3 / MEDITATIVE/PESSIMISTIC C18 POEMS OR EXTRACTS OF POEMS, WHICH CAN BE READ ALOUD OR APPRECIATED SILENTLY
3.1 Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) Extract from Epistle to Miss Blount, on her Leaving Town (1717)
[Note: Pope, the master of the rhyming couplet, used its studied form
to express sympathy through restrained understatement.]
Thus from the world fair Zephalinda flew,
Saw others happy, and with sighs withdrew;
Not that their pleasures caused her discontent,
She sighed – not that they stayed, but that she went.
She went, to plain-work and to purling brooks,
Old-fashioned halls, dull aunts, and croaking rooks.
She went, from opera, park, assembly, play,
To morning walks, and prayers three hours a day;
To pass her time ’twixt reading and Bohea [pronounced Bohee: black tea].
To muse and spill her solitary tea,
Or o’er cold coffee trifle with the spoon,
Count the slow clock – and dine exact at noon;
Divert her eyes with pictures in the fire;
Hum half a tune; tell stories to the squire …’.
3.2 Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745),
Extract from The Lady’s Dressing Room (1732)
[Note: This graphic poem, recounting the would-be lover’s recoil from the physical realities of human excrement, dispels any illusion that Georgian poetry is invariably pretty-pretty and genteely ‘nice’.]
Why Strephon will you tell the rest?
And must you needs describe the chest? [a boxed potty]
That careless wench! no creature warn her
To move it out from yonder corner;
But leave it standing full in sight
For you to exercise your spite.
In vain the workman showed his wit
With rings and hinges counterfeit
To make it seem in this disguise
A cabinet to vulgar eyes;
… So Strephon, lifting up the lid,
To view what in the chest was hid.
The vapors flew from out the vent,
But Strephon cautious never meant
The bottom of the pan to grope,
And foul his hands in search of Hope.
O never may such vile machine
Be once in Celia’s chamber seen!
O may she better learn to keep
Those “secrets of the hoary deep!” [a quotation from Milton]
… So things, which must not be expressed,
When plumped into the reeking chest,
Send up an excremental smell
To taint the parts from whence they fell.
The petticoats and gown perfume,
And waft a stink round every room.
Thus finishing his grand survey,
Disgusted Strephon stole away
Repeating in his amorous fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits.
3.3 Thomas Gray (1716 – 71), Full text of
Elegy in Country Churchyard (1751)
[Note: There are many powerful eighteenth-century songs and odes
to death and mourning, but nothing compared, for fame and subsequent influence, with Gray’s Elegy, which has been translated into many languages and was subsequently admired by the US President Abraham Lincoln and by the British novelist Thomas Hardy, among many others. The poem dreamily mourns the unsung talents among the poor and unlettered, who live ‘far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife’ and ends with a lament at the untimely death of a friend:
‘One morn I missed him on the custom’d hill’.
By the way, some readers find the final Epitaph a bit soppy and the whole text a bit over-long; but the poem is best read in its entirety to feel the full force of Gray’s melancholia. Readers interested in hearing the poem read aloud with music and unfolding images can also listen to video recording, read by Alexander Scourby and edited by Syd Hutchinson (15 Oct. 2016). See following link:
Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;
Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand’ring near her secret bow’r,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
The swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.
For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.
Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
If Mem’ry o’er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where thro’ the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.
Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre.
But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page,
Rich with the spoils of time, did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.
Th’ applause of list’ning senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,
And read their hist’ry in a nation’s eyes,
Their lot forbade: nor circumscrib’d alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin’d;
Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,
The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
With incense kindled at the Muse’s flame.
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
Yet ev’n these bones from insult to protect,
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.
Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.
For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e’er resign’d,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing, ling’ring look behind?
On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev’n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
Ev’n in our ashes live their wonted fires.
For thee, who mindful of th’ unhonour’d Dead
Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
If chance, by lonely contemplation led,
Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,
Haply some hoary-headed swain may say:
“’Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away
To meet the sun upon the upland lawn.
“There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,
His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
And pore upon the brook that babbles by.
“Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
Mutt’ring his wayward fancies he would rove,
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
Or craz’d with care, or cross’d in hopeless love.
“One morn I miss’d him on the custom’d hill,
Along the heath and near his fav’rite tree;
Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;
“The next with dirges due in sad array
Slow thro’ the church-way path we saw him borne.
Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay,
Grav’d on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.”
Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
Fair Science frown’d not on his humble birth,
And Melancholy mark’d him for her own.
Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heav’n did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear,
He gain’d from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a friend.
No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose)
The bosom of his Father and his God.
3.4 Thomas Gray (1716 – 71), Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes (1757)
[Note: Here formal rhymes and classic references are tweaked to droll effect, showing a strain of wry humour from Gray.]
’Twas on a lofty vase’s side,
Where China’s gayest art had dyed
The azure flowers that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima, reclined,
Gazed on the lake below.
Her conscious tail her joy declared;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
She saw: and purred applause.
Still had she gazed; but ‘midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The Genii of the stream;
Their scaly armour’s Tyrian hue [a rich dye from Tyre]
Thro’ richest purple to the view
Betrayed a golden gleam.
The hapless Nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretched in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat’s averse to fish?
Presumptuous Maid! with looks intent
Again she stretched, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulf between.
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled)
The slippery verge her feet beguiled,
She tumbled headlong in.
Eight times emerging from the flood
She mewed to every watery god,
Some speedy aid to send.
No Dolphin came, no Nereid stirred;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard.
A Favourite has no friend!
From hence, ye Beauties, undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne’er retrieved,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
And heedless hearts is lawful prize,
Nor all, that glisters, gold.
3.5 Robert Burns (1759 – 96), Man was Made to Mourn: A Dirge (1784)
[Note: extracted from a poem of eleven stanzas. The unforgettable reference to ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ puts a wealth of sorrow, both historic and contemporary, into one pithy, much-quoted phrase]
When chill November’s surly blast
Made fields and forests bare,
One ev’ning, as I wander’d forth
Along the banks of Ayr,
I spied a man, whose aged step
Seem’d weary, worn with care;
His face was furrow’d o’er with years,
And hoary was his hair.
“Young stranger, whither wand’rest thou?”
Began the rev’rend sage;
“Does thirst of wealth thy step constrain,
Or youthful pleasure’s rage?
Or, haply, prest with cares and woes,
Too soon thou hast began
To wander forth, with me to mourn
The miseries of man. …
“O man! while in thy early years,
How prodigal of time!
Mis-spending all thy precious hours,
Thy glorious, youthful prime!
Alternate follies take the sway;
Licentious passions burn;
Which tenfold force gives Nature’s law,
That man was made to mourn. …
“Many and sharp the num’rous ills
Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still, we make ourselves,
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And man, whose heaven-erected face
The smiles of love adorn –
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn! …
“O Death! the poor man’s dearest friend,
The kindest and the best!
Welcome the hour my aged limbs
Are laid with thee at rest!
The great, the wealthy, fear thy blow,
From pomp and pleasure torn;
But oh! a blest relief for those
That weary-laden mourn!”
3.6 William Blake (1757 – 1827), The Sick Rose (1794)
[Note: This short poem uses the simple ballad form to enigmatic effect, musing on the secret corruption of innocence and beauty. Blake leaves readers to imagine the identity of the hidden destroyer. whether bad sex, disease, age or any other implacable force.]
Oh Rose, thou art sick:
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy;
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
3.7 William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850), London (1802)
[Note: Wordsworth’s sonnet is addressed to John Milton, the seventeenth-century Puritan republican, whose majestic poetry was regularly quoted by Georgians across the political spectrum]
Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.
3.8 Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743 – 1825), Life (written 1810s?; first publ. 1825)
[Note: this poem, by a lady known for her Nonconformist piety and learning, is strikingly secular in its predominant tone. It is, furthermore, about Death but addressed to Life. The final couplet points to the possibility of Resurrection into Heaven, but without any reference to God or a personal saviour.]
Life! I know not what thou art
But know that thou and I must part;
And when, or how, or where we met,
I own to me’s a secret yet,
But this I know, when thou art fled,
Where’er they lay these limbs, this head,
No clod so valueless shall be
As all that then remains of me.
O whither, whither dost thou fly?
Where bend unseen thy trackless course?
And in this strange divorce,
Ah, tell me where I must seek this compound I?
To the vast ocean of empyreal [celestial] flame,
From whence thy essence came,
Dost thou thy flight pursue, when freed
From matter’s base encumbering weed?
Or dost thou, hid from sight,
Wait, like some spell-bound knight,
Through blank oblivious years th’appointed hour,
To break thy trance and reassume thy power?
Yet cans’t thou without thought or feeling be?
O say what art thou, when no more thou’rt thee?
Life! We have been long together,
Through pleasant and through cloudy weather;
’Tis hard to part when friends are dear;
Perhaps ’twill cost a sigh, a tear; –
Then steal away, give little warning,
Choose thine own time;
Say not Good-night, but in some brighter clime
Bid me Good-morning!
3.9 John Keats (1795 – 1821) Ode on Melancholy (1818)
[Note: Keats’s lyrical and tender melancholia was taken as the essence of youthful Romanticism, as he urges his readers to avoid Lethe, the Underworld river of forgetfulness, but instead to share his ‘wakeful anguish’, that Melancholy will ultimately triumph over Beauty and Joy.]
No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.
But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.
She dwells with Beauty – Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran [sovereign] shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.