1791
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lines, addressed as a Tribute of Gratitude to the Subscribers in General.

Genuine Poetical Compositions on Various Subjects. By E. Bentley.

Elizabeth Bentley


Elizabeth Bentley concludes her volume with an ode to Gratitude in eight quatrains. Since the collection consists almost entirely of descriptive and allegorical odes, this mode of addressing her patrons was perhaps predetermined. Despite her uncommon metrical facility, Bentley was self-taught and in this poem sets forth the literary and social boundaries her poetry was negotiating, with a verse catalogue of English poets (Pope, Gray, Thomson, Shakespeare, Milton) that, assuming the posture of pastoral simplicity, she declines to emulate: "since unerring Fate's divine decree | Has fix'd my lot to sing in humbler strain, | I'll sound the simplest shell, content to be | The last and lowest of the tuneful train." The list omits William Collins, who is the poet Bentley does in fact emulate, here as elsewhere.

To address subscribers directly was not a common practice, though it underscores the economic basis that enabled autodidacts to like herself to publish. Patrons would not fund the volume directly, but would canvas their acquaintance for subscriptions, making the project a community endeavor. Bentley's Norwich was a particularly proud literary community at this time. The volume is prominently dedicated, above its title, to "Wm. Drake, Jun. Esq. M.P." Drake (1748-1795) was the representative for Agmondesham (1768-95).

The book is prefaced by a portrait of the young, plain-faced, plain-dressed poet in a mob cap; it was redone for her second volume, published thirty years later, with the author adopting the same garb and the same posture, rather like the famous "aging" portraits of Robert Burton on the frontispiece of the Anatomy of Melancholy.



What glorious vision charms my wond'ring sight!
A Goddess with benignant smile appears;
Her graceful form, attir'd in robes of light,
And in her hand a rural pipe she bears.

'Tis Gratitude! I know the heav'nly Maid!
Whose bosom's with ecstatic feelings fraught;
Love and respect are in her mien display'd,
Her anxious looks express each inmost thought.

Receive, she cries, receive this pipe, and play
Such sounds as I shall dictate to thine ear;
For lib'ral deeds demand thy noblest lay,
Such lays as Angels might with pleasure hear.

Spare me, bright Goddess! how shall words impart
Thy glowing sentiments which fire my breast?
Such shining, gen'rous deeds o'erwhelm my heart
With transports, ah! too great to be exprest.

O! had I POPE'S or GRAY'S harmonious lyre,
O'er Nature's paths with THOMSON could I tread,
Or catch one vivid ray of SHAKESPEAR'S fire,
Or follow where seraphic MILTON led.

Then would my Muse expand her ardent wings,
And far beyond these nether regions soar;
Drink deeply at Parnassus' hallow'd springs,
And Fancy's airy heights with ease explore.

Then, led by chearful Hope, unaw'd by Fear,
I'd bend a constant vot'ry at thy shrine;
Such notes as thou should'st whisper to mine ear,
Should breath melodious through the flowing line.

But since unerring Fate's divine decree
Has fix'd my lot to sing in humbler strain,
I'll sound the simplest shell, content to be
The last and lowest of the tuneful train.

[pp. 67-69]