The Improvisatore - Or, `John Anderson, My Jo, John'

A poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Scene - A spacious drawing-room, with music-room adjoining.

Katharine. What are the words?

Eliza. Ask our friend, the Improvisatore; here he comes. Kate has a favour to ask of you, Sir; it is that you will repeat the ballad [Believe me if all those endearing young charms. - EHC's ? note] that Mr. ____ sang so sweetly.
Friend. It is in Moore's Irish Melodies; but I do not recollect the words distinctly. The moral of them, however, I take to be this:

Love would remain the same if true,
When we were neither young nor new;
Yea, and in all within the will that came,
By the same proofs would show itself the same.

Eliza. What are the lines you repeated from Beaumont and Fletcher, which my mother admired so much? It begins with something about two vines so close that their tendrils intermingle.
Friend. You mean Charles' speech to Angelina, in The Elder Brother.

We'll live together, like two neighbour vines,
Circling our souls and loves in one another!
We'll spring together, and we'll bear one fruit;
One joy shall make us smile, and one grief mourn;
One age go with us, and one hour of death
Shall close our eyes, and one grave make us happy.

Katharine. A precious boon, that would go far to reconcile one to old age--this love, if true! But is there any such true love?
Friend. I hope so.
Katharine. But do you believe it?

Eliza (eagerly). I am sure he does.
Friend. From a man turned of fifty, Katharine, I imagine, expects a less confident answer.
Katharine. A more sincere one, perhaps.
Friend. Even though he should have obtained the nick-name of Improvisatore, by perpetrating charades and extempore verses at Christmas times?
Eliza. Nay, but be serious.
Friend. Serious! Doubtless. A grave personage of my years giving a Love-lecture to two young ladies, cannot well be otherwise. The difficulty, I suspect, would be for them to remain so. It will be asked whether I am not the `elderly gentleman' who sate `despairing beside a clear stream', with a willow for his wig-block.
Eliza. Say another word, and we will call it downright affectation.

Katharine. No! we will be affronted, drop a courtesy, and ask pardon for our presumption in expecting that Mr. ___ would waste his sense on two insignificant girls.
Friend. Well, well, I will be serious. Hem! Now then commences the discourse; Mr. Moore's song being the text. Love, as distinguished from Friendship, on the one hand, and from the passion that too often usurps its name, on the other
Lucius (Eliza's brother, who had just joined the trio, in a whisper to the Friend). But is not Love the union of both?
Friend (aside to Lucius). He never loved who thinks so.
Eliza. Brother, we don't want you. There! Mrs. H. cannot arrange the flower vase without you. Thank you, Mrs. Hartman.

Lucius. I'll have my revenge! I know what I will say!

Eliza. Off! Off! Now, dear Sir, Love, you were saying
Friend. Hush! Preaching, you mean, Eliza.
Eliza (impatiently). Pshaw!
Friend. Well then, I was saying that Love, truly such, is itself not the most common thing in the world : and that mutual love still less so. But that enduring personal attachment, so beautifully delineated by Erin's sweet melodist, and still more touchingly, perhaps, in the well-known ballad, `John Anderson, my Jo, John,' in addition to a depth and constancy of character of no every-day occurrence, supposes a peculiar sensibility and tenderness of nature; a constitutional communicativeness and utterancy of heart and soul; a delight in the detail of sympathy, in the outward and visible signs of the sacrament within, to count, as it were, the pulses of the life of love. But above all, it supposes a soul which, even in the pride and summer-tide of life, even in the lustihood of health and strength, had felt oftenest and prized highest that which age cannot take away and which, in all our lovings, is the Love;
Eliza. There is something here (pointing to her heart) that seems to understand you, but wants the word that would make it understand itself.

Katharine. I, too, seem to feel what you mean. Interpret the feeling for us.
Friend. - I mean that willing sense of the insufficingness of the self for itself, which predisposes a generous nature to see, in the total being of another, the supplement and completion of its own; -that quiet perpetual seeking which the presence of the beloved object modulates, not suspends, where the heart momently finds, and, finding, again seeks on; - lastly, when `life's changeful orb has pass'd the full', a confirmed faith in the nobleness of humanity, thus brought home and pressed, as it were, to the very bosom of hourly experience; it supposes, I say, a heartfelt reverence for worth, not the less deep because divested of its solemnity by habit, by familiarity, by mutual infirmities, and even by a feeling of modesty which will arise in delicate minds, when they are conscious of possessing the same or the correspondent excellence in their own characters. In short, there must be a mind, which, while it feels the beautiful and the excellent in the beloved as its own, and by right of love appropriates it, can call Goodness its Playfellow ; and dares make sport of time and infirmity, while, in the person of a thousand-foldly endeared partner, we feel for aged Virtue the caressing fondness that belongs to the Innocence of childhood, and repeat the same attentions and tender courtesies which had been dictated by the same affection to the same object when attired in feminine loveliness or in manly beauty.
Eliza. What a soothing - what an elevating idea!

Katharine. If it be not only an idea.
Friend. At all events, these qualities which I have enumerated, are rarely found united in a single individual. How much more rare must it be, that two such individuals should meet together in this wide world under circumstances that admit of their union as Husband and Wife. A person may be highly estimable on the whole, nay, amiable as a neighbour, friend, housemate, in short, in all the concentric circles of attachment save only the last and inmost; and yet from how many causes be estranged from the highest perfection in this! Pride, coldness, or fastidiousness of nature, worldly cares, an anxious or ambitious disposition, a passion for display, a sullen temper, one or the other--too often proves `the dead fly in the compost of spices', and any one is enough to unfit it for the precious balm of unction. For some mighty good sort of people, too, there is not seldom a sort of solemn saturnine, or, if you will, ursine vanity, that keeps itself alive by sucking the paws of its own self-importance. And as this high sense, or rather sensation of their own value is, for the most part, grounded on negative qualities, so they have no better means of preserving the same but by negatives - that is, but not doing or saying any thing, that might be put down for fond, silly, or nonsensical; - or, (to use their own phrase) by never forgetting themselves, which some of their acquaintance are uncharitable enough to think the most worthless object they could be employed in remembering.
Eliza (in answer to a whisper from Katharine). To a hair! He must have sate for it himself. Save me from such folks! But they are out of the question.
Friend. True! but the same effect is produced in thousands by the too general insensibility to a very important truth; this, namely, that the MISERY of human life is made up of large masses, each separated from the other by certain intervals. One year, the death of a child; years after, a failure in trade; after another longer or shorter interval, a daughter may have married unhappily; - in all but the singularly unfortunate, the integral parts that compose the sum total of the unhappiness of a man's life, are easily counted, and distinctly remembered. The HAPPINESS of life, on the contrary, is made up of minute fractions, the little, soon-forgotten charities of a kiss, a smile, a kind look, a heartfelt compliment in the disguise of a playful raillery, and the countless other infinitesimals of pleasurable thought and genial feeling.
Katharine. Well, Sir; you have said quite enough to make me despair of finding a `John Anderson, my Jo, John', with whom to totter down the hill of life.
Friend. Not so! Good men are not, I trust, so much scarcer than good women, but that what another would find in you, you may hope to find in another. But well, however, may that boon be rare, the possession of which would be more than an adequate reward for the rarest virtue.
Eliza. Surely, he, who has described it so well, must have possessed it?
Friend. If he were worthy to have possessed it, and had believingly anticipated and not found it, how bitter the disappointment!

(Then, after a pause of a few minutes),

ANSWER, ex improviso

Yes, yes! that boon, life's richest treat
He had, or fancied that he had;
Say, 'twas but in his own conceit
The fancy made him glad!
Crown of his cup, and garnish of his dish!
The boon, prefigured in his earliest wish,
The fair fulfilment of his poesy,
When his young heart first yearn'd for sympathy!
But e'en the meteor offspring of the brain
Unnourished wane;
Faith asks her daily bread,
And Fancy must be fed !
Now so it chanced, from wet or dry,
It boots not how, I know not why,
She missed her wonted food; and quickly
Poor Fancy stagger'd and grew sickly.
Then came a restless state, 'twixt yea and nay,
His faith was fix'd, his heart all ebb and flow;
Or like a bark, in some half-shelter'd bay,
Above its anchor driving to and fro.

That boon, which but to have possess'd
In a belief, gave life a zest
Uncertain both what it had been,
And if by error lost, or luck;
And what is was; an evergreen
Which some insidious blight had struck,
Or annual flower, which, past its blow,
No vernal spell shall e'er revive;
Uncertain, and afraid to know,
Doubts toss'd him to and fro:
Hope keeping Love, Love Hope alive,
Like babes bewildered in a snow,
That cling and huddle from the cold
In hollow tree or ruin'd fold.

Those sparkling colours, once his boast
Fading, one by one away,
Thin and hueless as a ghost,
Poor Fancy on her sick bed lay;
Ill at distance, worse when near,
Telling her dreams to jealous Fear!
Where was it then, the sociable sprite,
That crown'd the Poet's cup and deck'd his dish!
Poor shadow cast from an unsteady wish,
Itself a substance by no other right
But that it intercepted Reason's light;
It dimm'd his eye, it darken'd on his brow,
A peevish mood, a tedious time, I trow!
Thank Heaven! 'tis not so now.
O bliss of blissful hours!
The boon of Heaven's decreeing,
While yet in Eden's bowers
Dwelt the first husband and his sinless mate!
The one sweet plant, which, piteous Heaven agreeing,
They bore with them thro' Eden's closing gate!
Of life's gay summer tide the sovran Rose!
Late autumn's Amaranth, that more fragrant blows
When Passion's flowers all fall or fade;
If this were ever his, in outward being,
Or but his own true love's projected shade,
Now that at length by certain proof he knows,
That whether real or a magic show,
Whate'er it was, it is no longer so;
Though heart be lonesome, Hope laid low,
Yet, Lady! deem him not unblest:
The certainty that struck Hope dead,
Hath left Contentment in her stead:
And that is next to Best!

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