1802
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Aaron; or, the Flights of Fanaticism. Canto I.

The Spirit of Anti-Jacobinism for 1802: being a Collection of Essays, Dissertations, and other Pieces, in Prose and Verse, on Subjects Religious, Moral, Political, and Literary; partly selected from the Fugitive Publications of the Day, and partly Original.

Rev. Richard Polwhele


A satire on Methodism composed as a Spenserian burlesque in three cantos (32 + 28 + 24 stanzas). Richard Polwhele explains in his preface that Sir Aaron was refashioned from a longer poem called The Saint's Progress or the Mysteries of Methodism in seven cantos, in a variety of measures. The larger poem was announced for publication in 1820 but was not issued; see Boase and Courtney, Bibliotheca Cornubiensis (1874-82) 2:517. Sir Aaron, the Spenserian burlesque, is modeled primarily upon William Julius Mickle's The Concubine, since retitled Sir Martyn (1767, 1777) along with the common source, James Thomson's Castle of Indolence (1748) — Fanaticism being the antithesis of Indolence.

Polwhele's poem, however, is largely lacking in the rich description and Spenserian mannerisms of its originals. The work of refashioning The Saint's Progress as a Spenserian burlesque thus seems to have been done hastily and imperfectly. The narrative is a mere prop for a splenetic diatribe against spleen, sustained by quoting copiously from The Saint's Progress in the notes. Only the second canto of Sir Aaron was reprinted, limiting the circulation of this malevolent and ill-spirited poem to this obscure anthology.

James Hurdis to William Gifford (writing of The Saint's Progress): "His mottos, and his quotations, are particularly apt and striking; and in the canto which appears to be written in imitation of Spenser, there is fancy and imagination not unworthy of Spenser. But sometimes, perhaps, the ridicule intended loses its effect, from its being offensively indelicate. Neither, as a whole, is it sufficiently compressed and compact" 8 January 1800; in Polwhele, Traditions and Recollections (1826) 519.

Anti-Jacobin Review: "This plan is executed with Mr. Polwhele's accustomed ability; the character of Sir Aaron is well drawn, and the evil effects of religious enthusiasm on a weak mind are strongly delineated. The author has strengthened and confirmed his own opinions of methodism by apposite quotations from the works of several celebrated divines, given in the notes to his poem" 12 (June 1802) 135.

Francis William Blagdon: "This poetical fragment is taken from Sir Aaron, or the Flights of Fanaticism, by Mr. Polwhele; a poem, in which is represented the character of a young man of distinction — his eccentric imagination — his ungovernable passions — his conversion to methodism — the wild visions of his fancy — his ideal pilgrimage to hell — and the fatal effects of his fanaticism, with regard to himself, his family, and his neighbourhood. This poem, executed with great ability, exposes to the ridicule, contempt, and detestation which they deserve, the extravagance and effrontery of religious enthusiasts and hypocrites. The author has strengthened and confirmed his own opinions of methodism, by apposite quotations from the works of several celebrated divines, given in the notes to his poem" Flowers of Literature for 1801 and 1802 (1803) 427n.

Anti-Jacobin Review: "The stanza itself is solemn and incapable of gay movement, and the incidents it celebrates are melancholy and affecting. The seduction of Emira is left rather to be conjectured than redde, whilst her suicide, Aaron's insanity, and Amoret's death, form one tale of sorrow and woe" in Review of The Enthusiasm of Methodists; 59 (October 1820) 100.

Near the mouth of the Teign is a church, a small school and a hospital, under the patronage of good Sir Rowland. Rowland has an heir Aaron, of a poetical and gloomy cast, very unlike his father: "Alas! unlike his sire, from festal glee | That cheer'd the hall or Hamlet would he start, | And deem the sufferer's plaint, all hypocritic art" p. 148. Aaron married the fair Amoret, who inspires him with the social graces and encourages him to look after the school and the hospital. But he is given over to romances, and gloom, and eventually, to Methodism: "His youthful lady view'd him with surprize; | And, as he condescended to unfold | The cause that made him of unsinning mould, | Was well nigh smother'd in a laughing fit" p. 154. Her friend Emira, however, is much taken with Sir Aaron's conversion. The baronet hears a voice demanding that he abandon his wife and children, and he betakes himself to the domicile of Drywit, a cobbler given to Methodism and Thomas Paine. Aaron calls forth the cobbler on a journey to discover a mysterious plant that "enshrines its pistil pale | In the dense gloom, impervious to the day, | A shrub, whose virtues would to light betray | The fiery gulph, and tame the powers of hell!" p. 164.



No! — I invoke not you, Pierian maids!
For me, no Pindus fires the fabling muse!
I hail the spirit, who dispels the shades
Of error, and unfolds celestial views.
Nor shall that spirit to my prayer refuse
To paint the fond enthusiast far astray;
And, where the weetless wretch a shade pursues,
Tell, how absorb'd was reason's cheerful ray,
And mark, what ills enclose the wanderer's gloomy way.

With grief, with terror, we survey the hour,
When passion blots in man the living light;
When fancy, too, exerts the ruthless power,
To plunge its votaries into tenfold night.
See, see, religion (where each grinning sprite
—Speeds its pale course across yon devious wild)
Bend downward from her everlasting height
To rescue from its fangs her wayward child!
Yet friends usurp the place, where erst the cherub smil'd.

O'er the rude cliff, where Teign, descending, flings
Its foam, a castle hath, for ages, stood;
Firm as the wizard rock above, that sings
Preluding to the storm! — Then, tempests brood
Deepening, at every pause, the incumbent wood!
Then, sudden, the wild winds, with keener search
Pierce the hoar caverns of the wrathful flood;
Now mingle oak and ash and purple birch,
Now, thro' the severing boughs, disclose the steepled church.

Fast by the fane, we meet a modest thatch,
Where sprinkled flowers still cast their early gleams:
There yonklings wont to lift the lonely latch,
Their lessons conn, as little folk beseems,
And hie them home, to follow faery dreams.
And, at small distance, granite walls arise,
That as a mass of foliage round them streams,
By fits appear, and vanish from our eyes—
A pure asylum once, the nursery now of sighs!

These walls, that cot the good SIR ROWLAND rear'd,
The long-lov'd master of the castled dome;
As each trim cottage, by his friendship cheer'd,
To far off Hamlets was an envied home.
Then from yon' school, each imp in opening bloom,
Then, from yon walls, the sick his bounties bless'd.
And oh! fast gathering to his sainted Tomb,
The young, the old, with rival ardour press'd,
And wip'd the eye in tears, and smote, for dole, the breast!

If e'er this heart had heav'd a boding sigh,
'Twas when he notic'd, in his rising heir,
A gloom that seem'd to quench the vivid Eye,
And blight the springtide promise opening fair:
'Twas when he saw young AARON brooding care
Midst merrimake; and oft, the child of spleen,
Hastning the dalliance of the muse to share
Where the dim beech-walk spread the umbrageous screen,
And hide from vulgar sight the desultory mien.

Still, pensive AARON, thro' the embowering glade,
His tale of fancy told to every tree;
Or, if no willing muse inspir'd the shade,
Sigh'd, by some gurgling brook, to pale Ennui!
Tho', yet awhile, from worldly noyance free,
How few the rays of joy illum'd his heart!
Alas! unlike his sire, from festal glee
That cheer'd the hall or Hamlet would he start,
And deem the sufferer's plaint, all hypocritic art.

If, on his cheek the flush of pleasure glow'd,
'Twas when the holy rocks he roam'd around;
And, from his lyre as Druid numbers flow'd;
Gave echo to repeat the solemn sound.
If, where the bowl, with rosy girlonds crown'd,
The reckless sons of dissipation draws,
He glanc'd one courteous look, nor coldly frown'd;
'Twas when a Crito prais'd with sly applause
His rhymes, and mask'd a sneer in each emphatic pause!

But lo! SIR AARON, to the bridal bed,
(Fair as the brightest damsels that adorn
Devonia's myrtle vales) his AMORET led—
His AMORET stealing blushes from the morn!
Lo, on the saffron wings of pleasure bourn,
The circling hours too swiftly seem'd to fly!
No more he mus'd, by fits, like one forlorn,
But laugh'd, when AMORET laugh'd, he knew not why,
And liv'd on every look, that kindled in her eye.

With her, how pleas'd to rear the unfolding flower,
See faery pencils every leaf imprint
With its clear azure; weave the summer bower
That, bending, colour'd with its purple tint
The crystal wave; — to draw from fancy's mint
Of poesy, the rich resplendent store;
And sees (as AMORET might suggest the hint)
Each glowing thought, or spurn the illusive lore,
His AMORET in his arms — could fancy picture more?

With her, how charm'd to range in fair array
Their little rustic school, SIR ROWLAND'S pride,
And learning to the village Chorle display,
Such as in village Chorle was ne'er espied.
With her, how charm'd, the sick man's couch beside,
His fainting heart with cordial balms to bless;
To cheer lorn huts, for bread where orphans cried;
And kindly own, corrected by distress,
Each too luxurious wish, each selfish feeling less!

Nor did the sigh unnotic'd mix with air,
As in their breasts the love of offspring glow'd:
Heaven, that, assenting, hears the pious prayer,
To crown connubial bliss, the boon bestow'd.—
Yet not unruffled every moment flow'd:
Too soon, as cares might vex, or sameness tire,
The symptoms of caprice SIR AARON show'd;
And, as his eye-balls flash'd with sudden fire,
Lost, in the casual glance, the husband and the sire.

One moody morning, as SIR AARON pass'd
From book to book, unheeding all he redde,
His vagrant eye on legends quaint he cast,
And with delicious dreams his fancy fed.
And say, what new poetic vision shed
So fine a radiance to relieve the gloom?
Behold, by folly and by falsehood bred,
Conversions quick as light, the dismal doom
Of sinners yet uncall'd, and saints the spawn of Rome!

Eftsoons, tho' AMORET was his bosom-wife,
Amid diurnal fiction dark and vain,
He woo'd, oblivious of the sweets of life,
The phantoms that inflame a saintly brain,
Yet, with a smile to banish every pain,
(If from an angel-smile might sorrow flee)
How oft she bade, her prattlers, to regain
Some fleeting favour, clasp their father's knee—
But, as they lisp'd their love, to love how lost was he!

As young joy danc'd in AMORET'S sportive eye,
To speak a bosom yet untouch'd by care;
Heavens! 'twas enough to scatter every sigh,
Enough to chase the demon of despair.
Yet he, perhaps, with strange mysterious air,
Would ponder on the dark and billowy cloud,
And paint, in dreadful march, chimeras there;
Or, on the dying hearth, by spleen o'erbrow'd,
Detect the plumed hearse, and catch the dim cold shroud.

Thus AARON dream'd; from apparitions pale
When once, as wild the woods he travers'd, broke
From a hoar barn, in sooth no sound of flail
Enlivening rural echo at each stroke,
But other murmurs to the simple folk.
Sweet as the ringing brass to bees, I wist—
The voice, that warn'd them, the infernal yoke
To 'scape, and flee damnation, and enlist
With him, the elect of Heaven, yclept a Methodist!

There as the rounder shook his tresses lank,
The crowd, in wonder, on his accents hung;
And, as the voice of inspiration drank
The dulcet words that trickled from his tongue;
When AARON, mingling with the motley throng,
Was mov'd with "thoughts that melt and strains that touch"—
Saw sinners, sudden in the spirit strong;
Saw limping saints spring forth, and spurn the crutch;
Saw glories streaming round, for eyen too much!

Whilst with an honest zeal, one sabbath morn,
A portrait of the lambs the Rector drew;
Lo, as beside himself with rage and scorn,
Sir Aaron rush'd abruptly from his pew;
And mutter'd: "to the Church I bid adieu,
If scoffers with such Cates the pastor feast!
If thus he call the elect a lying crew!
'Tis but to carry to his mill more grist,
He stamps, and fumes, and chafes — the hypocritic priest!"

Thus, eloquent in Ire, Sir Aaron cried.
Then jump'd in sudden transport: "Oh! I feel
Thro' all my tingling veins the spirit glide
And melt with sacred fire this heart of steel,
Satan! 'tis done! at my wit's end I reel!
I hail — dire parturition! — the new birth!
Now, serpent, thou has vainly bruis'd my heel!
Now, tho' my former self was nothing worth,
Fast mounting to the heaven I kick this clod of earth."

The Baronet, "commercing with the skies,"
The wondrous story of the spirit told:
His youthful lady view'd him with surprize;
And, as he condescended to unfold
The cause that made him of unsinning mould,
Was well nigh smother'd in a laughing fit.
His fiery orbs with indignation roll'd;
And "damn'd (said he) are they, who, satan-smit,
Scoff at the Lord's elect to point their wicked wit!"

Not so, EMIRA, AMORET'S gentle friend,
To heaven-struck AARON'S freaks her ear inclin'd;
'Twas hers, a sigh to every sigh to lend,
Of, if no sigh approach'd her, to the wind.
Melting o'er animals of every kind,
To the poor Baronet so sadly craz'd,
Her stores of tenderness she quick resign'd;
Now look'd half credulous, and now amaz'd,
Now thro' a glist'ning tear the gem of pity graz'd!

How sweet, when pity o'er the virgin's cheek,
Her genuine tint, her simple colouring throws,
When, from moist eyes, her rays unbidden break,
The trembling dew-drops that impearl the rose!
Yet, in each look, each tint, what poison glows!
To soft EMIRA, o'er and o'er again
His tale he told, and soon survey'd her throes,
Her sympathetic working; nor in vain
Hail'd the new babe of grace — a babe without a stain!

To steal into the wood-walk, or to meet
By chance, amidst the mazes of the grove;
There the quick progress of the spirit greet,
With looks of adoration fix'd above;
Or breathe, reciprocally, sighs of love,
Full oft was theirs; when AMORET with a smile,
Frolic and arch, her Dryad would reprove,
And drop the careless joy, devoid of guile,
And laugh, still light of heart, unweeting all the while!

One moonlight eve (a time when fancy coins
Her myriad shapes) he bent his lonely way,
With old sensations in his reins and loins,
Where with his babe of grace he wont to stray:
As languishing at home the fair one lay—
Sweet lambkin! of the spirit somewhat sick!
'Twas then a voice or said, or seem'd to say,
Sharp as he felt a goad his conscience prick,
"Fly, fly these haunts obscure, nor inspiration trick!

"Why thus, a saint, in sylvan silence sneak;
Nor, in the face of day, the word proclaim?
Go, from the embraces of thy consort break;
Go, leave thy babes, nor heed the worldling's blame.
What is a child, a parent? — tis a name
Which sinners but disgrace, and saints disown!"
Deep from a tower the voice ethereal came,
Whilst lightening every cleft and mossy stone,
O'er the majestic pile a fierce effulgence shone.

Where Teign, more tranquill, round the hamlet rolls,
A cobler's cabin peeps thro' ashen shade.
Its master, now the cobler sly of souls,
Aspir'd to mend mankind where shoes were made!
Brown was his awl with rust, his last decay'd.
With Paine he cavil'd, and with Wesley glow'd,
And, by a rounder's crafty tongue betray'd,
Ne Losel had, with Tom, so deftly rode,
Ne, on the spirit's wings, come flying all abroad!

Attracted to this stall, the parish clerk
(To whom SIR ROWLAND erst the school consign'd)
Felt, at his heart, each wily doctrine work,
And to the cobler gave his opening mind.
Nor he, who to the Asylum had inclin'd
His cares, his servant, for the spirit itch'd!
Ah me! from eloquence and gold combin'd,
Who, who escapes, and triumphs unbewitch'd?
Whilst Plutus touch'd their palms, their ears Apollyon twitch'd.

Thither hied AARON. From his awful scowl,
Of gin too conscious, the caballers shrunk:
So shrinks in terror, Benedictine cowl,
Where some intrusive eye detects a punk.
But most the mazy cobler's spirit sunk—
When "DRYWIT!" (said his lord, and stuttering, ceas'd)
"DRYWIT! for aye, at sunset deadly drunk!
And roaring in thy cabin like a beast,
I greet thee by Heaven's call from sin and death releas'd!"

Yet, with its custom'd fumes of copious gin,
By AARON'S nose unheeded, steam'd the stall.
Lo, DRYWIT, in his mighty shop of sin,
To pence and Paine had offer'd up his awl,
Now from their station, twinkling each grey ball
Seem'd prompt to leap: yet, "I," SIR AARON cried,
"I too, my DRYWIT, have receiv'd the call,
And, like the trumpet's blast, shall, far and wide,
Send my terrific voice, appalling earthly pride.

"Say thou, my spiritual soldier! wilt thou aid
Thy chief, accoutered for the spiritual work?
Quit, with no faultering step, thy sober shade,
And march, unscar'd, where hosts in ambush lurk,
Thirsting for blood; where, savage as the Turk,
Though Christians deemed, they burn with rage and lust?
Yes! tho' thou meet the night's insidious dirk,
The noontide arrow in thy buckler trust,
And bid the foes to heaven lie low and lick the dust."

Then, by the help of hems more bold in speech:
"Arch devil, thy wide dominions soon shall shake!
For, DRYWIT! ere on earth the word we preach,
Be ours to journey to the brimstone lake.
There shall we challenge Satan, for the sake
Of souls possest, o'er whom the fiend now flaps
His sooty wings; when quickly shall they wake
To a new life; hereafter from mishaps
Secure, nor heed the flesh, nor into sin relapse.

"Where a vast rock o'erhangs a hollow dale,
In secret talk I heard the Rounder say,
A wondrous plant enshrines its pistil pale
In the dense gloom, impervious to the day,
A shrub, whose virtues would to light betray
The fiery gulph, and tame the powers of hell!
Thither, then, DRYWIT! let us bend our way:
The spirit, by a mode no man can tell,
Shall guide us to the plant, amidst the dreary dell."

[pp. 146-64]

[Continue]