1785
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Roland. A Fragment.

The Florence Miscellany.

Robert Merry


In Robert Merry's gothic fragment Sir Roland "dares to war | The potent Wizard of the shadowy car." We hear nothing more of the Wizard, though in its short length the poem contains several echoes of the more gruesome passages in the Faerie Queene, notably an initial encounter with "A pensive Damsel, deck'd with robes of gold" who proves to be a Duessa figure: "The knight observed her with astonish'd eye, | And much he wish'd, but more he scorn'd to fly: | For as the breeze assail'd her gorgeous vest, | The opening folds disclos'd a putrid breast. | Nearer he comes, and marks, depriv'd of skin, | Her haggard jaws display a direful grin" p. 138. Rejecting her proffered affection, Sir Roland is borne by a magical bark to a lonely tower whose terrors recall the adventures in Busyrane's castle.

Author's note: "To excite horror by description has already succeeded in Mr. Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto, and in the Sir Bertrand of Mrs. Barbauld, the above is an attempt of the same kind in verse, though the author is very sensible that the jingle of rhime must in a great measure destroy the effect" p. 141n.

Headnote in Diary, or Woodfall's Register: "It abounds with terrific imagery, in strong and flowing numbers, and though an early effort of his imagination may be classed with the best of his later Productions. Some passages are uncommonly fine, as we doubt not the Critical Reader will readily acknowledge, and admit also that the whole bears testimony of a vigorous an active fancy" (22 July 1791).

Roderick Marshall: "Merry's use of epic poets seems to have been confined to paraphrasing Ariosto's description of Fraud in the poem called Il viaggio, and to a chivalric fantasy, perhaps based on Boiardo, called Sir Roland, a Fragment, in which a specter tries to frighten the hero with tales of a haunted castle.... See the adventure of the Castle of Altaripa in the Orlando innamorato" Italy in English Literature 1755-1815 (1934) 185-86 & n.



. . . the Knight with starry shield,
Chas'd the gigantic spoiler from the field:
But soon each sorrow of this soul returns,
With jealous rage, and fierce revenge he burns,
Spurs his fleet courser on in wild despair,
And calls aloud his violated fair.
Now midnight reign'd, and thro' the troubl'ous skies
The sharp hail drives, and yelling blasts arise;
Yet brave Sir Roland with unslacken'd force,
O'er the lone heath pursues his eager course;
With curses rends the air, and dares to war
The potent Wizard of the shadowy car.
Far off he view'd a solitary light,
Whose paly lustre pierc'd the gloom of night,
Thither the love-lorn Hero bends his speed,
While mountains answer to the neighing steed.
Soon as arriv'd, his wond'ring eyes behold
A pensive Damsel, deck'd in robes of gold,
Where mingling di'monds their effulgence shed,
With pearl's modest white, and ruby's red.
Beneath an aged cypress she reclin'd,
A pendant lamp was waving in the wind,
That scatter'd far, a melancholy gleam,
And ting'd the watry waste with feeble beam,
For near, an Ocean roar'd, and dash'd around
It's foamy billows, with terrific sound.
And ever and anon was heard the cry
Of shipwreck'd men in dying agony.
At his approach she starts, then lifts her veil,
And shows a sunken visage ghastly pale;
On the intrepid Knight, her languid gaze
Intently fixes, and at length she says,
"The wish'd-for hour is come, by fate's decree,
And thou shalt traverse yonder deep with me,
The bark attends, and lo! the wanton gale
Swells the soft bosom of th' impatient sail.
Then linger not, but all-enraptur'd share
The promis'd bliss, nor mourn thy ravish'd fair;
I love thy manly form, thy youthful face,
Admire thy valour, and adore thy grace.

The knight observed her with astonish'd eye,
And much he wish'd, but more he scorn'd to fly:
For as the breeze assail'd her gorgeous vest,
The opening folds disclos'd a putrid breast.
Nearer he comes, and marks, depriv'd of skin,
Her haggard jaws display a direful grin:
Onward she goes, by incantation's laws
Th' amaz'd Sir Roland unresisting draws,
"Here leave thy steed, she cries, and never more,
Shalt thou behold him on this hated shore.
But gentlest joys th' approaching hours await,
And beauty spreads for thee her couch of state."
Then beck'ning mounts the bark, the knight obeys,
Nor quits her guiding lamp's unhallow'd rays.

Soon as the vessel cuts the foamy tide,
Around strange spectres, and fell monsters glide.
One bathed in tears rose from the liquid bed,
With the soft semblance of a Virgin's head,
Thrice waved her hand, and shook her sedgy hair,
And heav'd a piteous sigh, and cried — "beware!"
Next came an aged Seer, whose feeble breath,
Could scarcely utter, "Knight beware of death;"
Then plunging downward in a serpent's form,
They curl'd the surges like an angry storm.
Now thousand other grisly shapes were seen,
Rolling their fiery eyes the waves between;
Here shrieking maidens felt the forc'd embrace,
There murder laugh'd, and show'd his guilty face.
A moment after all was hush'd, and o'er,
And such portentous phantoms threat no more.

But now the female at Sir Roland's side,
Who silent long the dauntless youth had ey'd
With foul grimaces, on a sudden press'd
The knight abhorrent to her mangled breast.
Strove with the winning voice of love to speak,
And laid her bare scull on his lily cheek;
Imprints the bony kiss, and fain would win
The chaste Sir Roland to the dreadly sin.
But when she finds not magic art inspires
The wild commotion of unholy fires,
Observes him shrink beneath her love's excess,
And turn in anguish from the loath'd caress.
Starting she left him, and in fury cried,
"O knight accurs'd! thou soon shalt rue thy pride,"
Then siez'd her lamp, and scowling with disdain,
Sought the calm bottom of the roaring main.

Dark was the night, and o'er the pathless way,
With rapid force the ship appear'd to stray.
In vain the youth with eye attentive seeks
The first faint dawning of the eastern streaks;
But all was hopeless, and no glimm'ring light
Gave the wish'd earnest of departing night.
Now to a shore the bark quick-striking came,
And as the shock sent forth a sudden flame,
The Hero leaps upon th' uncertain strand,
And lifts his unsheath'd sword with desp'rate hand.
While slow he trod this desolated coast,
From the crack'd ground uprose a warning ghost,
Whose figure all-confus'd was dire to view,
And loose his mantle flow'd of shifting hue;
He shed a lustre round, and sadly press'd
What seem'd his hand upon what seem'd his breast;
Then rais'd his doleful voice, like wolves that roar
In famish'd troops on Orcas' steepy shore,
"Approach yon antiquated tow'r," he cried,
"There bold Rinaldo, fierce Mambrino died:
Thou too, perchance, shalt tread the self-same road,
Approach, (so fate commands) the dark abode."
The knight advancing struck the fatal door,
And hollow chambers send a sullen roar.
As slow it opens, there appears a page,
With limbs of pliant youth, and face of age.
"Welcome he cried, from dangers thou hast shar'd,
The banquet's ready, and thy bed prepar'd:"
Thro' winding passages the knight he leads,
And often sighs, and often tells his beads;
Stops at an entrance stain'd with blood, and said
"Accept brave youth, the banquet and the bed."
Then screaming loud he vanish'd from the sight,
And the bell toll'd amid the silent night.
Sir Roland enters, where throughout the room,
One taper shows the melancholy gloom;
And rudely hanging by her twisted hair,
A slaughter'd female's starting eye-balls glare,
While from the curtain'd bed such groans arose,
As spoke the anguish of severest woes,
And smote his heart. . . .

[pp. 137-41]