1787
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Elegy written in a Church-Yard in South Wales, 1787.

Poems by William Mason, M.A. Vol.III. Now first published.

Rev. William Mason


26 elegiac quatrains: the sight of the humble flowers blooming on the gaves in a Welsh graveyard provokes William Mason to the reflection that where ignorance is virtue, 'tis folly to be wise — and to a liberal defense of the remnants of Celtic superstition: "Unfeeling Wit may scorn, and Pride may frown; | Yet Fancy, empress of the realms of song, | Shall bless the decent mode, and Reason own | It may be right — for who can prove it wrong?" p. 58. Mason offers his poem as a kind of appendix to Gray's Elegy written in a Country Churchyard.

Author's note: "Although I run the risque of imputed vanity, I am induced to add here, the opinion of a too partial Friend concerning the foregoing Poem; but shall only extract from out the specific differences which occurred to him when he compared it with another of a very similar title. And this I do merely to obviate a prejudice which some readers might take to it, as supposing from the title and subject that I wrote it to emulate what I am as ready to own as they are is inimitable. 'Your Elegy (says this Gentleman) as it relates to a particular and local custom in South Wales, must of course little resemble Mr. GRAY'S, which is purely of a general kind. He laments the departed Peasants; you compassionate those that lament them: He places their former occupations in an honourable light; you view, in an amiable one, the weakness of their surviving Friends: In the former Elegy we find the Dead considered with respect to what their possible situation while living might have been, with all the advantages of knowledge; in the latter the living are endeavoured to be consoled for the want of it. In the general Church-yard of the one, Contemplation is more widely extended; in the other particular one, Concern is more nearly impressed. His verse inspire a solemnity which awes and arrests the mind; your's breathe a tenderness which softens and attracts the heart: There are stanzas in GRAY'S Elegy of what, I venture to call, sublime melancholy; in your's of extreme sensibility. — It is a curious circumstance that the Writer of the former should be introduced into both these Elegies, but certainly, as reality is superior to fiction, in a more pathetic manner in the latter. The locality of your scene enabled you to open with a picturesque description, which, besides contrasting strongly with the place of interment, is copied from nature, and animated with expression." — I will add that it was not so much for the sake of this kind of contrast that I gave the elegy such an exordium, as to make it appear a day scene and as such to contrast it with the twilight scene of my excellent Friend's Elegy" pp. 58-59n.

John Aikin: "Of the elegies, one written ten years ago, in a church-yard in South Wales, on the custom in that country of planting sweet herbs and flowers on the grave of a relation, will give pleasure to every reader of sensibility; although it is not finished with all the polish expected in elegiac verse" Monthly Review NS 22 (April 1797) 439.

Analytical Review: "The second elegy relates to a local custom among the peasants in South Wales, that of planting field flowers and sweet herbs on the graves of their relations and friends; it was written in a church yard, but totally different from that exquisite inimitable poem of Mr. Gray, so well known by the same title; nor had Mr. M. the least intention to emulate the elegy of his friend, but, as he has informed us in a note, his own is made a day-scene, and as such, he wished to contrast it with the twilight of Mr. Gray" 25 (February 1797) 163.



From southern Cambria's richly-varied clime,
Where Grace and Grandeur share an equal reign;
Where cliffs o'erhung with shade, and hills sublime
Of mountain lineage sweep into the main;

From bays, where Commerce furls her wearied sails,
Proud to have dar'd the dangers of the deep,
And floats at anchor'd ease inclos'd by vales,
To Ocean's verge where stray the vent'rous sheep:

From brilliant scenes like these I turn my eye;
And, lo! a solemn circle meets its view,
Wall'd to protect inhum'd Mortality,
And shaded close with poplar and with yew.

Deep in that dale the humble Fane appears,
Whence Prayers if humble best to Heaven aspire;
No Tower embattled, no proud spire it rears,
A moss-grown croslet decks its lonely choir.

And round that Fane the Sons of Toil repose,
Who drove the plough-share, or the sail who spread;
With Wives, with Children, all in measur'd rows,
Two whiten'd flint stones mark the feet and head.

While these between full many a simple flow'r,
Pansy, and Pink, with languid beauty smile;
The Primrose opening at the twilight hour,
And velvet tufts of fragrant Chamomile.

For, more intent the smell than sight to please,
Surviving Love selects its vernal race;
Plants that with early perfume feed the breeze
May best each dank and noxious vapour chase.

The flaunting Tulip, the Carnation gay,
Turnsole, and Piony, and all the train
That love to glitter in the noontide ray,
Ill suit the copse where Death and Silence reign.

Not but perchance, to deck some Virgin's tomb,
Where Violets sweet their twofold purple spread,
Some Rose of maiden blush may faintly bloom,
Or with'ring hang its emblematic head.

These to renew, with more than annual care
That wakeful Love with pensive step will go;
The hand that lifts the dibble shakes with fear
Lest haply it disturb the Friend below.

Vain Fear! for never shall Disturber come
Potent enough to wake such sleep profound,
Till the dread Herald to the Day of Doom
Pours from his Trump the world-dissolving sound.

Vain Fear! yet who that boasts a heart to feel,
An eye to pity, would that fear reprove?
They only who are curst with breasts of steel
Can mock the foibles of surviving love.

Those foibles far beyond cold Reason's claim
Have power the social Charities to spread;
They feed, sweet Tenderness! thy lambent flame,
Which, while it warms the heart, improves the head.

Its chemic aid a gradual heat applies
That from the dross of self each wish refines,
Extracts the liberal spirit, bids it rise
Till with primaeval purity it shines.

Take then, poor Peasants, from the friend of GRAY
His humbler praise; for GRAY or fail'd to see,
Or saw unnotic'd, what had wak'd a lay
Rich in the pathos of true poesy.

Yes, had he pac'd this church-way path along,
Or lean'd like me against this Ivied wall,
How sadly sweet had flow'd his Dorian Song,
Then sweetest when it flow'd at Nature's call.

Like Tadmor's King, his comprehensive mind
Each plant's peculiar character could seize;
And hence his moralizing Muse had join'd,
To all these flow'rs, a thousand similies.

But He alas! in distant village-grave
Has mix'd with dear maternal dust his own;
Ev'n now the pang, which parting Friendship gave,
Thrills at my heart, and tells me he is gone.

Take then from me the pensive strain that flows
Congenial to this consecrated gloom;
Where all that meets my eye from symbol shows
Of grief, like mine, that lives beyond the tomb.

Shows me that you, though doom'd the livelong year
For scanty food the toiling arm to ply,
Can smite your breasts, and find an inmate there
To heave, when Mem'ry bids, the ready sigh.

Still nurse that best of inmates, gentle swains!
Still act as heartfelt sympathy inspires;
The taste, which Birth from Education gains,
Serves but to chill Affection's native fires.

To you more knowledge than what shields from vice
Were but a gift would multiply your cares;
Of matter and of mind let Reasoners nice
Dispute; be Patience yours, Presumption theirs.

You know (what more can earthly Science know?)
That all must die; by Revelation's ray
Illum'd, you trust the Ashes placed below
These flow'ry tufts, shall rise again to Day.

What if you deem, by hoar tradition led,
To you perchance devolv'd from Druids old,
That parted Souls at solemn seasons tread
The circles that their shrines of clay enfold?

What if you deem they some sad pleasure take
These poor memorials of your love to view,
And scent the perfume for the planter's sake,
That breathes from vulgar Rosemary and Rue?

Unfeeling Wit may scorn, and Pride may frown;
Yet Fancy, empress of the realms of song,
Shall bless the decent mode, and Reason own
It may be right — for who can prove it wrong?

[pp. 53-58]