1804
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

To the Mulberry-Tree.

Conversations introducing Poetry: chiefly on Subjects of Natural History. For the use of Children and Young Persons.

Charlotte Smith


A natural history in nine irregular Spenserians (ababcc, only the first with the alexandrine). The subtitle is "On reading the Oriental Aphorism, 'By Patience and Labour the Mulberry-Leaf becomes satin." Charlotte Smith may have selected this stanza to underscore two popular Spenserian topics: mutability (the transformation of the mulberry's foliage into silk) and the opposition between luxury and industry (recalling, perhaps, Thomson's Castle of Indolence).

The poem is woven into a didactic conversation which young George explains to his mother (who has written the poem): "The first stanzas describe the tree in this country, where it is very late in unfolding its leaves. I remember that very well, because David always told me, that when the Mulberry leaves came out I might put out my myrtles, geraniums, and my little orange trees, that I raised myself; for that then there would be no more frost or cold, severe enough to hurt them. That country of Europe is next described, in which the Mulberry tree is particularly cultivated; Italy, where are very high mountains, called the Apennines, and Patience and Industry are personified, and are supposed to call the young and the old — for perhaps strong able men are not employed in it — to begin those works, by which the thread spun by the silk-worm, and which is produced by the juices of the Mulberry leaf, becomes at length silk, and being dyed, after a long process, which we must suppose, becomes of course blue as the sky, or red like the roses, or purple, or spotted."

To which his mother responds: "All that, you perfectly understand. — I could not, you know, in so short a poem as this, describe the various operations performed; such as throwing the cocoons into boiling water, which kills the worm within; winding the silk off on small reels, and preparing it in different manners, according to the purpose it is designed for; then giving it colour; and fitting it for the loom. Had I done all this, I should have made what is called a didactic poem — such as the Fleece, by Dyer, and others of the like nature. — But had I been capable of executing this sort of poem, it would not have entered into my plan, it would not have entered into my plan, because all I mean is, to excite your curiosity, which there are such ample means of gratifying, by books, that you would perhaps think dry and uninteresting, if you were to sit down to them merely as a task, and without having collected some general ideas before, on the subjects they treat of" 2:132-34.

Joseph Dennie: "Mrs. C. Smith, in the following poem, has very charmingly combined the agreeable and the useful. Whatever exhibits the triumph of industry, ingenuity, and perseverance, must be sure to captivate the attention of all, but yawning readers. Such a poem as this, is bark and steel to the mind. It is a powerful corrobarant of the nerves of exertion and a stronger animus than all the opium of the Brunonians" Port Folio [Philadelphia] NS 3 (3 January 1807) 11.

Catherine Anne Dorset (sister of CS): "In the winter of 1804, I spent some time with her, when she was occupied in composing her charming little work for the use of young persons, entitled 'Conversations' which she occasionally wrote in the common sitting-room of the family, with two or three lively grand-children playing about her, and conversing with great cheerfulness and pleasantry, though nearly confined to her sofa, in great bodily pain, and in a mortifying state of dependence on the services of others, but in the full possession of all her faculties; a blessing of which she was most justly sensible, and for which she frequently expressed her gratitude to the Almighty" Walter Scott, Miscellaneous Prose Works (1829) 4:28.



Hither, in half blown garlands drest,
Advances the reluctant Spring,
And, shrinking, feels her tender breast
Chill'd by Winter's snowy wing;
Nor wilt thou, alien as thou art, display
Or leaf, or swelling bud, to meet the varying day.

Yet, when the mother of the rose,
Bright June, leads on the glowing hours,
And from her hands luxuriant throws
Her lovely groups of Summer flowers;
Forth from thy brown and unclad branches shoot
Serrated leaves and rudiments of fruit.

And soon the boughs umbrageous spread
A shelter from Autumnal rays,
While gay beneath thy shadowy head,
His gambols happy childhood plays;
Eager, with crimson fingers to amass
Thy ruby fruit, that strews the turfy grass.

But where, festoon'd with purple vines,
More freely grows thy graceful form,
And skreen'd by towering Appenines,
Thy foliage feeds the spinning worm;
PATIENCE and INDUSTRY protect thy shade,
And see, by future looms, their care repaid.

They mark the threads, half viewless wind
That form the shining light, cocoon,
Now tinted as the orange rind,
Or paler than the pearly moon;
Then at their summons, in the task engage,
Light, active youth, and tremulous old age.

The task that bids thy tresses green
A thousand varied hues assume,
There colour'd like the sky serene,
And mocking here the roses bloom;
And now, in lucid volumes lightly roll'd,
Where purple clouds are starr'd with mimic gold.

But not because thy veined leaves,
Do to the grey wing'd moth supply
The nutriment, whence Patience weaves
The monarch's velvet canopy;
Thro' his high domes, a splendid radiance throws,
And binds the jewell'd circlet on his brows;

And not, that thus transform'd, thy boughs,
Now as a cestus clasp the fair,
Now in her changeful vesture flows,
And filets now her plaited hair;
I praise thee; but that I behold in thee
The triumph of unwearied Industry.

'Tis, that laborious millions owe
To thee, the source of simple food
In Eastern climes; or where the Po
Reflects thee from his classic flood;
While useless INDOLENCE may blush, to view
What PATIENCE, INDUSTRY, and ART, can do.

[2:134-36]