1813
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Deserted Village School; a Poem.

The Deserted Village School; a Poem.

Rev. Richard Polwhele


A satire on educational reforms in 42 Spenserian stanzas. Writing anonymously, Richard Polwhele begins his amusing pastiche with a conflation of Shenstone's The School-Mistress with Goldsmith's The Deserted Village — the Dame has been "exiled" to the workhouse, the schoolhouse is deserted, and educational reforms are well under way. The target is a familiar one: "One of the first modern innovations seems to have been, the attempt to smooth the rugged paths of literature. But learning, easily acquired, is soon lost" (1823) 200. Not seen.

The object of Polwhele's derision is the reform movement inspired by Rousseau's Emile, which had certainly been given a boost by the first canto of James Beattie's The Minstrel; the second canto, which stresses the discipline necessary for "taming woodnotes wild" found few admirers, though Polwhele, one suspects, was one of them. Nor does he neglect the remarks on education in Gray's Elegy written in a Country Churchyard. The Deserted Village School was published anonymously.

Advertisement: "In every town (where it is sounded) and in the neighbouring parishes, the great Bell school hath absorbed, or is absorbing, all the little Elizabethan seminaries; — the teachers of the latter are turned adrift; — the children now in other hands, their fathers spend their school-money at the ale-house; and the parish ministers are mere cyphers. For amidst the parade of Patrons, Presidents, Vice-Presidents, Visitors, Directors, Governors, Treasurers, and Secretaries, the part which the clergyman is to act in the school must be very unimportant and trivial."

European Magazine: "The anonymous author of this Poem (who dates his advertisement from '— Hall, December 1st, 1812,' with the initials of 'L. M.') laments the desertion of two good old schools in his native village, 'in consequence of the rage for education according to the Bello-Lancastrian system.' Though, as a member of the Church of England, he highly respects Dr. Bell; yet he differs in opinion from both Bell and Lancaster, with regard to the education of the poor in general; and, in the execution of their plans, he thinks there are many points ridiculous and absurd. The poet has, doubtless, done his best to turn to ridicule many such points: but we prefer the elegiac stanzas to the humorous.... On the whole we cannot but express ourselves highly pleased with The Deserted Village School. It is certainly the production of an author to whom the walks of the Muses have been long familiar: of this, the internal evidence is sufficient to remove every doubt. Yet the general sentiment of the poem by no means falls in with the stream of popular opinion" 65 (March 1814) 227-28.

Gentleman's Magazine: "It will readily be perceived, that the Poet's aim was to fabricate a counterpart to the Schoolmistress of Shenstone. Is it not rather extraordinary, that amidst so much controversy on the subject of Education, and so much ridicule (whether just or not) as hath been flung on the New Systems, the Poem before us should stand (whatever degree of merit it may possess) unrivalled? — because it is the only Poem (if we are not mistaken) as yet produced on the subject" 83 (June 1813) 348.

Anna Laetitia Barbauld: "We should be glad to see the pleasantry of this writer more worthily employed, than in ridiculing that zeal for promoting the education of the poor which now pervades this kingdom. Few persons seem to question the expediency of teaching children of all ranks to read and write; and since the old Village Schools were insufficient for this purpose, it may be well to assist or supersede them by later inventions. At any rate, and without engaging deeply in controversy with the author, we deem his fears about the alphabet perfectly futile, and can assure him that learning to trace the letters in sand is not 'a slippery knowledge gained too soon;' as well as that, if he chuses to 'peep' at some of Dr. Bell's schoolmistresses, 'amidst their pigmy throng,' he may still see 'high spectacled her reverential nose,' as he informs us was the case with his favourite dame in days of yore" Monthly Review NS 71 (June 1813) 209.

Preface in An Essay on Marriage: "In 1812, I submitted a Poem entitled 'The Deserted-Village-School,' to the inspection of my friend Sir Walter Scott, who highly approved it as a Poem, and gave the MS. in charge to the Ballantines who printed and published it. Tho' anonymous, all the copies were soon disposed of. — As it falls in with the subject of my Sermon, I shall here reprint it, with some additional annotations" (1823) 192.

Richard Polwhele: "The first edition of this poem was published at Edinburgh, under the direction of Sir Walter Scott, who considered it as a 'counterpart' to Shenstone's School-mistress, not as, in any respect, a 'copy.' The stanzas, in both poems, are Spenserian. But the subject of the Deserted School is perfectly new, from the first stanza to the last. The Stanzas most resembling Shenstone (though from the sentiment very distant from imitation) shall, by your leave, be submitted to your readers" Gentleman's Magazine (July 1823) 6.

Boase and Courtney: "A very scarce book" Bibliotheca Cornubiensis (1874-82) 2:512.



Light o'er the green, and 'midst that woody dell
Where tiptoe joyance whilom tripp'd so fair,
Here, where the crosslet crowns its sainted well,
What means this damp, to chill the sullen air.—
Where, loose from school, the tribe without a care,
Sought the broad shade beneath their arching tree,
Or frolick'd, heedless of the noon-tide glare?—
Alas! No more shall pour, in gamesome glee,
From yon gray cottage porch, the blooming progeny!

That aged oak still spreads its giant arms;
Round its huge trunk still gleams the rustic seat:
Yet where, dear village! Where thy wonted charms?
Ah! Shall I see no more, from Sirius' heat
Where its brown umbrage lent a cool retreat,
Blithe, to and fro the fairy circles run?
And never shall again my bosom beat
To mark, when now their daily tasks are done,
The little sportive rings dance down the evening sun?

Foredoom'd to ruin, those deserted walls
Shall snoring owls and flitting bats profane?
On the dim lattice, where a radiance falls,
I see dank ivy muffle every pane.
To me, how pert the sparrow's matin strain!
How cold, tho' where he twitters, crimson streak
The thatch! But sweet, thro' gloomy pattering rain,
The redbreast shall anon my sorrow speak,
Responsive to my sighs at eve or morning break.

Ah, whither, in a store of knowledge rich,
Ah, whither exiled that far-dreaded DAME,
Whose learning stamped the credit of a witch
(Such is its fate too oft) on honest fame?
Where now that rod which, with unerring aim,
Would idler strait in distant corner smite—
Those ruthless twigs announcing sin and shame,
Which kindling ire would sway with tenfold might,
When little struggling bums were brought alas! to light?

High spectacled her reverential nose,
When late I peep'd amidst her pigmy-throng,
Small thought had she, in sooth, of gathering woes,
But humm'd, as in the days when life was young,
In merry mood, a stave of Israel's song:
Then sudden, startled at the sight of me,
She threw a quickening glance her imps among,
And ranged the ready class in due degree,
Proud that the Parson's self her sovereign power should see!

Where now that wheel she turn'd so swift around,
If her snug porch the summer sun-beam warm'd?
Where her trim beds, her thyme, her parsley-ground,
Her elder, clownish warts away that charm'd;
Her hives, that 'mid the luscious woodbine swarm'd,
And, for the curate the pure virgin comb?
Alas! Shall gentle pity, unalarm'd,
Be told a parish work-house is her home,
Nor haste with lenient balms to mitigate her doom?

There, too, the moss of solitude o'erwhelms
That roof fast mouldering in the mournful dale
Where the gate swings between two sister elms,
Forsaken, the rude sport of every gale;
Where, quivering on their poles, the hop-blooms pale
All to the desart air their odour breath!
Thro' twilight, shall no more my fancy hail
The savoury pot-herb, 'midst the blaze beneath,
Whence rose the supper smoke, in many a cheerful wreath?

There lived our good old MASTER, to the muse
So dear; — his virtues of no vulgar price!
I own, contracted were his cottage-views:
Yet only shall fastidiousness too nice
Scoff at his sees and saws, as prejudice.
If he had any fault 'twas stubborn pride;
Which, spurning innovation as a vice,
Stuck to the system by his fathers tried:—
It was a fault, methinks, to merit much allied.

Grave was his port; and, as his cane he grasp'd,
At his approach the villagers would flee;
Girls in their teens, and those by Hymen clasp'd—
And (thrill'd, as if from thraldom scarcely free,)
All fancied in his face "the Rule-of-Three!"
For deep the furrows of his beetling brow
Arithmetic with age had traced, perdie:
And, sure, of science he had full enow
For anvil, awl, or axe, or clod-compelling plough.

Ah me! — that fashion (who her votaries whirls,
With wild caprice, in many a giddy round,)
Should stoop so low to little lads and girls,
And, ancient order eager to confound,
To curious eyes shew Learning's level ground,
Where velvet pathways wind thro' rills and flowers!
See, reckless progeny your light heads crown'd
With wreaths so gay from fancy's airy bowers,
How rough o'er thorns and rocks her antique temple towers!

And ere their tongues can yet a letter lisp,
E'en cradled brats with learning's symbols play!
But is it not the glare of Will-o'-Wisp
To lead the fond pursuers far astray?—
The pleasing transcience of a rainbow ray,
Where, dull tuition's process born to bilk,
The homunculi such mighty powers display?
—All as the tine that floats o'er water'd silk,
So is the uncertain skill imbibed with mother's milk.

Lo! Science master'd at a single gripe—
Where not a blossom gleam'd, the fruitage pluck'd!
And sad the fate of those who, early ripe,
Have, in the world's broad eye, their sapience suck'd.
Poor little monsters, from the lacteal duct!
See one assume the lecturer's learned wig,
Self-sent, a shoal of drivellers to instruct!
And Crotchet, from theatric plaudits big,
Just shewn, is snatch'd away — the scientific pig!

And see where now, like locusts o'er the land,
Spreads far and near, the fierce Lancastrian route!
At first it was a sly and sneaking band—
But, hark, as if all Bedlam were let out,
Of "unreiterated sounds" a shout!
Hark, in the winds new acclamations swell!
The sober citizen and lubber lout,
And babes and sucklings — ere they yet can spell—
Mingle with lawny lords, and prattle "Dr. Bell!"—

See marshall'd throngs in trim attire advance,
(Thus dapper elves, along the shadowy green,
Tread in light maze the many-colour'd dance,
And flame or vanish to the moony sheen)
See marshall'd throngs — such sight was never seen—
March forth, a slate in every little hand!
Then stooping down with one accord, I ween,
As at the waving of a wizard wand,
Their twinkling fingers glance, and print the silver sand!

"O say not — 'silver' — it is genuine gold,"
Cries Lancaster: — Bell echoes back "encore!
The glowing wave of Tagus never roll'd
On particles of such resplendent ore!
Others, slow boys! May sweat at every pore!
Behold, my new disciple, as he bends
To the fair board (can dream imagine more?)
Hath erudition at his fingers ends"—
"Whence to the brain, be sure, the subtle stuff ascends!"

Beshrew me such rare knowledge, gain'd so soon,
So quickly lost! I smile, but wipe a tear!
We thank not fashion for the seeming boon—
'Tis as its sandy principle, now here,
Now gone! The traces seem distinct and clear:
But see that wag the zephyr o'er them blow—
The characters, heigh presto! Disappear!—
That slippery knowledge, gain'd so soon, I trow,
Shall at a glance slide off — all superficial show!—

Yet of his smattering vain, each cocker'd imp
Shall vaunt an elocution not his own;
Nor let a feeble word in utterance limp,
But, not with murmurs mimicking the drone,
Give to syllabic sounds a deeper tone,
Nor stutter, sing, nor snort, nor squeak, or squall:
And ever tinker's, every cobler's son,
Shall bid so sweet the liquid cadence fall—
Not e'en his patron's speech were half so musical!

And, lo, a thousand, from collision bright,
Start up, adepts in learning all at once;
And distancing their teacher in the flight
Of kindling genius, every help renounce!
Nor truant saunters here, nor lags the dunce!
But, as from Delphic inspiration mad,
Boys strut around, and maids their bottoms bounce;
And, prompt to ply their talents or their trade,
With each scholastic trick the sand of science spread.

How arduous is the task, to disenchant
The mind that broods o'er visions long gone by!
I heed not in low folks the twang, the cant—
Such slight defects let simple worth supply.
O! for that book alluring infant eye,
Its letters all distinct thro' lucid horn!
Its gaudy back, where elfins peep so sly,
Behold the Dragon and St. George adorn!
Alas! poor cast-away to philosophic scorn!

Well do I recollect, with many a stain
Saline, how soil'd my tear-wash'd horn-book was!
I'd give my ears the relic to regain,
Spite of Lancastrian humming: "What an ass!"
In truth, sage Madam Trimmer to surpass,
To honest Dilworth I adjudge the palm:
His tatter'd leaves shall conjure up our class,
And breath o'er all my soul a spring-tide balm—
E'en now I read and spell, and thumb the second psalm.

Nathless, tho' I would fain to memory look
To catch the colour of my childish days,
'Twas not, I wist, attachment to my book;
'Twas not ambition, emulous of praise,
That o'er my toils effused its cheery rays:
My task was tedious, and my mistress stern!—
I rather fear'd the birch than loved the bays:
Nor did I, skill'd my interest to discern,
From intuition rare that irksome lesson learn.

Yet reason fructifies each froward wight,
Soon ripening into men the new-born race;
Nor chastisement uncomely scares the sight,
Nor passion mars reflection's sober grace,
Nor tears, that plead for pity, foul the face:
But in the illumined link-boy's liberal mind
While each ingenuous feeling holds its place,
Ne birch ne ferula, was e'er design'd
For snowy hands so smooth, for bottoms so refined.

His brogues let down (for modest eye too much!)
Say can he trace, who shakes the smarting breech,
His sandy lesson with decided touch?
Or, in meek accents of unmanly speech,
The culprit condescending to beseech
For mercy — say, will such an abject elf
The height of man's importance ever reach,
Nor grovel in the dust in search of pelf,
Tho' born to cope with kings, an independent self?—

Scourges avaunt! That sense of right and wrong,
That sense of honour (which may seem to sleep
In vulgar breasts, yet animates the throng,)
E'en in a baron's bosom not more deep,
We stir up in the shoe-black, chimney-sweep!
And, ('midst the academy, as some odd tricks—
Some trivial errors unawares may creep)
To try transgressors and the fines affix,
Lo, baby juries sit and judges turn'd of six!

There is a book, of thilk-famed school the dread,
That seizeth sudden — the Black-book y'clept—
Bad word, bad action, soon as done or said;
That doth at once, like man-trap, intercept
Rash oaths which from the lips of sucklings leap'd:
Or locks unkempt, where lovely creatures breed;
Or thefts (tho' long in pilfering an adept
The dex'trous lad might claim the Spartan meed)
Or lies, or holes in hose, or any vulgar deed.

Whilom I knew — his hair all fleecy-white—
A boy, where waves yon chestnut-forest, bred:
Oh, the Black-book! — How piteous Simon's plight—
His sole offence, a too prolific head!
Eftsoons, was the sad work of justice sped;
The impannell'd peers and petty jury sworn!
Poor little Simon to the bar was led;
And (O! beneath a baleful planet born)
—Such was the voice of babes — his silvery tresses shorn.

But rigid fate still aim'd a deadlier stroke:
His living locks again began to grow,
And, certes, Simon's patience did provoke.
Then I survey'd in long procession go
High peers, and prelates, a right-reverend row!
The inquisitors in mysic order sat:
An aweful silence reign'd around; when, lo!
For mace, the president laid down his hat;
And, after a chill pause, commenced the grave debate.

"My lords! And others of this letter'd bench!
Yon delicate disciple asks regard!
I would not on the rules of justice trench;
Albeit his case strikes me as passing hard!
I beg you, all antipathies discard,
And think (what Gibbon's playful pages prove)
How polisht Julian, in his populous beard,
While fast the gentle generations throve,
Nursed the 'familiar beast,' synonymous with love."

"And, where the teeming beards of monks wagg'd all"—
(Exclaim'd a lord) — "'twas in an after-age—
Did oft this comely little creature crawl,
Determining with circling movments sage,
Full many a wordy war they used to wage;
For, sober in their strife, or crying drunk,
Thro' all the conclave was their jealous rage
(His circuit o'er) to acquiescence sunk;
And their new abbot grinn'd, the love-elected monk."

"Heavens!" (cries a prim vice-president) his jaws
Out-stretcht — "what mulct can such a sin atone?
Shall we be mock'd by learn'd prelatic saws?
Have ye not seen what mischief only one,
Dropt on these sandy rudiments, hath done?
Heavens! The whole tablet is quite out of shape;
And all that fine connexion lost and gone,
Where journey'd the sweet tenant of the nape!—
And rustication's fangs the caitiff would escape?"

Scowling he ceas'd; and all perceived the sin—
"To rustication we the brat degrade;—
'Tis well that he escapeth in whole skin!
The sentence strait the secretary read,
And in the books momentous minutes made!
"Go — go," — (he cries, and fast his watch-chain twirls)
With all thine imperfections on thine head!"
Then (trembling as the culprit scratch'd his curls)
Three bishops sign'd his doom, three petit-maitre earls!

Peace to all such! — My unambitious school,
O could it still its simple terrors boast—
The corner; or the cap that marks the fool;
Or (what Dan Solomon commendeth most)
That savage thing — to learning well nigh lost!
Whilst, if the parson's wife her presence lent,
How dear her frown the shrinking scholars cost!—
What joy her smile with silver pennies sent!
No patron then had they — "no prim V. President!"

What tho', so nurtured in so dark a nook,
No pigmy patriots cater for mankind;
No half-grown heroine wields the rustic crook;
No Hampden blusters in the little hind;
Yet to their lowly lot the race resign'd,
Their homes would to a frugal fare attach:
Nor loosening all the kindred ties that bind
The heart, the infection of new systems catch
The unfashion'd folk, that love their patrimonial thatch.

Far other, clamorous thro' the dusky street,
Those imps, erst frisking o'er each primrose-bank!
Methinks the spawn of insolence we meet,
Courting, for cottage-calm, the city-clank,
For sylvan shyness, manners bold and frank;
And of their wond'rous acquisitions vain,
And hand and glove with opulence and rank,
Deists or Methodists, a motley train,
With Whitfield school'd to rave, or doubt and dream with Paine.

And say, tho' Ignorance in her quiet mist
The children of the hamlet yet may shade;
Would proud opinion, keener sense assist
The woodman's "sturdy stroke," the delving spade!
And tho' insidious foes the flock invade,
Calvin's dire faith, or fell philosophism;
Shall not (assiduous where the pastoral aid
Succours each lamb,) their simple catechism
Its holy influence lend, to bar the sin of schism?

Haply, from school dismiss'd as scarce the clown
Essays to scrawl out his ignoble name:
Pert striplings, tittering minxes of the town,
May give his sun-burnt cheeks to glow with shame!
Yet, if the rustic, unrepining, aim
To earn, each long laborious hour, his bread,
His be to man's best praise the genuine claim;
And Heaven shall on his toils its favours shed,
With fruits his table bless, with balmy sleep his bed!

What tho' no more the register's fair page
With crosses rude in future times be traced:
Yet are the records of the passing age,
With signs so unassuming, all defaced?
Oft hath the faultering maiden's tremor graced
The pen her fingers were unform'd to guide;
And, as a brighter blush its sister chased,
Her lack of skill the parson well supplied,
Proclaim'd the nuptial knot, and quaintly kiss'd the bride.

To their old church — the tuneful bells now chimed—
With no parade the peasants would repair;
And, as the Curate preach'd, or Sternhold rhymed,
Devoutly listen'd, or put up a prayer,
Or from their galleried height aspired to share
The poor applause harsh flutes or hautboys ask!
Then, thro' the summer eve, the sighing Fair
Would seek green lanes, hoar heads in arbours bask,
And unschool'd children skip, nor rue their Sunday task.

And when, fast dropping into long long sleep,
They laid their friends below the sacred sod,
They loved, some soothing moments, loved to weep;
And, duly visiting the dear abode,
Deem'd the last funeral honours unbestow'd
Till now they spelt the fair memorial stone;
When, for themselves, the flowery turf they trod,
Turn'd up, would claim, from kindred carle and crone,
The tribute of a tear, so late, alas their own!

But cease my muse! Amidst the beechen gloom
That gleams, half-screening the church-stile from view,
I notice mourners to a recent tomb
Stealing; — now slow beneath the sabler yew
Advancing; — now where glitters thro' the dew
Of evening pale that emblematic plaint,
Pausing. — Sad group! Your pious work pursue!
So may kind Heaven your humble wishes grant,
Safe from the proud man's sneer — the parish-tyrant's taunt!

Lo, 'tis the Master's tomb! Behold, hard by,
The duteous swains! That birch-tree had they set—
The lads and lasses in their sorrow sly;
And now, assiduous in their visits, wet
The rising plant with tears of fond regret!
O may it shoot in vigorous growth, nor waste
Fragrant at morn and eve, its incense sweet,
But, redolent of schoolboy hours o'erpast,
Escape the sultry beam, the winter's icy blast.

And, whilst it shades this spot, a hoary tree,
All in a distant age, when now no more
Its use in flogging shall remember'd be;
Some antiquary solemn, pondering o'er
Its sprays, shall (as his brethren did before)
Give days and nights to many a dark research,
And every leaf shall teem with learned lore!
So may, in sooth, my venerable birch
Bid sages yet unborn frequent this rural church.

[Essay on Marriage (1823) 192-220]