Wednesday, December 21, 2016

282. The Prodigal Son

The third number of The Dial, the magazine edited by Charles Shannon and Charles Ricketts, contained a 'Personal Note' that was most likely written by Ricketts:

“Poems Dramatic and Lyrical” The plate facing page 200 and appearing to illustrate the poem “The Prodigal” (after Albert Durer)” was done as an illustration to a different poem by Lord de Tabley on the same subject “The Prodigal” page 189 “Rehearsals.” Through inadvertence no mention was made of this mistake in the second edition of  “Poems Dramatic and Lyrical”

'Personal note', in The Dial, No. III (1893)
Rehearsals, A Book of Verses had been published by Strahan & Co. in London in 1870. (The full text is available on the website of the Internet Archive.)

In Poems, Dramatic and Lyrical (1893), Ricketts's illustration was placed facing a sonnet by De Tabley, called 'The Prodigal'. The original poem that was illustrated by Ricketts was not a sonnet, but it carried the same title:

The Prodigal

The scath of sin is on my brow like lead.

The draff of swine is in my lips for bread.
Father, I know thy glory is not dead.
I will arise.

The servants in thy house are clothed and fed

Full and to spare. I perish here for bread.
My sin hath clothed thy presence with such dread,
I may not rise.

Mine, mine the guilt, all trespass deep and red:

Thine, thine the mercy on this fallen head.
Naked I come, yet thou shalt give me bread.
I will arise. 

Ricketts originally made a drawing to illustrate this poem that refers to Luke 15:17-19. His drawing was reproduced in photogravure, an etching process, by the firm of C. & A. Dawsons, the Typographic Etching Company.

Charles Ricketts, 'The Prodigal' (1893)
In December 1892 the author had written to the publishers:

Dear Sirs, I quite approve of the design for The Prodigal Son [...?] you have kindly forwarded at the request of Mr. Elkin Mathews. 

However, the book's production was not without misunderstandings. De Tabley had selected and deselected a lot of poems for Poems, Dramatic and Lyrical, and 'The Prodigal' poem that was illustrated by Ricketts was omitted from the final selection. De Tabley wrote a new poem instead:

The Prodigal (After Albert Dürer)

In a strange country, father, most forlorn,
Broken with sin: for many idle days
Crowned with a chaplet of the Devil's bays:
My food the husks of swine, my raiment torn,

I drive my weltering flock in mire at morn
To pasture acorns on the forest ways.
Alone with droning owls and bickering jays,
I herd my hogs and wind my herdsman's horn.

The servants in thy house are clothed and fed,
Nourished with meat and strong with purple wine.
Make me thy servant: feed me lest I die.

Naked I perish for a crust of bread,
Ragged I kneel among the troughs of swine.
Out of thy far land hear my abject cry!

De Tabley's new poem is partially a rewritten version of the earlier poem, especially the sestet that echoes several lines from the older poem.

The main question raised by the result, is that the reader does not realize that it is not Ricketts who has illustrated De Tabley's poem, but De Tabley who illustrated Ricketts's drawing.

Ricketts made an illustration of the prodigal using only a few lines from the poem: 'The draff of swine is in my lips for bread' and 'Naked I come' - and from these words an image grew that was not described in the poem at all. The main subject was not taken up by Ricketts: the guilt, the contrast between the poor son and his rich father, the wish to return home, and the doubts about this intention.

Ricketts needed to invent his own art, his own image to juxtapose to a writer's text, but De Tabley did not understand this desire. He wrote a poem that mentioned elements that are obviously taken from Ricketts's drawing, the poem's ending tries to capture in words what the image shows:

Ragged I kneel among the troughs of swine.

Ricketts wasn't the kind of artist who applauded such servitude. He considered the artist to be an independent spirit. His art works never aspired to be illustrations, but works on their own, telling an autonomic story. His protest to the new poem was worded as a 'Personal note' in The Dial. He urged the publishers of De Tabley's poems to include this note in the second edition of the book, but that did not happen (not even in the third printing).

Ricketts's illustration was more than a meditation on some words from De Tableys' poem, the drawing for 'The Prodigal' also meant to reflect Ricketts's admiration for the work of Albert Dürer.

Albert Dürer, 'The Prodigal Son'

There are many differences, but one can see that the word 'swine' and 'prodigal' in De Tabley's original poem conjured up in Ricketts's memory Dürer's engraving 'The Prodigal Son' (c. 1496), in which the prodigal son kneels among swine. Ricketts diminished the distance between foreground and background; his houses are less German in appearance, the swine have a friendlier look, the prodigal son is much younger, and half naked. Ricketts's drawing is more intimate, less formal, and introduces a pump, while the prodigal son looks at the viewer.

Ten years after the publication of his illustrations for De Tabley's poems, Ricketts published another two illustrations for the parable of the prodigal son (in The Parables from the Gospels, 1903). In one of these a similar scene has been depicted: the prodigal kneeling down next to a trough surrounded by pigs; the shed in the background resembles the building in the earlier illustrations, although the major part of the structure is now in ruins. The prodigal himself hides his face from the spectator.

Sketches, proofs and prints of these are now on view at the commemorative exhibition in Museum Meermanno in The Hague, celebrating Ricketts's birth in 1866, 150 years ago. More information about the Meermanno exhibition can be found on the museum's website. On view until 8 January!