1764
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Nun: an Elegy.

The Nun: an Elegy. By the Author of the Magdalens.

Edward Jerningham


35 quatrains, after Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchard. As in Edward Jerningham's other imitations, The Nun follows its source at a distance, fitting new matter to familiar cadences. The speaker in this poem is a nun attempting to dissuade a young woman from taking the vows. The monastic life is not what one has been led to belief: "Suspect their Syren Song and artful Style, | Their pleasing Sounds some treach'rous Thought conceal: | Full oft does Pride with sainted Voice beguile, | And sordid Int'rest wear the Mask of Zeal" p. 5. The speaker described how she had been coerced into the nunnery by her father, and how her days have been spent in gloomy discontent. In the closing stanzas, like Gray's character, she imagines her own death.

The Nun is part of the verse character series of Gray imitations. It is interesting structurally, insofar as the description-and-memory sequence anticipates later romantic poetry. One might compare, for instance, the first of Robert Southey's Botany Bay eclogues. Elizabeth Ryves has an Elegy written in a Convent in her Poems on Several Occasions (1777).

John Langhorne: "His Nunnery, an Elegy, was not destitute of pathetic sentiment, or agreeable description; and in the Elegy before us, which may be considered as a supplement to that poem, he introduces a Nun describing, in her own person, the miseries and inconveniences of a conventual life. But first she takes notice of those specious arts which are made use of to reconcile the probationer to her future destination.... This is not an imaginary, but a real picture of those temporary heightenings of pleasure and magnificence, which are made use of to delude the innocent victim, that is to be devoted to the sequestered life. It is no wonder that these arts should generally succeed; for nothing ca be more captivating to the young imagination, than scenes of sacred grandeur, and religious solemnity. It is, however, an unhappy circumstance, that minds of the greatest sensibility, are most liable to be thus led away, because that such minds, being formed for the reciprocation of social enjoyments, must naturally languish under the identity of the monastic life.... We hope the Author does not owe the merit of this sensibility to the loss of a Mistress, in some fair Devotee" Monthly Review 30 (February 1764) 117-19

Critical Review: "If a poem, like a circle, is to be admired, not so much for the size as the completeness of it, this little performance is intitled to no inconsiderable share of public approbation: to all those who have a taste for poetical beauty, the manner of treating it will appear excellent. It is written in the stile of elegant Hammond, in the alternating rhime, a measure which seems best adapted to elegy.... Upon the whole: This little poem is one of the prettiest of the kind we have seen, and if bound up in the same volume with Gray and Hammond, would do no dishonour to its elegiac brethren" 17 (April 1764) 317-18.

St. James's Magazine: "This little performance is written in the stile of Hammond and Grey, and abounds with many fine touches of elegiac poetry. The scene is a convent; and the subject, the complaint of a nun, who hath taken the vail, to another who is going to take it. The former describes in a truly pathetic strain, her melancholy situation, the cruelty of her parents, and the captivating parade by which the Popish superstition deludes their mistaken votaries, the poem closing with an affecting address to her father, and a presage of her death" 4 (May 1764) 284.

British Magazine: "Tender, elegant, and pathetic" 5 (July 1764) 377.



With each Perfection dawning on her Mind,
All Beauty's Treasure opening on her Cheek,
Each flatt'ring Hope subdued, each Wish resign'd,
Does gay Ophelia this lone Mansion seek?

Say, gentle Maid, what prompts Thee to forsake
The Paths, thy Birth and Fortune strew with Flow'rs?
Thro' Nature's kind endearing Ties to break,
And waste in cloyster'd Walls thy pensive Hours?

Let sober Thought restrain thine erring Zeal,
That guides thy Footsteps to the Vestal Gate,
Lest thy soft Heart (this Friendship bids reveal)
Like mine unblest shou'd mourn like mine too late.

Does some angelic lonely-whisp'ring voice,
Some sacred Impulse, or some Dream divine,
Approve the Dictates of thy early Choice?—
Approach with Confidence the aweful Shrine.

There kneeling at yon Altar's marble Base
(While Tears of Rapture from thine Eye-lid steal,
And smiling Heav'n illumes thy Soul with Grace)
Pronounce the Vow, Thou never can'st repeal.

Yet if misled by false-entitled Friends,
Who say — "That Peace with all her comely Train,
From starry Regions to this Clime descends,
Smooth ev'ry Frown, and softens ev'ry Pain:

"That Vestals tread Contentment's flow'ry Lawn,
Approv'd of Innocence, by Health carest:
That rob'd in Colours bright, by Fancy drawn,
Celestial Hope sits smiling at their Breast."

Suspect their Syren Song and artful Style,
Their pleasing Sounds some treach'rous Thought conceal:
Full oft does Pride with sainted Voice beguile,
And sordid Int'rest wear the Mask of Zeal.

A Tyrant-Abess here perchance may reign,
Who, fond of Pow'r, affects th' Imperial Nod,
Looks down disdainful on her Female Train,
And rules the Cloyster with an Iron Rod.

Reflection sickens at the Life-long Tie,
Back-glancing Mem'ry acts her busy Part,
Its Charms the World unfolds to Fancy's Eye,
And sheds Allurement on the wishful Heart.

Lo! Discord enters at the sacred Porch,
Rage in her Frown, and Terror on her Crest:
Ev'n at the hallow'd Lamp she lights her Torch,
And holds it flaming to each Virgin Breast.

But since the Legends of Monastic Bliss
By Fraud are fabled, and by Youth believ'd,
Unbought Experience learn from my Distress,
Oh! mark my Lot, and be no more deceiv'd.

Three Lustres scarce with hasty Wing were fled,
When I was torn from ev'ry weeping Friend,
A thoughtless Victim to the Temple led,
And (blush ye Parents) by a Father's Hand.

Yet then what solemn Scenes deceiv'd my Choice?
The pealing Organ's animating Sound,
The choral Virgin's captivating Voice,
The blazing Altar, and the Priests around:

The Train of Youths array'd in purest white,
Who scatter'd Myrtles as I pass'd along:
The thousand Lamps that pour'd a Flood of Light,
The Kiss of Peace from all the Vestal Throng:

The golden Censers toss'd with graceful Hand,
Whose fragrant Breath Arabian Odor shed:
Of meek-ey'd Novices the circling Band,
With blooming Chaplets wove around their Head.

—My willing Soul was caught in Rapture's Flame,
While sacred Ardor glow'd in ev'ry Vein:
Methought applauding Angels sung my Name,
And Heav'n's unsullied Glories gilt the Fane.

This temporary Transport soon expir'd,
My drooping Heart confess'd a dreadful Void:
E'er since, alas! abandon'd, uninspir'd,
I tread this Dome to Misery allied.

No wakening Joy informs my sullen Breast,
Thro' opening Skies no radiant Seraph smiles,
No Saint descends to sooth my Soul to Rest,
No Dream of Bliss the dreary Night beguiles.

Here hagard Discontent still haunts my View;
The sombre Genius reigns in ev'ry Place:
Arrays each Virtue in the darkest Hue,
Chills ev'ry Pray'r, and cancels ev'ry Grace.

I meet her ever in this chearless Cell,
The gloomy Grotto and unsocial Wood:
I hear her ever in the Midnight Bell,
The hollow Gale, and hoarse-resounding Flood.

This caus'd a Mother's tender Tears to flow,
(The sad Remembrance Time shall ne'er erase)
When having seal'd th' irrevocable Vow
I hasten'd to receive her last Embrace.

Full-well she then presag'd my wretched Fate,
Th' unhappy Moments of each future Day:
When lock'd within this Terror-shedding Grate,
My joy-deserted Soul wou'd pine away.

Yet ne'er did her maternal Voice unfold
This cloyster'd Scene in all its Horror drest:
Nor did she then my trembling Steps withhold
When here I enter'd a reluctant Guest.

Ah! could she view her only Child betray'd,
And let Submission o'er her Love prevail?
Th' unfeeling Priest why did she not upbraid?
Forbid the Vow, and rend the hov'ring Veil?

Alas! she might not — Her relentless Lord
Had seal'd her Lips, and chid her streaming Tear,
So Anguish in her Breast conceal'd its Hoard,
And all the Mother sunk in dumb Despair.

But Thou who own'st a Father's sacred Name,
What Act impell'd thee to this ruthless Deed?
What Crime had forfeited my filial Claim?
And giv'n (oh blasting Thought!) thy Heart to bleed?

If then thine injur'd Child deserve thy Care,
Oh haste and bear her from this lonesome Gloom!
In vain — no Words can sooth his rigid Ear:
And Gallia's Laws have riveted my Doom.

I fled not to this Mansion's deep Recess,
To veil the Blushes of a guilty Shame,
The Tenor of an ill-spent Life redress,
And snatch from Infamy a sinking Name.

Yet let me to my Fate submissive bow:
From fatal Symptoms if I right conceive,
This Stream Ophelia has not long to flow,
This Voice to murmur, and this Breast to heave.

Ah! when extended on th' untimely Bier
To yonder Vault this Form shall be convey'd,
Thou'lt not refuse to shed one grateful Tear,
And breathe the Requiem to my fleeting Shade.

With pious Footstep join the sable Train,
As thro' the lengthening Isle they take their Way:
A glimmering Taper let thy Hand sustain,
Thy soothing Voice attune the funeral Lay:

Behold the Minister who lately gave
The sacred Veil, in Garb of mournful Hue,
(More kindly Office) bending o'er my Grave,
And sprinkling my Remains with hallow'd Dew:

As o'er the Corse he strews the rattling Dust,
The sternest Heart will raise Compassion's Sigh:
Ev'n then no longer to his Child unjust,
The Tears may trickle from a Father's Eye.

[pp. 3-11]