The first installment of The Minstrel consists of 62 Spenserians describing the education of a village poet. James Beattie's poem, originally published anonymously, marks a new turn in Spenserian poetry, away from burlesque imitations of Spenser's style to new kinds of descriptive and narrative verse imitating Spenser's romantic spirit. That said, it remains possible to think of The Minstrel, which began as a Spenser burlesque, as a distillation of earlier strands in the tradition: biography from Spenser's December, landscape from Milton's L'Allegro, sentiment from Shenstone's School-Mistress, and concept of simple innocence from Gray's Eton College Ode and Elegy.
Rather than treating these things in episodes or digressions, The Minstrel weaves them into a new kind of descriptive narration organised around a single sensibility or point of view. James Beattie's careful diction, using "poetic" words rather than the usual archaisms, established a new norm for the natural language in later romantic poetry. Samuel Johnson, no great admirer of Spenser imitations, told Beattie that "there is not a line in The Minstrel which one would not wish to have written" Everard King, James Beattie's The Minstrel and the Origins of Romantic Autobiography (1992) 39. This once-famous poem inspired a later generation of untutored poets who modeled themselves on Edwin.
The initial reviews indicate that Spenserian stanzas were not yet acceptable in some quarters: "The author has chosen to write in the stanza which Spenser imitated from the Italian, for which every reader of unvitiated taste will certainly be sorry" Monthly Review (1771); the poem "cannot but give pleasure even to those who most dislike the stanza in which it is written" Gentleman's Magazine (1771) 221.
George Lyttelton to Elizabeth Montagu: "I read your Minstrel last night, with as much rapture as poetry, in her noblest sweetest charms, ever raised in my soul. It seemed to me, that my once most beloved minstrel, Thomson, was come down from heaven, refined by the converse of purer spirits than those he lived with here, to let me hear him sing again the beauties of nature, and the finest feelings of virtue, not with human, but with angelic strains! I beg you to express my gratitude to the poet for the pleasure he has given me. Your eloquence alone can do justice to my sense of his admirable genius, and the excellent use he makes of it. Would it were in my power to do him any service!" 8 March 1771; in Forbes, Life of Beattie (1806) 1:193.
John Langhorne: "The effects of ENTHUSIASM in poetry are so very different from its influences on religion, that, though poison to the latter, it is nutriment to the former. Nothing can be more easy to be distinguished! — Pope never knew it.... In Spenser there is hardly a page which does not bear visible marks of it; and what but this could now reconcile us to the dry perplexity of his allegory, the frequently nauseating circumstances of his imagery, and the tiresome uniformity of his measure? — It is fortunate for the Author of this poem, that, as he has thought proper to adopt the latter, he has the same happy enthusiasm to support and render it agreeable" Monthly Review 44 (April 1771) 265.
Gentleman's Magazine: "The author has chosen to write in the stanza which Spencer imitated from the Italian, for which every reader of unvitiated taste will certainly be sorry.... An ear not used to the stanza of Spencer is rather disappointed than gratified by the rhime; and to him that has read it long enough to expect the rhime, it can scarce fail to have become tiresome" 41 (May 1771) 221.
Henry Francis Cary: "It is evident that the poet had felt much of what he describes, and he therefore makes his hearers feel it. Yet at times, it must be owned, he seems as if he were lashing himself into a state of artificial emotion ... we hear indeed, too often, of 'nature's charms'" "James Beattie" in London Magazine 5 (April 1822) 320.
Thomas Frognall Dibdin: "Most sweet and soothing and instructive is that thoroughly picturesque and sentimental poem, throughout: while the stanza exhibits one of the happiest of modern attempts at that of the Spencerian structure" The Library Companion (1824) 735n.
John Wilson: "The genius of Beattie was national, and so was the subject of his greatest song — The Minstrel.... Did imagination ever create scenery more Scottish? Manners, Morals, Life? Never.... He wore a wig, it is true, but at times, when the fit was on him, he wrote like the unshorn Apollo" Blackwood's Magazine 31 (June 1832) 981-82.
Robert Southey: "In this stanza Thomson had composed the Castle of Indolence, and Shenstone his Schoolmistress, each being very far the best work of its author; and the publication of Percy's Reliques gave birth to a third poem in the same delightful measure, which though the author, failing to work out his own conception, left it imperfect, will nevertheless hold its place with these, centuries hence, when time shall have winnowed the wheat in our granaries from the chaff, and purged the floor: it was upon reading Percy's preliminary Dissertation, that Beattie conceived the intention of writing the Minstrel. No poem has ever given more delight to minds of a certain class, and in a certain stage of their progress, that class a high one, and that stage perhaps the most delightful in the course of their pilgrimage. It was to this class that the poet himself belonged; the scenes which he delineated were those in which he had grown up, the feelings and aspirations those of his own boyhood and youth, and the poem derived its peculiar charm from its truth" Life and Works of Cowper (1835-37) 2:180-81.
James Russell Lowell to G. B. Loring: "This afternoon I read through Beattie's Minstrel, which I never read carefully before. It does not seem to me in most parts to possess fire enough — you can't see the 'kindling touch' of genius in it" 14 April 1837; in Moulton, Library of Literary Criticism (1901-05) 4:432.
Edmund Gosse: "Of James Beattie (1735-1803) it is enough to record that he published incoherent fragments of a mock-antique Minstrel, in the Spenserian stanza, in 1771 and 1774" History of Eighteenth-Century Literature (1889) 327.
George Saintsbury: "The Minstrel or the Progress of Genius can satisfy only the most moderate expectations, or the least fastidious taste. There is absolutely no story; the expression is seldom or never striking, and the versification (it is Spenserian), though not contemptible, has no distinction. But all the objects of the early, confused, Romantic appetite — country scenes, woods, ruins, the moon, chivalry, mountains — are dwelt upon with a generous emotion, and with at least poetic intention. Above all, Beattie was important 'for them,' to apply once more one of the most constantly applicable of critical dicta. His time could understand him, as it could not have understood purer Romanticism, and it is probable that, for an entire generation at least, and perhaps longer, The Minstrel served to bring sometimes near, and sometimes quite, to poetry, readers who would have found Coleridge too fragmentary, Shelley too ethereal, and both too remote" Short History of English Literature (1898) 586.
Herbert E. Cory: "There is no plot. Edwin, a very sentimental and unprimitive bard, wanders about aimlessly and finally meets a hermit who tells him all about the divinity of nature and the degeneracy of man. But Beattie had a considerable talent for mellifluous verse and he was astute enough to avoid mere mechanical Spenserian affectations. Sometimes, as in Edwin's vision of the fairies, the verse is genuinely charming... The influence of The Minstrel was immense for over sixty years after its appearance" "Spenser, Thomson, and Romanticism" PMLA 26 (1911) 81-82.
Harko Gerrit De Maar: "Though The Minstrel contains 31 more or less archaic Spenserian words, yet its author must be admitted to have broken up the integral connection between the genuine Spenserian stanza and the genuine Spenserian diction, a connection which had existed for about 60 years. The later Spenserians used Spenser's diction occasionally, but it was no longer a poetic law. Burns, Campbell, and Byron employ the Spenserian stanza independently of the diction, Byron's practice being especially instructive in this respect" History of Modern English Romanticism (1924) 55.
Bernard Groom: "It contains, along with some Spenserian words which were now growing familiar, various 'imitations' from Shakespeare and other writers, acknowledged in the fashion of Gray" The Diction of Poetry from Spenser to Bridges (1955) 152.
Mary Moorman: "It became and remained one of Wordsworth's favourite poems: its echoes are found even in the poetry of his maturity, and in the years of stress after his return from France, when he was struggling to prepare himself for his life's work as a poet, it was to Beattie that he turned for refreshment and inspiration.... Dorothy, writing to Jane Pollard in 1793 ... commented: 'That verse ['In truth he was a strange and wayward wight'] always reminds me of him [William] and indeed the whole character of Edwin resembles much what William was when I first knew him'" William Wordsworth, the Early Years (1957; 1969) 60-61.
Greg Kucich: The Minstrel "made so many major innovations on the eighteenth-century background that it should be considered the cornerstone of the new tradition of Romantic Spenserianism.... What made The Minstrel so attractive was its elaborate drama about a maturing poet's division between imaginative beauty and intellectual truth. Thomson had grappled with that conflict in his allegory, but not one before Beattie had treated the subject so extensively and with such directness. This development opened up an entirely new area for Spenserian poetry, one that became a major source and inspiration for the great outpouring of Romantic Spenserianism" Keats, Shelley, and Romantic Spenserianism (1991) 71.
On the program, see Thomas Gray's correspondence with Beattie, who later revised the earlier stanzas of the poem to soften the satire. Compare the celebrated fairy passage to that in James Merrick's "Ode to Fancy" in the fourth volume of Dodsley's Collection of Poems (1755).
The Minstrel was translated into Italian ottava rima by Thomas James Mathias; it was apparently published in Italy, though I have not found the date of publication.
Ah! who can tell how hard it is to climb
The steep where Fame's proud temple shines afar!
Ah! who can tell how many a soul sublime
Hath felt the influence of malignant star,
And waged with Fortune an eternal war!
Check'd by the scoff of Pride, by Envy's frown,
And Poverty's unconquerable bar,
In life's low vale remote hath pined alone,
Then drops into the grave, unpitied and unknown!
And yet, the languor of inglorious days
Not equally oppressive is to all.
Him, who ne'er listen'd to the voice of praise,
The silence of neglect can ne'er appal.
There are, who, deaf to mad Ambition's call,
Would shrink to hear th' obstreperous trump of Fame;
Supremely blest, if to their portion fall
Health, competence, and peace. Nor higher aim
Had HE, whose simple tale these artless lines proclaim.
This sapient age disclaims all classic lore;
Else I should here in cunning phrase display,
How forth THE MINSTREL fared in days of yore,
Right glad of heart, though homely in array;
His waving locks and beard all hoary grey:
And, from his bending shoulder, decent hung
His harp, the sole companion of his way,
Which to the whistling wind responsive rung:
And ever as he went some merry lay he sung.
Life's slender sustenance his only meed;
'Twas all he hoped, and all his heart desired.
And such Dan Homer was, if right I read,
Though with the gifts of every muse inspired.
O when shall modern bard like him be fired!
Give me but leisure to attend his lays,
I care not, though my rhymes be ne'er admired.
For sweeter joy his matchless strain shall raise
Than courts or kings can yield, with pensions, posts, and praise.
Fret not thyself, thou man of modern song,
Nor violate the plaister of thy hair;
Nor to that dainty coat do aught of wrong;
Else how shalt thou to Cesar's hall repair?
(For, ah! no damaged coat can enter there).
Fret not thyself, that I, a simple wight,
Of thee, and thy trim brethren, take no care,
But of a poor old-fashion'd pilgrim write,
Whom thou wouldst shun, I ween, as most unseemly sight.
Surely the female heart is much belied
By those who brand it with the lust of gain.
The generous Muses Fortune's smile deride,
Nor ever bow the knee in Mammon's fane:
For their delights are with the village-train,
Whom Nature's laws and Nature's charms engage:
They hate the covetous, and scorn the vain;
The parasite ne'er won their patronage;—
Witness the silken bards of this illustrious age.
Though richest hues the peacock's plumes adorn,
Yet horror screams from his discordant throat.
Rise, sons of harmony, and hail the morn,
While warbling larks on russet pinions float;
Or seek at noon the woodland scene remote,
Where the grey linnets carol from the hill.
O let them ne'er, with artificial note,
To please a tyrant, strain the little bill,
But sing what heaven inspires, and wander where they will.
Liberal, not lavish, is kind Nature's hand;
Nor was perfection made for man below.
Yet all her schemes with nicest art are plann'd,
Good counteracting ill, and gladness wo.
With gold and gems if Chilian mountains glow,
If bleak and barren Scotia's hills arise;
There plague and poison, lust and rapine grow;
Here peaceful are the vales, and pure the skies,
And freedom fires the soul, and sparkles in the eyes.
Then grieve not, thou to whom th' indulgent Muse
Vouchsafes a portion of celestial fire;
Nor blame the partial Fates, if they refuse
Th' imperial banquet, and the rich attire.
Know thine own worth, and reverence the lyre.
Wilt thou debase the heart which God refined?
No; let thy heaven-taught soul to heaven aspire,
To fancy, freedom, harmony, resign'd;
Ambition's groveling crew for ever left behind.
Canst thou forego the pure ethereal soul
In each fine sense so exquisitely keen,
On the dull couch of Luxury to loll,
Stung with disease, and stupefied with spleen;
Fain to implore the aid of Flattery's screen,
Even from thyself thy loathsome heart to hide,
(The mansion then no more of joy serene),
Where fear, distrust, malevolence, abide,
And impotent desire, and disappointed pride?
O how canst thou renounce the boundless store
Of charms which Nature to her votary yields!
The warbling woodland, the resounding shore,
The pomp of groves, and garniture of fields;
All that the genial ray of morning gilds,
And all that echoes to the song of even,
All that the mountain's sheltering bosom shields,
And all the dread magnificence of heaven,
O how canst thou renounce, and hope to be forgiven!
These charms shall work thy soul's eternal health,
And love, and gentleness, and joy, impart.
But these thou must renounce, if lust of wealth
E'er win its way to thy corrupted heart;
For, ah! it poisons like a scorpion's dart;
Prompting th' ungenerous wish, the selfish scheme,
The stern resolve unmoved by pity's smart,
The troublous day, and long distressful dream.—
Return, my rambling Muse, resume thy purposed theme.
There lived in Gothic days, as legends tell,
A shepherd-swain, a man of low degree;
Whose sires, perchance, in Fairyland might dwell,
Sicilian groves, or vales of Arcady;
But he, I ween, was of the north countrie:
A nation famed for song, and beauty's charms;
Zealous, yet modest; innocent, though free;
Patient of toil; serene amidst alarms;
Inflexible in faith; invincible in arms.
The shepherd-swain of whom I mention made,
On Scotia's mountains fed his little flock;
The sickle, scythe, or plough he never sway'd;
An honest heart was almost all his stock;
His drink the living water from the rock:
The milky dams supplied his board, and lent
Their kindly fleece to baffle winter's shock;
And he, though oft with dust and sweat besprent,
Did guide and guard their wanderings, wheresoe'er they went.
From labour health, from health contentment springs.
Contentment opes the source of every joy.
He envied not, he never thought of kings;
Nor from those appetites sustain'd annoy,
Which chance may frustrate, or indulgence cloy:
Nor Fate his calm and humble hopes beguiled;
He mourn'd no recreant friend, nor mistress coy,
For on his vows the blameless Phebe smiled,
And her alone he loved, and loved her from a child.
No jealousy their dawn of love o'ercast,
Nor blasted were their wedded days with strife;
Each season look'd delightful, as it past,
To the fond husband, and the faithful wife.
Beyond the lowly vale of shepherd life
They never roam'd; secure beneath the storm
Which in Ambition's lofty land is rife,
Where peace and love are canker'd by the worm
Of pride, each bud of joy industrious to deform.
The wight whose tale these artless lines unfold,
Was all the offspring of this simple pair.
His birth no oracle or seer foretold:
No prodigy appear'd in earth or air,
Nor aught that might a strange event declare.
You guess each circumstance of EDWIN'S birth;
The parent's transport, and the parent's care;
The gossip's prayer for wealth, and wit, and worth;
And one long summer-day of indolence and mirth.
And yet poor Edwin was no vulgar boy;
Deep thought oft seem'd to fix his infant eye.
Dainties he heeded not, nor gaude, nor toy,
Save one short pipe of rudest minstrelsy.
Silent when glad; affectionate, though shy;
And now his look was most demurely sad,
And now he laugh'd aloud yet none knew why.
The neighbours stared and sigh'd, yet bless'd the lad:
Some deem'd him wondrous wise, and some believed him mad.
But why should I his childish feats display?
Concourse, and noise, and toil, he ever fled;
Nor cared to mingle in the clamorous fray
Of squabbling imps; but to the forest sped,
Or roam'd at large the lonely mountain's head;
Or, where the maze of some bewilder'd stream
To deep untrodden groves his footsteps led,
There would he wander wild, till Phebus' beam.
Shot from the western cliff, released the weary team.
Th' exploit of strength, dexterity, or speed,
To him nor vanity nor joy could bring.
His heart, from cruel sport estranged, would bleed
To work the wo of any living thing,
By trap, or net; by arrow, or by fling;
These he detested, those he scorn'd to wield;
He wish'd to be the guardian, not the king,
Tyrant far less, or traitor of the field.
And sure the sylvan reign unbloody joy might yield.
Lo! where the stripling, wrapt in wonder, roves
Beneath the precipice o'erhung with pine;
And sees, on high, amidst th' encircling groves,
From cliff to cliff the foaming torrents shine:
While waters, woods, and winds, in concert join,
And Echo swells the chorus to the skies.
Would Edwin this majestic scene resign
For aught the huntsman's puny craft supplies?
Ah! no: he better knows great Nature's charms to prize.
And oft he traced the uplands, to survey,
When o'er the sky advanced the kindling dawn,
The crimson cloud, blue main, and mountain grey,
And lake, dim-gleaming on the smoky lawn;
Far to the west the long long vale withdrawn,
Where twilight loves to linger for a while;
And now he faintly kens the bounding fawn,
And villager abroad at early toil.—
But, lo! the sun appears! and heaven, earth, ocean, smile.
And oft the craggy cliff he loved to climb,
When all in mist the world below was lost.
What dreadful pleasure! there to stand sublime,
Like shipwreck'd mariner on desert coast,
And view th' enormous waste of vapour, tost
In billows, lengthening to th' horizon round,
Now scoop'd in gulfs, with mountains now emboss'd!
And hear the voice of mirth and song rebound,
Flocks, herds, and waterfalls, along the hoar profound!
In truth he was a strange and wayward wight,
Fond of each gentle, and each dreadful scene.
In darkness, and in storm, he found delight:
Nor less, than when on ocean-wave serene
The southern sun diffused his dazzling shene.
Even sad vicissitude amused his soul:
And if a sigh would sometimes intervene,
And down his cheek a tear of pity roll,
A sigh, a tear, so sweet, he wish'd not to control.
"O ye wild groves, O where is now your bloom!"
(The Muse interprets thus his tender thought.)
"Your flowers, your verdure, and your balmy gloom,
Of late so grateful in the hour of drought!
Why do the birds, that song and rapture brought
To all your bowers, their mansions now forsake?
Ah! why hath fickle chance this ruin wrought?
For now the storm howls mournful through the brake,
And the dead foliage dies in many a shapeless flake.
"Where now the rill, melodious, pure, and cool,
And meads, with life, and mirth, and beauty, crown'd!
Ah! see, th' unsightly slime, and sluggish pool,
Have all the solitary vale imbrown'd;
Fled each fair form, and mute each melting sound.
The raven croaks forlorn on naked spray:
And, hark! the river, bursting every mound,
Down the vale thunders; and, with wasteful sway;
Uproots the grove, and rolls the shatter'd rocks away.
"Yet such the destiny of all on earth:
So flourishes and fades majestic man.
Fair is the bud his vernal morn brings forth,
And fostering gales a while the nursling fan.
O smile, ye heavens, serene; ye mildews wan,
Ye blighting whirlwinds, spare his balmy prime,
Nor lessen of his life th' little span.
Born on the swift, though silent, wings of Time,
Old-age comes on apace to ravage all the clime.
"And be it so. Let those deplore their doom,
Whose hope still grovels in this dark sojourn.
But lofty souls, who look beyond the tomb,
Can smile at Fate, and wonder how they mourn.
Shall spring to these sad scenes no more return?
Is yonder wave the sun's eternal bed?
Soon shall the orient with new lustre burn,
And spring shall soon her vital influence shed;
Again attune the grove, again adorn the mead.
"Shall I be left abandon'd in the dust,
When Fate, relenting, lets the flower revive
Shall Nature's voice, to man alone unjust,
Bid him, though doom'd to perish, hope to live?
Is it for this fair Virtue oft must strive
With disappointment, penury, and pain?—
No: Heaven's immortal spring shall yet arrive;
And man's majestic beauty bloom again,
Bright through th' eternal year of Love's triumphant reign."
This truth sublime his simple sire taught.
In sooth, 'twas almost all the shepherd knew.
No subtle nor superfluous lore he sought,
Nor ever wish'd his Edwin to pursue.
"Let man's own sphere (quoth he) confine his view,
Be man's peculiar work his sole delight."
And much, and oft, he warn'd him, to eschew
Falsehood and guile, and aye maintain the right,
By pleasure unseduced, unawed by lawless might.
"And, from the prayer of Want, and plaint of Wo,
O never, never turn away thine ear.
Forlorn, in this bleak wilderness below,
Ah! what were man, should Heaven refuse to hear!
To others do (the law is not severe)
What to thyself thou wishest to be done.
Forgive thy foes; and love thy parents dear,
And friends, and native land; nor those alone;
All human weal and wo learn thou to make thine own."
See, in the rear of the warm sunny shower,
The visionary boy from shelter fly!
For now the storm of summer-rain is o'er,
And cool, and fresh, and fragrant, is the sky.
And, lo! in the dark east, expanded high,
The rainbow brightens to the setting sun!
Fond fool, that deem'st the streaming glory nigh,
How vain the chace thine ardour has begun!
'Tis fled afar, ere half thy purposed race be run.
Yet couldst thou learn, that thus it fares with age,
When pleasure, wealth, or power, the bosom warm,
This baffled hope might tame thy manhood's rage,
And Disappointment of her sting disarm.
But why should foresight thy fond heart alarm?
Perish the lore that deadens young desire!
Pursue, poor imp, th' imaginary charm,
Indulge gay Hope, and Fancy's pleasing fire:
Fancy and Hope too soon shall of themselves expire.
When the long-sounding curfew from afar
Loaded with loud lament the lonely gale,
Young Edwin, lighted by the evening star,
Lingering and listening, wander'd down the vale.
There would he dream of graves, and corses pale;
And ghosts, that to the charnel-dungeon throng,
And drag a length of clanking chain, and wail,
Till silenced by the owl's terrific song,
Or blast that shrieks by fits the shuddering isles along.
Or, when the setting moon, in crimson dyed,
Hung o'er the dark and melancholy deep,
To haunted stream, remote from man, he hied,
Where Fays of yore their revels wont to keep;
And there let Fancy roam at large, till sleep
A vision brought to his intranced sight.
And first, a wildly-murmuring wind 'gan creep
Shrill to his ringing ear; then tapers bright,
With instantaneous gleam, illumed the vault of Night.
Anon in view a portal's blazon'd arch
Arose; the trumpet bids the valves unfold
And forth an host of little warriors march,
Grasping the diamond lance, and targe of gold.
Their look was gentle, their demeanour bold,
And green their helms, and green their silk attire;
And here and there, right venerably old,
The long-robed minstrels wake the warbling wire,
And some with mellow breath the martial pipe inspire.
With merriment, and song, and timbrels clear,
A troop of dames from myrtle bowers advance;
The little warriors doff the targe and spear,
And loud enlivening strains provoke the dance.
They meet, they dart away, they wheel askance;
To right, to left, they thrid the flying maze;
Now bound aloft with vigorous spring, then glance
Rapid along: with many-colour'd rays
Of tapers, gems, and gold, the echoing forests blaze.
The dream is fled. Proud harbinger of day,
Who scaredst the vision with thy clarion shrill,
Fell chanticleer! who oft hast reft away
My fancied good, and brought substantial ill!
O to thy cursed scream, discordant still,
Let Harmony aye shut her gentle ear:
Thy boastful mirth let jealous rivals spill,
Insult thy crest, and glossy pinions tear,
And ever in thy dreams the ruthless fox appear.
Forbear, my Muse. Let Love attune thy line.
Revoke the spell. Thine Edwin frets not so.
For how should he at wicked chance repine,
Who feels from every change amusement flow?
Even now his eyes with smiles of rapture glow,
As on he wanders through the scenes of morn,
Where the fresh flowers in living lustre blow,
Where thousand pearls the dewy lawns adorn,
A thousand notes of joy in every breeze are born.
But who the melodies of morn can tell?
The wild brook babbling down the mountain-side;
The lowing herd; the sheepfold's simple bell;
The pipe of early shepherd dim descried
In the lone valley; echoing far and wide
The clamorous horn along the cliffs above;
The hollow murmur of the ocean-tide;
The hum of bees, and linnet's lay of love,
And the full choir that wakes the universal grove,
The cottage-curs at early pilgrim bark;
Crown'd with her pail the tripping milkmaid sings;
The whistling plowman stalks afield; and, hark!
Down the rough slope the ponderous waggon rings;
Through rustling corn the hare astonish'd springs;
Slow tolls the village-clock the drowsy hour;
The partridge bursts away on whirring wings;
Deep mourns the turtle in sequester'd bower,
And shrill lark carols clear from her aereal tour.
O Nature, how in every charm supreme!
Whose votaries feast on raptures ever new!
O for the voice and fire of seraphim,
To sing thy glories with devotion, due!
Blest be the day I scap'd the wrangling crew,
Prom Pyrrho's maze, and Epicurus' sty;
And held high converse with the godlike few,
Who to th' enraptured heart, and ear, end eye,
Teach beauty, virtue, truth, and love, and melody.
Hence! ye, who snare and stupefy the mind,
Sophists, of beauty, virtue, joy, the bane!
Greedy and fell, though impotent and blind,
Who spread your filthy nets in Truth's fair fane,
And ever ply your venom'd fangs amain!
Hence to dark Error's den, whose rankling slime
First gave you form! hence! lest the Muse should deign,
(Though loth on theme so mean to waste a rhyme),
With vengeance to pursue your sacrilegious crime.
But hail, ye mighty masters of the lay,
Nature's true sons, the friends of man and truth!
Whose song, sublimely sweet, serenely gay,
Amused my childhood, and inform'd my youth.
O let your spirit still my bosom sooth,
Inspire my dreams, and my wild wanderings guide.
Your voice each rugged path of life can smooth;
For well I know, where-ever ye reside,
There harmony, and peace, and innocence, abide.
Ah me! abandon'd on the lonesome plain,
As yet poor Edwin never knew your lore,
Save when against the winter's drenching rain,
And driving snow, the cottage shut the door.
Then, as instructed by tradition hoar,
Her legends when the Beldam 'gan impart,
Or chant the old heroic ditty o'er,
Wonder and joy ran thrilling to his heart;
Much he the tale admired, but more the tuneful art.
Various and strange the long-winded tale;
And halls, and knights, and feats of arms, display'd;
Or merry swains, who quaff the nut-brown ale,
And sing, enamour'd of the nut-brown maid;
The moonlight-revel of the fairy glade;
Or hags, that suckle an infernal brood,
And ply in caves th' unutterable trade,
'Midst fiends and spectres, quench the moon in blood,
Yell in the midnight storm, or ride th' infuriate flood.
But when to horror his amazement rose,
A gentler strain the Beldam would rehearse,
A tale of rural life, a tale of woes,
The orphan-babes, and guardian uncle fierce.
O cruel! will no pang of pity pierce
That heart by lust of lucre fear'd to stone!
For sure, if aught of virtue last, or verse,
To latest times shall tender souls bemoan
Those helpless orphan-babes by thy fell arts undone.
Behold, with berries smear'd, with brambles torn,
The babes now famish'd lay them down to die,
'Midst the wild howl of darksome woods forlorn,
Folded in one another's arms they lie;
Nor friend, nor stranger, hears their dying cry:
"For from the town the man returns no more."
But thou, who Heaven's just vengeance darest defy,
This deed with fruitless tears shalt soon deplore,
When Death lays waste thy house, and flames consume thy store.
A stifled smile of stern vindictive joy
Brighten'd one moment Edwin's starting tear.—
"But why should gold man's feeble mind decoy,
And Innocence thus die by doom severe?"
O Edwin, while thy heart is yet sincere,
Th' assaults of discontent and doubt repel:
Dark even at noontide is our mortal sphere;
But let us hope, — to doubt, is to rebel,—
Let us exult in hope, that all shall yet be well.
Nor be thy generous indignation check'd,
Nor check'd the tender tear to Misery given;
From Guilt's contagious power shall that protect,
This soften and refine the soul for heaven.
But dreadful is their doom, whom doubt hath driven
To censure Fate, and pious hope forego:
Like yonder blasted boughs by lightning riven,
Perfection, beauty, life, they never know,
But frown on all that pass, a monument of wo.
Shall he, whose birth, maturity, and age,
Scarce fill the circle of one summer-day,
Shall the poor gnat with discontent and rage
Exclaim, that Nature hastens to decay,
If but a cloud obstruct the solar ray,
If but a momentary shower descend!
Or shall frail man Heaven's dread decree gainsay,
Which bade the series of events extend
Wide through unnumber'd worlds, and ages without end!
One part, one little part, we dimly scan
Through the dark medium of life's feverish dream;
Yet dare arraign the whole stupendous plan,
If but that little part incongruous seem.
Nor is that part perhaps what mortals deem;
Oft from apparent ill our blessings rise.
O then renounce that impious self-esteem,
That aims to trace the secrets of the skies:
For thou art but of dust; be humble, and be wise.
Thus Heaven enlarged his soul in riper years.
For Nature gave him strength, and fire, to soar,
On Fancy's wing, above this vale of tears;
Where dark cold-hearted sceptics, creeping, pore
Through microscope of metaphysic lore:
And much they grope for truth, but never hit.
For why? their powers, inadequate before,
This art preposterous renders more unfit;
Yet deem they darkness light, and their vain blunders wit.
Nor was this ancient dame a foe to mirth.
Her ballad, jest, and riddle's quaint device
Oft cheer'd the shepherds round their social hearth;
Whom levity or spleen could ne'er entice
To purchase chat or laughter at the price
Of decency. Nor let it faith exceed,
That Nature forms a rustic taste so nice.—
Ah! had they been of court or city breed,
Such delicacy were right marvellous indeed.
Oft when the winter-storm had ceas'd to rave,
He roam'd the snowy waste at even, to view
The cloud stupendous, from th' Atlantic wave
High-towering, sail along th' horizon blue:
Where midst the changeful scenery ever new
Fancy a thousand wondrous forms decries
More wildly great than ever pencil drew,
Rocks, torrents, gulfs, and shapes of giant size,
And glittering cliffs on cliffs, and fiery ramparts rise.
Thence musing onward to the sounding shore,
The lone enthusiast oft would take his way,
Listening with pleasing dread to the deep roar
Of the wide-weltering waves. In black array
When sulphurous clouds roll'd on the vernal day,
Even then he hasten'd from the haunt of man,
Along the darkening wilderness to stray,
What time the lightning's fierce career began,
And o'er heaven's rending arch the rattling thunder ran.
Responsive to the sprightly pipe when all
In sprightly dance the village-youth were join'd,
Edwin, of melody aye held in thrall,
From the rude gambol far remote reclined,
Sooth'd with the soft notes warbling in the wind.
Ah then, all jollity seem'd noise and folly.
To the pure soul by Fancy's fire refined
Ah what is mirth, but turbulence unholy,
When with the charm compared of heavenly melancholy!
Is there a heart that music cannot melt?
Ah me! how is that rugged heart forlorn!
Is there, who ne'er those mystic transports felt
Of solitude and melancholy born?
He needs not woo the Muse; he is her scorn.
The sophist's rope of cobweb he shall twine;
Mope o'er the schoolman's peevish page; or mourn,
And delve for life, in Mammon's dirty mine;
Sneak with the scoundrel fox, or grunt with glutton swine.
For Edwin Fate a nobler doom had plann'd;
Song was his favourite and first pursuit.
The wild harp rang to his adventurous hand,
And languish'd to his breath the plaintive flute.
His infant muse, though artless, was not mute:
Of elegance as yet he took no care;
For this of time and culture is the fruit;
And Edwin gain'd at fall this fruit so rare:
As in some future verse I purpose to declare.
Meanwhile, whate'er of beautiful, or new,
Sublime, or dreadful, in earth, sea, or sky,
By chance, or search, was offer'd to his view,
He scann'd with curious and romantic eye.
Whate'er of lore tradition could supply.
From Gothic tale, or song, or fable old,
Rous'd him, still keen to listen and to pry.
At last, though long by penury control'd,
And solitude, his soul her graces 'gan unfold.
Thus on the chill Lapponian's dreary land,
For many a long month lost in snow profound,
When Sol from Cancer sends the season bland,
And in their northern cave the storms hath bound;
From silent mountains, straight, with startling sound,
Torrents are hurl'd; green hills emerge; and lo,
The trees with foliage, cliffs with flowers are crown'd;
Pure rills through vales of verdure warbling go;
And wonder, love, and joy, the peasant's heart o'erflow.
Here pause, my Gothic lyre, a little while.
The leisure hour is all that thou canst claim.
But if * * * * * on this labour smile,
New strains erelong shall animate thy frame.
And his applause to me is more than fame;
For still with truth accords his taste refined.
At lucre or renown let others aim,
I only wish to please the gentle mind,
Whom Nature's charms inspire, and love of humankind.