Book World: ‘Guy Vernon,’ by John Townsend Trowbridge, a witty narrative poem
By Michael Dirda,
Now and then, poets are properly valued or their genius recognized only long after their deaths. Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson are just the two most famous instances. Alas, their rough contemporary, John Townsend Trowbridge (1827-1916), isn’t likely to join them in the pantheon of the truly great. As poet and critic William Logan emphasizes, Trowbridge was simply a “literary odd-job man” who turned his hand “to whatever a hand can be turned to,” producing “gouts of poems, a string of plays, and at least forty novels.”
But sometimes, not often, but sometimes, the merely competent writer will inexplicably produce a masterpiece. Daniel Keyes, an otherwise undistinguished science-fiction author, will live forever because of one brilliant, heartbreaking short story: “Flowers for Algernon.” John William Burgon is immortal for a single line from his poem “Petra”: “A rose-red city half as old as time.” And now Trowbridge, the forgotten American hack, will be read again because of this rediscovered “novelette in verse,” one of the wittiest and most winning narrative poems since its great precursors, Pope’s “Rape of the Lock” and Byron’s “Don Juan.” “Guy Vernon” really is what its champion William Logan claims: a forgotten — if minor — masterpiece.
The action largely takes place in the years just before the Civil War. A wealthy Louisiana plantation owner, on a trip North, woos and wins a beautiful young Brooklyn woman 20 years his junior. However, Guy Vernon and his new wife, Florinda, both carry secrets within their breasts. Guy’s is somehow associated with his foppish “high-yellow” servant Sam, usually called Saturn because of all his rings. Florinda’s secret is less mysterious: Before she married Vernon, she had been in love with a young writer, a journalist and would-be poet named Rob Lorne. Even in his name, as Logan points out, the poor man is “twice lorn.”
Early on in their marriage, the seemingly happy newlyweds visit Cuba:
. . . that rich land of tropic fruit and tree,
Fair Island of the orange and banana,
And endless summer in a sapphire sea!
Land of the cocoa and mahogany,
Voluptuous, balmy nights and wondrous stars,
Of Creole beauties and the best cigars.
Note the lilting, light-verse rhythm and the air of the tongue-in-cheek. “Guy Vernon” is many things — a mystery story, a social satire, the history of a romantic triangle — but it is, above all, an example of sustained wit and wordplay. “The muse should be a trifle too familiar / Than pompous, adipose, and atrabiliar.”
In Cuba, Vernon grows strangely moody, then announces, without explanation, that he must hurry back to his plantation, accompanied only by Saturn. Florinda is immediately booked for a passage to New York, where she is to await his return. By now, she is doubly unhappy, not only because her husband has suddenly abandoned her but also because she has glimpsed the handsome Rob Lorne on the streets of Havana. Still, once alone on the high seas, she is at least safe from temptation. The first night out from port, the young beauty dines at the captain’s table:
Florinda! Pale but lovely still, enrapt in
The delicate discussion of cold chicken
And some engaging topic with the Captain.
Just then, amid loud talk and teacups clicking,
Over the wing she happened to be picking
She looked — and there was Lorne, quite dazed and pallid,
Staring at her across a dish of salad.
“Picking chicken”? “Pallid . . . across a dish of salad”? This could be a scene out of a screwball comedy. Rob — himself fleeing Havana because of his unexpected glimpse of Florinda — had been trying to bury himself in work and, while cranking out “Newspaper sketches, stories, correspondence, he, / Struggled with his hotel bills and despondency.” (Note Trowbridge’s ingenuity in the zestful rhyming of “correspondence, he” with “despondency.”) Thrown together on shipboard, the young people play risky games with their feelings for each other.
“Oh dear, we must not sit here as we do,
And talk together! Rob, it isn’t right!”
But still they talked together, day and night.
Finally back in Brooklyn, Florinda waits to hear from her husband, while weeks go by without a word. She is convinced that Saturn holds some nefarious power over his master. But what could it be? There were those rumors of odd circumstances surrounding Vernon’s birth . . .
Meanwhile, New York society is all atwitter over Guy Vernon’s unexplained absence. Has the wealthy middle-aged Southerner abandoned his new wife? Was she discovered in the arms of a lover? That young journalist Lorne does seem awfully attentive. And then Vernon returns as suddenly as he had disappeared:
Public opinion, having had satiety
Of adverse gossip, now began to waver.
Vernon had come! And once more Good Society
Inclined to take Florinda into favor.
Those who had wronged her graciously forgave her
And, having spread the scandal, or received it,
Loudly declared that they had not believed it.
Similar passages — in which Trowbridge lambastes the unctuous, hypocritical ways of New York’s upper crust — show him at his most buoyantly coruscating:
Society is full of politic,
Smooth people, courteous, shunning all dissension,
Who, should they find even Judas in their clique,
Well dressed, would treat him with polite attention
And hardly think it worth the while to mention
That most unfortunate misunderstanding
He is reported to have had a hand in.
Yet what, finally, is Guy Vernon’s dark secret? And what will become of Florinda and Rob? Much more happens before the novelette reaches its appointed end on the battlefields of the Civil War.
Logan’s excellent introduction to “Guy Vernon” cannot be bettered, except in one respect: Some readers may feel that he reveals too much of the plot and hints too broadly at the reason for Vernon’s strange behavior. I suggest plunging directly into this tale of sexual intrigue, race and melodrama. There’s nothing particularly difficult about the poem, especially since detailed endnotes explain contemporary terms and allusions. Afterward, one should certainly go back to Logan’s informative essay and learn more about Trowbridge, the textual history of “Guy Vernon,” the intricacies of its stanza form (rhyme royal — the same used by Auden in his exuberant “Letter to Lord Byron”) and much else.
Oh, yes, one last thing: The University of Minnesota Press has produced an extremely handsome trade paperback, pleasing in every way. You may never have thought you wanted to read another 19th-century narrative poem after enduring “Hiawatha” in 11th grade, but give “Guy Vernon” a try. It’s a delicious and civilized treat.
Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Post at wapo.st/reading-room.
GUY VERNON A Novelette in Verse By John Townsend Trowbridge Edited by William Logan Univ. of Minnesota. 159 pp. Paperback, $21.95