Tuesday, April 17, 2018

When Last We Parted - Catherine Maria Fanshawe

When last we parted, thou wert young and fair,
How beautiful let fond remembrance say!
Alas! since then old time has stolen away
Full thirty years, leaving my temples bare.-
So has it perished like a thing of air,
The dream of love and youth! - now both are grey
Yet still remembering that delightful day,
Though time with his cold touch has blanched my hair,
Though I have suffered many years of pain
Since then, though I did never think to live
To hear that voice or see those eyes again,
I can a sad but cordial greeting give,
And for thy welfare breathe as warm a prayer-
As when I loved thee young and fair.

I often enjoy looking through the works of lesser known poets, not because I am looking for some magnificent poem that needs broader recognition, but because I like to have a more complete picture of what the typical poetry from a given period was.  Oftentimes, the names that dominate our view of a given time period were exemplars, or even exceptions to the styles and norms of the time.  So it is in researching Georgian era poetry (encompassing the earlier part of King George V's reign, starting 1865) that I came across Catherine Maria Fanshawe. 

Fanshawe herself should not strictly be considered a Georgian poet, though 1865 and 1876 are when the bulk of her works saw publication.  She lived from 1765 to 1834, and while a few of her poems were published in 1823, the majority of her works went unpublished until decades after her death.  She was born to one of King George III's courtiers, and her interests in poetry and art were encouraged by her family.  Most of her work was shared only with family and friends, which was not unusual at the time. 

With my interest in seeing what more typical poetry was like, Fanshawe seems like a perfect fit, and indeed, I am delighted with what I have read.  I do not mean to disparage Fanshawe's work at all my calling it typical.  Rather, I would say that her work typifies well the style that was in fashion at the time, much in the way that Haydn typifies the symphony as a musical form.  This poem is illustrative of the sonnet as a form, structured formally, and has a true emotional intimacy to it, while remaining vague enough to allow a reader to fit themselves into the poem.

We are presented with an unrequited love in the poem, one that has been lost for thirty years.  At the narrator and the subject's last meeting, "thou wert young and fair."  It is worth noting that the word "fond" in the second line, which we now think of as having an affectionate, positive connotation, in these times also carried more strongly the notion of foolishness.  So the line, "How beautiful let fond remembrance say!" does mean that it is a happy memory, but that she may feel somewhat foolish for thinking about it all these decades later.  In those decades, "time has stolen away" the color of her hair, and left her "temples bare" indicating a thinning of the hair.  So then her love had "perished like a thing of air."  The "dream of love and youth" are both grey.

Fanshawe goes on though, to say, "Yet still remembering that delightful day" she can "a sad but cordial greeting give."  In between those two ends of the thought, she describes all that changed between then and now.  Her hair has gone grey, she has suffered years of pain, and never thought to hear or see her love ever again, even with all that, she can still greet cordially, though it is tinged with pain.  And lastly, for her love's welfare, she can "breathe as warm a prayer - as when I loved thee young and fair."  Even with decades of heartbreak, her well-wishes are as strong and warm as they were thirty years ago.  It's beautiful and melancholic, and a perfectly executed sonnet. 

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