A Missed Literary Source for Charles G. D. Roberts’ "Out of Pompeii" (1881)

by Ross S. Kilpatrick


The influence of Roberts’ youthful reading and especially his education in Latin and Greek offer some important keys to interpreting his early poetry. A case in point is this little poem that first appeared in E. C. Stedman’s A Victorian Anthology (1895):1

(Domine, cui sunt Pleiades curae)

                                            Father, who keepest
                                                 The stars in Thy care,
                                            Me, too, Thy little one,
                                                 Childish in prayer,
                                            Keep, as Thou keepest
                                            The soft night through,
                                            Thy long white lilies
                                            Asleep in They dew.

On the epigraph Desmond Pacey comments, "This is the Latin equivalent of the first two lines of the poem," but he offers no source. The poem was reprinted in Roberts’ later collections, The Book of the Native (1896), Poems (1901), A Book of Lullabies (1925), Selected Poems (1936), and subsequently in W. J. Keith’s Selected Poetry and Critical Prose: Charles G. D. Roberts (1974).3

That Latin original can actually be found in Pomeroy’s biography, where Roberts’ poem is designated as "a very free translation of Bliss Carman’s Latin stanza:

                                            Domine, cui sunt
                                            Pleiades curae,
                                            Parvulam quoque
                                            Memet in tuis
                                            Manibus, tamquam
                                            Vesperi rore
                                            Lilium, serves. Amen."

If Carmen’s Latin is given correctly (Parvulam memet, 3), it is actually a little girl’s prayer, a detail omitted in Roberts’ version.

A somewhat more challenging source-problem is offered by "Out of Pompeii," which first appeared in Roberts’ privately-circulated Later Poems (1881) with the title "From Fire."5 A second gift edition (1882) contained three fewer poems (six), and omitted "From Fire." Pomeroy recorded Roberts’ account of this poem’s origins in the rectory at Westcock as follows:

At that time the poem was called "From Fire" and was inspired by a picture of the destruction of Pompeii in The London Illustrated News [sic], one of the innumerable pictures which papered the walls of his bedroom. It was not completed until several years after the publication of his first volume, but remained a faithful expression of the picture which stirred him so deeply.6

In his personal reading copy of Poems (1901) Roberts wrote, "Begun when I was 13, at Westcock. Finished when I was 16, at Fredericton. First three stanzas written at Westcock."7 The version originally printed in Later Poems, however, was actually dated Chatham, October 1881; so even his twelve original Westcock lines may have been revised. Subsequently retitled "Out of Pompeii," the poem appeared twice more, in 1886 (In Divers Tones) and 1901 (Poems).

Fred Cogswell’s introduction to the Pacey edition of Roberts’ verse (1985) offers this view of the poem’s original inspiration:

In the main, however, Roberts took and embroidered his classical material as he found it. His narrator, within each myth or legend, is well chosen for effect, and where, as in "Out of Pompeii," he has to invent, he writes with conviction and spirit.8

Pomeroy had also added:

"Out of Pompeii" owes nothing to legend and myth. A first-person account of any escape from a doomed city, begun when Roberts was twelve years old. The poem owes its inception to one of the innumerable pictures which papered the walls of his bedroom—an engraving of the destruction of Pompeii that had originally appeared in the London Illustrated News [sic].9

There are two interesting anomalies here. For one thing, the magazine-title as reported by Pomeroy is not quite accurate: the "Illustrated London News" has been the magazine’s title since it first appeared in 1832. Secondly, and more significant, between 1832 and 1875 (the year after the Roberts family left Westcock—and even up to the poem’s appearance in 1881) the Illustrated London News does not seem to have published any such engraving. Contemporary eruptions of Vesuvius were frequently illustrated, as were actual excavations at Pompeii, and volcanic fires are certainly highlighted in both text and pictures.10 Illustrated London News engravings of Vesuvian eruptions do reinforce the images of fire and awe in the text, images which actually seem better suited to the title "Out of Fire" than "Out of Pompeii."11 Roberts’ narrative is unparalleled in Illustrated London News. Perhaps he did recall a picture on his bedroom wall, but was it from Illustrated London News?12

The chief literary source for "Out of Pompeii" is not far to seek, but Pomeroy mentions it only with reference to Roberts’ long postponed tour of Italy in 1907:

The poet, of course, visited Pompeii. Here he found Bulwer Lytton’s great romance, The Last Days of Pompeii, a favourite of his since boyhood, now serving as a guidebook to the ruins.13

Bulwer Lytton’s influence on "Out of Pompeii" is pervasive enough to account for much of the young Roberts’ quite impressive "invention." Central to the plot of The Last Days of Pompeii (first edition 1834, second 1850) is the love-story of Glaucus and Ione, blocked by both the evil Egyptian Arbaces and Glaucus’ own jealous slave-girl, the blind Nydia.14 The novel’s narrative voices are largely third-person varied by dramatic dialogue, except for the conclusion: "Chapter the Last. Wherein all things cease," given in the form of a "letter from Glaucus to his friends Sallust, then years after the destruction of Pompeii." He assures Sallust that even if Glaucus has rejected his former life in the metropolis, he will not reject his friends. An apt quotation from Horace (Odes 4.1.3) explains Glaucus’ attitude: "‘non sum qualis eram’— I am not what I was! The events of my life have sobered the bounding blood of my youth": dungeon, disease— "the horror and the desolation of that awful ruin! Our beloved, our remembered Nydia!" (LDP 387-88).

Glaucus and Ione, with Nydia as their guide through the darkness, had

After many pauses and incredible perseverance,... gained the sea, and joined a group, who, bolder than the rest, resolved to hazard any peril rather than continue in such a scene. In darkness they put forth to sea; but, as they cleared the land and caught new aspects of the mountain, its channels of molten fire threw a partial redness over the waves.      Utterly exhausted and worn out, Ione slept on the breast of Glaucus, and Nydia lay at his feet. Meanwhile the showers of dust and ashes, still borne aloft, fell into the wave, and scattered their snows over the deck. Far and wide, borne by the winds, those showers descended upon the remotest climes, startling even the swarthy African; and whirled along the antique soil of Syria and of Egypt. 
                                                                                            (LDP 385)

Chapter X begins as follows:

And meekly, softly, beautifully, dawned at last the light over the trembling deep!—the winds were sinking into rest—the foam died from the glowing azure of that delicious sea. Around the east, thin mists caught gradually the rosy hues that heralded the morning; Light was about to resume her reign.

•       •       •

There was no shout from the marines at the dawning light—it had come too gradually, and they were too wearied for such sudden outbursts of joy—but there was a low deep murmur of thankfulness amid those watchers of the long night (LDP 385)….In the growing light of the skies there came the silence which night had wanted: and the bark drifted calmly onward to its port. A few other vessels, bearing similar fugitives, might be seen in the expanse, apparently motionless, yet gliding also on.  
(LDP 386)

•       •       •

When the lovers awoke, their first thought was of each other—their next of Nydia!... They guessed her fate in silence: and Glaucus and Ione, while they drew nearer to each other (feeling each other the world itself) forgot their deliverance, and wept as for a departed sister. 
                                                                                                                (LDP 387)

Roberts has expanded Lytton’s brief account of awakening into a fine lyric monologue of 68 lines: 17 four-line stanzas (each of 3 iambic tetrameters, one iambic trimeter). The speaker must be Glaucus, the first to wake in the silence of first light on the sea. Emerging from total exhaustion, he struggles to comprehend what he sees:

Weird fingers, groping, strove to raise
        Some numbing horror from my mind;
And ever, as it met my gaze,
        The sharp truth struck me blind.

The keen-edged breath of the salt sea
        Stung; but a faint, swift, sulphurous smell
Blew past, and I reeled dizzily
        As from the brink of hell,

One moment; then the swan-necked prow
        Sustained me, and once more I scanned
The unfenced flood, against my brow
       Arching my lifted hand. 
                                                  (OP 13-24)

When he sights Ione asleep in the stern on damp, scorched furs and fabrics, the horrors of the previous night refocus in his brain:

          Then sudden, crowding memories thronged
          Like unpent sudden rain. 
                                                         (OP 47-48)

Glaucus’ recollections of the catastrophe itself seem to come from Chapter VII of the novel:

          Clear-stamped as by white lighting when
                 The swift flame rends the night, wide-eyed
           I saw dim streets, and fleeing men,
                 And walls from side to side

           Reeling, and great rocks fallen; a pall
                 Above us, an encumbering shroud
           About our feet, and over all
                 The awful form that bowed

           Our hearts, the firey scourge that smote
                 The city,—the red Mount. Clear, clear
            I saw it,—(OP 49-59a)

One may compare the following specific passages from the poem and the novel.

"white lightning" 
                                                       (OP, 49—much reduced from Bulwer’s version):

But in proportion as the blackness gathered, did the lightnings around Vesuvius increase in their vivid and scorching glare. Nor was their horrible beauty confined to the usual hues of fire; no rainbow ever rivalled their varying and prodigal dyes. Now brightly blue as the most azure depth of a southern sky—now a livid and snake-like green, darting restlessly to and fro as the folds of an enormous serpent—now of a lurid and intolerable crimson, gushing forth through the columns of smoke, far and wide, and lighting up the whole city from arch to arch—then suddenly dying into a sickly paleness, like the ghost of their own life! 
                                                                                                                (LDP 374)

"Great rocks fallen" 
                                                                                                                    (OP 53):

In some places, immense fragments of rock, hurled upon the house roofs, bore down along the house roofs, bore down along the streets masses of confused ruin, which yet more and more, with every hour obstructed the way. 
                                                                                                                (LDP 375)

"A pall / Above us, and encumbering shroud / About our feet" 
(OP 53-55):

The cloud, which had scattered so deep a murkiness over the day, had now settled into a solid and impenetrable mass (374).... The ashes in many places were already knee-keep. 
                                                                                                                (LDP 375)

"dim streets and fleeing men" 
                                                                                                                    (OP 51):

To add to this partial relief of the darkness, the citizens had, here and there, in the more public places, such as the porticos of temples and the entrances to the forum, endeavoured to place rows of torches; but these rarely continued long; the showers and the winds extinguished them, and the sudden darkness into which their fitful light was converted had something double terribly and doubly impressive on the impotence of human hopes, the lesson of despair. Frequently, by the momentary light of these torches, parties of fugitives encountered each other, some hurrying toward the sea, others flying back from the sea to the land. 
                                                                                                                (LDP 375)

"The fiery scourge... the red Mount" 
                                                                                                              (OP 57-59):

Bright and gigantic through the darkness, which closed around it like the walls of hell, the mountain shone -- a pile of fire! Its summit seemed riven in two; or rather, about its surface there seemed to rise two monster shapes, each confronting each, as Demons contending for a World. These were of one deep blood-red hue of fire, which lighted up the whole atmosphere far and wide; but below, the nether part of the mountain was still dark and shrouded, save in three places, adown which flowed, serpentine and irregular, rivers of the molten lava. 
                                                                                                         (LDP 379-380)

Roberts has extracted a single lyrical moment from the novel, as Glaucus awakens in the drifting boat, groping to recall these events against sound of waves lapping on the hull in the soft light of dawn. Memory returns with the pungent odours of salt and sulphur. Then at the sight of Ione still asleep, thoughts of the catastrophe and of their escape awaken tender emotions. He returns to her embrace amidst

The sleepless ocean’s ceaseless beat,
    The surge’s monotone. (OP 67-68)

The young Roberts’ lyric innovations here are impressive. They include a total isolation of the lovers in their boat (Bulwer had placed other boats in the scene, with other survivors, LDP 386), a sensuous description of the boat ("the swan-necked prow"), and most of all Ione: her dress (OP 37-40), her yellow sandals (45), her "fair face, wan with haunting pain" (46), and "white arm drooping from the boat,/ Round-moulded, pure from flaw" (43-44). Glaucus’ soul (12) is "An atom in a shifting waste," an entirely appropriate illusion for Bulwer’s Epicurean hero. If stanzas 1-3 were written in 1874, and the entire poem completed in October of 1876, it makes sense that the most erotic elements he introduces should occur in the stanzas 4-17, added when he was sixteen. He may also have reworked the poem during his year at Chatham, when thoughts of his absent fiancee were strong in his heart.

The original 1881 title "Out of Fire" did not represent those first three stanzas well. While appropriate to the Illustrated London Newsaccounts of Vesusius’ eruptions, as an allusion to Bulwer’s novel it was too obscure. His omission of the poem from the second collection of Later Poems (1882) might also reflect difficulties with its reception. Was the title-change of 1886 (In Divers Tones) intended to sharpen these allusions? In any case, after Poems (1901/1907), "Out of Pompeii" was not printed again.





  1. Ed. Edmund Clarence Stedman. Boston and New York, 1895, 653. Roberts’ texts are cited above from Desmond Pacey’s edition, The Collected Poems of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts. Wolfville, N.S.: Wombat Press, 1985.[back]

  2. For "A Child’s Prayer," see Pacey, 204; 491-92 (notes).[back]

  3. Literature of Canada: Poetry and Prose in Reprint Series. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974, 129. [back]

  4. E.M. Pomeroy. Charles G.D. Roberts. A Biography. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1943, 117-18. On Pomeroy as a biographer, see J.C. Adams, "Elsie Pomeroy and Sir Charles G.D. Roberts," Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 31 (1992), 93-103. [back]

  5. See Pacey, 59-61; 392-93 (notes). [back]

  6. Pomeroy, 13; on the two editions of Later Poems, see Pomeroy, 68 (plate facing). [back]

  7. See Pacey’s note, Collected Poems, 392. (Poems was reprinted in 1907.) [back]

  8. Collected Poems, xxi. [back]

  9. Fred Cogswell, "The Classical Poetry of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts." in G. Clever (ed.), The Sir Charles G.D. Roberts Symposium. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1984, 32. [back]

  10. E.g., "a slight line of fire down the side of the great one, "May 19, 1855, p. 486; "a great body of rose or orange-coloured smoke...reflected a rose-coloured stream across the calm bay almost to Naples," ibid; "It looked like a great burning city, sending up as it did volumes of fire-coloured smoke," ibid; "The whole heavens appeared to be fire," ibid; "The flames which were thrown up too, were only perceptible from their effects, being reflected from cloud to cloud, until the sky appeared to be one mass of flame," ibid; "(We) watched the flaming flood rolling down majestically," ibid, p. 488; "that river of fire," ibid., p. 500; "wide streams of liquid fire," ibid; "The lava was running with the rapidity of a racehorse; it was running down in the form of cascades, of so pure and liquid a fire that it might have issued from ann iron furnace, and so it continued, as far as the eye could reach, carrying with it ruin, poverty, and all but death," June 26, 1858, p. 631; "fire, fire, everywhere-a vast mass of burning charcoal moving slowly and majestically," ibid, p. 632; "hell... stars... glowworms... fireflies glistened... torches... glaring fires, ibid. ILN for April 30, 1853, p. 329, reported on current excavations at Pompeii near Porta Stabiana. The Graphic for January 11, 1873, pp. 33-35 contained a pictorial essay in which the artist dreams of a baker’s shop at work in ancient Pompeii. [back]

  11. E.g., May 19, 1855, p. 488; May 26, 1855, p. 500; June 26, 1858, p. 632. [back]

  12. What picture was Roberts recalling from his bedroom wall at Westcott? The Belford, Clarke & Co. edition (Chicago, New York, San Francisco, 1889) of Bulwer Lytton’s novel includes as frontispiece an illustration (badly cropped from its original, engraver’s name illegible) of Nydia about to slip over the side of the boat, holding on to its swan-neck prow. This wood-engraving probably dates back at least to the 1860s. This writer has been unable as yet to discover any other examples of this artist’s work. The same illustration appears in the undated Cassell edition referred to in note 14 infra. Gianfranco Segato (M.A. thesis, Queen’s University, Kingston, 1988, Works of Art Inspired by Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton’s "The Last Days of Pompeii"), lists 35 exhibited works of art based on situations and characters from the novel. Nydia was a favourite subject. There is nothing similar to "Out of Pompeii," however. Nor does Segato deal with book illustrations. [back]

  13. Pomeroy, 189. [back]

  14. The 1850 edition of The Last Days of Pompeii is cited here throughout from the Cassell edition (New York: Cassell Publishing Co. [undated]). [back]