The Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque, Part 8
A Few Notes about Poetry…
At the time of the publication of Dr. Syntax by William Combe, the form of iambic tetrameter was very popular.
Think of Byron’s She Walks in Beauty (1814):
“She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow’d to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.”
People were quite accustomed to reading verse with four beats to a line, though I seem to recall that iambic pentameter (five beats per line) was taught more in my lit classes…
Combe in Dr Syntax uses the AABB of rhyming couplets; Byron, above, used ABAB. Both are equally familiar.
I admit that when I read the lines of Dr. Syntax aloud, I unconsciously use a sing-song expression that make is sound a little childish — sort of like nursery rhymes , or “Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, Sugar is Sweet, and so are you.”
In any case, The Adventures of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque is poetry of a type that seems to lead to comic effects, just what the writer and publisher had in mind. Just as an example, here are the openings six lines from Canto 12. Can you read them aloud without sounding sing-song?
Excerpts from Canto XII
LIFE is a journey, — on we go,
Through many a scene of joy and woe:
Time flits along, and will not stay,
Nor let us linger on the way:
Like as a stream, whose varying course
Now rushes with impetuous force.
To pick up the story, we left Dr. Syntax with the Squire and his wife…singing songs. Eventually they retire and the next morning, Dr. S. explains his quest for scenes of the picturesque.
“‘No,’ he (Dr. S.) exclaim’d, ‘I must away: —
I have a splendid book to make.
To form a Tour — to paint a Lake;
And, by that well projected Tome,
To carry fame and money home…'”
The Squire insists on giving Dr. S. a letter of introduction to a noble friend, and Syntax, after three kisses from the Squire’s wife, resumes his journey, finally assured of his own fortune at last. When he arrives at the handsome home of Sir John, Syntax has more interest in his dinner than the Lord’s artworks.
Doctor Syntax with
My Lord — by Rowlandson
‘What think you, Doctor, of the show
Of pictures that around you glow?'”
‘I’ll by-and-by enjoy the treat;
But now, my Lord, I’d rather eat.'”
Despite the Doctor’s rudeness, the butler eventually conducts him to the cellar where he is invited to partake of the Lord’s beer.
“At length the potent liquor flows,
Which makes poor man forget his woes.
Syntax exclaim’d, ” Here’s Honour’s boast;-
The health of our most noble Host —
And let fair Devon crown the toast.”
The cups were cheer’d with loyal song;
But cups like these ne’er lasted long.
And Syntax stammer’d, “Do you see ?
Now I’m of this fam’d cellar free,
I wish I might be quickly led
T’ enjoy my freedom in a bed.”
He wish’d but once, and was obey’d,
And soon within a bed was laid,
Where, all the day’s strange business o’er,
He now was left to sleep and snore.”
Doctor Syntax Made Free of the Cellar — by Rowlandson
Excerpts from Canto XIII
Dr. Syntax has a night of dreaming he has been named a bishop…but is roused in the morning to breakfast with Sir John …but declines the invitation to hunt.
“Your sport, my Lord, I cannot take,
For I must go and hunt a lake;
And while you chase the flying deer,
I must fly off to Windermere,
Instead of hallooing to a fox,
I must catch echoes from the rocks;
With curious eye and active scent,
I on the Picturesque am
Dr. Syntax travels four days until he reaches Keswick
“Soon as the morn began to break.
Old Grizzle bore him to the Lake;
Along the banks he gravely pac’d.
And all its various beauties trac’d;
When, lo, a threat’ning storm appear d!
Phoebus the scene no. longer cheer’d;
The dark clouds sank on ev’ry hill;
The floating mists the valleys fill:
Nature, transform’d, began to low’r.
And threaten’d a tremendous show’r.”
Doctor Syntax Sketching the Lake — by Rowlandson
‘I love,’ he cried, ‘to hear the rattle,
When elements contend in battle;
For I insist, though some may flout it,
Who write about it, and about it.
That we the Picturesque may find
In thunder loud, or whistling wind:
And often, as I fully ween.
It may be heard as well as seen;
For, though a pencil cannot trace
A sound as it can paint a place,
The pen, in its poetic rage.
Can make it figure on the page.'”
Later, when Dr. Syntax and his horse Grizzle are thoroughly wet…
To that warm inn they quickly hied.
Where Syntax, by the fire-side,
Sat in the landlord’s garments clad,
But neither sorrowful nor sad:
Nor did he waste his hours away,
But gave his pencil all its play,
And trac’d the landscapes of the day.
Excerpts from Canto XIV
The next morning, Dr. Syntax meets up with a party of tourists with whom he discusses the nature of the picturesque and how the concept differs from the idea of the beauty of simple nature.
“‘The first, the middle, and the last.
In Picturesque, is bold contrast;
And painting has no nobler use
Than this grand object to produce.
Such is my thought, and I’ll pursue it ;
There’s an example — you shall view it.
Look at that tree; then take a glance
At its fine, bold protuberance ;
Behold those branches — how their shade
Is by the mass of light display’d :
Look at that light, and see how fine
The backward shadows make it shine :
The sombre clouds that spot the sky.
Make the blue vaulting twice as high;
And where the sun-beams warmly glow.
They make the hollow twice as low.
The Flemish painters all surpass
In making pictures smooth as glass :
In Cuyp’s best works there’s pretty painti
But the bold picturesque is wanting.'”
This satirical view of how nature is picturesque only in its exaggerated form is the message that William Combe, writer of Dr Syntax, was imparting — to make fun of those who extolled only the virtue of the twisted and grotesque.
Dr. Syntax Drawing After Nature — by Rowlandson
A Squire of the party of travelers invites Dr. Syntax to his home where he is ca;led upon to sketch his host’s fine cattle.
“The Doctor now, with genius big,
First drew a cow, and next a pig:
A sheep now on the paper passes.
And then he sketched a group of asses :
Nor did he fail to do his duty
In giving Grizzle all her beauty. …”
As is so frequent, Dr. Syntax ends his day with a fine meal:
“At length they to the house retreated.
And round the supper soon were seated ;
When the time quickly passed away.
And gay good-humour clos’d the day.”
End of Canto XIV
More Adventures of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque….coming soon.