1772
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

An Elegy on the Death of a Country Sexton.

Weekly Magazine or Edinburgh Amusement 16 (9 April 1772) 50-51.

M.


Twenty elegiac quatrains, signed "M—, I—re, April 2." The poem presents the verse character of Colin, a gravedigger: "Oft have I seen him at the shut of eve, | Or when the lark fresh hail'd the op'ning morn, | Begin his doleful task with courage brave, | And skulls and coffins carefully upturn" p. 51. The poem imitates Thomas Gray's famous Elegy written in a Country Churchyard, though it may also owe something to James Beattie's The Minstrel, the first book of which had appeared in 1771. M—, for example, echoes what was perhaps Beattie's most famous line: "Indeed he was a strange and simple wight | Few sextons did, and spoke, and liv'd as he" p. 51. Beattie had made verbal allusions to Gray's poem, and later imitations of The Minstrel would often imitate Gray as well as Beattie.

M— has another poem in the manner of Gray, "Ambition: an Elegy" in the Weekly Magazine for 17 July, though it lacks the verbal allusions.



Alas! and will the grave voracious yawn,
Incessantly poor mortals to devour?
With pois'nous arrows from his quiver drawn,
Will death triumphant still extend his pow'r?

No art can shield us from the fatal blow,
No hand can save us from the bed of death,
No charm can keep us from such scenes of woe,
No pow'r can stay the last, the parting breath.

Ah see! on yon funereal bed is laid,
While round his weeping friends his fate bewail,
The Sexton — strange! had Death his friend betray'd?
Could nought his former services avail?

Smile not in proud disdain, ye wealthy great,
Who little know but vanity and strife,
While I, in elegiac verse, relate
The actions of poor Colin's honest life.

Hard by the lone church-yard his cot arose,
A snug retreat, an humble peaceful shed,
Near where yon yew-tree spreads its chearless boughs,
And waves them o'er the mansions of the dead.

Oft have I seen him at the shut of eve,
Or when the lark fresh hail'd the op'ning morn,
Begin his doleful task with courage brave,
And skulls and coffins carefully upturn.

Oft have I heard him, leaning on his spade,
Midst monuments that tell who lie below,
Rehearse the actions of the prostrate dead,
Who spoke and acted near an age ago.

"Near sixty years have run their ample round,"
With sorrow's mein he solemnly would say,
"Since I commenc'd the digger of this ground,
Since first I op'd a grave for human clay.

"In this neglected spot how many lie,
Who deem'd it wisdom great to live unknown,
Whose gen'rous bosoms often heav'd the sigh,
And wept for ills of others not their own.

"There are the young, just like the tender flow'r,
Nip'd in the bud by some relentless storm;
Soon did they feel disease's sick'ning pow'r,
Too soon did death their fairest frame deform!

"Here modest lovers drop no parting tear,
Nor know love's sweets, nor pangs of black despair;
The blushing tints of beauty disappear,
Like flow'rets wither'd in the desart air.

"In that addition to the sacred fane,
There sleep forgotten those of mighty name,
Midst trophies of renown, how poorly vain!
What can avail the empty breath of fame?

"All these and many more, in sad array,
I've seen consign'd to dark oblivion's cell,
Lent an assisting hand the rites to pay,
And toll'd (as duty call'd) the deathful knell.

"These died, we hope, in other worlds to bloom;
Death put a period to their days of woe;
They left their sorrows in the clay-cold tomb,
The tomb — where you and I, and all must go."

Such mournful thoughts as these he would disclose:
For Colin from his trade improv'd his mind;
The paths of virtue and religion chose,
And left each scene of folly far behind.

Indeed he was a strange and simple wight
Few sextons did, and spoke, and liv'd as he;
Tho' fortune smil'd not with allurements bright,
Yet at his lot from murm'ring he was free.

One day in sev'n well did he sound the bell
That calls the pious to the house of pray'r;
But now, alas! I hear its solemn knell
Invite the mourners to attend his bier.

The grave, made by a brother of the trade,
Has now receiv'd his breathless, mould'ring dust;
Let no rude foot the sacred place invade,
Or dare disturb his silent, hov'ring ghost.

Now rests his body in the lone church-yard,
Which oft his feet with dismal pace have trode;
His soul, by dwelling with the dead prepar'd,
Now lives for ever happy with its God.

These unconnected lines, the peaceful muse
(No epitaph she can or had to give)
To Colin's merit as an offering views,
And in them hopes his memory will live.

[pp. 50-51]