1815
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Isabel of Cotchele: Introduction to Canto I.

The Fair Isabel of Cotchele, a Cornish Romance. By the Author of Local Attachments and Translator of Theocritus.

Rev. Richard Polwhele


Twelve Spenserians: the introduction of Richard Polwhele's Cornish romance luridly parallels a Druid sacrifice with a nun taking her vows — on this theme, compare Alaric Alexander Watts, "The Profession. A Sketch" (1823). Each of Polwhele's six cantos is framed by an introduction and conclusion in Spenserians, for a total of 45. In this Polwhele follows the practice of Walter Scott, who it appears from a note had read the manuscript and was slow in returning it.

Advertisement: "This Poem is founded on a family-incident in the reign of Queen Mary; — which the existing contest between Protestants and Papists, must render peculiarly interesting at the present day. — The scene of the Poem is chiefly laid in Cotehele, the ancient residence of the Tamar: In the sixth Canto, it shifts to Mount Edgcumbe."

George Hardinge to Richard Polwhele: "I could not wait to open your leaves, except for the purpose of a desultory and fugitive glance over the introductory address to Walter Scott, which I think as beautiful as any of those graceful handmaids to his enchanting muse. You have caught his mantle and are so like him, that you would appear to the common parent Apollo: '—Simillima proles | Indiscreta suis,' &c. &c. Yet many of the images are quite original and your own, but in his best manner" 8 May 1815; in Polwhele, Traditions and Recollections (1826) 2:672.

Walter Scott to Richard Polwhele: "I have been a long and distant wanderer from home; and though I reached this cottage six weeks ago, I only got 'Isabel' yesterday. She was in my house at Castle-street, in possession of an old housekeeper, who, knowing perhaps from youthful experience the dangers which attend young ladies on their travels, kept her, with some other captives, until my wife, going to town to attend a grand musical festival, made a general jail delivery, and sent (among many, though none so welcome, packets) the fair maiden of Cotehele. What I liked so much in the MS. gained or course by being made more legible; and did it rest with me, I would rank 'Isabel' with 'Local Attachment;' that is, with one of the poems of modern times which has afforded me the most sincere pleasure" 4 November 1815; in Polwhele, Traditions and Recollections (1826) 2:684.

Monthly Review: "When shall we behold the 'death and burial' of this species of poem? No sooner are we, with pain and difficulty, delivered from the tortures of one, than we are summoned to encounter some other monster, wilder and fiercer than the first. Happily, it is not necessary to bestow any considerable portion of our time and attention on these little ephemeral creatures, which, like so many insects, harmless and innocent in themselves, nevertheless annoy us by these swarms, and weary us by their persevering intrusions. We think that it would be labour ill-spent, were we to attempt to give our readers a detail of the story of this poetical Cornish Romance: suffice it to say, that it contains an account of the illustrious achievements of a certain number of knights, friars, palmers, 'in sanctimonious cowls,' ladies fair asleep in rosy bowers, prioresses, monks, and nuns; as well as the history of sundry castles, towers, battlements, ghosts, spirits, and all other and several the auxiliaries and appendages of the romantic tale" NS 78 (November 1815) 317.

Walter Scott: "Both Mr. Scott and Lord Byron have a bad custom of hurrying the reader along with them in a sort of breathless interest, and stirring his blood in a way that is both troublesome and unmannerly. Of this offence we cheerfully acquit our author. He has worked after other models, and ingrafted the Italian opera on the monkish legend. There is an old gentleman who rides to the wars, and a young lady who is left behind in a sort of Castle-Spectre turretted mansion; and she kneels in her orary on a velvet cushion, and the colour of the orary ceiling is sky-blue; and she has long conversations with Jessica the waiting-maid, — and they have each a lover, — and they make assignations in a wood, — and these assignations are broken in upon by sundry alarming occurrences — passing footsteps, warning voices, songs, and 'gleamy figures that sink away.' There are also a prioress and a monk, who between them shut up the young lady in a sepulchral vault; and she, and a certain Lady Alice, who had been poisoned, we believe, but are not quite certain, and comfortably coffined, suddenly appear in white, with visards, at a masked ball, given in honour of the old knight's return from the wars. This grouping, as the reader sees, is adopted with great judgment and effect from the concluding scene of the Rovers, where Marcus Curius Dentatus, a troubadour, a knight-templar, and a Prussian grenadier returning from the Seven Years war, very strenuously join in storming the abbey of Quedlinburgh. The catastrophe then winds up; the monk is shipwrecked, and the prioress jumps off a rock into the sea, dragging with her her confidante Maud; or, as it is expressed, with a laudable attention to the parish register, 'Matilda, — so baptized was Maud'" Quarterly Review 14 (January 1816) 404.

Gentleman's Magazine: "The Cornish Romance will add one more wreath to his well-earned fame" 85 (July 1815) 50.

Augustan Review: "There is indeed, a natural affinity between poetry and fiction; and hence the tales of Chaucer, Gower, Spenser, and others, are still read with eagerness and interest, notwithstanding the disadvantages under which they labour, of obsolete phraseology, inharmonious numbers, harsh inversion, and frequent allusion to circumstances now hidden in the impenetrable night of oblivion. We did not wonder, therefore, at the great success which attended an author of the present day, in his attempt to revive a taste for this style of composition; and we may be allowed to say, that the general admiration in which the productions of the Scottish bard are held, is the best proof of the existence of that taste which in the days of our forefathers was so prevalent. With Mr. Scott it is the boast of the author of The Fair Isabel to be intimately acquainted.... Each canto of the poem is accompanied by introductory and concluding stanzas, in the Spenserian style, in which this author excels. And there is much genuine nature and feeling in the two addresses to Walter Scott" 3 (September 1816) 256, 260.

Richard Alfred Davenport to Richard Polwhele: "Your lovely and interesting poem on the 'Influence of Local Attachment' is, I perceive, on comparing it with the edition of 1798, improved in many parts by occasional alterations in imagery and phraseology, and by some additional stanzas. The 'Fair Isabel of Cotehele' I had previously read; it is, I think, unequal in its execution, but many of its parts are happily finished, and possess much of that romantic wildness of scenery and incident so essential to poetry of this species" 25 August 1820; in Polwhele, Traditions and Recollections (1826) 2:700.



Where Cornwall's dreary genius cowers o'er rocks
Of Druid fame — o'er barrow'd hills of heath,
There, where in ancient days umbrageous oaks
Involv'd in wizard gloom the shrines beneath,
And thro' the central darkness murmur'd death;
I feel again, from all her echoing caves,
The consecrated trumpet's thrilling breath!
Again I hear, as charm'd old Ocean heaves,
The harp's symphonious sounds, that hush the weltering waves.

Snatcht from the flaming altars of the East,
I see the hallow'd fires of Iran rise,
To mark, unfolding May! thy floral feast!
Behold, they lighten to the starry skies!
The circling priests their wands in solemn guise
Wave to and fro; and all is pale amaze!
From crag to crag the hum of voices dies;
And, as assembled clans in silence gaze,
The distant Karnes draw near, and kindle in the blaze!

But, guilt (that cried for vengeance) to atone,
I saw the shivering sacrifice of blood,
What time the moon, her horns replenish'd, shone
Thro' the thick foliage of the lurid wood!
Lo, how they catch, where hiss'd the viprous brood,
The Milpreu flung into the fields of air!
See break away, by man yet unsubdued,
Yon milk-white steeds, along the moorland far
Tossing their harness'd heads, and dash the rattling car.

See, where Karnbre in savage grandeur wild
Frowns o'er the crowds that scale her craggy steep,
That ledge immense upon its rockstone pil'd
To its white glimmering draws attention deep!
The Archdruid fligns the lymph. With mystic sweep
He turns around. He beckons, silent, slow,
To the dark spirit within that seem'd to sleep!
Lo, the rock shakes and trembles! — All below
Religious frenzy goads — all own the inspiring glow!

And now, to drink the crimson flood of life,
Where towers the Cromlech on the topmost height,
He sternly lifts the sacrificing knife!
Around the mountain sides long vestments white
Float silvery to the moonbeam's sacred light!
And lo! he waits with deathful pause and pale,
The dire portentuous moment of midnight!
It comes! the knife descends! The piteous wail
And limbs convuls'd in blood, can human bosoms hail?

Yes! it was thus imposture aim'd to waft
Man's prayers to Jove, in error's dunnest day;
While priestly domination, priestly craft
Was no faint semblance of the Almighty sway,
Or of eternal wisdom seem'd a ray!
And leap'd not forth the ethereal flame, to scath
Presumption's crest amidst the mad essay?
Why paus'd the lightnings in their blazing path,
Nor fork'd their keenest fire, to execute Heaven's wrath?

But where beam'd health the everlasting cross
Prostrate, how oft hath sacerdotal guile
Bid all the unfolding sky the soul engross
Where earth and sensual pleasure lurk'd the while?
How grand the arches of the gothic pile!
Its dark illuminations rich, that stain
The tremulous pavement of the pillar'd aisle!
Nor the sweet virgin's image sheds in vain
The ideal glory round, to gild her holy fane.

And doth not awe with timid eye pursue
Where matin radiance falls, or torches flare
The hood, the cowl, the vestment's mournful hue
The solemn gait, the penitential air,
The contrite look, as tho' absorb'd in prayer;
While, swelling thro' the spacious concave rise
Measures, to banish low-born grief and care!
Now deep and full, the entrancing harmonies—
Now, stealing soft away, the distant music dies!

But, muffled up in saintly garment white
Have we not often seen insidious art,
Have we not seen the abstemious hypocrite
With meek demeanour hide the ruffian's heart?
Nor seldom doth he play the lecher's part!
Lo where he glides, and sudden sinks within
Some shadowy nook, from the dim form we start!
The maiden's ear his secret whispers win!
He stores the frail-one's sighs, and riots o'er her sin.

And see where recent from the vernal groves
On the cold floor those sprinkled blooms expire,
Imperious pomp! — the mitred abbess moves,
And her long train of nuns in dark attire,
And all black-veil'd, approach the hallowed choir!
Faint, quivering, slow, the minstrel-notes ascend!
Ah see (adieu to hope and young desire!)
The lovely mourner o'er the altar bend!
Lone maid! adieu to hope! save Heaven, thou hast no friend.

The reverend father opes the book. At once
The full-voic'd anthem vaunts sublimer lays!
In every tone, how plaintive the response!
How witching to the ear the strain of praise!
Behold! her snowy veil the attendants raise—
Her hand in holy trance the vestal rears;
And where unvalued gems the shrine emblaze,
Ravish'd as by the music of the spheres,
She vows the eternal vow; and wonder dries her tears!

Yet will they flow afresh. Too early lost
To all the gentle bosom learns to prize,
Full soon, where nuns angelic sweetness boast,
Will she shrink back from dark malignant eyes,
With hollow cheeks, of grief the poor disguise;
And hear, reechoed from secluded cell,
At the pale vigil sad repining sighs!
And see, whilst oft her carnal thoughts rebel,
With supercilious airs that mitred abbess swell!

[pp. 11-19]