<= 2004.11.03

2004.11.09 =>

gone but not forgotten

I have settled (with a little help from J.) on the subject for my dissertation. It will concern the life and works of the unfortunately neglected Wilfred Hardgrave-Rumpleworth, Lord Kensington (1721-1788). After a typical aristocratic upbringing of fencing, French, and fox-hunting, Kensington published his first volume of poems, Divers Thoughts From Rambles O'er My Estate, in 1743. Today the best-known poem from the collection is the vigorous "Reflections Upon A Fox-Hunt."

Ah, crafty Reynard! Thou may'st show thy Tail
Provocatively o'er Hill and Dale,
But know that I have gathered up my Hounds
And we shall seek thy Pelt with Leaps and Bounds!
Ay, we shall crash through Gardens and through Hedges
With no concern for their finely trimmed Edges.
Brave Nimrod or Actaeon could not fly
Through my Land-Holdings half as quick as I!

There follows a long and rather confused epic simile likening the fox to a woman named Mary, for whom no historical correspondent has yet been found, after which Kensington asserts that the sight of the fox's pelt will surely win Mary's heart. The poem closes with a vision of the happy couple settling down to a light meal of roast widgeon and the subsequent delights of Venus.

In succeeding years Kensington's attention was diverted from poetry by ill-advised agricultural investments in Carolina, but in 1758 he returned to the literary world with The Steeple-Chase. The title poem recounts a horse race in a bold anapestic meter that, as a reviewer in the Spectator noted, "pounds the Reader into delighted Submission beneath the Sway of Rhythm and Play of Fancy, as if a thousand Horse-Hooves were verily Treading upon his inmost Heart."

With Prancing and Dancing, and Clapping and Clanging,
The Horses start out (as I now am explaining)
All bold from the Gate! And all swift down the Track!
Who shall win? Who shall lose? Who shall bear the Prize back?
My Blood fills my Frame (as sage Harvey has shown us)
With Excitement and Longing at this Hippo-Dromus,
To see the brave Stallions, all friskful with lust,
So nobly compete for the Honour august.

Near the end of "The Steeple-Chase" we see an abrupt change in subject matter, as Kensington pulls back to allegorically explore much weightier moral issues.

For this Life is a Steeple-Chase, all Men know well;
Some shall go to Heaven, and some go to Hell.
We must stay the Course, we must not be diverted
By Apples or Sugar (or some Mare who has flirted)
For all these Temptations, tho' mighty alluring,
Are Snares of the Devil. They're always occurring!
The Jockey who rides us, and urges us on,
Is our Lord and Savior. We shall not go wrong,
For we are true Stallions, and shall win the Prize
Of Life Everlasting, in our dear Father's Eyes.

This introduction of religious subject matter presages Kensington's famous "turn," in which he abandons discussions of worldly pleasure for a preoccupation with salvation and damnation. His later work does not bear out the optimistic mood of "The Steeple-Chase." Burdened by debt, in ill health, struggling with alcoholism and an incipient laudanum addiction, he spent most of his final two decades in bed. With the aid of a specially constructed writing desk, he worked daily on his allegorical play Heaven's Pearly Throne, though progress was slow and it remained uncompleted at the time of his death. The principal character is Euraeus, an ailing and alcoholic nobleman who delivers long and questioning soliloquies on the state of his soul.

And shall this priceless Treasure of Free-Will,
Which God has given me, be so debased
By continual Perversions of the Soul,
By bawdy Thoughts, and Laudanum, and Snuff,
And the occasional Bit of Buggery,
To cast me ever out of Paradise?
Shall I be thrown to everlasting Fire?
And is the Fire of such a Quality
As the Scalding of a hot Tea-Kettle
When your palsied Hands spill out the Water
All a-boil, that was to make your Tea,
Or is it like the Burning of one's Guts
After a Meal too heartily enjoyed,
Which maketh one sincerely rue, and pray,
"Lord, O let me ne'er eat Pheasant again!"

In the fourth act Christ appears and holds a dialogue with Euraeus; written in the last year of Kensington's life, it is a testament to his infirmity. He could no longer summon the concentration to write in verse and resorted to prose monologues of wobbly structure and considerable length.

Christ. Unhappy Euraeus! Are you not familiar with the Doctrine of Transmigration of Souls, from which we may infer that the Fox you once so lustily Hunted was in fact the Reincarnated Soul of a Man, or possibly a Woman, perhaps someone known to you, a distant Cousin, likely one of those obnoxious Cousins from France with whom you were forced to play as a Child, who mocked your French Pronunciation, and stole your Wig and hung it from a Mulberry-Tree—for all that, miserable Euraeus, was it right for you to Hunt the Creature down with your Hounds and, having dispatched the Wretch, dance your Obscene Jig of Victory in the Wooded Glen?

Euraeus. My Lord, I know not.

Christ. Furthermore, you have soiled your Bed-Sheets.

Surely it needs no further explanation why I feel obliged to bring Kensington's work to a wider reading public. After I defend my dissertation and take a promising academic appointment, I plan to devote myself to preparing a scholarly edition of his complete works, including a number of fascinating letters to Alexander Pope, in which he takes issue with Pope's translation of the Iliad and advances his opinion that mêtioônto is not the third-person plural epic unaugmented form of mêtiaô, "to deliberate," as is commonly believed, but rather denotes a type of fruit compote.

 

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