Thursday, 2 July 2009

Rose Aylmer

Ah what avails the sceptred race,
Ah what the form divine!
What every virtue, every grace!
Rose Aylmer, all were thine.
Rose Aylmer, whom these wakeful eyes
May weep, but never see,
A night of memories and of sighs
I consecrate to thee.

This little elegy works—which is to say, generates its affect—out of its reticence.

The race is ‘sceptred’ in the first line because the Aylmers were ‘descended in the twenty-third generation from Edward I, and might also have claimed the blood of Charlemagne and three other royal ancestors’ [Super, 517] Virtuous, graceful and divinely formed, the ‘sceptered’ Rose nevertheless dies—of contagion (cholera) in Calcutta, as it happens. The first four lines, which say in effect ‘what use is it to be beautiful, well-bred and virtuous, if it doesn’t prevent you from dying?’ are perhaps too poised to invoke any more generalised existential angst; just as the last four (only one night of memories and sighs? No more? Clearly not too enormous a bereavement, then) set bounds of and restraint propriety upon the expression of grief. Hanley notes that the original version of the poem (which did not mention the deceased’s first name, replacing the first Rose Aylmer with ‘For, Aylmer,’ and the second with ‘Sweet Aylmer’) avoided ‘specific identification’ for reasons of ‘social discretion’ [Hanley, 218]. Reticence can be more eloquent than gush, of course; and this is a touching poem. Yet it is caught between the specific and the general. Very few individuals who die young can claim to be of ‘the sceptered race’; which leaves the poem either as a record of a specific, now long-past bereavement (which would rob it of emotional potency), or else muddles the general applicability. What is particularly interesting, I think, is the way the careful formal patterning balances twinned elements throughout (the two-part lines; the doubled iteration of the name, the pairings of sceptered/divine; virtue/grace, sorrows/sigh) invites us to consider the connections between the ‘scepter’ in the first couplet, and the ‘(con)secrate’ of the last … in which the sepsis, the sick, half-echo. ‘Aylmer’ (and ‘avails’) flirts with ‘ailment’; as if the poem is trying to ask, what is it ails thee, Aylmer Rose?

Her father, the fourth Baron Aylmer, wasn’t quite so sceptered, for all his Charlemagnean lineage: he was an Irish peer, and never obtained a British peerage—a distinction of importance to polite nineteenth-century English society. Maybe one night of weeping is all she merits.

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