February 15, 2018

The First Lover - Dabbling Toes In Exotic Waters

The First Lover

As o'er the vessel's side she leant, 
She saw the swimmer in the sea 
With eager eyes on her intent, 
"Come down, come down and swim with me."

So weary was she of her lot, 
Tired of the ship's monotony, 
She straightway all the world forgot 
Save the young swimmer in the sea.

So when the dusky, dying light 
Left all the water dark and dim, 
She softly, in the friendly night, 
Slipped down the vessel's side to him.

Intent and brilliant, brightly dark, 
She saw his burning, eager eyes, 
1890's ads for swimming gear
And many a phosphorescent spark 
About his shoulders fall and rise.

As through the hushed and Eastern night 
They swam together, hand in hand, 
Or lay and laughed in sheer delight 
Full length upon the level sand.

"Ah, soft, delusive, purple night 
Whose darkness knew no vexing moon! 
Ah, cruel, needless, dawning light 
That trembled in the sky too soon!"

These fresh little verses are a clear departure from the devotional and Urdu inspired works of the last cluster of poems. But the poem seems too strangely specific to just be a flight of fancy - after all, young Adela Florence Cory was just such a teenager of 16 when she crossed the ocean for many weeks on just such a steamship transporting "fishing fleet" girls to India. 

According to author Anne De Courcey, the young ladies were kept distracted with all kinds of entertainments during the long days and evenings onboard - cards and deck games, sack and potato races, dinners and dances and ship-board romances with soldiers and civil servants on leave.   Slipping in some flirtatious swimming with a comely boat-hand while in port at Marseilles or Aden might have been just the thing to set up the pattern we find oft repeated in our poet's later tales of boat songs and trysts on water.   

High spirited, fresh from an Italian finishing school with hours and hours on end to spend in a sort of netherworld between her old life and her new one - did Violet dabble her toes in exotic waters?  Very likely.  After all, the piece is very clearly titled, "The First Lover" and unlike so many of Hope's works, it is very clearly a young lady who slips overboard to spend time with a handsome youth.
I am inclined to believe these verses are based on a fondly remembered real event instigated by either Violet, her sister Isabel who most likely traveled to India with her, or at the very least another of their shipboard companions.  Valued beyond measure by Raj society, the fishing fleet girls could more or less call their own shots without too much censure.  Despite what we consider to be a strict moral climate of the day, it turns out teenagers act pretty much the same in all eras and any setting if left to their own devices.

"The First Lover" is a rare work of verse that captures a moment from a Raj era fishing fleet voyage, inspired by her favorite muse Youth.  In a twilight zone between two worlds, frolicking, seduction and naughty escape must have cast an irresistible spell on such young travelers.  Luckily, Violet chose to share this lovely indiscretion in one of her most charming verse stories. 

 NOTE:  "The First Lover" is recorded in the fifth section of India's Love Lyrics and may be listened to here.  This is a sneak preview, and will not be available  on Librivox until the entire book has been recorded. 

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