1802
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

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

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


The second canto of Sir Aaron is a burlesque descent to Hell modeled on the Aeneid (along with Paradise Lost and The Rape of the Lock): "Zounds! (says the cobler) evil follows evil: | We have, indeed, commenc'd a journey to the devil!" p. 165. Led by a mysterious flame, Sir Aaron is able to find, deep in a hidden glen, the magical plant Leucophyllon. In the outer reaches of Hell Sir Aaron and Drywit discover a mob of unhappy infants: "Why weep so sore? — ye died, poor wretches, unbaptiz'd!" p. 166. Next they find a clutch of curates, priests, and deans who had failed to achieve the salvation of Grace. Crossing the waves into Hell proper, they discover a woman led by religion into debauchery, and one suffering from religious melancholy: "Loose were her shadowy tresses: snowy-white | Her right hand, backward thrown, sustain'd her head | That seem'd to throb with anguish; when the sprite | Shook o'er her breast the mane of dingy red, | And rais'd the poison'd hoof, and all its venom shed" p. 170. After passing a series of similar victims suffering the tortures of fanaticism, Sir Aaron turns and addresses their tormentors: "Bade them no more their tyrant's nod obey, | On Methodists inflicting bitter woes, | But pour their vengeance on their proper prey— | On infants unbaptiz'd, and priests more damn'd than they" p. 172. He raises high his Leucophyllon, and the vision disperses.



The full moon rising, shed a sanguine ray:
Whilst AARON hurried to the cobler's cell:
And sudden, by the spirit borne away,
Both, with alacrity no tongue can tell,
Setting their honest faces towards Hell,
Began to give their families the slip:
Nathless, as if recovering from a spell,
"What! no provision, sir, for such a trip,"
Said DRYWIT, "not a drop, to wet the parched lip?"

He, deaf and mute, to where at distance seen,
A glimmering rock reliev'd the sullen waste,
Swallow'd the ground, till roll'd a mist between,
And every feature of the crag effac'd.
"Homeward, (cried DRYWIT) master, let us haste,
Nor wander here, while glooms around us close!"
When AARON, full of joy, his clerk embrac'd—
"No! they are devils, my friend, that interpose,
And victors shall we rise o'er all our ghostly foes."

Certes, no sooner had SIR AARON said,
Than, far off, a dim radiance met the view,
That now appear'd an orb of vivid red,
Now trembled, dying to a paly blue.
And, "See," said AARON, "to the saints so true,
Already hath the spirit vouchsaf'd its light.
What tho' still rage the dire obstructing crew;
That splendour on the trees shall guide aright
Our steps, and strait for heaven provoke the glorious fight."

The whistling of rude boughs assails his ear;
And, kindling from above the ruddy copse,
The heavenly lustre seems to shine more clear;
Away, with a triumphant air he hops,
Nor by the spirit urg'd, a moment stops,
Till to a quagmire giving way, so civil,
He bows, and makes obeisance with his chops!
"Zounds! (says the cobler) evil follows evil:
We have, indeed, commenc'd a journey to the devil!"

Arising from the embraces of the fen,
"Come, DRYWIT, never fear!" the hero cries:
"DRYWIT rejoice! I see the hollow glen—
'Tis there the treasure of the spirit lies!"
When, as at once, his fancy seiz'd the prize,
Down went the antagonist of death and sin;
Tho' swore the varlet, with uplifted eyes,
His service never more should AARON win,
If he could once get home, escaping in whole skin.

Deep in the Glenwood, nigh a sombrous cave,
He saw, and told his transports in a bound,
Its snowy leaves the Leucophyllon wave,
And wrench'd it, by the roots, from out the ground;
When, as it quiver'd with a mighty sound,
The cavern to his sense expanded wide!
And many a dog-star flam'd the vault around:
And at his feet there foam'd a sulph'rous tide;
And far within, in troops, dun shadows seem'd to glide.

Strait where he stalk'd, arose the unceasing cries
Of infants, who, by too severe a doom,
Ere yet they could enjoy these upper skies,
Were hurried, all untimely to the tomb.
'Lorn innocents! no sooner from the womb
Ye struggled into life, than, unappriz'd
Of sin, ye sunk into the oblivious gloom!
Ah, why, when sinners grey are canoniz'd,
Why weep so sore? — ye died, poor wretches, unbaptiz'd!

There, too, innumerous shapes, in sable clad,
Curates and parish priests, would flit along;
There silken deans would rustle thro' the shade,
And lawn-sleeves gleam, the cassock'd tribe among!
Ah! what avail'd the vicar's sober tongue
That to a blameless life the meed assign'd?
What, the pure precepts that o'eraw'd the throng,
Where prelates, destin'd to adorn mankind,
To courtly splendour join'd an Apostolic mind?

At AARON'S nod the yellow waves flew back,
Whilst on the fronting bank, two shapes appear'd
Dire-menacing: the one as midnight black,
A form, half-billow, and half-flame, up-rear'd,
And shook a dreadful dart with blood besmear'd!
The other roll'd, tho' woman to the waist,
As horrid yelpings from her womb were heard,
A scaly tail voluminous! aghast,
Yet both in silence stood, as, calm, heaven's champion pass'd.

First, to his sight, a choir of boys and girls
Were whirl'd about in one perpetual dance,
Swift as her restless wheel the spinster whirls;
While from their hollow eyes they look'd askance
With loose desires, and pin'd at every glance:
Nor could the votaries of religious whim
One step beyond the circling line advance;
As still St. Vitus, round a caldron's brim,
Urg'd his fantastic imps convuls'd in every limb.

Next, in a chair of pearl, beneath a roof
Of gold, a female methodist embrac'd
A puny petit-maitre, whilst aloof
The fashions of the world each other chac'd.
Charm'd with the visions of caprice or taste,
The fair one from her eye new rapture glanc'd;
And, tho' in life a devotee strait-lac'd,
Yet "in her heart a rake," now gaily danc'd
To pleasure, now more calm, appear'd as one entranc'd.

He, in himself absorb'd, his brilliant rings
Runs over, or his pink-rosettes that glow
On each sharp shoe; while, tied with silken strings,
His muslin trowsers, and the plumes that flow
From his light cap, proclaim the child of show.
And, as his fan of feathers trembles oft,
A nosegay of the faintest flowers that blow,
Rests on a ribbon; since a heart so soft,
Might rue the load, if chance the petit-maitre cough'd.

Soon rattling in rude dissonance, their chains,
Vertigo and pale Spleen the gaudy glare
Would interrupt; and to a windmill's vanes
Fasten, unheeding their shrill screams, the pair,
And drive them dizzily around in air,
Till, in a livid swoon each died away;
When now, recovering, from the rich pearl chair
They witness'd as before, in bright array,
The fleeting fashions rise, and o'er the ceiling play.

On a rush bed, amidst a cavern damp,
A damsel lay, to dreadful penance doom'd,
The victim of fell Incubus and Cramp,
Who had, in life, to pleasure idly bloom'd,
As in the prurient love-feast she consum'd,
'Mid sister saints, the hypocritic night;
Till pale from watchings, and at length entomb'd,
She sunk into the shades, a beauteous sprite,
Tho' form'd for sensual bliss, debarr'd each keen delight.

Beside her, Cramp, as, shrivell'd up, he clung
To clustring swallows, caught the damsel's sighs,
When on a sudden, up the pigmy sprung,
To a dire monster of enormous size,
Then shrunk into himself in agonies.
Now, as all muscle, he appear'd to strain
His limbs, and look'd as if his bursting eyes
Within their sockets he could scarce contain,
Now hiccup'd thrice, and laugh'd, and hiccup'd thrice again.

Scarce could the weary maid a moment doze,
(Ah, never her's was balmy slumber sweet)
Ere a cold touch benumb'd her legs, and froze
The extremer parts, like winter's arrowy sleet.
"One little pause of rest no more to greet
Is mine!" she cried: "no earthly cataplasm
"Alas! could ease the torment of my feet!"
While grinn'd invisible the fiend of spasm,
Then sought his swallow-nook, within the noisome chasm.

Meantime had Night-mare, midst a meteor's glare,
Stretch'd her huge limbs, when out flew many a bat,
That slept within her leathern breasts, and there
Oft drew her paps, like any human brat;
Or fann'd her, on her hairy buttock squat,
Spreading their skinny pinions of tann'd hue:
Then ruminating as the monster sat,
She gather'd from the cypress and dark yew,
Mixt with the froth of toads, a deleterious dew.

Eftsoons in office, that infernal imp,
Whose power can youth's gay visions intercept,
Not emulous, it seems, of Vulcan's limp,
But apeing Mercury, on the rush-couch leap'd,
As one short moment, tho' with sighs, she slept,
And shook the cavern with a gamesome jerk;
With stealthy cunning on her belly crept,
Ey'd the lorn fair one with a hideous smirk,
And, half-relenting, cried — "alas! 'tis rueful work!"

Deep-fever'd blushes ting'd her lovely face,
Her mouth half-open'd to the murky night:
Her bosom panting with disorder'd grace,
Heav'd its blue veins, and glow'd with rosy light.
Loose were her shadowy tresses: snowy-white
Her right hand, backward thrown, sustain'd her head
That seem'd to throb with anguish; when the sprite
Shook o'er her breast the mane of dingy red,
And rais'd the poison'd hoof, and all its venom shed.

While quiver'd in paralysis her limbs,
With suffocative sighs opprest she lay:
And lo, as in the dews of death she swims,
She strives to scream with many a vain essay;
And starts from ghostly forms in chill dismay!
At length she moans, and utters a low shriek;
When, as she seems to feel a lump of clay
From her breast tumbling, tremulously weak,
Scarce can she lift her hand to touch her hectic cheek.

Insulting sore a Methodistic crone,
With pallid hand as Hypochondria stroak'd
Her aching stomach to a bladder blown;
The sufferer, with throat-globules well nigh choakt,
Now crawl'd a bloated toad, and crawling croak'd;
Now, seiz'd with dizziness, o'er many a rood
Lay floating a huge whale, and oft provok'd
By fell harpooners, dash'd the fervent flood;
And in delirium seem'd to fill all space with blood.

Here Catalepsy, lost in thought intense,
Her heavy temples with the poppy crown'd,
Her victim would benumb in every sense,
And fix his leaden eye-balls to the ground,
And his stone tongue chain up, "without a sound."
There too, her sister bade a wan wretch smite
His breast, and high to catch the vapours bound,
Dash in the dust his writhing limbs, and bite
His livid lips in foam, and dart pernicious light.

There, whilst the Dog-star pour'd upon his head,
Siriasis, thy pestilential blaze,
Struck by the beams, thy victim, as he fled,
Stopp'd in mid-course, and star'd with ghastly gaze;
And, as the mist of darkness seem'd to glaze
His eye-balls, strove to seize, with ardour vain,
A cooling rill that curl'd thro' many a maze;
Then, smitten by the fiery beams again,
Pursued the elusive lymph, and beat his burning brain.

There Terror, mounting on infuriate horse,
Towards a precipice of bare rock flew,
And its mane grasping, in a bloody corse
Oft bath'd its hoofs, and oft a saint o'erthrew,
While from the steed's broad nostrils vapours blue
Stream'd forth, and from its eyes the Siroc's glare;
When laughing midst his Methodistic crew,
Madness danc'd round, and started grim Despair;
And Terror's self shrunk back, and rais'd his bristling hair.

So dire the fiends, amidst hell's concave rag'd,
Who, the earth vexing, by a kindred train,
War, ever and anon, with mortals wag'd,
But, chiefly with the votaries of the fane;
Who, as descending to the dark domain
A saintly ghost demure attention drew,
Would, each, the mental and corporeal pain
That from the body rent the soul, renew,
And with appropriate pangs the suffering wretch pursue.

The doughty chief, while thus, to daze the sight,
The vision floating round and round him, rose,
Spied the devil seated on a mountain's height,
That flaming, labour'd with volcanic throes;
And beckoning to the throne, his fearstruck foes,
Bade them no more their tyrant's nod obey,
On Methodists inflicting bitter woes,
But pour their vengeance on their proper prey—
On infants unbaptiz'd, and priests more damn'd than they.

He spoke. And Satan, a fierce lightning fork,
That hiss'd within the hollow crater, seiz'd,
And seem'd in act to speed its deathful work,
When AARON high his Leucophyllon rais'd;
And, as in air the sulphur idly blaz'd,
Fix'd Satan trembling to the mountain's crest!
The vassal monsters, as in triumph, gaz'd;
St. Vitus paus'd, his rapid rounds repress'd,
Vertigo firmly stood, and e'en Despair had rest.

"SUBDUED (says AARON, as he swell'd in size
Gigantic) see, subdued the dire domain!
And, (waving strait his rod) behold," he cries,
"Hell vanishes! we tread on earth again!"
"Indeed (quoth DRYWIT, in a doleful strain,)
"Whether on earth or not, I scarce can tell!
Something, methinks, disturbs your honour's brain!
But, d—me! by to-morrow, if you dwell
In this accursed hole, you'll find yourself in hell!"

[pp. 164-72]

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