224 Spenserians. James Gray's romance in four cantos takes as its backdrop the defeat of a Welsh army by a Roman legion. Though set in Wales and Ireland, Cona is a very Scottish poem, as sweet as Beattie's The Minstrel but with Scott's descriptive specificity and something of James Macpherson's melancholy. Describing the fall of Druidical civilization, it contributes to the "last man" sequence that includes, in addition to Ossian, Campbell's more recent Gertrude of Wyoming which is probably the chief model. James Gray is of some interest as he knew Robert Burns and tutored his children and was married to James Hogg's eldest sister; after some time teaching in Ireland he spent his later years as a clergyman and translator in India. The author's first work, Cona was anonymously published and received less attention than it deserved. While at work on Cona, Gray recommended that Hogg undertake The Queen's Wake (1813), which of course proved much more successful.
John Wilson to James Hogg: "I know of Cona. It is very creditable to our excellent friend, but will not sell any more than the Isle of Palms or The White Doe [of Rylstone]" September 1815; in Mary Wilson Gordon, Christopher North (1862; 1894) 130.
Monthly Review: "It is not often that we see the stanza of Spenser better managed than in the anonymous tale of Cona. The basis of the poem is a love-story, coincident with the invasion of Mona by the Romans; and, if it be not abounding in probabilities, it is yet sufficiently productive of poetical situations and descriptions, while the language throughout is elegant and appropriate, with but few exceptions. The modest shape and announcement of this meritorious composition form a pleasing contrast to the pompous nothings which the muse of the day so incessantly brings forth; and we certainly have no more welcome employment in the discharge of our critical functions, than that of contributing to call into notice such productions as the unassuming manner of their publication would otherwise too often doom to comparative obscurity. As to the tale itself, it has no complicated contrivance that can demand analysis; and, where all is smooth and easily developed, a full accont of the incidents and characters is neither requisite nor desirable" 79 (February 1816) 135.
Mervyn, a venerable Druid, has a lovely daughter, Cona, who plays upon the harp and is loved by a handsome youth named Meredyth, a foundling that the Druid has raised from infancy: "She was the fairest maid where all were fair, | And he the boldest youth where all were taught to dare" p. 28. The first canto describes their upbringing and romance in a happy and remote natural paradise. The Druid, however, is troubled by a vision of destruction and Cona likewise experiences strange forebodings on the eve of her marriage.
No more Britannia's ancient lyre is heard.
That to the lay of love or glory rung,
On Cambrian mountains silent sleeps the bard,
With vulgar shades unhonoured and unsung;
Long has the harp of Hoel lain unstrung,
Who struck the wire to more than mortal strain,
Far on the breeze the charmed numbers flung,
That bade forgotten ages bloom again,
Waking the warrior's dust to join the deathless train.
All hushed the harp, save by the midnight hill
When fairies flit athwart the lunar bow,
Or sail in bark of moonshine down the rill,
Or wander on the meteor to and fro,
In fair ethereal vestment white as snow;
They chaunt the strain they loved to hear of yore,
Giving the chords with melody to glow.
The gifted bard who tracks the mountain boar,
Enchanted lists the tone, and ah! 'tis heard no more.
Oh! while I trace the Clwyd's haunted stream,
To gaze on monument of elder fame,
May fair-winged Fancy light a wizard beam,
To lead me to the fount of holy flame!
Not that I dare to ask a poet's name;
No, all I crave is Nature's kindly glow,
(A prayer that merits nor reproof nor blame)
To chase my bosom's deeply-rooted woe,
And sooth my sorrowing soul, while untaught numbers flow.
For I have closed the eye of many a friend,
With chilling care have struggled long in vain,
Have seen the hopes that rose so fair, descend
In disappointment, misery, and pain.
By treachery my heart is rent in twain,
Love's early blossoms wither in the grave,
My bark is wrecked on life's tempestuous main;
Yet heaven has pleased my lyre alone to save,
Of all the joys my youth in bright profusion gave.
Spring with fresh flowrets beautified the plain;
Before her smile the storms of winter fled
To northern caves, nor longer vexed the main;
Through air the sun celestial radiance shed,
With carpet of rich green the earth was spread,
The trees were clothed in garb of brightest hue,
Waving their fragrant blossoms overhead,
Sparkling like pearls or sapphires in the dew;
The warblers winged with love to bowers of pleasure flew.
Yet all the forms that Nature's pencil drew,
Languished when Mervyn's peerless child was nigh;
Her eye was ether's mild unsullied blue,
Her locks the fleeces of the orient sky;
Her cheek had drunk the pure carnation's dye,
That blushed upon a ground of stainless snow;
Her bosom with the eider-down might vie,
And in her virgin heart emotions glow,
That Angels might not blush on heav'nly thrones to know.
When from his golden lattice in the sky
The Sun looked forth with light to bless mankind,
The Druid viewed him with a moistened eye,
Pouring the wishes of a father's mind,
That never might misfortune's blighting wind
On heart of Cona blow with influence chill,
But by his beam her soul might be refined
From mortal stain and dregs of earthly ill,
And rise to virtue's sphere, and all his hopes fulfil.
A straggling lock of age's silver grey
Around his brow seemed mournfully to wave,
His eagle eye was pregnant with a ray
Of thought that years matured by wisdom gave;
Though weak his arm, his counsels strong to save
In danger, still he was his country's rock
That stemmed the tide, when Desolation's wave
Rush'd o'er her fields, or like the mountain oak
That lifts its boughs unscathed amid the tempest's shock.
His was the prophet's venerable mien;
A beard of snow descended o'er his breast,
The seal of early temperance was seen
Indelibly on every limb impressed.
Beloved by all, he was supremely blessed;
His was the hand to give, the heart to feel,
The tear oft shed in secret for the oppressed,
The bosom burning for his country's weal,
And lights of lore from heaven that fates of man reveal.
To him the influence of the stars was known,
That in the sky their holy vigils keep,
Marching sublimely up the golden zone,
Or hastening downward o'er the western steep,
To bathe their dewy tresses in the deep.
The wanderings of the moon he well could trace,
Whether she in her darkened chambers sleep,
Or like an Angel shew her heavenly face,
Or shoot a sidelong beam with coy retiring grace.
He knew the countless fays that wing the sky,
That heave on high the billows of the main,
Or deep in emerald beds below that ply,
To suck them to their sunless caves again;
That fork the lightning and distil the rain,
That rock the central pillars of the world,
That hang the pendent earth on viewless chain,
That launch stern Winter's tempest flag unfurled,
While down the ravaged globe is desolation hurled.
When he approached, even kings and heroes rose,
To give the man of virtue honour due;
His presence quelled the rage of listed foes,
From fields of death on wing of sanguine hue,
Afar the Fury of the battle flew;
No longer streamed with blood the rusty lance,
No foeman dared the combat to renew,
Quenched was the cloud of war as when perchance
The star of day dispels the tempest's dun expanse.
Yet oft he taught the warrior's heart to glow
When Freedom called her children forth to fame.
The meed that songs of victory bestow,
A country's gratitude and warm acclaim,
The immortal wreath, the imperishable name
That flourishes for aye beyond the tomb,
Where never cheek is stained with blush of shame,
But glory shines on high in youth and bloom,
Brightens as ages roll, and triumphs over doom.
He held communion with the powers on high,
Who blaze on thrones of uncreated light,
In regions far beyond the starry sky,
Whence visions poured upon his ravished sight,
Compared to which the flaming vault of night
Were but the darkness of a dreary den,
Whence radiant beings wing their ceaseless flight
On messages of love to holy men,
Fairer than aught conceived by youthful fancy's ken.
When Evening's eye was wet with tears of dew,
Like a lone mourner veiled in weeds of grey,
The rites of fond affection to renew,
The Druid and his daughter took their way
To mountain brow, where Emma's ashes lay
Beneath the cromlech that aspired to heaven,
Who only lived to bless the sacred day,
That to her lord a lovely babe was given,
Then smiling slept in death like setting star of even.
In prime of beauty's spring as Cona grew,
A tender woe o'er Mervyn's spirit fell,
Noting the semblance of that eye of blue,
Which bound his youthful heart in magic spell,
Beneath the shade of Clwyd's sylvan dell;
The golden ringlets waving in the wind,
The taper arm, the snowy bosom's swell,
The form, the grace, by Memory's finger twined,
With links of adamant, around his widowed mind.
While lone they sat above the world, sublime,
By Emma's tomb, the Druid would relate,
With starting tear, the chance and change of time,
The spoils and ruthless ravages of fate,
The mind's decay, and beauty's short-lived date.
The crumbling wrecks of ages long gone by,
The eventful story of the good and great,
Under the mountain cairn whose ashes lie
A monument of woe, beneath the pitying sky.
Of mingled joy and sorrow was the theme;
The morn that whispers hope, — the night of fear,—
The hues of bliss that vanish like a dream,—
The parent bending o'er a daughter's bier,
Who yesterday was blooming like the year
When roses spring, — and fortune's darkened hour;
And while the moon-beam lighted Cona's tear,
The old man gazed till fancy's forming power
Brought Emma down in love from heaven's ambrosial bower.
Then sudden starting from extatic trance,
"Thou seest," he cried, "those glorious stars that shine,
Like angels blazing in the blue expanse—
Beyond that glowing pole, in seats divine,
The righteous shine in youth without decline,
In brightness that transcends the mid-day sun.
And oh! my Cona! may the lot be thine,
To soar on high, thy race of suffering run,
And earn the immortal crown by Virtue's children won!
"For thee, my child, thy father soon must leave,
Amid a world of wretchedness and woe;
My sun of life is set, the tints of eve
Are fading fast and soon will cease to glow;
But in thy course of goodness inward go,
Wipe Sorrow's tear and sooth Affliction's pain,
Exalt Misfortune's victims lying low,
Diffuse thy charities like summer rain,
So shall we meet above, no more to part again."
Thus did the hours on Wisdom's pinions fly,
While Cona learned, with fond and pious care,
To read a parent's wishes in his eye,
To sooth the ills of age with duty rare,
To run before his wants with kindness fair.
Her soul's endeavours were approved and blest,
For self-congratulation flourished there;
And oft, to lull the woes of life to rest,
She sung the simple airs she knew he loved the best.
With skilful hand she swept the trembling wire,
Of Cambria's ancient story was the song;
Her swelling voice, responsive to the lyre,
The silver stream of music poured along;
On Mervyn's saddened soul, in visioned throng;
The illustrious shades of glory's children rose,
For fate had cast him evil days among:
Life's morning dawned in peace, at evening's close
He saw his country plunged amid a sea of woes.
Oft listening to her lay appeared a Youth:
His clustering locks were of the raven's dye,
His eye the star of honour and of truth,
His manly form was perfect symmetry;
A model of fair Nature's imagery,
Compared to which the sculptured Parian stone
Wrought by the chisel's cunning witchery,
In semblance of Apollo on his throne, beauty were outdone.
His front sublime, the mirror of a mind
That well such glorious garniture might suit,
And with a generous gallantry combined
The richest store of intellectual fruit,
The immortal germ, and Wisdom's heavenly shoot,
That raised him far above the vulgar horde,
As souls of common mould excel the brute;
To Virtue's highest pinnacle he soared,
Where by her worshippers the goddess sits adored.
At Freedom's wrongs, warm Indignation's flush,
Strong from the throbbing pulses of his heart,
Across his crimson cheek was seen to rush,
The lightning from his eagle eye to dart;
The dewy tear spontaneously to start
At Pity's tender tale of human woe;
When Glory called to act the hero's part,
Young Honour's fair enthusiastic glow
Shone beaming like a star upon his radiant brow.
A veil of mystery his birth obscured,
That Mervyn sought to penetrate in vain;
No embassy, repeated oft, procured
The knowledge which he long desired to gain.
What land embosomed by fair Albion's main,
Or isle had seen the stranger's natal morn,
What hill or valley heard him first complain,
By what unkindly fate the babe was torn,
From a fond mother's arms almost a soon as born.
Now twenty springs had wept the balmy dew,
Since Mervyn, as he to the green-wood sped,
Beheld a sleeping infant full in view,
Beside his path upon a grassy bed,
O'er which the wild rose hung its lovely head
His face was lighted by the dawn of day,
A radiant wreath of blended flowrets shed
On his soft cheek a fair reflected ray,
Where smiles like meteors shone, and flitting passed away.
The Druid loved the foundling as his child,
And called him Meredyth, an honoured name;
His foster-house, a cottage in the wild,
By woods embower'd; his nurse, a gentle dame,
Of sage experience and of meikle fame,
Who watched his helpless years with constant care;
Of tender heart and true to Nature's claim,
With fond delight she saw him flourish fair,
Like a green plant that drinks the dews of vernal air.
With curious eye the matron loved to trace
The earliest dawnings of immortal mind,
The intellectual glance, the blushing grace,
That leaves the painter's baffled art behind,
Around the soul by Nature's hand entwined
The wondrous links of Memory's golden chain,
That holds the bright ideas well combined,
Obedient to the will, a brilliant train,
The rudiments of thought and embryo Fancy's reign.
Full well she knew to scatter Virtue's seed,
In fair profusion o'er the fruitful heart,
To pluck betimes rank Vice's poisoned weed,
That soon with deepening root would mock her art;
To act the Mentor and companion's part,
To lure to knowledge, while she seemed to play.
And, grave Instruction's formal looks apart,
To teach the youth to walk in wisdom's way,
Which she would fondly paint in hues of opening day.
O lovely woman! man's unvarying friend,
Thy soothing accents hush his infant wail,
Thy ever-wakeful eyes on age attend,
When the warm pulse of life begins to fail;
To chase the cloud of care thy smiles avail,
In danger faithful as the turtle dove,
The star that gilds the gloom when woes assail;
Thy gentle bosom is the home of love,
The heaven of bliss below, the paradise above.
The Druid loved to polish Nature's gem,
The jewel of the soul that fairer glows
Than aught that sparkles on the diadem
Of monarch, or that Indian mine bestows.
And frequent as the breeze of morning blows,
To cot of Meredyth his footsteps bend,
When sky-larks, springing from the dewy rose,
In spacious temple of the sky contend
In untaught harmony, and holy matins blend.
The sage preceptor taught his eye to roll
Wide o'er the galaxy of British fame,
Kindling the flame of Freedom in his soul,
By pointing to the ray afar that came,
From star emblazoned by the Patriot's name,
Who filled applauding nations with his story;
Of deeds that gained his country proud acclaim:
The boy was often led to Carnehd hoary,
To dress the stone with flowers where virtue sleeps in glory.
Then full in view a portraiture he placed,
Where mourned Britannia, of her laurels shorn,
To see the lustre of her fame effaced,
Her sires and sons by destiny o'erborne,
Her maidens broken-hearted and forlorn,
Her sucklings murdered on the mother's knee,
To distant lands her captive monarchs borne,
Her Druids slain beneath the sacred tree,
Her matrons languishing in long captivity.
The tears that Mervyn's mournful picture drew
From eye of Meredyth in copious shower,
With kindly influence as the morning dew
Distilling fragrance on the opening flower,
Water the fruitful soil in genial hour,
Where virtue's tender buds begin to blow,
Whose full maturity defies the power
Of withering fortune, and unsullied glow
The sweetest rose that gilds the wilderness below.
Then taught the Druid how the infant earth,
And sparkling orbs of heaven, from Chaos sprung,
What time, to celebrate the wondrous birth,
Their golden harps ten thousand angels strung,
And starry spheres responsive numbers rung;
By zephyrs touched, the organ of the sky
Blending its tones with ocean's murmurs, sung
A strain of wildest, sweetest harmony,
To Nature's furthest bounds, in grand sublimity.
He sung the destinies of virtuous men,
Who climb by glorious deeds the steep of heaven;
The joys beyond imagination's ken,
To spirit of the youthful patriot given,
Who falls to save a land by faction riven;
The coward's soul degraded to a frog,
Or timid hare by ceaseless dangers driven,
Condemned to flit a bat, or roam a dog,
To prowl a villain fox, or grunt a filthy hog.
Thus sped on wing of joy the hours of youth,
While Mervyn and the dame their cares unite,
To stamp the yielding soul with love of truth,
In virtue's characters so fair and bright,
That no calamity might dim their light,
Which like the rainbow from the tempest shine,
From stormy trial lovelier to the sight,
Where gentleness and energy combine
Kind Pity's glow, and flame of Liberty divine.
Amid the majesty of Clwyd's vale,
The forms of Nature charmed the enthusiast's eye,
Where beauty and sublimity prevail,
To elevate the soul to extacy.
To lonely solitudes the youth would hie,
And linger long in mute astonishment
To view the mountain mingling with the sky,
The eagle's unmolested tenement,
The bulwark of the brave and freedom's battlement.
At every glance he caught a new delight;
Green hills were glittering in the golden ray,
Winding through vales with matchless verdure bright,
The Clwyd like a silver baldric lay;
The streamlet seemed through greenwood glade to play,
A living line of undulating fire;
The rushing torrent fell in pearly spray;
Above, in forms grotesque, the cliffs aspire,
Below, in deep recess, the fairy dells retire.
Where scarce the hanging goat a footing finds,
On ridge sublime romantic woodlands hung;
The giant oak was waving in the winds,
And o'er the abrupt his mantling branches flung;
The mountain ash his starry clusters strung,
The trembling birch was weeping in the gale,
The hardy pine in fadeless verdure swung,
Upshot his tall straight stem the poplar pale,
Seen through the morning mists, as masts o'er ocean sail.
Stretched on the beetling cliff, he loved to see
The silver duck careering o'er the lake,
The sooty teal disporting merrily,
Now lost, now seen, his evening pastime take;
The springing trout his widening circles make
On the smooth crystal of the sun-light stream,
Below reflected groves their foliage shake,
On mountains that in glassy lustre gleam,
And skies whose gold-fringed clouds a softened radiance beam.
In early youth he was the first in fame,
With nervous arm to bend the sturdy yew,
Winging the sounding shaft with deadly aim,
That from the red deer's side life's currents drew;
The black-cock, as he shook the drops of dew
From glossy pinions, springing from the heath,
Arching his graceful neck of jetty hue,
His eye enchased in gold, in airy path,
Dreaming of joy and love, found instantaneous death.
But the love-beam that lighted Cona's eye,
Kindled the glow of rapture in his heart,
Waking a sweeter thrill of extacy,
Than all the joys that Nature's charms impart;
The smile that spoke the soul devoid of art,
The bosom's sympathies ne'er felt in vain,
The conscious sigh, the tears that frequent start,
Brightening Affection's ray-in every vein
The pulse that throbbed delight, gave bliss unmixed with pain.
In years of infancy the lovers bloomed,
Fair as twin buds that blossom on a tree,
The self-same sports their kindling eyes illumed,
From flower to flower they chased the heather bee,
Or gathered shells of silver by the sea,
Or built their house of pebbles on the shore,
Their hearts to pleasure dancing merrily;
Wondering they listened to the ocean's roar,
Or gazed on feathery fringe the curling billows bore.
In all his childish fits of waywardness,
She was the beaming lodestar of his eye;
When she appeared in native gentleness,
The cloud of sorrow passed, the tear was dry,
And all was merriment and gaiety;
She for his brow a flowery garland strung;
Beneath the light of pleasure's summer sky,
By fits they walked or ran or laughed or sung,
While to their madrigals the vocal echoes rung.
When weary day reposed on Ocean's breast,
Blending the emerald's green and burnished gold,
Lulling the gently swelling waves to rest,
Making melodious murmurs as they rolled,
Oft would they sit and watch the evening close
Of Heaven's ruby gates, or list the plaintive lay
Of silver harp, struck by some minstrel old,
Or Cambrian maiden's native roundelay,
Or woodland serenade that charmed the parting rays
For not even summits of Parnassus heard
Around his rocks in sweeter strains to flow,
From sounding shell of heaven-created bard,
The hero's glory or the lover's woe,
Than princely Snowdon from his peaks of snow;
Nor even renowned Ilissus on his wave,
That beams for aye in Fancy's sunlight glow,
Bore more delightful notes than streams that lave
Fair Clwyd's sylvan vale and lonely mountain cave.
When every wizard glen and haunted lake,
To magic numbers heard the echoes start,
That from their slumbers joyful seemed to wake
In melody, — the bard's harmonious art
Linked the fine chords of feeling round the heart,
Teaching the tear of sympathy to flow,
The shafts of love from beauty's eye to dart,
The hero's soul, with thoughts sublime to glow,
Soothing with sweetest fall the mourner's silent woe.
As yet no blood distained the heather-bell,
Nor primrose blooming by the mountain stream;
Save purple drops from wounded hart that fell,
No sounds of woe disturbed the poet's dream,
Nor sight that might his visions ill beseem;
No houseless poverty was heard to wail,
But all beneath the star of Freedom's beam
Was native merriment; in every vale,
The song of Liberty, the lover's whispered tale.
'Twas thus in vernal joy the seasons flew,
Dropping on Meredyth and Cona's head
The dews of love, and, as their stature grew,
Sweet sympathy the mutual passion fed
In souls to virtue's generous feelings led,
By nature and by education's care,
While sex alone a ray of difference shed:
She was the fairest maid where all were fair,
And he the boldest youth where all were taught to dare.
A wilderness of sweets before them lay,
In hues that bloom of Eden's bowers restored,
Where young imagination led the way,
A paradise of pleasure unexplored,
With flowers and fruits of gold profusely stored,
To gratify each sense and feed the soul;
A world of bliss where virtue was adored,
Where love and friendship reigned without controul,
And on their guileless hearts no fears of evil stole.
Oh! if a ray of heaven descend on earth,
'Tis when in spring of life love's kindling flame
Refines the virtues as it gives them birth,
Exalting and ennobling every aim,
Making by kindly glow two souls the same,
Where every feeling finds an answering chord,
That sweetly vibrates through the thrilling frame,
Unmarred by strife and jealousy abhorred,
While every word and thought and joy and grief accord.
The moon with mellow ray now ruled on high,
Fair empress of the night! before the wane
Should quench her orb still changing in the sky,
The day was fixed to bind the nuptial chain,—
A dream of bliss, but not unmixed with pain;
A pleasing sadness reigned in Cona's heart,
She could not from the tear of joy refrain,
Yet oft in sorrow spent the day apart,
Giving a vent to woes but ill concealed by art.
Yet was she blessed, but 'twas excess of bliss,
By which her gentle heart was overpowered,
And though she knew her fancies were amiss,
She feared the buds of hope might be defloured,
And down her cheeks the tears in torrents poured;
And still as nearer drew the bridal day,
A darker boding on her bosom lowered,
To anxious thoughts her spirit was a prey;—
From love the pang arose, in love she found her stay.