Collected Poems of George Eliot
(Skoob 1989, 488 pp., pbk £9.95)
Oft, when a child, while wand’ring far alone,
That none might rouse me from my waking dream,
And visions with which fancy still would teem
Scare by a disenchanting earthly tone;
If, haply, conscious of the present scene,
I’ve marked before me some untraversed spot
The setting sunbeams had foresaken not,
Whose turf appeared more velvet-like and green
Than that I walked and fitter for repose:
But ever, at the wished-for place arrived,
I’ve found it of those seeming charms deprived
Which from the mellowing power of distance rose:
To my poor thought, an apt though simple trope
Of life’s dull path and earth’s deceitful hope
Your soul was lifted by the wings to-day
Hearing the master of the violin:
You praised him, praised the great Sebastian too
Who made that fine Chaconne; but did you think
Of old Antonio Stradivari ? - him
Who a good century and half ago
Put his true work in that brown instrument
And by the nice adjustment of its frame
Gave it responsive life, continuous
With the master’s finger-tips and perfected
Like them by delicate rectitude of use.
Not Bach alone, helped by fine precedent
Of genius alone before, nor Joachim
Who holds the strain afresh incorporate
By inward hearing and notation strict
Of nerve and muscle, made our joy to-day:
Another soul was living in the air
And swaying it to true deliverance
Of high invention and responsive skill: -
That plain white-aproned man who stood at work
Patient and accurate full fourscore years,
Cherished his sight and touch by temperance,
And since keen sense is love of perfectness
Made perfect violins, the needed paths
For inspiration and high mastery.
No simpler man than he: he never cried,
"Why was I born to this monotonous task
Of making violins ?" or flung them down
To suit with hurling act a well-hurled curse
At labour on such perishable stuff.
Hence neighbours in Cremona held him dull,
Called him a slave, a mill-horse, a machine,
Begged him to tell his motives or to lend
A few gold pieces to a loftier mind.
Yet he had pithy words full fed by fact;
For fact, well-trusted, reasons and persuades,
Is gnomic, cutting, or ironical,
Draws tears, or is a tocsin to arouse -
Can hold all figures of the orator
In one plain sentence; has her pauses too -
Eloquent silence at the chasm abrupt
Where knowledge ceases. Thus Antonio
Made answers as Fact willed, and made them strong
Naldo, a painter of eclectic school,
Taking his dicers, candlelight and grins
From Caravaggio, and in holier groups
Combining Flemish flesh with martyrdom -
Knowing all tricks of style at thirty-one,
And weary of them, while Antonio
At sixty-nine wrought placidly at his best
Making the violin you heard to-day -
Naldo would tease him oft to tell his aims.
"Perhaps thou hast some pleasant vice to feed -
The love of louis d’ors in heaps of four,
Each violin a heap - I’ve nought to blame;
My vices waste such heaps. But then, why work
With painful nicety ? Since fame once earned
By luck or merit - oftenest by luck -
(Else why do I put Bonifazio’s name
To work that ‘pinxit Naldo’ would not sell ?)
Is welcome index to the wealthy mob
Where they should pay their gold, and where they pay
There they find merit - take your tow for flax
And hold the flax unlabelled with your name,
Too coarse for sufferance."
"I like the gold - well, yes - but not for meals.
And as my stomach, so my eye and hand,
And inward sense that works along with both,
Have hunger that can never feed on coin.
Who draws a line and satisfies his soul,
Making it crooked where it should be straight ?
An idiot with an oyster-shell may draw
His lines along the sand, all wavering,
Fixing no point or pathway to a point;
An idiot one remove may choose his line,
Straggle and be content; but God be praised,
Antonio Stradivari has an eye
That winces at false work and loves the true,
With hand and arm that play upon the tool
As willingly as any singing bird
Sets him to sing his morning roundelay,
Because he likes to sing and likes the song."
Then Naldo: " ‘Tis a petty kind of fame
At best, that comes of making violins;
And saves no masses, either. Thou wilt go
To purgatory none the less."
" ‘Twere purgatory here to make them ill;
And for my fame - when any master holds
‘Twixt chin and hand a violin of mine,
He will be glad that Stradivari lived,
The masters only know whose work is good:
They will choose mine, and while God gives them skill
I give them instruments to play upon,
God choosing me to help Him."
"What ! were God
At fault for violins, thou absent ?"
He were at fault for Stradivari’s work."
"Why, many hold Giuseppi’s violins
As good as thine."
"May be: they are different.
His quality declines: he spoils his hand
With over-drinking. But were his the best,
He could not work for two. My work is mine,
And, heresy or not, if my hand slacked
I should rob God - since He is fullest good -
Leaving a blank instead of violins.
I say, not God Himself can make man’s best
Without best men to help Him. I am one best
Here in Cremona, using sunlight well
To fashion finest maple till it serves
More cunningly than throats, for harmony.
‘Tis rare delight: I would not change my skill
To be the Emperor with bungling hands,
And lose my work, which comes as natural
As self at waking."
"Thou art little more
Than a deft potter’s wheel, Antonio;
Turning out work by mere necessity
And lack of varied function. Higher arts
Subsist on freedom - eccentricity -
Uncounted aspirations - influence
That comes with drinking, gambling, talk turned wild,
Then moody misery and lack of food -
With every dithyrambic fine excess:
These make at last a storm which flashes out
In lightning revelations. Steady work
Turns genius to a loom; the soul must lie
Like grapes beneath the sun till ripeness comes
And mellow vintage. I could paint you now
The finest Crucifixion; yesternight
Returning home I saw it on a sky
Blue-black, thick-starred. I want two louis d’ors
To buy the canvas and the costly blues -
Trust me for a fortnight."
"Where are those last two
I lent thee for thy Judith? - her thou saw’st
In saffron gown, with Holofernes’ head
And beauty all complete ?"
"She is but sketched:
I lack the proper model - and the mood.
A great idea is an eagle’s egg,
Craves time for hatching; while the eagle sits
"If thou wilt call thy pictures eggs
I call the hatching, Work. ‘Tis God gives skill,
But not without men’s hands; He could not make
Antonio Stradivari’s violins
Without Antonio. Get thee to thy easel."
IN A LONDON DRAWINGROOM
The sky is cloudy, yellowed by the smoke.
For view there are the houses opposite
Cutting the sky with one long line of wall
Like solid fog: far as the eye can stretch
Monotony of surface and of form
Without a break to hang a guess upon.
No bird can make a shadow as it flies,
For all is shadow, as in way o’erhung
By thickest canvass, where the golden rays
Are clothed in hemp. No figure lingering
Pauses to feed the hunger of the eye
Or rest a little on the lap of life.
All hurry on and look upon the ground,
Or glance unmarking at the passers by
The wheels are hurrying too, cabs, carriages
All closed, in multiplied identity.
The world seems one huge prison-house and court
Where men are punished at the slightest cost,
With lowest rate of colour, warmth, and joy.
ÓSkoob Books Publishing Ltd., 1989.