Ode to the Great Unknown
'O breathe not his name!'
Thou Great Unknown!
I do not mean Eternity, nor Death,
That vast incog!
For I suppose thou hast a living breath,
Howbeit we know not from whose lungs 'tis blown,
Thou man of fog!
Parent of many children—child of none!
Nobody's daughter—but a parent still!
Still but an ostrich parent of a batch
Of orphan eggs,—left to the world to hatch
A vox and nothing more,—yet not Vauxhall;
A head in papers, yet without a curl!
Not the Invisible Girl!
No hand—but a handwriting on a wall—
A popular nonentity,
Still call'd the same,—without identity!
A lark, heard out of sight,—
A nothing shin'd upon,—invisibly bright,
'Dark with excess of light!'
Constable's literary John-a-nokes—
The real Scottish wizard—and not which,
Nobody—in a niche;
Every one's hoax!
Maybe Sir Walter Scott—
Why dost thou so conceal and puzzle curious folks?
Thou,—whom the second-sighted never saw,
The Master Fiction of fictitious history!
No mister in the world—and yet all mystery!
The 'tricksy spirit' of a Scotch Cock Lane—
A novel Junius puzzling the world's brain—
A man of Magic—yet no talisman!
A man of clair obscure—not he o' the moon!
A star—at noon.
A non-descriptus in a caravan,
A private—of no corps—a northern light
In a dark lantern,—Bogie in a crape—
A figure—but no shape;
A vizor—and no knight;
The real abstract hero of the age;
The staple Stranger of the stage;
A Some One made in every man's presumption,
Frankenstein's monster—but instinct with gumption;
Another strange state captive in the north,
Constable-guarded in an iron mask—
Still let me ask,
Hast thou no silver platter,
No door-plate, or no card—or some such matter,
To scrawl a name upon, and then cast forth?
Thou Scottish Barmecide, feeding the hunger
Of Curiosity with airy gammon!
Dealing it out like middle cut of salmon,
That people buy and can't make head or tail of it;
(Howbeit that puzzle never hurts the sale of it
Thou chief of authors mystic and abstractical,
That lay their proper bodies on the shelf—
Keeping thyself so truly to thyself,
Thou Zimmerman made practical!
Thou secret fountain of a Scottish style,
That, like the Nile,
Hideth its source wherever it is bred,
But still keeps disemboguing
Thro' such broad sandy mouths without a head!
Thou disembodied author—not yet dead,—
The whole world's literary Absentee!
Ah! wherefore hast thou fled,
Thou learned Nemo—wise to a degree,
Thou nameless captain of the nameless gang
That do—and inquests cannot say who did it!
Wert thou at Mrs. Donatty's death-pang?
Hast thou made gravy of Weare's watch—or hid it?
Hast thou a Blue-Beard chamber? Heaven forbid it!
I should be very loth to see thee hang!
I hope thou hast an alibi well plann'd,
An innocent, altho' an ink-black hand.
Tho' that hast newly turn'd thy private bolt on
The curiosity of all invaders—
I hope thou art merely closeted with Colton,
Who knows a little of the Holy Land,
Writing thy next new novel—The Crusaders!
Perhaps thou wert even born
To be Unknown.—Perhaps hung, some foggy morn,
At Captain Coram's charitable wicket,
Pinn'd to a ticket
That Fate had made illegible, foreseeing
The future great unmentionable being.—
Perhaps thou hast ridden
A scholar poor on St. Augustine's Back,
Like Chatterton, and found a dusty pack
Of Rowley novels in an old chest hidden;
A little hoard of clever simulation,
That took the town—and Constable has bidden
Some hundred pounds for a continuation—
To keep and clothe thee in genteel starvation.
I like thy Waverley—first of thy breeding;
I like its modest 'sixty years ago,'
As if it was not meant for ages' reading.
I don't like Ivanhoe,
Tho' Dymoke does—it makes him think of clattering
In iron overalls before the king
Secure from battering, to ladies flattering,
Tuning, his challenge to the gauntlet's ring—
Oh better far than all that anvil clang
It was to hear thee touch the famous string
Of Robin Hood's tough bow and make it twang,
Rousing him up, all verdant, with his clan,
Like Sagittarian Pan!
I like Guy Mannering—but not that sham son
Of Brown:—I like that literary Sampson,
Nine-tenths a Dyer, with a smack of Porson.
I like Dirk Hatteraick, that rough sea Orson
That slew the Gauger;
And Dandie Dinmont, like old Ursa Major;
And Merrilies, young Bertram's old defender,
That Scottish Witch of Endor,
That doom'd thy fame. She was the Witch, I take it,
To tell a great man's fortune—or to make it!
I like thy Antiquary. With his fit on,
He makes me think of Mr. Britton,
I like thy Antiquary. With Ins fit on,
It makes me think
Who has—or had—within his garden wall,
A miniature Stone Henge, so very small
That sparrows find it difficult to sit on;
And Dousterwivel, like Poyais' M'Gregor;
And Edie Ochiltree, that old Blue Beggar,
Painted so cleverly,
I think thou surely knowest Mrs. Beverly!
I like thy Barber—him that fir'd the Beacon—
But that's a tender subject now to speak on!
I like long-arm'd Rob Roy.—His very charms
Fashion'd him for renown!—In sad sincerity,
The man that robs or writes must have long arms,
If he's to hand his deeds down to posterity!
Witness Miss Biffin's posthumous prosperity,
Her poor brown crumpled mummy (nothing more)
Bearing the name she bore,
A thing Time's tooth is tempted to destroy!
But Roys can never die—why else, in verity,
Is Paris echoing with 'Vive le Roy'!
Aye, Rob shall live again, and deathless Di
Vernon, of course, shall often live again—
Whilst there's a stone in Newgate, or a chain,
Who can pass by
Nor feel the Thief's in prison and at hand?
There be Old Bailey Jarvies on the stand!
I like thy Landlord's Tales!—I like that Idol
Of love and Lammermoor—the blue-eyed maid
That led to church the mounted cavalcade,
And then pull'd up with such a bloody bridal!
Throwing equestrian Hymen on his haunches—
like the family (not silver) branches
That hold the tapers
To light the serious legend of Montrose.—
I like M'Aulay's second-sighted vapors,
As if he could not walk or talk alone,
Without the devil—or the Great Unknown,—
Dalgetty is the dearest of Ducrows!
I like St. Leonard's Lily—drench'd with dew!
I like thy Vision of the Covenanters,
That bloody-minded Grahame shot and slew.
I like the battle lost and won;
The hurly-burlys bravely done,
The warlike gallop and the warlike canters!
I like that girded chieftain of the ranters,
Ready to preach down heathens, or to grapple,
With one eye on his sword,
And one upon the Word,—
How he would cram the Caledonian Chapel!
I like stern Claverhouse, though he cloth dapple
His raven steed with blood of many a corse—
I like dear Mrs. Headrigg, that unravels
Her texts of scripture on a trotting horse—
She is so like Rae Wilson when he travels!
I like thy Kenilworth—but I'm not going
To take a Retrospective Re-Review
Of all thy dainty novels—merely showing
The old familiar faces of a few,
The question to renew,
How thou canst leave such deeds without a name,
Forego the unclaim'd Dividends of fame,
Forego the smiles of literary houris—
Mid-Lothian's trump, and Fife's shrill note of praise,
And all the Carse of Gowrie's,
When thou might'st have thy statue in Cromarty—
Or see thy image on Italian trays,
Betwixt Queen Caroline and Buonaparté,
Be painted by the Titian of R.A's,
Or vie in signboards with the Royal Guelph!
P'rhaps have thy bust set cheek by jowl with Homer's,
P'rhaps send out plaster proxies of thyself
To other Englands with Australian roamers—
Mayhap, in Literary Owhyhee
Displace the native wooden gods, or be
The china-Lar of a Canadian shelf!
It is not modesty that bids thee hide—
She never wastes her blushes out of sight:
It is not to invite
The world's decision, for thy fame is tried,—
And thy fair deeds are scatter'd far and wide,
Even royal heads are with thy readers reckon'd,—
From men in trencher caps to trencher scholars
In crimson collars,
And learned serjeants in the Forty-Second!
Whither by land or sea art thou not beckon'd?
Mayhap exported from the Frith of Forth,
Defying distance and its dim control;
Perhaps read about Stromness, and reckon'd worth
A brace of Miltons for capacious soul—
Perhaps studied in the whalers, further north,
And set above ten Shakspeares near the pole!
Oh, when thou writest by Aladdin's lamp,
With such a giant genius at command,
Forever at thy stamp,
To fill thy treasury from Fairy Land,
When haply thou might'st ask the pearly hand
Of some great British Vizier's eldest daughter,
Tho' princes sought her,
And lead her in procession hymeneal,
Oh, why dost thou remain a Beau Ideal!
Why stay, a ghost, on the Lethean Wharf,
Envelop'd in Scotch mist and gloomy fogs?
Why, but because thou art some puny Dwarf,
Some hopeless Imp, like Biquet with the Tuft,
Fearing, for all thy wit, to be rebuff'd,
Or bullied by our great reviewing Gogs?
What in this masquing age
Maketh Unknowns so many and so shy?
What but the critic's page?
One hath a cast, he hides from the world's eye;
Another hath a wen,—he won't show where;
A third has sandy hair,
A hunch upon his back, or legs awry,
Things for a vile reviewer to espy!
Another hath a mangel-wurzel nose,—
Finally, this is dimpled,
Like a pale crumpet face, or that is pimpled,
Things for a monthly critic to expose—
Nay, what is thy own case—that being small,
Thou choosest to be nobody at all!
Well, thou art prudent, with such puny bones—
E'en like Elshender, the mysterious elf,
That shadowy revelation of thyself—
To build thee a small hut of haunted stones—
For certainly the first pernicious man
That ever saw thee, would quickly draw thee
In some vile literary caravan—
Shown for a shilling
Would be thy killing,
Think of Crachami's miserable span!
No tinier frame the tiny spark could dwell in
Than there it fell in—
But when she felt herself a show, she tried
To shrink from the world's eye, poor dwarf! and died!
O since it was thy fortune to be born
A dwarf on some Scotch Inch, and then to flinch
From all the Gog-like jostle of great men,
Still with thy small crow pen
Amuse and charm thy lonely hours forlorn—
Still Scottish story daintily adorn,
Be still a shade—and when this age is fled,
When we poor sons and daughters of reality
Are in our graves forgotten and quite dead,
And Time destroys our mottoes of morality—
The lithographic hand of Old Mortality
Shall still restore thy emblem on the stone,
A featureless death's head,
And rob Oblivion ev'n of the Unknown!
Thomas Hood's Other Poems
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