Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Prologue to The Patrician's Daughter

The last bit of Dickensiana here for a while; but this is a curiosity; a short poem that Dickens wrote and which I had not (before this morning) read before.  Early in 1842 Dickens read a play by an unknown young dramatist called John Westland Marston (1819-90), The Patrician’s Daughter, a Tragedy (staged later that year at Drury Lane by Dickens’s friend, Macready).  Dickens offered to write a verse prologue to help it on its way, an offer Macready gratefully accepted. The thing that particularly struck Dickens was the contemporary setting of the piece. Marston says in his own preface that the genesis of The Patrician’s Daughter was the precisely the attempt to stage tragedy as contemporary phenomenon.
He who would make his heroes his contemporaries, must also be prepared to dispense with many of the melo-dramatic effects incident to the earlier Drama. The display of the passions is now more subtle and less obvious than formerly; and their signs, while exciting deeper interest in the cultivated and thoughtful man, fail in their appeals to the gross apprehension.  Still the operation of human feelings in an intellectual era, must form a higher subject for delineation than that furnished by the ruder stages of their development. To limit to the past, the dramatic exhibition of our nature, is virtually to declare our nature itself radically altered. But, consider our Merchant when he returns from 'Change,—the Poet as he walks unnoted in our streets,—the calm demeanour of the agitated Diplomatist,—the smooth brow, and accustomed smile, of a regnant Beauty, while jealous rivals wound with courtesy, and torture selon les r├Ęgles. What suspense! what aspirations! what inward struggles! what subdued emotions! There is truly stuff for Tragedy in the age of civilization. [John Westland Marston, The Patrician’s Daughter, a Tragedy in Five Acts (1842), vi]
This, of course, is the whole of Dickens’s art; and the verse preface he wrote for Marston makes much of it:

No tale of streaming plumes and harness bright
Dwells on the poet's maiden harp to-night;
No trumpet's clamour and no battle's fire
Breathes in the trembling accents of his lyre;
Enough for him, if in his lowly strain
He wakes one household echo not in vain;
Enough for him, if in his boldest word
The beating heart of MAN be dimly heard.

Its solemn music which, like strains that sigh
Through charmed gardens, all who hearing die;
Its solemn music he does not pursue
To distant ages out of human view;
Nor listen to its wild and mournful chime
In the dead caverns on the shore of Time;
But musing with a calm and steady gaze
Before the crackling flames of living days,
He hears it whisper through the busy roar
Of what shall be and what has been before.

Awake the Present! Shall no scene display
The tragic passion of the passing day?
Is it with Man, as with some meaner things,
That out of death his single purpose springs?
Can his eventful life no moral teach
Until he be, for aye, beyond its reach?
Obscurely shall he suffer, act, and fade,
Dubb'd noble only by the sexton's spade?
Awake the Present! Though the steel-clad age
Find life alone within its storied page,
Iron is worn, at heart, by many still—
The tyrant Custom binds the serf-like will;
If the sharp rack, and screw, and chain be gone,
These later days have tortures of their own;
The guiltless writhe, while Guilt is stretch'd in sleep,
And Virtue lies, too often, dungeon deep.
Awake the Present! what the Past has sown
Be in its harvest garner'd, reap'd, and grown!

How pride breeds pride, and wrong engenders wrong,
Read in the volume Truth has held so long,
Assured that where life's flowers freshest blow,
The sharpest thorns and keenest briars grow,
How social usage has the pow'r to change
Good thoughts to evil; in its highest range
To cramp the noble soul, and turn to ruth
The kindling impulse of our glorious youth,
Crushing the spirit in its house of clay,
Learn from the lessons of the present day.
Not light its import and not poor its mien;
Yourselves the actors, and your homes the scene.

Dickens wanted to use that last line, shifted about to ‘Your homes the scene, yourselves the actors here’ as the epigraph to Martin Chuzzlewit (Forster persuaded him not to, thinking it too confrontational).

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