1797
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Country Parson, a Poem.

The Country Parson, a Poem. By John Bidlake, B.A., Chaplain to his Royal Highness the Duke of Clarence, and Master of the Grammar School, Plymouth.

Rev. John Bidlake


48 Spenserians by a provincial curate and schoolteacher (Benjamin Robert Haydon was a pupil). The Country Parson amounts to an extended verse character: "Far happier he than drone in college hive, | On books who pours his sullen hopeless years" p. 28. The opening formula derives from the common source of so many eighteenth-century verse characters, John Philips's The Splendid Shilling, though here the burlesque is largely occluded by the later sentimental mode. The delicious catalogue of flowers in this poem was reprinted in the Annual Register (1797). John Bidlake was a prolific poet, afterwards sadly stricken with blindness while reading his Bampton Lectures.

James Thomson's Castle of Indolence and Shenstone's The School-Mistress are models, though Bidlake borrows promiscuously; among Spenserian poems, one might compare Henry James Pye's The Parsonage Improved, or Samuel Hoole's Edward, or The Curate, both published in 1787, which mingle aesthetic matters with scenes of clerical life. Bidlake's poem has a notably fine catalogue of flowers in the garden description.

William Smyth: "Mr. Bidlake has pursued the track of the modern imitators of the incomparable author of the Fairy Queen, and, as we think, with no inconsiderable success. Though, however, we cannot allow equal merit to the Country Parson with the Castle of Indolence, yet Mr. B. is not deficient in the powers of description, nor in the enchanting faculty of cloathing moral sentiment in the rich and variegated garb of poetic allegory. It will not be deemed injurious to the praise due to Mr. Bidlake, if we speak of Spenser and Thomson in a strain of more elevated panegyric. The genius of the author of the Seasons bears, in our opinion, a strong analogy to that of the pensive, descriptive, and moralizing Spenser. Both poets abound in admirable sentiments; both were enthusiastic lovers of Nature; and both were in the highest degree capable of captivating the heart by pathetic representations, and of holding the fancy in bondage by circumstantial and forcible imagery. How far Mr. Bidlake has caught from these bards a power to paint, and a philosophical spirit, the following quotations may serve to evince" NS 23 (August 1797) 454.

British Critic: "We have before us the productions of Mr. Bidlake's Muse; and, on the present occasion, he has diversified, and rendered interesting, a subject far from novel" 10 (1797) 429.

Monthly Mirror: "The present work appears to have been founded upon the plan of the Castle of Indolence. It is in the stanza of Spenser; and, with a few exceptions, may be pronounced a very respectable specimen of descriptive poetry" (1797) 169.

Analytical Review: "Mr. Bidlake has, on other occasions, evinced a talent and a predilection for descriptive poetry; his present production does not, indeed, display much fervour of imagination, and the descriptions with which it abounds are rather remarkable for the accuracy of their outline, than the brilliancy of their colouring. The subject of the poem recalled to our memory the short, the simple, and the sweet description of a country parson, which Dr. Goldsmith has given in his Deserted Village: 'Near yonder copse, &c.' These beautiful lines, perhaps, made us somewhat fastidious, and prompted a comparison, rather unfavourable to the poem before us" 26 (1797) 45.

John Aikin?: "Mr. Bidlake's Country Parson is more to be admired for accuracy of description than brilliancy of poetical imagery" Monthly Magazine 4 (Supplement, 1797) 517.

David Macbeth Moir: "Several other poets of merit — now little known, save by casual extract — did their best to illustrate the same period; for, as Dr. Johnson has characteristically observed, 'Parnassus has its flowers of transient fragrance, as well as its trees of stately growth, and its laurels of eternal verdure.' Crowe's Lewisdon Hill, Bidlake's Country Parson, Gisborne's Walks in a Forest, and Cottle's Malvern Hills, were, as local poems, long admitted to the same library-shelf with the volumes of Denham and Dyer" Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 38.



Ah blest is he! albeit unknown to fame,
Who lives with modest competence secure.
The sons of care true happiness misname;
For fancied good a thousand ills endure;
Forsake the happy port where all is sure;
The winds defy, or trust the dang'rous wave,
Or dig, for sordid gain, with hands impure;
The soldier's toil, the battle's terror brave,
Tho' few and short are all our wants this side the grave.

Such is his lot, who from temptation free
Of conscience shipwreck'd, and of honour sold,
Can safely sail o'er life's advent'rous sea;
Nor idly change his peace for specious gold;
Amid the venal worthless tribe enroll'd,
Whom fraudulent success and fortune gild;
Or whom the toils of guilty traffic hold:
Alas! deceiv'd, they fancy structures build,
Whose coffers are with spoils of vile oppression fill'd.

Such is he lot, who bosom'd mid the trees,
Where frames the cawing rook his pensile nest,
A tap'ring spire, a modest mansion sees,
By some kind patron's friendly bounty blest;
Who calls his own the seat of sacred rest;
Where reign unbroken quiet, classic ease,
The heart elate, by placid looks confest;
While gratitude its hourly tribute pays
To him, with sweet content and peace who crowns his days.

What though no gilded roof his house adorn,
No sumptuous furniture, no costly plate;
Let not the sons of splendid lux'ry scorn
The smoother tenor of his happier state:
Their pleasures still a thousand wants create.
Simplicity within his mansion reigns;
Prudence and quiet ever guard the gate;
He knows, he feels no artificial pains;
But bless'd by golden temperance equal joys maintains.

Where the clipp'd yew-tree frowns, in gloomy shade,
A dragon green, or spreading peacock swells;
The grass-plat smooths the whiten'd palisade,
And pillars square, like watchful centinels,
Explain where snug our happy vicar dwells:
While heart-born smiles sit dimpling in his face.
Exact on sundays to the call of bells:
His week-day's dinner seals with hasty grace;
On sabbaths feasts to keep the body in good case.

A garden trim he owns with silver rill,
That ceaseless sports to musick all its own,
Where nodding flowrets stooping drink their fill,
And ope gay eyes, refresh'd, fantastick grown.
And there the gaudy tulip's pomp is known;
The blushing rose, mentor of virgin pride;
Woodbines with cumb'rous wealth hung clust'ring down;
The jasmine meek and pure; and more betide,
That make a paradise and scent the summer tide.

But most his luscious fruits with glistering eye,
That cloath the sunny wall he will commend,
The while he shews, how they all fruits outvie,
He prunes them all, their growth his cares attend,
There bids them sprucely spread, here bids them bend.
How glows the blushing peach at his command;
The nectarine rich, where summer's bounties blend,
The conscious plumb that from the spoiler's hand
Lost bloom bemoans, like worth sad-stain'd by slander's brand.

Securely the painted goldfinch breeds,
Securely shelter'd trills the mellow lay;
All on the downy couch his offspring feeds,
And warbles thankfulness his rent to pay.
For, happy guests! from thence no songsters stray;
For there compassion, nature's friend, they meet;
There emulative tuneful pow'rs display;
The conscious master's daily visits greet,
And fill with grateful melody his blest retreat.

Not all for pleasure, herbs for use design'd,
Within the garden's cultur'd precinct grow,
To the main chance looks forth the thrifty mind,
And substance holds above mere empty shew,
"For penny sav'd," a proverb well such know.
And there, with heart compact, the cabbage stands,
With trickling drops begem'd that brightly glow.
There nodding onions rang'd like marshall'd bands;
And apples dropping down that ask the gatherers hands.

Uprears asparagus his spiry head,
Child of the sea, snug cole in native sand;
The sluggard carrot sleeps his days in bed;
The cripple pea, alone that cannot stand,
With vegetable marrow rich and bland;
The bean, whose tempting sweets the bees invite;
The artichoke in scaly armour grand;
With more, that may nice epicure delight,
And dainties yield to glad the fickle appetite.

There stretch'd upon his bed of salts, supine,
Cool cucumber his creeping arms extends,
Rough-coated melon shoots his tender vine,
Like worth, whom aspect rude, ill recommends.
In jestful mood the master tells his friends
How cauliflower, like doctor's wig so white,
All flower exceeds: a joke much mirth that lends.
For never jest so stale, or wit so trite,
In little minds that cannot raise supreme delight.

There too the currant hangs its loaded head;
Pomona's pearls and crimson gems all bright.
Plethoric gooseberries, amber, green, or red,
Whose giant size may rivalship excite,
With harmless pride nice culture's care requite.
And there the strawberry, 'mid her veil of green,
Bashful with modest face shrinks back from sight,
True virgin beauty blushing to be seen:
And what so sweet as chastity in beauty's mein?

His court in troops the busy poultry crowd,
That clamorous jar with multifarious sound;
There sweeps his swelling wing the turky proud;
With ire his scarlet wattles reach the ground,
If scarlet but appear, emblem of wound,
And war. Ah how unlike the lady fair,
Or monarch race. The cock there strutting round
His subject wives, with clarion pierces air,
When for the egg new-laid they cackle debonnair.

There to the dove-house flocks the cooing flight
With ever-changeful neck and ruby eye,
For aye they love, and dalliance soft invite,
In rivalship and find endearments vie;
Or bask on sunny ridge with neck awry.
And there the patient kine contented stand,
With busy tail they lash the saucy fly,
While fragrant elders ask the friendly hand,
And the full pail o'erflows with wealth of Canaan land.

His geese of snowy white in neighbouring pond,
Like well rang'd fleets, sail down in wat'ry race,
Or for their goslings grey so anxious, fond,
All on the green the teazing school-boy chace
With hisses loud; with terror in his face,
And tearful eye, he runs, and screaming shrill.
The chequer'd duck proud of each changeful grace
Shakes from his azure wing the trickling rill,
Or nimbly diving hunts his prey with busy bill.

Deep in his cellar lurks the treasur'd port
By friend procur'd, and friend design'd to cheer;
Whose ruby lips in smiling glasses court,
And bid the frown of sorrow disappear.
And brown October, kept for many a year:
With native powers that proudly boasts to shine;
Jealous of foreign claim, and sparkling clear.
There too a store of birch or gooseberry wine
That wins his lady's praise, when strangers come to dine.

Nor be forgot the dairy's decent pride,
With glittering vessels shining round in rows,
That brimming yield as rich a nectarine tide
As Jove's celestial Galaxy o'erflows:
Which blooming like hepatica in snows
The comely virgin tends with thrifty care,
Her skin so white, her cheek with beauty glows;
Much prais'd her luscious cream, her cheeses rare;
Much are they prais'd, but more the maiden blushing fair.

His horse high privileg'd, may feed alone,
Within the silent church-yard's close domain,
And muse upon each moral-graven stone,
But seldom conscious of the galling rein.
Yet he, to musing much averse, one grain
Of corn, than meditation more esteems:
One tuft of grass had rather he attain.
So Alderman the feast of reason deems;
And flesh, alas! not spirit fills his waking dreams.

Nor wants he reverence due; that dear delight
Of whatsoe'er degree, of high or low.
No mind so humble but will claim this right;
This dearest commerce social compacts know;
For with this jealous claim all bosoms glow.
For this the courtier, whom proud titles deck,
Now aims to rule, now servilely will bow:
To higher rank can cringe, and stoop the neck,
Full glad to catch the favour'd smile, and watch each beck.

Yet he, meantime, the proudest of the proud,
An haughty tyrant, and an abject slave,
With fond complacence eyes the menial crowd,
That at his levee wait, and favour crave;
Where golden fools and every fawning knave
The ready welcome meet. The little mind
Can ne'er with native dignity behave;
Tho' rais'd, still ever low; tho' free, confin'd:
Ennobled slaves are found the meanest of mankind.

How better far respect, when free bestow'd!
The ready deference of the simple heart;
For worth confess'd, for excellence allow'd,
Which virtue's friends to virtue's worth impart;
Above disguise, above the reach of mimic art.
The generous soul alone tastes solid praise;
Mere specious gold is brought to flattery's mart,
In vain attempts the abject mind to raise;
One ready mite all costly tribute far outweighs.

And him they praise for charitable deed;
And him they love, because the poor man's friend:
His breast for vex'd affliction knows to bleed,
His pray'rs console, his cares the sick attend;
The cheering cordial he will kindly send;
Nor frowns at want or pain his friendly door.
He will advice or free assistance lend,
Convinc'd that heav'nly bounty glads his store,
He grateful gives a portion back, to bless the poor.

And him a wight of learning deep they hold;
Of cunning books he owns a wondrous store;
And many a tale is, in half whisper, told,
Of what these books contain, all scrawled o'er
With strange device; in which he wont to pore:
And letters crooked, of such doubtful guise,
That he must be full bold, who dares explore
The frightful magic page, of monstrous size.
Ah! heav'n defend the man, who proves that enterprize.

That he, no doubt, can conjure, well is known;
No haggar'd witch e'er dares approach his face.
For laying ghosts much vaunted his renown,
And stolen goods with skill he knows to trace,
Let thief conceal in e'er so secret place.
And many a crime his power has brought to light.
For when the bible-book forth comes, disgrace
Each trembling wretch will seize, with pale affright;
He dares not stand that test, confessing all outright.

Near by a solitary wood there hands
A cot, by witch once own'd, decrepid, old;
Rheum in her eyes, with palsy shook her hands;
Much to her cat she mumbled, much would scold
And gather'd sticks, to cheat the winter's cold.
Her oft in shape of hare hunters pursued;
Yet puss escap'd each hound, or swift, or bold,
Our parson's certain aim, at length, she rued;
Of silver was the ball, and blood her steps bedew'd.

Once the scar'd village, or thro' gloomy grove,
Or path-worn mead, amid the shade of night
Ne'er dar'd alone, with venturous feet to rove,
Such various forms assum'd a restless spright:
An headless horse sometimes, and all in white,
And then with saucer eyes, all dread to view,
Some dark-done deed he wish'd to bring to light;
But him the priest soon laid: how, none yet knew,
But every grandam says "'tis as the gospel true."

When thro' the village forth he takes his way,
Their pastor kind they emulously greet;
In rustic guise obeisance they pay;
Both old and young, whom he may chance to meet,
Or palsied sick, or age with failing feet.
They curtsey quaint, they doff the hat full low,
For blessings oft they earned pray'r repeat,
And bid the nimbler infants run, with bow
Profound to hail whom God's true prophet they avow.

But when the sabbath claims its sacred rest,
And sweet the bells thro' echoing vallies chime,
Then forth in village pride so sprucely drest,
They seek the temple's holy porch betime;
And wait his coming, while with look sublime
He walks, 'mid bowing rows; with clerk behind,
A man well vers'd in Sternhold's quainter rhyme
Who boasts full well the lessons all to find,
To pitch the voice, and read — save crabbed words unkind.

The surplice next of snowy white he holds,
And round the good man's shoulders rightly throngs;
Or amply spreads, or smooths the wrinkled folds;
Then to his throne with pomp elate he goes;
And there, the pray'r begun, with vocal nose,
Amen! he cries, or psalms repeats full loud,
King David's pious praise, or Israel's woes;
Or lesson reads, of oratory proud,
Scarce in his mind the parson equal is allow'd.

But who in humble verse shall dare relate
The pride of clerk, who singer's seat ascends?
The psalm he names, and pitches all in state,
And to the quire melodious aid he lends;
Where each disdaining to be lost, nor blends
With other voice his own Stentorian sounds;
The screaming treble shrill with base contends;
Loud for pre-eminence fierce strife abounds;
Discord presides, and dismal discord all confounds.

A man he is of aspect prim, demure,
Nor of importance small himself he deems;
And full of holy zeal for doctrine pure;
And often high disputes he holds 'gainst schemes
Of all whom he most heretic esteems,
And thinks we ne'er shall thrive till all shall burn,
Or who from church dissents, or who blasphemes.
And much he fears, left fatal days return,
When bloody men shall cause both church and state to mourn.

Nor aught can e'er his muscles discompose,
That rusted by disuse all joke defy;
When starch and solemn he to wedding goes,
Nor heeds the looks of rustic, leering fly:
Yet he himself can jest in method dry;
But cautious then recalls the truant smile,
Lest he may lose accustom'd dignity.
Thus many a dunce more dull, by artful wile,
Wisdom affects, and gaping ignorance can beguile.

Nor be his garb forgot; whate'er relates
To man pompose does pomp acquire thereby;
The solemn curls that cover learned pates
Do ever vulgar wigs by far outvie:
And dull is he who cannot well descry
The wearer's character from wig alone.
And even when the parson's self was nigh,
Our clerk in state still undiminish'd shone;
But he by garb is less than self-complacence known.

His coat, that once was dark as sable night,
From stealthful time some tints of fading took;
Though often, often brush'd in labour's spite;
For coats like men must daily change their look:
Nor aye in youthful verdure bloom, but brook
His iron rod; yet oft the back it grac'd
Of Denmark's prince, who rage to tatters shook
In neighbouring barn, where much at eve solac'd,
The rustic audience view'd the ghost in armour brac'd.

But when the holy text is nam'd, they look
With earnest stare, and feature fix'd, intent,
While ever still they tumble o'er the book,
To trace the verse and chapter fully bent;
Nor heed, meantime, the preacher's argument:
From hand to hand the sacred leaf goes round,
And as they search the sermon half is spent;
The doctrine prov'd, ere yet the theme is found,
And much they praise if very learned words abound.

And much in holy mystery he deals,
As learned, sage divines have done before;
And doctrine he from ancient labour steals;
A pious fraud allow'd in cleric lore,
Which modern doctors think no sin, and more
As swells his voice aloud, his hearers praise.
Some chain'd in holy slumber, loudly snore;
More wakeful some their pious eyes upraise;
Declare they never finer heard in all their days.

Ah how unlike is he to city priest,
With kerchief white, and smartly powder'd hair;
That does the ears of simp'ring ladies feast,
And wears the di'mond ring on hand so fair;
And minces every word with nicest care,
And brings from theatre each phrase genteel;
Till nymphs delighted him so sweet declare
The prettiest preacher, who at once can steal
Their hearts, and wake both mortal love, and holy zeal.

Our Vicar's cares are few, and light his dreams;
Nor wealth, nor curst ambition fill his brain,
But every change of empire bad he deems;
Each innovation thinks the foulest stain
To doctrines, which he glories to maintain,
Or to the state; and settled in his creed,
To him all change of things is preach'd in vain;
Save what new bishop may in turn succeed,
Whose goose may fit, what neighbour's sow may chance to breed.

Yet vain his hope, who in this toilsome life,
Would smooth uninterrupted pleasures find.
From sickness, and from yearly teeming wife,
Some flying clouds will cross the happiest mind
Care, like its shadow, follows joy behind:
The nation's wealth, by some 'tis understood,
From population springs: our lady kind
With annual present multiplies her brood
And patriotic labours for the public good.

Then sad perplexities will intervene
Of tithes withheld, and of vexatious law.
A modus here obtrudes his hopes between;
I His dues may, fail, his bargains have a flaw:
His rights an artful litigant withdraw;
Repairs exacted, chimney giv'n to smoke;
And much expence which prudence ne'er foresaw.
For ills on ills will temper smooth provoke,
And little rubs will sometimes gall the marriage yoke.

Oft with the neighbouring squire fierce contests rise,
So proud, so jealous of prerogative.
For in alternate state, like monarchies,
Of breathing peace, and frequent war they live:
Such cause of quarrel jarring interests give.
In vestry too tumultuous high debate
Churchwarden arrogant and positive,
With surly pride of office all elate;
And cruel overseer, that holds the poor in hate.

The ladies too important quarrels vex;
Of slights, of indecorum they complain,
Well may such themes philosopher perplex,
To settle all the rights of female pain,
The curtsy half return'd, with cold disdain,
When modish cousins, all so grand from town,
Her ears with courtly converse entertain,
Our parson's wife is held on small renown;
And scarce on her, while visit lasts, the dame looks down.

But when at peace, and hand in hand they walk,
And grateful calm her halcyon days bestows;
The parson loves of Oxford pranks to talk,
As round the table mirth convivial grows,
And sparkling high the cheerful cup o'erflows.
Then will he speak of proctors' hair-breadth 'scape;
The oft told tale each seated guest fore-knows,
Of impositions, schemes, and frequent scrape,
And nightly how they quaff'd the mellow juice of grape.

There sit his table frequent guests around,
The justice with solemnity of face,
Who talks of statutes pass'd, and law profound,
The scourge and terror of the thievish race,
And hapless wanton mark'd with foul disgrace.
The apothecary fond to make them stare,
While he in learned words explains each case
Of skilful cures, and of distempers rare,
And shews, how e'en in spite of physic death will spare.

The squire, who only talks or horse or hound,
Or lofty hedge o'erleap'd, or five-barr'd gate
His mind in kennel, or in stable found,
All other converse meets his perfect hate.
Books he detests, and every grave debate;
By income 'bove his huntsman rais'd alone;
Boasts of his steed, and of his large estate;
Laughs at dull jokes, but loudest at his own,
While by the frequent oath the vacant mind is known.

Such scenes the unaspiring mind delight,
And smoothly on his hours in quiet glide;
Whist or backgammon share the winter's night,
His busy days important cares divide:
To till his field, or take a sober ride,
To talk of raising tithes, or save his hay,
To reap his corn, or absent church-folk chide;
Copy, perchance, a sermon, sometimes pray,
His dues exact collect, his fruitful glebe survey.

Far happier he than drone in college hive,
On books who pores his sullen hopeless years;
Belov'd by none, and buried yet alive,
Whom no sweet charity to life endears;
But ever wrangling with his proud compeers;
Friendship unknown, and every genial joy,
No lovely wife his lonely sorrows cheers,
With drear insipid round his pleasures cloy,
Who learning treasures which he cannot e'er employ.

Such is our favour'd parson's easy life,
From cumbrous pomp, from guilty greatness free,
From false ambition, and from constant strife.
And blest, if there be happiness, is he
Who weighs in wisdom's scale felicity:
In wishes circumscrib'd will ever find
Of human bliss the total sum to be.
Care is to him alone a passing wind,
Who by this golden rule can regulate his mind.

[pp. 5-29]