1807
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Dictatorial Owl.

A Natural History of Birds, intended chiefly for Young Persons. By Mrs. Charlotte Smith. 2 Vols.

Charlotte Smith


Eleven Prior stanzas, posthumously published in a book for children that includes among its essays five original ornithological fables. The "Dictatorial Owl," Strixaline, is a pedantic old maid who learns not to interfere in the lives of other birds after she unadvisedly ventures forth in the bright light of day. Charlotte Smith's volumes are decorated with engravings and illustrated with passages from the poets on the haunts and habits of the feathered creation.

"If by any chance an Owl leaves its dark retreat in the day-time, it is surrounded by innumerable small birds, who pursue it with cries and menace, just as they do if they perceive a fox, or any other beast of prey. On this, and the Owl's apparent self-conceit, the following fable is founded" 1:28.

Andrew Caldwell to Thomas Percy: "The ingenious and amiable Mrs. Charlotte Smith died lately; her lot in life was, I fear, a hard one. I became acquainted with her in the year 1799, and she favoured me with three or four letters; her daughter wrote to me the other day to request them, as she was preparing some of her mother's works, and an account of her life, for publication" 4 March 1807; in Nichols, Illustrations (1817-58) 8:65.



Within a hollow elm, whose scanty shade
But half acknowledg'd the returning spring,
A female Owl her domicile had made;
There, through the live-long day with folded wing
And eyes half-clos'd she sat; eyes black and round,
Like berries that on deadly nightshade grow,
And full white face demure, and look profound,
That ever seem'd some evil to foreknow;
Still with sententious saws she overflow'd,
And birds of omen dark frequented her abode.

Thither, to profit by her learned lore,
Repair'd the daw, the magpie, and the crow,
Malicious tongues indeed did say, that more
Of the vain world's affairs they wont to know,
And there discuss, than, 'mid the night's deep noon,
To hear wise axioms from her whisker'd beak,
Or to chaunt solemn airs to hail the moon;
But only worldlings thus, she said, would speak,
And, that more sapient judges did opine
Their converse was most pure, and held on themes divine.

She for the errours of the feather'd nation
Griev'd very sorely. "They were all infected
With vanities that wanted reformation,
And to erroneous notions were subjected;
Addicted too to sportiveness and joke,
To song and frolic, and profane delight;"
But Strixaline declar'd, the feather'd folk
Should be to grave demeanour given quite;
Nor, while rejoicing in the new-born spring,
Should cooing dove be heard, or woodlark carolling.

She often had to tell, in piteous tone,
How a poor chough by some sad chance was shent;
Or of some orphan cuckoo left alone
She would declaim; and then with loud lament,
To do them good, she'd their disasters tell,
And much deplore the faults they had committed;
Yet "hop'd, poor creatures! they might still do well."
And sighing, she would say, how much she pitied
Birds, who, improvident resolv'd to wed,
Which in such times as these to certain ruin led!

To her 'twas music, when grown gray with age,
Some crow caw'd loud her praise, with yellow bill,
And bade her in the wholesome task engage,
Mid the plum'd race new maxims to instill;
The raven, ever famous for discerning,
Of nose most exquisite for all good things,
Declar'd she was a fowl of wondrous learning;
And that no head was ever 'twixt two wings
So wise as hers. Nor female since the pope,
Ycleped Joan, with Strixaline could cope.

This, in process of time, so rais'd her pride,
That ev'ry hour seem'd lost, till she had shown
How science had to her no light denied,
And what prodigious wisdom was her own!
So, no more shrinking from the blaze of day.
Forth flew she. It was then those pleasant hours,
When village girls, to hail propitious May,
Search the wild copses and the fields for flow'rs,
And gayly sing the yellow meads among,
And ev'ry heart is cheer'd, and all look fresh and young.

His nest amid the orchard's painted buds
The bulfinch wove; and loudly sung the thrush
In the green hawthorn; and the new-leav'd woods,
The golden furze, and holly's guarded bush,
With song resounded: tree-moss gray enchas'd
The chaffinch's soft house; and the dark yew
Receiv'd the hedge sparrow, that careful plac'd
Within it's bosom eggs as brightly blue
As the calm sky, or the unruffled deep,
When not a cloud appears, and ev'n the zephyrs sleep.

There is a sundial near a garden fence,
Which flow'rs, and herbs, and blossom'd shrubs surround.
And Strixaline determin'd, that from thence
She to the winged creatures would expound
Her long collected store. There she alighted,
And, though much dazzled by the noon's bright rays,
In accents shrill a long discourse recited;
While all the birds, in wonder and amaze,
Their songs amid the coverts green suspended,
Much marvelling what Strixaline intended!

But when she told them, never joyous note
Should by light grateful hearts to Heav'n be sung,
And still insisted, that from ev'ry throat,
Dirges, the knell of cheerful Hope, be rung;
While, quitting meadows, wilds, and brakes, and trees,
She bade them among gloomy ruins hide;
Nor finch nor white-throat wanton on the breeze,
Nor reed lark warble by the river side;
They were indignant each, and stood aloof,
Suspecting all this zeal, but mask'd a shrewd Tartuffe.

Till out of patience they enrag'd surround her,
Some clamouring cry, that her insidious tongue
Bodes them no good; while others say they've found her
At ev'ning's close marauding for their young,
When frogs appear'd no more, and mice were scarce.
At length the wryneck, missel thrush, and bunting,
Protested they would end this odious farce,
And from the dial the baffl'd prater hunting,
With cries and shrieks her hooting they o'erwhelm,
And drive her back for shelter to her elm.

There, vanity severely mortified,
Still on her heart with sharp corrosion prey'd;
No salvo now could cure her wounded pride,
Yet did she fondly still herself persuade,
That she was born in a reforming hour,
And meant to dictate, govern, and direct;
That wisdom such as hers included pow'r,
Nor did experience teach her to reflect
How very ill some folks apply their labours,
Who think themselves much wiser than their neighbours.

[1:29-32]