Robert Southey's blank-verse eclogue introduces the pompous funeral of a figure who is apparently a Bristol merchant. The interlocutors discuss the Christian use of wealth, arriving at the conclusion that large donations to public charities, without the practice of private charity to the poor, are but so much vanity. This late eclogue indicates the Tory turn Southey's thought was taking, as the satire is aimed directly at the Whig establishment with its talent for self-promotion. The calculating crew is set in opposition to the warm hearts of those whose habits of mind are formed by Nature: "Arithmetick | Was the sole science he was ever taught. | The multiplication-table was his Creed, | His Pater-noster, and his Decalogue. | When yet he was a boy, and should have breath'd | The open air and sun-shine of the fields, | To give his blood its natural spring and play."
Robert Southey to Walter Scott: "I have finished an English Eclogue, which is at Ballantyne's service, either for his Annual Register or his Minstrelsy, and which shall be transcribed and sent him forthwith" 6 July 1809; Life and Correspondence (1849-50) 3:242.
Robert Southey to Walter Scott: "The Eclogue which I have sent Ballantyne has suffered a little by having all its local allusions cut out. This was done lest what was intended as a general character should have been interpreted into individual satire. The thing was suggested by my accidentally crossing such a funeral some years ago at Bristol; and had I been disposed to personal satire, the hero of the procession would have afforded ample scope for it. As soon as he knew his case was desperate he called together all the persons to whom he was indebted in his mercantile concerns; — 'Gentlemen,' said he, 'I am going to die, and my death will be an inconvenience to you, because it will be some time before you can get your accounts settled with my executors; now if you will allow me a handsome discount, I'll settle them myself at once.' They came into the proposal, and the old alderman turned his death into nine hundred pounds' profit" 30 July 1809; Life and Correspondence (1849-50) 3:247-48.
Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford: "You ask me about the Bristol Alderman. It is not precisely a portrait, tho' written after I had accidentally fallen in with the funeral of a worthy of that description. Take it as as the representative of a whole class not as individual satire" 1 January 1811; New Letters, ed. Kenneth Curry (1965) 2:1-2.
Whom are they ushering from the world, with all
This pageantry and long parade of death?
A long parade, indeed Sir; and yet here
You see but half; round yonder bend it reaches
A furlong farther, carriage behind carriage.
'Tis but a mournful sight, and yet the pomp
Tempts me to stand a gazer.
Who plays the truant, says, the proclamation
Of peace was nothing to the show, and even
The chairing of the members at election
Would not have been a finer sight than this;
Only that red and green are prettier colours
Than all this mourning. There, Sir, you behold
One of the red-gown'd worthies of the city,
The envy and the boast of our exchange,
Aye, what was worth, last week, a good half-million,
Screw'd down in yonder hearse.
Then he was born
Under a lucky planet, who to-day
Puts mourning on for his inheritance.
When first I heard his death, that very wish
Leapt to my lips; but now the closing scene
Of the comedy hath wakened wiser thoughts;
And I bless God, that when I go to the grave,
There will not be the weight of wealth like his
To sink me down.
The camel and the needle,—
Is that then in your mind?
Even so. The text
Is Gospel wisdom. I wou'd ride the camel—
Yea leap him flying, through the needle's eye,
As easily as such a pampered soul
Could pass the narrow gate.
Your pardon, Sir.
But sure this lack of christian charity
Looks not like christian truth.
Your pardon too, Sir,
If, with this text before me, I should feel
In the preaching mood! But for these barren fig-trees,
With all their flourish and their leafiness.
We have been told their destiny and use,
When the axe is laid unto the root, and they
Cumber the earth no longer.
Was his wealth
Stored fraudfully, the spoil of orphans wrong'd,
And widows who had none to plead their right?
All honest, open, honourable gains,
Fair legal interest, bonds and mortgages,
Ships to the East and West.
Why judge you then
So hardly of the dead?
For what he left
Undone; — for sins, not one of which is mention'd
In the Ten Commandments. He, I warrant him,
Believ'd no other Gods than those of the Creed:
Bow'd to no idols — but his money-bags:
Swore no false oaths, except at the custom-house:
Kept the Sabbath idle: built a monument
To honour his dead father: did no murder:
Was too old-fashioned for adultery:
Never pick'd pockets: never bore false-witness:
And never, with that all-commanding wealth,
Coveted his neighbour's house, nor ox, nor ass.
You knew him, then, it seems.
As all men know
The virtues of your hundred-thousanders;
They never bide their lights beneath a bushel.
Nay, nay, uncharitable Sir! for often
Doth bounty like a streamlet flow unseen,
Freshening and giving life along its source.
We track the streamlet by the brighter green
And livelier growth it gives: — but as for this—
This was a pool that stagnated and stunk;
The rains of Heaven engender'd nothing in it
But slime and foul corruption.
Yet even these
Are reservoirs whence public charity
Still keeps her channels full.
Now, Sir, you touch
Upon the point. This man of half a million
Had all these public virtues which you praise:
But the poor man rung never at his door;
And the old beggar, at the public gate,
Who, all the summer long, stands, hat in hand,
He knew how vain it was to lift an eye
To that hard face. Yet he was always found
Among your ten and twenty pound subscribers,
Your benefactors in the news-papers.
His alms were money put to interest
In the other world, — donations to keep open
A running charity-account with heaven:—
Retaining fees against the last assizes,
When, for the trusted talents, strict account
Shall be required from all, and the old Arch-Lawyer
Plead his own cause as plaintiff.
I must needs
Believe you, Sir: — these are your witnesses,
These mourners here, who from their carriages
Gape at the gaping crowd. A good March wind
Were to be pray'd for now, to lend their eyes
Some decent rheum. The very hireling mute
Rears not a face blanker of all emotion
Than the old servant of the family!
How can this man have liv'd, that thus his death
Costs not the soiling one white handkerchief!
Who should lament for him, Sir, in whose heart
Love had no place, nor natural charity?
The parlour spaniel, when she heard his step,
Rose slowly from the hearth, and stole aside
With creeping pace; she never rais'd her eyes
To woo kind words from him, nor laid her head
Uprais'd upon his knee, with fondling whine.
How could it be but thus! Arithmetick
Was the sole science he was ever taught.
The multiplication-table was his Creed,
His Pater-noster, and his Decalogue.
When yet he was a boy, and should have breath'd
The open air and sun-shine of the fields,
To give his blood its natural spring and play,
He in a close and dusky counting-house,
Smoke-dried and sear'd and shrivel'd up his heart.
So, from the way in which he was train'd up,
His feet departed not; he toil'd and moil'd,
Poor muckworm! through his three-score years and ten,
And when the earth shall now be shovell'd on him,
If that which serv'd him for a soul were still
Within its husk, 'twould still be dirt to dirt.
Yet your next news-papers will blazon him
For industry and honourable wealth
A bright example.
Even half a million
Gets him no other praise. But come this way
Some twelve-months hence, and you will find his virtues
Trimly set forth in lapidary lines,
Faith, with her torch beside, and little Cupids
Dropping upon his urn their marble tears.