1748
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Isis. An Elegy.

Isis. An Elegy. Written in the Year 1748, by Mr. Mason.

Rev. William Mason


William Mason — a Cambridge Whig — launches an attack on the High-Tory proclivities of Oxford, where William King would shortly afterwards deliver a crypto-Jacobite oration at the Radcliffe Camera. In later editions the charge that "Isis taught Rebellion to her Sons" was slightly softened to "Isis taught sedition to her Sons." This became one of the more frequently reprinted poems of the eighteenth century, partly for its political sentiment, partly because it made a good pair with the answer Thomas Warton wrote to it, but also for its happy Miltonic descriptions in the academic manner. The poem had originally appeared, altered by an Oxford hand, in The London Evening Post (2-4 February 1749).

Advertisement: "The following Poem would never have appeared in print, had not an interpolated copy of it, published in a country news-paper, scandalously misrepresented the principles of the Author."

Thomas Gray to Thomas Wharton: "he is very ingenious, with great good nature and simplicity; a little vain, but in so harmless and comical a way, that it does not offend one at all; a little ambitious, but withal so ignorant of the world and its ways, that this does not hurt him in one's opinion; so sincere and undisguised, that no mind, with a spark of generosity, would ever think of hurting him, he lies so open to injury; but so indolent, that if he cannot overcome this habit, all his good qualities will signify nothing at all" 8 August 1749; Poems of Mr. Gray, ed. Mason (1775) 207.

Anecdotes of Literature: "The design of it was perhaps rather paltry, but the poetry very beautiful. The university of Oxford has been long, and not unjustly, branded with disaffection to the government. Mr. Mason, in the year 1748, thought their late conduct deserved chastisement" (1764) 2:144.

Richard Hurd to William Mason: "I received a Letter from the Professor of Poetry at Oxford [Warton], in which are these words — 'My most sincere thanks are due to Mr. Mason for his kind expressions concerning me. I think he is perfectly right with regard to his Isis [in refusing to reprint it]. I hope for the pleasure of seeing many new things in his Volume.' Mr. Professor, you see, is short and laconic, and by no means ceremonious; but I believe he means very honestly" 29 January 1764; in Correspondence of Hurd and Mason (1932) 64-65.

William Mason to Thomas Warton: "And if I put any value upon my own juvenile production, it is because it is written on those old Whig principles" in Thomas Warton, Poetical Works, ed. Mant (1802) 1:xviii.

Author's note in Poems, vol. III (1797): "It was said, in an advertisement prefixt to the first quarto edition, that 'the following Poem would never have appeared in print, had not an interpolated copy of it, published in a country newspaper, scandalously misrepresented the principles of the Author'; which parody, before the publication of the original, was reprinted in the London Evening Post, and generally supposed to be written by the late Dr. BYROM of Manchester. Very soon after Mr. T. WARTON, afterwards Poet Laureat, printed an elegant answer to it, entitled, The Triumph of Isis. But ere this the Author, (then young) was convinced that the satire it contained, though mixed as it was with true panegyric, was too severe; he therefore forbore to reprint it in any of the former editions of his Poems. However, as Mr. WARTON'S Poem has been, with this, reprinted in certain Miscellanies, and as the former holds a place in his volume, it was thought proper here to give it a place. — Certain it is that the spirit of Jacobitism, which had obtained in both our Universities before the year 1745, was far from being quite extinguished in 1748, when this Poem was written. May the more recent spirit of Jacobinism (if now it infects either of them) have a still quicker termination!" pp. 118-19n.

William Tooke: "The tory principles uniformly displayed by the university of Oxford, from the revolution down to the rebellion of 1745, gave rise to much animadversion, and were particularly adverted to by Mason, in a feeble poem, intitled, 'Isis, an Elegy,' which immediately called forth 'The Triumph of Isis,' written with equal energy by Warton, who succeeded Whitehead in the Laureat's chair, and attained to the same respectable station among the minor poets as his predecessor" Poetical Works of Charles Churchill (1804) 2:150-51n.

Hartley Coleridge: "In politics, Mason was a Whig, perhaps more from a scholastic admiration of the antique republics, than from any experimental knowledge of the wants and capacities of English society. Of this he gave proof in his Isis, a metrical attack upon the Jacobitism of Oxford, which had the honour of rousing Tom Warton to a reply, properly named the Triumph of Isis, since Mason himself confessed it to be the better of the two. Neither of them won much glory in the contest; but the heart certainly goes along with Warton.... Warton and Mason never liked one another, which has been attributed by some to their poetical rivalry, and by others to the difference of their politics. But may it not more rationally and less discreditably be ascribed to the contrariety of their habits, and the antipathy of their tempers? Mason was a correct, precise, clerical gentleman, as much attached to the decorums of life, as to those of the drama! By no means incapable of quiet sarcasm, but much above the vulgarity of a joke" Worthies of Yorkshire and Lancashire (1836) 403-04.

Duncan C. Tovey: "He showed very little magnaminity in attacking, in Isis, the university of Oxford, then (1746 sq.) out of favour with the court, the bulk of whose patronage went to Cambridge. He was answered in The Triumph of Isis by Thomas Warton, then a youth of twenty-one, with spirit and good temper; yet, such was his vanity that he believed he had inflicted a mortal wound, and, years after, congratulated himself on entering Oxford at night, without fear of a crowd of 'booing undergraduates'" Cambridge History of English Literature (1913) 10:153-54.

Mason reprinted the poem in the third volume of his Poems (1796) as "Isis. A Monologue" with the explanation that "It was originally entituled an Elegy; but the term is altered as not being written in alternate Rhymes, which since Mr. GRAY'S exquisite Elegy in the Country Church-Yard has generally obtained, and seems to be more suited to that species of Poem" p. 119n.



Far from her hallow'd grot, where mildly bright
The pointed crystals shot their trembling light,
From dripping moss where sparkling dew-drops fell,
Where coral glow'd, where twin'd the wreathed shell,
Pale Isis lay; a willow's lowly shade
Spread its thin foliage o'er the pensive maid;
Clos'd was her eye, and from her heaving breast
In careless folds loose flow'd her zoneless vest;
While down her neck her vagrant tresses flow
In all the awful negligence of woe;
Her urn sustain'd her arm, that sculptur'd vase
Where Vulcan's art had lavish'd all it's grace;
Here, full with life was heav'n-taught Science seen,
Known by the laurel wreath and musing mein:
There cloud-crown'd Fame, here Peace sedate and bland
Swell'd the loud trump, and wav'd the olive wand;
While solemn domes, arch'd shades, and vista's green
At well-mark'd distance close the sacred scene.

On this the goddess cast an anxious look,
Then dropp'd a tender tear, and thus she spoke:
Yes, I cou'd once with pleas'd attention trace
The mimic charms of this prophetic vase;
Then lift my head, and with enraptur'd eyes
View on yon plain the real glories rise.
Yes, Isis! oft hast thou rejoic'd to lead
Thy liquid treasures o'er yon favourite mead,
Oft hast thou stopt thy pearly car to gaze,
While ev'ry Science nurs'd it's growing bays;
While ev'ry Youth with Fame's strong impulse fir'd,
Prest to the goal, and at the goal untir'd
Snatch'd each celestial wreath to hind his brow
The Muses, Graces, Virtues cou'd bestow.

E'en now fond Fancy leads th' ideal train,
And ranks her troops on Mem'ry's ample plain;
See! the firm leaders of my patriot line,
See! SIDNEY, RALEIGH, HAMDEN, SOMERS shine.
See HOUGH superior to a tyrant's doom
Smile at the menace of the slave of Rome.
Each soul whom truth cou'd fire, or virtue move,
Each breast strong panting with it's country's love,
All that to Albion gave the heart or head,
That wisely counsell'd, or that bravely bled,
All, all appear; on me they grateful smile,
The well earn'd prize of every virtuous toil
To me with filial reverence they bring,
And hang fresh trophies o'er my honour'd spring.

Ah! I remember well yon beechen spray,
There ADDISON first tun'd his polished lay;
'Twas there great Cato's form first met his eye,
In all the pomp of free-born majesty.
"My Son," he cry'd, "observe this mein with awe,
In solemn lines the strong resemblance draw;
The piercing notes shall strike each British ear,
Each British eye shall drop the patriot tear;
And, rous'd to glory by the nervous strain,
Each Youth shall spurn at slav'ry's abject reign,
Shall guard with Cato's zeal Britannia's laws,
And speak, and act, and bleed, in Freedom's cause."

The Hero spoke, the Bard assenting bow'd,
The lay to liberty and Cato flow'd;
While Echo, as she rov'd the vale along,
Join'd the strong cadence of his Roman song.

But ah! how stillness slept upon the ground,
How mute Attention check'd each rising sound;
Scarce stole a breeze to wave the leafy spray,
Scarce trill'd sweet Philomel her softest lay,
When LOCKE walk'd musing forth; e'en now I view
Majestic Wisdom thron'd upon his brow,
View Candour smile upon his modest cheek,
And from his eye all Judgment's radiance break.
'Twas here the sage his manly zeal exprest,
Here stript vain Falshood of her gaudy vest;
Here Truth's collected beams first fill'd his mind,
E're long to burst in blessings on mankind;
E're long to show to reason's purged eye,
That "NATURE'S FIRST BEST GIFT WAS LIBERTY."

Proud of this wond'rous son, sublime I stood
(While louder surges swell'd my rapid flood)
Then vain as Niobe, exulting cry'd,
Ilissus! roll thy fam'd Athenian tide;
Tho' Plato's steps oft mark'd thy neighbouring glade,
Tho' fair Lycaeum lent it's awful shade,
Tho' ev'ry Academic green imprest
It's image full on thy reflecting breast,
Yet my pure stream shall boast as proud a name,
And Britain's Isis flow with Attic fame.

Alas! how changed! where now that Attic boast?
See! Gothic Licence rage o'er all my coast
See! Hydra Faction spread it's impious reign,
Poison each breast, and madden ev'ry brain.
Hence frontless crouds that not content to fright
The blushing Cynthia from her throne of night,
Blast the fair face of day; and madly bold,
To Freedom's foes infernal orgies hold;
To Freedom's foes, ah! see the goblet crown'd,
Hear plausive shouts to Freedom's foes resound;
The horrid notes my refluent waters daunt,
The Echoes groan, the Dryads quit their haunt;
Learning that once to all diffus'd her beam,
Now sheds by stealth a partial private gleam,
In some lone cloister's melancholy shade
Where a firm few support her sickly head;
Despis'd, insulted by the barb'rous train,
Who scour like Thracia's moon-struck rout the plain,
Sworn foes like them to all the Muse approves,
All Phoebus favours, or Minerva loves.

Are these the sons my fost'ring breast must rear?
Grac'd with my name, and nurtur'd by my care,
Must these go forth from my maternal hand
To deal their insults thro' a peaceful land,
And boast while Freedom bleeds, and Virtue groans,
That "Isis taught Rebellion to her Sons?"
Forbid it, heav'n! and let my rising waves
Indignant swell, and whelm the recreant slaves,
In England's cause their patriot floods employ,
As Xanthus delug'd in the cause of Troy.
Is this denied? Then point some secret way
Where far far hence these guiltless streams may stray,
Some unknown channel lend, where nature spreads
Inglorious vales and unfrequented meads,
There where a Hind scarce tunes his rustic strain,
Where scarce a Pilgrim treads the pathless plain
Content I'll flow; forget that e'er my tide
Saw yon majestic structures crown its side;
Forget that e'er my wrapt attention hung
Or on the Sage's or the Poet's tongue,
Calm and resign'd my humbler lot embrace,
And pleas'd prefer oblivion to disgrace.

[pp. 7-16]