Monday, January 24, 2011

Falling Gough: A Romance

Sometime in 1805, a young man went out walking in the mountainous Lakes District in England with his dog. He never returned and no one looked for him. Three months later, a shepherd climbing through the same region heard barking and found the young man’s remains on a promontory, having clearly fallen to his death, still guarded by his faithful companion.

That’s how the Romantic poets Sir Walter Scott and William Wordsworth both described the scene in 1806, and how Edwin Landseer painted it years later.

While the truth of what happened to Charles Gough may have been far less romantic, it does not change the fact the Gough’s dog remained with his body for three months.

Helvellyn

By Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)                          

I climbed the dark brow of the mighty Helvellyn,
Lakes and mountains beneath me gleamed misty and wide;
All was still, save by fits, when the eagle was yelling,
 
And starting around me the echoes replied.
On the right, Striden-edge round the Red-tarn was bending,
And Catchedicam its left verge was defending,
One huge, nameless rock in the front was ascending,
When I marked the sad spot where the wanderer had died.

Dark green was that spot 'mid the brown mountain heather,
Where the pilgrim of nature lay stretched in decay,
Like the corpse of an outcast abandoned to weather,
Till the mountain-winds wasted the tenantless clay.
Nor yet quite deserted, though lonely extended,
For, faithful in death, his mute favourite attended,
The much-loved remains of her master defended,
And chased the hill-fox and the raven away.

How long didst thou think that his silence was slumber?
When the wind waved his garment, how oft didst thou start?
How many long days and long weeks didst thou number,
Ere he faded before thee, the friend of thy heart?
And, oh! was it meet, that—no requiem read o'er him,
No mother to weep, and no friend to deplore him,
And thou, little guardian, alone stretched before him—
Unhonoured the pilgrim from life should depart?

When a prince to the fate of the peasant has yielded,
The tapestry waves dark round the dim-lighted hall;
With scutcheons of silver the coffin is shielded,
And pages stand mute by the canopied pall;
Through the courts, at deep midnight, the torches are gleaming;
In the proudly arched chapel the banners are beaming;
Far adown the long aisle sacred music is streaming,
Lamenting a chief of the people should fall.

But meeter for thee, gentle lover of nature,
To lay down thy head like the meek mountain lamb,
When, wildered, he drops from some cliff huge in stature,
And draws his last sob by the side of his dam.
And more stately thy couch by this desert lake lying,
Thy obsequies sung by the gray plover flying,
With but one faithful friend to witness thy dying
In the arms of Helvellyn and Catchedicam.

1806


Attachment by Edwin Landseer after Sir Walter Scott’s Helvellyn, 1829

Wordsworth’s poem, Fidelity, can be found here.  A snapshot of Francis Danby’s The Precipice, portraying the same incident, can be found here

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