1809
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Visionary Boy.

Poems (never before published,) written chiefly at Bremhill, in Wiltshire by the Rev. Wm. Lisle Bowles.

Rev. William Lisle Bowles


In a variation on the Choice of Hercules theme, the Visionary Boy is accosted in the Vale of Poetical Fancy — first by Fancy, and then by Wisdom. The program of the allegory recalls James Beattie's The Minstrel, while the varying measures of Fancy's song are imitated from Collins's Ode on the Passions. William Lisle Bowles's collection, various in genres, is all very much in the tradition of Joseph and Thomas Warton, not least in its willingness to make pointed allusions to earlier poetry.

The headings in the "Collins" part of the poem suggest a more elaborate program than might at first appear: "Castles in the Air, First Impressions of general Beauty, Desire, Pity, Transition to extreme Melancholy Abstraction, Power of the Poet over the feelings of Terror, Musical Expression." The poet adds in a note, "I have placed Music last, as I think a perfect musical ear implies the highest degree of cultivation" p. 60n. The "Wayward Fairy" offers to ride with the poet above the clouds, when Wisdom appears to rebuke her "witching lay." Wisdom does not renounce poetry, but would turn the Visionary Boy to higher themes, the poetry of romance and religious sublimity (heroic poetry had already been treated in the first part).

The evocation of romance, pp. 65-66 consists largely of a catalogue of devices from the Faerie Queene; in a note Bowles pays homage to the present generation of romantic poets, rapidly rendering his own Wartonian manner obsolete: "I need not mention, I trust, (bating the metre,) the 'wild and wondrous Thalaba:' 'Oberon,' so excellently translated by Mr. Sotheby: Nor will any one, possessing the heart of a Poet, attempt to decry such exquisite romances as Scott's 'Lay of the Last Minstrel,' 'Marmion,' and, let me add, Mr. Rose's translation of 'Parthenope de Blois'" p. 65n.

As is so often the case in romantic poetry, the passions are made equivalent to the genres, so that the sequence of passions running through the two parts of the poem amounts to a hierarchy of poetic kinds terminating in religious sublimity.

Bowles's headnote: "I was little aware when the following Poem was written, that a young Poet, a most interesting example (bating his extreme religious melancholy) of such a character as I would describe, closed his eyes upon this world in his 21st year. I allude to Henry Kirk White, whose Poems have been published by Mr. Southey. Though a genuine Poet, good sense was his distinguishing characteristic" p. 42.

"Archimage" in the first stanza is glossed as "Chief Magician, or Fancy"; since Fancy is elsewhere given the female gender, it would perhaps not be stretching a point too much to see in this Archimage an allusion to Spenser himself. But the allegory in the poem is far from clear. "Him" who "might "succeed | To the wild melodies of PAN'S own reed!" is Theocritus.

Eric Partridge: "Comparable with [Thomas] Russell for his use of the sonnet, much more influential on great Romantic poets than was the young Oxford don, Bowles has an intrinsic significance that approximately tallies with that of the author of Sonnets and Miscellaneous Poems. But Bowles forms a clear link between the Romantic poets of the Eighteenth and those of the Nineteenth Century. Partaking of many of the main characteristics of the earlier period, he also has a close relation with the later; and more especially, he represents the transition between the earlier and the later lyrical writers" Eighteenth-Century English Romantic Poetry (1924) 122.



"Oh! lend that lute, sweet Archimage, to me,
Enough of care and heaviness
The weary lids of life depress,
And doubly blest that gentle heart shall be,
That woos of Poesy the visions bland,
And strays forgetful o'er enchanted land!
Oh! lend that lute, sweet Archimage, to me."

So spoke, with ardent look, yet eyebrow sad,
When he had pass'd o'er many a mountain rude,
And many a wild and weary solitude,
Mid a green vale, a wand'ring Minstrel-lad.
With eyes that shone in soften'd flame,
With wings and wand, young FANCY came;
And as she touch'd a trembling lute,
The lone enthusiast stood entranc'd and mute.
It was a sound that made his soul forego
All thoughts of sadness in a world of woe.

"Oh, lend that lute!" he cry'd! "Hope, Pity, Love,
Shall listen; and each valley, rock, and grove,
Shall witness, as with deep delight
From orient morn to dewy-stealing night
My spirit wrapt in trance of sweetness high,
Shall drink the heart-felt sound with tears of ecstacy!"

As thus he spoke, soft voices seem'd to say,
"Come away, come away;
Where shall the heart-sick minstrel stray,
But (viewing all things like a dream)
By haunted wood, or wizard stream?
That, like a hermit weeping,
Amid the grey stones creeping;
With voice distinct, yet faint,
Calls on Repose herself to hear its soothing plaint.

"For HIM, romantic Solitude
Shall pile sublime her mountains rude;
For HIM, with shades more soft imprest,
The lucid lake's transparent breast
Shall shew the banks, the woods, the hill,
More clear, more beautiful, more still.
For him more musical shall wave
The pines o'er Echo's moonlight cave,
While sounds as of a fairy lyre
Amid the shadowy cliffs expire!"

This valley where the raptur'd Minstrel stood,
Was shaded with a circling slope of wood,
And rich in beauty, with that valley vied,
THESSALIAN TEMPE, crown'd with verdant bay,
Where smooth and clear PENEUS winds his way;
And OSSA and OLYPMUS, on each side,
Rise dark with woods; or that Sicilian plain
Which Arethusa's clearest waters lave,
By many a haunt of PAN, and wood-nymph's cave,
Ling'ring, and list'ning to the Doric strain
Of HIM, the Bard whose music might "succeed
To the wild melodies of PAN'S own reed!"

This scene, the mistress of the valley, held,
FANCY, A MAGIC MAID; and at her will,
Aerial castles crown'd the gleamy hill,
Or forests rose, or lapse of water well'd.
Sometimes she sat with lifted eye,
And mark'd the dark storm in the western sky;
Sometimes she look'd, and scarce her breath would draw,
As fearful things, not to be told, she saw;
And sometimes, like a vision of the air,
On wings of shifting light she floated here and there.
In the breeze her garments flew,
Of the brightest skiey blue,
Lucid as the tints of morn,
When Summer, trills his pipe of corn:
Her tresses to each wing descending fall,
Or, lifted by the wind,
Stream loose and unconfin'd,
Like golden threads, beneath her myrtle coronal.

The list'ning PASSIONS stood aloof and mute,
As oft the west-wind touch'd her trembling lute.
But when its sounds the youthful Minstrel heard,
Strange mingled feelings, not to be express'd,
Rose undefin'd, yet blissful on his breast,
And all the soften'd scene in sweeter light appear'd.

Then FANCY wav'd her wand, and lo!
An airy troop went beck'ning by:
"Come from toil and worldly woe;
Come live with us in vales remote," they cry.

These are the flitting phantasies; the dreams
That lead the heart through all that elfin land,
Where half-seen shapes entice with whispers bland.
Meantime the clouds, imprest with livelier beams,
Roll, in the lucid track of air,
Array'd in colour'd brede, with semblances more fair.
The airy troop, as on they sail,
Thus the pensive stranger hail:
"In the pure and argent sky,
There our distant chambers lie;
The bed is strew'd with blushing roses,
When QUIETUDE at eve reposes,
Oft trembling lest her bow'rs should fade,
In the cold earth's humid shade.
Come, rest with us," evanishing they cry'd—
"Come, rest with us," the lonely vale reply'd.

Then FANCY beckon'd, and with smiling MIEN,
A radiant form arose, like the fair QUEEN
OF BEAUTY: from her eye divinely bright,
A richer lustre shot, a more attractive light.
She said, "With fairer tints I can adorn
The living landscape, fairer than the morn.
The summer clouds in shapes romantic roll'd,
And those they edge the fading west, like gold;
The lake that sleeps in sun-light, yet impress'd
With shades more sweet than real, on its breast;
Mid baffling stones, beneath a partial ray,
The small brook huddling its uneven way;
The bluey fading hills, the silvery sea,
And every scene of summer speaks of ME:
But most I wake the sweetest wishes warm,
Where the fond gaze is turn'd on woman's breathing form."

So passing silent through a myrtle grove,
Beauty first led him to the bow'r of Love.
A mellow light through the dim covert stray'd,
And opening roses canopy'd the shade.
Why does the hurrying pulse unbidden leap?
Behold, in yonder glade that Nymph asleep!
The heart-struck Minstrel hangs, with ling'ring gaze!
O'er every charm his eye empassion'd strays!

An edge of white is seen, and scarcely seen,
(As soft she breathes,) her coral lips between;
A lambent ray steals from her half-clos'd eye,
As her breast heaves a short imperfect sigh.
"SLEEP, WINDS OF SUMMER, O'ER THE LEAFY BOW'R,
NOR MOVE THE LIGHT BELLS OF THE NODDING FLOW'R;
LEST, BUT A SOUND OF STIRRING LEAVES MIGHT SEEM
TO BREAK THE CHARM OF HER DELICIOUS DREAM!
AND YE, FOND, RISING, THROBBING THOUGHTS, AWAY,
LEST SYREN PLEASURE ALL THE SOUL BETRAY!"
Oh! turn, and listen to the ditty
From the lowly cave of PITY.
"On slaughter's plain, while Valour grieves,
There he sunk to rest,
And the ring-dove scatter'd leaves
Upon his bleeding breast!"

Her face was hid, while her pale arms enfold
What seem'd an urn of alabaster cold;
To this she press'd her heaving bosom bare:
The drops that gather'd in the dank abode
Fell dripping, on her long dishevell'd hair
And still her tears, renew'd, and silent, flow'd:
And when the winds of autumn ceas'd to swell,
At times was heard a slow and melancholy knell!

'Twas in the twilight of the deepest wood,
Beneath whose boughs (like sad Cocytus, fam'd
Through fabling Greece, from lamentation nam'd)
A river dark and silent flow'd, there stood
A pale and melancholy Man: intent
His look upon that drowsy stream he bent,
As ever counting (when the fitful breeze
With strange and hollow sound sung thro' the trees)
Counting the sallow leaves, that down the current went.
He saw them NOT—
Earth seem'd to him one universal blot.
Sometimes, as most distemper'd, to and fro,
He pac'd; and sometimes fix'd his chilling look
Upon a dreadful book,
Inscrib'd with secret characters of woe;
While gibb'ring imps, as mocking him, appear'd,
And airy laughter mid the dusk was heard.

Then FANCY wav'd her wand again,
And all that valley that so lovely smil'd,
Was chang'd to a bare champain, waste and wild,
"What pale and phantom-horseman rides amain?"
'Tis TERROR, — all the plain, far on, is spread,
With skulls and bones, and bodies of the dead!
From his black trump he blew a louder blast,
And earthquakes mutter'd as the Giant pass'd.
Then said that MAGIC MAID, with aspect bland,
"'Tis thine to seize his phantom spear,
'Tis thine his sable trumpet to command,
And thrill the inmost heart with shuddering fear."

But hark! to MUSIC'S softer sound,
New scenes, and fairer views accordant rise.
Above, around,
The mingled measure swells in air, and dies,
MUSIC, in thy charmed shell,
What sounds of holy magic dwell?
Oft when that shell was to the ear apply'd,
Confusion of rich harmonies,
All swelling rose,
That came, as with a gently-swelling tide:
Then at the close,
Angelic voices seem'd, aloft,
To answer, as it died, the cadence, soft.
Now, like the hum of distant ocean's stream,
The murmurs of the wond'rous concave seem;
And now exultingly their tones prolong
The chorded Paeans of the choral song.

Then MUSIC, with a voice more wildly sweet
Than winds that pipe on the forsaken shore,
When, the last rain-drops of the west are o'er,
Warbled: "Oh, welcome to my blest retreat,
And give my sounds to the responsive lyre:
With me to these melodious groves retire,
And such pure feelings share,
As, far from noise and folly, sooth thee there."

Here FANCY (as the prize were won,
And now she hail'd her favourite son)
With energy impatient cry'd,
"The weary world is dark and wide,
Lo! I am with thee still to comfort and to guide.

"Nor fear, if, grim before thine eyes,
Pale worldly Want, a spectre, low'rs,
What is a world of vanities
To a world as sweet as ours?
When thy heart is sad and lone,
And loves to dwell on pleasures flown,
When that heart no more shall bound
At some kind Voice's well-known sound,
My spells thy drooping languor shall relieve,
And airy spirits touch thy lonely harp at eve."

"Look! — DELIGHT and HOPE advancing,
(Music joins her thrilling notes,)
O'er the level lea come dancing:
Seize the vision as it floats.
Bright-ey'd RAPTURE hovers o'er them,
Waving light his seraph wings,
YOUTH exulting flies before them,
Scattering cowslips as he sings!"

"Come NOW, my car pursue,"
The wayward FAIRY cry'd,
And high amid the fields of air,
Above the clouds, together we will ride,
And posting on the viewless wind,
So leave the cares of earth, and all its thoughts, behind.
I can sail, and I can fly,
To all regions of the sky,
Or the shooting meteors course,
On a winged griffin-horse!"

She spoke: when WISDOM'S self drew nigh,
A noble sternness in her searching eye,—
Like Pallas helm'd, and in her hand a spear
As not in idle warfare bent, but still—
As resolute, to cope, with every earthly ill.
In youthful dignity severe,
She stood; — "And shall the aspiring mind,
"To FANCY be alone resign'd.
Alas!" she cry'd, "her witching lay,
Too often leads the heart astray.

"Still, weak minstrel, would'st thou rove,
Drooping in the distant grove,
Forgetful of all ties that bind
THEE, a brother, to MANKIND?

"Has FANCY'S feeble voice defy'd
The ills to poor humanity ally'd?
Can she, like WISDOM, bid thy soul sustain
Its post of duty in a life of pain?
Can she, like meek RELIGION, bid thee bear
Contempt and hardship in a world of care?

"Yet let not my rebuke decry,
In all, her blameless witchery,
Or from the languid bosom tear
Each sweet illusion nourish'd there.

"With dignity and truth, combin'd,
Still may she rule the manly mind:
Her sweetest magic still impart
To soften, not subdue, the heart:
Still may she warm the chosen breast,
Not the SOVEREIGN, but the GUEST.
Then shall she lead the blameless Muse
Through all her fairest, wildest views;
To mark, amid the flow'rs of morn,
The bee go forth with early horn;
Or when the moon, a softer light
Sheds on the rocks and seas of night,
To hear the circling Fairy Bands
Sing, 'Come unto these yellow sands.
Sweeter is our light than day,
Fond enthusiast, come away!'

"Then CHIVALRY again shall call,
The Champions to her banner'd hall!

The pipe, and song, with many a mingl'd shout,
Ring through the forest, as the Satyr-rout
Dance round the dragon-chariot of Romance:
Forth pricks the Errant Knight with rested lance:
Imps, Daemons, Fays, in antic train succeed,
The wand'ring maiden, and the winged steed!
The muttering Wizard turns, with haggard look,
The bloody leaves of the accursed book,
Whilst Giants, from the gloomy castle-tow'r,
With lifted Bats of Steel, more dreadful low'r!
At times, the magic shall prevail,
Of the wild and wond'rous Tale;
At times, high rapture shall prolong
The deep, enthusiastic Song!
Hence, at midnight, Thou shalt stray,
Where dark Ocean flings its spray,
To hear o'er Heav'n's resounding arch
The Thunder-Lord begin his march!
Or mark the flashes, that present
Some far-off shatter'd monument;
Whilst along the rocky vale,
Red fires, mingled with the hail,
Run along upon the ground,
And the thunders deeper sound!
The loftier Muse, with awful mien,
Upon a lonely rock is seen!
Full is the eye that speaks the dauntless soul;
She seems to hear the gathering tempest roll
Beneath her feet: She bids an eagle fly,
Breasting the whirlwind, through the dark-red sky!
Or, with elated look, lifts high the spear,
As sounds of distant battles roll more near.

"Now deep-hush'd in holy trance,
She sees the Pow'rs of Heav'n advance,
And "wheels, instinct with Spirit," bear,
GOD'S living Chariot through the air—
Now on the wings of morn she seems to rise,
And joins the strain of more than mortal harmonies.

"Thy heart shall beat, exulting as she sings,
And thou shalt cry, 'Give me an Angel's wings!'

"With sadder sound, o'er PITY'S cave,
The willow in the wind shall wave;
And all the list'ning Passions stand,
Obedient to thy great command.

"With POESY'S sweet charm imprest,
FANCY, thus shall warm thy breast.
Still her smiling train be thine,
Still her lovely visions shine,
To cheer, beyond my boasted pow'r,
A sad, or solitary hour.

"Thus let them sooth awhile thy heart,
'Come like shadows, so depart;'
But never may the witching lay
Lead each sense from life astray;
For vain the Poet's muse of fire,
Vain the magic of his lyre,
Unless the touch subdu'd impart
TRUTH and WISDOM to the heart!"

[pp. 45-69]