THE FANCY: A Selection from the Poetical Remains of the late Peter Corcoran, of Gray's Inn, student at law. With a brief Memoir of his life. London: printed for Taylor & Hessey, Fleet Street. 1820.
The themes of the poets run in a very narrow channel. Since the old heroic times when the Homers and the Gunnlaugs sang of battle with the sleet of lances hurtling around them, a great calm has settled down upon Parnassus. Generation after generation pipes the same tune of love and Nature, of the liberal arts and the illiberal philosophies; the same imagery, the same metres, meander within the same polite margins of conventional subject. Ever and anon some one attempts to break out of the groove. In the eighteenth century they made a valiant effort to sing of The Art of Preserving Health, and of The Fleece and of The Sugar-Cane, but the innovators lie stranded, like cumbrous whales, on the shore of the ocean of Poesy. Flaubert's friend, Louis Bouilhet, made a inartful attempt to tune the stubborn lyre to music of the birthday of the world, to battles of the ichthyosaurus and the plesiosaurus, to loves of the mammoth and the mastodon. But the public would have none of it, though ensphered in faultless verso, and the poets fled back to their flames and darts, and to the primrose at the river's brim. There is, however, something pathetic, and something that pleasantly reminds us of the elasticity of the human intellect in these failures; and the book before us is an amusing example of such eccentric efforts to enlarge the sphere of the poetic activity.
This little volume is called The Fancy, and it does not appear to me certain that the virtuous American conscience know what that means. If the young ladies from Wells or Wellesley inquire ingenuously, "Tell us where is Fancy bred?" we should have to reply, with a jingle, In the fists, not in the head. The poet himself, in a fit of unusual candour, says:
Fancy's a term for every blackguardism,
though this is much too severe. But rats, and they who catch them, badgers, and they who bait them, cocks, and they who fight them, and, above all, men with fists, who professionally box with them, come under the category of the Fancy. This, then, is the theme which the poet before us, living under the genial sway of the First Gentleman of Europe, undertook to place beneath the special patronage of Apollo. The attractions, however, of The Learned Ring, set all other pleasures in the shade, and the name, Peter Corcoran, which is a pseudonym, is, I suppose, chosen merely because the initials are those of the then famous Pugilistic Club. The poet is, in short, the laureate of the P.C., and his book stands in the same relation to Boxiana that Campbell's lyrics do to Nelson's despatches. To understand the poet's position, we ought to be dressed as he was; we ought
to wear a tough drab coat
With large pearl buttons all afloat
Upon the waves of plush; to tie
A kerchief of the king-cup die
(White-spotted with a small bird's eye)
Around the neck,–and from the nape
Let fall an easy, fan-like cape,
and, in fact, to belong to that incredible company of Corinthian Tom and Jerry Hawthorn over whom Thackeray let fall so delightfully the elegiac tear.
Anthologies are not edited in a truly catholic spirit, or they would contain this very remarkable sonnet:
ON THE NONPAREIL
"None but himself can be his parallel."
With marble-coloured shoulders,–and keen eyes,
Protected by a forehead broad and white–
And hair cut close lest it impede the sight,
And clenchèd hands, firm, and of punishing size,–
Steadily held, or motion'd wary-wise
To hit or stop,–and kerchief too drawn tight
O'er the unyielding loins, to keep from flight
The inconstant wind, that all too often flies,–
The Nonpareil stands! Fame, whose bright eyes run o'er
With joy to see a Chicken of her own.
Dips her rich pen in claret, and writes down
Under the letter R, first on the score,
"Randall,–John,–Irish Parents,–age not known,–
Good with both hands, and only ten stone four!"
Be not too hard on this piece of barbarism, virtuous reader! Virtue is well revenged by the inevitable question! "Who was John Randall?" In 1820 it was said: "Of all the great men in this age, in poetry, philosophy, or pugilism, there is no one of such transcendent talent as Randall, no one who combines the finest natural powers with the most elegant and finished acquired ones." Now, if his memory be revived for a moment, this master of science, who doubled up an opponent as if he were plucking a flower, and whose presence turned Moulsey Hurst into an Olympia, is in danger of being confounded with the last couple of drunken Irishwomen who have torn out each other's hair in handfuls in some Whitechapel courtyard. The mighty have fallen, the stakes and ring are gone forever, and Virtue is avenged. The days of George IV. are so long, long gone past that a paradoxical creature may be forgiven for a sigh over the ashes of the glory of John Randall.
It is strange how much genuine poetry lingers in this odd collection of verses in praise of prizefighting. There are lines and phrases that recall Keats himself, though truly the tone of the book is robust enough to satisfy the most impassioned of Tory editors. As it happens, it was written by Keats's dearest friend, by John Hamilton Reynolds, whom the great poet mentions so affectionately in the latest of all his letters. Reynolds has been treated with scant consideration by the critics. His verses, I protest, are no whit less graceful or sparkling than those of his more eminent companions, Leigh Hunt and Barry Cornwall. His Garden of Florence is worthy of the friend of Keats. We have seen how his Peter Bell, which was Peter Bell the First, took the wind out of Shelley's satiric sails and fluttered the dove-cotes of the Lakeists. He was as smart as he could be, too clever to live, in fact, too light a weight for a grave age. In The Fancy, which Keats seems to refer to in a letter dated January 13th, 1820, Reynolds appears to have been inspired by Tom Moore's Tom Crib, but if so, he vastly improves on that rather vulgar original. He takes as his motto, with adroit impertinence, some lines of Wordsworth, and persuades us
nor need we blame the licensed joys,
Though false to Nature's quiet equipoise:
Frank are the sports, the stains are fugitive.
We can fancy the countenance of the Cumbrian sage at seeing his words thus nimbly adapted to be an apology for prize-fighting.
The poems are feigned to be the remains of one Peter Corcoran, student at law. A simple and pathetic memoir–which deserved to be as successful as that most felicitous of all such hoaxes, the life of the supposed Italian poet, Lorenzo Stecchetti–introduces us to the unfortunate young Irishman, who was innocently engaged to a charming lady, when, on a certain August afternoon, he strayed by chance into the Fives Court, witnessed a "sparring-exhibition" by two celebrated pugilists, and was thenceforth a lost character. From that moment nothing interested him except a favourite hit or a scientific parry, and his only topic of conversation became the noble art of self-defence. To his disgusted lady-love he took to writing eulogies of the Chicken and the Nonpareil. On one occasion he appeared before her with two black eyes, for he could not resist the temptation of taking part in the boxing, and "it is known that he has parried the difficult and ravaging hand of Randall himself." The attachment of the young lady had long been declining, and she took this opportunity of forbidding him her presence for the future. He felt this abandonment bitterly, but could not surrender the all-absorbing passion which was destroying him. He fell into a decline, and at last died "without a struggle, just after writing a sonnet to West-Country Dick."
The poems so ingeniously introduced consist of a kind of sporting opera called King Tims the First, which is the tragedy of an emigrant butcher; an epic fragment in ottava rima, called The Fields of Tothill, in which the author rambles on in the Byronic manner, and ceases, fatigued with his task, before he has begun to get his story under weigh; and miscellaneous pieces. Some of these latter are simply lyrical exercises, and must have been written in Peter Corcoran's earlier days. The most characteristic and the best deal, however, with the science of fisticuffs. Here are the lines sent by the poet to his mistress on the painful occasion which we have described above, "after a casual turn up":
Forgive me,–and never, oh, never again,
I'll cultivate light blue or brown inebriety;
I'll give up all chance of a fracture or sprain,
And part, worst of all, with Pierce Egan's society.
Forgive me,–and mufflers I'll carefully pull
O'er my knuckles hereafter, to make them, well-bred;
To mollify digs in the kidneys with wool,
And temper with leather a punch of the head.
And, Kate!–if you'll fib from your forehead that frown,
And spar with a lighter and prettier tone;–
I'll look,–if the swelling should ever go down,
And these eyes look again,–upon you, love, alone!
[Footnote 1: "Heavy brown with a dash of blue in it" was the fancy phrase for stout mixed with gin.]
[Footnote 2: The author of Boxiana and Life in London.]
It must be confessed that a less "fancy" vocabulary would here have shown a juster sense of Peter's position. Sometimes there is no burlesque intention apparent, but, in their curious way, the verses seem to express a genuine enthusiasm. It is neither to be expected nor to be feared that any one nowadays will seriously attempt to advocate the most barbarous of pastimes, and therefore, without conscientious scruples, we may venture to admit that these are very fine and very thrilling verses in their own unexampled class:
Oh, it is life! to see a proud
And dauntless man step, full of hopes,
Up to the P.C. stakes and ropes,
Throw in his hat, and with a spring
Get gallantly within the ring;
Eye the wide crowd, and walk awhile
Taking all cheerings with a smile;
To see him strip,–his well-trained form,
White, glowing, muscular, and warm,
All beautiful in conscious power,
Relaxed and quiet, till the hour;
His glossy and transparent frame,
In radiant plight to strive for fame!
To look upon the clean-shap'd limb
In silk and flannel clothèd trim;–
While round the waist the kerchief tied
Makes the flesh glow in richer pride.
'Tis more than life, to watch him hold
His hand forth, tremulous yet bold,
Over his second's, and to clasp
His rival's in a quiet grasp;
To watch the noble attitude
He takes,–the crowd in breathless mood,–
And then to see, with adamant start,
The muscles set,–and the great heart
Hurl a courageous, splendid light
Into the eye,–and then–the FIGHT.
This is like a lithograph out of one of Pierce Egan's books, only much more spirited and picturesque, and displaying a far higher and more Hellenic sense of the beauty of athletics. Reynolds' little volume, however, enjoyed no success. The genuine amateurs of the prize-ring did not appreciate being celebrated in good verses, and The Fancy has come to be one of the rarest of literary curiosities.