1786
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

A Parody on Gray's Elegy, written in a Country Church-yard, the Author leaving College.

Poems and other Pieces, by Henry Headley.

Henry Headley


A burlesque of Gray's Elegy describing the life of an Oxford student, recently lost to the charms of matrimony. The topic had been handled earlier by two Cambridge poets, John Duncombe, in his oft-reprinted An Evening Contemplation in a College (1753), and George Ellis, Elegy Written in a College Library, in Poetical Trifles (1778). Compare also Thomas Maurice, The Oxonian. A Poem. In imitation of The Splendid Shilling (1778). There are five additional stanzas "by a friend" added in Poetical Works, ed. Thomas Park (1808) 24-29.

Henry Kett: Headley's "situation in the University was as favourable as he could desire; for it not only allowed him ample scope for the expansion of his genius, and the indulgence of his literary propensities, but presented him with a full view of that living example of classical taste and learned research, which he beheld with admiration, and followed with enthusiasm. This example was the Rev. Thomas Warton, well known to the Public by his numerous works: he was at that time senior Fellow of Trinity College, and usually resided there; and the situation of Headley, as a scholar of the same College, was favourable to the contemplation of Mr. Warton's character, general manners, and habits of life. As his friends found, that no subjects were more agreeable to Headley, than anecdotes of Warton, they often fed his curiosity with a treat he so much enjoyed" "Biographical Sketch of Headley" in Headley, Select Beauties of Ancient English Poetry (1810) 1:iv.

Patricia Meyer Spacks: "Gray himself, in his Hymn to Ignorance, had indicted university life on similar grounds, but Headley's attack on the academy is particularly interesting in its method. Perhaps only a poet who knew and loved Gray as well as Headley did (his knowledge and devotion are attested by his frequent imitation) could parody him so accurately. Headley's version of the Elegy describes the inadequacies of Oxford, but also indicates the inadequacies of Gray's sensibility" introduction to Headley, Poems (1966) vi-vii.

Author's note: "To a most ingenious and valuable friend the author is indebted for the five concluding stanzas of this piece" 31n.



The sullen Tom proclaims the parting day
In bullying tone congenial to his place,
The Christ Church misses homeward trip to pray
And High-street leave to solitude and space;

O'er the dim scene in stillness steals the night,
Save where the whistling 'prentice bars the shutter,
Or rapid mail-coach wheels its droning flight,
Or tinkling plates forebode th' approach of supper;

Save near yon tower, where now she sits and sighs,
Curses some miscreant Raph that Luckless Lass,
And as his sixpence by the Moon she tries
Shakes her despairing head and finds it brass.

Beneath those domes in Gothic grandeur grey
Where rears that spire its old fantastic crest,
Snug in their mouldy cells from day to day
Like bottled wasps the Sons of Science rest;

Th' unwelcome call of business-bringing morn,
The dull ox lowing from his neighbouring shed,
The tythe pig's clarion, or sow gelder's horn,
Ne'er 'wake these fatt'ning sleepers from their bed;

Their bile no smoking chimneys e'er provoke,
No busy breeding dame disturbs their nap,
Their double chins no squalling bantlings stroke,
Climbing their knees for rattles, or for pap;

Let not pert Folly mock their lecture's toil,
Their annual Gaudy's joys, and meetings mellow,
Nor Quin's ghost hear with a disdainful smile,
The short and simple commons of a Fellow;

The boast of cooks, the lordly venison,
The rich ragou, and liver-tickling jelly,
Down the red lane inevitably run
And at the best can only fill the belly.

Nor you, ye spinsters, these poor men abuse,
(Tis want of money rather than of wit)
If thus their backward threepence they refuse,
To your inviting charms and Billy Pitt;

Can Madan's voice provoke the dull cold clay,
Or Price's system that implies a wife,
Or aught the rosy goddess has to say,
When once a man is bent on single life?

Perhaps mid these unsocial yews is placed,
Some head once member of the "Chosen Few,"
Hands that the dazzling diamond might have graced,
Or tipt with extasy the billet-doux;

But Fashion to their eyes her motley page
Rich with the rags of France would ne'er unroll;
Through this they lost "The Ton," "the Thing," "the Rage,"
And all the soft enamel of the soul.

Full many a bawdy pun and joke obscene,
Penn'd as he pass'd by some unlucky dog,
On the lone ale-house window lurk unseen,
Or waste their waggish sweetness in a bog.

Some birth-day Colonel, with undaunted breast,
May here do generals, or defy the proctor,
Some lee-shore Admiral here at calm may rest,
And mutely read wall lectures for a doctor.

To rule each cackling circle coxcomb smitten,
To cheat their tradesmen and despise their betters,
To spell their titles in the Red-Book written,
(Should fate have kindly taught them but their letters.)

Their lot forbids — nor circumscribes alone
Their decent virtues, but their crimes, you'll find,
Forbids with fawning face to dog the throne,
And 'whelm with war and taxes half mankind,

The surly pangs of stubborn truth to hide,
To hush the tumults of rebellious shame,
To feast the pamper'd taste of glutton Pride
With sweet sauce piping hot from Learning's flame.

Far from the turbid paths of madd'ning strife
Their fire-side wishes never learn to stray,
Along the turnpike road of even life,
They keep the jog-trot tenour of their way;

Yet even their bones from surgeons to protect,
Some friendly tablet in the chapel aile,
With sniv'ling cherubs, and fat angels deck'd,
Excites the casual tribute of a smile,

The name bedizon'd by the pedant Muse,
The place of fame and elegy supplies,
Who many an L.L.D. — and A.B. — strews,
That bid th' admiring Freshman read and rise.

For who at Hymen's block in youthful bloom,
His scholarship and freedom e'er resign'd,
Left the warm precincts of the common room,
Nor sighing cast one farewell wish behind?

To some dear friend by stealth remembrance flies,
A festive glass the drooping mind requires,
His far-off phiz keen Fancy's eye descries,
Even in his pipe still live the wonted fires;

For me who, mindful of the life I loved,
In these weak lines its happiness relate,
And with fair images of past joys moved
Compare my present with my former state;

Should e'er in future day some roaming friend,
(The lions gazing whilst his horses wait)
In breathless speed his steps to Trin. Coll. bend,
And waste an idle question on my fate,

"Haply old Kitt, with iron tears, may say,
To read the lessons oft I've seen the lad,
Brushing from broken cap the dust away,
Limp with a paper band across the quad;

"His listless length at breakfast would he lay
There in that sunless corner cobweb hung,
Gods, how he crack'd his eggs and drank his tea,
And pored upon the kettle as it sung!

"Hard by yon gate now painted as in scorn,
Muttering rude rhymes he stood and fancies wild,
Rack'd with a dose of salts like one forlorn,
Or craz'd with duans, or cross'd with bastard child;

"One morn I miss'd him in the chapel train,
Along the court, and near his well-known fire,
The eggs were placed, the kettle boil'd in vain,
No more he came his breakfast to require.

"Next post the tidings came; in due array
At Hymen's shrine the youth was seen to bend;
Here may'st thou read, 'tis English all, a lay,
The farewell tribute of some lonely friend.

[pp. 26-31]