1785
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ode to Superstition.

Poems: consisting chiefly of original Pieces. By the Rev. John Whitehouse, of St. John's College, Cambridge.

Rev. John Whitehouse


John Whitehouse's ode is presented as "A College exercise, Nov. 5th, 1785." The poem commemorates the attempt by Guy Fawkes to blow up James I and his Parliament in 1605: "'Tis done, 'tis done, a fury cry'd, | As faintly flash'd the lightning's gleam, | The cell, the nit'rous grain I spy'd, | I snuff'd the sulphur's murky steam" p. 34. Cambridge University was traditionally hostile to Catholics, though Whitehouse cloaks his sentiments behind some decorous allegory. His stanza is most peculiar, consisting of mostly octosyllabic quatrains with an internal couplet and a three-foot line at the close, creating an appropriately dizzy effect.

The poem was published in 1787 in a collection arranged by genres: Elegies, Odes, Sonnets, and Inscriptions. In 1794 Whitehouse published Odes Moral and Descriptive, the title of which suggests the admiration for William Collins already visible here: the Ode to Superstition reads like a cento of Shakespeare and Milton, Gray and Collins.

Town and Country Magazine: "This is a production of genius improperly managed" 19 (November 1787) 509.

Gentleman's Magazine: "These Poems are ushered into the world with a numerous List of Subscribers. They consist of Elegies, Odes, Sonnets, and Inscriptions; and though some passages breathe a fine spirit of poetry, they are balanced by so many others, trivial, frigid, and incorrect, that, upon a general view, the volume is rather beneath than above mediocrity" 58 (November 1788) 993.

English Review: "The Poems now before us, half a century ago, would have procured to the author no ordinary name among the votaries of the muse; but poetical subjects have been so much exhausted of late years, that many pieces in this collection, though written with good taste, and in elegant language, can now only be considered as among the common places of poetry" 11 (January 1788) 18.



I.
Daughter of Ate, pow'r accurst!
Whose right hand waves a bloody rod,
Whom bigot Rage and Frenzy nurst,
And bow'd thee to a tyrant's nod:
Sullen Goddess! at whose shrine
Oft' the innocent have bled,
Oft' the sons of freedom's line
Have sunk amongst the dead;
Where'er amidst the cloister'd gloom,
And shades of ignominious Rome,
Perplex'd in Error's mazes blind,
Thy devious footsteps ling'ring stray;
Grim-visag'd Horror stalks behind,
And Murder marks his way.

II.
Indulg'd by thee in southern climes
What deeds of darkness have been done:
Secret treasons, horrid crimes,
Which ne'er beheld the sun;
Moon-struck Madness, frantic Fear,
Follow, follow, in thy train,
Despair, that drops an iron tear,
And Anguish wild that knaws his chain:
The wretch who flies to thee for aid,
When Death's dread shafts his soul invade,
Shall find thou hast no pow'r to save,
Aghast, he views th' eternal shore,
Sighs for the refuge of the grave,
And sinks, to rise no more.

III.
Ha! see amid yon deep'ning gloom
What forms in long procession rise,
Ascending from the yawning tomb,
And upwards hast'ning to the skies.
Heard you not how firm they stood,
And all the tyrant's rage defy'd,
How they steep'd their robes in blood,
How they triumph'd, how they died?
Victorious over Death and Time,
In ev'ry distant age and clime,
Their names shall live, to Mem'ry dear,
For ever fair their virtues bloom;
And oft' with many an holy tear,
Sweet Pity dew their tomb.

IV.
But lo! on Britain's sea-girt shore,
What woes her wretched sons await,
What dire events portentous low'r,
Big with impending fate;
O'er the nobles of the land,
O'er mighty James's royal head,
Unknown, unseen, some wizard hand,
The woof of destiny has spread;
Where is the sun's all chearing light?
His golden orb is lost in night;
Swift pace the night-steed to their goal,
Dim thro' the dusk the stars appear,
Horror seizes on the soul,
And spirit-quenching Fear.

V.
Hell from beneath hath heard a sound,
Loudly thrice, and thrice it call'd,
Her shaggy caverns trembled round,
The King of terrors heard appall'd;
'Tis done, 'tis done, a fury cry'd,
As faintly flash'd the lightning's gleam,
The cell, the nit'rous grain I spy'd,
I snuff'd the sulphur's murky steam:
Back thro' all th' infernal bound,
Hell reverb'rated the sound;
Dire Expectation then was seen
Along the infernal coast,
With haggard look, and frantic mien,
To glide — a pensive ghost!

VI.
'Tis o'er, the hour of darkness dread,
Sudden the frowning tempest past;
As o'er yon distant mountain's head
The light cloud flies before the blast;
Britain's guardian pow'r shall shield
The fav'rite isle that owns her aid,
Attend her heroes to the field,
And save from harms when foes invade:
But haste thee, Superstition, far
Where Slaughter rolls his rapid car,
Amongst the dying and the dead;
Or 'midst some howling desart dwell,
Or with the furies make thy bed,
And meditate thy spell.

VII.
Britain's guardian, pow'r benign!
Still on her rocks thy station keep,
To guard her sea-girt isle be thine,
To roll her thunders o'er the deep:
Nor thou, fair Piety, disdain
In heav'n-born Freedom's seat to dwell,
With Virtue, native of the plain,
With Science in her letter'd cell;
While Truth reflects your beams combin'd
On the clear mirror of the mind—
And often to your hallow'd shrine
The muse some votive gift shall bring,
And Fancy, nymph of birth divine,
Around your altars sing.

[pp. 31-36]