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Hans's Dating Career

More on the unknown country.

I should begin this week’s column by informing readers that I was quite mistaken when I reported that my old friend Hans was “dating.” Or, to be precise (as I ought to have been on the previous occasion), I, no doubt in common with most of my readers, was wrong in inferring from his use of the gerund that he was engaged in courtship.

Alas, the true object of Hans’s affections—his “dating,” as it were—is a manuscript. While I take a polite interest in my friend’s scholarly pursuits, I cannot pretend to know anything about the document or its provenance save that it is written in High German and that the first word I could identify amid the dense black letter was “Einhurn.”

So much for my powers of analysis. Still, I’m sure those of you who have followed the fortunes of this humble scholar will agree with me that it is pleasing to imagine the sort of woman who could stir Hans to worship at Venus’s altar. Would it be an aged bejeweled dowager of indeterminate European origins with a noble equine face but somewhat straitened circumstances?—an Abyssianian folk musician whose ancestor’s face was (he swore) the original of Coleridge’s damsel?—or in keeping with what I have always suspected are his polite burgher origins, perhaps a rather ordinary Saxon widow, buxom, a good pious Lutheran, thrifty, infinitely patient and kind with his idle enthusiasms and constitutional inability to earn a living? Each of these possibilities—or perhaps all them in succession—suggest a drama worthy of The Merry Wives of Windsor or of Uncle Toby’s courtship of Widow Wadman. . .

Anyway, in the course of informing me of my mistake Hans also asked me about the progress of my desultory researches concerning “the unknown country” identified by Belloc. After providing him a summary of the published version, he told me that it was hopelessly incomplete, and that I had given insufficient space to “colonial writers,” by which I took him to mean American literature. This, too, was a grave mistake, which I now seek to repair.

It would be tempting to say that in American literature (as Hans, who was testing me, knows all too well) the unknown country remains precisely that, or nearly so, but for Trumbull Stickney, who saw it as clearly as a photograph:

It’s autumn in the country I remember.

How warm a wind blew here about the ways!
And shadows on the hillside lay to slumber
During the long sun-sweetened summer-days.

It’s cold abroad the country I remember.

The swallows veering skimmed the golden grain
At midday with a wing aslant and limber;
And yellow cattle browsed upon the plain.

It’s empty down the country I remember.
I had a sister lovely in my sight:
Her hair was dark, her eyes were very sombre;

We sang together in the woods at night.

It’s lonely in the country I remember.
The babble of our children fills my ears,
And on our hearth I stare the perished ember

To flames that show all starry thro’ my tears.

It’s dark about the country I remember.
There are the mountains where I lived. The path
Is slushed with cattle-tracks and fallen timber,

The stumps are twisted by the tempests’ wrath.

But that I knew these places are my own,
I’d ask how came such wretchedness to cumber
The earth, and I to people it alone.

It rains across the country I remember.

One must also make allowance for Edward Arlington Robinson in his “Luke Havergal”:

No, there is not a dawn in eastern skies
To rift the fiery night that’s in your eyes;
But there, where western glooms are gathering,
The dark will end the dark, if anything

There is also Hart Crane:

Only in darkness is thy shadow clear

Wallace Stevens saw it, but thought it was beneath his dignity as a gentleman to visit too frequently:

It is a theatre floating through the clouds,
Itself a cloud, although of misted rock
And mountains running like water, wave on wave,

Through waves of light. It is of cloud transformed
To cloud transformed again, idly, the way
A season changes color to no end,

Except the lavishing of itself in change,
As light changes yellow into gold and gold
To its opal elements and fire's delight,

Splashed wide-wise because it likes magnificence
And the solemn pleasures of magnificent space
The cloud drifts idly through half-thought-of forms.

Among prose writers the record is (one must admit) somewhat barer. Faulkner, for example, on the rare occasions when he wrote English at all, made a mockery of it: his horse “galloping up the hill and right off into the high heaven of the world” is a corporate logo. H.P. Lovecraft of all people wrote of it, though it did not please the editors of the penny dreadfuls:

There came to that room wild streams of violet midnight glittering with dust of gold; vortices of dust and fire, swirling out of the ultimate spaces and heavy with perfumes from beyond the worlds. Opiate oceans poured there, litten by suns that the eye may never behold and having in their whirlpools strange dolphins and sea-nymphs of unrememberable deeps. Noiseless infinity eddied around the dreamer and wafted him away without even touching the body that leaned stiffly from the lonely window; and for days not counted in men’s calendars the tides of far spheres bare him gently to join the dreams for which he longed; the dreams that men have lost. And in the course of many cycles they tenderly left him sleeping on a green sunrise shore; a green shore fragrant with lotus-blossoms and starred by red camalotes.

In the well-known American writers of the post-war era it disappears entirely.

Of prose fiction considered more generally, everyone will agree that Defoe, Fielding, Richardson, Smollett, and Austen knew nothing whatever of the place. Readers of Dickens (you are all, I hope, readers of Dickens!) will have the impression that he saw it at least once, but on that occasion—the well-known revised ending of Great Expectations—it was because he had consulted Bulwer-Lytton. The Brontës wrote of little else but the unknown country in their surviving verses, but in books such as Wuthering Heights it goes almost unmentioned. Meanwhile a fine prospect is offered in those opening sentences of The Mill on the Floss:

A wide plain, where the broadening Floss hurries on between its green banks to the sea, and the loving tide, rushing to meet it, checks its passage with an impetuous embrace. On this mighty tide the black ships—laden with the fresh-scented fir-planks, with rounded sacks of oil-bearing seed, or with the dark glitter of coal—are borne along to the town of St Ogg’s, which shows its aged, fluted red roofs and the broad gables of its wharves between the low wooded hill and the river-brink, tingeing the water with a soft purple hue under the transient glance of this February sun. Far away on each hand stretch the rich pastures, and the patches of dark earth made ready for the seed of broad-leaved green crops, or touched already with the tint of the tender-bladed autumn-sown corn. There is a remnant still of last year’s golden clusters of beehive-ricks rising at intervals beyond the hedgerows; and everywhere the hedgerows are studded with trees; the distant ships seem to be lifting their masts and stretching their red-brown sails close among the branches of the spreading ash. Just by the red-roofed town the tributary Ripple flows with a lively current into the Floss. How lovely the little river is, with its dark changing wavelets! It seems to me like a living companion while I wander along the bank, and listen to its low, placid voice, as to the voice of one who is deaf and loving. I remember those large dipping willows. I remember the stone bridge.

Turgenev in his Sportsman’s Sketches (or at least in Mrs. Garnett’s version of them) begins there but returns home almost immediately, called away on business.

But to return to verse, which is more pleasant and requires shorter extracts, I had neglected to mention the odd case of Swinburne, who had frequently been but grew bored of the place, which lends an odd torpor to his descriptions. Yet all can be forgiven him for such lines as

In the month of the long decline of roses

I ought also to have mentioned the Rossettis, who had a passage through a garden wall that led directly to the unknown country, hence their writing of it as of an old man would of his childhood home. More credit should have been afforded to Spenser. He disapproved of the place, to be sure, but nevertheless wrote in an almost encyclopedic fashion of its manners and inhabitants, particularly its nuptial customs:

The Rosy Morne long since left Tithones bed,
All ready to her silver coche to clyme

For detailed precise knowledge—the sort from which atlases might be drawn—his only rival (as I mentioned before only in passing) is Drayton, now grown unfashionable, but who might be reckoned among its chief topographers:

This Pallace standeth in the Ayre

It is needless here to rehearse extracts from Homer and Virgil, who wrote direct from the place, or from medieval literature, where the unknown country was the common subject of nearly all writing done outside the schools.

Which brings me to my only remaining lacuna. I see now that I had said almost nothing of ecclesiastical writers or the writings of the saints. Thomas More thought he had heard of the place, but was mistaken and left us a sad, sour book as a record of his error. Newman made certain jottings in his Apologia and in some of his verses, and there are scattered references in his amusing letters. There is a single glimpse of it near the very beginning of Cardinal Ratzinger’s memoirs that will set agape the mouth of anyone who opens that curious book. That is about the whole of the record. But I am an ignorant fellow, and perhaps among the many books I have not read one can find descriptions, in gay and elegant Latin, by jowled cardinals, scribbling from the beds of their mistresses, of the unknown country.

This, I promise my readers, who are doubtless growing tired of the subject, is the conclusion of my survey. I cannot say that I share their weariness, for the unknown country so fascinates me that I could spend whole weeks talking and thinking of little else. One day I may well do so until I become mad, like Keats’s “pale-mouth’d prophet.” But for now I leave off.