Be still, my throbbing heart

In John Augustus Stone’s melodrama Metamora; or, the Last of the Wampanoags, first performed in 1829, the heroine Oceana is so concerned about her lover, Walter, that she indulges in an aside: “Be still my throbbing heart.” Today a variant of the line—“Be still, my beating heart”—is a well circulated cliché. Was Metamora the coining of it? After a quick check of Bartlett’s and a brief poke through the database Literature Online, I suspect that it was. Of course, to prove that a phrase has no antecedent is to prove an absolute negative, which is awfully hard; a single counterexample will topple my hypothesis.

But if I’m right, then the turn of phrase permeated the culture without the assistance of print, because the play was never published while it was popular. The star of Metamora, Edwin Forrest, awarded a prize to the play’s author, and he considered that by paying the prize money he had purchased the play’s copyright. To ensure that it would not serve as a star vehicle for anyone else, Forrest prevented publication, and he prevented it so well that the play didn’t appear in print until 1941. In fact, act 4—the one that contains the line “Be still my throbbing heart”—didn’t appear in print until 1962.

In The Name of War, scholar Jill Lepore notes that lines from Metamora “became household words,” quoted by boys playing Indian and sentimental Americans of all ages. So it seems plausible, if exceptional, that the beating-heart line might have entered the popular linguistic subconscious by no other means than being spoken from stage.

Expiring pet tricks

While nursing the flu last week, I read M. F. K. Fisher’s A Cordiall Water: A Garland of Odd and Old Receipts to Assuage the Ills of Man & Beast. It went down as smoothly as the slippery elm drops fed to Fisher when a child by an especially seductive nanny, who also read Hiawatha aloud to her.

Fisher was fascinated by the persistence of folk-medical habits into the modern era. Writing in 1961, she noted that in Western Europe the pelts of housecats still appeared for sale in the windows of drugstores every winter, because people believed that they repelled colds when worn over the chest. “Are there old men who trap unwary housecats on the rooftops and skin them to sell?” she wondered. Maybe they are still for sale, but I doubt it, and it’s intriguing that this medieval belief was still alive and kicking within human memory—that it still survived, if only as a curiosity, into the second half of the twentieth century.

It reminds me a little of the baby-animal postcards that were sold at Eastertime when I was living in Prague in 1991. We young bratty Americans were vastly amused by the photographs, which were transparently of kittens and rabbits who had been killed and stuffed before they were posed. No doubt taxidermy eased the photographer’s task, but it seemed to compromise the underlying pagan message of rebirth in spring.

Not long ago I noticed another expiring animal tradition in Donald Barthelme’s story “The Falling Dog.” In a mock-poetic series of free associations in the key of dog, Barthelme writes,

Tray: cafeteria trays of some obnoxious brown plastic
But enough puns

I only got the joke because I had had to figure out why the mid-nineteenth-century actor Edwin Forrest had once spurned his detractors as the “Tray, Blanche, and Sweethearts” of the press. Thanks to a line in King Lear, Tray, Blanche, and Sweetheart were conventional dog-names in nineteenth-century America, the way Fido and Spot are today. In 1970 Barthelme knew about Tray, if not about Blanche and Sweetheart, and considered the convention to be available for punning upon, and yet it’s a piece of cultural literacy that has almost completely vanished. It isn’t explained in the online notes to the Penguin edition of Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, for example. It’s entirely possible, of course, that Barthelme felt the convention was already brittle and antique when he wrote “The Falling Dog,” and that the quaintness was what he liked about it.

A Clue to Aladdin’s Palace

In chapter 46 of Melville’s novel Redburn, the hero, an American boy who has turned sailor, spends the night in a London establishment called Aladdin’s Palace. The hero is led there by a fey young English friend, who deserts him until morning. The furnishings are lavish, some of the oil paintings are pornographic, and it seems to be a den of iniquity, but the sort of iniquity is uncertain. The hero suspects his friend of gambling, but some modern scholars have speculated that Aladdin’s Palace might have been a homosexual brothel.

Recently I came across a scene that reminded me of Aladdin’s Palace, in the not-terribly-funny dialect sketches collected as High Life in New-York by Jonathan Slick. Slick was a character invented by Ann S. Stephens, and the sketches originally appeared in the New York Express in 1843 and 1844. In a late episode, a handsome young woman slips a note to Slick as they are leaving the Park Theatre, inviting him to visit her the next morning. When Slick calls, he is let into a house that is opulent, but in post-party disarray. Here is his description of walking up the main flight of stairs:

I swan tu man, Par, it was like walkin through a footpath kivered over with meadow grass and wild posies, as I went up the stairs, all carpeted off and a shinin with bars of gold. Jest at the top stood a black figger, a’most as large as life and all but naked, a holdin one finger tu his lips and with a lamp in t’other hand, that seemed as if it had burnt itself out, for there wasn’t any ile in it, and the wick was sooty . . .

Accompanying the black male statue is a white female one, “as white as if it had been cut out of a fust rate cheese curd,” holding flowers and also not quite dressed. Soon Slick finds amid the statuary the young woman of the theater, named Miss Sneers, and after a flirtation, is invited to return in the evening. When he does, he is inveigled into drinking cider and tricked into gambling away everything he owns.

The disorganized lusciousness of Miss Sneers’s lodgings reminds me of Aladdin’s Palace, and more particularly, Miss Sneers’s black statue reminds me of a statue that Melville’s hero found there. He described it as follows:

In the principal pier was a marble bracket, sculptured in the semblance of a dragon’s crest, and supporting a bust, most wonderful to behold. It was that of a bald-headed old man, with a mysteriously-wicked expression, and imposing silence by one thin finger over his lips. His marble mouth seemed tremulous with secrets.

In Redburn, the statue is a way to order room service; if you speak in its ear, servants hear your instructions and execute them. Miss Sneers’s doesn’t seem to have been as multifunctional, but perhaps it was a model for Melville’s nonetheless.

Pyretic

Colin Deasy of the Thrills sings in the same tone of voice—warbly-whiny, almost too sweet—as Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips. No other points of comparison have been found. On a related note: If you listen to the Thrills’ song “One-Horse Town” while your fever is over 101 degrees, the song will replay itself at full volume for several hours after the stereo is turned off. Can’t really recommend the experiment.

Chaos More Durable Than Regret

In the story “Alice” by Donald Barthelme, the narrator wishes “to fornicate with Alice” and reports a conversation with her, which may be taking place only in the narrator’s imagination:

that’s chaos can you produce chaos? Alice asked certainly I can produce chaos I said I produced chaos she regarded the chaos chaos is handsome and attractive she said and more durable than regret I said and more nourishing than regret she said

The exchange reminded me of a passage in Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind, a book about sexual selection and the arts, among other things, where he discusses “protean behavior.” According to Miller, a good example of protean behavior is a moth dodging a bat by flying in a pattern too random for the bat to predict. The mental skill behind protean behavior Miller calls “proteanism” (400), and he posits that artistic creativity might be a way of displaying proteanism to prospective mates outside of a threat situation (i.e., a hungry Siberian tiger needn’t be chasing you in order for you to show it off). “Individuals who showed better social proteanism abiltiies should have been favored as sexual partners,” Miller writes (406). Which seems to be the outcome, at least in fantasy, of the mutual auditioning for proteanism between Barthelme’s narrator and Alice.