Skip to main content
Source File: cat.nf032.xml

The Home Monthly

by Helen Delay. [Willa Cather]

From The Home Monthly, 6 (June 1897):  14.

Old Books and New.

I INTEND to speak only of a few old books this time, the books of which one never tires. I first discovered them myself when I once was sent to stay with an old aunt of mine who had been a literary woman in her day, and who still cared for books more than for anything else in the world. Of course her tastes were of the old school and you could not convince her that any poetry worth reading had been written since Byron died, or that any one but Scott had ever written a respectable novel. She first introduced me to Moore and Byron.

*   *   *

One scarcely ever hears of Moore now, but he was a power in his own generation. I don't believe that young people will ever cease to delight in Lalla Rookh. Shall I ever forget the day I first discovered that book? It was high up on a shelf in my old aunt's library, between a leather-bound Josephus and an ugly, thick little copy of The Children of the Abbey. And 0, the pictures in it! They would be styled "illustrations" now, but then they were just pictures. There was one of Zuleika as a willowy maiden with her hair brought low over her ears in the style of the 40's and very almond-shaped eyes, mere slits indeed, and a simpering little smile, and a sort of bridal veil on her head. She was anything but a Persian maid, but that never occurred to me then. Then there was Hinda with her arms thrown above her head, just as she sees Hafed on his funeral pyre and leaps herself into the sea, or, as Moore says, into the "wave." "Deep, deep—where never care or pain Shall reach her innocent heart again."

*   *   *

But best of all was the picture of the veiled prophet, just as he was about to lift his veil before the trembling Zelica, crying: "Here—judge if Hell, with all its power to damn, Could add one curse to the foul thing I am!"

And how I longed to see behind that veil! That night, after my good old aunt had tucked me into bed, I lay trying to paint in the darkness a face frightful enough to be Mokanna's.

My aunt could remember the days when Lalla Rookh first appeared, and how the world went wild over it, and every one went about quoting: "In that delightful province of the sun, The first of Persian lands he shines upon,"

And repeating with a knowing shake of the head: "O Grief beyond all other griefs, when fate First leaves the young heart lone and desolate."

*   *   *

She could remember, too, when Byron was considered very wicked indeed, and young ladies read him by stealth and felt so deliciously guilty. She herself managed to get hold of a copy of Don Juan when it first came out, and carried it to a friend of hers hidden under her hoop-skirts to escape the gaze of her friend's mamma. She told me all about those days when people used to talk of the wild doings of Byron and Moore in Venice; and of how Byron used to write by the light of a hundred candles; and how once his friends, while passing his palace in Venice, saw the windows all aglow and, thinking his lordship must be having a party, stopped and went in. But they found Byron alone with the third act of Manfred on the table before him. And I don't know but that Byron and Manfred counted for a good deal more than all the crowds one usually finds at parties. And then when Lord Byron went off to the wars and devoted all his fortune to the Greek cause, how the girls all bought his picture and chanted:

"The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece! Where burning Sappho loved and sung,"

And when the news came at last that he was dead, how he was heroized dead even more than he had been lionized living.

*   *   *

The good old lady told me stories until she grew quite young again, and then she read me Byron's famous verses of farewell to Moore, written only a little while before he indeed said farewell to friendship and life and love forever. "My boat is on the shore, And my bark is on the sea; But before I go, Tom Moore, Here's a double health to thee! "Here's a sigh to those who love me, And a smile to those who hate; And whatever sky 's above me, Here's a heart for any fate. "Though the ocean roar around me, Yet it still shall bear me on; Though a desert should surround me, It hath springs that may he won. "Were't the last drop in the well, As I gasped upon the brink, Ere my fainting spirit fell, 'Tis to thee that I would drink. "With that water, as this wine, The libation I would pour Should be—peace to thine and mine, And a health to thee, Tom Moore."

A lovable fellow he must have been, that Tom Moore, that both men and women loved him so faithfully and so well.

*   *   *

The old lady told me a story about Campbell, too, that I have never seen in print, though she said it was very popular in her time. It seems that shortly after "The Battle of Hohenlinden" was written, and when every schoolboy was talking of "Iser rolling rapidly," Campbell was one night invited to a supper party. Some one recited the poem, and the flattered author drank very heavily. In leaving, he fell on the stairs and went sprawling and bumping down the whole flight. "Who on earth is that?" asked a gentleman who had just arrived. Poor, tipsy Campbell, who had by this time just struck the landing, bawled out, "'Tis I, sir, rolling rapidly!"

*   *   *

After she had told me stories of all the great men of her youth, I wanted then to hear about the greatest man of all to me, like the little peasant children of France who used to cry to the old women, "Tell us of Him, grandmother, tell us of Him!" When we are little 'Him' means the first Napoleon. And she would tell me how in Nile's Register, the weekly newspaper of the day, published in Baltimore, the European news consisted wholly of the doings and sayings of Bonaparte, and how the startled world just stood still and let him do as he would, as the Greeks waited dumbly for the thunderbolts of Jupiter. Of the little drummer boy from Provence who, when he lay dying on the field, gaily kissed his hand to the Emperor as he dashed by, and of the sleeping sentinel whose watch the Emperor once kept. She read me his letters to Josephine out of John Jacob Abbott's atrociously incorrect biography of Napoleon, which appeared at the time in Harpers' Monthly. And I used to think, as Madame Rhea says, that "I would rather be Josephine, beloved and deserted, than be queen of all the world." At last the old lady, warmed by her reminiscences, sat down at her quaint harpsicord, on which only a few of the keys sounded at all when she struck them, and sang in her shrill, cracked voice, "On a lone barren isle" etc.

Dear me, what fine times those must have been to live in! The times of Byron and Moore and Campbell and Shelley and Keats, of Murat and Ney and Napoleon himself; when empires were lost and won in a day, when one man controlled the world and made the world's history, moving kings and queens about hither and thither like chessmen, when Waterloo was fought and "There was a sound of revelry by night." And now we can't have even one little Grecian war!