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Noctes Ambrosianae Post by :webbcomm Category :Essays Author :Maurice Hewlett Date :November 2011 Read :3531

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Noctes Ambrosianae

Weather has sent me indoors, chance to an old book. I have been reading Noctes Ambrosianæ again. Bad buffoonery as much of it is and full to the throttle of the warm-watery optimism induced by whisky, yet as fighting literature it is incalculably better than its modern substitute in Blackwood. The sniper who monthly tries to pinch out his adversaries there--Mrs. Partington's nephew, in fact--wants the one quality which will make that kind of thing intolerable--that is, high spirits. The Black Hussars of Maga both had them, and drank them, frequently neat. I judge that the Nephew has to be more careful. Eupepsy is not revealed in his writing; but Christopher North and his co-mates must have had the stomachs of ostriches. The guzzling and swilling which were the staple of the Noctes were remarked upon at the time as incredible as well as disgusting; but it is to be presumed that they wouldn't have been there if, to the majority at least, they had not been a counsel of perfection. "I wasn't as drunk as I should have liked to be, your Worship, but I was drunk."

As well as that, most people thought it exceedingly funny. Dickens and his readers thought it funny too. Christmas would not have been Christmas unless somebody got beastly drunk. We have moved on since then, and carried the Nephew with us, multum gementem. One can see him kicking violently under the arm of the Zeitgeist as he is borne down the ringing grooves of change. Now, therefore, he is tart in his musings, chastises rather with fleas than with scorpions.

When the Noctes can stand away from Politics and Literature--for the two were always involved in those days, so that unless you approved a man's party you couldn't allow that he wrote tolerable verse--they can wile away a winter evening very pleasantly. Christopher North had an eye for character, a sense of humour, and knew and loved the country. He was country bred. He is at his best when he combines his loves, as he does in the person of the Shepherd. Keep the Shepherd off (a) girls, (b) nursing mothers, (c) the Sabbath, (d) eating, (e) drinking, (f) his own poetry, and he is good reading. Knowing and loving Ettrick Forest as I do, I need no better guide to it than North's Shepherd. Having fished all its waters from Loch Skene downwards, I should ask no better company, evenings, at Tibbie Shields' or the Tushielaw Inn. Edward FitzGerald could have made a good book out of the Noctes, cutting it down to one volume out of four. As it is mainly, it will stand or fall by its high spirits. The really funny character in it is Gurney, the shorthand writer, who is kept in a cupboard, and at the end of the last uproarious chapter, when the coast is cleared of the horseplaying protagonists, "comes out like a mouse, and begins to nibble cheese." That is imagination.

The real Ettrick Shepherd was better than the Noctes can make him. Lockhart gives a delightful account of his first visit to Walter Scott in Castle Street--his first visit, mind you. He is shown into the drawing-room and finds Mrs. Scott, disposed, _à la Madame Recamier, on a sofa. His acuteness comes to the aid of his bewilderment, and he is quick to extend himself in similar fashion upon the opposite sofa. In the dining-room he was much more at his ease. Before the end of the meal he had his host as "Wattie" and his hostess as "Charlotte." Next day he wrote to Scott to ask what he might have said, and to offer apologies if needful.

A remark put into his mouth by North, that he could "ban" Burns for having forestalled him with the line--

The summer to Nature, my Willie to me!
set me wondering wherein consists the true lyrical magic. In that line of Burns's, clearly, it lies in the harmony of lyric thought and lyric lilt. In--
Come away, come away, Death,
it is in the lilt alone. One thing only about it is sure, and that is that the diction must be conversational. There will be tears in the voice, but the voice must be that of the homely earth, never of the stage, never of the pulpit If you agree with that, you will have to cut out practically all the poets from Dryden to Cowper, Gray and Collins among them; for Gray has a learned sock, and hardly allows familiarity when he is elegising Horace Walpole's cat. But Shakespeare proves it, Ben Jonson proves it, and all the good poets from Wordsworth. Burns had the vernacular to help him, and for the most part a model to steer by. All Lowland Scots, lads and lassies, wail, and occasionally howl, in his songs. The first two lines of that one envied by Hogg run:


Here awa, there awa, wandering Willie,
Here awa, there awa, haud awa hame!


and of these the second is traditional, altered only in one word. Burns writes "haud awa hame" instead of repeating "here awa"--and improves it. Shakespeare used the King's English, but never shirked a racy idiom. Here is a good instance from the Sonnets, and from one of the greatest of them, "Farewell, thou art too dear."


Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter--
In sleep a king; but waking no such matter.


You might call that a slang phrase and be right.

There are other cases, and many; some where he goes all lengths, and one at least where he goes beyond them. But to leave Shakespeare, for a perfect example of passion married to common speech, commend me to--


Since there's no help, come let us kiss and part,
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me;
But I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart
That thus so clearly I myself can free.


Intense feeling, intense music, a lovely thing: a poem.


(The end)
Maurice Hewlett's essay: Noctes Ambrosianae

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