Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Give Me That Old-Time Religion

Hartley Coleridge's Sonnet XLIV has the title "To Mrs. ——" in the first edition of Poems by Hartley Coleridge: With a Memoir of his Life by his Brother, Vol. II (London: Edward Moxon, 1851), p. 47, but has the title "The Fig-Tree Ruminal" in the second edition, Vol. II (London: Edward Moxon, 1851), p. 46. Here is the text of the sonnet, from the second edition, with note:
Sweet lady, thou art come to us again:
The mountains still are in their ancient seats;
Still on the turfy mound the young lamb bleats,
Whose coat of March is wash'd with April rain.
But since no Philomel can here complain,
Let, lady, one poor bard lament to thee
The murderous death of many a noble tree,
That wont to shade thee in the grassy lane.
Would that religion of old time were ours,
(In that one article, not all the others,)
Which the first Romans held, who rear'd the towers,
Nigh the moist cradle of the Foundling Brothers,
The faith that did in awe and love instal,
For many an age, the Fig-Tree Ruminal.*

*The Fig-Tree Ruminal,—Ficus ruminalis, beneath which Romulus and Remus, according to the tradition, were found by the shepherd Faustulus.
The second edition has another version ("aliter") of the same sonnet on p. 365:
Sweet lady, thou art come to us again:
Old Loughrigg still is on his wonted seat;
Still on the springy mound the young lambs bleat;
The wee birds chirp as if to see thee fain.
Then why should I, no Philomel, complain?
Yet can I but lament for what must be,
The untimely death of many a noble tree.
Would that religion of old times were ours,
(In that one article, not all the others)
Which those brave shepherds held, who reared the towers,
Nigh the moist cradle of the foundling Brothers,
The faith that did in awe and love instal
For many an age the Fig-Tree Ruminal.
On the Roman legend, see Livy 1.4.5-7 (tr. B.O. Foster):
[5] So they made shift to discharge the king's command, by exposing the babes at the nearest point of the overflow, where the fig-tree Ruminalis—formerly, they say, called Romularis—now stands. [6] In those days this was a wild and uninhabited region. The story persists that when the floating basket in which the children had been exposed was left high and dry by the receding water, a she-wolf, coming down out of the surrounding hills to slake her thirst, turned her steps towards the cry of the infants, and with her teats gave them suck so gently, that the keeper of the royal flock found her licking them with her tongue. [7] Tradition assigns to this man the name of Faustulus, and adds that he carried the twins to his hut and gave them to his wife Larentia to rear.
Pliny the Elder, Natural History 15.20.77 (tr. John Bostock and H.T. Riley), records the care lavished on the fig-tree:
In the Forum even, and in the very midst of the Comitium of Rome, a fig-tree is carefully cultivated, in memory of the consecration which took place on the occasion of a thunderbolt which once fell on that spot; and still more, as a memorial of the fig-tree which in former days overshadowed Romulus and Remus, the founders of our empire, in the Lupercal Cave. This tree received the name of "ruminalis," from the circumstance that under it the wolf was found giving the breast—rumis it was called in those days—to the two infants. A group in bronze was afterwards erected to consecrate the remembrance of this miraculous event, as, through the agency of Attus Mavius the augur, the tree itself had passed spontaneously from its original locality to the Comitium in the Forum. And not without some direful presage is it that that tree has withered away, though, thanks to the care of the priesthood, it has been since replaced.
I don't know who Hartley Coleridge's "sweet lady" was, or what the circumstances were surrounding "the murderous death of many a noble tree."

George Vicat Cole, Spring


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