The Garden of Proserpina

Chapter 1 – Themes and Plot
The Garden of Proserpina
• Excerpt from poem by Randolph Henry Ash, the
Victorian writer researched by Roland
• Contains seminal elements of book
– The serpent (Melusina) and other symbols
– The connection between myth, legend, history and
“truth” (They are and were there – At the old world’s
rim – dozed and waited through eternity)
– A vision of an “earthly Paradise” like the one the two
Victorian lovers (and their 20th century researchers)
will eventually visit in Yorkshire
Chapter One - Plot
• September 1986.
• Roland Michell, part-time research assistant to Prof.
Blackadder, is in the Reading Room of the London Library.
He loves this place because it is full of history and literature
and because R.H. Ash himself came here to read.
• He’s got R. H. Ash’s personal copy of Vico’s Principj di
Scienza Nuova, which he is examining in the hope of finding
marginalia showing that this work was one of the sources of
Ash’s poem. He is excited at holding the book in his hands.
• The book is very old and dusty; it is clear that nobody has
touched it for a very long time, perhaps since it came to the
Plot - 2
• As Roland opens the book, several pieces of paper fall out,
covered in Ash’s handwriting.
• Roland requests and obtains permission to study them by
presenting his credentials (Blackadder has been editing
Ash’s Complete Works since 1951), on condition that he
does not disturb their chronology and reports back on
anything interesting.
• After a few hours, he finds what he thinks is “the relevant
passage” in Vico, who had looked for historical fact in the
poetic metaphors of myth and legend (putting them
together was his “new science”).
• Roland compares Ash’s test with the translation and makes
notes on an index card.
Roland’s notes on Vico
• Ears of corn were called apples of gold (when
metallic gold was still unknown)
• The apples brought back from Hesperia by
Hercules must have been grain
• The Gallic Hercules chains men by the ears with
links of this gold (a myth concerning the fields)
• Hercules was consequently the Deity to propitiate
in order to find treasures
• Proserpine (or Ceres) was carried off to the
• In Virgil’s poem, the golden bough that Aeneas
carries into the Inferno or Underworld was made of
this golden apple
Different interpretations of the figure of
• Corn, the origin of commerce and community (Vico)
• Victorian reflection of religious doubt and meditation
on the myths of Resurrection (Ash, according to
• The personification of History itself in its early
mythical days (Blackadder’s idea of Ash’s vision)
• Ash describes her as gold-skinned in the gloom,
also grain-golden and bound with golden links
• Roland wonders if she could represent the ephemeral
individual or the Species, that dies not
Discovery of the Letters
• Roland is already reluctant to share this new treasure
with Blackadder when he discovers two folded sheets
of writing paper
• They contain two versions of the same letter, both
incomplete, written in Ash’s hand and addressed to a
Dear Madam who goes out in company very little
• The letters speak of a conversation between the two that
the poet enjoyed very much and is eager to renew
• The conversation took place during a breakfast offered
to a group of people by Crabb Robinson
Difference between the Letters
• The 1st letter is shorter and Ash is more emotional and
direct, but is in any case careful not to show that he
presumes the woman shares his same urgency
• In the 2nd letter, Ash is more controlled and tones down his
– our extraordinary conversation becomes pleasant and unexpected;
I have thought of nothing else becomes little else;
– He does not speak of the rarity of finding such ready sympathy, such
wit and judgment together, but talks at length about Crabb and the
poets and undergraduates and mathematical professors and political
thinkers at his table, a more neutral subject
– He changes I feel, I know with a certainty that cannot be the result of
folly or misapprehension, that you and I must speak again to Is there
any way in which it can be resumed, more privately and at more
Difference between the letters/2
• In the 2nd letter, he asks questions involving her
or both of them (Is there any way…? Did you not
find it as strange as I did…? We did understand
each other uncommonly well, did we not? Or is
this perhaps a product of the over-excited
brain…?) instead of making emphatic personal
statements of his own (It has not often been given
to me as a poet… I write with a strong sense of
necessity…I feel, I know…)
• He eliminates must and uses can
Difference between the letters/3
• In version 2, he balances his egoistical mutter –
his excitement at her sensitive understanding of
his works - by showing an interest in her works:
– He compliments her on the superiority of her fine ear
and finer taste and adds that she is wise and learned
– He encourages her to begin her grand Fairy Topic
– He suggests she consider Vico’s idea that the ancient
gods and later heroes are personifications of the fates
and aspirations of the people rising in figures from the
common mind
• He tries to persuade her to come out to meet him.
Roland Takes Possession
• Roland is profoundly shocked but also thrilled
• He immediately contextualises the period (after 1856) and
decides to reconstruct the breakfast party organised by the
London University professor
• He knows that Robinson’s papers, including his diary, are
kept in Dr. Williams’s Library in Gordon Square
• He has no idea who the mysterious woman and her Fairy
Topic were
• He is eager to discover if the correspondence continued or
not and wonders what jewels of information it might
contain about a man who lived a quiet and exemplary
married life for forty years
• Roland does something completely uncharacteristic: he
slips the letters into his own book, finishes his work and
leaves the library with the letters in his possession.
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