonist in his brilliant story, The Gambler, The Nun, and the Radio: “Liberty, what we believed in, now the name of a McFadden publication.” In short, talk — however elevated — is cheap, and too frequently deceptive. When an author assures us of what capital-W Wisdom is (or Duty, or Decency, or even Beauty), we are nowadays apt to shout, “Oh yeah? Who are you to say so?”

But why make Martin Tupper into a straw man? That is not my intention. I’m more inclined to reflect on the fragility and uncertainty of literary effort, not to mention reputation. The Nobel Prize for literature in its first 10 years, for example, was awarded to the following:

1910 : Paul Johann Ludwig Heyse

1909 : Selma Ottilia Louisa Lagerlof

1908 : Rudolf Christoph Eucken

1907 : Rudyard Kipling (Britain)

1906 : Giosue` Carducci (Italy)

1905 : Henryk Sienkiewicz

1904 : Fridiric Mistral and Josi Echegaray Y Eizaguirre

1903 : Bjornstjerne Martinus Bjornson

1902 : Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen

1901 : Sully Prudhomme (Reni Frangois Armand )

Of these, I suspect, even quite literate people will have heard only of Kipling; literary specialists may know Sully Prudhomme’s name. But Carducci? Sienkewicz? Likely not.

Most of us contemporary poets have very high regard for the late Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney; but who’s to say that in a century’s time he won’t be as obscure a figure as Rudolf Eucken? Or poor Martin Farquar Tupper?

My overall response to the Tupper volume I received at the wedding, and to the list above, might well be a melancholic one. If I had to bet, I’d surely say that my own work will be taken out of circulation in due course by that severest of anthologists, time itself. I might therefore ask, why bother? Isn’t it entirely possible that, even as I lampoon Tupper’s jumbled metaphors, any future reader of my oeuvre will find techniques and tendencies equally laughable? Probably. But I don’t know.

I don’t know and I don’t care. My reaction, in fact, is rather blithe. That none of us authors will ever know in his or her lifetime whether he or she is any good feels to me more like a relief than a damnation. I can go about my business, which turns out to be that of minor artist (all poets, compared, say, to medical pioneers, fitting that description), utterly unchained by fears for my name down the years. To consider the eminent Martin Farquar Tupper is to be schooled in humility — and for my money, there is more freedom than confinement on graduating from that school.

Sydney Lea is the Poet Laureate of Vermont. He lives in Newbury.