Monday, January 07, 2008

proleptic Carlyle

So I was reading Thomas Carlyle's wonderful, endless review of Croker's edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson, and was arrested by the following passage (describing the penurious conditions under which the 18th-century writer often lived):

This was the epoch when an Otway could still die of hunger; not to speak of your innumerable Scrogginses, whom "the Muse found stretched beneath a rug," with "rusty grate unconscious of a fire," stocking-nightcap, sanded floor, and all the other escutcheons of the craft, time out of mind the heirlooms of Authorship. Scroggins, however, seems to have been but an idler...
Good Lord, thought I – how did Carlyle know, in 1831ish no less, what a lazybones I would turn out to be?

I was using a lovely, highly readable old Everyman edition, lamentably lacking any notes, so I had no immediate clue as to who this desperate ancestor of mine might be. A half-hour's Googling turned up nothing, save numerous references to the old ballad of "Giles Scroggins's Ghost." So in desperation I sent a message to the Scottish Language and Literature listserv, & within a day I had three separate answers.

Sly Carlyle, it turns out, is paraphrasing and quoting Oliver Goldsmith, an early, unfinished poem entitled (according to the Chadwick-Healey database) "Description of an Author's Bedchamber":
Where the Red Lion flaring o'er the way
Invites each passing stranger that can pay;
Where Calvert's butt and Parsons' black champagne
Regale the drabs and bloods of Drury-Lane;
There in a lonely room, from bailiffs snug,
The Muse found Scroggen stretched beneath a rug;
A window patched with paper lent a ray,
That dimly showed the state in which he lay;
The sanded floor that grits beneath the tread;
The humid wall with paltry pictures spread:
The royal game of goose was there in view,
And the twelve rules the royal martyr drew;
The Seasons framed with listing found a place,
And brave Prince William showed his lamp-black face:
The morn was cold, he views with keen desire
The rusty grate unconscious of a fire;
With beer and milk arrears the frieze was scored,
And five cracked teacups dressed the chimney board.
A nightcap decked his brows instead of bay,
A cap by night---a stocking all the day!
Washington Irving, in his Life of Oliver Goldsmith, quotes the passage as being from "Scroggin, A Mock-Heroic Poem" – note the crucial vowel shift from e to i. And how Irving's "Scroggin" becomes a proleptically defamatory "Scroggins" – well, only Thomas Carlyle's prophetic soul knows.
The second installment of John Latta's trawl thru The Poem of a Life is here. What, you don't have your own copy already, so that you can read along?


Amy said...

Did you ever see this, Mark?

Amy said...

That link didn't work, so just go here:
And type "Scroggins"
where it says "surname." :-)

brian salchert said...

I've read Latta's posts because
I've gotten into the habit of
reading his posts. Still, I
probably will buy the book,
though maybe I should read
Zukofsky's poems first.