Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Poplar Field

In Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, Mr. Rushworth takes the Bertrams, Crawfords, and Fanny Price to visit his magnificent country home, Sotherton, for which he has various plans of improvement. One thing that has to go, he says, is the long, tree-lined avenue leading up to the house. Hearing of the plan to cut down the trees, Fanny murmurs to Edmund: "Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does not it make you think of Cowper? 'Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.'" Fanny is old-fashioned, and likes things—landscapes, morals, relationships—to remain in their "old state." Unfortunately for Fanny, things don't remain as one imagines or remembers them to be. Perhaps readers are disappointed with Mansfield Park (a favorite of mine, but of almost no one else) because it's a novel about disappointment—about the failure of people and places to live up to one's expectations.

I've written a little about this subject in my guest blogger post on AustenBlog back in June 2007. I'll probably have more to say on Thursday evening, April 16, 2009, when I will present an illustrated talk at the Northfield Public Library, titled "Finding Jane: A Tour of Some English Literary Places."

The line Fanny quotes is from Cowper's long poem The Task. Here's a shorter poem on the same theme.

William Cowper
The Poplar-Field

THE poplars are fell'd, farewell to the shade
And the whispering sound of the cool colonnade,
The winds play no longer, and sing in the leaves,
Nor Ouse on his bosom their image receives.

Twelve years have elaps'd since I first took a view
Of my favourite field and the bank where they grew,
And now in the grass behold they are laid,
And the tree is my seat that once lent me a shade.

The blackbird has fled to another retreat
Where the hazels afford him a screen from the heat,
And the scene where his melody charm'd me before,
Resounds with his sweet-flowing ditty no more.

My fugitive years are all hasting away,
And I must ere long lie as lowly as they,
With a turf on my breast, and a stone at my head,
Ere another such grove shall arise in its stead.

'Tis a sight to engage me, if any thing can,
To muse on the perishing pleasures of man;
Though his life be a dream, his enjoyments, I see,
Have a being less durable even than he.

2 comments:

Mary S. said...

Rob: I am marking my calendar for your talk! Sounds great. If you have not seen it, there's a new book on the gardens of Jane Austen, written by a Wisconsin writer.

Jim H. said...

"My fugitive years are all hasting away..."

Great line. I like the balance Cowper strikes between wistfulness and melancholy. A shrug and a sigh and a smile.

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