Monday, October 5, 2009

A Ghostly Scent from Long Ago

It’s October, the days are growing shorter, the moon is full, and Halloween is not far off. What better time for a sentimentally fragrant ghost story?

One hundred and thirty-eight years ago this month, Bret Harte published a poem called “A Newport Romance” in The Atlantic Monthly. Harte, who made his bones with “The Luck of Roaring Camp” and other stories set in the California Gold Rush, was thirty-five years old at the time. He had just signed a record-setting $10,000 a year deal with the magazine to publish one story a month, and would soon give up his professorship at the University of California to move back East.

Harte’s poem is told by a fellow who lives in a haunted house by the seaside in Newport, Rhode Island. The spirit that lingers there is that of a previous owner, an elderly spinster who died waiting for her lover to return. 
And ever since then, when the clock strikes two,
She walks unbidden from room to room,
And the air is filled that she passes through
With a subtle, sad perfume.

The delicate odor of mignonette,
The ghost of a dead-and-gone bouquet,
Is all that tells of her story; yet
Could she think of a sweeter way?
Who is this lady? Is the setting of an old house in Newport just an arbitrary poetic fancy? Hardly. 

One hundred years earlier—in the summer of 1781—the Comte de Rochambeau and six thousand French soldiers arrived to aid the American Revolution. Rochambeau’s men camped in the fields of Newport and his officers were billeted in private homes in town, where they were well-received and entertained by the local Yankees. Rochambeau and his men left town in July, 1781 to join forces with George Washington and begin the siege of Yorktown. By October, Rochambeau and his countryman the Marquis de Lafayette had helped the Continental Army defeat Lord Cornwallis and the British. So Harte’s poetic story lines up nicely with historical fact. His love-struck Quaker lady of Newport met and fell in love with a French soldier under the command of Rochambeau.

But why the ghostly scent? Her Frenchman gave her scented bouquets which she kept as she waited for his return.
But she kept the posies of mignonette
That he gave; and ever as their bloom failed
And faded (though with her tears still wet)
Her youth with their own exhaled.
She would wait in vain until the end of her life—and even after, if the ghost story is to be believed. The narrator, evidently living alone in “this sad old house,” waits for the clock to strike two then sniffs expectantly:
Was it the trick of a sense o’erwrought
With outward watching and inward fret?
But I swear that the air just now was fraught
With the odor of mignonette!
He opens a window and gazes out at the ocean and at a nearby gas-lit house where a happy dance party is in progress—a scene that painfully contrasts with the loneliness of his sad old house. He sniffs again and comes to an exquisite olfactory insight:
And no odor of mignonette there is,
But the breath of morn on the dewy lawn;
And mayhap from causes as slight as this
The quaint old legend is born.
There you have it—the psychology of odor expectation in rhyming verse.

But wait, there’s more! Nearly a half century before Marcel Proust publishes his over-praised, madeleine-cued olfactory memories, Harte gives us the real deal:
But the soul of that subtle, sad perfume,
As the spiced embalmings, they say, outlast
The mummy laid in his rocky tomb,
Awakens my buried past.

And I think of the passion that shook my youth,
Of its aimless loves and its idle pains,
And am thankful now for the certain truth
That only the sweet remains.
Here Harte strikes a melancholy note so often found in poems and stories about remembered smells. Faded scent and faded memory are both elusive; we yearn to experience them vividly in the here-and-now, and are saddened by our inability to conjure the past. At the same time, their recollection brings us some small measure of happiness, selectively filtered by time.


Nathan Branch said...

I always laugh out loud whenever you refer to Proust as over-praised and over-quoted. That whole madeleine-cued olfactory memory reference may as well be divinely carved in stone when it comes to writing about fragrance and perfume -- it's in nearly every fragrance/perfume book I've ever read.

I admire, however, your lonely crusade.

Avery Gilbert said...

Nathan Branch:

Lonely crusade? Where were you when the Anti-Proust League flash mob pelted the French Embassy with stale madeleines?

Or maybe we just thought about doing that . . .

Or maybe we is just me . . .

If I can't rid the world of the false consciousness of a French cookie, then the least I can do is launch an anti-meme on the internet.