1768
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

An Elegy wrote under a Gallows.

An Elegy wrote under a Gallows. With a Preface concerning the Nature of Elegy.

Dr. Hugh Downman


Thirty elegiac quatrains, burlesquing Thomas Gray's Elegy written in a Country Churchyard. The poem opens with a gothic description of the scene, followed by moral reflections in which, as in Gray's original, the lowly and the great are placed on a level: "The murd'rer deaf to pity's whisp'ring breath, | Had he been born a ruler of mankind, | Haply o'er half the globe had scatter'd death, | And nations prais'd his high heroic mind" p. 13. Downman's Elegy is a contribution to a series of Gray imitations concerned with criminals and the legal system.

The poem is not signed, though Walter Hamilton's anthology of parodies identifies the author as "Hugh Downman, A.B." and locates the place of publication as Edinburgh, where Downman was then residing (1884-89) 5:43. But the title page specifies "London: for the Author," without giving a date. The old DNB essay on Downman assigns the poem to Downman, but give the place of publication as London, dating it 1775. Perhaps the best authority is W. H. K. Wright, West-Country Poets (1896) 158-59, which attributes the poem to Downman, though is not collected elsewhere in the poet's works. Within the space of two months, Lloyd's Evening Post printed excerpts from both the Elegy and Downman's Land of the Muses.

Critical Review: "This is no mean imitation of Gray's Church-Yard Elegy; but written in ridicule of that celebrated performance" 25 (June 1768) 465.

Monthly Review: "Here is a ludicrous bard, sporting in Elegy, and laughing at the tears of poor mournful Melpomene. His particular aim is to ridicule some of our modern elegiac poets. The style of a very celebrated ode is thus taken off.... The preface to this little piece of solemn humour contains an ironical encomium on those 'happy genii,' who, he says, have brought 'to its acme this species of composition.' — 'With what delight,' he adds, do I reflect on the ivy-mantled towers, the gloom-enveloped bowers, the cloud-aspiring hills, the gently-tinkling rills, the soul-enchanting lass, the saint-encyphered glass, and all the store of compound epithets with which our scanty language has by this means been enriched! Then, moreover, what 'apt artful alliteration!' and the precept beautifully introduced, pleasure and instruction walking so lovingly hand in hand together'" 39 (1768) 164-65.

Compare the "Elegy upon a Murderer hanging in Chains" in Parker's General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer (19 May 1783), "Elegy under a Gallows" Edinburgh Magazine or Literary Miscellany NS 2 (November 1793) 400, and The Grave of the Convict: An Elegy (1817).



Dun-vested Twilight now along the sky,
With tardy-moving pace, begins to creep;
Toward their solemn gloom-wrap'd mansions fly
The ebon rooks, spread o'er the mountain steep.

And now from Stygian cave, would haggard night
Throw her deep horrors o'er the shuddering ground,
Did not pale Cynthia give a lurid light
Through the thick clouds which gird th' horizon round.

Soul-sad'ning stillness lulls the pensive air,
Save that from far, with awe-impressing knowl,
The swinging bell keep stated time I hear,
Slowly-responsive to the clamant owl:

Now, melancholy musing, takes her fill,
Alone from distant home doth she remain,
With faintly-falling foot winds up the hill,
Or plods along the solitary plain.

Where this bald barren spot of earth expands,
Deck'd with no shade of plant, or flow'rets smile,
Rear'd by some skill-conducted artist's hands,
A gallows frowns, a terror-striking pile.

Full of the nurse, his fell of hair erect,
The late returning school-boy dreads to pass;
And far around (unless her swain protect)
Wanders the rural simple-minded lass.

Yet underneath does contemplation sit,
Leaning her cheek against the dewy post;
And tho' the moisture down her bosom flit,
She heeds it not, in deep reflection lost.

How many hapless mortal beings here,
In hempen string, have dangled out of life,
Ne'er laid upon the consecrated bier,
But given to the surgeon's ruthless knife!

Some, whose blank minds, no spark of mercy knew,
To horrid deeds of desperation slow,
And driv'n by hot-brain'd frenzy not a few,
To lift their hands, and strike the fatal blow.

Here pettyfogging forgery has oft
Its due desert, and last sad tremors felt:
Here window-scaling elves have swung aloft;
And rape has dy'd, for deeds he never dealt.

Here thieves of every size, and every sort,
Who, once firm-joined in many a social gang,
Dar'd with the legislative pow'r to sport,
At various times, in various numbers hang.

Of graceful mein the highway-robber, here,
Who, mounted bravely on his gallant steed,
Could a whole caravan half-kill with fear,
Nor youth can save, nor valour's hardy deed.

Yet not unmourn'd, he pass'd along the road,
On the slow-dragging cart exalted high,
Caught by his form, the virgin's bosom glow'd,
And tearful pity stole into her eye.

Ah! why would she behold this dismal sight?
Ah! why her young unharden'd breast expose?
Beside her couch, all the dead hours of night,
His ghost shall stand, and banish her repose.

But curiosity with fluttering wing,
Idle awakener of the human breast,
Perhaps of knowledge too the fruitful spring,
In every human bosom reigns confest.

Lost to itself th' incurious shade,
Some novel scenes th' excursive mind requires,
Confin'd the active principle would fade,
Its ardour wasted, and extinct its fires.

Hence birth-night balls, and coronations proud,
Hence wax-work puppets draw the gazing eye,
Hence the Lord May'r's and his processive crowd,
And hapless thieves whose destiny is nigh.

Nor you ye rich, and haughty of the earth,
Look on these humble lays with eye askance;
Perhaps you owe to accident and birth,
That you not share with them their airy dance.

The murd'rer deaf to pity's whisp'ring breath,
Had he been born a ruler of mankind,
Haply o'er half the globe had scatter'd death,
And nations prais'd his high heroic mind.

The statesman, planted in their meaner sphere,
Untouch'd the wealth of an impoverish'd land,
The nightly thiev'ry with superior share
Of deep-directing policy had plann'd.

For sunk in low estate, the Fates deny'd
To them the broken laws, and venial sin,
Safe by the whirl the larger vessels ride,
Whose waves devouring draw the smaller in.

Of nice dependencies is form'd the scale,
Each imperceptible gradation just,
From those who scarce may breathe the common gale,
To those who perpetrate whate'er they lust.

For me, howbeit a sagely-singing wight,
These mysteries to others I consign,
Enough for me, that, in this dusky night,
The melancholy garland I intwine.

Enough for me, that, while I tune the lay
In which these ill-starr'd suff'rers I bemoan,
My thoughts pace dark reflections mazy way,
And their sad exit warns me of my own.

Yes, all must drink the draught which death shall pour,
Nor I'll my loitering lips in vain refuse,
Yet come when will the courage-chilling hour,
Kind Heav'n forbid my dying in my shoes!

Ye soft Parnassian maids defend your bard,
Nor let him to his grave go down with shame;
He doth not feel one wish by dying bard,
Among th' applauding crowd to gain a name.

Should you your sacred care remove, alas!
And meagre hunger urge him to a crime,
Should dire necessity bring this to pass,
And he be blasted in his vernal prime:

This on his grave be writ, that all may view:
Here lyes a luckless youth, whose ready quill
The fairy face of nature nicely drew,
And wrote quaint elegies with matchless skill:

But ah! by these he earn'd a scanty fare,
Though fraught with genius they were cast aside,
He hir'd a purse, he could not feed on air,
And, rather than by famine perish, dy'd.

Great Rogues may thrive — and candour's self must own,
Strong the temptation was, and small the fault;
Be then to time his virtues only known,
The cause and manner of his death forgot.

[pp. 9-15]