A happy half-century and other essays/The Album Amicorum


She kept an album too, at home,
Well stocked with all an album's glories,
Paintings of butterflies and Rome,
Patterns for trimmings, Persian stories.


Modern authors who object to being asked for their autographs, and who complain piteously of the persecutions they endure in this regard, would do well to consider what they have gained by being born in an age when commercialism has supplanted compliment. Had they been their own great-grandfathers, they would have been expected to present to their female friends the verses they now sell to magazines. They would have written a few playful and affectionate lines every time they dined out, and have paid for a week's hospitality with sentimental tributes to their hostess. And not their hostess only. Her budding daughters would have looked for some recognition of their charms, and her infant son would have presented a theme too obvious for disregard. It is recorded that when Campbell spent two days at the country seat of Mr. James Craig, the Misses Craig kept him busy most of that time composing verses for their albums,—a pleasant way of entertaining a poet guest. On another occasion he writes to Mrs. Arkwright, lamenting, though with much good-humour, the importunities of mothers. "Mrs. Grahame has a plot upon me that I should write a poem upon her boy, three years old. Oh, such a boy! But in the way of writing lines on lovely children, I am engaged three deep, and dare not promise."

It seems that parents not only petitioned for these poetic windfalls, but pressed their claims hard. Campbell, one of the most amiable of men, yielded in time to this demand, as he had yielded to many others, and sent to little Master Grahame some verses of singular ineptitude.

Sweet bud of life! thy future doom
Is present to my eyes,
And joyously I see thee bloom
In Fortune's fairest skies.

One day that breast, scarce conscious now,
Shall burn with patriot flame;
And, fraught with love, that little brow
Shall wear the wreath of fame.

There are many more stanzas, but these are enough to make us wonder why parents did not let the poet alone. Perhaps, if they had, he would have volunteered his services. We know that when young Fanny Kemble showed him her nosegay at a ball, and asked how she should keep the flowers from fading, he answered hardily: "Give them to me, and I will immortalize them,"—an enviable assurance of renown.

Album verses date from the old easy days, when rhyming was regarded as a gentlemanly accomplishment rather than as a means of livelihood. Titled authors, poets wealthy and well-born—for there were always such—naturally addressed themselves to the ladies of their acquaintance. They could say with Lord Chesterfield that they thanked Heaven they did not have to live by their brains. It was a theory, long and fondly cherished, that poetry was not common merchandise, to be bought and sold like meal and malt; that it was, as Burns admirably said, either above price or worth nothing at all. Later on, when poets became excellent men of business, when Byron had been seduced by Murray's generosity, when Moore drove his wonderful bargains, and poetic narrative was the best-selling commodity in the market, we hear a rising murmur of protest against the uncommercial exactions of the album. Sonneteers who could sell their wares for hard cash no longer felt repaid by a word of flattery. Even the myrtle wreaths which crowned the victors of the Bath Easton contests appeared but slender compensation, save in Miss Seward's eyes, or in Mrs. Hayley's. When Mrs. Hayley went to Bath in 1781, and witnessed the solemn ceremonies inaugurated by Lady Miller; when she saw the laurels, and myrtles, and fluttering ribbons, her soul was fired with longing, and she set to work to persuade her husband that the Bath Easton prize was not wholly beneath his notice. The author of "The Triumphs of Temper" was naturally fearful of lowering his dignity by sporting with minor poets; and there was much wifely artifice in her assumption that such playfulness on his part would be recognized as true condescension. "If you should feel disposed to honour this slight amusement with a light composition, I am persuaded you will oblige very highly." The responsive Hayley was not unwilling to oblige, provided no one would suspect him of being in earnest. He "scribbled" the desired lines "in the most rapid manner," "literally in a morning and a half" (Byron did not take much longer to write "The Corsair"), and sent them off to Bath, where they were "admired beyond description," and won the prize, so that the gratified Mrs. Hayley appeared that night with the myrtle wreath woven in her hair. The one famous contributor to the Bath Easton vase who did not win a prize was Sheridan. He, being entreated to write for it some verses on "Charity," complied in these heartless lines:—


For heaven's sake bestow on me
A little wit, for that would be
Indeed an act of charity.

Complimentary addresses—those flowery tributes which seem so ardent and so facile — were beginning to drag a little, even in Walpole's day. He himself was an adept in the art of polite adulation, and wrote without a blush the obliging comparison between the Princess Amelia and Venus (greatly to the disparagement of Venus), which the flattered lady found in the hand of the marble Apollo at Stowe. "All women like all or any praise," said Lord Byron, who had reason to know the sex. The Princess Amelia, stout, sixty, and "strong as a Brunswick lion," was pleased to be designated as a "Nymph," and to be told she had routed Venus from the field. Walpole also presented to Madame de Boufflers a "petite gentillesse," when she visited Strawberry Hill; and it became the painful duty of the Due de Nivernois to translate these lines into French, on the occasion of Miss Pelham's grand fete at Esher Place. The task kept him absorbed and preoccupied most of the day, "lagging behind" while the others made a cheerful tour of the farms, or listened to the French horns and hautboys on the lawn. Finally, when all the guests were drinking tea and coffee in the Belvidere, poor Nivernois was delivered of his verselets, which were received with a polite semblance of gratification, and for the remaining hours his spirit was at peace. But it does seem a hard return to exact for hospitality, and must often have suggested to men of letters the felicity of staying at home.

Miss Seward made it her happy boast that the number and the warmth of Mr. Hayley's tributes—inserted duly in her album—raised her to a rivalry with Swift's Stella, or Prior's Chloe. "Our four years' correspondence has been enriched with a galaxy of little poetic gems of the first water." Nor was the lady backward in returning compliment for compliment. That barter of praise, that exchange of felicitation, which is both so polite and so profitable, was as well understood by our sentimental ancestors as it is in this hard-headed age. Indeed, I am not sure that the Muse did not sometimes calculate more closely then than she ventures to do to-day. We know that Canon Seward wrote an elegiac poem on a young nobleman who was held to be dying, but who—perversely enough—recovered; whereupon the reverend eulogist changed the name, and transferred his heartfelt lamentations to another youth whose death was fully assured. In the same business-like spirit Miss Seward paid back Mr. Hayley flattery for flattery, until even the slow-witted satirists of the period made merry over this commerce of applause.

Miss Seward. Pride of Sussex, England's glory,
Mr. Hayley, is that you?
Mr. Hayley. Ma'am, you carry all before you,
Trust me, Lichfield swan, you do.
Miss Seward. Ode, dramatic, epic, sonnet,
Mr. Hayley, you're divine!
Mr. Hayley. Ma'am, I'll give my word upon it,
You yourself are all the Nine.

Moore, as became a poet of ardent temperament, wrote the most gallant album verses of his day; for which reason, and because his star of fame rode high, he endured sharp persecution at the hands of admiring but covetous friends. Young ladies asked him in the most offhand manner to "address a poem" to them; and women of rank smiled on him in ballrooms, and confided to him that they were keeping their albums virgin of verse until "an introduction to Mr. Moore" should enable them to request him to write on the opening page. "I fight this off as well as I can," he tells Lord Byron, who knew both the relentlessness of such demands and the compliant nature of his friend. On one occasion Lady Holland showed Moore some stanzas which Lord Holland had written in Latin and in English, on the subject of a snuff-box given her by Napoleon; bidding him imperiously "do something of the kind," and adding that she greatly desired a corresponding tribute from Lord Byron. Moore wisely declined to make any promises for Byron (one doubts whether the four lines which that nobleman eventually contributed afforded her ladyship much pleasure), but wrote his own verses before he was out of bed the next morning, and carried them to Holland House, expecting to breakfast with its mistress. He found her, however, in such a captious mood, so out of temper with all her little world, that, although he sat down to the table, he did not venture to hint his hunger; and as no one asked him to eat or drink, he slipped off in half an hour, and sought (his poem still in his pocket) the more genial hospitality of Rosset's restaurant. Had all this happened twenty years earlier, Moore's self-esteem would have been deeply wounded; but the poet was by now a man of mark, and could afford to laugh at his own discomfiture.

Moore's album verses may be said to make up in warmth what they lack in address. Minor poets—minims like William Robert Spencer—surpassed him easily in adroitness; and sometimes won for themselves slender but abiding reputations by expressing with consummate ease sentiments they did not feel. Spencer's pretty lines beginning,—

Too late I stayed,—forgive the crime!
Unheeded flew the hours:
How noiseless falls the foot of time
That only treads on flowers!

—lines which all our grandmothers had by heart—may still be found in compilations of English verse. Their dexterous allusions to the diamond sparks in Time's hour-glass, and to the bird-of-paradise plumage in his grey wings, their veiled and graceful flattery, contrast pleasantly with Moore's Hibernian boldness, with his offhand demand to be paid in kisses for his songs—

That rosy mouth alone can bring
What makes the bard divine;
Oh, Lady! how my lip would sing,
If once 't were prest to thine.

A discreet young woman might have hesitated to show this album page to friends.

Byron's "tributes," when he paid them, were singularly chill. He may have buried his heart at Mrs. Spencer Smith's feet; but the lines in her album which record this interment are eloquent of a speedy resurrection. When Lady Blessington demanded some verses, he wrote them; but he explained with almost insulting lucidity that his heart was as grey as his head (he was thirty-one), and that he had nothing warmer than friendship to offer in place of extinguished affections. Moore must have wearied painfully of albums and of their rapacious demands; yet to the end of his life he could be harassed into feigning a poetic passion; but Byron stood at bay. He was a hunted creature, and the instinct of self-preservation taught him savage methods of escape.

There are people who, from some delicacy of mental fibre, find it exceedingly difficult to be rude; and there are people who—like Charles Lamb—have a curious habit of doing what they do not want to do, and what they know is not worth doing, for the sake of giving pleasure to some utterly insignificant acquaintance. The first class lacks a valuable weapon in life's warfare. The second class is so small, and the motives which govern it are so inscrutable, that we are apt to be exasperated by its amiability. It is easy to sympathize with Thackeray, who, being badgered to write in an album already graced by the signatures of several distinguished musicians, said curtly: "What! among all those fiddlers!" This hardy British superciliousness commends itself to our sense of humour, no less than to our sense of self-protection. A great deal has been said, especially by Frenchmen, about the wisdom of polite denials; but a rough word, spoken in time, is seldom without weight in England.

Yet, for a friend, Thackeray found no labour hard. The genial tolerance of "The Pen and the Album" suggests something akin to affection for these pillaging little books when the right people owned them,—when they belonged to "Chesham Place." Locker tells a pleasant story of meeting Thackeray in Pall Mall, on his way to Kensington, and offering to join him in his walk. This offer was declined, Thackeray explaining that he had some rhymes trotting through his head, and that he was trying to polish them off in the course of a solitary stroll. A few days later they met again, and Thackeray said, "I finished those verses, and they are very nearly being very good. I call them 'Mrs. Katherine's Lantern.' I did them for Dickens's daughter."

"Very nearly being very good!" This is an author's modest estimate. Readers there are who have found them so absolutely good that they leaven the whole heavy mass of album verse. Shall not a century of extortion on the one side and debility on the other be forgiven, because upon one blank page, the property of one thrice fortunate young woman, were written these lines, fragrant with imperishable sentiment:—

When he was young as you are young,
When he was young, and lutes were strung,
And love-lamps in the casement hung.

But when we turn to Lamb, and find him driving his pen along its unwilling way, and admitting ruefully that the road was hard, we see the reverse of the medal, and we resent that inexplicable sweetness of temper which left him defenceless before marauders.

My feeble Muse, that fain her best would
Write at command of Frances Westwood,
But feels her wits not in their best mood.

Why should Frances Westwood have commanded his services? Why should Frances Brown, "engaged to a Mr. White," have wrung from him a dozen lines of what we should now call "copy"? She had no recognizable right to that copy; but Lamb confided to Mrs. Moxon that he had sent it to her at twenty-four hours' notice, because she was going to be married and start with her husband for India. Also that he had forgotten what he had written, save only two lines:—

May your fame
And fortune, Frances, Whiten with your name!

of which conceit he was innocently proud.

Mrs. Moxon (Emma Isola) was herself an old and hardened offender. Her album, enriched with the spoils of a predatory warfare, travelled far afield, extorting its tribute of verse. We find Lamb first paying, as was natural, his own tithes, and then actually aiding and abetting injustice by sending the book to Mr. Procter (Barry Cornwall), with an irresistible appeal for support.

"I have another favour to beg, which is the beggarliest of beggings; a few lines of verse for a young friend's album (six will be enough). M. Burney will tell you who I want 'em for. A girl of gold. Six lines—make 'em eight—signed Barry C——. They need not be very good, as I chiefly want 'em as a foil to mine. But I shall be seriously obliged by any refuse scraps. We are in the last ages of the world, when St. Paul prophesied that women should be 'headstrong lovers of their own wills, having albums.' I fled hither to escape the albumean persecution, and had not been in my new house twenty-four hours when a daughter of the next house came in with a friend's album, to beg a contribution, and, the following day, intimated she had one of her own. Two more have sprung up since. 'If I take the wings of the morning, and fly unto the uttermost parts of the earth, there will albums be.' New Holland has albums. The age is to be complied with."

"Ask for this little book a token of remembrance from friends, and from fellow students, and from wayfarers whom you may never see again. He who gives you his name and a few kind words, gives you a treasure which shall keep his memory green."

So wrote Goethe—out of the abyss of German sentimentality—in his son's album; and the words have a pleasant ring of good fellowship and unforced fraternity. They are akin to those gracious phrases with which the French monarchy—"despotism tempered by epigram"—was wont to designate the taxes that devoured the land. There was a charming politeness in the assumption that taxes were free gifts, gladly given; but those who gave them knew.

The Riverside Press


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