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- Samuel Butler: A Sketch - 6/7 -
unsatisfactory. Evidently he did not come by his death fairly, but whether he was murdered secretly for the furtherance of some private ends, or publicly in a State sacrifice, I can't make out. I myself rather incline to the former opinion, but I should like to know what the experts say about it. A very nice, exciting little tale might be made out of it in the style of the police stories in 'All the rear Round' called "The Mystery of Mount Hor or What became of Aaron?" Don't forget to write to me.
Butler's people had been suggesting that he should try to earn money by writing in magazines, and Miss Savage was falling in with the idea and offering a practical suggestion. I do not find that he had anything to tell her about the death of Aaron. On 23rd March, 1880, she wrote:
Dear Mr. Butler: Read the subjoined poem of Wordsworth and let me know what you understand its meaning to be. Of course I have my opinion, which I think of communicating to the Wordsworth Society. You can belong to that Society for the small sum of 2/6 per annum. I think of joining because it is cheap.
"The subjoined poem" was the one beginning: "She dwelt among the untrodden ways," and Butler made this note on the letter:
To the foregoing letter I answered that I concluded Miss Savage meant to imply that Wordsworth had murdered Lucy in order to escape a prosecution for breach of promise.
Miss Savage to Butler.
2nd April, 1880: My dear Mr. Butler: I don't think you see all that I do in the poem, and I am afraid that the suggestion of a DARK SECRET in the poet's life is not so very obvious after all. I was hoping you would propose to devote yourself for a few months to reading the 'Excursion', his letters, &c., with a view to following up the clue, and I am disappointed though, to say the truth, the idea of a CRIME had not flashed upon me when I wrote to you. How well the works of GREAT men repay attention and study! But you, who know your Bible so well, how was it that you did not detect the plagiarism in the last verse? Just refer to the account of the disappearance of Aaron (I have not a Bible at hand, we want one sadly in the club) but I am sure that the words are identical [I cannot see what Miss Savage meant. 1901. S. B.] 'Cassell's Magazine' have offered a prize for setting the poem to music, and I fell to thinking how it could be treated musically, and so came to a right comprehension of it.
Although Butler, when editing Miss Savage's letters in 1901, could not see the resemblance between Wordsworth's poem and Numbers xx., he at once saw a strong likeness between Lucy and Moore's heroine whom he had been keeping in an accessible pigeon-hole of his memory ever since his letter about Miss Frances Power Cobbe. He now sent Lucy to keep her company and often spoke of the pair of them as probably the two most disagreeable young women in English literature--an opinion which he must have expressed to Miss Savage and with which I have no doubt she agreed.
In the spring of 1888, on his return from photographing the statues at Varallo, he found, to his disgust, that the authorities of the British Museum had removed Frost's 'Lives of Eminent Christians' from its accustomed shelf in the Reading Room. Soon afterwards Harry Quilter asked him to write for the 'Universal Review' and he responded with "Quis Desiderio . . . ?" In this essay he compares himself to Wordsworth and dwells on the points of resemblance between Lucy and the book of whose assistance he had now been deprived in a passage which echoes the opening of Chapter V of 'Ex Voto', where he points out the resemblances between Varallo and Jerusalem.
Early in 1888 the leading members of the Shrewsbury Archaeological Society asked Butler to write a memoir of his grandfather and of his father for their Quarterly Journal. This he undertook to do when he should have finished 'Ex Voto'. In December, 1888, his sisters, with the idea of helping him to write the memoir, gave him his grandfather's correspondence, which extended from 1790 to 1839. On looking over these very voluminous papers he became penetrated with an almost Chinese reverence for his ancestor and, after getting the Archaeological Society to absolve him from his promise to write the memoir, set about a full life of Dr. Butler, which was not published till 1896. The delay was caused partly by the immense quantity of documents he had to sift and digest, the number of people he had to consult, and the many letters he had to write, and partly by something that arose out of 'Narcissus', which we published in June, 1888.
Butler was not satisfied with having written only half of this work; he wanted it to have a successor, so that by adding his two halves together, he could say he had written a whole Handelian oratorio. While staying with his sisters at Shrewsbury with this idea in his mind, he casually took up a book by Alfred Ainger about Charles Lamb and therein stumbled upon something about the 'Odyssey'. It was years since he had looked at the poem, but, from what he remembered, he thought it might provide a suitable subject for musical treatment. He did not, however, want to put Dr. Butler aside, so I undertook to investigate. It is stated on the title-page of both 'Narcissus' and 'Ulysses' that the words were written and the music composed by both of us. As to the music, each piece bears the initials of the one who actually composed it. As to the words, it was necessary first to settle some general scheme and this, in the case of 'Narcissus', grew in the course of conversation. The scheme of 'Ulysses' was constructed in a more formal way and Butler had perhaps rather less to do with it. We were bound by the 'Odyssey', which is, of course, too long to be treated fully, and I selected incidents that attracted me and settled the order of the songs and choruses. For this purpose, as I out-Shakespeare Shakespeare in the smallness of my Greek, I used 'The Adventures of Ulysses' by Charles Lamb, which we should have known nothing about but for Ainger's book. Butler acquiesced in my proposals, but, when it came to the words themselves, he wrote practically all the libretto, as he had done in the case of 'Narcissus'; I did no more than suggest a few phrases and a few lines here and there.
We had sent 'Narcissus' for review to the papers, and, as a consequence, about this time, made the acquaintance of Mr. J. A. Fuller Maitland, then musical critic of the 'Times'; he introduced us to that learned musician William Smith Rockstro, under whom we studied medieval counterpoint while composing 'Ulysses'. We had already made some progress with it when it occurred to Butler that it would not take long and might, perhaps, be safer if he were to look at the original poem, just to make sure that Lamb had not misled me. Not having forgotten all his Greek, he bought a copy of the 'Odyssey' and was so fascinated by it that he could not put it down. When he came to the Phoeacian episode of Ulysses at Scheria he felt he must be reading the description of a real place and that something in the personality of the author was eluding him. For months he was puzzled, and, to help in clearing up the mystery, set about translating the poem. In August, 1891, he had preceded me to Chiavenna, and on a letter I wrote him, telling him when to expect me, he made this note:
It was during the few days that I was at Chiavenna (at the Hotel Grotta Crimee) that I hit upon the feminine authorship of the 'Odyssey'. I did not find out its having been written at Trapani till January, 1892.
He suspected that the authoress in describing both Scheria and Ithaca was drawing from her native country and searched on the Admiralty charts for the features enumerated in the poem; this led him to the conclusion that the country could only be Trapani, Mount Eryx, and the AEgadean Islands. As soon as he could after this discovery he went to Sicily to study the locality and found it in all respects suitable for his theory; indeed, it was astonishing how things kept turning up to support his view. It is all in his book 'The Authoress of the Odyssey', published in 1897 and dedicated to his friend Cavaliere Biagio Ingroja of Calatafimi.
His first visit to Sicily was in 1892, in August--a hot time of the year, but it was his custom to go abroad in the autumn. He returned to Sicily every year (except one), but latterly went in the spring. He made many friends all over the island, and after his death the people of Calatafimi called a street by his name, the Via Samuel Butler, "thus," as Ingroja wrote when he announced the event to me, "honouring a great man's memory, handing down his name to posterity, and doing homage to the friendly English nation." Besides showing that the 'Odyssey' was written by a woman in Sicily and translating the poem into English prose, he also translated the 'Iliad', and, in March, 1895, went to Greece and the Troad to see the country therein described, where he found nothing to cause him to disagree with the received theories.
It has been said of him in a general way that the fact of an opinion being commonly held was enough to make him profess the opposite. It was enough to make him examine the opinion for himself, when it affected any of the many subjects which interested him, and if, after giving it his best attention, he found it did not hold water, then no weight of authority could make him say that it did. This matter of the geography of the 'Iliad' is only one among many commonly received opinions which he examined for himself and found no reason to dispute; on these he considered it unnecessary to write.
It is characteristic of his passion for doing things thoroughly that he learnt nearly the whole of the 'Odyssey' and the 'Iliad' by heart. He had a Pickering copy of each poem, which he carried in his pocket and referred to in railway trains, both in England and Italy, when saying the poems over to himself. These two little books are now in the library of St. John's College, Cambridge. He was, however, disappointed to find that he could not retain more than a book or two at a time and that, on learning more, he forgot what he had learnt first; but he was about sixty at the time. Shakespeare's Sonnets, on which he published a book in 1899, gave him less trouble in this respect; he knew them all by heart, and also their order, and one consequence of this was that he wrote some sonnets in the Shakespearian form. He found this intimate knowledge of the poet's work more useful for his purpose than reading commentaries by those who are less familiar with it. "A commentary on a poem," he would say, "may be useful as material on which to form an estimate of the commentator, but the poem itself is the most important document you can consult, and it is impossible to know it too intimately if you want to form an opinion about it and its author."
It was always the author, the work of God, that interested him more than the book--the work of man; the painter more than the picture; the composer more than the music. "If a writer, a painter, or a musician makes me feel that he held those things to be lovable which
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