Classic Cowboy Poetry

"Lasca," by Frank Desprez

 

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Frank Desprez (1853-1916) of Bristol, England studied as a copper engraver. An article
here in The Handbook of Texas On Line states, "Because of trouble with his right eye, he gave up engraving and moved to Texas while he was still in his teens with his cousin Willie Pinder. For about three years Desprez worked on a Texas ranch, though its location is unknown. Shortly after his return to England, he became involved with the theater, a connection that lasted the remainder of his life... He wrote more than twenty dramatic productions...Many of these were short pieces presented as curtain raisers or afterpieces for the Gilbert and Sullivan operas..."

That article cites the work of Mabel Major, who wrote "The Man Who Wrote 'Lasca'" in the Southwest Review, Autumn, 1951. The article is what most later information draws on for biographical information.

A 1951 San Antonio Express article tells how Mabel Major sought information about Frank Desprez's life in Texas, and that she eventually received a letter from Frank Desprez's brother, 81 at the time, who wrote, according to that newspaper that, "Frank Desprez had gone to Texas while still in his teens, had been a cowboy on a Texas ranch, and returned to England to become a writer..." The paper reports, "He enclosed two additional stanzas for 'Lasca' which were not known in Texas."

"The Man Who Wrote 'Lasca'" includes direct quotes from the brother's letter and a letter from Frank Desprez's daughter.

There is no known factual information about Frank Desprez's stay in Texas (or even any anecdotal information from Texans of the time or of the area). A search of immigration records finds a 24-year old Frank Desprez, artist, leaving Cornwall in 1877, headed to New York. To date, we have found no other U.S. records of him or his cousin, Willie Pinder, with whom he was said to have travelled.

 

We welcome your comments or additional information. Email us.

 

Below:

Lasca

Notes and Links

 

From a 1919 newspaper article about the silent film, "Lasca":


 

Lasca

Oh, it's all very well to write reviews, and carry umbrellas and keep dry shoes.
To say what everyone's saying here, and wear what everyone else must wear,
But tonight I'm sick of the whole affair, I want free life and I want fresh air.

I want free life and I want fresh air;
And I long for the gallop after the cattle,
In their frantic flight, like the roar of battle,
The mêlée of horns, and hoofs, and heads
That wars and wrangles and scatters and spreads—
The green beneath and the blue above,
And dash and danger, and life and love
                                                            And Lasca!
   Lasca used to ride
On a mouse-gray mustang close to my side,
With blue serapé and bright-belled spur;
I laughed with joy as I looked at her!
Little knew she of books or of creeds;
An Avé Maria sufficed her needs;
Little she cared, save to be by my side,
To ride with me, and ever to ride,
From San Saba's shore to Lavaca's tide.
She was as bold as the billows that beat,
She was as wild as the breezes that blow;
From her little head to her little feet
She was swayed in her suppleness to and fro
By each gust of passion; a sapling pine
That clings to the edge of a beetling bluff,
And wars with the wind when the weather is rough,
Is like this Lasca, this love of mine.
She would hunger that I might eat,
She'd take the bitter and leave me the sweet;
But once, when I made her jealous for fun,
At something I'd whispered, or looked, or done,
    One Sunday, in San Antonio,
To a glorious girl in the Alamo,
She drew from her garter a dear little dagger,
Andsting of a wasp!it made me stagger
An inch to the left, or an inch to the right,
And I would n't be maundering here to-night;
But she sobbed, and, sobbing, so swiftly bound
Her torn rebosa about the wound,
That I quite forgave her. Scratches don't count
In Texas, down by the Rio Grande.

     Her eye was browna deep, deep brown;
Her hair was darker than her eye;
And something in her smile and frown,
Curled crimson lip and instep high,
Showed that there ran in each blue vein,
Mixed with the milder Aztec strain,
The vigorous vintage of Old Spain.
She was alive in every limb
With feeling, to the finger tips;
And when the sun is like a fire,
And the sky one shining, soft sapphire
One does not drink in little sips.

                            ***

     The air was heavy, the night was hot,
I sat by her side, and forgotforgot;
Forgot the herd that was taking its rest,
Forgot that the air was close oppressed
That the Texas norther comes without warning,
In the dead of night or the dawn of morning
And once let the herd at its breath take fright,
And nothing on earth can stop its flight;
And woe to the rider, and woe to the steed,
That falls in front of its mad stampede!

Hark! Was that thunder? No, by the Lord! 
I sprang to my saddle without a word:
One foot on mine, and she clung behind
Away! on a wild chase down the wind!
And never was the fox-chase half so hard,
And never was steed so little spared
For we rode for our lives: you shall hear how we fared
     In Texas, down by the Rio Grande.

The mustang flew, and we urged him on;
There was one chance left, and you have but one
Halt, jump to the ground, and shoot your horse,
Crouch under his carcass and take your chance;
And if the steers, in their frantic course,
Don't batter you both to pieces at once,
You may thank your star; or else, good-bye
To the quickening kiss and the long-drawn sigh,
To the balmy air and the open sky,
     In Texas, down by the Rio Grande.

The cattle gained on usand just as I felt
For my old six-shooter behind in my belt,
Down came the mustang, and down came we,
Clinging together, andwhat was the rest?
A body that spread itself over my breast,
Two arms that shielded my dizzy head,
Two lips that close to my lips were pressed;
Then came thunder in my ears,
As over us surged the sea of steers,
Blows that beat blood into my eyes,
And when I could rise
Lasca was dead!

                             ***

I gouged out a grave a few feet deep,
And there in Earth's bosom I laid her to sleep;
And there she is lyingand no one knows
'Neath summer's sun and winter's snows;
Full many a day the flowers have spread
A pall of petals over her head.

And the little gray hawk hangs aloft in the air,
And the sly coyoté trots here and there,
And the black snake glides, and glitters and slides
Into a rift in a cotton-wood tree;
And the buzzard sails on
And comes and is gone
Stately and still like a ship at sea.
And I wonder why I do not care
For the things that are, like the things that were
Does half my heart lie buried there
     In Texas, down by the Rio Grande?

by Frank Desprez, written in 1882
this version from Songs of the Horses, 1920, edited by Robert Frothingham, with the addition of the introductory lines

 


Notes and Links


 

As mentioned above, Mabel Major wrote a 1951 article from which most modern information is known about Frank Desprez. She comments on possible influences for "Lasca" in a later paper. A 1963 abstract in the South Central Bulletin describes another paper by Mabel Major, "From Ghent to Texas," which she wrote for the South Central Modern Language Association meeting in November, 1962:

Robert Browning's "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix" (1844?), Joaquin Miller's "Kit Carson's Ride" (1870?), and Frank Desprez's "Lasca" are strikingly similar in subject matter, spirit, and poetic form. Each poem is about a swift horseback ride. Each resulted from its author's longing for a gallop. Each poem consists of ten stanzas of basically anapestic tetrameters, riming in couplets. Miller asked Browning for permission to use the meter and spirit of his poem. Frank Desprez, back in London from Texas, must have known Miller's poem before writing "Lasca," the best known Texas poem.

Joaquin Miller, in his 1909 book, Song of the Sierras, tells about a conversation he had with Robert Browning before writing "Kit Carson's Ride": "....Browning, beating the time and clang of galloping horses' feet on the table with his fingers, repeated the exact measure in Latin from Virgil...I then told Browning I had an order—it was my first—for a poem from the Oxford Magazine, and would like to borrow the measure and spirit of his "Good News" for a prairie fire on the plains, driving buffalo and all other life before it into a river. "Why not borrow from Virgil, as I did? He is as rich as one of your gold mines, while I am but a poor scribe..." Read more along with Miller's poem in our feature here.

Read Browning's poem here.

 


 

Stan Howe commented on an original posting at CowboyPoetry.com:

...The first American publication of it was in Helena in 1886.  There are actually a couple original copies still around.

The version you have has lots of changes from the original, that's to be expected.  However, the only way the poem really makes much sense is to have the original beginning included, which was dropped in the Lomax book that was the first publication of it in book form ... 

Oh, it's all very well to write reviews, and carry umbrellas and keep dry shoes.
To say what everyone's saying here, and wear what everyone else must wear,
But tonight I'm sick of the whole affair, I want free life and I want fresh air.

That makes the entire poem make sense, when the listener knows why it was written.

 


 

L. Davis of Australia wrote: "I have to comment on what I see as a mistake. Everyone who quotes Lasca has not mentioned the first few lines. Everyone starts off halfway through the first verse. In Hoofs And Horns, an old cowboy magazine from the 1950s, it was published [correctly]." And she sent a copy of the first page:




 


 

Texas poet and writer Linda Kirkpatrick located a 1894 article from the Clinton (Iowa) Morning Age by humorist Edward W. "Bill" Nye. He gives some humorous comments about some aspects of "Lasca" and there are illustrations. Read the entire article here.


 

In her book, Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle, Katie Lee devotes a number of pages to Desprez and "Lasca." She includes both an early version of the poem and the words that she put to music. She notes that the poem was first published in the monthly magazine, London Society, in November, 1882.

 


 

The Texas Folklore Society web site has a version of the poem.

 


 

There is a recording of it here: http://www.tinfoil.com/cm-9811.htm and one version here, from the Angel City Press book, Cowboy Love Poetry: Verse from the Heart of the West (edited by Paddy Calistro, Jack Lamb and Jean Penn; foreword by Waddie Mitchell Angel City Press, Santa Monica, CA 1994. This book is included in our Anthologies Index.)

 


 

Boise State University has a biographical sketch here and there is a Wikipedia article here.

 


 

  Wylie Gustafson of Wylie & the Wild West created a song based on "Lasca," included on the band's Hang-n-Rattle CD.

Watch and listen to Wylie Gustafson, Wylie & the Wild West, and Paul Zarzyski perform their musical version of "Lasca" on YouTube. They are backed by the Smokey Mountain Symphony from Pigeon Forge, Tennessee in conjunction with the Saddle Up! at Pigeon Forge event in a performance on February 19, 2009. The musical arrangement was written by Wylie Gustafson.

 


 

A 1919 silent film, Lasca, starred Edith Roberts and Frank Mayo. This is a 1920 newspaper advertisement from the Iowa City Press Citizen newspaper:

 

Another Ohio newspaper writes about the film (The Newark Advocate (Newark, Ohio) December 5, 1919):

A Dramatic Tale for Lovers

A beautiful story within a story. A tale so rich with romance and so wonderfully told as to challenge the admiration of all photo play lovers. The narrative of a Spanish girl whose wondrous character enriches the memory of all heroic souls. As beautiful as the fairest flower, As fragrant as the scented dew of a June morning. Story by Percy Heath—adapted from the poem by Mr. F. Desprez. A picture you'll love. SEE IT with your family.

 

The same newspaper writes in an accompanying article:

In a 1951 letter to Mabel Major, Frank Desprez's daughter comments, "Some years ago, my brother,—my only brotherwho has now passed on, somehow got to know that a film being based on 'Lasca' was being produced in the U.S.A. and that the copyright was being claimed by a certain Minnie Duprez who made herself out to be a sister of the author! After investigation, the imposture [sic] was shown up, and the film producers paid us for their use of the story."

The 1931 film Lasca of the Rio Grande," starring Leo Carrillo, Johnny Mack Brown, and Dorothy Burgess was based on Frank Desprez's poem.

 


"Lasca" is also posted in our Who Knows? feature and in our Favorite Cowboy and Western Poems Project.

We welcome your comments or additional information. Email us.

 

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