Song, scandal, and a princess: We are not Sure of Sorrow (1898)

When I started this project, I would not have imagined Swinburne’s languid ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ from Poems and Ballads, First Series (1866) ever inspiring popular music, and certainly not the tone of this piece by Charles Paston-Cooper (1867-1941). Weary and somnambulant it is not, but celebrates the atheism of Swinburne’s words with the kind of triumphalism normally reserved for national religions. We are not Sure of Sorrow uses the poem’s last three stanzas, which contain some of Swinburne’s most famous lines (at least in terms of Victorian poetry), such as:

From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea. (l. 81-88) [1]

Paston-Cooper’s setting is not quite as Swinburne understood his own poem. The song starts melodically, but quickly becomes bracing and jubilant, and at first I imagined that Paston-Cooper was merely using the popularity of Swinburne’s lyrics to sell the tune (which is partly the case, undoubtedly), but perhaps I now also see it as a sort of anti-hymn.

‘Hymn’ comes from the Latin hymnus, meaning ‘a song or ode in praise of gods’[2]. Even if Swinburne’s lyrics thank the ‘gods’, whatever they ‘may be’, the poem is not in praise of an eternal life to come, but in relief for the finality of death. ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ is a place of oblivion. Once the struggles of life have ended, it suggests, there will be no resurrection, in contrast to the Christian belief. Instead we will be freed from that ‘hope and fear’ and drift into a sea of forgetfulness and extinction.

In Poems and Ballads, First Series, ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ immediately follows a notorious poem called ‘Dolores’ and comes before ‘Hesperia’, another mythical garden poem. The three are linked, which Swinburne highlighted in his Notes on Poems and Reviews, published in October 1866. Poems and Ballads had been published earlier that year in July by Edward Moxon, but Moxon had since withdrawn the book because of abusive reviews and fears of prosecution for indecency. While many poems in the volume were censured, ‘Dolores’ (which contains images of castration, ecstatic blood lust and perhaps could be described – figuratively – as one long, repeated, circular sexual act), was particularly attacked, with the London Review calling it ‘depraved and morbid’ and (rather wonderfully, I think) ‘[the] mere deification of incontinence’.[3]

Published at the same time as Poems and Ballads was reissued by John Camden Hotten (who was known to publish the occasional piece of erotica), Swinburne’s Notes on Poems and Reviews makes a general defence of his poetry and clarifies some of its themes. He draws out the relationship between ‘Dolores’, ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ and ‘Hesperia’, which he says form a loose narrative progression, expressing a ‘transient state of spirit through which a man may be supposed to pass’. Between the ‘violent delights’ of ‘Dolores’ and where the ‘worship of desire has ceased’ in ‘Hesperia’ is ‘The Garden of Proserpine’, which is when, he says, ‘the spirit, without fear or hope of good things or evil, hungers and thirsts only after the perfect sleep’.[4]

As I say, Paston-Cooper’s We are not Sure of Sorrow is definitely not about sleep, and it might be said that its title is an understatement. It isn’t sure about sorrow at all. It’s rather emphatic in its atheism, and there is a certainty, vitality and a jubilation about this music which, as I say, makes it sound like an anti-hymn rather than a song to be sung after dinner.

Sir Charles Nauton Paston-Cooper (he inherited a baronetcy from his father in 1904) seems to have had a very colourful, even scandalous life, although details about it are scarce. In his early life he composed several successful songs, including another that uses Swinburne’s lyrics, A Leave-taking, which was performed at the Proms in 1902, then held at the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place. However, in 1894 he appears to have gained an undesirable kind of fame as a potential philanderer. Several newspapers report his somewhat leading role in a ‘theatrical divorce case’ between the actor-manager Charles Hawtrey (1858-1923) and his wife Madeline Hawtrey. The divorce courts, if one follows the chain of news stories across several publications, heard evidence that Madeline (who had petitioned divorce from her husband) was accused of ‘improper relations’ with Paston-Cooper (which she denied), ever since they had slept in adjacent rooms at a hotel in Cannes in the late 1880s. Given in striking detail by Reynolds’s Newspaper, the story travels from Cannes, back to London, and onto Monte Carlo, Paris and Venice, and even involves Madeline’s maid, Poole, who, it is said, ‘warned Mrs Hawtrey of her position in connection with her intimacy with Cooper’. [5] Although it was clearly one of the great scandals of the day, Madeline eventually won her divorce and, subsequently, Paston-Cooper looks to have transcended the dishonour, as in 1899 he married the Princess Tatiana Dolgorouky of Russia.

We are not Sure of Sorrow, by Charles Paston-Cooper (London: Chappell & Co, 1898)


[1]The Garden of Proserpine’ has inspired two other songs that I know of, ‘A Prayer of Thanksgiving’ by Louise Llewellyn (1907) and ‘Somewhere Safe to Sea’ by William Harold Neidlinger (1920), and was given a full orchestral and choir treatment by Vaughan Williams in The Garden of Proserpine, which, although written in 1899, was not performed until 2010. It can be heard on Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Garden of Proserpine, In the Fen Country, Fen and Flood, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Paul Daniel (Albion Records, 2011).

[2] Definition from the Oxford English Dictionary. Paston-Cooper had earlier published a setting of Ave Maria (Ducci & Co, 1893), and presumably the sentiments of this piece do not sit well with We are not Sure of Sorrow.

[3] Clyde K. Hyder, Swinburne: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), p. 37.

[4] The Critical Heritage, pp. 53-55.

[5] Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday 1 July, 1894. The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times of 14 July, 1894, also carries interesting news of the case with court sketches, in an article entitled, ‘The Hawtrey Divorce Case’.

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