1785
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Elegy written at Florence.

Elegy written at Florence.

William Parsons


Twenty elegiac quatrains, signed "W. P., September 2, 1785." William Parsons' poem criticizing the burial practices imposed on the Florentines is the oddest of the many eighteenth-century imitations of Gray's Elegy. Parsons unconsciously and disastrously inverts Gray's sentiments: in a common grave, he worries, the aristiocracy will suffer the indignity of mingling with the poor, and the meek virgin will fall into "the worn Prostitute's lascivious arms." Then there is the absence of marble memorials: "No sculptur'd trophies of heroic deeds | Allure to Glory's path admiring Youth." Hasty burials also involve particular risks: "Perhaps some victim from the seats of day | Too soon is hurried by precautions dire, | Perhaps too late shall wake the sleeping clay, | And struggling with oppressive mould expire."

The "Morai" of the sixteenth stanza is glossed as "The name of the Funeral Monuments in Otaheite. See Cook's Voyage." The geographical reference in the first stanza is from William Collins: "This poetical use of the old Tradition of England having been once join'd to the Continent, which is confirm'd by the correspondence of the two coasts, has been already made by Collins in his Ode to Liberty." The place of publication, given as Geneva, is probably a fabrication intended to elude the censors. William Parsons, the most obscure of the original Della Cruscan poets, would be the chief contributor to the Florence Miscellany, also published in 1785.

Author's note: "Elegy on the Burying place call'd Campo Santo made lately about three miles from Florence on the road to Bologna. After the useful rites being perform'd in the churches, the bodies remain in a house near the gate of the City till midnight, when they are carried on mules in boxes made for that purpose to this place of interment, where they are deposited three in a grave, without coffins or any further ceremony. There is not distinction of persons, nor are the Nobility allow'd private vaults, or even the privilege of being buried at their country houses; their discontent may be conceiv'd, but all remonstrances are in vain; and whatever may be the pretence of it's expediency to prevent distempers, many people will be apt to impute this tyrannical proceeding to the levelling principles of the Austrian family — A number of beautiful Villas near the road are deserted on account of the horror it occasions" p. 3.

Roderick Marshall: "This poem was written on the occasion of the grand duke's decreeing that all his subjects, high and low, should, for the sake of hygiene, be buried together, nameless, two or more in a grave, without monument or consecration. It begins with a night picture of the unhonored dead being conveyed by ruffians on mules to a form of burial unworthy of South Sea islanders" Italy in English Literature 1755-1815 (1934) 181.



In that blest Isle by Heav'n's high favor born,
Whose cliffs the subject billows vainly beat,
From the main land by strong convulsions torn,
To form for Freedom a belov'd retreat,

Oft as thro' other climes I musing stray,
The dews of Pity fill my melting eyes,
For those who, trampled by despotic sway,
Restrain their murmurs, and subdue their sighs.

Beneath the yoke how sad FLORENTIA bends!
Her sons escape not with the loss of breath,
E'en then fell Tyranny his rod extends
That waves new horrors o'er the realms of Death.

Lo! where amid the dreary APPENINES
Whose barren tops the meeting skies assail,
Where scatter'd olives, and unfruitful vines
Bow their weak heads beneath the sighing gale;

When Night's dark wings the mournful scene enfold,
On mules, unconscious of their silent load,
The huddled Dead's unhonour'd relics cold
Are borne unseemly o'er the lonely road.

No long procession pours the pious song,
No sable hearse displays it's nodding plume,
No kind domestics move in grief along,
And with funereal torches gild the gloom.

Perhaps some victim from the seats of day
Too soon is hurried by precautions dire,
Perhaps too late shall wake the sleeping clay,
And struggling with oppressive mould expire.

The startled Trav'ler views with honest rage
The face where late superior Beauty smil'd,
The wasted form of once reverend Age,
By some rude hireling's ruffian hands defil'd.

In earth's dread bosom undistinguish'd thrown,
No closing rites in decent state are paid;
No weeping friends their lost companion own,
When dust to dust is finally convey'd.

Shall the meek Virgin's pure untasted charms,
The manly breast that felt another's grief,
Meet the worn Prostitute's lascivious arms,
Or niggard hands which never gave relief?

Shall the rapt Bard, who pour'd th' immortal lay,
With Vice and Dulness in one Grave unite?
Oh 'twere enough to warm th' indignant clay,
And stop th' ascending spirit in it's flight!

Thither in vain, impell'd by wild despair,
The wretched Widow, and the Orphan fly;
Alas! no monumental stone is there,
To mark the spot where their protectors lie.

No holy text, no warning sentence, feeds
The thoughtful Moralist with wholesome truth,
No sculptur'd trophies of heroic deeds
Allure to Glory's path admiring Youth.

Degen'rate Age! when on the banks of NILE,
Early matur'd, fair Science rear'd her head,
On the cold corpse was spent her patient toil,
And ARABY'S rich gums embalm'd the Dead.

When the proud Sceptre, and high-sounding Lyre
Bade ROMAN breasts with vast ambition burn,
The valued Ashes, purified by fire,
Drew frequent tears upon the storied Urn.

The simple natives of the late-found isles,
Where some lost friends attract their frantic way,
With fond attachment view the rustic piles,
Sooth'd by the honors of the known MORAI.

Shall then th' unfeeling AUSTRIAN'S stern commands
To quell these sacred sentiments presume,
While with the name of Prejudice he brands
The Charities that glow beyond the Tomb?

Thus might rebellious sons be taught to fly
The long obedience which they owe their sires,
Thus be dissolv'd chaste wedlock's dearer tie,
And all that Habit adds to Nature's fires.

But sooner far must cease that slavish awe
The humbled Vassal to his Tyrant pays;
Crumble that edifice which Pow'r and Law
On weak Convention's base so strongly raise.

Then tremble Thou, lest soon th' impatient throng
Tear the vain crown from thy too impious head;
Ne'er can the LIVING be respected long,
Who teach their subjects to despise the DEAD!

[pp. 3-8]