1813
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Sylphs of the Seasons, a Poet's Dream.

The Sylphs of the Seasons with other Poems.

Washington Allston


67 stanzas; an allegory of the imagination by a distinguished American painter. Washington Allston, a friend of Coleridge, takes up themes from several Spenserian poems: the Mutability Cantos, the descriptions in "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso," and Indolence from James Thomson's Castle. The fairy imagery derives from Shakespeare, Drayton, and Beattie. The manner of the poem derives from Coleridge and William Lisle Bowles. As a painter, Allston was known as "the American Titian."

After some stanzas asserting the "labors" of imagination, the poet dreams and finds himself in a cave, from which he is led to a mountain castle overlooking a plain in which the four seasons are displayed. Upon entering, he is hailed "Lord of this Domain" and led to a double-throne, before which stand four "Damsels of the faery race." Each represents a season, and each in turn addresses the enraptured painter, stating her claims to be his consort (the device cleverly invert the scheme of Milton's companion poems, while developing an argument about art and temporality). The allegory concludes when the poet-painter is overcome by a flood of light.

Author's note: "As it may be objected to the following Poem, that some of the images there introduced are not wholly peculiar to the Season described, the Author begs leave to state, that, both in their selection and disposition, he was guided by that, which, in his limited experience, was found to be the Season of their greatest impression: and, though he has not always felt the necessity of pointing out the collateral causes by which the effect was increased, he yet flatters himself that, in general, they are sufficiently implied either by what follows or precedes them. Thus, for instance, the 'running brook,' though by no means peculiar, is appropriated to Spring; as affording by its motion and seeming exultation one of the most lively images of that spirit of renovation which animates the earth after its temporary suspension during the Winter. By the same rule, is assigned to Summer the 'placid lake,' &c. not because that image is never seen, or enjoyed at any other season; but on account of its affecting us more in Summer, than either in the Spring, or in Autumn; the indolence and languor generally then experienced disposing us to dwell with particular delight on such an object of repose; not to mention the grateful idea of coolness derived from a knowledge of its temperature. Thus also the 'evening cloud,' exhibiting a fleeting representation of successive objects, is, perhaps, justly appropriated to Autumn, as in that Season the general decay of inanimate nature leads the mind to turn upon itself, and without effort to apply almost every image of sense, or vision of the imagination, to its own transitory state. If the above be admitted, it is needless to add more; if it be not, it would be useless" pp. v-vii.

New Review: "The bard represents himself to have been carried on imagination's airy wing through a gloomy cavern to an enchanted abode of ever-blooming delights, of which he is hailed as master, and introduced to the four Sylphs, each of which strives to gain his affections. Spring describes her clustering violets, opening blossoms, genial showers, and dew-drenched roses, her sweet associations, which touch every soul with transport, and excite the softest and sweetest emotions in which perishable man can participate. Summer exhibits her unclouded effulgence, her refreshing streams, her transparent lakes, her shady bowers, and her placid and golden evenings — but finally rests her claim, a claim we do not quite comprehend, on having by her genial influence made the languor of the body the cause of energy to the soul of the author. Autumn pictures forth her solemn and touching beauties — her pensive aspect — her tender melancholy — her brilliant aerial castles, and splendid, though fading, forms, displayed in the evening sky; but glories most in those elevated thoughts which her tranquility and her decay alike inspire, transporting the raptured soul into future scenes of eternal bliss. Winter boasts his rude sublimity, his awful tempests, and his lofty associations of sublime danger and pleasing awe.... The author hesitates (lost in admiration, and quite bewildered by the varied display of unrivalled beauties); when in the midst of his sweet perplexity he wakes, to choose neither, and to enjoy them all" 2 (November 1813) 477-78.

Analectic Magazine: "His writings cannot, indeed, be placed by the side of the elaborate productions of the great living British poets; this would be to compare the sketch of an amateur with one of the magnificent paintings of West. In poetry, Mr. Allston is an amateur and not a professed artist; and yet his sketches, slight as they are, possess a spirit and taste which need nothing but cultivation to be raised to high excellence. This, it is to be feared, we cannot expect. His genius aspires to reach Fame by another road, and it is only in occasional rambles that she can disport herself in the fields of poetry. Yet we fondly trust that he will not entirely sacrifice the muse to the severer studies of his art" NS 6 (August 1815) 158.

American Monthly Magazine and Critical Review: "Mr. Allston's effusions are sportive but chaste, lively but moral; and are every where indicative of a purity of feeling, that sometimes approaches to fastidiosity. His poetic fame will not probably eclipse his professional reputation, though we are much deceived if his poetical studies have not materially contributed to his proficiency in the graphic art" 1 (August 1817) 246.

Monthly Review: "We are next to mention a production of Mr. Washington Allston, a young American gentleman who has resided for some time in England, pursuing the vocation of a painter, in which he has displayed very considerable success. It is certainly to be admitted that he handles his pencil with more skill than his pen, for his poems are specimens of a very fatiguing mediocrity of talent, and require no small share of patience in the perusal. The work called The Sylphs of the Seasons is a kind of poetical vision, in which the versifier dreams that he is transported to a fairy-castle, where he is wooed by four beautiful damsels; who each endeavour to gain his good graces, in order that he may fulfil a certain dictum of the Fates, by which he is decreed to become the master of the castle, and, moreover, the sovereign of the year.... Mr. Allston's Paint King, in Monk Lewis's stanza, is said to have obtained some popularity in America" review of Walsh's Appeal; NS 93 (November 1820) 309-10.



Long has it been my fate to hear
The slave of Mammon, with a sneer,
My indolence reprove.
Ah, little knows he of the care,
The toil, the hardship that I bear,
While lolling in my elbow-chair,
And seeming scarce to move:

For, mounted on the Poet's steed,
I there my ceaseless journey speed
O'er mountain, wood, and stream:
And oft within a little day
'Mid comets fierce 'tis mine to stray,
And wander o'er the Milky-way
To catch a Poet's dream.

But would the Man of Lucre know
What riches from my labours flow—
A DREAM is my reply.
And who for wealth has ever pin'd,
That had a World within his mind,
Where every treasure he may find,
And joys that never die!

One night, my task diurnal done,
(For I had travell'd with the Sun
O'er burning sands, o'er snows)
Fatigued, I sought the couch of rest;
My wonted pray'r to Heaven address'd;
But scarce had I my pillow press'd,
When thus a vision rose.

Methought within a desert cave,
Cold, dark, and solemn as the grave,
I suddenly awoke.
It seem'd of sable Night the cell,
Where, save when from the ceiling fell
An oozing drop, her silent spell
No sound had ever broke.

There motionless I stood alone,
Like some strange monument of stone
Upon a barren wild;
Or like, (so solid and profound
The darkness seem'd that wall'd me round)
A man that's buried under ground,
Where pyramids are pil'd.

Thus fix'd, a dreadful hour I past,
And now I heard, as from a blast,
A voice pronounce my name:
Nor long upon my ear it dwelt,
When round me 'gan the air to melt,
And motion once again I felt
Quick circling o'er my frame.

Again it call'd; and then a ray,
That seem'd a gushing fount of day,
Across the cavern stream'd.
Half struck with terror and delight,
I hail'd the little blessed light,
And follow'd till my aching sight
An orb of darkness seem'd.

Nor long I felt the blinding pain;
For soon upon a mountain plain
I gaz'd with wonder new.
There high a castle rear'd its head;
And far below a region spread,
Where every Season seem'd to shed
Its own peculiar hue.

Now at the castle's massy gate,
Like one that's blindly urged by fate,
A bugle-horn I blew.
The mountain-plain it shook around,
The vales return'd a hollow sound,
And, moving with a sigh profound,
The portals open flew.

Then ent'ring, from a glittering hall
I heard a voice seraphic call,
That bade me "ever reign,
"All hail!" it said in accent wild,
"For thou art Nature's chosen child,
Whom wealth nor blood has e'er defil'd,
Hail, Lord of this Domain!"

And now I paced a bright saloon,
That seem'd illumin'd by the moon,
So mellow was the light.
The walls with jetty darkness teem'd,
While down them crystal columns stream'd,
And each a mountain torrent seem'd,
High-flashing through the night.

Rear'd in the midst, a double throne
Like burnish'd cloud of evening shone;
While, group'd the base around,
Four Damsels stood of Faery race;
Who, turning each with heavenly grace
Upon me her immortal face,
Transfix'd me to the ground.

And thus the foremost of the train:
Be thine the throne, and thine to reign
O'er all the varying year!
But ere thou rulest the Fates command,
That of our chosen rival band
A Sylph shall win thy heart and hand,
Thy sovereignty to share.

For we, the sisters of a birth,
Do rule by turns the subject earth
To serve ungrateful man;
But since our varied toils impart
No joy to his capricious heart,
'Tis now ordain'd that human art
Shall rectify the plan.

Then spake the Sylph of Spring serene,
'Tis I thy joyous heart I ween,
With sympathy shall move.
For I with living melody
Of birds in choral symphony,
First wak'd thy soul to poesy,
To piety and love.

When thou, at call of vernal breeze,
And beck'ning bough of budding trees,
Hast left thy sullen fire;
And stretch'd thee in some mossy dell,
And heard the browsing wether's bell,
Blythe echoes rousing from their cell
To swell the tinkling quire:

Or heard from branch of flow'ring thorn
The song of friendly cuckoo warn
The tardy-moving swain;
Hast bid the purple swallow hail;
And seen him now through ether sail,
Now sweeping downward o'er the vale,
And skimming now the plain;

Then, catching with a sudden glance
The bright and silver-clear expanse
Of some broad river's stream,
Beheld the boats adown it glide,
And motion wind again the tide,
Where, chain'd in ice by Winter's pride,
Late roll'd the heavy team:

Or, lur'd by some fresh-scented gale,
That woo'd the moored fisher's sail
To tempt the mighty main,
Hast watch'd the dim receding shore,
Now faintly seen the ocean o'er,
Like hanging cloud, and now no more
To bound the sapphire plain;

Then, wrapt in night, the scudding bark,
(That seem'd, self-pois'd amid the dark,
Through upper air to leap,)
Beheld, from thy most fearful height,
The rapid dolphin's azure light
Cleave, like a living meteor bright,
The darkness of the deep:

'Twas mine the warm, awak'ning hand.
That made thy grateful heart expand,
And feel the high control
Of Him, the mighty Power, that moves
Amid the waters and the groves,
And through his vast creation proves
His omnipresent soul.

Or, brooding o'er some forest rill,
Fring'd with the early daffodil,
And quiv'ring maiden-hair,
When thou hast mark'd the dusky bed,
With leaves and water-rust o'erspread,
That seem'd an amber light to shed
On all was shadow'd there;

And thence, as by its murmur call'd,
The current traced to where it brawl'd
Beneath the noontide ray;
And there beheld the checquer'd shade
Of waves, in many a sinuous braid,
That o'er the sunny channel play'd,
With motion ever gay:

'Twas I to these the magic gave,
That made thy heart, a willing slave,
To gentle Nature bend;
And taught thee how with tree and flower,
And whispering gale, and dropping shower,
In converse sweet to pass the hour,
As with an early friend:

That mid the noontide sunny haze
Did in thy languid bosom raise
The raptures of the boy;
When, wak'd as if to second birth,
Thy soul through every pore look'd forth,
And gaz'd upon the beauteous Earth
With myriad eyes of joy:

That made thy heart, like HIS above,
To flow with universal love
For every living thing.
And, oh! if I, with ray divine,
Thus tempering, did thy soul refine,
Then let thy gentle heart be mine,
And bless the Sylph of Spring.

And next the Sylph of Summer fair;
The while her crisped, golden hair
Half veil'd her sunny eyes:
Nor less may I thy homage claim,
At touch of whose exhaling flame
The fog of Spring that chill'd thy frame
In genial vapour flies.

Oft by the heat of noon opprest,
With flowing hair and open vest,
Thy footsteps have I won
To mossy couch of welling grot,
Where thou hast bless'd thy happy lot,
That thou in that delicious spot
May'st see, not feel, the sun:

Thence tracing from the body's change,
In curious philosophic range,
The motion of the mind;
And how from thought to thought it flew,
Still hoping in each vision new
The faery land of bliss to view,
But ne'er that land to find.

And then, as grew thy languid mood,
To some embow'ring silent wood
I led thy careless way;
Where high from tree to tree in air
Thou saw'st the spider swing her snare,
So bright! — as if, entangled there,
The sun had left a ray:

Or lur'd thee to some beetling steep
To mark the deep and quiet sleep
That wrapt the tarn below;
And mountain blue and forest green
Inverted on its plane serene,
Dim gleaming through the filmy sheen
That glaz'd the painted show;

Perchance, to mark the fisher's skiff
Swift from beneath some shadowy cliff
Dart, like a gust of wind;
And, as she skimm'd the sunny lake,
In many a playful wreath her wake
Far-trailing, like a silvery snake,
With sinuous length behind.

Not less when hill and dale and heath
Still Evening wrapt in mimic death,
Thy spirit true I prov'd:
Around thee, as the darkness stole,
Before thy wild, creative soul
I bade each faery vision roll,
Thine infancy had lov'd.

Then o'er the silent sleeping land,
Thy fancy, like a magick wand,
Forth call'd the Elfin race:
And now around the fountain's brim
In circling dance they gaily skim;
And now upon its surface swim,
And water-spiders chase;

Each circumstance of sight or sound
Peopling the vacant air around
With visionary life:
For if amid a thicket stirr'd,
Or flitting bat, or wakeful bird,
Then straight thy eager fancy heard
The din of Faery strife;

Now, in the passing beetle's hum
The Elfin army's goblin drum
To pigmy battle sound;
And now, where dripping dew-drops plash
On waving grass, their bucklers clash,
And now their quivering lances flash,
Wide-dealing death around:

Or if the moon's effulgent form
The passing clouds of sudden storm
In quick succession veil;
Vast serpents now, their shadows glide,
And, coursing now the mountain's side,
A band of giants huge, they stride
O'er hill, and wood, and dale.

And still on many a service rare
Could I descant, if need there were,
My firmer claim to bind.
But rest I most my high pretence
On that my genial influence,
Which made the body's indolence
The vigour of the mind.

And now, in accents deep and low,
Like voice of fondly-cherish'd woe,
The Sylph of Autumn sad:
Though I may not of raptures sing,
That grac'd the gentle song of Spring,
Like Summer, playful pleasures bring,
Thy youthful heart to glad;

Yet still may I in hope aspire
Thy heart to touch with chaster fire,
And purifying love:
For I with vision high and holy,
And spell of quick'ning melancholy,
Thy soul from sublunary folly
First rais'd to worlds above.

What though be mine the treasures fair
Of purple grape and yellow pear,
And fruits of various hue,
And harvests rich of golden grain,
That dance in waves along the plain
To merry song of reaping swain,
Beneath the welkin blue;

With these I may not urge my suit,
Of Summer's patient toil the fruit,
For mortal purpose given:
Nor may it fit my sober mood
To sing of sweetly murmuring flood,
Or dies of many-colour'd wood,
That mock the bow of heaven.

But, know, 'twas mine the secret power
That wak'd thee at the midnight hour
In bleak November's reign:
'Twas I the spell around thee cast,
When thou didst hear the hollow blast
In murmurs tell of pleasures past,
That ne'er would come again:

And led thee, when the storm was o'er,
To hear the sullen ocean roar,
By dreadful calm opprest;
Which still, though not a breeze was there,
Its mountain-billows heav'd in air,
As if a living thing it were,
That strove in vain for rest.

'Twas I, when thou, subdued by woe,
Didst watch the leaves descending slow,
To each a moral gave;
And as they mov'd in mournful train,
With rustling sound, along the plain,
Taught them to sing a seraph's strain
Of peace within the grave.

And then, uprais'd thy streaming eye,
I met thee in the western sky
In pomp of evening cloud;
That, while with varying form it roll'd,
Some wizard's castle seem'd of gold,
And now a crimson'd knight of old,
Or king in purple proud.

And last, as sunk the setting sun,
And Evening with her shadows dun
The gorgeous pageant past,
'Twas then of life a mimic shew,
Of human grandeur here below,
Which thus beneath the fatal blow
Of Death must fall at last,

Oh, then with what aspiring gaze
Didst thou thy tranced vision raise
To yonder orbs on high,
And think how wondrous, how sublime
'Twere upwards to their spheres to climb,
And live, beyond the reach of Time,
Child of Eternity!

And last the Sylph of Winter spake;
The while her piercing voice did shake
The castle-vaults below.
Oh, youth, if thou, with soul refin'd,
Hast felt the triumph pure of mind,
And learnt a secret joy to find
In deepest scenes of woe;

If e'er with fearful ear at eve
Hast heard the wailing tempests grieve
Through chink of shatter'd wall;
The while it conjur'd o'er thy brain
Of wandering ghosts a mournful train,
That low in fitful sobs complain
Of Death's untimely call:

Or feeling, as the storm increas'd,
The love of terror nerve thy breast,
Didst venture to the coast;
To see the mighty war-ship leap
From wave to wave upon the deep,
Like chamois goat from steep to steep,
'Till low in valley lost;

Then, glancing to the angry sky,
Behold the clouds with fury fly
The lurid moon athwart;
Like armies huge in battle, throng,
And pour in volleying ranks along,
While piping winds in martial song
To rushing war exhort:

Oh, then to me thy heart be given,
To me, ordain'd by Him in heaven
Thy nobler powers to wake.
And oh! if thou with poet's soul,
High brooding o'er the frozen pole,
Hast felt beneath my stern control
The desert region quake;

Or from old Hecla's cloudy height,
When o'er the dismal, half-year's night
He pours his sulph'rous breath,
Hast known my petrifying wind
Wild ocean's curling billows bind,
Like bending sheaves by harvest hind,
Erect in icy death;

Or heard adown the mountain's steep
The northern blast with furious sweep
Some cliff dissever'd dash;
And seen it spring with dreadful bound
From rock to rock, to gulph profound,
While echoes fierce from caves resound
The never-ending crash:

If thus, with terror's mighty spell
Thy soul inspir'd, was wont to swell,
Thy heaving frame expand;
Oh, then to me thy heart incline;
For know, the wondrous charm was mine,
That fear and joy did thus combine
In magick union bland.

Nor think confin'd my native sphere
To horrors gaunt, or ghastly fear,
Or desolation wild:
For I of pleasures fair could sing,
That steal from life its sharpest sting,
And man have made around it cling,
Like mother to her child.

When thou, beneath the clear blue sky,
So calm no cloud was seen to fly,
Hast gaz'd on snowy plain,
Where Nature slept so pure and sweet,
She seem'd a corse in winding-sheet,
Whose happy soul had gone to meet
The blest Angelic train;

Or mark'd the sun's declining ray
In thousand varying colours play
O'er ice-incrusted heath,
In gleams of orange now, and green,
And now in red and azure sheen,
Like hues on dying dolphin seen,
Most lovely when in death;

Or seen at dawn of eastern light
The frosty toil of Fays by night
On pane of casement clear,
Where bright the mimic glaciers shine,
And Alps, with many a mountain pine,
And armed knights from Palestine
In winding march appear:

'Twas I on each enchanting scene
The charm bestow'd that banish'd spleen
Thy bosom pure and light.
But still a nobler power I claim;
That power allied to poets' fame,
Which language vain has dar'd to name—
The soul's creative might.

Though Autumn grave, and Summer fair,
And joyous Spring demand a share
Of Fancy's hallow'd power,
Yet these I hold of humbler kind,
To grosser means of earth confin'd,
Through mortal sense to reach the mind,
By mountain, stream, or flower.

But mine, of purer nature still,
Is that which to thy secret will
Did minister unseen,
Unfelt, unheard; when every sense
Did sleep in drowsy indolence,
And Silence deep and Night intense
Enshrouded every scene;

That o'er thy teeming brain did raise
The spirits of departed days
Through all the varying year;
And images of things remote,
And sounds that long had ceas'd to float,
With every hue, and every note,
As living now they were:

And taught thee from the motley mass
Each harmonizing part to class,
(Like Nature's self employ'd;)
And then, as work'd thy wayward will,
From these with rare combining skill,
With new-created worlds to fill
Of space the mighty void.

Oh then to me thy heart incline;
To me whose plastick powers combine
The harvest of the mind;
To me, whose magic coffers bear
The spoils of all the toiling year,
That still in mental vision wear
A lustre more refin'd.

She ceas'd — And now in doubtful mood,
All motionless and mute I stood,
Like one by charm opprest:
By turns from each to each I rov'd,
And each by turns again I lov'd;
For ages ne'er could one have prov'd
More lovely than the rest.

"Oh blessed band, of birth divine,
What mortal task is like to mine!"—
And further had I spoke,
When, lo! there pour'd a flood of light
So fiercely on my aching sight,
I fell beneath the vision bright,
And with the pain awoke.

[Boston (1813) 11-45]