Collected Poems of George Eliot

(Skoob 1989, 488 pp., pbk £9.95)


 

SONNET

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

(September) 1839

 

STRADIVARIUS

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."

Antonio then:

"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."

But he:

" ‘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 ?"

"Yes;

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

Feed her."

"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."

(September) 1873

 

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.

(December) 1865

Ó Skoob Books Publishing Ltd., 1989.