Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Idyll of the Carp

The Idyll of the Carp
by Henry Austin Dobson

(The scene is in a garden - where you please,
so that it lie in France, and have withal
Its gray-stoned pond beneath the arching trees,
And Triton huge, with moss for coronal.
A Princess,- feeding fish. To her Denise.)

The Princess~~
These, Denise, are my Suitors!


The Princess~~
These fish.
I feed them daily here at morn and night
With crumbs of favour, - scraps of graciousness,
Not meant, indeed, to mean the thing they wish,
But serving just to edge an appetite.
( Throwing bread. )
Make haste, Messieurs! Make haste, then! Hurry.
See, -
See how they swim! Would you not say, confess,
Some crowd of Courtiers in the audience hall,
When the King comes?

You're jesting!

The Princess~
Not at all.
Watch but the great one yonder! There's the Duke; -
Those gill-marks mean his Order of St. Luke;
Those old skin-stains his boasted quarterings.
Look what a swirl and roll of tide he brings;
Have you not marked him thus, with crest in air,
Breathing disdain, descend the palace-stair?
You surely have, Denise.

I think I have.
But there's another, older and more grave, -
The one that wears the round patch on the throat,
And swims with such slow fins. Is he of note?

The Princess~
Why, that's my good chambellan - with his seal.
A kind old man! - he carves me orange-peel
In quaint devices at refection-hours,
Equips my sweet-pouch, brings me morning flowers,
Or chirrups madrigals with old, sweet words,
Such as men loved when people wooed like birds
And spoke the true note first. No suitor he,
Yet loves me too, - though in a graybeard's key.

Look, Madam, look! - a fish without a stain!
O speckless, fleckless fish! Who is it, pray,
That bears him so discreetly?

The Princess~
You know him not? My prince of shining locks!
My pearl! - my Phoenix! - my pomander-box!
He loves not Me, alas! The man's too vain!
He loves his doublet better than my suit, -
His graces than my favours. Still his sash
Sits not amiss, and he can touch the lute
Not wholly out of tune -

Ai! what a splash!
Who is it comes with such a sudden dash
Plump i' the midst, and leaps the others clear?

The Princess~
Ho! for a trumpet! Let the bells be rung!
Baron of Sans-terre , Lord of Pres-en-Cieux ,
Vidame of Vol-au-Vent - " et aultres lieux! "
Bah! How I hate his Gasconading tongue!
Why, that's my bragging Bravo-Musketeer -
My carpet cut-throat, valiant by a scar
Got in a brawl that stands for Spanish war: -
His very life's a splash!

I'd rather wear
E'en such a patched and melancholy air,
As his, - that motley one, - who keeps the wall,
And hugs his own lean thoughts for carnival.

The Princess~
My frankest wooer! Thus his love he tells
To mournful moving of his cap and bells.
He loves me (so he saith) as Slaves the Free, -
As Cowards War, - as young Maids Constancy.
Item , he loves me as the Hawk the Dove;
He loves me as the Inquisition Thought; -

" He loves? - he loves?" Why all this loving's naught!

The Princess~
And " Naught (quoth Jacquot) makes the sum of Love!"

The cynic knave! How call you this one here? -
This small shy-looking fish, that hovers near,
And circles, like a cat around a cage,
To snatch the surplus.

The Princess~
Cherubin, the page.
'Tis but a child, yet with that roguish smile,
And those sly looks, the child will make hearts ache
Not five years hence, I prophesy. Meanwhile,
He lives to plague the swans upon the lake,
To steal my comfits, and the monkey's cake.

And these - that swim aside - who may these be?

The Princess~

Those - are two gentlemen of Picardy,
Equal in blood, - of equal bravery: -
Moreuil and Montcornet. They hunt in pair;
I mete them morsels with an equal care,
Lest they should eat each other, - or eat Me.

And that - and that - and that?

The Princess~
I name them not.
Those are the crowd who merely think their lot
The lighter by my land.

And is there none
More prized than most? There surely must be one, -
A Carp of carps!

The Princess~
Ah me! - he will not come!
He swims at large, - looks shyly on, - is dumb.
Sometimes, indeed, I think he fain would nibble,
But while he stays with doubts and fears to quibble,
Some gilded fop, or mincing courtier-fribble,
Slips smartly in, - and gets the proffered crumb.
He should have all my crumbs - if he'd but ask;
Nay, an he would, it were no hopeless task
To gain a something more. But though he's brave,
He's far too proud to be a dangling slave;
And then - he's modest! So ... he will not come!

By the end we are certainly not hearing about fish anymore. I wonder about the accuracy of the sentiments, given this is a man writing in a woman's voice.  The carp of carps aside, I know nothing of suitors, having neither been among nor entertained them: still having squandered many hours in contemplation upon river and pond banks, all of these other characters among carp are perfectly familiar. The poem is an excellent piece of piscatorial observation.

Mr Dobson was surely a fisherman. Here's a fragment from An Autumn Idyll.
Hist! That's a pike. Look - nose against the river,
Gaunt as a wolf - the sly old privateer !
Enter a gudgeon. Snap, - a gulp, a shiver;
Exit the gudgeon. Let us anchor here.

The carp of carps among fish does indeed look shyly on in modesty, never coming forward to be caught. Last year I landed this immense fish.

While bringing it in, I thought I had finally hooked the carp of carps. Once upon the beach, unhooked and released, it became obvious that no caught fish is ever the carp of carps - by definition he is only ever the dim glimpse of a broad golden side, the colours of a tail at the surface seen for a moment and remembered forever, burning in memory.