(From A Collection of Poems, Chiefly Manuscript, and from Living Authors, 1823; edited by Joanna Baillie)
EPISTLE TO EARL HARCOURT,
ON HIS WISHING HER TO SPELL HER NAME OF CATHERINE WITH A “K”
AND can his antiquarian eyes,
My Anglo-Saxon C despise?
And does Lord Harcourt, day by day,
Regret th’ extinct initial K?
And still, with ardour unabated,
Labour to get it reinstated?—
I know, my Lord, your generous passion
For ev’ry long-exploded fashion;
And own the Catherine you delight in,
Looks irresistibly inviting,
Appears to bear the stamp, and mark,
Of English, used in Noah’s Ark;
“But all that glitters is not gold,”
Nor all things obsolete, are old.
Would you but take the pains to look
In Doctor Johnson’s quarto book,
(As I did, wishing much to see
Th’ aforesaid letter’s pedigree),
Believe me, ‘t would a tale unfold,
Would make your Norman blood run cold.
My Lord, you’ll find the K’s no better
Than an interpolated letter,—
A wand’ring Greek, a franchis’d alien,
Deriv’d from Cadmus or Deucalion,
And, why, or wherefore, none can tell,
Inserted ‘twixt the J and L.
The learned say, our English tongue
On Gothic beams is built and hung;
Then why the solid fabric piece
With motley ornaments from Greece?
Her letter’d despots had no bowels
For northern consonants and vowels;
The Norman and the Greek grammarian
Deem’d us, and all our words, barbarian,
Till those hard words, and harder blows,
Had silenced all our haughty foes,
And proud they were to kiss the sandals
(Shoes we had none) of Goths and Vandals.
So call we now the various race
That gave the Roman eagle chace,
Nurtur’d by all the storms that roll
In thunder round the Arctic Pole,
And from the bosom of the North,
Like gelid rain-drops scatter’d forth—
Dread Odin’s desolating sons,
Teutones, Cimbrians, Franks, and Huns;—
But hold, ‘t would try Don Quixote’s patience,
To nomenclate this mob of nations:
Whose names a poet’s teeth might break,
And only botanists could speak,
They at a single glance would see us
Rang’d in the system of Linnæus;
Would organize the mingled mass,
Assign their genus, order, class,
And give, as trivial, and specific,
Names harder still, and more terrific.
But since our Saxon line we trace
Up to this all-subduing race,
Since flows their blood in British veins,
Who led the universe in chains,
And from their “sole dominion” hurl’d
The giants of the ancient world,
Their boasted languages confounding,
And with such mortal gutturals wounding,
That Greek and Latin fell or fled,
And soon were number’d with the dead;
Befits it us, so much their betters,
To spell our names with conquer’d letters?
And shall they rise and prate again,
Like Falstaff, from among the slain?
A licence quite of modern date
Which no long customs consecrate;
For since this K, of hateful sound,
First set his foot on British ground,
‘Tis not, as antiquaries know,
A dozen centuries ago.—
That darling theme of English story,
For learning fam’d and martial glory,—
Alfred, who quell’d th’ unsurping Dane,
And burst, indignant, from his chain;
Who slaves redeemed, to reign o’er men,
Changing the faulchion for the pen,
And outlin’d, with a master’s hand,
Th’ immortal charter of the land;
Alfred, whom yet these realms obey,
In all his kingdom own’d no K,
From foreign arms, and letters free,
Preserv’d his Cyngly dignity,
And wrote it with a Saxon C.
—This case in point from Alfred‘s laws
Establishes my client’s cause;
Secures a verdict for defendant,
K pays the costs, and there’s an end on’t.
The suit had linger’d long, I grant, if
Counsel had first been heard for plaintiff;
Who might, to use a new expression,
Have urg’d the plea of dis -possession,
And put our better claims to flight,
By pre-, I mean pro scriptive right,
Since that which modern times explode,
The world will deem the prior mode.—
But grant this specious plea prevailing,
And all my legal learning failing;
There yet remains so black a charge,
Not only ‘gainst the K’s at large,
But th’ individual K in question,
You’d tremble at the bare suggestion,
Nor ever more a wish reveal
So adverse to the public weal.
Dear gentle Earl, you little know
That wish might work a world of woe;
The ears that are unborn would rise,
In judgment ‘gainst your lordship’s eyes
The ears that are unborn would rue
Your letter patent to renew
The dormant dignity of shrew.
The K restor’d takes off th’ attainder,
And grants the title, with remainder
In perpetuity devis’d,
To Katherines lawfully baptiz’d.
What has not Shakspeare said and sung,
Of our pre-eminence of tongue!
His glowing pen has writ the name
In characters of fire and flame;
Not flames that mingle as they rise
Innocuous, with their kindred skies;
Some chemic, lady-like solution,
Shewn at the Royal Institution;
But such, as still with ceaseless clamour,
Dance round the anvil, and the hammer.
See him the comic muse invoking,
(The merry nymph with laughter choking)
While he exhibits at her shrine
The unhallow’d form of Katherine;
And there the Gorgon image plants,—
Palladium of the termagants.
He form’d it of the rudest ore
That lay in his exhaustless store,
Nor from the crackling furnace drew,
Which still the breath of genius blew,
Till (to preserve the bright allusion)
The mass was in a state of fusion.
Then cast it in a Grecian mould,
Once modell’d from a living scold;
When from her shelly prison burst
That finished vixen, Kate the curst!
If practice e’er with precept tallies,
Could Shakspeare set down aught in malice?
From nature all his forms he drew,
And held the mirror to to her view;
And if an ugly wart arose,
Or freckle upon nature’s nose,
He flatter’d not th’ unsightly flaw,
But mark’d and copied what he saw;
Strictly fulfilling all his duties
Alike to blemishes and beauties:
So that in Shakspeare’s time ’tis plain,
The Katherines were scolds in grain,
No females louder, fiercer, worse:—
Now contemplate the bright reverse;
And say amid the countless names,
Borne by contemporary dames,—
Exotics, fetch’d from distant nations,
Or good old English appellations,—
Names hunted out from ancient books,
Or form’d on dairy-maids, and cooks,
Genteel, familiar, or pedantic,
Grecian, Roman, or romantic,
Christian, Infidel, or Jew,
Heroines, fabulous or true,
Ruths, Rebeccas, Rachels, Sarahs,
Charlottes, Harriets, Emmas, Claras,
Auroras, Helens, Daphnes, Delias,
Martias, Portias, and Cornelias,
Nannys, Fannys, Jennys, Hettys,
Dollys, Mollys, Biddys, Bettys,
Say, is there one more free from blame,
One that enjoys a fairer fame,
One more endow’d with Christian graces,
(Although I say it to our faces,
And flattery we don’t delight in,)
Than Catherine, at this present writing?
Where, then, can all the difference be?
Where, but between, the K, and C:
Between the graceful curving line,
We now prefix to -atherine,
Which seems to keep with mild police,
Those rebel syllables in peace,
Describing, in the line of duty,
Both physical, and moral beauty,
And that impracticable K
Who led them all so much astray—
Was never seen in black and white,
A character more full of spite!
That stubborn back, to bend unskilful,
So perpendicularly wilful!
With angles, hideous to behold,
Like the sharp elbows of a scold,
In attitude, where words shall fail,
To fight their battles tooth and nail.—
In page the first, you’re sagely told
That “all that glitters is not gold;”
Fain would I quote one proverb more—
“N’eveillez pas le chat qui dort.”
Here some will smile, as if suspicious
That simile was injudicious;
Because in C A T they trace
Alliance with the feline race.
But we the name alone inherit,
C has the letter, K the spirit,
And woe betide the man who tries
Whether or no the spirit dies!
Tho’ dormant long, it yet survives,
With its full complement of lives.
The nature of the beast is still
To scratch and claw , if not to kill ;
For royal Cats, to low-born wrangling
Will superadd the gift of strangling.
Witness in modern times the fate
Of that unhappy potentate,
Who, from his palace near the pole,
Where the chill waves of Neva roll,
Was snatch’d, while yet alive and merry,
And sent on board old Charon’s ferry.
The Styx he travers’d, execrating
A Katherine of his own creating.
—Peter the Third—illustrious peer!
Great autocrat of half the sphere!
(At least of all the Russias, he
Was Emperor, Czar of Muscovy)—
In evil hour, this simple Czar,
Impell’d by some malignant star,
Bestow’d upon his new Czarina,
The fatal name of Katerina;
And, as Monseigneur l’Archévêque
Chose to baptize her à la Grecque,
‘Twas Katerina with a K:
He rued it to his dying day:
Nay died, as I observ’d before,
The sooner on that very score—
The Princess quickly learnt her cue,
Improv’d upon the part of shrew,
And as the plot began to thicken,
She wrung his head off like a chicken.
In short this despot of a wife
Robb’d the poor man of crown and life;
And robbing Peter, paid not Paul;
But clear’d the stage of great and small,
No corner of the throne would spare,
To gratify her son and heir,
But liv’d till threescore years and ten,
Still trampling on the rights of men.—
Thy brief existence, hapless Peter!
Had doubtless longer been, and sweeter,
But that thou wilfully disturb’dst
The harmless name she brought from Zerbst.
Nor was it even then too late,
When crown’d and register’d a Kate;
When all had trembling heard, and seen,
The shriller voice, and fiercer mien—
Had’st thou e’en then, without the measure,
That Russian boors adopt at pleasure,
On publishing a tedious ukase,
To blab to all the world the true case,
By virtue of the Imperial knout
But whipt th’ offending letter out—
She, in the fairest page of fame,
Might then have writ her faultless name,
And thou retain’d thy life, and crown,
Till time himself had mow’d them down.