I didn’t know William Makepeace Thackeray was a poet.
I knew he was a novelist of no small reputation—Vanity Fair and Catherine, anyone?—and a well-respected critic and satirist, that he wrote stories and articles for several publications like Punch and Fraser’s and established “snob” in our collective vocabularies, even though he looks like a man whose sense of humor was surgically removed at birth.
It really, really wasn’t.
Mr. Thackeray was brilliant, successful, famous and, like the rest of us, perhaps not completely happy: his wife suffered from what sounds like an acute case of post-natal depression,* and from what I’ve read, he worried that he was losing his wordcraft, especially near the end of his life,** which wasn’t, unfortunately, as long as his readers might have wished it to be.
But his stories and characters have lived as long as any writer could hope and will continue to do so. So there’s that.
I recently discovered—as in, last Tuesday—that he also wrote some terrific light verse with exactly the kind of unforced rhythms and unsaccarhined rhymes that makes me love the majority of Victorian poetry and almost forgive the rest.
At the risk of ruining the bittersweet ending of a one of my newfound favorite poems, I’d like to say that I’m absolutely certain that the Fanny mentioned in the last few verses is the name of a young lady and not the more common type that one might associate with chairs.***
So if you could all preserve a modicum of dignity as you read—and kindly forget that I noticed it first—I’m sure we would all appreciate it.
Personally, I think this sounds like the perfect place to dream up stories and write ’em down . . .
The Cane-Bottom’d Chair
(William Makepeace Thackeray)
In tattered old slippers that toast at the bars,
And a ragged old jacket perfumed with cigars,
Away from the world and its toils and its cares,
I’ve a snug little kingdom up four pair of stairs.
To mount to this realm is a toil, to be sure,
But the fire there is bright and the air rather pure;
And the view I behold on a sunshiny day
Is grand through the chimney-pots over the way.
This snug little chamber is cramm’d in all nooks
With worthless old nicknacks and silly old books,
And foolish old odds and foolish old ends,
Crack’d bargains from brokers, cheap keepsakes from friends.
Old armour, prints, pictures, pipes, china (all crack’d),
Old rickety tables, and chairs broken-backed;
A twopenny treasury, wondrous to see;
What matter? ’tis pleasant to you, friend, and me.
No better divan need the Sultan require,
Than the creaking old sofa that basks by the fire;
And ’tis wonderful, surely, what music you get
From the rickety, ramshackle, wheezy spinet.
That praying-rug came from a Turcoman’s camp;
By Tiber once twinkled that brazen old lamp;
A Mameluke fierce yonder dagger has drawn:
’Tis a murderous knife to toast muffins upon.
Long, long through the hours, and the night, and the chimes,
Here we talk of old books, and old friends, and old times;
As we sit in a fog made of rich Latakie
This chamber is pleasant to you, friend, and me.
But of all the cheap treasures that garnish my nest,
There’s one that I love and I cherish the best:
For the finest of couches that’s padded with hair
I never would change thee, my cane-bottom’d chair.
‘Tis a bandy-legg’d, high-shoulder’d, worm-eaten seat,
With a creaking old back, and twisted old feet;
But since the fair morning when Fanny sat there,
I bless thee and love thee, old cane-bottom’d chair.
If chairs have but feeling, in holding such charms,
A thrill must have pass’d through your wither’d old arms!
I look’d, and I long’d, and I wish’d in despair;
I wish’d myself turn’d to a cane-bottom’d chair.
It was but a moment she sate in this place,
She’d a scarf on her neck, and a smile on her face!
A smile on her face, and a rose in her hair,
And she sate there, and bloom’d in my cane-bottom’d chair.
And so I have valued my chair ever since,
Like the shrine of a saint, or the throne of a prince;
Saint Fanny, my patroness sweet I declare,
The queen of my heart and my cane-bottom’d chair.
When the candles burn low, and the company’s gone,
In the silence of night as I sit here alone—
I sit here alone, but we yet are a pair—
My Fanny I see in my cane-bottom’d chair.
She comes from the past and revists my room;
She looks as she then did, all beauty and bloom;
So smiling and tender, so fresh and so fair,
And yonder she sits in my cane-bottom’d chair.
Who needs John Donne?^
*Don’t quote me on that, it’s a guess based on a couple of articles and the supposed timing of her illness, which two of my sources say probably started after the birth of their third child, even though the other articles claim they only had two children. This might also explain her depression . . .
**Proving that while Writers’ Block may or may not actually exist—I refuse to attract its attention by offering an opinion. . . . oh, well, crap—it’s a rare writer who isn’t just a touch hypochondriacal over it.
***You may quote me on that, though I’m not sure why you would.
^Okay, yeah, who doesn’t? But this is really sweet . . . and Donne may be several things, often all at once, but sweet ain’t any of ’em.