1802
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Crooked Sixpence. In imitation of Phillips's Splendid Shilling.

Gentleman's Magazine 72 (May 1802) 446-47.

M.


A verse character signed "M" of (it seems) the master of an academy for young women. There is little Miltonic burlesque in the poem, and perhaps rather a surfeit of unconnected descriptive details: the poor schoolmaster's chief cares in life seem to be getting enough to eat and finding time to write his poetry. He dreams at night of becoming laureate and drinking sack instead of small beer. The Crooked Sixpence is a belated contribution to what had earlier been a busy genre, and as such seems to have picked up themes and images from later poems, among them Elizabeth Pennington's Copper Sixpence and the long series on literary poverty and education. The novelty here is the presentation of the schoolmaster as victim rather than victimizer. The poet was a reglar contributor to the Gentleman's Magazine at this time.

James Bramston had previously used this title for a different Philips imitation, published in 1743.



Happy the school-girl, who, exempt from cares
That cloud each future project, and elate
With present blessings, heedless of the morrow,
Boasts, in the corner of her pocket hid
In ribbon purse, or that yclept balloon,
Of red morocco, and with clasp of steel,
A crooked sixpence: — she with pleasure hears,
At evening's closing hour, the punctual call
Of cake and tart-woman. — If here, indeed,
Within these gloomy walls where beauty buds,
Like blushing roses in the desert air,
A tart-woman admittance finds, nor fear'd,
As vent'rous knight disguis'd in mean attire,
If such her cruel fate, how doubly blest
To watch the happy moment, when, unbarr'd
The massy gates grate harsh discordant sounds,
And steal, unseen and silently along,
To where the well-known shop inviting spreads
Its varied treasures. — Here with eager eye
She views the sweet assemblage, doubtful which
To call her own, or where to fix her choice;
Whether the Macaroon more charms can boast
Propt on its silv'ry base, or Ratafia
Call'd Matrimony, as uniting in itself
The bitter with the sweet; or Custard rich
With lucious cream, and India's choicest spice
Thickly o'erspread, whose high-indented walls
Look like a mural crown: on all she dwells
With rapture, and enjoys the quick repast.
While such her stol'n delight, how diff'rent far
My hapless fate, compelled by adverse times
To try my aching grinders 'gainst the strength
Of dry and salted Cod; or else to dine
On hard-boil'd dumpling of coarse sifted meal,
Nor this my sole complaint; — for while I sit
Beneath my humble roof, and court the Muse
(The Muse who smiles with pity on the poor,
And scorns the pride of riches), or indite
Epistles breathing forth a brother's love;
As thus intent I write, quick rushes in,
With grisly beard and filthy unkempt hair,
A lounger — worst of thieves, the thief of time,
And this the worst of loungers. Down he drops
On the first vacant seat, and thence begins
His ceaseless senseless prattle — how of late
Wheat had advanc'd, what crops of peas he grew,
How much his bullocks cost, and how he hop'd
A London market amply would repay:
Next he enlarges on his wondrous feats
Perform'd in early youth, what leaps he took
Before th' astonish'd field, and how he left
The proudest hunters lagging far behind.
Stunn'd by his thund'ring voice, I answer nought
But umph! and ah! and with averted eyes
Now ken the fire, and now direct my looks
To the unfinish'd paper. — Not a hint,
Alas, he takes, but scrapes his dirty shoes
Upon the polish'd fender, nor regards
The housewife's cleanly care. He cocks his hat
In careless stile, and launches out again
On prodigies perform'd; what miles he rode
(More to the credit of his beast than him)
Without a pause. Exhausted I meanwhile,
Cease to attend, and give my thoughts full play.
At length each subject to the very dregs
Drawn out, wearied, or anxious to retail again
His vast atchievements at another's door,
He spits and clears his throat, and then retires.
So pass my morning hours — nor happier
The howling mongrel, to whose tortur'd tail
Some wicked wit a canister has hung,
Or puff'd up a bladder fill'd with rattling peas;
When first a friendly post, or pointed nail,
Or deeply piercing thorn, affords relief,
And frees him from the incumbrance.
Quickly round
He turns his head, with sharp erected ears
And looks of gratitude, but nought descries;
No cause of joy or torment; yet he barks
A note of extacy, rolls o'er and o'er,
And wonders greatly at this sudden change.
Just so reliev'd, I quit my elbow chair
With sudden spring, and pace my humble floor
With many a giant-stride: I seem to breathe
A purer air, and feel myself again
A free-born man, and monarch of a shed:
But when chill evening o'er the wearied world
Unfurls her dusky veil, bids labour cease,
And whispers comfort to the poor man's heart;
Then, when 'midst higher orders lustres glare,
When Play-houses and Operas abound
With all the charms that art and nature boast,
I strive to husband well my frugal fire
With gather'd chips and sifted cinders heap'd.
Around my little family are plac'd,
With looks of joy, nor murmur when I cut
With sparing hand from off the coarse brown loaf,
(Ah! now how dearly priz'd) th' allotted share.
Retir'd to rest, (and slumbers soon o'ertake
The tranquil mind,) I then begin to feel
A new existence: Fancy, wont to play
The flatt'rer's part, then quickly conjures up
A diff'rent scene of things — fresh honours
Instead of dead small-beer I deeply drink,
Forgive, O Pye, the thought! thy gen'rous sack;
I feel myself a Poet, and aspire
E'en at thy envied crown. But when I thus
In agitation seize thy proffer'd boon,
Away the phantom flies, the thread is snapt,
I grasp at air, and find the whole a dream.
So (as those tales record which, when a boy,
I read with ceaseless rapture and delight)
Some simple maiden, in her frothing pail
Sees all her future greatness; skips with ease
O'er intervening years, to when she hopes
Th' accumulating gain must surely bring
A Lady's title and a Lady's air:
Exulting at the thought, she apes too soon
Each proud demeanour, and with scornful foot
O'erthrows the source whence gilded prospects rise:
Aghast she views the milky deluge spread
It's foaming tide around, and, dire mischance!
Sees honours, titles, fortune, vanish all
In smoke, and irretrievable despair.

[pp. 446-47]