Retrospection: On Lear’s Irish Sources Again

Earth has no green such as once it wore,
When my young life with love was crowned;
And the very breeze, thro’ the summer trees,
Comes with a ’plaining sound.

When I hear the glad shouts of revelry
To the bride in her bridal wreath,
I know not why, but she seemeth aye
Like a victim bound for death.

Once hope threw her spell around this heart,
Once genius made me proud;
I was not born to bear the scorn
Of the rude unmannered crowd.

Now, hope from my breast is a banished thing,
To the winds of my genius given;
And I long to rise, thro’ the cloudless skies,
To the sunlit isles of heaven.

O sweet may the flowers be in India’s bowers,
Where the bulbul tells her tale,
But sweeter to me is the moss-rose tree
That grows in my native vale.

Can I ever forget the oak they set
At the hour when I was born?
Or the bank whence I rolled, in the days of old,
To the well beside the thorn?

Methought I knelt on the grassy knoll
Where I never may kneel more,
And I prayed, and was blest with that holier rest
Whose halcyon reign is o’er.

And my mother watched me silently
With her gentle eye and brow:
O for an hour of such balmy power
To calm my spirit now!

Methought I roved with the dearly-loved
O’er her native hill of heath,
And I felt her hand give its pressure bland –
That hand now cold in death.

A fair girl was reading the Word of God –
My Sister! that form was thine;
And a deeper spell, as her accents fell,
Breathed over the sacred line.

O, earth has no green such as once it wore,
When my young life with love was crowned;
And the very breeze, thro’ the summer trees,
Comes with a ’plaining sound.

[ Fenton, George Livingstone.] “Retrospection.” In The Mahabaleshwar Hills, and Other Poems. By an Indian Chaplain.  For private circulation only. London: Provost and Co., [1876]. 34-35.

Mr. Q. – hopefully not a descendant of the cruel spy at the center of Luther Blissett’s novel of that title – kindly comments on a previous post of mine on the Irish sources of Edward Lear’s early picture stories, and convincingly suggests that the poem that sounded like Mangan’s to me – “A Dream,” in The Dublin University Magazine: A Literary and Political Journal. (Volume I, Issue 2. February 1833, p. 145) – might be by the more obscure George Livingstone [or Livingston] Fenton. Here is his comment in full, in case you are too lazy to click on the link above:

Hey, what an interesting post !- and there might be a solution to your puzzle over authorship.

It is true that Clarence Mangan made great numbers of oversettings from the German (some of genuine Teutonic provenance, others the result of his hood-winking his readers through “reverse plagiarism”); quite true as well that he translated Kerner, Schiller, Freiligrath and so on, and that many of these works comprising his well-regarded Anthologia Germanica were published serially in The Dublin University Magazine, a publication then associated with Trinity College Dublin — which is also called Dublin University.

However, the poem from 1833 shown above doesn’t feel like Mangan. It lacks the “intensity” which Yeats so prized in his compatriot’s verses.

Some time spent looking into the mystery just now has revealed a considerably altered version of “A Dream” published in London in 1876 under the title “Retrospection” in a volume modestly called, The Mahabuleshwar Hills, and Other Poems. By an Indian Chaplain. Therefore I believe the mawkish poem that Edward Lear was mocking was penned by George Livingstone Fenton, an English versifier and kinsman to the family of Staffordshire poets named Fenton (or sometimes, ffenton).

G. L. Fenton had attended Trinity College Dublin (where Mangan worked in the library). He later served as Anglican chaplain on the Bombay Ecclesiastical Establishment in India. What is presented in the Dub. U. Mag. Feb. 1833 as “A Dream” seems to contain much of the second half of “Retrospection”; but the line in the latter that reads “Methought I knelt on the grassy knoll”, for example, had done worse time as “I was kneeling again on the grassy knoll” in the poem “A Dream”; additionally, several distinguishing details are absent from “A Dream” — such phrases as “India’s bowers”, “the bulbul” and “the Word of God”.

If disinclined to conspiracies about “grassy knolls”, the pondering modern might assume that the good Reverend simply revised and Orientalised his own immature verse for inclusion —nostalgically dressed as “Retrospection”— in the later publication (“An obstacle that came between Him, and ourselves, and it”). Cheers, ~Q~

Further research reveals that Lear and Fenton must have known each other later in life as, after getting back from India in 1866, before Lear travelled there, Fenton was chaplain in San Remo 1869-1885; see Reilly, Catherine W. Mid-Victorian Poetry, 1860-1879: An Annotated Biobibliography. London: Mansell, 2000. 161.

Fenton was not very successful as a poet if even the Calcutta Review could open an article on his Weeds of Poesy (1860) ridiculing his sentimentality. It is so savage I cannot resist quoting the first paragraph in full:

We have had another addition to the Gallery of Indian Poets. G. L. F. is decidedly of the lackadaisical and sentimental school. He is in love with melancholy, and adopts as his motto, “The flower of my life is past. Led by a late-earned experience, I will renounce earthly things. I will weep and no longer sing.” He has wept to some effect—he has wept a whole volume of Weeds. These obnoxious vegetable productions were culled in the woodland rambles of G. L. F.’s early boyhood. “A few of them,” he tells us, have sprung up amid the thorns of youth and manhood.” Poor G. L. F. ! thorns were bad enough, but to be afflicted with weeds at the same time must have been unbearable, unless the weeds were of that kind which have the property of smoothing the thorny path of life, and calming the ruffled brain. This bouquet of thorns and weeds G. L. F. “casts on the waters, not of the great sea of the world” in case they should be lost altogether, but “of the narrower humbler rivulets of Friendship and of Love,” where he hopes some kind stranger passing by or whose house may be on the bank of the rivulet may pick them up and rescue them from oblivion. Some of them have floated our way, though we cannot be certain how they have reached us. They cannot have been borne along by the Hooghly, because that is scarcely a “narrow, humble rivulet,” nor can they have come up the river carried along in triumph by the lore, because they were never cast on the “great sea of the world.” However, the green bouquet is in our hands, and let us be thankful for it whatever way it may have come.
(“Weeds of Poesy, by G.L.F. Bombay, Smith Elder and Co. “The Calcutta Review, 35, September-December 1860, no. 72, December 1860. xix-xxiv.)

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5 Responses to Retrospection: On Lear’s Irish Sources Again

  1. Q says:

    Nicely followed up, Marco. Returning to Fenton’s damnable topographical feature known as the “grassy knoll”, I would merely point out that the line which follows “Methought I knelt on the grassy knoll” should read “Where I never may kneel more” – so without a double negative, even if it may seem to scan better as “no more” (compare p. 35 in linked source) –

    Likewise the first instance of “‘plainting” seen in line 4 above should read “‘plaining”.

    The review you unearthed is indeed priceless, and a necessary dash of vinegar midst all the melancholic treacle Fenton poured from out his breast, where Hope is truly “a banished thing”.

    All the best,


  2. Pingback: Edward Lear’s “Rich and rare were the gems she wore” | A Blog of Bosh

  3. Pingback: Irish Sources of Edward Lear's Early Picture Stories | A Blog of Bosh

  4. Pingback: Edward Lear and Thomas Rowlandson | A Blog of Bosh

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