The Loves of Ophrys and Andrenus

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Where Simulations studied smile ensnares.
Anna Seward

I

Lichfield, from whose unlikely bosom came
So large a brood of Genius and Fame,
Drew others to their circle more than most
Centres of learning in that age could boast;
Where genius will break out no man can say,
And who would pick on Lichfield anyway?
Yet this unpromising Cathedral town
Fostered so many persons of renown
As changed the civilization of the West.
Such names as Darwin, Priestly, Watt attest,
Like Garrick, Wedgwood, Johnson in the arts,
That these were leading spirits and men of parts;
And, shadowed by the Ladies of the Vale,
Most gifted was the hero of my tale,
Darwin, that most extraordinary man,
Whose genius in so many channels ran,
Physician, chemist, poet, engineer,
Lover and naturalist, that this career
Seemed to denote a universal mind
Where all those varied talents were combined.
But, not to over-rate him, he was not
A technical inventor like James Watt,
A theorist to match his grandson who
Drove mankind out of Eden to the zoo,
A mediocre poet. Byron’s sneer
Though cruel, one must admit, was not unfair,
Writing of “flimsy Darwin’s pompous chime,
That mighty master of unmeaning rhyme.”
As for the lover, he was no Juan
But Cupid in the hide of Caliban.
“His figure vast and massive and his head,”
As waspish Mrs Schimmelpenninck said,
“Near buried in his shoulders, and on this big,
Gross body a ridiculous scratch wig.”
And yet, though no Adonis, he contrived
Throughout life to be mistressed and wived
And loved and universally admired
(‘Erasmus’ means ‘beloved’ or ‘desired’).
The head and front of this adoring train
And one who worshipped but, alas, in vain,
Was Anna Seward hailed by all report
As Swan of Lichfield where she held her court.
The peerless Swan, (though not to be unkind,
Love tempers laughter when she comes to mind)
Wrote copious verses almost from the first
And, though Papa, the Canon, frowned she nursed
A life-long dedication to the Muse.
Attested by contemporary reviews,
She had some reputation in her day
Which time has not supported, sad to say,
The literary vices of her time
She had absorbed: the Abstract, the Sublime,
The sentimental commonplace, the grace
Of ‘feathered tribe’ for birds and ‘finny race’
For ‘fish’, sententious, moralizing, flat
And virtuously superior at that,
‘Poetess’ in full meaning of the word:
Vapid, genteel, provincial and absurd;
Although few readers would prefer, god knows,
The unrelenting eloquence of her prose.
She ran a coterie, collected lace,
And showed to female writers just a trace
Of the queen-bee who will not leave alive
A single rival to her in the hive,
Something of that inexorable hate
Nursed towards the abysmal by the second-rate.
And yet she had, I own in her defence,
A loving nature and shrewd common sense.
Though she made foes, she found of friends no lack
Who loved yet laughed at her behind her back;
And though they praised her, praise sincerely meant,
As though in one encomium to present
Venus, the Graces and the Muse combined,
The truth is otherwise. I have in mind
Her portrait as it shows her in her prime
By one of the first artists of the time,
Painted by Tilly Kettle for whom she sat,
Aged nineteen years, horse-faced and rather fat.
For Cupid’s shafts, though she was out of luck,
The Swan of Lichfield was a sitting duck.
Alas, as she admitted from the start,
Nature had not equipped her for the part.
But Dr Darwin won her virgin heart.
When he appeared upon the Lichfield scene,
He was just twenty-five and she thirteen.
He supervised her studies, praised her verse
And told her father his was ‘rather worse’.
(The Canon, it appears, had tried to ban
His daughter’s poems. Darwin scotched his plan)
Till Anna burgeoned and surpassed papa—
What wonder if she loved him from afar!
Afar indeed; he was a married man.
Picture her agitation, if you can,
When some years later, his first wife having died,
The gates of expectation opened wide.
Unhappy Anna, her tardy swain instead
Took an attractive mistress to his bed
And, to make matters worse, till they were grown,
Brought up his bastard children with his own.
But worse still followed: The mistress pensioned off,
The doctor suffered a bad case of love;
With almost fifty winters at his back,
He took no medicine for his attack,
Broke out in feverish verse at every pore
And made his passion public, what is more.
Her husband, meantime, had discreetly died
And Darwin won the lady for his bride.
For Anna, nearly forty and unwed
This could have been the final blow, instead
She rallied, praised his poems and his designs;
But in a fictive poem she penned these lines
In which her heroine spurned, gives word for word,
Her own said case of love and hope deferred.

“Three wretched weeks my throbbing bosom hears
The wounding conflict of its various fears,
While Rumour’s voice inflames my grief and pride
And gives Eugenio to a wealthier bride.
My trembling hands, the sick suspense to ease,
From day to day the public records seize;
While glances, rapid as the meteor’s ray,
Eager amid the crowded columns stray;
Snatch at sad certainty from busy fame,
Yet dread to meet my dear Eugenio’s name.
Now glooms on the stained page the barbarous truth
And blights each blooming promise of my youth!
Eugenio married!—Anguish and despair
In every pompous killing letter glare.”

Poor Anna, in these high-flown lines I feel,
The words are artificial, the pain is real;
And, while I would not overstate the case,
She showed both courage, dignity and grace,
Admired his talents, praised them to the end
And, having resigned herself, remained his friend.

So much in fact, or based on fact; the rest
Is fiction, or a mere surmise at best.
Darwin the naturalist, about the year
Of his infatuation mentioned here,
Began a vast botanical romance,
A poem on the sexual lives of plants,
A floral Kama Sutra, just as full
Of text-book detail, but not quite as dull
As that pedantic catalogue. It may be
Because he had some gift for poetry
And had a saving sense of fun, and wit,
The doctor almost gets away with it.
Its charm, I think, absurd as it may seem,
Is that it puts the whole Linnean scheme
Of vegetable classes more or less
In amorous language and in pastoral dress.
In pastoral terms the floral goings on
Become so gross that Lichfield’s modest Swan
Could well have balked. She hailed it as sublime
And prophesied that it would outlast time.
Alas for prophets! it did not outlast
Even eighteenth century principles of taste.
But I, who like them, have long had in view
To see if I could write a pastoral too
Full of that elegant diction and sublime
Inanity which Sam Johnson at the time
Denounced with rotund, magisterial rage,
But I enjoy as emblems of the age.
And greatly daring I have fathered it
On Anna Seward’s Muse, though I admit
I could not hope to rise to heights like hers
Or match the genteel elegance of her verse.
All I have ventured in my own crude way
Is in the period’s common coin, to pay
A debt to nature and a debt to art,
Imagining Anna, with her broken heart,
Writing a pastoral fable such as mine
Based on Linnean system and design,
The fable of the orchid and the bee
Which always has, I own, enchanted me
Where nature in her most fantastic mood
Contrives a blossom by an insect wooed.
Darwin records the facts but gets them wrong,
She sets him right; but there’s an undersong,
A second fable beneath the first to stress
In pastoral terms the depth of her distress.

II

In the warm south, in whose propitious clime
The rose grows wild as rival to the thyme,
Year after year a metamorphosis
Recurs which Ovid might have claimed for his.
The facts of nature it records are true
If little known; the legend, though is new.
As for the moral, let him who will, discern,
Which some may profit by and all may learn.

Deaf to the gay allurements of the spring,
Its mating birds and insects on the wing,
Andrenus, an unhappy shepherd swain
Sits mourning for his love, but mourns in vain.
She, who from birth had been his promised bride
And bloomed and burgeoned lovely at his side,
Sharing his childish sports without pretence,
And mingling fellowship with innocence,
Shyly, with new desire embraced and kissed,
Till full consent obtained their amorous tryst,
—For ancient custom of their race decreed
That spousals sanctioned ratified the deed—
When ripening years fulfilled her nubile charms
Denied herself to his enraptured arms.
Whether her parents broke the plighted troth,
Or she herself had found new love, or both,
Or sudden sickness caused her to delay,
Or unforeseen disaster blocked the way
He could not tell, but knew (’twas all he knew).
His passion thwarted and his love untrue.
Prostrate, hollow of cheek and dull of eye,
His locks unkempt, his tuneful pipe laid by,
Forlorn, bereft, unmindful of his sheep,
What can he do but wring his hands and weep?

On the bare earth, where in despair he lies,
Ophrys, a sorceress, his grief espies;
Ophrys, who for Andrenus from the first
Had long an unrequited passion nursed.
Working by secret spells, she had in vain
Attempted to seduce the constant swain,
But had by subtler spells procured at last
A frozen sleep upon his love to cast.
Now while the nymph lies torpid on her bed,
The witch plans to enchant him in her stead
And, seeing him prone and guessing why he weeps,
By stealth through bent and briar and bush she creeps,
And closely stands unseen, agog to know
From his wild words the sources of his woe,
His expectations dashed, his loss confessed,
And desperate passion raging in his breast.

Not long she listens. Prompt to quit the spot,
She flies exultant to her gloomy grot,
Where herbs and simples from the walls are snatched
And unguents from their brass-bound chests unlatched.
Then next she strips her beauties to the skin,
Anoints herself, while muttered spells begin
A mystic change until, transmogrified
She stands before her glass, Andrenus’ bride.
Slowly she turns, surveying all her charms,
Andrena’s eyes, her hair, her breasts, her arms,
Andrena to the life! her voice, her smile
Her winning mien and glance devoid of guile,
Andrena all without in every part,
But not within, where beats false Ophrys’ heart.

That heart exulting, to the grove she flies
Where in his misery the shepherd lies
And, as she runs, she calls with well-feigned art:
“Andrenus, where art thou, my love, my heart?
Thine own Andrena, come at last, though late,
Shall share thy dear embrace, thy life, thy fate!”

He hears, he starts, he rises from the ground
And turns enraptured to the welcome sound.
Through brake and bush by force he makes his way,
Towards her voice; then makes a sudden stay.
There, as his eyes recall her last, she stands
And stretches to her love imploring hands.
But what is this?—(A false step of the witch)—
She stands before him bare, without a stitch!
Can this indeed be she, his modest bride?
Can virgin shame so soon be set aside?
Say, can his eyes deceive him? Yes, they do.
Crying, “Andrena, is it really you?”
He stands uncertain, sensing in the change
Something unnatural, something false and strange.
The wily sorceress, swift to make amends,
Now turns her error to promote her ends.
“My love, my life, say, what is this I see?
Are these the nuptials prepared for me?
It was foretold that, being already wed,
Nature herself should bring the bride to bed,
And here she bade me to expect my lord,
Fragrant and fervent on this flowery sward.
What do I find? An eager, radiant groom,
Thewed with youth’s pith and graced with manhood’s
bloom?
Where are the wreaths, the festal songs, the flame
That lights to love’s fulfilment? Ah, for shame!
Neglected, ragged, sordid, as you stand,
No bridegroom surely, but a man unmanned!”

At this the swain abashed, as well he might,
Trembling with love and dazzled with her sight,
In fear of loss, hearing such word as these,
Sinks down and sues for pardon on his knees.
The sorceress smiled and drew him to his feet:
“How can I chide the very hour we meet?
My own Andrenus and my only love
And hope deferred, what am I thinking of?
Set ceremony’s needless pomps aside;
Let nature sponsor and be love our guide!
Do off these ragged weeds, cease all alarms,
And come, sweet love, into my longing arms!”

Andrenus straightway all his doubts forsook;
In fervent clasp the specious maid he took.
She, no less willing, lays her on the sward
Which swells to meet her of its own accord.
His shepherd’s clouts in haste he flings aside
And flies incontinent to meet his bride.
Now is their consummation within reach.
Alas, the fatal gift of human speech,
Once uttered, ever useless to retract,
Destroys the spell, betrays him in the act.
Her triumph vanishes beyond recall;
His sweets, in prospect cherished, change to gall.
Scarce in their mutual embrace joined fast,
She sighs and whispers, “Ah, my love, at last!”
And he no less enraptured breathes, “Dear Heart,
Broke are the chains that kept us long apart.
None have I loved but thee, nor every could
For when I thought thee lost, another stood
To win my love; false Ophrys, whom I loathe,
Wooed me incessantly and would unclothe
Her unregarded beauties to my view
—Beauties indeed, though unreguarded too—
In open field or else in secret grove,
Hoping to win me from my faithful love.
But now at last, such figments to destroy,
My only, own Andrena I enjoy.”
The false Andrena, seeing her love still spurned,
With jealous rage and vengeful malice burned.
“Shall I,” she thinks, “my own undoing be?
Promote his love for her he thinks is me,
Only, when he is undeceived, to wait
For his rejection and redoubled hate?
Perish the thought! I shall re-weave the spell,
Revenge his settled spite, and triumph as well!”

The spell re-cast, she folds him to her breast.
Alas, he finds, though eager in the quest,
The gates of love are locked. The hapless swain
Strives for fulfilment but he strives in vain.
Nightmare ensues: the cheating vision flies;
Alone, frustrated in the grove he lies;
And, worst of all, now beckoning from the trees,
Andrena naked twenty-fold he sees.
Each way he flies, as all her shapes dislimn,
The mocking voice of Ophrys follows him.

There to his gods Andrenus makes his prayer
To be translated into earth or air.
The gods in pity, mindful of his plea,
Transform him to a solitary bee,
His tardy love, Andrena to the same
And Ophrys to the flower that bears her name.
Yearly their tale, with each returning spring,
They re-enact: Andrenus on the wing,
Before Andrena hatches, finds instead
The orchid Ophrys with her blooms out-spread,
Offering on every hillside, field and grove
A perfect simulacrum of his love.
He flies, he clasps, he strives in vain to mate,
Flies to another and repeats his fate.
While cunning Ophrys laughs, he spreads the dust
Of pollen and so consummates her lust.
But when her errands are done, the gods are kind,
Pity his love, since love they know is blind.
Once real Andrena hatches from her nest
He clasps at last his true-love to his breast.
Let him, who sang the Loves of Plants so well,
Accept these verses and the tale they tell:
The message it enfolds, too, let him heed,
Since love’s gloss even he who runs may read.

III

Erasmus, if he read her tale, at best
Was patronizing, kind but unimpressed.
My tale is done. I gaze into a fog
Where most plans go awry and dog eats dog,
Where massive talent and relentless will
Sometimes win through, but chance prevails, until
It seems the best and worst of human kind
Are those who plump for luck and travel blind.
Erasmus achieved little and lives today
Only for labours that prepared the way,
A prophet destined to be left behind,
A poet to whom his Muses proved unkind,
While Anna as midnight chimed from Custom’s clock
Turned from a prodigy to a laughing-stock.
We see them as they were, but cannot tell,
It Fortune failed them or their gifts as well
But in full measure each of them possessed
What in their century was counted best
And most contributes to immediate good:
Good Humour, common-sense and fortitude,
Augustan virtues on which all depend
In every age and need most in the end.

Anna enjoyed her day and her renown
And sensibly, since Darwin let her down,
Had the last word, as women often do,
And her revenge, a mild one it is true;
For, having out-lived him by six years or more,
She took her pen and evened up the score;
Thwarted in her ambition to be his wife,
She turned biographer and wrote his life.

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