Joseph Mallord William Turner

Inscription by Turner: Draft of Poetry: ‘Poplars in Disgrace’

c.1806–7

View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms

Artist
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Medium
Pen and ink on paper
Dimensions
Support: 332 x 420 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Reference
D40141

Catalogue entry

The recto of this sheet shows a Scene on the French Coast (Tate D08104; Turner Bequest CXVI C), one of Turner’s early studies for the Liber Studiorum; the sheet is not watermarked, but its batch has been identified as ‘1794 | J WHATMAN’.1 The whimsical poem on its verso is unrelated. Finberg imagined it might have been ‘discovered in a book or magazine’ while staying with W.F. Wells and his family at Knockholt – where Turner was said to have begun work on the Liber designs in 1806 (see general Liber introduction) – since ‘there lingers about it a faint echo of those scenes of “fun and merriment” which one of Turner’s young playmates recalled in after years.’2 Finberg and Lindsay later gave more psychological interpretations, respectively: ‘The verses deal with the perils of premature ambition; their moral is that pride will have a fall, or that it is a mistake to be in too great a hurry to o’ertop your neighbours’;3 ‘We can perhaps read some fears or doubts about the project ... “How near is pride to earth allied.”’4
Finberg,5 Lindsay6 and Rosalind Turner (see below) each give slightly different transcriptions. The following reading is prompted by those previously published (the beginnings of some lines are now partly obscured by the edge of the modern backing sheet):
a [...] poplars in disgrace
[...]ecause they would no stop their pace
[...]r grew [?unnecessarily/irregularly] tall
[...]heir master came and lop’d them all
[...]ome [?neighbourly/neighbouring] poplars stood hard by
[...]eheld thir growt with jealous Eye
[...] saw ... exulting ... cried
How near is pride to earth allied
Friends said the poplars in disgrace
You see the fault of making haste
Ambitious greatness caused my woe, Ambition shun, mind how you grow
Mind while you run you are bare below for while you run you are bare below
This should be compared with Rosalind Turner’s reading:
A row of poplars in disgrace | Because they would no stop their pace | or grew irregularly tall | Their Master came and lop’d them all | Some neighbourly poplars stood hardby | Beheld their growt[h] with jealous eye | Now saw – exulting – cried | How near is pride to earth allied | Friends said the poplars in disgrace | You see the fault of making hast[e] | Ambitious greatness caused my woe | Mind while you run you are bare below | ambition shun, mind how you grow | for while you run you are bare below7

Matthew Imms
May 2006

1
Forrester 1996, p.50.
2
Finberg 1910, p.75.
3
Finberg 1961, p.130.
4
Lindsay 1985, p.58
5
Finberg 1909, I, p.315.
6
Lindsay 1966, p.94 no.34, ‘A Row of Poplars’.
7
Wilton and Turner 1990, p.169.
8
Ivan Moseley, ‘Three Turner Fragments (2001)’, Sibelius Music, accessed 7 October 2005, http://www.sibeliusmusic.com/cgi-bin/show_score.pl?scoreid=17511.
9
Wilton and Turner 1990, p.168 (transcribed).
10
Ibid., p.152 (transcribed).

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