1788
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Virgins, an Asiatic Eclogue.

Poems chiefly on Slavery and Oppression, with Notes and Illustrations. By Hugh Mulligan.

Hugh Mulligan


This oriental eclogue is the second of four documenting the evils of British imperialism. Shawna is an Indian princess whose father and brother have been killed in struggling against British oppression; Alvia, her friend, is the daughter of a Brahmin whose ineffectual prayer she repeats: "O thou, by ev'ry tribe and king ador'd! | Preserve Indostan from oppression's sword. | Far, far from hence its thunders roll, | And shake with fear the tyrant's guilty soul: | Nor let these aged eyes again behold | Their bloody chiefs, whose sordid god is gold" p. 10. At the end of the poem the good man's shrine is discovered wrapped in flames: "Protect us, Heav'n — the fane on fire I see— | O horror! sacrilege! impiety!— | Haste, Princess, haste! the secret grot is near, | The forest falls — the bands of wrath appear!" p. 14.

The context for this poem is the trial of Warren Hastings (1732-1818), the governor-general of India, which began in 1788 and eventually resulted in his acquittal in 1795. He was accused of corruption and cruelty. In this vein, compare John Scott of Amwell's Serim; or, the Artificial Famine, in Poems (1782).

Author's note: "Nundocomar, a Brahmin and a Prince, after having exhibited charges in the supreme council against the Governor General Mr. Hastings, and preparing to prove them, was seized for a pretended forgery, and thrown into the common prison with felons and debtors, whose company to a Gentoo was pollution. The laws of his country were not observed toward Nundocomar" pp. 88-89.

Critical Review: "The scene of the second is laid in Indostan, and the time, though we have no characteristic description to mark it, said to be mid-day. The two Rohilla princesses, who are the interlocutors, recall to our mind that eclogue of Collins, in which the two Georgians are introduced as flying from, and describing the ravages of the Tartars. The recollection is not to the advantage of the present work" 65 (April 1788) 315.

European Magazine: "It is recorded of Collins, that he used to call his Asiatic eclogues, his 'Irish' eclogues. — With very much more justice may the present lay claim to that title, not merely from imagery, but from sound. One of the young ladies names is 'Shawna,' which strikes on our ear as right Hibernian. We fear the Shannon has a much better claim to it than the Ganges. However, an East-Indian princess the lady is, flying in great distress, and Mr. Hastings pursuing her with fire and sword. She had been under the protection of a Brahmin, father to her friend Alvia; but he had been carried off 'by an host of foes'" 13 (June 1788) 415.



TIME — MID-DAY.
SCENE — INDOSTAN.

When proud oppression British banners bore,
And avarice follow'd to that peaceful shore
Where Ganges boldly branching seeks the main,
And mourns through all her course her children slain,
Escap'd the conqueror's sword, two virgins strove
To gain the shelter of a spicy grove.
Conscious to truth alone, and solemn vows,
There spreading Banians bend their sacred boughs,
The musk rose rich, and jess'mines gay appear,
Exhaling potent sweets throughout the year.
There princely Shawna, veil'd in sylvan guise,
Her country's curse and father's murd'rer flies;
With filial love the gentle Alvia glows,
Pours forth her plaint, o'erwhelm'd with recent woes.

ALVIA.
Haste, Princess, haste! fly yon polluted band,
That brings destruction to an helpless land.
O, Shawna! say, my ever gentle friend,
When shall our sorrows and our suff'rings end?
When shall the thirst for wealth and conquest cease,
And injur'd India bless her sons with peace?
Haste, Princess, haste! unhallow'd sounds I hear;
The clang of arms tumultuous strikes mine ear.

SHAWNA.
Again the monsters, fir'd with impious rage;
Despoil our temples — in the shrines engage.
What of thy rev'rend Father! Alvia, say,
My second sire, by ruffians torn away.
Ferocious tigers, thus, in ambush lie,
And thus the fated victims vainly fly.

ALVIA.
Know, then, last night when thou retir'd'st to rest,
And holy raptures fill'd the Bramin's breast,
What time the moon play'd thro' the waving trees,
And Nature seem'd t' enjoy an hour of ease,
Confus'd the priests forsook their hallow'd fanes,
Whilst falling tears each sacred garment stains,
And horrid tidings to my sire impart,
Which shook his frame, and chill'd his fervent heart.
The mystic rites perform'd with pious care,
He thus address'd the awful pow'r in pray 'r:

"O thou, by ev'ry tribe and king ador'd!
Preserve Indostan from oppression's sword.
Far, far from hence its thunders roll,
And shake with fear the tyrant's guilty soul:
Nor let these aged eyes again behold
Their bloody chiefs, whose sordid god is gold,
Who rais'd from darkness, like the whirlwind's force,
Whelm ruin'd nations in their lawless course.
Tho' Europe's chiefs the human race destroy,
May we secure our flow'ry fields enjoy.
Contented still our awful altars raise,
In grateful hymns the sacred Brama praise."

To save our temples still from hands profane,
He thus implor'd — implor'd I fear in vain.
Why are our groves to faithless strangers giv'n?

SHAWNA.
Rohilla's wrongs will reach yon vaulted heav'n;
That gracious pow'r, who guards the good below,
Shall nerve the arm that strikes the vengeful blow—
Pierce, pierce the robber's heart, whose dread command
Spreads war and famine o'er our native land.
Low lies the tenant of our fertile vales,
Or wand'ring, now his wretched lot bewails;
For tangling trees and loathsome seeds are spread,
Where once the palm luxuriant rear'd its head;
And lions prowl, and leopards lurk for prey,
Where happy lovers rov'd the live-long day—
Proceed, my friend — nor useless flow thy tears;
Rohilla's wrongs the throne of justice hears.

ALVIA.
At early dawn he sought the rising wood;
Whose piny top o'erlooks the foaming flood;
With anxious heart his steps unseen I trac'd,
When, near the path that meets the boundless waste,
Its frightful front an armed troop display'd,
And bore him trembling down the rocky glade.
Then frantic thro' the winding wood I flew;
The scene terrific glitt'ring in my view;
With tearful eyes I there beheld from far,
Bright as the stream, th' inhuman pomp of war;
I saw my father on the distant plain,
And sudden frenzy seiz'd my giddy brain.
Then, struck with fear, my steps I homeward bend,
With thee to die my ever-constant friend!
Look down, great Brama, on our country's woes,
Shield, shield my father from an host of foes!

SHAWNA.
My kind protector and thy rev'rend sire,
Whose holy breast our country's gods inspire,
Now bears the taunts — the Christian's proud controul,
No soothing voice to cheer his drooping soul.

ALVIA.
Still may the Fates his virtuous life prolong,
Still may the Virgins chaunt his pious song!
Ye spicy gales, that thro' these branches play,
To Brama bear our ardent sighs away!

SHAWNA
Why do his shining virtues strike the view?
What have these monitors with the Gods to do?
I trembling think of Nundocomar's fate,
(No faithful hand his crimes to expiate)
Who for his country boldly claim'd relief,
Of hidden crimes accus'd their haughty thief,
And nobly dar'd, in freedom's glorious cause,
To mark th' injustice of their partial laws.

ALVIA.
Dear to the good, and to his country dear,
Say, hath he ought from human hands fear?
Who taught the tribes that vice begat our woes;
That true content from gen'rous actions flows?
Who taught the tribes an upright heart to prize,
By Heav'n esteem'd a grateful sacrifice?
Round each pagoda virtuous youths appear,
And eager press his sage advice to hear;
His sage advice makes glad the modest vale,
His moral lessons float on ev'ry gale.
Ah! prospects fair; alas! too fair to stay;
Like fleeting dreams, with night ye pass away.

SHAWNA.
At highest noon, beneath the blushing bow'r,
Reclin'd as wont, to pass the sultry hour,
With aspect mild my kind protector came,
And strongly vouch'd for Burdwa's honest flame.
Nor I to hide my virtuous passion strove:
For why should virtue be a foe to love?

ALVIA.
Sprung from the ancient race of India's kings,
Thou Burdwa lov'st — a spotless soul he brings,
Train'd up to rigid virtue from his youth—
Thy hero, too, supports the cause of truth.

SHAWNA.
He, like my brother, rous'd at honour's call—
Ah, boding heart! — perhaps is doom'd to fall.
The victor's pageants must that youth adorn,
Whose active soul outstrips the wings of morn!
Methinks I see the horrid host appear!
My father's suff'rings fill my soul with fear!
Torn from his palace — dragg'd in servile chains,
(Still human blood our ancient altar stains)
His treasures plunder'd, and himself a slave,
At midnight forc'd to an untimely grave!
Yes, sorrow at our city gates was seen,
And pestilence, with her distracted mein;
Lamenting mothers, prostrate on the ground,
Beheld their dying offspring stretch'd around;
Revenge sat brooding on th' infected air,
And Famine frantic grinn'd at keen Despair.—

Such were the plagues our wretched country knew,
When from these spoilers, with thy sire, we flew:
Then deeds were done that British arms disgrace,
And stain the annals of the human race.
Her loss Indostan mourn'd in tears of blood,
Whilst tyrants bore her treasures o'er the flood.
Praise him, ye Virgins, in your sacred songs,
Who boldly dares redress Rohilla's wrongs.—
A wounded captive next my brother lay,
Nor would the mandates of these Lords obey;
The bandage from his gaping wounds he tore,
And met his father on a milder shore.
In other forms superior joys they feel,
Nor dread they now th' invader's ruthless steel.

ALVIA.
Hark, hark! again the hollow murmurs rise,
And light'nings gleam, and thunders rend the skies.
Protect us, Heav'n — the fane on fire I see—
O horror! sacrilege! impiety!—
Haste, Princess, haste! the secret grot is near,
The forest falls — the bands of wrath appear!

Now tumult rag'd, whose loud, tempestuous roar
Was toss'd from rock to rock, from shore to shore:
The hungry vultures wait th' eventful day,
Wheel thro' the air, and eye their destin'd prey.
Europa's chiefs, far fam'd for martial deeds,
At length prevail — ill-fated Asia bleeds.
Fast by that grot the females breathless lay,
While rape and murder mark'd the Victor's way.

[pp. 8-15]