Friday, December 23, 2011

William Makepeace Thackeray ( 1811-1863) Christmas Poem "The Mahagony Tree"

On 23 December 1863, after returning from dining out and before dressing for bed, Thackeray suffered a stroke and was found dead on his bed in the morning. His death at the age of fifty-two was entirely unexpected, and shocked his family, friends, and reading public. An estimated 7000 people attended his funeral at Kensington Gardens. He was buried on 29 December at Kensal Green Cemetery, and a memorial bust sculpted by Marochetti can be found in Westminster Abbey.

I became more than interested in the writings and the man William Makepeace Thackeray in 1967, when Father James Sheridan, O.S.A. had us read Vanity Fair. In the 19th Century Thackeray and Dickens were the gods of literature. Charles Dickens is more widely read these days and Thackeray but too rarely.

Thackeray was born in India and came to England with his widowed mother while very young. His old man was an Administrator for the East India Company and had died there. Young Thackeray was educated at Charterhouse School in London and later had a brief career at Cambridge, where his booze parties and gambling debts erased his inheritance. Thackeray fell in love with an Irish girl from an impoverished military family and married. They had daughters in quick order and the tiny wife suffered severe post partum depressions and attempted suicide. Thackeray placed his pretty, tiny and delicate love in the care of French home for the insane and Isabella Shaw Thackeray outlived her very sane and tender-hearted husband.

Thackeray was the single-parent of two little girls and wrote, edited, sketched volumes of work that not only brought them wealth and comfort, but ensured the best care for Mrs. Thackeray. Thackeray was a good guy.

He understood human vanity and snobbery - in fact, Thackeray wrote the Book of Snobs. (click my post title for that Christmas Treat)His very Title -The Book of Snobs, by One of Themselves signals the very nature of the author.

Charles Dickens was the hot-property and beloved BOZ of London. He had a large family that began to bore him. Dickens had his wife committed to a London Insane Asylum and took up with his wife's cousin. Dickens would have made a great celebrity in our times and would no doubt have Danced With the Stars, become a regular on HBO's Bill Maher Celebrity Pimp Slaps and shared Ben and Jerry's with Michael Moore.

Dickens abused Thackeray's good nature. Like too many of our contemporary celebrities, Dickens spread gossip about his literary rival for no good reason or purpose - but like out dogs of today, did so because he could. I believe that is one reason why Dickens remains so popular- He is a great talent and an interminable asshole.

Thackeray worked, lectured, sponsored and influenced young writers like Anthony Trollope and Charlotte Bronte, who not only dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre to Thackeray, but also portrayed the older writer in that novel as Mr. Rochester.

Thackeray was a tolerant man, because he himself was tolerated and forgiven. His characters are flawed and sometimes even evil, but always human and never two-dimensional creatures like those found in Dickens. Thackeray like people and I believe that he really understood them.

Old Bill Thackeray died one hundred and forty-eight years ago today.

The Mahogany Tree

Christmas is here;
Winds whistle shrill,
Icy and chill,
Little care we:
Little we fear
Weather without,
Sheltered about
The Mahogany Tree.
Commoner greens,
Ivy and oaks,
Poets, in jokes,
Sing, do you see?
Good fellows' shins
Here, boys, are found,
Twisting around
The Mahogany Tree.

Once on the boughs
Birds of rare plume
Sang, in its bloom;
Night birds are we:
Here we carouse,
Singing like them,
Perched round the stem
Of the jolly old tree.

Here let us sport,
Boys, as we sit;
Laughter and wit
Flashing so free.

Sorrows, begone!
Life and its ills,
Duns and their bills,
Bid we to flee.

Life is but short --
When we are gone,
Let them sing on,
Round the old tree.

Evenings we knew,
Happy as this;
Faces we miss,
Pleasant to see.
Kind hearts and true,
Gentle and just,
Peace to your dust!
We sing round the tree.

Care, like a dun,
Lurks at the gate:
Let the dog wait;
Happy we'll be!
Drink every one;
Pile up the coals,
Fill the red bowls,
Round the old tree.

Drain we the cup. --
Friend, art afraid?
Spirits are laid
In the Red Sea.
Mantle it up;
Empty it yet;
Let us forget,
Round the old tree.

Come with the dawn,
Blue-devil sprite;
Leave us to-night,
Round the old tree.

William Makepeace Thackeray 1811-1863

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