“I, Jane Austen,” is written in a form
Called Rime Royal. A type of verse we may
Have known from English poetry’s early morn
Invented long ago in Chaucer’s day.
And how do we suppose it reads today?
Unfolding with smooth ease, so gracefully
Did Mary Corringham pen this obsequy.
The skilled, devoted poet has passed away
Even as her dearest Jane does gently rest,
But there remains a great deal more to say
About this pair of writers: good, and best.
Dare I be she who puts them to the test?
Alas; for when it comes to poetry,
I do not write at all intelligibly.
Attempting to achieve in this review,
The form of Rime Royal, laboriously,
Shows just how very hard it is to do,
Increases my respect immeasurably
For Ms. Corringham, mistress of A, B
Incorporates within her stylish rhyme
Jane Austen’s own words, and her wit sublime.
The above, though an inelegant example, is in classic Rime Royal form, a rhyme scheme of iambic pentameter in a pattern of A B A B B C C. In 1965, Mary Corringham, a journalist and poet born in England in 1906 but living in Australia, wrote a tribute to Jane Austen that is a tour de force in its graceful combination of flowing, unforced verse and lifelong familiarity with Austen’s works. Corringham received a major prize in a poetry competition conducted by the Australian Broadcasting Company, and the poem, published in book form in 1971, is now reissued.
Austen herself, as far as we know, never wrote in exact rime royal form; the second stanza of her early “Ode to Pity” comes closest, and might be called a variant. An inspection of Austen’s poetry in comparison with Cunningham’s work reveals differences rather than similarities. Writing to amuse her family and friends, Austen seldom seems to take her poetic efforts seriously, but makes literary jokes and teasingly celebrates family events. Corringham’s work does not copy Austen’s poetry but is, rather, a rendering of her prose into verse, producing an effect that is gently Austenian.
The poem is narrated as if observed by Austen after her death, and presents an image of Austen airily rejoicing and gossiping in Heaven. The first few stanzas rely on some of the old chestnuts among Austen’s quotes; dull elves and little bits of ivory abound, so that initially we dread the shopworn. Happily that impression is rapidly dispelled, and replaced by a sense that Austen is speaking to us in an easy manner. Biographical details and quotes are deftly mingled; Corringham shares with Henry Crawford the happy facility of lighting on just the right quote. And, as a bonus, we discover that the book in itself functions as a game of Identify the Quote, providing challenges to even the most erudite and fanatic Janeite.
The text is not intruded upon by footnotes or explanations; it is left for us to make our own connections, but there is a splendid Notes section at the end, showing which quotes appear in each stanza. References are not only to the novels and the Letters, but also to the Minor Works, family memoirs, and extracts from other authors ranging from Boswell to R. W. Chapman and Deirdre Le Faye.
Many works have attempted to bridge the gaps in Austen’s own Letters, but this light verse accomplishes the task by using that ingredient Austen herself might most have approved: imagination. Corringham does not labor under the burden of the last 30 years of burgeoning Austen scholarship; theories and interpretations, rival biographies and movie and TV versions, are all unknown to her. The poem is none the worse for this: it is a serenely sound, unhackneyed song, an individual celebration.
Corringham skilfully stirs our emotions with poignant lines and interpretations of her own, such as her evocation of Austen’s loss of Tom Lefroy (stanza 19, page 7):
However deeply we believe we care,
it was no creed of mine, and is not still—
as all my friends must surely be aware—
such sort of disappointments never kill.
Or she will seamlessly and smoothly restate an Austen quotation in verse (stanza 25, page 9):
Woman’s sole privilege is to love on,
longer than man, when every hope is gone.
Particularly moving are the stanzas dealing with Austen’s last illness:
In early spring of Eighteen-seventeen
the symptoms of my failing health increased
I think my people could not have foreseen
how soon from life I was to be released … (148, 50)
She finishes appropriately enough with a tribute to Chapman (162, page 54):
No writer had a more devoted friend:
I do believe he loved me to the end.
Diana Birchall is the author of Onoto Watanna: The Story of Winnifred Eaton (University of Illinois Press, 2001), the biography of the first Asian-American novelist; and In Defense of Mrs. Elton (Colorado, 1999) and other Austen pastiche. She is a story analyst at Warner Bros.
JASNA News v.18, no. 1, Spring 2002, p. 14
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