The Progress of Refinement. A Poem.

The Progress of Refinement. A Poem. In Three Parts. By Henry James Pye, Esq.

Henry James Pye

Edmund Spenser appears in a catalogue of English poets: "Melodious SPENSER while his cares refine | The wild redundance of the Saxon line, | On GOTHIC fable rears his rich machine, | And sings the paynim foe and elfin Queen" Poems (1787) 2:147. Henry James Pye's elaborate catalogue traces a parallel history of poets and monarchs, beginning with Spenser and Elizabeth, concluding nearly 300 lines later hoping to "Hear other HOMERS, other SHAKESPEARS sing!" This is a slightly odd note on which to end, since neither Homer nor Shakespeare were regarded as paragons of refinement, and indeed the "progress" had already reached its apex with Pope and Queen Anne. Pye's view of literary history is a cyclical one, and like many of his contemporaries, he is already looking for a new beginning. It is curious to note that the future Laureate's retrospective georgic was published in the same year as William Blake's Poetical Sketches, which many a later critic has identified with the beginning of just such a new cycle.

Henry James Pye's list of living bards indicates why his contemporaries sensed a falling off: William Mason, William Hayley, Anna Seward, and Thomas Warton were simply not equivalents to what earlier generations had produced; Chatterton gets the longest portrait, though he, of course, was dead. Notable omissions are William Collins and William Cowper, whose stars were just rising; Burns had yet to publish, and in 1783 George Crabbe was still living in obscurity.

The triplet and alexandrine concluding the paragraph on the Queen Anne bards is a nice illustration for the "verse of Gothic frame" admired by "Aonia's listening throng," though it sorts oddly with the immediately preceding compliment to Pope.

Critical Review: In this performance the gradual refinement of manners, and progress of arts and sciences, in different nations, particularly Greece, Rome, and England, are delineated with accuracy and precision. In the first part man is considered in his rude and uncultivated state: his emerging from barbarism, and the migration of the 'infant arts' from the eastern kingdoms to Greece is next described. The peculiar manners of different republics, the origin of poetry, and invention of letters, (though the latter loses by a comparison with the well-known lines in Eloisa's Epistle to Abelard) are investigated with taste and judgment. The description of the fatal effects of luxury and corruption among the Greeks deserves equal commendation" 55 (June 1783) 427.

Gentleman's Magazine: "Interesting and important as are the subjects here discussed, the author has done them ample justice" 53 (June 1783) 513.

But on BRITANNIA'S shores with ample sway
Religion's purest charms their power display. —
As the dread earthquake and the raging storm
The high behests of awful heaven perform,
So a proud tyrant's disappointed aims
Broke the strong tie of ROME'S despotic claims.
The labors by the haughty sire begun
Attain perfection from the pious son;
And though a female's bigot zeal succeeds,
Burns the firm martyr, and the patriot bleeds,
While stand IBERIA'S sons exulting by
And civil Freedom mark with harpy eye,
The transient terror flies, like vapors driven
By sweeping EURUS o'er the face of heaven,
And Worship freed from each polluting stain,
Adorns the annals of ELIZA'S reign.

Hail glorious Queen! in whose propitious hour
The towering structure rose of BRITAIN'S power.
Let the Historian laboring to impart
His favorite paradox with envious art,
Invoke capricious Malice to deface
The scene of ALBION'S ripening strength and grace:
Still shall the voice of former times be heard
To vindicate that worth our sires rever'd.
'Twas thine to bid BRITANNIA'S native force
Check rash Invasion in her headlong course,
Old OCEAN'S waves with prows triumphant sweep,
And reign unrivall'd o'er the subject deep:
Thine too the milder glory to increase
The gentle sway of Courtesy and Peace.
Though Artists with fastidious look behold
The dome it's rude magnificence unfold,
Though modern Elegance affect to scorn
The rougher Manners which thy court adorn,
Yet sure some reverential awe shall wait
Each venerable pile of ancient state;
Yet sure some bosom even those days shall charm,
Call'd each heroic passion boldly forth,
And gave the admiring world a SYDNEY'S worth.

The expectant Muse at length with joyful eyes
The rising hope of ancient fame descries.
Melodious SPENSER while his cares refine
The wild redundance of the Saxon line,
On GOTHIC fable rears his rich machine,
And sings the paynim foe and elfin Queen:
While like the laurel'd son of GRECIAN fame
Immortal SHAKESPEAR burns with native flame. —
Unequall'd Bard! the grateful Muse shall raise
To thee the monument of deathless praise,
Nor interweave one flower of foreign bloom
Amid the votive wreaths that deck thy tomb:
For no faint blaze from elder learning caught
Rais'd in thy breast the imitative thought;
Nor shall my verse compare thy wonderous page
With the best scenes of ATHENS' perfect stage,
Or of thy Phoenix wing a rival own
Save the MAEONIAN Prodigy alone.

A numerous train of tuneful Bards succeed,
Strike the loud lyre, or fill the warbling reed.
In the just pride of inborn Genius bold,
Yet taught by every Muse that charm'd of old,
Soaring with eagle eye, and eagle flight,
Amid the realms of empyrean light,
Lo MILTON throws with daring hand away
The splendid fetters of the Runic lay!
While DRYDEN'S clear harmonious notes rehearse
The humblest subject in the sweetest verse,
Nor ask the figur'd style or pompous phrase,
From common speech his simplest lines to raise;
Yet when some theme with energy sublime,
Calls forth the wonders of his varied rhyme,
'Tis his to catch the animating fire,
Bid the bold strain to giddy heights aspire,
Rival the MANTUAN swan, or mate the THEBAN lyre.

But while fair Poesy with favoring smile
Beholds her votaries thrive in ALBION'S isle,
The meeker Arts with trembling step explore
Some safe asylum on a foreign shore,
For o'er her fields stern War terrific stood,
And long and dreadful raged the thirst of blood.—
Though the poetic bay with changeless form
Braves the worst fury of the thundering storm,
The inferior flowers that paint the shelter'd vale,
Shrink at the breath of every ruder gale.—
Soon polish'd GALLIA'S hospitable plain
Yields a kind refuge to the exil'd train,
For civil Fury from her seats was flown,
And Monarchy had fix'd her stable throne,
Their gifts the smiling powers of Peace disclose,
And LEWIS there a new AUGUSTUS rose:
A Prince's wiles again the Arts invoke
With magic touch to lighten Slavery's yoke,
Reason's keen eye with skilful care to blind,
And turn from Freedom's view the active mind.
The grateful race encourag'd by his sway
The patronage with ample bounty pay,
Give what his fleets and armies ne'er could claim,
Unsullied glory, and unenvied fame.
For though a BRITISH Muse would blush to aid
The guilty fabric by Ambition made,
Yet to impartial rules of Justice true
She gives the praise to real Merit due.—
Not opening Science nor encourag'd Art
Alone their lustre to his reign impart:
The splendid period by his care refin'd
Marks a strong era of the improving Mind.
By him new modell'd wondering EUROPE saw
Her ancient Arms, her Manners, and her Law.
Though dear the price each fair attainment cost,
When in the exchange was Independence lost.
Beauty with sense endow'd, with sweetness graced,
Sits the chief arbitress of soften'd taste,
And fame attends, as her applauding eyes
Of valor or of wit, award the prize.
No more the rural Lord mid distant plains
O'er vassal fiefs a little tyrant reigns;
To the gay circle of the Monarch's court
All Power, all Splendor, and all Arts resort,
There steep'd in joy the nobler race reside
While marshall'd Discipline with studious care
Gives a new semblance to the forms of War:
No more, their stated service forced to yield,
Untrain'd the hasty levies throng the field,
No more the stripling of illustrious birth
Leads armies by hereditary worth:
An order of the state the Soldier stands,
And though a slave himself the rest commands,
Derives his rank from regal will alone,
And only pays obedience to the throne.

While GALLIA thus a general power obtains
And guides mankind by soft Opinion's reins,
Long was the scene of bleeding BRITAIN'S woes
Ere from the strife emerging Peace arose.
Each party yields at times, at times prevails,
As changing Fortune lifts her dubious scales;
Till lost, or scatter'd, Virtue's Patriot train,
Her cause deserted, and her HAMBDEN slain,
Contending sects fulfill'd a Tyrant's view,
And Faction seiz'd the sword that Freedom drew;
In civil rage each gentler care was drown'd,
And fierce on joy the wild Enthusiast frown'd.
Nor when reviving ALBION saw restor'd
Her ravish'd sceptre, and her legal lord,
Did liberal art the polish'd lustre boast
That mark'd each work of GALLIA'S rival coast,
Licentious Vice a laughing court debas'd,
And looser Manners tainted public Taste.
Nor could a graver prince intent alone
To change religion on his tottering throne,
From a short reign of struggle and of care
One transient smile to prostrate Science spare.
And though we own with deference and with awe,
The public virtues that adorn'd NASSAU,
Yet candor must confess his rigid mind
No Pleasure sooth'd, no Elegance refin'd.
At length BRITANNIA'S sons with transport view
Another Queen their ancient fame renew,
Once more the prize in Arts and Arms obtain,
And see ELIZA'S days reviv'd in ANNA'S reign.

Whate'er of wisdom, and whate'er of grace,
Could form or dignify the human race,
Taught ALBION now her splendid worth to raise,
Beyond the envied height of classic praise.
For say could all the learned sage display'd
In ACADEMUS, or the TUSCAN shade,
Compare with NEWTON, whose immortal force
Pursued coy Nature to her inmost source,
Or LOCKE who knew with lynx's eye to find
Man's secret Soul, and analyse the Mind?
Or shall REFINEMENT in the brightest page
Of ROMAN Splendor rival ANNA'S Age?
Where, though Politeness now of freer school.
Condemn Formality's too rigid rule,
Adorn'd by Reason, Converse learn'd to please,
And manly Dignity attemper'd Ease,
Public attention waited conscious Worth,
And liberal Manners mark'd illustrious Birth.
The Muses too their tuneful powers employ,
And the loud Paean join of general joy:
What though their voice strikes not the ravish'd ear
With notes that GREECE and ROME were wont to hear,
Yet when sweet POPE'S melodious lines convey
The moral subject in the perfect lay,
To BRITISH numbers charms unknown impart,
And varied sounds combine with happiest art,
Rapp'd with delight AONIA'S listening throng
Drink the soft accents of the dulcet song,
And own the immortal strains of earlier time
Are nearly rivall'd in a northern clime,
By verse of GOTHIC frame and manacled with rhime.

Though BRITAIN must revere the kings who draw
Their royal claims from Liberty and Law,
In holy Freedom's pure regalia shine,
And deem a People's Voice their Right Divine:
Yet midst her patrons Science cannot place
The earliest monarchs of the BRUNSWICK race.
No princely favor kindles Genius' flame;
Or raises modest worth to wealth or fame;
To private vanity the artists trust,
While her Pagodas gaudy CHINA rears,
And CIBBER'S brow the sullied laurel wears.

But see! a Prince succeeds whose generous heart
The liberal Patron glows of every art,
The slumbering train warm'd by his chearing smile
Break from their trance, and polish ALBION'S isle.
Yet though MEDUSA'S charm revers'd is shewn
As Sculpture animates the PARIAN stone,
By Architecture though the dome is graced
With all the ornaments of ATTIC taste,
Though drawn by Painting's animating hand
With life, with character, the portraits stand;
Yet BRITAIN'S candid sons must yield the prize
To the bright influence of ITALIAN skies,
Where GUIDO'S touch enthusiast rapture fir'd,
And holy zeal a RAPHAEL'S tints inspir'd.
Theirs be the unenvied triumph! — while applause
From her inventive powers BRITANNIA draws.
The stores in Nature's rural empire placed
To chuse with judgment, and arrange with taste,
O'er the soft grace her genuine forms impart
To throw the simple stole of decent Art,
For the high fountain, and the pent cascade,
Cyphers of turf, and cabinets of shade,
To teach the wave in graceful bends to flow,
To crown with wood the mountain's heathy brow,
And bid the flower and blooming shrub succeed
The rugged bramble, and the loathsome weed,
This be her glory! — pleas'd to shine alone
In native charms, and Beauty all her own:
Secure her fame unhurt by time shall stand
Since MASON'S verse records what BROWN has plann'd.

But ah! while thus the Arts inferior train
Thrive in the sunshine of a GEORGE'S reign;
Sweet Poesy, whose sacred powers exceed
The Sculptor's chisel, and the Painter's reed,
Whose pen has Virtue's moral shape design'd,
And drawn the immortal image of the Mind,
Whose magic sounds to melody dispense
The flowers of Fancy, and the force of Sense;
Sweet Poesy, neglected and forlorn,
The feeble rays of patronage must mourn.
By wealth or wisdom placed in happier state
Though a bold few disdain to court the great;
Though MASON frame the warm descriptive lay,
Or strike the lyre with PINDAR, and with GRAY;
Though listening Harmony with raptur'd ear
Attentive stand, the enchanting notes to hear,
As sailing on the rainbow-tinctur'd wings
Of chaste Imagination, HAYLEY sings:
In plaintive strains at sighing Friendship's call
Though tuneful SEWARD mourn her ANDRE'S fall,
And wrap the felon cord that clos'd his breath
In radiant Glory's amaranthine wreath;
Tho' WARTON young-ey'd Fancy's favorite child,
On whose auspicious birth the Muses smil'd,
And taught his glowing colors to portray
The rural landscape, and the vernal day,
With classic Art his flowing numbers fill,
And join the Critic's to the Poet's skill;
Yet as with streaming eye the sorrowing Muse
Pale CHATTERTON'S untimely urn bedews,
Her accents shall arraign the partial care
That shielded not her son from cold despair:
And many a bard by frowning Fortune led
To abject interest bows the venal head,
Compell'd to point with cruel wit the dart
That wing'd by malice rives the blameless heart,
Or ideot pride by slavish notes to raise,
And cast to swine the precious gems of praise.

O let, Imperial GEORGE! the Muses share
The kindly dews of thy parental care.
Too oft has Poesy with servile aim
By tyrants favor'd, sung a tyrant's fame,
O let one monarch wake her nobler rage,
And consecrate to Truth her holy page!
Rais'd by thy hand, I see on ALBION'S plain
The seeds of Grecian glory bloom again!
See Genius plume once more her eagle wing,
Hear other HOMERS, other SHAKESPEARS sing!
And while their voice down time's eternal flood
Wafts the clear honors of the Wise and Good,
Ages unborn shall bless the just decree,
And future Heroes owe their fame to thee. . . .

[Poems (1787) 2:144-61]