53 Spenserians: a gothic tale of a mysterious foundling and belated maternal affection, set in Druidical Wales. The style and themes of The Foster Child recall James Beattie more than Edmund Spenser. The lurching narrative is little more than a pretext for lurid description and emotional effect. Mary Robinson's sentimentality could be extreme even by the standards of the 1790s. Not seen.
In a cottage near the ruins of a Druid fane the Foster Mother lives in poverty and innocence. Her husband, Owen, old, avaricious, and bitter, would retire to the fane at sunset to ruminate on past times. One day he is startled at the appearance of a lovely lady: "in her arms she bore a baby sweet, | Wrapp'd in a costly robe, with trappings meet" which she offers to Owen. She offers the old man a purse of gold to do away with the child; as he is about to toss it over the cliff, the Foster Mother appears in a state of distraction, announcing that their only child has died. The infant is spared; Owen dies, eight years pass, and it grows into a homely but remarkable boy that the gossips suspect is a changeling. The child spends his days wandering in the mountains: "With ebon locks unkempt, and mean attire, | A mountain weather-beaten wight was he:— | And passing meek; save when resentful ire | Bade from his glance the living lightning flee." Concerned about her boy, on a dark and stormy night the Foster Mother seeks assistance from a hideous sorceress. But the boy had long tormented this witch, who now exacts revenge. To escape the taunts of the villagers, the Foster Child wanders from home. In a stately mansion he encounters a beautiful woman who "mark'd his form with fond surprise! | For, by his father's smile, his father's mien, | Her own wrong'd baby-boy she knew full well, I ween." Overcome by maternal instinct, she acknowledges her son, and the countryside rejoices.
European Magazine: "In perusing the work, we notice the greater part of the Volume to consist of pieces which have already been printed, with some, though they are not particularly pointed out, which now appear for the first time. Most of them are correct, elegant, spirited performances, well calculated to support the fair writer's well-deserved fame, and will transmit her name with credit to posterity" 25 (February 1794) 133.
Critical Review: "It consists of poems on a variety of subjects, chiefly in the Ode and Sonnet measures, part of which, how large a part is not specified, have been before published in the Oracle. The poem on Sight, the Cavern of Woe, and Solitude, are likewise reprinted here. We find in them all, more words than ideas, and a splendour of diction with little discrimination or choice of figures. Many relate to incidents in her own connections, and are 'proudly plaintive.' We could wish that a fancy naturally brilliant, and numbers so flowing might, by careful cultivation, be improved into poetry, able to stand the test of criticism; but our voice will not be listened to, while there are so many who write from calls more pressing than the impulse of genius or the desire of fame. Many authors know they might write better, but then they could not write so much, and in that state of society in which the labour of the brain becomes an article of merchandise, its texture, like that of every other manufacture from strong and substantial, becomes light and shewy" NS 10 (April 1794) 382.
Samuel Egerton Brydges: "Her style both in prose and verse was the most unchaste that ever was exhibited; and she seemed to deal more in an exuberance of glittering words than in thoughts of any kind. She paid in her latter days by neglect and poverty for the vanity and vices of her youth" Censura Literaria (1808) 6:223.
'Mid CAMBRIA'S hills a lowly cottage stood,
Circled with mossy tufts of sombre green;
A vagrant brook flow'd wildly thro' the wood,
Flashing in lucid lapse the shades between;
And, cloth'd in mist, a distant hut was seen:
A village spire above the copse rose white;
And oft, when summer clos'd the day serene,
The broad horizon glisten'd golden-bright,
Beskirted here and there with purple-tinted light.
Close by the river's marge a ruin stands,
Which time for ages taught to moulder slow;
And there, as legends tell, the Druid bands
To SNOWDEN'S summit rais'd the dirge of woe,
Whene'er the warriors' blood was bade to flow:
And when the yellow dawn, with weeping eye,
Above the ivy'd battlements 'gan glow,
From the black tow'rs their fading ghosts would cry,
'Till the wide gates of day flam'd in the eastern sky.
And there the minstrel's airy harp would sound,
In soft vibrations musically sad;
And there a stream of light would quiver 'round,
While spectres gleam'd, in shroudy vestments clad;
And many, hearing their loud shrieks, grew mad!
And still the little cot was cheerful seen;
And the poor foster-mother, smiling, glad
That pride and pomp had ne'er her portion been,
But all her nights and days pass'd on in peace serene.
Sprung from a race obscure, she little knew
The many snares that lurk in paths of state:
She, mountain-cherish'd with the guileless few,
Nor fear'd the cunning nor obey'd the great;
Her bosom tranquil, and her soul elate!
She from soft slumbers merrily awoke
Ere morn with humid fingers op'd her gate;
And listen'd, cheerful, while the woodman's stroke
Levell'd the loftiest pine, or cleft the proudest oak.
And happy had the foster-mother been,
But that her wedded mate was old and poor;
Tho' as no splendid days the pair had seen,
They envied not the rich their shining store,
The costly banquet, nor the marble floor.
Pleas'd with her toil, the nurse of lusty Health,
She found contentment, and she sought no more;
While Time, which conquers e'en the brave by stealth,
Scatter'd 'mid Folly's train the miseries of wealth.
Full sixty summers had old OWEN seen,
And now his hair grew whiter ev'ry day;
And he, who once a sturdy hind had been,
Now found his strength was wasting quick away,
While creeping Palsy shook his feeble clay;
And now came Discontent, with pining mien,
And eager Avarice, which, gossips say,
Is age's bitter curse; and so, I ween,
Old OWEN found the hag, the nurse of envious spleen.
And now he hobbled through the splashy lane,
While the night-breeze his weary bones would shake;
And now the mountain's summit to attain
He panted loud, as tho' his heart would break,
And sorely did his limbs begin to ache:
And when the snow was drifted, or the rain
Swell'd the small rivulet to foaming rage,
He felt the chilling mist in every vein,
And, like a wounded deer, droop'd languid o'er the plain.
And sometimes to the ruin he would hie,
And there, upon a mossy fragment, wait,
Watching the red blaze of the ev'ning sky,
Gilding with flaming gold the roofs of state,
The fretted column, and the trophied gate:
And thus he ponder'd on the wrecks of Time,
While o'er his head the bird of gloom would cry,
And all around the black'ning ivy climb,
Shadowing the sacred Haunts of Solitude sublime.
And then the varying destiny of Man
Employ'd his thoughts till twilight's veil was spread;
And much he murmur'd at the chequer'd plan,
And many a tear, repining sore, he shed;
And now in mute reflection bow'd his head,
With arms enwoven, and with downcast eyes,
The page of human misery he read,
Where Wealth for Honesty its thralment tries
While at Oppression's feet the child of Virtue dies.
Then fancy led him to the battle's rage,
Where flush'd Ambition rear'd its sanguine crest,
Where men with men, like tigers, fierce engage,
The brother's sword against the brother's breast:
And then he rais'd his eyes to heav'n, and bless'd;
For blood had never stain'd his trembling hand,
But holy Innocence, by Pity drest,
Spurning the pride of insolent command,
Had nerv'd his shuddering heart to scorn th' oppressor's brand.
Thus did he ruminate; while many a tale
Told by the gabbling gossips of the plain,
O'er his lean cheek diffus'd a deadly pale,
Bidding him seek his cheerful home again:
Now fancy bade him ken the warrior train
Winding the mazes of the merry dance,
With pages silken-clad, and ladies vain,
And banners thickly pierc'd with many a lance,
And palfries milky-white, that champing loud did prance;
While airy harps, by sainted Druids smote,
Pour'd the soft cadence from their golden strings;
And groans of murder'd chieftains seem'd to float
O'er Cambria's tow'ring pride, on Echo's wings:
And now the gushing of a thousand springs
Call'd forth the elfin tribes, in dew bedight;
And now the vaulted arch with clamors rings;
And starry eyes, spangling the face of Night,
Seem'd thro' the murky gloom to shed translucent light.
Now OWEN, rising from his moss-clad seat,
Thro' the lone forest bent his silent way;
And faint the pulses of his bosom beat,
Till, peering calm and clear, the moony ray
Diffus'd o'er SNOWDEN'S summit mimic day;
And, while the dry leaves whisper'd thro' the wood,
He mark'd the casement of his hut display
A long pale stream of light — and swift his blood
Danc'd in his shrivell'd veins, like youth's returning flood.
But suddenly a voice was heard to moan,
Soft as the sighing of the southern wind;
And then a milder and a milder tone:—
He started, stopp'd, and trembling look'd behind.
What feeble spells can hold the human mind?
And now, in tears, before old OWEN stood
A beauteous lady! Of the loftiest kind
So did she seem; but those of loftiest blood
Live not in noblest deeds, as noblest natures should.
The moony light fell clear upon her vest,
For whiteness rivalling the stately swan;
And yet less snowy than her beating breast,
Whose fires the quenching tears fell fast upon;
And mournful was her mien, and woe-begone:
Yet her soft eyes might ruffian-rage command,
Tho' her cold cheek and lip were deathly wan;
For on her heart she laid her trembling hand,
And, like a guilty wretch, did faint and feeble stand.
And now she rush'd the woody brakes among;
And now again she'd quit the dim retreat,
While suddenly her nerves grew firm and strong,
For in her arms she bore a baby sweet,
Wrapp'd in a costly robe, with trappings meet,
That glisten'd where the moon's pale lustre fell;
And now she knelt forlorn at OWEN'S feet,
While with such rending woes her heart 'gan swell
As only those who feel can ever learn to tell.
Slow from her breast a purse of gold she drew,
(Ah, poison fatal to the soul of man!)
While o'er the world a misty vapour flew;
For Nature shrunk the guilty deed to scan:
The fount in OWEN'S bosom chilly ran;
The lady sigh'd — the babe his finger press'd—
The lonely owl its nightly shriek began,
The ring-dove murmur'd in its leafy nest,
While the fell murd'rer's ghost laugh'd in his grave unblest.
And now the lady spoke, with fault'ring tongue
"Know'st thou the torrent by the mountain's side?
There a fantastic crag with wild weeds hung
Frowns o'er the thunders of the foaming tide;
No mortal sounding yet the gulph has tried?"
Now OWEN shudder'd, for his heart grew cold;
And now again the lady sternly cried,—
"Down the black rock this baby must be roll'd!
Nay, shrink not from the deed; be rich, as thou art bold.
"Waste not in vulgar toil thy feeble age;
Bid Poverty, with all its ills, retire:
Ought Conscience warfare with the heart to wage,
When all its passions, all its joys, expire?
Who shall condemn Ambition's glorious fire?
Who bid thee linger thro' thy little day
The slave of gilded fools? whose ruthless ire
Will bend thee to the grave, a willing prey,
And bid, in envious scorn, thy very name decay.
"The soldier sheds, for gold, a brother's blood;
The sons of Rapine revel wild in joys;
For gold the sailor ploughs the billowy flood;
The statesman barters for Ambition's toys:
And shall vile Misery thy peace annoy?
Shall threat'ning Famine pinch thee to the heart
While gold can every scorpion care destroy,
Pouring its unction sweet on every smart,
And blunting, ere it falls, Oppression's with'ring dart?"
And now again the babe his finger press'd,
Imploring silently his fost'ring care:
'Twas Nature's eloquence; it touch'd his breast,
For Nature's spark was not extinguish'd there!
He to his bosom snatch'd the treasure rare;
It nestled fondly: while the lady base
Rush'd thro' the forest; and the morning-air,
Fanning with fragrant wings the baby's face,
O'erspread his dimpled cheek with tints of rosy grace.
Now to the margin of the rock they came:
The hunter's merry horn was heard afar;
The cold dew glitter'd, while the sunny flame
Rush'd unimpeded o'er the morning-star,
Rolling o'er clouds of gold Day's burning car:
And now the lark its hymn of rapture sung,
The sheep-bell tinkled, and the deaf'ning jar,
Of tumbling torrents thro' the valley rung,
While the young playful kid frisk'd the dank weeds among.
Now Owen, pacing by the bounding flood,
With arms extended held the fearless child;
And soon an icy languor chill'd his blood;
And now his starting eye-balls gazing wild,
Fix'd on the baby, as it sweetly smil'd,
While the rude crag the trembling caitiff trod;
When lo! his wither'd hands, by gold defil'd,
Were numb'd and palsied like a senseless clod,
Smote by the chast'ning pow'r of NATURE'S shudd'ring God!
Now up the mazes of the dark'ning dell
The foster-mother, like a maniac, hied;
And bursting sighs her bosom taught to swell,
For at the dawn of day her son had died!
Her only son — old OWEN'S lusty pride!
But grief to horror turn'd when OWEN told
The story of the lady — who, to hide
Her guilt and shame, had sought, by 'witching gold,
To have her own dear babe down the black mountain roll'd!
And ere the setting sun, with vivid ray,
Gilded the casement of their hovel low,
She saw the raven cross the foamy way;
She heard the screech-owl o'er the mountain go;
While the true sheep-dog howl'd, portending woe:
Now a dim circle round the moon was roll'd,
And now the church-yard elms wav'd to and fro,
While the small death-watch bitter griefs foretold,—
For OWEN'S cheek was pale, and OWEN'S heart was cold!
Eight years past on, and still the stripling grew,
But nothing lovely in his face was seen;
His stature low, his brow of swarthy hue,
And coarse and vulgar was his infant mien;
A more unseemly thing scarce liv'd, I ween;
Yet in his soul the pure affections shone,
Meek charity, with modest pride serene;
While truth and dauntless courage were his own,
Tho', when he wept, his tear would melt a heart of stone.
The village gossips, 'round the blazing hearth,
Would talk in wonder of the foster-child;
And one would say he was of lowly birth,
While others thought him born of savage wild;
And so they many a freezing night beguil'd:
Till, falling once from an o'erhanging tree,
Amidst the torrent strong, he fearless smil'd!
And then the wrinkled hags with devilish glee,
Swore "the undaunted boy some witch's brat must be!"
And oft, upon the brow of mountain-steep,
As slow the landscape faded from his view,
With devious steps he wander'd far, to weep,
(While all around the sultry vapours flew),
Heedless of with'ring bolt, or drizzly dew:
And as the giant shadows vanquish'd day,
Veiling the woodland dell in dusky hue,
By the small tinkling sheep-bell would he stray,
And, like to elfin ghost, bemoan the hours away:
And often, on the mossy bank, alone,
Strange figures would he draw, and features vile;
And, building a rude seat of rugged stone,
Would sit whole hours, and ponder all the while;
Or, talking to himself, would nod and smile;
And sometimes by the starry light he'd go
Where the dank yew o'erhangs the churchyard stile,
And there, with hemlock, nightshade, misletoe,
Weaving a poison'd wreath, would chaunt a strain of woe.
No wealth had he, no garland of renown;
Slow pass'd the minutes through the livelong day,
Till from the upland mead, or thistled down,
He watch'd the sun's last lustre fade away:
And if perchance his little heart was gay,
It beat to hear some merry minstrel's note,
Or goat-herd caroling his roundelay
On craggy cliffs, while from the linnet's throat
Full many a winding trill on airy wings did float:
And when the wint'ry moon, with crystal eye,
Above the promontory bleak 'gan sail,
Shrouding her modest brow in amber sky,
While shrill the night-breeze whistled o'er the vale,
Oft would he tell some melancholy tale
To the deep lucid stream that wander'd slow,
Listless and weary, indolent and pale,
His bosom swelling high with bitter woe,
Which none but luckless wight with tender heart can know.
And oft to others' plaints would he give heed:—
For all that griev'd, his bosom learn'd to sigh:
He could not see the fleecy victim bleed,
Nor snare the free-born tenant of the sky,
Nor lesser wight be teazed when he stood by;
For brute oppression rouz'd his little rage;
In combat fierce the younker to defy
He would, with breathless ire, his limbs engage,
While neither threats nor pain his anger could assuage.
With ebon locks unkempt, and mean attire,
A mountain weather-beaten wight was he:—
And passing meek; save when resentful ire
Bade from his glance the living lightning flee,
To think that Vice should Virtue's master be:
For, tho' no classic knowledge grac'd his mind
From legends old, or feats of chivalry,
Still 'round his heart the wond'rous instinct twin'd
Which throbb'd in every vein — the love of human kind.
One night, the murky eve of Christmas-day,
When mystic-fraught the wint'ry tempest blows,
Dim shadows hover'd in the blunted ray,
While red the moon o'er SNOWDEN'S summit rose:
And soon fierce hurricanes the Heav'ns unclose;
Howling, the wild blast danc'd upon the wave;
And now a blazing fire the mountain shows;
The troubled streams like blood their margent lave;
And rays of livid light gleam o'er old OWEN'S grave.
The foster-mother rose in dread dismay,
And to the wayward stripling's chamber went;
And now the paly stream of tardy day
Stole down the hill, with frozen dew besprent,
Silv'ring with light the little tenement:
The swarthy boy upon his pallet rude
Slept sweet and soundly, dreaming of content;
While eager-ey'd the foster-mother stood,
Like a fell bird of prey watching a victim brood:
For idle tales had now been widely spread,—
That potent witchcraft had possest the child;
That mystic spells, from pois'nous herbage shed,
The urchin's wand'ring senses had beguil'd,
Filling his brain with incantations wild:
And some did swear that, by a fiend possest,
Like a vile killcrop, breathing airs defil'd,
The corn would mildew, by his fingers prest,
And new-born babes expire, meeting his glance unblest.
Near where the black-thorn mark'd the barren hill,
Dotting with frequent tufts its rugged side,
In a clay hut, a wither'd imp of ill
Her art accurst for many a year had plied:
Bearded she was, and swart, and haggard-eyed;
And on her back a lump deforming grew;
A huge dried snake about her waist was tied,
And hideous forms upon the floor she drew
With hemlock's poison'd juice mingled with midnight dew:
The wings of bats, the hides of toads, were seen
Clothing the walls of her infernal cell;
And spiders grim, hiding their webs between,
Watch'd the foul Hag weaving her potent spell,
Low-muttering like a sullen fiend of hell:
A murderer's scull, fall'n from a gibbet high,
And fill'd with water from a stagnant well,
Oft to her skinny lips she would apply,
With many a bitter curse and many a labour'd sigh:
Close at her feet a brindled mastiff lay,
Watching her busy toil with bloodshot eyes;
And now he howl'd, as if with dire dismay,
Shaking the hovel with his fearful cries;
And now, with hide erect, he couching lies:
A rav'ning kite, which on the lattice stood,
With side-glance keen the wither'd sorc'ress spies,
His talons streaming with the wild kid's blood,
Which down the thorny steep roll'd in a crimson flood.
Thither in haste the foster-mother flew,
To traffic with the wicked imp of hell:
For ev'ry starry path the sorc'ress knew;
Could mark how high the stormy flood would swell;
Of comets prattle, and eclipse foretel;
Draw from their mould'ring shrouds the guilty dead;
Ride on the whirlwind over hill and dell;
Dance on the murderer's grave, and fearless tread
O'er the wide yawning wave of Ocean's foamy bed.
And now the foster-mother told her tale
(The sorc'ress list'ning with malignant smile),
How the lorn boy would wander, sad and pale;
Or pluck the yew-tree from the church-yard stile;
Or bind his brows with weeds and herbage vile:
How he would sing his wild song to the blast,
And so night's melancholy noon beguile;
Or, when the death-knell o'er the meadow pass'd,
Sigh thro' the dreary hour, and wish it were his last.
And now again the witch, with ghastly grin,
Turn'd to her rushy bed, and shriek'd with joy:
For, there full many a wither'd branch was seen,
And many a herb infectious, to destroy,
Gather'd at dawn-light by the foster-boy;
For, oftimes he the spiteful Hag would taunt,
And, scatt'ring poisons, her lone hours annoy;
Or, shrieking like a ghost, her threshold haunt,
Till morn above the steep its gaudy beams would flaunt:
And now across her path the straw he threw,
Or scratch'd her shrivel'd arm with crooked pin;
Now up the moon-light lane her feet pursue,
And shout behind her with insulting din:—
To mock the old and feeble were a sin:
But that the subtle Hag, with menac'd rage,
Would urge the daily warfare to begin;
And oft with stick and stone in fight engage,
Mingling with potent wrath the peevish bent of age.
The tale being told, the little wretch forlorn
Was sentenc'd to endure each wounding wrong;
Assail'd by all the shafts of ribald scorn,
And mark'd the make-game of a senseless throng;—
For, Persecution is a giant strong.
And now his food was frequently denied;
His sport was seldom, and his labor long;
His hunger, herbs medicinal supplied,
With ears of mildew'd corn, steep'd in the sandy tide.
One morn the foster-mother early rose;
'Twas the blythe morn of love-inspiring May:
But fearful dreams had haunted her repose,
Dark'ning the splendour of the rising day:
She sought the boy, — but he was far away!
For sharp unkindness did his peace annoy,
And little could he brook the rigid sway!
Which tyrant natures, tyrant souls, enjoy;
Their cruel sport to wound — their triumph to destroy!
Yet whither could the little wand'rer go?
A stranger to the world's wide mazes he;
Despair his guide, his sole companion Woe—
A solitary exile doom'd to be:
He gaz'd aghast; no friend his eyes could see;
And yet in fancy he beheld the day
When, smiling, on his foster-mother's knee,
He oftentimes has heard her sighing say,
How to her cot he came bedight in rich array.
Perchance, he thought, some lord his sire might live;
Some lady sweet his bashful mother prove,
While shame might bid her to a stranger give
The holy treasure of a parent's love.
O barbarous Pride! which NATURE cannot move;
Shall her poor offspring ever plead in vain?
Shall they, unown'd by guilty greatness, rove;
Or, lost in ignorance, unblest remain,
Like a wild with'ring tree plac'd on a desert plain?
And now his fev'rish brain began to burn,
While Mem'ry conjur'd up each hour to view
Which, erst so tranquil, never could return—
Ah, MEMORY! sad thy visions are, and true!—
When dark Despair a gloomy picture drew;
While Fancy madden'd on the varied scene:
And now the clouds resum'd a cheerful hue;
Yet, while he watch'd the rays of light between,
On all the earth there breath'd no wretch so lorn, I ween.
O'er hill and dale the friendless foster-child,
With weary footsteps, bent his lonely way:
And now he hasten'd o'er the thorny wild;
Now by the rippling brook would musing stay;
Or dream, on flow'ry banks, of visions gay:
Then, starting wild, his pilgrimage pursue,
Not knowing whither he was doom'd to stray,
While his wan cheek was sprent with chilling dew,
Or fierce the angry storm athwart his bosom flew.
At length gaunt Poverty, of sallow hue,
And cold Neglect, with all their rueful train,
About his heart their with'ring mischiefs threw;
And sorely was he pinch'd with bitter pain:
Yet proud was he, and fraught with high disdain,
Tho' many a day he fasted sad and lone;
And all night long across the dismal plain
He pour'd, amid the blast, his rending groan,
While the faint glimm'ring stars in chilling lustre shone:
And many a burning day, and freezing night,
The little trav'ller on his journey bent;
And often, by the moon-beam's quiv'ring light,
He watch'd his shadow length'ning as he went,
And, so companion'd, seem'd awhile content:
Yet when, perchance, he met a lady gay,
With sudden pangs his little heart was rent;
For then remembrance shew'd the rich array
Which (so the tale was told) bedeck'd his natal day.
It so befel that, on a summer's eve,
A stately mansion met his tearful eyes:
And suddenly his soul forgot to grieve;
And straight a beauteous lady he espies:
With unknown hopes his heavy heart did rise,
For on her cheek a gentle smile was seen;
And now she mark'd his form with fond surprise!
For, by his father's smile, his father's mien,
Her own wrong'd baby-boy she knew full well, I ween.
'Twas INSTINCT rushing thro' her beating breast!
Instinct, the lamp divine that lights the soul;
For many a night, depriv'd of balmy rest,
Her fev'rish eye-balls had been taught to roll:
Oh! what can conscious agony control?
And, when she ponder'd on the foaming tide,
From her shrunk heart Hope's soothing visions stole;
And sick'ning was the luxury of Pride,
While all the mother's fears beat high against her side.
Now the wide country 'round with revels rung:
"The Stranger Boy" was sov'reign of the scene;
And there the minstrel play'd, the peasant sung,
And dancing circles dotted o'er the green;
Such rural merriment had ne'er been seen:
The soft harp echo'd down the woody dell;
And sporting gay the sombre shades between,
The wild goat wanton'd; while afar the swell
On the light breeze was borne, of many a distant bell.
But who can paint the mother's silent joy?
Who measure the full transport of her soul?
While on the smiling cheek of her lost boy
Her tears repentant swiftly now 'gan roll:
And woe to him who would their course control!
For 'twas the extract of the wounded heart,
Wafted to Heaven by sighs that Nature stole—
Sighs which more sacred rapture can impart
Than all the pomp of wealth, and all the smiles of art!
[Works (1806) 2:52-79]