The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 02, No. 11, September, 1858 online

. (page 13 of 20)
Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 02, No. 11, September, 1858 → online text (page 13 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Thou, Cibber! thou his laurel shalt support;
Folly, my son, has still a friend at court."

_Dunciad_, Bk. I.

Warburton, by-the-by, exculpates Eusden from any worse fault, as a
writer, than being too prolix and too prolific. - See Note to
_Dunciad_, Bk. II. 291.]

[Footnote 9: Duck stands at the head of the prodigious school in
English literature. All the poetical bricklayers, weavers, cobblers,
farmer's boys, shepherds, and basket-makers, who have since astonished
their day and generation, hail him as their general father.]

[Footnote 10: The antiquary may be pleased to know that the "Devil"
tavern in Fleet Street, the old haunt of the dramatists, was the place
where the choir of the Chapel Royal gathered to rehearse the Laureate
odes. Hence Pope, at the close of _Dunciad I._,

"Then swells the Chapel-Royal throat;
'God save King Cibber!' mounts in every note.
Familiar White's 'God save King Colley!' cries;
'God save King Colley!' Drury-Lane replies;"]

[Footnote 11:

"On his own works with laurel crowned,
Neatly and elegantly bound, -
For this is one of many rules
With writing Lords and laureate fools,
And which forever must succeed
With other Lords who cannot read,
However destitute of wit,
To make their works for bookcase fit, -
Acknowledged master of those seats,
Cibber his birthday odes repeats."

CHURCHILL, _The Ghost_.]

[Footnote 12: Swift charges Colley with having wronged Grub Street, by
appropriating to himself all the money Britain designed for its
poets: -

"Your portion, taking Britain round,
Was just one annual hundred pound;
Now not so much as in remainder,
Since Cibber brought in an attainder,
Forever fixed by right divine,
A monarch's right, on Grub-Street line."

_Poetry, a Rhapsody_, 1733.]

[Footnote 13: Whatever momentary benefit may result from satire, it is
clear that its influence in the long run is injurious to literature.
The satirist, like a malignant Archimago, creates a false medium,
through which posterity is obliged to look at his contemporaries, - a
medium which so refracts and distorts their images, that it is almost
out of the question to see them correctly. There is no rule, as in
astronomy, by which this refraction may be allowed for and corrected.]

[Footnote 14: London, 1749, 8vo.]

[Footnote 15: Charge to the Poets, 1762.]

[Footnote 16: If the reader cares to hear the best that can be said of
Thomas Warton, let him read the Life of Milton, prefixed by Sir
Egerton Brydges to his edition of the poet. If he has any curiosity to
hear the other side, let him read all that Ritson ever wrote, and Dr.
Charles Symnions, in the Life of Milton, prefixed to the standard
edition of the Prose Works, 1806. Symnions denies to Warton the
possession of taste, learning, or sense. Certainly, to an American,
the character of Joseph Warton, the brother of Thomas, is far more
amiable. Joseph was as liberal as his brother was bigoted. While
Thomas omits no chance of condemning Milton's republicanism, in his
notes to the Minor Poems, Joseph is always disposed to sympathize with
the poet. The same generous temper characterizes his commentary upon

[Footnote 17: _Sonnet upon the River Lodon_.]

[Footnote 18: Dr. Huddersford's _Salmagundi_.]

[Footnote 19: One of the earlier poems of Alexander Wilson, the
ornithologist, was entitled, _The Laurel Disputed_, and was published
in 1791. We have not met with it; but we apprehend, from title and
date, that it is a _jeu d'esprit_, founded upon the recent
appointment. The poetry of Wilson was characterized by much original

[Footnote 20:

"Come to our _fête_, and show again
That pea-green coat, thou pink of men!
Which charmed all eyes, that last surveyed it;
When Brummel's self inquired, 'Who made it?'
When Cits came wondering from the East,
And thought thee Poet Pye at least."
_Two-Penny Post-Bag_, 1812.]

[Footnote 21: TENNYSON, _Maud_.]


The inconstant April mornings drop showers or sunbeams over the
glistening lake, while far beneath its surface a murky mass disengages
itself from the muddy bottom, and rises slowly through the waves. The
tasselled alder-branches droop above it; the last year's blackbird's
nest swings over it in the grapevine; the newly-opened Hepaticas and
Epigaeas on the neighboring bank peer down modestly to look for it;
the water-skater (Gerris) pauses on the surface near it, casting on
the shallow bottom the odd shadow of his feet, like three pairs of
boxing-gloves; the Notonecta, or water-boatman, rows round and round
it, sometimes on his breast, sometimes on his back; queer caddis-worms
trail their self-made homesteads of leaves or twigs beside it; the
Dytiscus, dorbug of the water, blunders clumsily against it; the
tadpole wriggles his stupid way to it, and rests upon it, meditating
of future frogdom; the passing wild-duck dives and nibbles at it; the
mink and musk-rat brush it with their soft fur; the spotted turtle
slides over it; the slow larvae of gauzy dragon-flies cling sleepily
to its sides and await their change: all these fair or uncouth
creatures feel, through the dim waves, the blessed longing of spring;
and yet not one of them dreams that within that murky mass there lies
a treasure too white and beautiful to be yet intrusted to the waves,
and that for many a day that bud must yearn toward the surface,
before, aspiring above it, as mortals to heaven, it meets the sunshine
with the answering beauty of the Water-Lily.

Days and weeks have passed away; the wild-duck has flown onward, to
dive for his luncheon in some remoter lake; the tadpoles have made
themselves legs, with which they have vanished; the caddis-worms have
sealed themselves up in their cylinders, and emerged again as winged
insects; the dragon-flies have crawled up the water-reeds, and,
clinging with heads upward, (not downward, as strangely described in a
late "North British Review,") have undergone the change which
symbolizes immortality; the world is transformed from spring to
summer; the lily-buds are opened into glossy leaf and radiant flower,
and we have come for the harvest.

We lodged, last night, in the old English phrase, "at the sign of the
Oak and Star." Wishing, not, indeed, like the ancient magicians, to
gather magic berry and bud before sunrise, but at least to see these
treasures of the lake in their morning hour, we camped last night on a
little island, which one tall tree almost covers with its branches,
while a dense undergrowth of young chestnuts and birches fills all the
intervening space, touching the water all around the circular,
shelving shore. Yesterday was hot, but the night was cool, and we
kindled a gypsy fire of twigs, less for warmth than for society. The
first gleam made the dark lonely islet into a cheering home, turned
the protecting tree to a starlit roof, and the chestnut-sprays to
illuminated walls. Lying beneath their shelter, every fresh flickering
of the fire kindled the leaves into brightness and banished into dark
interstices the lake and sky; then the fire died into embers, the
leaves faded into solid darkness in their turn, and water and heavens
showed light and close and near, until fresh twigs caught fire and the
blaze came up again. Rising to look forth, at intervals, during the
night, - for it is the worst feature of a night out-doors, that
sleeping seems such a waste of time, - we watched the hilly and wooded
shores of the lake sink into gloom and glimmer into dawn again, amid
the low plash of waters and the noises of the night.

Precisely at half-past three, a song-sparrow above our heads gave one
liquid trill, so inexpressibly sudden and delicious, that it seemed to
set to music every atom of freshness and fragrance that Nature held;
then the spell was broken, and the whole shore and lake were vocal
with song. Joining in this jubilee of morning, we were early in
motion; bathing and breakfast, though they seemed indisputably in
accordance with the instincts of the Universe, yet did not detain us
long, and we were promptly on our way to Lily Pond. Will the reader
join us?

It is one of those summer days when a veil of mist gradually burns
away before the intense sunshine, and the sultry morning only plays at
coolness, and that with its earliest visitors alone. But we are before
the sunlight, though not before the sunrise, and can watch the pretty
game of alternating mist and shine. Stray gleams of glory lend their
trailing magnificence to the tops of chestnut-trees, floating vapors
raise the outlines of the hills and make mystery of the wooded
islands, and, as we glide through the placid water, we can sing, with
the Chorus in the "Ion" of Euripides, "O immense and brilliant air,
resound with our cries of joy!"

Almost every town has its Lily Pond, dear to boys and maidens, and
partially equalizing, by its annual delights, the presence or absence
of other geographical advantages. Ours is accessible from the larger
lake only by taking the skiff over a narrow embankment, which protects
our fairyland by its presence, and eight distant factories by its dam.
Once beyond it, we are in a realm of dark Lethean water, utterly
unlike the sunny depths of the main lake. Hither the water-lilies have
retreated, to a domain of their own. Darker than these dark waves,
there stand in their bosom hundreds of submerged trees, and dismasted
roots still upright, spreading their vast, uncouth limbs like enormous
spiders beneath the surface. They are remnants of border wars with the
axe, vegetable Witheringtons, still fighting on their stumps, but
gradually sinking into the soft ooze, and ready, perhaps, when a score
of centuries has piled two more strata of similar remains in mud above
them, to furnish foundations for a newer New Orleans; that city having
been lately discovered to be thus supported.

The present decline in business is clear revenue to the water-lilies,
and these waters are higher than usual because the idle factories do
not draw them off. But we may notice, in observing the shores, that
peculiar charm of water, that, whether its quantity be greater or
less, its grace is the same; it makes its own boundary in lake or
river, and where its edge is, there seems the natural and permanent
margin. And the same natural fitness, without reference to mere
quantity, extends to its children. Before us lie islands and
continents of lilies, acres of charms, whole, vast, unbroken surfaces
of stainless whiteness. And yet, as we approach them, every islanded
cup that floats in lonely dignity, apart from the multitude, appears
as perfect in itself, couched in white expanded perfection, its
reflection taking a faint glory of pink that is scarcely perceptible
in the flower. As we glide gently among them, the air grows fragrant,
and a stray breeze flaps the leaves, as if to welcome us. Each
floating flower becomes suddenly a ship at anchor, or rather seems
beating up against the summer wind, in a regatta of blossoms.

Early as it is, the greater part of the flowers are already expanded.
Indeed, that experience of Thoreau's, of watching them open in the
first sunbeams, rank by rank, is not easily obtained, unless perhaps
in a narrow stream, where the beautiful slumberers are more regularly
marshalled. In our lake, at least, they open irregularly, though
rapidly. But, this morning, many linger as buds, while others peer up,
in half-expanded beauty, beneath the lifted leaves, frolicsome as
Pucks or baby-nymphs. As you raise the leaf, in such cases, it is
impossible not to imagine that a pair of tiny hands have upheld it, or
else that the pretty head will dip down again, and disappear. Others,
again, have expanded all but the inmost pair of white petals, and
these spring apart at the first touch of the finger on the stem. Some
spread vast vases of fragrance, six or seven inches in diameter, while
others are small and delicate, with petals like fine lace-work.
Smaller still, we sometimes pass a flotilla of infant leaves, an inch
in diameter. All these grow from the deep, dark water, - and the
blacker it is, the fairer their whiteness shows. But your eye follows
the stem often vainly into those sombre depths, and vainly seeks to
behold Sabrina fair, sitting with her twisted braids of lilies,
beneath the glassy, cool, but not translucent wave. Do not start,
when, in such an effort, only your own dreamy face looks back upon
you, beyond the gunwale of the reflected boat, and you find that you
float double, self and shadow.

Let us rest our paddles, and look round us, while the idle motion
sways our light skiff onward, now half-embayed among the lily-pads,
now lazily gliding over intervening gulfs. There is a great deal going
on in these waters and their fringing woods and meadows. All the
summer long, the pond is bordered with successive walls of flowers. In
early spring emerge the yellow catkins of the swamp-willow, first;
then the long tassels of the graceful alders expand and droop, till
they weep their yellow dust upon the water; then come the
birch-blossoms, more tardily; then the downy leaves and white clusters
of the medlar or shadbush (_Amelanchier Canadensis_ of Gray); these
dropping, the roseate chalices of the mountain-laurel open; as they
fade into melancholy brown, the sweet Azalea uncloses; and before its
last honeyed blossom has trailed down, dying, from the stem, the more
fragrant Clethra starts out above, the button-bush thrusts forth its
merry face amid wild roses, and the Clematis waves its sprays of
beauty. Mingled with these grow, lower, the spiraeas, white and pink,
yellow touch-me-not, fresh white arrowhead, bright blue vervain and
skullcap, dull snakehead, gay monkey-flower, coarse eupatoriums,
milk-weeds, golden-rods, asters, thistles, and a host beside. Beneath,
the brilliant scarlet cardinal-flower begins to palisade the moist
shores; and after its superb reflection has passed away from the
waters, the grotesque witch-hazel flares out its narrow yellow petals
amidst the October leaves, and so ends the floral year. There is not a
week during all these months, when one cannot stand in the boat and
wreathe garlands of blossoms from the shores.

These all crowd around the brink, and watch, day and night, the
opening and closing of the water-lilies. Meanwhile, upon the waters,
our queen keeps her chosen court, nor can one of these mere
land-loving blossoms touch the hem of her garment. In truth, she bears
no sister near her throne. There is but this one species among us,
_Nymphaea odorata_. The beautiful little rose-colored _Nymphaea
sanguinea_, which once adorned the Botanic Garden at Cambridge, was
merely an occasional variety of costume. She has, indeed, an English
half-sister, _Nymphaea alba_, less beautiful, less fragrant, but
keeping more fashionable hours, - not opening (according to Linnaeus)
till seven, nor closing till four. Her humble cousin, the yellow
Nuphar, keeps commonly aloof, as becomes a poor relation, though
created from the selfsame mud, - a fact which Hawthorne has beautifully
moralized. The prouder Nelumbium, a second-cousin, lineal descendant
of the sacred bean of Pythagoras, keeps aloof, through pride, not
humility, and dwells, like a sturdy democrat, in the Far West.

But, undisturbed, the water-lily keeps her fragrant court, with
few attendants. The tall pickerel-weed (Pontederia) is her
gentleman-usher, gorgeous in blue and gold through July, somewhat
rusty in August. The water-shield (Hydropeltis) is chief
maid-of-honor; she is a highborn lady, not without royal blood indeed,
but with rather a bend sinister; not precisely beautiful, but very
fastidious; encased over her whole person with a gelatinous covering,
literally a starched duenna. Sometimes she is suspected of conspiring
to drive her mistress from the throne; for we have observed certain
slow watercourses where the leaves of the water-lily have been almost
wholly replaced by the similar, but smaller, leaves of the
water-shield. More rarely seen is the slender Utricularia, a dainty
maiden, whose light feet scarce touch the water, - with the still more
delicate floating white Water-Ranunculus, and the shy Villarsia, whose
submerged flowers merely peep one day above the surface and then close
again forever. Then there are many humbler attendants, Potamogetons or
pond-weeds. And here float little emissaries from the dominions of
land; for the fallen florets of the Viburnum drift among the
lily-pads, with mast-like stamens erect, sprinkling the water with a
strange beauty, and cheating us with the promise of a new aquatic

These are the still life of this sequestered nook; but it is in fact a
crowded thoroughfare. No tropic jungle more swarms with busy existence
than these midsummer waters and their bushy banks. The warm and
humming air is filled with insect sounds, ranging from the murmur of
invisible gnats and midges, to the impetuous whirring of the great
Libellulae, large almost as swallows, and hawking high in air for
their food. Swift butterflies glance by, moths flutter, flies buzz,
grasshoppers and katydids pipe their shrill notes, sharp as the edges
of the sunbeams. Busy bees go humming past, straight as arrows,
express-freight-trains from one blossoming copse to another. Showy
wasps of many species fume uselessly about, in gallant uniforms,
wasting an immense deal of unnecessary anger on the sultry universe.
Graceful, stingless Sphexes and Ichneumon-flies emulate their bustle,
without their weapons. Delicate lady-birds come and go to the
milkweeds, spotted almost as regularly as if Nature had decided to
number the species, like policemen or hack-drivers, from one to
twenty. Elegant little Lepturae fly with them, so gay and airy, they
hardly seem like beetles. Phryganeae, (_nés_ caddisworms,) laceflies,
and long-tailed Ephemerae flutter more heavily by. On the large
alder-flowers clings the superb _Desmocerus palliatus_, beautiful as a
tropical insect, with his steel-blue armor and his golden cloak
(_pallium_) above his shoulders, grandest knight on this Field of the
Cloth of Gold. The countless fireflies which spangled the evening mist
now only crawl sleepily, daylight creatures, with the lustre buried in
their milky bodies. More wholly children of night, the soft, luxurious
Sphinxes (or hawk-moths) come not here; fine ladies of the insect
world, their home is among gardens and green-houses, late and languid
by day, but all night long upon the wing, dancing in the air with
unwearied muscles till long past midnight, and supping on honey at
last. They come not here; but the nobler butterflies soar above us,
stoop a moment to the water, and then with a few lazy wavings of their
sumptuous wings float far over the oak-trees to the woods they love.

All these hover near the water-lily; but its special parasites are an
elegant beetle (_Donacia metallica_) which keeps house permanently in
the flower, and a few smaller ones which tenant the surface of the
leaves, - larva, pupa, and perfect insect, forty feeding like one, and
each leading its whole earthly career on this floating island of
perishable verdure. The "beautiful blue damsel-flies" alight also in
multitudes among them, so fearless that they perch with equal
readiness on our boat or paddle, and so various that two adjacent
ponds will sometimes be haunted by two distinct sets of species. In
the water, among the leaves, little shining whirlwigs wheel round and
round, fifty joining in the dance, till, at the slightest alarm, they
whirl away to some safer ballroom, and renew the merriment. On every
floating log, as we approach it, there is a convention of turtles,
sitting in calm debate, like mailed barons, till, as we approach, they
plump into the water, and paddle away for some subaqueous Runnymede.
Beneath, the shy and stately pickerel vanishes at a glance, shoals of
minnows glide, black and bearded pouts frisk aimlessly, soft
water-lizards hang poised without motion, and slender pickerel-frogs
cease occasionally their submerged croaking, and, darting to the
surface with swift vertical strokes, gulp a mouthful of fresh air, and
down again to renew the moist soliloquy.

Time would fail us to tell of the feathered life around us, - the
blackbirds that build securely in these thickets, the stray swallows
that dip their wings in the quiet waters, and the kingfishers that
still bring, as the ancients fabled, halcyon days. Yonder stands,
against the shore, a bittern, motionless in that wreath of mist which
makes his long-legged person almost as dim as his far-off booming by
night. There poises a hawk, before sweeping down to some chosen bough
in the dense forest; and there fly a pair of blue-jays, screaming,
from tree to tree. As for wild quadrupeds, the race is almost passed
away. Far to the North, indeed, the great moose still browses on the
lily-pads, and the shy beaver nibbles them; but here the few lingering
four-footed creatures only haunt, but do not graze upon these floating
pastures. Eyes more favored than ours may yet chance to spy an otter
in this still place; there by the shore are the small footprints of a
mink; that dark thing disappearing in the waters, yonder, a soft mass
of drowned fur, is a "musquash." Later in the season, a mound of earth
will be his winter dwelling-place; and those myriad muscle-shells at
the water's edge are the remnant of his banquets, - once banquets for
the Indians, too.

But we must return to our lilies. There is no sense of wealth like
floating in this archipelago of white and green. The emotions of
avarice become almost demoralizing. Every flower bears a fragrant
California in its bosom, and you feel impoverished at the thought of
leaving one behind. But after the first half-hour of eager grasping,
one becomes fastidious, rather scorns those on which the wasps and
flies have alighted, and seeks only the stainless. But handle them
tenderly, as if you loved them. Do not grasp at the open flower as if
it were a peony or a hollyhock, for then it will come off, stalkless,
in your hand, and you will cast it blighted upon the water; but coil
your thumb and second finger affectionately around it, press the
extended forefinger firmly to the stem below, and with one steady pull
you will secure a long and delicate stalk, fit to twine around the
graceful head of your beloved, as the Hindoo goddess of beauty
encircled with a Lotus the brow of Rama.

Consider the lilies. All over our rural watercourses, at midsummer,
float these cups of snow. They are Nature's symbols of coolness. They
suggest to us the white garments of their Oriental worshippers. They
come with the white roses and prepare the way for the white lilies of
the garden. The white doe of Rylstone and Andrew Marvell's fawn might
fitly bathe amid their beauties. Yonder steep bank slopes down to the
lake-side, one solid mass of pale pink laurel, but, once upon the
water, a purer tint prevails. The pink fades into a lingering flush,
and the white creature floats peerless, set in green without and gold
within. That bright circle of stamens is the very ring with which
Doges once wedded the Adriatic, Venice has lost it, but it dropped
into the water-lily's bosom, and there it rests forever. So perfect in
form, so redundant in beauty, so delicate, so spotless, so
fragrant, - what presumptuous lover ever dared, in his most enamored
hour, to liken his mistress to a water-lily? No human Blanche or
Lilian was ever so fair as that.

The water-lily comes of an ancient and sacred family of white-robed
priests. They assisted at the most momentous religious ceremonies,
from the beginning of recorded time. The Egyptian Lotus was a sacred
plant; it was dedicated to Harpocrates and to the god Nofr
Atmoo, - Nofr meaning _good_, whence the name of our yellow lily,
Nuphar. But the true Egyptian flower was _Nymphaea Lotus_, though
_Nymphaea caerulea_, Moore's "blue water-lilies," can be traced on the
sculptures also. It was cultivated in tanks in the gardens; it was the
chief material for festal wreaths; a single bud hung over the forehead
of many a queenly dame; and the sculptures represent the weary flowers
as dropping from the heated hands of belles, in the later hours of the
feast. Rock softly on the waters, fair lilies! your Eastern kindred
have rocked on the stormier bosom of Cleopatra. The Egyptian Lotus
was, moreover, the emblem of the sacred Nile, - as the Hindoo species,

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 13 15 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 02, No. 11, September, 1858 → online text (page 13 of 20)