1827
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

A Widow's Tale.

A Widow's Tale, and other Poems. By Bernard Barton.

Bernard Barton


46 Spenserians. "For the incidents contained in the following Poem, the Author is indebted to the painful, but interesting 'Account of the loss of Five Wesleyan Missionaries, and others, in the Maria Mail-boat, off the Island of Antigua, by Mrs. Jones, the only survivor on that mournful occasion'" preface. Sublime devastation seems to have been in vogue; compare the narratives in The Desolation of Eyam (1827) by William and Mary Howitt (like Barton, Quaker writers) and Thomas Dale's Irad and Adah; a Tale of the Flood (1822).

Literary Chronicle: "The Widow's Tale forms the longest poem in the present collection, and consists of forty-six Spencerian stanzas equably written, and possessing the same style of fault and beauty which has distinguished our author's preceding efforts. It is founded on the 'account of the loss of five Wesleyan missionaries, and others, in the Maria mail-boat, off the island of Antiqua, by Mrs. Jones, the only survivor on that melancholy occasion.' We shall avoid extracting from this, and content ourselves with observing, that the principal incidents of the narrative are unelaborately turned into verse; and form a tale replete with mournful interest. There are, however, several stanzas, which, intended to be simple, have become weak, and in the concluding alexandrine, Mr. Barton frequently fails: the extra two syllables seeming expletives in sound and sense, thus one of the greatest beauties of the Spencerian metre is lost, and the conclusion, instead of being finely and exquisitely rounded, becomes impotent, and leaves on the ear an unpleasant and dissonant vibration" 9 (March 1827) 146.

Christian Advocate and Journal [New York]: "The principal facts contained in Mrs. Jones's narration, are related in Mr. Barton's poem with great simplicity and pathos, intermingled with such reflections as the incidents were likely to suggest to a pious and intelligent mind. The author has shown his good taste in carefully avoiding every thing like embellishment, by excluding fiction from his narrative, and by confining himself to the strictest truth in all his details" 1 (8 June 1827) 160.

Imperial Magazine: "Having seen this volume highly eulogized in several contemporaneous journals, we took it up with sanguine expectations, and perused it with eagerness, but were compelled to drop it with partial disappointment. This, in a great measure, might have arisen from the nature of the principal poem, the Widow's Tale, which records a disaster in which five Wesleyan missionaries and others perished by shipwreck, off the island of Antigua. The catastrophe is in itself so harrowing to the feelings, as scarcely to allow room for any poetical scenery or embellishments. It has been observed by Dr. Johnson, that in all the attempts which have been made to write on the last day, no poet has hitherto succeeded according to expectation, the great events preoccupying the imagination, and casting every human effort into shade. The same remarks that thus characterize the final consummation of things, will in a subordinate degree apply to the scene now before us, and furnish an ample apology for the failure of Mr. Barton's poem" 9 (June 1827) 570-71.

Monthly Magazine: "This little volume commences with the story of a shipwreck — no new subject to be sure — of a party of missionaries, with their wives and children, on their outward voyage. The entire crew and company of the vessel perish, with the single exception of one missionary's widow, who lives to tell the tale of destruction — a tale delivered with extreme simplicity, and in the true spirit, which we must suppose a missionary's wife to possess — standing aloof as missionaries must seem to do from the common ties and associations, that exert so strong a power over bosoms yet unwearied with the world and its concerns. She tells of the storm's rise, and growth, and fury, and devastation, and subsidence — of the few that lingered after the many that were overwhelmed, in a tone of monotonous melancholy — the constant concomitant of such as sternly resolve not to let their affections rest on any thing below. This melancholy becomes for a moment or two absolutely pathetic, when she describes the fate of the children struggling in violent and helpless terror against irresistible destruction; and, again, the condition of her husband, who dies, sustained in her arms that are scarcely able to support him the while on the fragment of the ship to which she clings" NS 3 (July 1827) 83.

Eclectic Review: "It is, indeed, a tragical [tale], and although not worked up to the pitch of horror by which a mere fancy scene might be made to harrow up the feelings, cannot fail deeply to interest the reader by its unaffected pathos. Mr. Barton has evidently had in view, however, a higher object than the poet's fame; namely, to place in its true light, a mysterious and discouraging dispensation of Divine Providence" NS 27 (March 1827) 231.

Charles Lamb to Bernard Barton: "Certes, friend B., thy Widow's Tale is too horrible, spite of the lenitives of Religion, to embody in verse. I hold prose to be the appropriate exposition of such atrocities! No offence, but it is a cordial that makes the heart sick.... I like verses to explain pictures; seldom pictures to illustrate poems. Your woodcut is a rueful signum mortis. By the bye, is the widow likely to marry again?" in Barton, Memoir, Letters, and Poems (1850) 178, 180.



Reader, no story of fictitious woe,
Artfully told, here asks thy tenderness;
But if thy breast with sympathy can glow
For one who tells a tale of deep distress,
In truth's own simple, unelaborate dress,
To win thy pity mine can scarcely fail;
For few, indeed, amid the throng and press
Of trials manifold which life assail,
Have witness'd scenes more dread than deck my mournful tale.

I was the wife of one who left his home,
His friends, and country, — all he held most dear
Except myself, to breast the billows' foam,
The stormy music of the blast to hear;
In foreign climes to know a stranger's cheer,
And be a homeless wanderer far and wide;
Content by duty's star his course to steer,
So he might honour Him who for us died,
And preach in distant lands his Lord, the Crucified.

Among the sunny islands of the west
His field of labour open'd: could I stay
At home in listless, self-indulgent rest,
While he was braving hardships far away?
Not thus to love, to honour, and obey,
Methought my word was plighted; but where he
To whom 'twas given conceiv'd his duty lay,
My vow no less appointed mine to be;
Therefore I went with him a wanderer o'er the sea.

Not mine his Gospel labours to proclaim;
May they be sanctified to those 'mid whom
He strove to glorify his Saviour's name;—
My heart too keenly, feels a mourner's doom,
When I reflect upon his watery tomb,
To paint the varied scenes through which we pass'd;
Yet with no feelings of desponding gloom,
Like her whose starless sky is all o'er-cast,
Would I pourtray the one which prov'd on earth our last.

On earth! alas! we hardly could be said
To part on earth, for foaming seas were round
The fragment of a wreck, his dying bed;—
Fearful each sight, and terrible each sound
We witness'd there; yet in that hour we found
Hope's sure and stedfast anchor to the soul;
Mortal with immortality was crown'd,
And the blest spirit sought its glorious goal,
Where blasts can never rave, nor angry billows roll.

Can I, then, mourn for his lamented loss,
As one who knows not faith's sustaining spell?
He left his home to bear a Saviour's Cross,
The tidings of redeeming love to tell,
And in that hallow'd cause he meekly fell:
Oh! may I, rather, through his Master's grace,
Since memory on our parting can but dwell,
The grateful and consoling thought retrace
With "glory!" on his lips he died in my embrace.

This soothing, elevating thought bears up
My spirit with the hope his meed is won;
It sweetens Sorrow's overflowing cup
By the firm faith his race is safely run;
Gives strength to say, "God's holy will be done!"
And in that strength, yet never known to fail,
Power to retrace what memory else would shun,
A scene where woman's cheek might well turn pale,
Where e'en man's bolder heart might feel its courage quail.

We went on board our ship at sunset hour,
The giant deep in peaceful slumber lay;
And though, at night, the wild winds' mighty power
Its curling billows rous'd to fearful play,
We slept in peace: but, on the following day,
The morn was stormy, and the wind a-head;
The sea broke o'er us, and the sheeted spray
Which, far as eye could reach, around us spread,
Gave to the darkening clouds a darkness yet more dread.

Not only he — whose loss my heart must mourn,
Was with me in that season of dismay;
Brethren and sisters in that bark were borne,
Companions with us on our fearful way;
Brethren who went, like him, to preach and pray,
And sisters, like myself, their lot to share;
Their precious babes, too, in life's opening day,
Objects of many a fond parental prayer;—
Oh! when did wave-tost bark a freight more guileless bear?

For e'en our fearful hearts it somewhat lighten'd,
To see those children, when the seaman's cry
Of "land in sight!" their changing glances brighten'd,
Look round them with a hope-enkindled eye:
And one, a boy of thoughts and feelings high,
Far, far beyond his age, began to raise,
With all his young companions standing by,
Exulting hymns of gratitude and praise;
Until our fears were lull'd by their delightful lays.

And then the child, "with sense above his years,"
With narrative from Scripture's holy page
Beguil'd the terrors of his young compeers,
By showing who could Ocean's wrath assuage,
And calm the billows in their fiercest rage;
How He had rescued by his out-stretch'd arm
The Prophet Jonas in an earlier age;
Or how the word of Jesus, like a charm,
Once chain'd the winds and waves, and hush'd each vain alarm.

Alas! sweet boy! but wherefore mourn thy lot,
Or thy compeers' who sank beneath the wave?
Oh! who shall deem you by your God forgot,
Though in life's bloom ye found a watery grave;
Though fruitless your heart-rending cries to save!
Amid the winds and waves distinctly heard;—
We know but this, — that He who being gave,
Resum'd the gift He had himself conferr'd,
Nor dare gainsay His will by one repining word.

Mysterious to our reason seems your doom;
Yet not less merciful that doom might be:
With your dear parents in that hour of gloom,
Which neither might nor skill of man could flee,
You gave, at Heaven's omnipotent decree,
Your innocent lives a spotless sacrifice;
And when the silent chambers of the sea
Shall hear the echoing trumpet rend the skies,
With them to meet the Lord in glory ye shall rise.

Then shall the wisdom of Omnipotence
To our illumin'd vision be made clear;
Marvels and mysteries unto mortal sense
Shall great, and good, and merciful appear;
Be our's that perfect love which casts out fear,
Dark doubt, and unbelief by faith's strong might,
And all things "seen in part and darkly" here,
Through the dim glass of reason's erring sight,
Shall be reveal'd to us in truth's unclouded light.

Peace to your spirits! Your lamented fate,
Sweet innocents, has call'd me from our own;
Bidding my mournful tale anticipate
More than its narrative had erst made known;
Our fragile bark upon the reefs was thrown,
And soon was broken up; when all but nine,
To whom a transient respite yet was shown,
Were whelm'd beneath the darkly-heaving brine;
Unseen, but not unheard each sufferer's "parting sign."

We heard the children's feeble cries to save;—
Their parents' broken accents, while commending
Their souls to God! with every wind and wave
Which broke around us some sad sound was blending;—
It was a scene all scenes of woe transcending
Which e'er had made my heart with anguish thrill;
Fearful to witness, painful in its ending,—
For, though each cry we heard our blood might chill,
As, one by one, they ceas'd, our hearts were colder still!

And we were left to brave that awful night,
Waiting for death, and musing on the dead;
Nor moon nor stars above us shed their light,
But the dark sky was like a pall o'er-spread;
Each coming wave, rearing its mountain head,
Threaten'd destruction; and the gusty blast
Howling around us, as it onward sped,
Reminded us of sounds for ever past,
The cries of drowning men, their saddest, and their last!

Slowly that long, long night was watch'd away;
Fond hope, that clings to life, reviv'd with light;
With trembling joy we hail'd its glimmering ray,
And saw it slowly chase the clouds of night;
The tops of hills then blest our eager sight,
The sea no more in mountain billows roll'd,
The glorious sun came forth in splendour bright;
Well might our sinking hearts become more bold,
When thus our eyes beheld another morn unfold.

In sight of land, with every chance to greet
Some wandering sail with aid approaching nigh,
Could our hearts fail with rising throbs to beat?
Or dark despair o'ercloud each anxious eye?
With hope that almost felt like certainty,
We made our signals to the neighbouring strand;
Trusting, believing some one must espy
Our puny pennon by the breezes fann'd,
And launch a friendly boat to bring our crew to land.

Not so; — the lingering, weary hours pass'd by,
And we were left in helpless suffering there;
To hear the dashing wave, — the sea-mew's cry;
In doubt, and dread, and "sad suspense to bear
The fearful hope that keeps alive despair:"
Bark after bark our desperate station near'd;
And when relief seem'd granted to our prayer,
When the chill'd heart reviving courage cheer'd,
Each vessel tack'd about, and from our vision steer'd.

Cruel it seem'd; — but we remain'd unheard,
Unseen, unpitied; — on the passing breeze
Was borne no sound which might with hope have stirr'd
Our spirits, sinking amid tossing seas:
Instead of this, — a sight our hearts to freeze,
Dead bodies floated by us on the wave,
Our late companions; — as we look'd on these,
Thus reft of life, and yet denied a grave,
We felt a sick'ning chill which palsies e'en the brave.

But though our hopes of aid from human power
With each fresh disappointment fainter grew,
God's might and mercy, in that dreadful hour
Sustain'd the spirits of the trembling few
Who look'd to Him alone; His power, we knew
Could bring deliverance though by man unseen,
We felt we were not hidden from his view,
Though nought beside was left whereon to lean;
And prayer to Him, at times, still kept our hearts serene.

It is not in the summer hours of life,
When all around is prosp'rous, bright, and gay,
That prayer's true worth is known; 'tis in the strife
Of fear and anguish, when we have no stay
On earth, or earthly things; Oh! then we pray,
As those who know not sorrow never can:—
Each false support must first be rent away,
All confidence in self, all trust in man,
Rear-ward each worldly thought, each heavenly in the van,—

Before the place where living prayer is made
Can be attain'd unto, or audience won:—
Oh! thus in earnestness to God we pray'd;
Beseeching Him, through his Redeeming Son,
To give us power to say, "Thy will be done!"
And thanks to Him who hears and answers prayer,
Our helpless wretchedness he did not shun,
Nor leave our hearts a prey to dark despair,
Though mine the only life his mercy deign'd to spare.

Lightly the worldling may our prayers esteem,
Since, save myself, all sank beneath the tide;
Not so the Christian of their worth will deem,
As if their richest blessing were denied;—
Not for our mortal life, alone, we cried,
But pray'd of Him whose word once still'd the wave,
The Pure, the Sinless, who for sinners died,
His power from death's most dreadful sting might save,
And give us through His Name the victory o'er the grave.

Thanks to His glorious name! the strength of sin,
Its yoke of bondage, slavish fear of death,—
Were there subdued; our minds were calm within,
Sooth'd and sustain'd by holy living faith,
His gift, whose everlasting arm beneath
Preserv'd our spirits' better hopes unbroken;
And by the brethren, with their dying breath,
Much of the Saviour's power and love were spoken,
Making the cross He bore hope's sole surviving token.

Their words fell not upon regardless ears,
For hearts were tendered, spirits humbly bow'd;
And eyes, perchance 'till then unwet by tears
Of penitence, with sorrow overflow'd;
There was no dark obduracy to cloud
The light within, surpassing that of day;
Who could be doubtful, careless, cold, or proud,
Or who the Gospel's promises gainsay,
When life's last ebbing sands seem'd fleeting fast away.

And hence our fragment of a wreck became
A temple to the Lord! who there was known;
There did He glorify His wondrous name
And make the light of his salvation shown;
Our hopes, our fears were turn'd to Him alone,
In frequent intervals of solemn thought,
And many a sigh, and tear, and prayer, and groan,
With more than rhetoric's richest graces fraught,
Meekly pour'd forth to Him his seat of mercy sought.

Three nights and days thus passed: but months and years
Of common life more rapidly had sped!
So many griefs and sufferings, hopes and fears,
Were blended in each hour that o'er us sped:—
Oh! when life hangs by such a slender thread,
How slowly, yet how swiftly moments fly;
Surrounded by the dying, and the dead,
The nights crept on, the days soon hurried by,
Each seeming, in its turn, to bring eternity!

Three days, and nights! the sun arose, and set,
And set and rose; the Curlew sought her nest,
And came at morn, and found us ling'ring yet,
Waiting for death: — whether the glowing west
Shed its rich splendours over Ocean's breast,
Or the bright orient told another morn,
Or moon and stars proclaim'd the hour of rest
To all but us; — there watching, faint, and worn,
In sad suspense we sate, a waning band forlorn.

A waning band, for one by one was gone,
Exhausted, to the ocean depths below;
And we, who somewhat longer linger'd on,
Were worn with watching, weariness, and woe:—
The cry of sea-birds, flitting to and fro
Around the rocky reef whereon we lay,
The sound of dashing waves, whose ceaseless flow,
Drenched our spent bodies with their briny spray,—
Hour after hour endur'd, seem'd wasting life away.

One after one was taken. Some in vain
Essay'd to swim unto the neighbouring shore;
Forlorn of hope they plung'd into the main,
With nerveless arm to brave the billows' roar;
Each after each they sank to rise no more:—
Alas! each fruitless effort only made
Our lot seem lonelier than it was before;
For, as our dwindled numbers we survey'd,
Hope, — fear of being last on each survivor weigh'd.

Another, and another sank; and now
But three of all our crew were left behind,
He unto whom my lip had pledg'd a vow
Which closer seem'd in this sad hour to bind,—
Myself, and him to whom was erst assign'd
Our ship's command; — we three still feebly kept,
A little longer, life's faint spark enshrin'd
In frames o'er which death's icy coldness crept;—
Waking, we watch'd, and pray'd; by turns we briefly slept.

Yes, slept! for e'en the wretched sink to sleep,
Though not to rest; — dark dreams of fearful gloom
Rise to such slumberers on the mighty deep,
Which seem like preludes of approaching doom;
Visions of monsters lurking in the womb
Of Ocean's plumbless depths their prey to seize;
Of corpses over which its billows boom,
Far, far below the sunshine and the breeze;
Of all, men dread or dare, who brave the stormy seas.

Mingled with these rose visions fair and bright,
Lovelier, but far more cruel, dreams of home;
Such as the home-sick bosoms oft delight
Of mourning exiles when afar they roam;
Instead of tossing waves with whitening foam,
Were purling brooks, with flowers beside them springing,
The dreamer's canopy, not heaven's wide dome,
But leafy trees, where happy birds were singing,
Or to whose topmost boughs the rooks were homeward winging.

But why the mockeries of dreams relate?
Enough was ours of dark reality
Which feverish dreams could scarcely aggravate;
Thirst, hunger, pining famine now drew nigh,
Parch'd was each lip, and blood-shot every eye,
All life's elastic energy seem'd flown;
Our words were faint, and few; a look, a sigh,
Or murmur'd sounds, like infant's feeble moan,
Feeling and thought express'd, and made our meaning known.

And now the fears whose agony had rent,
For its fond partner, my foreboding heart,
Drew near their last and dread accomplishment;
And though some melancholy tears might start,
To think that thus it was our lot to part!
I felt that sighs and tears alike were vain;
Could either have delay'd Death's menac'd dart,
Selfish it seem'd to wish he should remain
A prey to pining want, and long-protracted pain.

Yet all I could was done, in that sad hour,
To pillow on my breast his sinking head;
I could not bear the billows should devour
His wasted form 'till life's last spark had fled;
It seem'd Affection's sole surviving dread,
In that most painful climax of its woe,
That he should sink in Ocean's tossing bed,
Powerless to struggle, yet alive to know
The pangs of drowning men. Thank God! — it was not so!

I could not minister to him — as those
Who in the peaceful chamber tend the dying;
Where all is hush'd to wait the awful close,
And even struggling grief finds vent in sighing;
Where fond Affection, still unwearied trying
Each blameless art its fancy can suggest,
Fresh palliatives for each new pain supplying,
Kisses the wan cheek on the pillow prest;—
By every languid smile for all its efforts blest.

Such were not in my power; I could but watch,
With mournful glance, his coldly glazing eye,
And changing features; thankful but to catch
Words to which tears forbade me to reply:—
Just ere the close a wave swept rudely by;
I call'd upon the Captain, in my dread,
"Oh raise him, in my arms, that he may die!"
He turn'd round to me, mournfully, and said,
"I, too, am almost gone!" — and soon his spirit fled.

But strength was given me, though my trembling clasp
Had else been powerless as a babe's might be,
To hold my dying husband in my grasp,
For this I knew he would have done for me,
'Till in my arms his spirit was set free,
"Jesus" — and "Glory" — falt'ring on his tongue;—
And ere I let him sink into the sea,
Much as my feelings were by anguish wrung,
To his eternal joy my spirit meekly clung.

I let him go! the rushing waves clos'd o'er him,
My tears were check'd, and hush'd was ev'ry groan;
It seem'd unjust, unfeeling to deplore him,
Hoping, yea trusting that his soul had flown
To join the worshippers around the throne
Of God, and of the Lamb! — I now could bear
To linger out life's few brief hours alone,
And die the last sad helpless being there,
If his immortal bliss my deathless soul might share.

So was I left in solitude: — and found
By my deliverers — like some breathless thing
By fabled spell of old enchanter bound;
Or her whose woes the ancient poets sing;
Or form which statuary's art may bring
To mimic mortal life from lifeless clay;
A being — in whose breast life's hidden spring,
Chill'd at its fountain-head, forgets to play,—
Thus was I found, and thence, unconscious, borne away.

Such is my Story: Reader, did I err
When I declared it one, whose deep distress
Each gentle source of sympathy might stir,
In hearts which feel for others' wretchedness?
Why have I told my sorrows? but to press
Upon thy heart what they have taught to mine,
That those who in affliction strive to bless
A Father's rod, shall on his staff recline,
And in grief's darkest hour be cheer'd by Light Divine.

To them who live by faith, and not by sight,
The Lord will prove himself a God indeed;
Riches in poverty, in weakness might,
A present help in every time of need;
And should his love through death's dark chambers lead,
There shall his presence, in the fearful hour,
Give them a Saviour's sacrifice to plead,
And make them more than conq'rors in the power
Of Him whose holy name remains their fortress-tower.

Then glory, honour, worship, power, and praise,
Be given to HIM who sitteth on the throne!
Whose path is on the sea, whose wond'rous ways
Through the deep waters yet remain unknown;
The riches of whose mercy still are shown
To ALL who, trusting not their might, or skill,
In living faith look up to Him, alone;
Seeking, in every change of good or ill,
To magnify His name, and bless His holy will.

[pp. 1-24]