The story told in this poem was suggested to Browning, but not followed in all its details, by an adventure of Lord De Ros, a friend of Wellington’s and mentioned frequently by Greville in his Memoirs. The circumstances of De Ros’s villainy were much talked of in London at the time of their occurrence, just before the middle of this century.
“That oblong book’s the Album; hand it here!
Exactly! page on page of gratitude
For breakfast, dinner, supper, and the view!
I praise these poets, they leave margin-space;
Each stanza seems to gather skirts around,
And primly, trimly, keep the foot’s confine,
Modest and maidlike; lubber prose o’ersprawls
And straddling stops the path from left to right.
Since I want space to do my cipher-work,
Which poem spares a corner? What comes first?
‘Hail, calm acclivity, salubrious spot!’
(Open the window, we burn daylight, boy!)
Or see — succincter beauty, brief and bold —
‘If a fellow can dine On rump-steaks and port wine,
He needs not despair Of dining well here’ —
‘Here!’ I myself could find a better rhyme!
That bard’s a Browning; he neglects the form:
But ah, the sense, ye gods, the weighty sense!
Still, I prefer this classic. Ay, throw wide!
I’ll quench the bits of candle yet unburnt.
A minute’s fresh air, then to cipher-work!
Three little columns hold the whole account:
Ecarté, after which Blind Hookey, then
Cutting-the-Pack, five hundred pounds the cut.
‘T is easy reckoning: I have lost, I think.”
Two personages occupy this room
Shabby-genteel, that’s parlor to the inn
Perched on a view-commanding eminence;
— Inn which may be a veritable house
Where somebody once lived and pleased good taste
Till tourists found his coigne of vantage out,
And fingered blunt the individual mark,
And vulgarized things comfortably smooth.
On a sprig-pattern-papered wall there brays
Complaint to sky Sir Edwin’s dripping stag;
His couchant coast-guard creature corresponds;
They face the Huguenot and Light o’ the World.
Grim o’er the mirror on the mantelpiece,
Varnished and coffined, Salmo ferox glares,
— Possibly at the List of Wines which, framed
And glazed, hangs somewhat prominent on peg.
So much describes the stuffy little room —
Vulgar flat smooth respectability:
Not so the burst of landscape surging in,
Sunrise and all, as he who of the pair
Is, plain enough, the younger personage
Draws sharp the shrieking curtain, sends aloft
The sash, spreads wide and fastens back to wall
Shutter and shutter, shows you England’s best.
He leans into a living glory-bath
Of air and light where seems to float and move
The wooded watered country, hill and dale
And steel-bright thread of stream, a-smoke with mist,
A-sparkle with May morning, diamond drift
O’ the sun-touched dew. Except the red-roofed patch
Of half a dozen dwellings that, crept close
For hillside shelter, make the village-clump,
This inn is perched above to dominate —
Except such sign of human neighborhood,
“And this surmised rather than sensible”
There’s nothing to disturb absolute peace,
The reign of English nature — which means art
And civilized existence. Wildness’ self
Is just the cultured triumph. Presently
Deep solitude, be sure, reveals a Place
That knows the right way to defend itself:
Silence hems round a burning spot of life.
Now, where a Place burns, must a village brood,
And where a village broods, an inn should boast —
Close and convenient: here you have them both.
This inn, the Something-arms — the family’s —
(Don’t trouble Guillim: heralds leave out half!)
Is dear to lovers of the picturesque,
And epics have been planned here; but who plan
Take holy orders and find work to do.
Painters are more productive, stop a week,
Declare the prospect quite a Corot, — ay,
For tender sentiment, — themselves incline
Rather to handsweep large and liberal;
Then go, but not without success achieved
— Haply some pencil-drawing, oak or beech,
Ferns at the base and ivies up the bole,
On this a slug, on that a butterfly.
Nay, he who hooked the salmo pendent here,
Also exhibited, this same May-month,
“Foxgloves: a study” — so inspires the scene,
The air, which now the younger personage
Inflates him with till lungs o’erfraught are fain
Sigh forth a satisfaction might bestir
Even those tufts of tree-tops to the South
I’ the distance where the green dies off to gray,
Which, easy of conjecture, front the Place;
He eyes them, elbows wide, each hand to cheek.
His fellow, the much older — either say
A youngish-old man or man oldish-young —
Sits at the table: wicks are noisome-deep
In wax, to detriment of plated ware;
Above — piled, strewn — is store of playing-cards,
Counters and all that’s proper for a game.
He sets down, rubs out figures in the book,
Adds and subtracts, puts back here, carries there,
Until the summed-up satisfaction stands
Apparent, and he pauses o’er the work:
Soothes what of brain was busy under brow,
By passage of the hard palm, curing so
Wrinkle and crowfoot for a second’s space;
Then lays down book and laughs out. No mistake,
Such the sum-total — ask Colenso else!
Roused by which laugh, the other turns, laughs too —
The youth, the good strong fellow, rough perhaps.
“Well, what’s the damage — three, or four, or five?
How many figures in a row? Hand here!
Come now, there’s one expense all yours not mine —
Scribbling the people’s Album over, leaf
The first and foremost too! You think, perhaps,
They’ll only charge you for a brand-new book
Nor estimate the literary loss?
Wait till the small account comes! ‘To one night’s
Lodging,’ for — ‘beds’ they can’t say, — ‘pound or so;
Dinner, Apollinaris, — what they please,
Attendance not included;’ last looms large
‘Defacement of our Album, late enriched
With’ — let’s see what! Here, at the window, though!
Ay, breathe the morning and forgive your luck!
Fine enough country for a fool like me
To own, as next month I suppose I shall!
Eh? True fool’s-fortune! so console yourself,
Let’s see, however — hand the book, I say!
Well, you ‘ve improved the classic by romance.
Queer reading! Verse with parenthetic prose —
‘Hail, calm acclivity, salubrious spot!’
(Three-two fives) ‘life how profitably spent’
(Five-naught, five-nine fives) ‘yonder humble cot,’
(More and more naughts and fives) ‘in mild content;
And did my feelings find the natural vent
In friendship and in love, how blest my lot!’
Then follow the dread figures — five! ‘Content?’
That’s appetite! Are you content as he —
Simpkin the sonneteer? Ten thousand pounds
Give point to his effusion — by so much
Leave me the richer and the poorer you
After our night’s play; who’s content the most,
If, you, or Simpkin?”
So the polished snob.
The elder man, refinement every inch
From brow to boot-end, quietly replies:
“Simpkin’s no name I know. I had my whim.”
“Ay, had you! And such things make friendship thick.
Intimates, I may boast we were; henceforth,
Friends — shall it not be? — who discard reserve,
Use plain words, put each dot upon each i,
Till death us twain do part? The bargain’s struck!
Old fellow, if you fancy — (to begin — )
I failed to penetrate your scheme last week,
You wrong your poor disciple. Oh, no airs!
Because you happen to be twice my age
And twenty times my master, must perforce
No blink of daylight struggle through the web
There’s no unwinding? You entoil my legs,
And welcome, for I like it: blind me, — no!
A very pretty piece of shuttle-work
Was that — your mere chance question at the club —
‘Do you go anywhere this Whitsuntide?
I’m off for Paris, there’s the Opera — there’s
The Salon, there’s a china-sale, — beside
Chantilly; and, for good companionship,
There’s Such-and-such and So-and-so. Suppose
We start together?’ ‘No such holiday!’
I told you: ‘Paris and the rest be hanged!
Why plague me who am pledged to home-delights?
I’m the engaged now; through whose fault but yours?
On duty. As you well know. Don’t I drowse
The week away down with the Aunt and Niece?
No help: it’s leisure, loneliness, and love.
‘Wish I could take you; but fame travels fast, —
A man of much newspaper-paragraph,
You scare domestic circles; and beside
Would not you like your lot, that second taste
Of nature and approval of the grounds!
You might walk early or lie late, so shirk
Week-day devotions: but stay Sunday o’er,
And morning church is obligatory:
No mundane garb permissible, or dread
The butler’s privileged monition! No!
Pack off to Paris, nor wipe tear away!’
Whereon how artlessly the happy flash
Followed, by inspiration! ‘‘Tell you what —
Let’s turn their flank, try things on t’ other side!
Inns for my money! Liberty’s the life!
We’ll lie in hiding: there’s the crow-nest nook,
The tourist’s joy, the Inn they rave about,
Inn that’s out — out of sight and out of mind
And out of mischief to all four of us —
Aunt and niece, you and me. At night arrive;
At morn, find time for just a Pisgah-view
Of my friend’s Land of Promise; then depart.
And while I’m whizzing onward by first train,
Bound for our own place (since my Brother sulks
And says I shun him like the plague) yourself —
Why, you have stepped thence, start from platform, gay
Despite the sleepless journey, — love lends wings, —
Hug aunt and niece who, none the wiser, wait
The faithful advent! Eh?’ ‘With all my heart,’
Said I to you; said I to mine own self:
‘Does he believe I fail to comprehend
He wants just one more final friendly snack
At friend’s exchequer ere friend runs to earth,
Marries, renounces yielding friends such sport?’
And did I spoil sport, pull face grim, — nay, grave?
Your pupil does you better credit! No!
I parleyed with my pass-book, — rubbed my pair
At the big balance in my banker’s hands, —
Folded a check cigar-case-shape, — just wants
Filling and signing, — and took train, resolved
To execute myself with decency
And let you win — if not Ten thousand quite,
Something by way of wind-up-farewell burst
Of firework-nosegay! Where’s your fortune fled?
Or is not fortune constant after all?
You lose ten thousand pounds: had I lost half
Or half that, I should bite my lips, I think.
You man of marble! Strut and stretch my best
On tiptoe, I shall never reach your height.
How does the loss feel! Just one lesson more!”
The more refined man smiles a frown away.
“The lesson shall be — only boys like you
Put such a question at the present stage.
I had a ball lodge in my shoulder once,
And, full five minutes, never guessed the fact;
Next day, I felt decidedly: and still,
At twelve years’ distance, when I lift my arm
A twinge reminds me of the surgeon’s probe.
Ask me, this day month, how I feel my luck!
And meantime please to stop impertinence,
For — don’t I know its object? All this chaff
Covers the corn, this preface leads to speech,
This boy stands forth a hero. ‘There, my lord!
Our play was true play, fun not earnest! I
Empty your purse, inside out, while my poke
Bulges to bursting? You can badly spare
A doit, confess now, Duke though brother be!
While I’m gold-daubed so thickly, spangles drop
And show my father’s warehouse-apron: pshaw!
Enough! We’ve had a palpitating night!
Good morning! Breakfast and forget our dreams!
My mouth’s shut, mind! I tell nor man nor mouse.’
There, see! He don’t deny it! Thanks, my boy!
Hero and welcome — only, not on me
Make trial of your ‘prentice-hand! Enough!
We’ve played, I’ve lost and owe ten thousand pounds,
Whereof I muster, at the moment, — well,
What’s for the bill here and the back to town.
Still, I’ve my little character to keep;
You may expect your money at month’s end.”
The young man at the window turns round quick —
A clumsy giant handsome creature; grasps
In his large red the little lean white hand
Of the other, looks him in the sallow face.
“I say now — is it right to so mistake
A fellow, force him in mere self-defence
To spout like Mister Mild Acclivity
In album-language? You know well enough
Whether I like you — like’s no album-word,
Anyhow: point me to one soul beside
In the wide world I care one straw about!
I first set eyes on you a year ago;
Since when you’ve done me good — I’ll stick to it —
More than I got in the whole twenty-five
That make my life up, Oxford years and all —
Throw in the three I fooled away abroad,
Seeing myself and nobody more sage
Until I met you, and you made me man
Such as the sort is and the fates allow.
I do think, since we two kept company,
I’ve learnt to know a little — all through you!
It’s nature if I like you. Taunt away!
As if I need you teaching me my place —
The snob I am, the Duke your brother is,
When just the good you did was — teaching me
My own trade, how a snob and millionaire
May lead his life and let the Duke’s alone,
Clap wings, free jackdaw, on his steeple-perch,
Burnish his black to gold in sun and air,
Nor pick up stray plumes, strive to match in strut
Regular peacocks who can’t fly an inch
Over the courtyard-paling. Head and heart
(That’s album-style) are older than you know,
For all your knowledge: boy, perhaps — ay, boy
Had his adventure, just as he were man —
His ball-experience in the shoulder-blade,
His bit of life-long ache to recognize,
Although he bears it cheerily about,
Because you came and clapped him on the back,
Advised him ‘Walk and wear the aching off!’
Why, I was minded to sit down for life
Just in Dalmatia, build a seaside tower
High on a rock, and so expend my days
Pursuing chemistry or botany
Or, very like, astronomy because
I noticed stars shone when I passed the place.
Letting my cash accumulate the while
In England — to lay out in lump at last
As Ruskin should direct me! All or some
Of which should I have done or tried to do,
And preciously repented, one fine day,
Had you discovered Timon, climbed his rock
And scaled his tower, some ten years thence, suppose,
And coaxed his story from him! Don’t I see
The pair conversing! It’s a novel writ
Already, I’ll be bound, — our dialogue!
‘What?’ cried the elder and yet youthful man —
So did the eye flash ‘neath the lordly front,
And the imposing presence swell with scorn,
As the haught high-bred bearing and dispose
Contrasted with his interlocutor
The flabby low-born who, of bulk before,
Had steadily increased, one stone per week,
Since his abstention from horse-exercise: —
‘What? you, as rich as Rothschild, left, you say
London the very year you came of age,
Because your father manufactured goods —
Commission-agent hight of Manchester —
Partly, and partly through a baby case
Of disappointment I’ve pumped out at last —
And here you spend life’s prime in gaining flesh
And giving science one more asteroid?’
Brief, my dear fellow, you instructed me,
At Alfred’s and not Istria! proved a snob
May turn a million to account although
His brother be no Duke, and see good days
Without the girl he lost and some one gained.
The end is, after one year’s tutelage,
Having, by your help, touched society,
Polo, Tent-pegging, Hurlingham, the Rink —
I leave all these delights, by your advice,
And marry my young pretty cousin here
Whose place, whose oaks ancestral you behold.
(Her father was in partnership with mine —
Does not his purchase look a pedigree?)
My million will be tails and tassels smart
To this plump-bodied kite, this house and land
Which, set a-soaring, pulls me, soft as sleep,
Along life’s pleasant meadow, — arm left free
To lock a friend’s in, — whose, but yours, old boy?
Arm in arm glide we over rough and smooth,
While hand, to pocket held, saves cash from cards.
Now, if you don’t esteem ten thousand pounds
( — Which I shall probably discover snug
Hid somewhere in the column-corner capped
With ‘Credit,’ based on ‘Balance,’ — which, I swear,
By this time next month I shall quite forget
Whether I lost or won — ten thousand pounds,
Which at this instant I would give … let’s see,
For Galopin — nay, for that Gainsborough
Sir Richard won’t sell, and, if bought by me,
Would get my glance and praise some twice a year, — )
Well, if you don’t esteem that price dirt-cheap
For teaching me Dalmatia was mistake —
Why then, my last illusion-bubble breaks,
My one discovered phœnix proves a goose,
My cleverest of all companions — oh,
Was worth nor ten pence nor ten thousand pounds!
Come! Be yourself again! So endeth here
The morning’s lesson! Never while life lasts
Do I touch card again. To breakfast now!
To bed — I can’t say, since you needs must start
For station early — oh, the down-train still,
First plan and best plan — townward trip be hanged!
You’re due at your big brother’s — pay that debt,
Then owe me not a farthing! Order eggs —
And who knows but there’s trout obtainable?”