Etching Moralised. To A Noble Lady.

A poem by Thomas Hood

"To point a moral." - JOHNSON.

Fairest Lady and Noble, for once on a time,
Condescend to accept, in the humblest of rhyme,
And a style more of Gay than of Milton,
A few opportune verses design'd to impart
Some didactical hints in a Needlework Art,
Not described by the Countess of Wilton.

An Art not unknown to the delicate hand
Of the fairest and first in this insular land,
But in Patronage Royal delighting;
And which now your own feminine fantasy wins,
Tho' it scarce seems a lady-like work, that begins
In a scratching and ends in a biting!

Yet oh! that the dames of the Scandalous School
Would but use the same acid, and sharp-pointed tool,
That are plied in the said operations -
Oh! would that our Candours on copper would sketch!
For the first of all things in begining to etch
Are - good grounds for our representations.

Those protective and delicate coatings of wax,
Which are meant to resist the corrosive attacks
That would ruin the copper completely;
Thin cerements which whoso remembers the Bee
So applauded by Watts, the divine LL.D.,
Will be careful to spread very neatly.

For why? like some intricate deed of the law,
Should the ground in the process be left with a flaw,
Aqua-fortis is far from a joker;
And attacking the part that no coating protects,
Will turn out as distressing to all your effects
As a landlord who puts in a broker.

Then carefully spread the conservative stuff,
Until all the bright metal is cover'd enough,
To repel a destructive so active;
For in Etching, as well as in Morals, pray note
That a little raw spot, or a hole in a coat,
Your ascetics find vastly attractive.

Thus the ground being laid, very even and flat,
And then smoked with a taper, till black as a hat,
Still from future disasters to screen it,
Just allow me, by way of precaution, to state,
You must hinder the footman from changing your plate,
Nor yet suffer the butler to clean it.

Nay, the housemaid, perchance, in her passion to scrub,
May suppose the dull metal in want of a rub,
Like the Shield which Swift's readers remember -
Not to mention the chance of some other mishaps,
Such as having your copper made up into caps
To be worn on the First of September.

But aloof from all damage by Betty or John,
You secure the veil'd surface, and trace thereupon
The design you conceive the most proper:
Yet gently, and not with a needle too keen,
Lest it pierce to the wax through the paper between,
And of course play Old Scratch with the copper.

So in worldly affairs, the sharp-practising man
Is not always the one who succeeds in his plan,
Witness Shylock's judicial exposure;
Who, as keen as his knife, yet with agony found,
That while urging his point he was losing his ground,
And incurring a fatal disclosure.

But, perhaps, without tracing at all, you may choose
To indulge in some little extempore views,
Like the older artistical people;
For example, a Corydon playing his pipe,
In a Low Country marsh, with a Cow, after Cuyp,
And a Goat skipping over a steeple.

A wild Deer at a rivulet taking a sup,
With a couple of Pillars put in to fill up,
Like the columns of certain diurnals;
Or a very brisk sea, in a very stiff gale,
And a very Dutch boat, with a very big sail -
Or a bevy of Retzsch Infernals.

Architectural study - or rich Arabesque -
Allegorical dream - or a view picturesque,
Near to Naples, or Venice, or Florence;
Or "as harmless as lambs and as gentle as doves,"
A sweet family cluster of plump little Loves,
Like the Children by Reynolds or Lawrence.

But whatever the subject, your exquisite taste
Will ensure a design very charming and chaste,
Like yourself, full of nature and beauty -
Yet besides the good points you already reveal,
You will need a few others - of well-temper'd steel,
And especially form'd for the duty.

For suppose that the tool be imperfectly set,
Over many weak lengths in your line you will fret,
Like a pupil of Walton and Cotton,
Who remains by the brink of the water, agape,
While the jack, trout, or barbel effects its escape
Thro' the gut or silk line being rotten.

Therefore, let the steel point be set truly and round,
That the finest of strokes may be even and sound,
Flowing glibly where fancy would lead 'em.
But alas! for the needle that fetters the hand,
And forbids even sketches of Liberty's land
To be drawn with the requisite freedom!

Oh! the botches I've seen by a tool of the sort,
Rather hitching than etching, and making, in short,
Such stiff, crabbed, and angular scratches,
That the figures seem'd statues or mummies from tombs,
While the trees were as rigid as bundles of brooms,
And the herbage like bunches of matches!

The stiff clouds as if carefully iron'd and starch'd,
While a cast-iron bridge, meant for wooden, o'er-arch'd
Something more like a road than a river.
Prythee, who in such characteristics could see
Any trace of the beautiful land of the free -
The Free-Mason - Free-Trader - Free-Liver!

But prepared by a hand that is skilful and nice,
The fine point glides along like a skate on the ice,
At the will of the Gentle Designer,
Who impelling the needle just presses so much,
That each line of her labor the copper may touch,
As if done by a penny-a-liner.

And behold! how the fast-growing images gleam!
Like the sparkles of gold in a sunshiny stream,
Till perplex'd by the glittering issue,
You repine for a light of a tenderer kind -
And in choosing a substance for making a blind,
Do not sneeze at the paper call'd tissue.

For, subdued by the sheet so transparent and white,
Your design will appear in a soberer light,
And reveal its defects on inspection,
Just as Glory achieved, or political scheme,
And some more of our dazzling performances seem,
Not so bright on a cooler reflection.

So the juvenile Poet with ecstasy views
His first verses, and dreams that the songs of his Muse
Are as brilliant as Moore's and as tender -
Till some critical sheet scans the faulty design,
And alas! takes the shine out of every line
That had form'd such a vision of splendor;

Certain objects, however, may come in your sketch,
Which, design'd by a hand unaccustom'd to etch,
With a luckless result may be branded;
Wherefore add this particular rule to your code,
Let all vehicles take the wrong side of the road,
And man, woman, and child, be left-handed.

Yet regard not the awkward appearance with doubt,
But remember how often mere blessings fall out,
That at first seem'd no better than curses;
So, till things take a turn, live in hope, and depend
That whatever is wrong will come right in the end,
And console you for all your reverses.

But of errors why speak, when for beauty and truth
Your free, spirited Etching is worthy, in sooth,
Of that Club (may all honor betide it!)
Which, tho' dealing in copper, by genius and taste,
Has accomplish'd a service of plate not disgraced
By the work of a Goldsmith beside it.[1]

So your sketch superficially drawn on the plate,
It becomes you to fix in a permanent state,
Which involves a precise operation,
With a keen biting fluid, which eating its way -
As in other professions is common they say -
Has attain'd an artistical station.

And it's, oh! that some splenetic folks I could name
If they must deal in acids would use but the same,
In such innocent graphical labors!
In the place of the virulent spirit wherewith -
Like the polecat, the weasel, and things of that kith -
They keep biting the backs of their neighbors!

But beforehand, with wax or the shoemaker's pitch,
You must build a neat dyke round the margin, in which
You may pour the dilute aqua-fortis.
For if raw like a dram, it will shock you to trace
Your design with a horrible froth on its face,
Like a wretch in articulo mortis.

Like a wretch in the pangs that too many endure
From the use of strong waters, without any pure,
A vile practice, most sad and improper!
For, from painful examples, this warning is found,
That the raw burning spirit will take up the ground,
In the churchyard, as well as on copper!

But the Acid has duly been lower'd, and bites
Only just where the visible metal invites,
Like a nature inclined to meet troubles;
And behold! as each slender and glittering line
Effervesces, you trace the completed design
In an elegant bead-work of bubbles!

And yet constantly secretly eating its way,
The shrewd acid is making the substance its prey,
Like some sorrow beyond inquisition,
Which is gnawing the heart and the brain all the while
That the face is illumed by its cheerfullest smile,
And the wit is in bright ebullition.

But still stealthily feeding, the treacherous stuff
Has corroded and deepen'd some portions enough -
The pure sky, and the waters so placid -
And these tenderer tints to defend from attack,
With some turpentine varnish and sooty lamp-black
You must stop out the ferreting acid.

But before with the varnishing brush you proceed,
Let the plate with cold water be thoroughly freed
From the other less innocent liquor -
After which, on whatever you want to protect,
Put a coat that will act to that very effect,
Like the black one which hangs on the Vicar.

Then - the varnish well dried - urge the biting again,
But how long at its meal the eau forte may remain,
Time and practice alone can determine:
But of course not so long that the Mountain, and Mill,
The rude Bridge, and the Figures, whatever you will,
Are as black as the spots on your ermine.

It is true, none the less, that a dark-looking scrap,
With a sort of Blackheath, and Black Forest, mayhap,
Is consider'd as rather Rembrandty;
And that very black cattle and very black sheep,
A black dog, and a shepherd as black as a sweep,
Are the pets of some great Dilettante.

So with certain designers, one needs not to name,
All this life is a dark scene of sorrow and shame,
From our birth to our final adjourning -
Yea, this excellent earth and its glories, alack!
What with ravens, palls, cottons, and devils, as black
As a Warehouse for Family Mourning!

But before your own picture arrives at that pitch,
While the lights are still light, and the shadows, though rich,
More transparent than ebony shutters,
Never minding what Black-Arted critics may say,
Stop the biting, and pour the green fluid away,
As you please, into bottles or gutters.

Then removing the ground and the wax at a heat,
Cleanse the surface with oil, spermaceti or sweet,
For your hand a performance scarce proper -
So some careful professional person secure -
For the Laundress will not be a safe amateur -
To assist you in cleaning the copper.

And, in truth, 'tis a rather unpleasantish job,
To be done on a hot German stove, or a hob -
Though as sure of an instant forgetting,
When - as after the dark clearing-off of a storm -
The fair Landscape shines out in a lustre as warm
As the glow of the sun, in its setting!

Thus your Etching complete, it remains but to hint,
That with certain assistance from paper and print,
Which the proper Mechanic will settle,
You may charm all your Friends - without any sad tale
Of such perils and ills as beset Lady Sale -
With a fine India Proof of your Metal.

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