1745 ca.
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Il Penseroso. An Evening's Contemplation in St. John's Churchyard, Chester.

Il Penseroso. An Evening's Contemplation in St. John's Churchyard, Chester. A Rhapsody. Written more than Twenty Years ago, and now (first) published. Illustrated with Notes historical and explanatory.

Dr. William Cowper of Chester


A blank-verse antiquarian rhapsody posthumously published in 1767. William Cowper's promised musings on "the silent paths of sepulture and death" evolve into some charming tale-spinning. The publication was anonymous. Il Penseroso belongs to the constellation of poems that includes Joseph Warton's The Enthusiast (1744) and Thomas Warton's Pleasures of Melancholy (1747).

This William Cowper (1701?-1767) was not the Stricken Deer, but a Chester physician. His loco-descriptive poem is studded with Spenserian archaisms and freighted with an impressive load of topographical and historical lore. After an opening adapted from Milton's poem, this Il Penseroso relates the history of Western England from Roman down to Tudor times in a sequence of tableaux. A digression celebrates Thomas Wilson (1663-1755), bishop of Sodor and Man; another digression tells how in 1691 ten young women were drowned on the River Dee when, an apple being thrown among them by a waterman, they "hastily rushed to one side of the boat, and quite overset it." "Our second Milton" is John Philips, author of Cyder. The little volume is more notes than poem.

Critical Review: "The author of this Rhapsody, from an eminence in St. John's church-yard, surveys the river Dee, and some of the most remarkable places about Chester. This prospect leads him into a contemplation on the various revolutions of those places, and the heroes, princes, or patriots, who formerly distinguished themselves in that neighbourhood, by any memorable transaction. The notes are chiefly historical, and calculated to illustrate the text. This work may be entertaining to those who are acquainted with the scenes which are described. The author makes use of old words and ancient names, and appears to be a poetical antiquarian" 23 (1767) 296.

John Langhorne: "If this poem hath any merit at all, it is entirely local, from the objects it describes, and therefore we cannot recommend it beyond the precincts of St. John's church-yard in Chester, where it was born, and where it was buried, in the year of our Lord 1767; aged twenty years" Monthly Review 36 (May 1767) 409.

Raymond Dexter Havens: "Two rather similar poems adopted Milton's title to emphasize their own melancholy strain, James Foot's blank-verse Penseroso (1771), and an anonymous Il Penseroso, and Evening's Contemplation in St. John's Churchyard, Chester, a Rhapsody, written more than twenty years ago (1767), of which the Monthly Review remarked, 'If this poem hath any merit at all, it is entirely local, from the objects it describes, and therefore we cannot recommend it beyond the precincts of St. John's church-yard in Chester, where it was born, and where it was buried, in the year of our Lord 1767; aged twenty years'" The Influence of Milton (1922) 448.



Adieu, each modish Vanity, — adieu,
The gorgeous glare of Dress, the brilliant Ball,
The nightly Parties, the assembled Route,
Apt appellation! — Mummery absurd!
Adieu, such fleeting unsubstantial joys,
That like the wafting winds, a little while
Buoy up life's airy bubble, on the breeze
Gliding elate, but stronger gales, alas!
Unable to sustain, the Vapour bursts,
And bursting, all the subtile form dissolves.

Triflers, ye sons of Indolence, adieu!
And all ye dainty Narcissean tribe!
Adieu that impious Set, that leudly scoffs
At sacred truths, opiniatively wise.
Adieu the noisy Bacchanalian crew,
Those more than midnight Revellers, whose fame,
And boasted prowess, lies in copious draughts,
And frequent quaffments in the long carouse.

But hither, thou, by sober sapience taught
Her salutary lore; — with me retire
Forth from invasive din; — Not faintly fall
Now on the Welkin's wide expanse
Some sheener gleamings from the Crescent pale,
Lately renew'd; this, not obscuring dusk,
But friendly twilight, bringing to our kine,
The tranquil objects of the neighbouring scene.

Straight let us sally forth beyond these walls,
Which whilom oft successively repuls'd
Maroding Cambrians; while their ravage fierce
The senceless southward Ham to flames consign'd:
(Hence hight Treboith, by those hostile Clans)
But vain these bulwarks dar'd, rais'd by our Chiefs,
By Mercian princes, and Elfleda's care.

From these, to scenes suburbian we'll retire,
Where, undisturb'd, we freely may devote
To contemplation, and to sweet converse,
In calm recesses, this selected hour.

To where mild solitude resides we'll stray,
Among the letter'd tombs, which oft record
Praise undeserv'd, or 'mongst the humbler graves
Thick intermingl'd, which from grassy turf
No leasings publish; musing, as we tread,
With meditation, and reflection deep,
The silent paths of sepulture and death.

See where the Dee impels her wisard stream,
And gently curving, forms two fair canals,
With free expanse, and seemly-parting reach,
Near half-encompassing a fertile plain;
On which, in early days, the stately stag,
With braunching antlers grac'd, the stalking hind,
And numerous bevys of the trippant race
Impark'd, disported, and securely brows'd,
Humanely tended; with retreats supply'd,
Or from Arcturus', or from Syrius' rage.
Deftly they sped, of Deva's sovereign Earls
Th' amusement, and the care. — This spacious range,
Ypent no more, but now in shares dispos'd,
Part arable, and tilth, part fertile meads,
In various sorts, its annual produce yields.

Not that Divona here, her watry course
Originally held; of yore, she deign'd
No kindly visit to our Cestrian walls,
Averse, and distant: Now its pride and boast,
And source of much emolument and weal.

This affluent guest we owe to Latian bands,
Brought by much toil, their station to improve,
From a far tract, beyond where Allen swift,
From vales Elysian, with translucent shores
Abounding, enters the Cornavian climes.

The hardy Vet'rans this atchiev'd, what time
Paulinus, and Agricola return'd,
The Ordovices quell'd; and Druids sperst
From hierarchical sway, so long possest:
And nearer Mona's wave-dash'd holds reduc'd.

By chanels apt, and regularly form'd,
Mostly thro' living rock, by labour hewn,
(The Roman labour could all tasks perform)
To this new bed compleated, nothing loth,
By guidance meet, the wond'ring waves were led.

Thro' that rich glebe they flow, where long has wonn'd
The Gov'nor-Race, a house of high repute,
Of lineage fam'd, and qualities admir'd,
Erst Norman heroes, British patriots since.
To latest ages may endure the name,
That ancient name, deservedly rever'd!

From hence, along the verdant sloping banks
Of Hunditona glide the ductile streams,
Fast by that crystal fount, Boestona's boast;
Where from her grot, with liberal dispense,
The Naiad issues her salubrious stores.

With soft advance, these next to Cestria bring
Bounties abundant, salutary aids,
And various blessings; then are roll'd along,
O'er Syrts Vergivian, to the boist'rous main.

Anent that tract, where fallow inmates rov'd,
And frisk'd, with bounding steps, the lawns among,
Washes the margin of a hilly range,
Upon whose level top's extended space
A towering structure venerable stands;
Of yore, by royal Etheldred y' built.

He, pious prince (as fond tradition tells)
Injunction awful, in a dream, receiv'd,
To found a temple, where a milk-white hind
He first should meet; and on this fair ascent
Th' imparted signal to his view occurr'd:
When straightway, from the Mercian prelate's plan,
Wulfricious sage, the heaven-instructed king
The grand design began, and rais'd this pile,
Spacious, and strong; then to the Baptist's name,
Th' elect Praecursor! dedicates the dome.

Here the fam'd Edgar, most puissant liege,
Publick devotions at the sacred shrines,
In naval triumph, paid; what time he held
His splendid court, on our Divona's banks.

Hither, his high-born homagers repair'd;
The Caledonian king; and he, enthron'd
In bleak Deira's territories wide,
(Regions extending, in their northward rang,
To that coercive Dike, and far-stretch'd Wall
Concomitant; effect of Hadrian's toil,
And sage of Severus' pow'r, and guardian care).

From farther Mona (Monoeda nam'd,
By learned Ptolomy) the chieftain came,
Whose sovereign dictates aw'd that sea-girt isle.
In this sequester'd spot the Druids long
A safe asylum found. To Caesar known,
His pen has consecrated both to fame.
Here, let a flow of friendship be forgiven
That dares digression, whilst it means to pay
A grateful tribute to transcendent worth.

(Hail rev'rend prelate! who, devoutly bent,
In letter'd solitude, and peerless state,
Near half an age in that scant see hast sat,
Where boist'rous winds and troubled billows roar;
There faithfully attending to the flock
Committed to thy care; with them content,
In unambitious heed, still to remain,
Devoted to thy charge, and doing good
With unabating zeal; thine eve of life
Resplendent with the gleams of pious deeds,
Of spotless innocence, and sacred lore,
Confessed shines: Ineffable the meed!
Soon will thy mitred habliments be chang'd
For dazzling robes, and a triumphant palm.)

But to return! — He too, at Edgar's court
His sceptre tenders, whose behests controul
Where old Ierne, 'midst her chilling frosts,
Boasts her firm sons, the brave Gallivan race.

In climes remote, where Snowdon's cloud-capp'd brows
Survey the native variegated scenes,
Of hill, of vale, the woodland, and the plain,
Rocks, dens, and caves, old Ocean's surging tides,
The side-long heath, the marsh's dreary space,
The wond'rous Rhaiadrs from craggy steeps
Loud-dashing; semblaunt miniatures of Nile,
Objects astounding! From their Talaiths, each
In regal guise, two potentates arriv'd.

Twain others likewise came, who rul'd from far
Octapitarum, and Silurean climes,
To th' Ariconian plains, which plenteous smile,
Rich in Pomona's gifts; by native Bard,
(Our other Milton, worthily yclep'd.)
Divinely sung. — These princes all attend
Th' imperial Saxon, in his gilded barge;
(No mound enormous then obliquely cross'd
Dee's refluent stream, and check'd its hasty course.)
Each royal vassal, with his feather'd oar
Brushing the breeze-curl'd flood, whilst he, supreme,
Directs the helm, expressive of his power.

Thus in her splendid bark, th' Egyptian queen
Glided along the silver Cydnus stream;
While subject princes hand the silken cords,
The steerage tend, and set the purple sails.

Proud Sesac so, in ages long before,
Seated in glitt'ring carr, was us'd to roll
O'er Memphian plains, and Nilus' crowded strand,
By scepter'd slaves in golden harness drawn.

Though early days this grand parade had seen,
A potent despot, and his vassal train,
With happy omens, and by zephyrs bland
Wafted triumphant o'er the hallow'd waves;
Yet, within trace of memory, we find
This place, which erst acclaim'd the naval pomp,
Mark'd for the scene of much disast'rous woe.

At festive season, and in summer's bloom,
A female bevy (a more ample freight
Than Edgar's shallop bore) in prime of youth,
Embark, all jocund, on this fair canal,
And smoothly glide along the glossy plain,
In social harmony; 'till hapless nymphs!
The baleful Prize of Beauty 'midst them thrown,
Rais'd the warm contest; when, in giddy plight,
Eager each maid to seize th' ill-fated boon,
With sudden spring o'erset the poizeless skiff!
In this tremendous shock each effort's try'd
That nature dictates, — but is try'd in vain!

With struggling faint, they're seen to sink beneath
The clear expanse; then, buoyant, rise again
Near to the surface of th' encumb'ring flood:
Thence quick subside, and quick the lamp of life
Extinguish'd, ceases; — and they're seen no more!
One Nymph 'scap'd with life, and reach'd the shore.

Then did those banks resound with loud laments,
Tumultuous wailings, and the frantic cries
Of wretched mothers, spoil'd of their best hope!
While ev'ry shore responsive to their plaints,
Of their lost daughters, mourn'd th' untimely fate!
Dreadful catastrophe! A subject meet
For deep reflection, and the modest use
Of our weak faculties; by far too weak
To trace the course of Providence divine,
It's wond'rous ways, too intricate for man!

That Harold, pierc'd by no dishonest wound,
And well-nigh slain, when Norman arms prevail'd,
And Albion's crown became the victor's meed,
(Fierce hostile rage eluding) hither 'scap'd,
And in a cell, fast by yon Anchorite's Hill,
(Sacred to James, th' Apostle well belov'd)
Liv'd out his days, and in his latest hour
Himself reveal'd, some chronicles relate:
To these, no credence give; for he, brave prince,
With glory dy'd on Hastings' well-fought field.

Survey this once-fam'd fabrick! which had brav'd
More than eight hundred years the shocks of time!
And still had brav'd! had not he ruthless hand
Of Henry, whom the fawning pontiff dubb'd
"The Faith's Defender," scath'd the sacred pile.
Th' insatiate, desolating tyrant deem'd
The neigh'bring fanes to similar despoil.

The same dire hap that structure grand befell
Which our first Edward's piety and care,
For hospitable ends, and well-meant aids,
With cost immense, in Mara's utmost bounds,
Eastward had rear'd, on Weever's pleasant ripe,
Which, mostly mild, moves leisurely adown
The fertile vale to meet th' approaching Dane,
That from its hilly source, o'er frequent fords,
Hastes onward; — Now, the friendly currents join'd,
With mingled waves, for ever flow the same.

This stately pile, Vale-Royal-Abbey hight,
(So will'd its founder) and by him endow'd
With goodly granges, and revenues fair,
Flourish'd, for ages, awful and admir'd,
The grace and glory of its native soil!

Though the rude hand of violence they felt;
Sad demolition! — Yet, not quite destroy'd,
But worthily transferr'd; in these remains,
Still, with reception bounteous, and benign,
A chearful hospitality survives.

Behold those stately halls with weeds o'ergrown,
The fractur'd columns round with ivy clad,
Whilst underneath the once firm-vaulted roofs
The lowing kine are stabled; all above
Through rifted arches roar the hollow winds,
And shake the tott'ring remnants; now, alas!
Birds of ill omen nightly nestle there,
A baleful congress! hideous to the view!
The haunt of owls, and daws, and ravens dire.

Lo, yond old manse that fronts the moist south-west,
Whose time-worn walls are mould'ring in decay!
There Deva's prelates whilom had abode;
'Till Robert, hight de Limoisie (when reign'd
The tyrant Rufus o'er these realms) allur'd
By costly shrines, and roofs all silver'd o'er,
(The noble Leofric's munificence,
And pious bounty) to Coventria's fane
Remov'd his seat; and, — sacriledge accurs'd!
Robb'd the rich shrines, and peel'd the plated beams.

To what strange deeds will not the lust of wealth
Urge mortal breasts! It's chief, and guardian thus
The dome prophan'd; and by this rapine foul
The priestly function sullied, and disgrac'd.

Yet he, from heaps amass'd, was snatch'd away!
A prototype of Beaufort, mitred prince,
Who plunder'd Albion's realm; and would have brib'd
Th' obdurate King of Terrors! — proff'ring thus;
"Death! unto thee, I'll England's treasure give,
Enough to purchase such another realm,
If thou wilt let me live, and feel no pain."
Lo! the grim tyrant heedless, and unmov'd!
So, 'midst his hoards, this mighty churchman dy'd!

From Robert's flitting, to that aera, when
Despotic Henry's innovating scheme
The chair-episcopal from hence transferr'd
To fam'd Werburgha's walls; this ancient see
Mostly obey'd a delegated power.

As by these awful wrecks of crumbling stone,
We tread those dreary spaces which receive
The earth-born sons of men to earth return'd,
Reflection hints; — "If, this the lot decreed,
This the sure debt which mortals all must pay!
Why then, ye transitory beings! why!
Run ye so eager in the worldly chace;
Now grasp at shadows, and now catch at air?"

Here, to the northward side, recumbent see
A sculptur'd warrior; whose yet-semblance shews
Th' effigies-armour'd of a templar-knight.
He once (as tells his attitude) had done
Sepulchral duty, at his Saviour's tomb,
In Palestine remote; — what booteth now
That his firm limbs were once in mail yclad,
'Gainst Death's sure dart not proof; whose pow'rful stroke
Levels alike the feeble and the strong,
Th' oppressor, and th' oppress'd, the rich, the poor;
And blends, impartial, lazars with their kings.

Though objects offer still, and scenes occur;
Yet, as abundant minutes of the night
Have stol'n, unheeded, by; we'll now retreat,
Nor further dare the mists, and vapours dank.

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