January 23, 2012

Dawson on O'Brien: time should not assail

Though born in Ireland, Fitz James O'Brien moved to the United States in the early 1850s and considered it his adopted home. He soon began contributing poems and short stories to various journals and newspapers, bringing him in association with the Bohemians in New York who frequented the famous literary/artistic circle at Pfaff's.

O'Brien's literary life was cut short by the American Civil War; his short stint in the Union Army ended with a mortal wound in 1862. A quarter century later, O'Brien was honored in a poem by Daniel Lewis Dawson. "Uncrowned" is dated January 23, 1887:

While the round sun forgets its noonday glare,
       And following after clouds the evening comes,
And sounds of city feet more fleetly fare
       To some kind haven, in the town of homes,
I stop to look along these shabby walls,
       And almost naked floor, I claim as mine.
No priceless hanging to the wainscot falls,
       No marvels painted out of oil divine
Look at this sad, worn, weary face with love.
       Only a rug or twain lies here or there,
And from its case peeps out a boxing-glove.
       I see the long black easel's horns still wear
My colors,—black and gold. Above the bed,
       Dusk Cleopatra foils the folded snake
That drives across her golden thigh its head,
       And the strange love-dreams in her eyes awake;
And on the other wall, Lucretia, slim,
       Beautiful, bare except of gauzy veil
That cannot hide the shapely breast and limb
       And those wild eyes that time should not assail.

The poem — thick with allusions to folklore, mythology, and history — is Dawson's response to a story O'Brien often told that he was descended from a heroic chief prophesied to rule the Ithians in Ireland for eternity. In "a ruined castle by an Irish sea," the speaker hears Cleena (queen of the Banshees in Irish folklore) is sad and "calling for her king." He alludes to the holder of the pen, a writer who follows Shakespeare, Morris, and Ovid as well as the Bible. This figure "serves" the Queen of Song, uncomplainingly compelled into the service of writing. But, he is destined for more:

Scant in her favor, but I serve her still;
       The measure of my toil is incomplete;
She drapes these bare walls at her fickle will,
       To fill me with her presence over-sweet.
Ah, mighty mother, I have drunk thy milk!
       I cannot turn me from thy service now.
A priest forever, robed in rag or silk,
       According to Melchisedec, my vow
Calls me to worship on the bended knee,
       And such Gregorian chanted melodies
Should rise upon a western slope to thee,
       As once, more virile, by the Grecian seas,
Saner and worthier than these weaker words,
       And fuller of the pictured thought of gods
Who dwelt 'mid trees, and watched the moving herds,
       And saw those nymphs divine on Delian sods,
Who loved, ah me! who loved in greater wise,
       With stronger bodies, in a fairer clime,
Beneath the beauty of Idalian skies
       And in the fair creation of a time.

Futile belike my toil, my theme, my song;
       Wasted my effort, incomplete my toil;
And in the turf cast with a larger throng,
       My works and I shall be Time's common spoil.
But on these western ways my days endure,
       And from yon castle ruined by the sea
The spirit warders of a life secure
       Call o'er the white waves, calling faithfully:
"Cease not, O kinsman, till the toil be done;
       Saint Kieran gave us rule for evermore;
Our names are now unknown beneath the sun;
       A barren sceptre in our hands we bore;
But you, you have not asked for land or power,
       Or gold, or much of love or anything,
And thus you gain the guerdon from this hour,
       That you, not we, henceforward shall be King."

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