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?

3 comments:

Amy said...

Did you ever see this, Mark?
http://www.hrionline.ac.uk/luceneweb/hri3/hitlist_bailey.jsp?mode=bailey&table=name&surname=Scroggins&surname_type=exact&given=&alias=&occupation=&sin=&context=&gender=&min_month=00&min_year=&max_month=13&max_year=

Amy said...

That link didn't work, so just go here:
http://www.hrionline.ac.uk/oldbailey/search/name/
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.