Like some strange second flowering after date, it renews on a more delicate type the poetry of a past age, but must not be confounded with it.—Walter Pater, "Aesthetic Poetry"
And then he took his lute, that second heartWhich seemed to share his pulses and be partOf the pent heart within him and expoundIn living rhythms and sweet articulate soundIts mute dim longings and to himself revealSome secret of himself he could not feelUntil the music spoke it . . .—Augusta Webster, Yu-Pe-Ya's Lute
Augusta Webster's narrative poem Yu-Pe-Ya's Lute, "A Chinese Tale in English Verse," was published in 1874. It is a beautiful poem, a love poem, but also a curious artifact that raises a number of questions that this essay attempts to answer. Why did such a fine poet expend so much energy on a subject she comes to secondhand, her labors constrained by narrative elements originating outside the Western tradition, ones that she had no hand in inventing and over which, therefore, she can ostensibly exercise no creative control? How might a reader construct a sense of the poem's significance within nineteenth-century poetics, rather than dismiss it as a quaint exercise in bringing to problematic life Chinese legendary material that, on the face of it, [End Page 5] has little or no relevance to Victorian poetic preoccupations? The importance of the poem to Webster is indicated by the fact that she included it in its entirety in Selections from the Verse of Augusta Webster, published the year before her death. Such significance, signaled by the poet herself, arises from the poem's immediate relevance, notwithstanding its apparently remote focus. I argue that Yu-Pe-Ya's Lute, through its artifice and its mediated exoticism, is very firmly anchored in contemporary aestheticist poetics, a contemporaneity that is intensified rather than diminished by the poem's neo-Romantic elements.
The lines from the poem (ll. 107–113) used as the second epigraph to this essay express troubled pleasure in the communion and mystery marking the relationship between the artist and his medium, his lute.1 The relation is represented as a matter of borders, both recognized and problematic, and indicates, by extension, the endeavor of the poem as a whole. It is, to appropriate Pater's words (also used as an epigraph), to bring about a "strange second flowering," not to be "confounded" with its origin, that Webster brings into being in her complex act of reflection of a prior mediated text.2 A Chinese tale translated into French becomes an English poem.3 Webster's is a poetic act that is both invention and adaptation: translation in only the broadest sense. Translation as mode implies the primacy of an original, some prior linguistic entity that must be authentically transmitted. In a maneuver that is postmodern in sensibility, Webster dispenses with the idea of an original; the Chinese tale is simply not directly available.
Webster's "copy" has value, therefore, where the original has none, a circumstance that Webster's reviewers accepted largely without demur. For the Nonconformist, it is "substantially new—a poetic creation."4 Significantly, the Westminster Review does not even mention the genesis of the poem, linking it instead to the Elizabethan lyric, Wordsworth, and Romanticism: "Wordsworth first taught us how nature ever sympathizes with man, and how she ever puts on the colours of the spirit. Mrs. Webster has extended the lesson." The reviewer's conclusion is that the poem proves "that in Mrs. Webster we have a profound and original poet."5 The British Quarterly Review deems that she has succeeded in a "very difficult experiment," commending Webster's "almost needless frankness" in her admission that "she is responsible for all that may be considered 'nineteenth-century'" in the poem.6 Such an assessment takes its cue from Webster herself. She asserts, in one of her notes to the poem, that she has followed "with some approach to precision" the incidents and etiquette of Theodore Pavie's apparently faithful French translation, "Le Luth Brisé," of the Chinese tale, while making no attempt to replicate its "prim...