1824
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Witch of the North.

Friendship's Offering. A Literary Album, and Christmas and New Year's Present, for 1828.

Rev. John Moultrie


55 octava rima stanzas, dated "November 1824" — Spenser appears in a catalogue of the Witch's favorite reading: "she wander'd | In the fair bowers of old romantic lore; | And now o'er Spenser's sweet creations ponder'd, | And now o'er sweeter Shakspeare's" p. 198.

John Moultrie's Witch is indeed a charming creature, part Britomart, part Archimago, but resembling more than either the Enchanter in James Thomson's Castle of Indolence. For the use of the stanza in mock-medieval burlesque verse Moultrie is as much indebted to John Hookham Frere's The Monks and the Giants (1817-18) as to Byron's Don Juan.

The Witch of the North is a particularly skilful piece of Spenserian writing that evokes much of the tradition without overtly imitating any particular poem. The first part describes the Witch's birth and childhood in stanzas that vaguely recall Beattie's The Minstrel. She then migrates south to England, where she enslaves Southren admirers who scribble verses in her "magic tome" — a lady's album of the sort that gave such pains to Wordsworth and many another poet in the 1820s. Moultrie next introduces his hero, a haughty, cynical Genius who slights Scotland and the Witch's powers. She summons her spirits, who toil through the night and lo! the Genius is her thrall. The hero suffers painful humiliation, and at the end of the poem declares undying love in the pages of the magic tome.

While the poem ends inconclusively, in 1825 John Moultrie married the woman, Harriet Margaret Fergusson, sister of the architectural historian and student of oriental religions, James Fergusson (1808-1886). In that year Moultrie took orders and was given the living at Rugby, where, after taking up residence in 1828, he became the long-time friend of the head master, Thomas Arnold.

Derwent Coleridge: "In the same year and in connection with the prospect in life thus opened to him, he married Harriet Margaret Fergusson, the daughter of a physician then residing in Windsor, and sister of James Fergusson, now so well known as an architectural critic and historian; a young lady of Scottish extraction, distinguished alike by personal attractions, mental accomplishments, and force of character, the ornament, the stay, and the comfort of his future life — for many long years, though not to the end. How he wooed and how he won his 'bright and beauteous bride' has been told by the poet-lover himself in the form best suited, it may almost be said, consecrated to such communications, and with all the particularity which the subject-matter requires or properly admits. It is the merit of such poems that they need no prosaic, no matter-of-fact explanation. It is an impertinence, and, to that 'fit audience' to which poetry is addressed, a mere vexation, when such illustrations are forced upon his notice. Indeed from this time henceforth, Margaret Moultrie, with the diversified associations, domestic and parochial, which circled round her as a centre, became 'the haunt and main-region' of the poet-pastor's songs. It is not however to be supposed that this was his first attachment, or, if this term expresses too close a relation, his first passion. His fancy, if not his heart, had for some years been occupied by another not unworthy Rosaline, before the Juliet appeared who was to take, and to retain her place. The name 'Ione' will preserve to the readers of Moultrie's poetry the memory of a young lady, by whom some of the earlier and not the least beautiful offerings of his muse were inspired. It is no part of my duty to remove the halo which hides what it adorns" memoir in Poems (1876) 1:xxix-xxx.

Compare these romantic adventures with those described in "Three Sonnets by Gerard Montgomery" published in Knight's Quarterly Magazine 2 (1824) 230-31, where Moultrie's lover is described as "My Gloriana bright, my Faery Queen!" John Moultrie's "Epithalamion," dated 18 December 1834, begins with eight Spenserian stanzas.



INTRODUCTORY SONNET.
From the lone silence of my dreamless cell
A wizard voice hath call'd me: — I obey,
And fain would greet that summons with a lay
Which should outshine my brightest. — Oh! 'tis well,
That the last notes that ever this weak shell
Perchance shall utter, thus should melt away,
Hymning the name of that most gentle fay,
That e'er on Poet's spirit laid a spell!
Come, my own Muse — thou Feeling, who dost rest
In my heart's inmost sanctuary; thou
Who art the soul of all my musings blest,
Dreams, wishes, hopes, affections! Aid me now
To twine, for Her, the brightest and the best,
A wreath which shall not shame her peerless brow.

There is a witch, whose freaks in English story,
Ballad, or ode, have never yet been sung;
Although 'tis said that poets, young and hoary,
Sages, and wizards, at her feet have flung
Rich tribute: warriors, from their dreams of glory
Drawn by her potent charms, have meekly hung
Their laurels on her threshold: lawyers wise
Have bowed before the magic of her eyes.

Within a Northern cavern, dim and vast,
This lady-witch was born; a twilight gleam
Of everlasting icicles was cast,
From the arch'd roof, on the maternal dream
Wherein she was conceiv'd; faint music past
From the earth's bosom, while each breeze and stream
Murmur'd and sigh'd delight, and ever flower
Breath'd tenfold fragrance on her natal hour.

A fairy form was her's, and well she wore
Its light aerial beauty; from her cave
Into the northern vapours, thick and hoar,
When first she pass'd, a path the vapours gave
To her, as to a sunbeam; the wild roar
Of torrents paused, as o'er Loch Lomond's wave
She glided like a zephyr; each fir-grove
Grew bright in the effulgence of her love.

Amidst the Northern forests, lakes, and hills,
Her infancy was nurtured, and she grew
Remote, and unacquainted with the ills
Of the corrupted South: 'tis said, she drew
Sweet inspiration from the rocks and rills,
From the free air, and from the mountain dew
Of her wild clime, and that her wizard ken
Pierced far beyond the dreams of elves or men.

And to her beck, while yet she was a child,
A thousand strange and savage natures came;
Yea, whatsoe'er of wonderful and wild
The grim North teems with, her sweet looks could tame;
The kelpie crouched before her, when she smiled,
With claws curled in, and eyes of softened flame;
Brownie, and elf, and warlock, came to enrich
The festal pageants of this wondrous witch.

Her's was a reign of love; her mild dominion
Was o'er the heart and will of living things;
Her gentle voice could bind the eagle's pinion,
Her gentle looks rob dragons of their stings:
Yet more than this — 'tis the receiv'd opinion,
That the sly witch held secret communings
With dread mysterious powers, and made her eye
Familiar with the realms of phantasy;

So that the Muses, from their viewless bowers,
Would oft descend, obedient to her spells,
And crown her forehead with Pierian flowers;
With music and with light they filled the dells
Wherein the witch abode; and she, for hours,
Would listen to their harpings, till the cells
Of her most secret thought began to teem
With shapes unknown to woman's brightest dream.

Some say, that Germany sent forth her sages
To do meet homage at the witch's feet,
Bearing that wondrous science, hid for ages;
The witch received them in her calm retreat,
Heard them discourse, and, from their mystic pages,
Drained secret draughts of knowledge — pure and sweet,
Which the fool scoffs at: — but the witch well knew
That this same knowledge was both wise and true.

Thus childhood passed, but ere her young cheek shone
With the first blush of womanhood — ere yet,
Encircled in the Queen of Beauty's zone,
The perfect graces of her form had met,—
Ere her young heart had love's first rapture known,
Or love's first sorrow made her eyelids wet,
From her enchanted cell the witch went forth,
And left the fruitful vineyards of the North.

Beneath the shadow of a castled steep,
In which the ashes of ancestral kings,
Rocked by the roll of ages, soundly sleep,—
Hard by a forest, where, in moon-lit rings,
The fairies still those gamesome revels keep,
Hallowed by Shakspeare's sweet imaginings,
The witch her dwelling fixed, and with strange power
Raised, and adorned, a bright enchanted bower;

Wherein, with potent cabalistic scrolls,
And spells contriv'd by necromantic lore,
And charm'd elixirs, mix'd in magic bowls,
Of power to penetrate the inmost core
Of human hearts, and e'en in rudest souls
Love's quenchless flame to kindle or restore—
Framing strong lures to tempt and to betray,
The wizard-maiden dwelt for many a day.

The deep recesses of her inmost cell
Were garnish'd with quaint treasures — lovers' sighs
Fill'd many a magical receptacle,
And tears were there, distill'd from rival eyes,
In crystal phials, seal'd and labell'd well;
And, mixt with these, lay quips and phantasies,
And dark enigmas brought from Faery-land,
Which none but bards and witches understand.

And daily did the witch, by her sweet wiles,
Increase these treasur'd hoards; pale youths would come,
Laden with vows and raptures, miles and miles,
To do her wayward bidding; friends and home
Poets would barter for her thrilling smiles;
And studious sages burnt full many a tome
Of the old crabbed lore, that from her eye
They might imbibe love's sweet philosophy.

She had a chariot, which the Muses brought her,
Built by themselves, shaped like the horned star
Which gems the forehead of Latona's daughter,
And drawn by the winged dreams; and in this car
Whene'er the witch was wearied, with the slaughter
Of Southern hearts, she used to roam afar
Into the realms of shadowy thought, and spy
The secrets of the land of poesy.

O'er the steep mountains, on the pathless air,
Through the unfathom'd depths of the dim sea,
Did these swift dreams the magic chariot bear;
Wherein she sat unharm'd and terror-fee;
In heaven and earth's veiled regions whatsoe'er
Man's thought hath imaged, it was her's to see
With an undazzled eye; — such power the Muse
Into her favour'd children doth infuse.

The witch ne'er slept at night, but, in a trance,
Within her car lay folded; the moon's ray
Gilded her pale and tranquil countenance,
As the fleet dreams conveyed her, far away,
Through the star-spangled, limitless expanse
Of this mysterious universe; she lay,
Surveying all things, tho' it seem'd she slept,
And, as the view might move her, laugh'd or wept.

Her soul's deep eyes were open'd; in that hour
All day-light's dull realities were laid
Asleep, and in her flight was given her power
To view the phantoms of the night, which stray'd
Through human haunts; on many a young girl's bower
She gazed, still haunted by her lover's shade;
Gay dreams she saw, and fancies, bright and fair,
Couch'd on young eyes which had not look'd on care.

She saw the lean and dull-eyed Nigh-mare feed
On the crown'd tyrant's breath; a demon foul,
The fearful rider of that shadowy steed,
From its black wings cast terror on his soul;
While, one by one, full many a ruthless deed,
From the dark caverns of his conscience stole,
Making sleep hideous: — in his prison's cell,
Meanwhile, the fetter'd patriot slumber'd well.

And oft she saw the thirsty Vampyre drain
The life-blood from the heart that lov'd him best,
And the pale Goule, with terror and with pain,
Gorge his foul meal, Death's lone and loathly guest.
But there were gentler phantoms; love's strong reign
The grave dissolves not; from their buried rest
Maidens, in bridal white, and wives arose,
To lighten many a broken heart's repose.

Throng'd by that pale and wandering company,
The midnight streets seem'd busy, as by day,
Save that no sound was heard, but silently
Each phantom glided on its lonely way:—
Meanwhile, in distant woods, the witch could see,
Threading their moon-lit mazes, elf and fay;
And many another wondrous sight was her's,
Not to be dreamt of by philosophers.

These were her midnight pranks; by day, she wander'd
In the fair bowers of old romantic lore;
And now o'er Spenser's sweet creations ponder'd,
And now o'er sweeter Shakspeare's — Hell's dread door
The Florentine unbarr'd to her; she wonder'd
And wept o'er Ariosto's countless store
Of sad and mirthful fancies; Milton gave
To her the knowledge which o'erleaps the grave.

And, beside these, a household troop she kept,
Of poet-genii, by her spells fast bound
To work her will, and each was an adept
In his own trade; some roam'd the world around
From East to West, and never stay'd or slept,
Till thy the choicest phantasies had found,
And all the honey'd thoughts that might be worth
The witch's quest, in heaven, or hell, or earth:—

Which, when these swift, and subtle sprites had caught
In their strong toils, straight to the witch's home
(As bees their gleanings to their queen) they brought
The nectarous freight, which to a honey-comb
Of labyrinthine fancies others wrought;
And all was treasured in a magic tome,—
Some favour'd spirit's present: — but the history
Of this same present still remains a mystery.

Howe'er, 'tis certain that each page was fill'd
With sweet and witching rhymes, while, day by day,
Immortal ink the poet-genii spill'd,
To swell the precious store, and many a lay
Was weekly added, whose rich music thrill'd
All gentle hearts, and bore men's thoughts away
To a dream-paradise: — such wondrous skill
These Genii had to work the witch's will.

Yet, ere such fiery spirits could be tamed
Down to complete subjection, charms were used,
Too dreadful (save by witches) to be named,
And many a potent herb was cull'd and bruised,
And many a philtre mix'd and fetter framed,
And many a mystic page full oft perused;
For, of all sprites that roam beneath the sky,
The wildest are the sprites of poesy.

Philosophy hath grasp'd the lightning's pinions
And tamed the rebel sprites of frost and snow,
Hath ridden on the storm through air's dominions,
And chain'd the myriad forms that sleep below
Ocean's dread depths; but on her dearest minions
Philosophy herself could ne'er bestow
Power to controul that wild fantastic brood,
Which the strong magic of the witch subdued.

The wars, and all the triumphs which she won
O'er these rebellious Genii, and the pains
Wherewith she tamed them, when the fight was done,
Are themes too mighty for the puny strains
Of a poor Southern bard: — but there was one,
A stubborn genius, whom, 'tis said, her chains
Could scarcely bind; dread punishment had he,
Which must be sung in saddest poesy.

This Genius came from a fair Western land,
A wilderness of woods and streams and vales,
And rocks rough-hewn by nature's giant hand;
And (if in old traditionary tales
We may believe) on musings, lone and grand,
His soul once fed, and he had spread the sails
Of his broad wings for many a venturous flight,
Which baffled e'en the wizard-maiden's might.

But he was sadly changed; — his once proud wings,
Which used to bear him, swift as Dian's sphere,
Through thought's vast realms, in rapturous wanderings,
Hung weak and plumeless now; his leaf was sere,
Though he had seen but four-and-twenty springs;
And, on his lip, a cold habitual sneer
Had quell'd thought's outward workings: — you might trace
Anticipated years upon his face.

He look'd on beauty (though it pleas'd him well)
With a most calm and unimpassion'd eye,
As if he knew some antidote to quell
The poison of Love's darts: — none heard him sigh,
Or any tale of amorous passion tell;
But he would prate, with careless courtesy,
To woman, or to witch, as might befall,—
View their enchantments — and despise them all.

'Twas rumour'd of him, that, in former years,
A crush'd and tortured victim he had been
Of that relentless power, whose anger sears
E'en super-human hearts: some anguish keen
Had dried the inward fountain of his tears,
And lent strange coldness to his heart and mien;
And 'twas this coldness taught him to defy,
As he long did, the witch's sorcery.—

Fool! — Fool! — with taunting and irreverent speech,
And sneers, and scornful gibes, he durst provoke
The spells and dread enchantments, from whose reach
He seem'd secure; with many a bitter joke,
He scoff'd at fays and witches, all and each,
Vowing, that Genii who could wear their yoke
Were mean and abject slaves — and chiefly they
Who bow'd beneath the Northern witch's sway.

For in the North, this foolish sprite averr'd,
No charms could e'er be forged, of force to bind
A noble heart; — the country, he had heard,
Was peopled by the dregs of human kind;—
A race barbarian, ignorant, absurd—
To though profound, and genuine wisdom blind—
As for the witch — she might have tamed his betters,
But he must still decline to wear her fetters:—

Which, when the lady knew, for wrath she tore
Her raven tresses, while, from either eye,
Flash'd a bright light, such as the vapours frore
Kindle, at evening, the Arctic sky;
She knit her brows, and clench'd her hand, and worse,
By all the nameless powers of sorcery,
That, if to magic art she had pretence,
The Genius soon should rue his insolence—

That night, the Wizard lady sat awake,
Weaving dread charms in her most secret cell,
And muttering rhymes which made all nature quake,
Wherewith she was accustom'd to compel
The strongest of her spirits to forsake
Their favourite haunts in heaven, or earth, or hell;
For, ere the morning, by their potent aid,
A spell, to bind the Genius, must be made.

Anon they came; — pale dream and solemn vision
Spread their light pinions at that awful cell,
And silently and swiftly, through the Elysian
Portal, arose to her enchanted hall;
Aerial troops, in many a quaint division
Rang'd by their several leaders, — each and all
Observing, in the most respectful manner,
The signals of Queen Mab's imperial banner.—

And all night long, with swift, unwearied hands,
Those patient spirits toil'd incessantly,
Obedient to the witch's dread commands:
Some brought strange herbs, some bruis'd them skilfully;
Some for ingredients flew to the far lands
Of fiery Ind, and spicy Araby.—
Yet, all was finished ere the lark awoke,
Or, through the darkness, morn's first twilight broke.

———*———*———*———*———*———

What pass'd in that impenetrable drift
Of supernatural hail, and rain, and snow,
Is yet a secret, which, that man should sift,
Fate wills not; so the world must never know
Whether the witch's demons did uplift
The Genius (some assert that it was so)
In their strong arms, and bear him swiftly forth
To some enchanted cavern in the North;

Or whether, by their dark, infernal power,
He, on that spot, was cast into a trance,
Wherein he saw more sights, in one brief hour,
And feller, than e'er blasted waking glance;—
Or whether pangs, that did his soul devour,
Compell'd him (while, in swift and frightful dance,
Those demons yell'd around him) to obey
The witch's pleasure, boots not here to say.

But 'tis most certain, that, from that dire morn,
His looks were strangely alter'd — that his brow,
Which such a steadfast calm of late had worn,
Grew fever'd, and his eye was restless now;
And if his lip still curl'd with outward scorn,
'Twas that no mortal eye might ever know
The spell that did torment his inmost soul,—
The secret fire, which he could not controul.

O thou, whose wild, and oh! Most potent verse
Did, from the Tuscan Muse, such favour win,
As taught thee the dread frenzy to rehearse
Of Charlemagne's most famous paladin,—
If my deep reverence for thy strains could nurse,
In me, a power and tenderness akin
To thine, I might describe, in fitting strain,
The pranks that spoke this sprite's distracted brain;

And how, at night, from his perturbed slumber
He oft would start, and, with wild gestures, cry
That Northern imps and goblins, without number,
Were tearing him piece-meal remorselessly;
And that strange visions danc'd before his eye:—
And how, ere daylight broke, he used to wander
Into lone woods, to poetise and ponder.

Sometimes, in moody and abstracted fit,
He sat for hours, and then would start, and swear
The North produced all genius and all wit,—
All that was bright, and wonderful, and fair;
And that no poesy was ever writ
Which with the Northern could at all compare;
And that — but he discover'd, in a word,
That all his former notions were absurd.

And from the boldest and most scornful sprite
That ever mock'd at necromantic power,
He grew a slave, tamed down and humbled quite,
The most submissive in the witch's bower;
And did her bidding meekly, day and night,
Toiling, at her command, through sun and shower;
And ran, and flew, to please her, miles and miles,
And never ask'd for wages — save her smiles!

Yet was he discontented, though subdued;
For the fair witch would never smile on him;—
Witches, in fact, it should be understood,
Are not more free, than mortal maids, from whim;
Whence this most cruel witch esteem'd it good
To fill his soul, e'en to the very brim,
With adoration of her charms, that so
Her cold despite might work him fiercer woe.

Therefore, not yet abandon'd she her wiles,
But rack'd his bosom still, and, when she saw
His eyes fix'd on her, oft would lavish smiles
On many a peacock, whom he deem'd a daw
In pilfer'd plumes, — base rabble that defiles
A poet's pen, — fops learned in the law,—
Coxcombs, and drones, and dandies, — brainless knaves,
Who the poor Genius wish'd were in their graves.

Yet he complain'd not, — but ador'd her still,
In dumb and patient hopelessness; — such fear
Temper'd his love, such charms were wont to thrill
His sinking heart, whene'er the witch was near;
Yet oft with secret tears his eyes would fill,
And when he deem'd that no intrusive ear
O'erheard him, in wild words of rage and grief,
The fullness of his bosom found relief.

Still rail'd he not on her, but madly flew
On her chief minions, with irreverent gibes,
And stung them, with keen satire, through and through,
Reviling the whole race, through all its tribes:
He laugh'd at all her lovers, old and new,
And call'd them rogues, and dolts, and lying scribes;
(To jeer at folks, who were esteem'd so sensible,
It must be own'd was highly reprehensible.)

And then he swore, by those love-beaming eyes,
It was a grievance, not to be endur'd;
That some vain, shallow, witless imp should rise,
And of the witch's favour reign assur'd,—
Nay — haply, make her very heart his prize,—
While he, a spirit to her tasks inured,
And gifted with high power to work her will,
Was thus cast off, — despised, — rejected still!

This could not last: — One day, the Magic Book
Fell in his way, (by chance or by design,)
And tempted thus, these artful means he took
To end his grief: — in many a mystic line
He traced (although his hand with terror shook)
His soul's most secret workings, in such fine
And subtle phrase involv'd, that not but she,
For whom 'twas meant, could solve the mystery.

And he petition'd (this presumptuous elf!)
That, if his lady's heart was yet unwon,
He might adventure for the prize himself,
And do whate'er by prowess could be done,
To throw all rival suitors on the shelf,—
Adding, with grave audacity, that none
(Save only He) were competent to prize,
According to their worth, those soul-lit eyes,—

And then he vow'd, with many a solemn oath,
That, should the witch e'er deign to let him be
Her earthly guide, he then would plight his troth
To serve her with most strict fidelity,
And show all his wonders, nothing loth;
For he possess'd Apollo's master-key,
By which are open'd, to the sons of verse,
The hidden chambers of the universe.

And that with love which none but poets feel,
And reverence such as none but poets pay,
He would watch over all her future weal,
And deem her his sole treasure, night and day;
And when Death's slumber should her eyelids seal,
And her soul flit to Paradise, away,
Still, upon earth, her sacred name should be
Link'd with his own in Immortality.

Here pause we, — for the night is one the wane.
Whether the Genius still was doom'd to grieve,
Or some kind fortune eas'd him of his pain,—
Is matter which, in verse, I yet my weave:—
But months must first roll by, — for such a strain
Is fitter far for some calm summer eve
Than for these merry winter nights, when we
Begin to dream of Christmas revelry.

[pp. 190-209]