1751
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

An Hymn to the Nymph of Bristol Spring.

An Hymn to the Nymph of Bristol Spring. By Mr. W. Whitehead.

William Whitehead


William Whitehead's topographic ode may owe something to Spenser for its archaisms, marine imagery, and especially its tone of moody melancholy. Certainly the claim Whitehead makes for the poet's power of imagination is that of an eighteenth-century Spenserian: "from every genuine scene | Of Nature's varying hand his active Mind | Takes fire at once, and his full Soul o'erflows | With heaven's own bounteous joy; He too creates, | And with new Beings peoples Earth and Air, | And Ocean's deep Domain" p. 14. In the manner of British georgic, the Hymn interweaves its Bristowan themes of health and commerce — though the concluding fable of the venal maid and her forgetful lover, like several earlier passages, implies that Health is to be preferred to Wealth.

The "sweet Bard | Who sung her charms profest" is "Dr. Armstrong, Author of that elegant didactic Poem, called the Art of Healing" while "him, whose Muse | Crops each unfading flower from Pindar's brow" alludes "to a manuscript Poem of Dr. Akenside's, written in the spirit and manner of the Ancients, called, An Hymn to the Water Nymphs" p. 12n. Mark Akenside's blank-verse Hymn to the Naiads would be published in the sixth volume of Dodsley's Collection in 1758.

William Shenstone to Lady Luxborough: "I have seen Whitehead's Ode to the Bristol-Spring; which I don't much like; and the Verses in the country Church-yard [by Thomas Gray] which (as the Hagley-gardener said of my Grove) I like too well. Pray whose are they?" 24 May 1751; Letters, ed. Williams (1939) 309.

William Mason: "I must here give some account of a poem essentially different, in point of style and manner, from any of his other productions. This is his HYMN to the NYMPH OF BRISTOL SPRING, printed in the year after the representation of the Roman Father, and written in the manner of those classical addresses to heathen divinities, of which the hymns of Homer and Callimachus are the archetypes. The frequent summer excursions which he made to Bristol with the Earl of Jersey and his lady, on account of their health, furnished him with the subject, and the translations of Prior, as well as the poems of Armstrong and Akenside, just then in pretty general estimation, directed his taste to the manner in which the subject might best be treated" Memoirs of Whitehead (1788) 66-67.

Raymond Dexter Havens: "Whitehead's Hymn reminds one of Akenside's (which it mentions) not only in title but in style and diction. Its four hundred and seventy lines praise the salubrious properties of Bristol waters in as stiltedly Miltonic a fashion as this: 'Thee the sable Wretch | To ease whose burning Entrails swells in vain | The Citron's dewy moisture, thee he hails'" Influence of Milton (1922) 392.

Robert Arnold Aubin: "Whitehead ... decks Avonia's urn with extremely classical bays, pranking up old motifs in mythological trappings and accounting for Clifton's diamonds through an Ovidian tale" Topographical Poetry in XVIIIth-Century England (1936) 174.

Compare the anonymous "Nymph of Bristol Spring" (1787), and, in Spenserian stanzas, William Combe's Cilfton (1775).



Nymph of the Fount! from whose auspicious Urn
Flows health, flows strength, and Beauty's roseate bloom,
Which warms the virgin's cheek, thy gifts I sing!
Whether inclining from thy rocky couch
Thou hear'st attentive, or with Sister-nymphs
Fast by Sabrina's hoarse-resounding stream,
Thou cull'st fresh flowers, regardless of my song.

Avonia hear'st thou, from the neigh'bring stream
So call'd; or Bristoduna; or the sound
Well-known, Vincentia? Sithence from the dry rock
The Hermit pour'd his Orisons of old,
And dying, to thy fount bequeath'd his Name.

Whate'er thy title, Thee the azure God
Of Ocean erst beheld, and to the shore
Fast flew his pearly Car; th' obsequious winds
Drop'd their light pinions, and no sounds were heard
In Earth, Air, Sea, but murmuring sighs of Love.
He left thee then; yet not, penurious, left
Without a boon the violated maid;
But, grateful to thy worth, with bounteous hand
Gave thee to pour the salutary rill,
And pay this precious tribute to the Main:
And still he visits, faithful to his flame,
Thy moist abode, and each returning tide
Mingles his wave with thine; hence brackish oft
And foul, we fly th' adulterated draught
And scorn the proffer'd bev'rage; thoughtless we
That then the Naiads hymenaeals chaunt,
And rocks re-echo to the Triton's shell.

Love warm'd thy breast; to love thy waters pay
A kind regard: and thence the pallid Maid
Who pines in fancy for some fav'rite Youth
Drinks in new lustre, and with surer aim
Darts more enliven'd glances. Thence the Boy,
Who mourns in secret the polluted charms
Of Lais or Corinna, grateful feels
Health's warm return, and pants for purer joys.

Nor Youth alone, thy power indulgent owns,
Age shares thy blessings, and the tott'ring frame
By thee supported: not, Tithonus-like
To linger in decay, and daily seek
A death in every pain; such cruel aids,
Unknown to Nature, Art alone can lend:
But taught by Thee Life's latter fruits enjoy
A warmer winter, and at last fall off
Shook by no boist'rous, or untimely blasts.

But why on single objects dwells my Song?
Wide as the neigh'bring Sons of Commerce waft
Their unexhausted Stores, to every Clime
On every wind up-born thy triumphs spread!
Thee the glad Merchant hails, whom choice or fate
Leads to some distant home, where Sirius reigns,
And the blood boils with many a fell disease
Which Albion knows not. Thee the sable Wretch,
To ease whose burning Entrails swells in vain
The Citron's dewy moisture, thee he hails;
And oft from some steep Cliff at early dawn
In Seas, in Winds, or the vast Void of Heaven
Thy Power unknown adores; or ranks, perhaps,
Amid his fabled Gods Avonia's name.

Scared at thy presence start the train of Death,
And hide their whips and scorpions. Thee confus'd
Slow Febris creeps from; thee the meagre Fiend
Consumption flies, and checks his rattling Coughs.
But chief the dread Disease, whose wat'ry power,
Curb'd by thy wave restringent, knows it's bounds,
And feels a firmer Barrier. Ocean thus
Once flow'd, they say, impetuous; 'till restrain'd
By force almighty streams were taught to flow
In narrower channels, and once more relieve
The thirsty hind, and wash the fruitful vale.

What shrieks, what groans torment the lab'ring Air,
And pierce th' astonish'd hearer? ah, behold
Yon agonizing Wretch, that pants and writhes,
Rack'd with the Stone, and calls on thee for ease!
Nor calls he long in vain; the balmy draught
Has done its office, and resign'd and calm
The poor pale sufferer sinks to sweet repose.
O could thy lenient wave thus charm to peace
That fiercer fiend Ill-nature; Argus-like,
Whose eyes still open watch th' unwary steps
Which tread thy Margin, and whose subtle brain
To real mischief turns ideal ills.
But not thy stream nectareous, nor the smiles
Of rosy-dimpled innocence can charm
That Monster's rage: dark, dark as midnight damps
And ten times deadlier, steals along unseen
Her blasting venom, and devours at once
Fair Virtue's growth, and Beauty's blooming spring.

But turn we from the sight, and dive beneath
Thy darksome Caverns; or unwearied climb
Thy tow'ring Mountains, studious to explore
The latent seeds and magazine of Health.

"Ye Rocks that round me rise, ye pendant Woods
High-waving to the breeze, ye gliding streams
That steal in silence thro' the mossy clefts
Unnumber'd, tell me in what secret Vale
Hygeia shuns the day? — O, often seen
In dreams poetic, pour thy radiant form
Full on my sight, and bless my waking sense!—
But not to me such visions, not to me;
No son of Paeon I, like that sweet Bard
Who sung her charms profest; or him, whose Muse
Now builds the lofty Rhime, and nobly wild
Crops each unfading flower from Pindar's brow,
To form fresh garlands for the Naiad train.

Yet will I view her still, however coy,
In dreams poetic; see her to the sound
Of dulcet symphonies harmonious lead
Her sportive Sister-Graces, Mirth serene,
And Peace, sweet Inmate of the sylvan shade.

These are thy handmaids, Goddess of the Fount,
And these thy Offspring. Oft have I beheld
Their airy revels on the verdant steep
Of Avon, clear as Fancy's Eye could paint.
What time the dewy Star of Eve invites
To lonely musing, by the wave-worn beach,
Long th' extended mead. Nor less intent
Their fairy forms I view, when from the height
Of Clifton, tow'ring Mount, th' enraptur'd Eye
Beholds the cultivated Prospect rise
Hill above Hill, with many a verdant bound
Of Hedge-row chequer'd. Now on painted Clouds
Sportive they roll, or down yon winding Stream
Give their light Mantles to the wafting Wind,
And join the Sea-green Sisters of the Flood.

Happy the Man whom these amusive walks,
These walking dreams delight! No cares molest
His vacant bosom; Solitude itself
But opens to his keener view new worlds,
Worlds of his own: from every genuine scene
Of Nature's varying hand his active Mind
Takes fire at once, and his full Soul o'erflows
With heaven's own bounteous joy; He too creates,
And with new Beings peoples Earth and Air,
And Ocean's deep Domain. The Bards of old,
The godlike Grecian Bards, from such fair founts
Drank inspiration. Hence on airy Cliffs
Light Satyrs danc'd, along the woodland shade
Pan's mystic pipe resounded, and each rill
Confest it's tutelary Power, like thine.

But not like thine, bright Deity, their urns
Pour'd Health's rare treasures; on their grassy sides
The panting Swain reclin'd with his tir'd flock
At sultry noon-tide, or at evening led
His unyok'd heifers to the common stream.

Yet some there have been, and there are, like thee
Profuse of liquid balm; from the fair train
Of eldest Tadmor, where the sapient King
For the faint Traveller, and diseas'd, confin'd
To salutary baths the fugitive Stream.
And still, tho' now perhaps their Power unknown,
Unsought, the solitary Waters creep
Amid Palmyra's ruins, and bewail
To rocks, and desert caves, the mighty loss
Of two imperial cities! so may sink
Yon cloud-envelop'd towers, and times to come
Enquire where Avon flow'd, and the proud Mart
Of Bristol rose. Nay, Severn's self may fail
With all that waste of Waters: and the Swain
From the tall summit, (whence we now survey
The anchoring Bark, and see with every tide
Pass and re-pass the wealth of either World,)
May hail the softer Scene, where groves aspire,
And bosom'd villages, and golden fields
Unite the Cambrian to the English Shore.

Why should I mention many a fabled fount
By Bards recorded, or Historians old;
Whether they water'd Asia's fertile Plains
With soft Callirhoe; or to letter'd Greece
Or warlike Latium lent their kindly Aid?
Nor ye of modern fame, whose rills descend
From Alps and Appennines, or grateful lave
Germania's harrass'd realms, expect my Verse
Should chaunt your praise, and dwell on foreign themes;
When chief o'er Albion have the healing Powers
Shed wide their influence: from a thousand rocks
Health gushes, thro' a thousand vales it flows
Spontaneous. Scarce can Luxury produce
More pale diseases than her streams relieve.

Witness, Avonia, the unnumber'd tongues
Which hail thy Sister's name! on the same banks
Your Fountains rise, to the same stream they flow.
See in what myriads to her watry shrine
The various Votaries press! They drink, They live!
Not more exulting crouds in the full height
Of Roman Luxury proud Baiae knew;
Ere Musa's fatal Skill, fatal to Rome,
Defam'd the tepid Wave. Nor round thy shades,
Clitumnus, more recording Trophies hung.

O for a Shakespear's pencil, while I trace
In Nature's breathing paint, the dreary waste
Of Buxton, dropping with incessant rains
Cold, and ungenial; or it's sweet reverse
Enchanting Matlock, from whose rocks like thine
Romantic foliage hangs, and rills descend
And Echoes murmur. Derwent, as he pours
His oft obstructed stream down rough cascades
And broken precipices, views with awe,
With rapture, the fair scene his Waters form.

Nor yet has Nature to one spot confin'd
Her frugal Blessings. Many a different Site
And different Air, to smit Man's varying frame
The same relief extends. Thus Cheltenham sinks
Rural and calm amid the flowery vale,
Pleas'd with it's pastoral Scenes; while Scarbro' lifts
It's towering summits to th' aspiring Clouds,
And sees th' unbounded Ocean roll beneath.

Avonia frowns! and justly mayst thou frown
O Goddess, on the Bard, th' injurious Bard
Who leaves thy pictur'd scenes, and idly roves
For foreign Beauty to adorn his Song.
Thine is All Beauty; every site is thine.
Thine the sweet vale, and verdure-crowned Mead
Slow rising from the Plain, which Cheltenham boasts.
Thine Scarbro's Clifts; and thine the russet heaths
Of sandy Tunbridge; o'er thy spacious Downs
Stray wide the nibbling flocks; the Hunter train
May range thy forests; and the Muse-led Youth
Who loves the delicious walk, and simple scene,
May in thy Kingswood view the scatter'd Cots,
And the green Wilds of Dulwich. Does the Sun,
Does the free Air delight? lo! Clifton stands
Courted by every breeze; and every Sun
There sheds a kinder ray; whether he rides
In southern skies sublime, or mildly pours
O'er Bristol's red'ning towers his orient beam,
Or gilds at Eve the shrub-clad rocks of Ley.
Beneath thy Mountains open to the South
Pale Sickness sits, and drinks th' enlivening day;
Nor fears th' innumerable pangs that pierce
In keener anguish from the north, or load
The flagging pinions of the peevish East.
Secure she sits, and from thy sacred Urn
Implores, and finds relief. The slacken'd nerves
Resume their wonted tone, of every wind
And every season patient. Jocund Health
Blooms on the cheek; and careless Youth returns
(As fortune wills) to pleasure or to toil.

Yet think not, Goddess, that the Muse ascribes
To thee unfailing Strength, of force to wrest
Th' uplifted bolts of fate; to Jove alone
Belongs that high Pre-eminence. Full oft,
This feeling heart can witness, have I heard
Along thy shores the piercing Cries resound
Of Widows and of Orphans. Oft beheld
The solemn funeral pomp, and decent rites
Which human Vanity receives and pays
When dust returns to dust. Where Nature fails
There too thy power must fail; or only lend
A momentary aid to soften pain,
And from the King of terrors steal his frown.

Nor yet for Waters only art thou fam'd,
Avonia; deep within thy cavern'd rocks
Do Diamonds lurk, which mimic those of Ind.
Some to the curious Searcher's Eye betray
Their varying hues amid the mossy clefts
Faint-glimmering; others in the solid Stone
Lie quite obscur'd, and wait the patient hand
Of Art, or quick explosion's fiercer breath,
To wake their latent glories into day.
With these the British Fair, ere Traffic's Power
Had made the Wealth of other Worlds our own,
Would deck their auburn tresses, or confine
The snowy roundness of their polish'd arm.
With these the little Tyrants of the Isle,
Monarchs of Counties, or of clay-built Towns
Sole Potentates, would bind their haughty brows,
And awe the gazing Croud. Say, Goddess, say,
Shall, studious of thy praise, the Muse declare
When first their lustre rose, and what kind Power
Unveil'd their hidden charms? The Muse alone
Can call back time, and from Oblivion save
The once-known tale, of which Tradition's self
Has lost the faintest Memory. 'Twas ere
The titles proud of Knight or Baron bold
Were known in Albion; long ere Caesar's Arms
Had tried its prowess, and been taught to yield.
Westward a mile from yon aspiring shrubs
Which front thy hallow'd Fount, and shagg with thorns
The adverse side of Avon, dwelt a Swain.
One only Daughter bless'd his nuptial bed.
Fair was the Maid; but wherefore said I fair,
For many a Maid is fair, but Leya's form
Was Beauty's self, where each united charm
Ennobled each, and added grace to all.
Yet cold as mountain snows her tim'rous heart
Rejects the voice of Love. In vain the Sire
With prayers, with mingled tears, demanded oft
The name of Grandsire, and a prattling race
To chear his drooping Age. In vain the Youths
To Leya's fav'rite Name in every dale
Attun'd their rustic pipes, to Leya's ear
Music was discord when it talk'd of Love.
And shall such Beauty, and such Power to bless,
Sink useless to the Grave? forbid it Love!
Forbid it, Vanity! Ye mighty two
Who share the female breast! The last prevails.
"Whatever Youth shall bring the noblest Prize
May claim her conquer'd heart." The day was fix'd,
And forth from Villages, and turf-built Cots,
In crouds the Suitors came: From Albion's vale,
From Pil, from Porshut, and the Town whose tower
Now stands a sea-mark to the Pilot's ken.
Nor were there wanting Clifton's love-sick sons
To swell th' enamour'd train. But most in thought
Yielded to Cadwal's Heir, proud Lord of Stoke;
Whose wide dominions spread o'er velvet lawns
And gently-swelling hills, and tufted groves,
Full many a mile. For there, e'en then, the scene
We now behold to such perfection wrought,
Charm'd with untutor'd wildness, and but ask'd
A Master's hand to tame it into grass.

Against such Rivals, prodigal of wealth,
To venal Beauty off'ring all their Stores,
What Arts shall Thenot use, who long has lov'd,
And long, too long despair'd? Amid thy rocks
Nightly he wanders, to the silent Moon
And starry host of heaven he tells his pain.
But chief to thee, to thee his fond complaints
At Morn, at Eve, and in the Midnight hour
Frequent he pours. No wealth of waving gold
Or flowering orchats, no wide-wandering herds
Or bleating firstlings of the flock were his
To tempt the watry Maid. Yet could his pipe
Make Ecchoes listen, and his flowing tongue
Could chaunt soft ditties in so sweet a strain,
They charm'd with native Music all but her.

Oft had'st thou heard him, Goddess; oft resolv'd
To succour his distress. When now the day
The fatal day drew near, and Love's last hope
Hung on a few short moments. Ocean's god
Was with thee, and observ'd thy anxious thought.
And what, he cry'd, can make Avonia's face
Wear ought but smiles? What jealous doubts perplex
My Fair, my best-belov'd? No jealous doubts,
Thou answered'st mild, and on his breast reclin'd
Thy blushing cheek, perplex Avonia's breast;
A cruel Fair One flies the voice of Love,
And gifts alone can win her. Mighty Power,
O bid thy Tritons ransack Ocean's wealth,
The coral's living branch, the lucid pearl,
And every shell where mingling lights and shades
Play happiest. O if ever to thy breast
My Artful coyness gave a moment's pain,
Learn from that pain to pity those that love.
The God return'd: Can his Avonia ask
What Neptune would refuse? Beauty like thine
Might task his utmost labours. But behold
How needless now his treasures! What thou seek'st
Is near thee; in the bosom of thy rocks
Myriads of glittering gems, of power to charm
More wary eyes than Leya's, lurk unseen.
From these select thy store. He spake, and rais'd
The massy trident; at whose stroke the Womb
Of Earth gave up it's treasures. Ready Nymphs
Receiv'd the bursting gems, and Tritons lent
A happier polish to th' encrusted stone.

Scarce had they finish'd, when the plaintive strains
Of Thenot reach'd thy Ears. Approach, approach,
The Trident-bearer cried, and at his voice
The rocks divided, and the awe-struck Youth
(Like Aristaeus thro' the parting wave)
Descended trembling. But what words can paint
His Joy, his Rapture, when, surprize at length
Yielding to Love, he grasp'd the fated Gems
And knew their wond'rous import. O! he cried,
Dismiss me, gracious Powers; ere this, perhaps,
Young Cadwal clasps her charms, ere this the Wealth
Of Madoc has prevail'd! — Go, Youth, and know
Success attends thy enterprize, and Time
Shall make thee wealthier than the proudest Swain
Whose rivalship thou fear'st; go, and be blest.
Yet let not gratitude be lost in joy;
But when thy wide possession shall extend
Farm beyond Farm, remember whence they rose,
And grace thy village with Avonia's Name.

How shall the blushing Muse pursue the tale
Impartial, and record th' ungrateful Crime
Of Thenot love-deluded? When success
Had crown'd his fierce desires, awhile he paid
Due honors at the shrine, and strew'd with flowers
Jasmin and rose, and Iris many-hued,
Thy rocky margin. 'Till at length intent
On Leya's charms alone, of ought beside
Careless he grew; and scarcely now his hymns
Of praise were heard; if heard, they fondly mix'd
His Leya's praise with thine; or only seem'd
The dying Ecchoes of his former strains.
Nor did he (how wilt thou excuse, O Love,
Thy Traitor?) when his wide possessions spread
Farm beyond Farm, remember whence they rose,
Or grace his Village with Avonia's Name.
But on a festal day, amid the shouts
Of ecchoing shepherds, to the rising town,
Be Leya nam'd, he cried: and still unchang'd
(Indelible disgrace!) the Name remains.

'Twas then, Avonia, negligent of all
His former injuries, thy heav'nly breast
Felt real rage; and thrice thy Arm was rais'd
For speedy vengeance; thrice the azure God
Restrain'd its force, or ere th' uplifted rocks
Descending had o'erwhelm'd the fated Town.
And thus he sooth'd thee, "Let not rage transport
My injur'd Fair-one; Love was all his crime,
Resistless Love. Yet sure Revenge awaits
Thy utmost wishes; never shall his Town,
Which had thy title grac'd it had aspir'd
To the first Naval Honours, and look'd down
On Carthage and the Ports which grace my own
Phoenicia, never shall it rise beyond
That humble village thou behold'st it now.
And soon transported to the British Coast
From farthest India Vessels shall arrive
Full fraught with gems, Myself will speed the sails,
And all th' imaginary wealth he boasts
Shall sink neglected: Rustics shall deride
His Diamond's mimic blaze. Nor thou regret
Their perish'd splendor; on a firmer base
Thy Glory rests, reject a spurious praise,
And to thy Waters only trust for fame."

And what of fame, O Goddess, canst thou ask
Beyond thy Waters, ever-streaming source
Of health to thousands? Myriads yet unborn
Shall hail thy fost'ring wave: perchance to Thee
Shall owe their first Existence. For if Fame
Relate not fabling, the warm genial breath
Of Nature, which calls forth the bursting forms
Through wide Creation, and with various life
Fills every teeming Element, amid
Thy stream delighted revels, with increase
Blessing the nuptial bed. Suppliant to thee
The pensive Matron bends; without thy aid
Expiring Families had ask'd in vain
The long-expected Heir; and States perhaps,
Which now stand foremost in the lists of Fame,
Had sunk unnerv'd, inglorious, the vile Slaves
Of Sloth, and crouch'd beneath a Master's frown,
Had not thy breath awak'd some chosen Soul,
Some finer Aether, scarce ally'd to Clay,
Heroe to act, or Poet to record.

O if to Albion, to my native Land,
Of all that glorious that immortal Train
Which swells her Annals, Thy prolific Stream
Has given One Bard, One Heroe, may not Storms
Nor Earthquakes shake thy Mansion; may the Sweep
The silent Sweep of slow-devouring Time
Steal o'er thy rocks unfelt, and only bear
To future Worlds thy virtues, and thy praise.

Still, still, Avonia, o'er thy Albion shed
Benignant influence; nor to her alone
Confine thy partial boon. The Lamp of day,
God of the lower world, was meant to all
A common Parent. Still to every Realm
Send forth thy blessings; for to every Realm
Such its peculiar Excellence, thy Wave
May pass untainted; Seasons, Climates, spare
Its virtues, and the power which conquers all,
Innate corruption, never mixes there.

And might I ask a boon, in whispers ask
One partial favour; Goddess, from the power
Of Verse, and Arts Paeonian, gracious Thou
Intreat this One. Let other Poets share
His noisy honors, rapid let them roll
As neigh'bring Severn, while the voice of Fame
Re-ecchoes to their numbers, but let mine
My humbler weaker Verse, from scantier rills
Diffusing wholesome draughts, unheard, unseen,
Glide gently on, and imitate thy Spring.

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