Poem of the Day: ‘Andromeda’

Kingsley’s 1852 poem flows and reads easily — the best of the longer attempts at classical meters by the indefatigable Victorians.

Wikimedia Commons
Domenico Guidi: 'Andromeda and the Sea Monster,' detail, 1694. Wikimedia Commons

Charles Kingsley (1819–1875) was the kind of energetic steam engine that the literary Victorians seemed to produce in droves. He was an Anglican priest with a touch of Thomas Arnold’s Muscular Christianity and a good portion of John Ruskin’s kind of Christian socialism. A chaplain to Queen Victoria, Regius professor of modern history at Cambridge, a canon of Westminster Abbey, and a board member of practically every working-man’s association in the nation, he still found time to pour out his writings.

“Alton Locke” (1849), for example, was his social-condition novel about England’s working classes. “Hereward the Wake” (1865), a faded but still excellent historical novel about the Saxons. “Westward Ho!” (1855), a classic boys’ adventure tale. “The Water-Babies” (1863), a standard children’s book. In an 1864 review of a history book, Kingsley (always an anti-Catholic) took a peculiar swipe at John Henry Newman, calling him a promoter of lies — which led to one of the great Victorian spats, extending through public letters and pamphlets, and culminating in Newman’s religious classic, “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” (1864).

And, like nearly every other of those Victorian power machines, Kingsley also produced poetry. “A Farewell” was once well known (if only for its line “Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever”), together with “The Last Buccaneer” and “The Sands of Dee.” But the best of his poetry may be his version of the ancient mythological tale of Perseus’ rescue of Andromeda from a sea monster.

As we opened this week of attempts at classical meters in English, we described the Victorian ideal of lining up the Latin quantity effect of long vowels with the stressed syllables of English prosody. Written in an accentual hexameter that comes relatively close in sound to that ideal, Kingsley’s “Andromeda” begins “Over the sea, past Crete, on the Syrian shore to the southward,” and moves through nearly 500 lines of superior narrative hexameter — six-foot lines mostly of dactyls and spondees.

These hexameters seem less awkward than those in Arthur Hugh Clough’s “The Bothie of Tober-Na-Vuolich” (1848), and less singsongy than the “This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks” of Longfellow’s Evangeline (1847). Kingsley’s 1852 poem flows and reads easily — the best of the longer attempts at classical meters by the indefatigable Victorians. For its Poem of the Day, here in a week of classical meters, the Sun offers the concluding lines of “Andromeda.”

a selection from ‘Andromeda’
by Charles Kingsley

Blissful, they turned them to go: but the fair-tressed Pallas Athené
Rose, like a pillar of tall white cloud, toward silver Olympus;
Far above ocean and shore, and the peaks of the isles and the mainland;
Where no frost nor storm is, in clear blue windless abysses,
High in the home of the summer, the seats of the happy Immortals,
Shrouded in keen deep blaze, unapproachable; there ever youthful
Hebé, Harmonié, and the daughter of Jove, Aphrodité,
Whirled in the white-linked dance with the gold-crowned Hours and the Graces,
Hand within hand, while clear piped Phœbe, queen of the woodlands.
All day long they rejoiced: but Athené still in her chamber
Bent herself over her loom, as the stars rang loud to her singing,
Chanting of order and right, and of foresight, warden of nations;
Chanting of labour and craft, and of wealth in the port and the garner;
Chanting of valour and fame, and the man who can fall with the foremost,
Fighting for children and wife, and the field which his father bequeathed him.
Sweetly and solemnly sang she, and planned new lessons for mortals:
Happy, who hearing obey her, the wise unsullied Athené.



With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by Joseph Bottum with the help of the North Carolina poet Sally Thomas, the Sun’s associate poetry editor. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems will be typically drawn from the lesser-known portion of the history of English verse. In the coming months we will be reaching out to contemporary poets for examples of current, primarily formalist work, to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul.

The New York Sun

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