1764
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Pleasures of Contemplation.

Original Poems on Several Occasions. By Miss Whateley.

Mary Darwall


A night-piece by a provincial poet in the manner of Thomas Warton's Pleasures of Melancholy. This blank-verse descriptive ode is furnished with a pleasing succession of ghosts, sylvan deities, fairy elves, and ruins. The poem, however, shifts abruptly into the didactic register: "Is this what men, to Thought estrang'd, miscall | Despondence? This dull Melancholy's Scene? | To trace th' Eternal Cause thro' all his Works, | Minutely and magnificently wise?" p. 75. There was precedent for this gesture in "A Nocturnal Reverie" by Anne Finch, Countess of Winchelsea. Mary Whateley's conclusion follows the mode of Young's Night Thoughts, the poet assuring us that whatever the devotees of midnight masquerades might believe, Contemplation is no foe to pleasure.

The poems of the pleasures series was not as yet constituted as a recognizable sequence, which would happen only following the publication of Samuel Rogers's The Pleasures of Memory near the end of the eighteenth century. Mid-century pleasures-of poems like this one tended to be in the mode of Milton's Il Penseroso, shorter and concerned with intellectual pleasures generally, as opposed to the later poems in which a single component of intellectual experience would be amplified and illustrated at great length. Mary Whateley was married shortly after her first volume was published; her next would appear three decades later.

John Langhorne: "There are some species of poetry, in which the Ladies, from their peculiar sensibility, seem qualified to excel. Where the tender interests of the heart are the subject — in the elegant complainings of elegy — and the natural simplicity of pastoral imagery, they appear to have a natural superiority. We have a recent instance of the success with which some of these subjects have been treated by a Lady, in the volume before us.... The poem entitled The Pleasures of Contemplation, is extremely picturesque, and contains several beautiful images, and allusions entirely new.... The last of these pieces, addressed to Mr. Langhorne, has many poetical beauties; and from one stanza of it we learn, that our ingenious Poetess was known to the late Mr. Shenstone, and that he was an admirer of her verses.... We have observed, in our review of these Poems, that they are more correct than the literary productions of Ladies in general; and it is with great pleasure we associate the name of Miss Whateley, with those of Jones, Carter, and the rest of the British Muses" Monthly Review 30 (June 1764) 446-50.

Critical Review: "Miss Whateley begins this collection with a dedication to Lady Wrottesley, in which she modestly confesses her never having studiously ranged through the regions of imagination to seek for paths unexplored by former writers, but sat down content to employ her humble abilities upon such themes as friendship, gratitude, and native freedom of fancy, presented to her thoughts. Even her love-poems, she intimates, were written by a heart at ease, and that she only addressed Cupid as he happened to come in company with the rural muse. She goes on to assure us, that her pen was never prostituted to flatter a friend or a superior, or to gratify revenge; for she considered such meanness as unworthy talents consecrated to truth and virtue. Whoever has, in this manner, laboured to diffuse sentiments of benevolence, and to increase the moral duties, must in some measure succeed as a christian, whatever may be her success as a poet. But we would not be supposed to intimate that this lady owes all her reputation to the motives that impelled her to write; she owes much to her execution. An easy simplicity runs through this whole volume; and though it may want the vigour of manly sentiment, yet it possesses all the softer delicacies of her sex" 18 (August 1764) 114.



Queen of the Halcyon Breast, and Heav'n-ward Eye,
Sweet Contemplation, with thy Ray benign
Light my lone Passage thro' the Vale of Life,
And raise the Siege of Care! this silent Hour
To thee is sacred, when the Star of Eve,
Like Dian's Virgins trembling ere they bathe,
Shoots o'er th' Hesperian Wave its quiv'ring Ray.

All Nature joins to fill my lab'ring Breast
With high Sensations: aweful Silence reigns
Above, around; the sounding Winds no more
Wild thro' the fluctuating Forest fly
With Gust impetuous; Zephyr scarcely breathes
Upon the trembling Foliage; Flocks, and Herds,
Retir'd beneath the friendly Shade repose
Fann'd by Oblivion's Wing. Ha! is not this,
This the dread Hour, as ancient Fables tell,
When flitting Spirits from their Prisons broke
By Moon-light glide along the dusky Vales,
The solemn Church-yard, or the dreary Grove;
Fond to revisit their once lov'd Abodes,
And view each friendly Scene of past Delight?

Satyrs, and Fawns, that in sequester'd Woods,
And deep-embow'ring Shades delight to dwell;
Quitting their Caves, where in the Reign of Day
They slept in Silence, o'er the daisi'd Green
Pursue their Gambols, and with printless Feet
Chace the fleet Shadows o'er the waving Plains.

Dryads, and Naiads, from each Spring and Grove,
Trip blithsome o'er the Lawns; or near the Side
Of mossy Fountains, sport in Cynthia's Beams.

The Fairy Elves, attendant on their Queen,
With light Steps bound along the velvet Mead,
And leave the green Impression of their Dance
In Rings mysterious to the passing Swain;
While the pellucid Glow-worm kindly lends
Her silver Lamp to light the festive Scene.

From yon majestic Pile, in Ruin great,
Whose lofty Tow'rs once on approaching Foes
Look'd stern Defiance, the sad Bird of Night
In mournful Accent to the Moon complains:
Those Tow'rs with venerable Ivy crown'd,
And mould'ring into Ruin, yield no more
A safe Retirement to the hostile Bands;
But there the lonely Bat, that shuns the Day,
Dwells in dull Solitude; and screaming thence
Wheels the Night Raven shrill, with hideous Note
Portending Death to the dejected Swain.

Each Plant and Flow'ret bath'd in Ev'ning Dews,
Exhale refreshing Sweets: from the smooth Lake,
On whose still Bosom sleeps the tall Tree's Shade,
The Moon's soft Rays reflected mildly shine.

Now tow'ring Fancy takes her airy Flight
Without Restraint, and leaves this Earth behind;
From Pole to Pole, from World to World, she flies;
Rocks, Seas, nor Skies, can interrupt her Course.

Is this what Men, to Thought estrang'd, miscall
Despondence? this dull Melancholy's Scene?
To trace th' Eternal Cause thro' all his Works,
Minutely and magnificently wise?
Mark the Gradations which thro' Nature's plan
Join each to each, and form the vast Design?
And tho' Day's glorious Guide withdraws his Beams
Impartial, chearing other Skies and Shores;
Rich Intellect, that scorns corporeal Bands,
With more than Mid-day Radiance gilds the Scene:
The Mind, now rescu'd from the Cares of Day,
Roves unrestrain'd thro' the wide realms of Space;
Where (Thought stupendous!) Systems infinite,
In regular Confusion taught to move,
Like Gems bespangle yon etherial Plains.

Ye Sons of pleasure, and ye Foes to Thought,
Who search for Bliss in the capacious Bowl,
And blindly woo Intemperance for Joy;
Durst ye retire, hold Converse with yourselves,
And in the silent Hours of Darkness court
Kind Contemplation with her peaceful Train;
How wou'd the Minutes dance on downy Feet,
And unperceiv'd the Midnight Taper waste,
While intellectual Pleasure reign'd supreme!

Ye Muses, Graces, Virtues, Heav'n-born Maids!
Who love in peaceful Solitude to dwell
With meek-ey'd Innocence, and radiant Truth,
And blushing Modesty; that frighted fly
The dark Intrigue, and Midnight Masquerade!
What is this Pleasure which inchants Mankind?
'Tis Noise, 'tis Toil, 'tis Frenzy, like the Cup
Of Circe, fam'd of old, who tastes it find
Th' etherial Spark divine to Brute transform'd.

And now, methinks, I hear the Libertine
With supercilious Leer, cry, "Preach no more
Your musty Morals; hence to Deserts fly,
And in the Gloom of solitary Caves
Austerely dwell: what's Life debarred from Joy?
Crown then the Bowl, let Music lend her Aid,
And Beauty her's, to soothe my wayward Cares."

Ah! little does he know the Nymph he styles
A foe to Pleasure; Pleasure is not more
His aim than her's; with him she joins to blame
The Hermit's Gloom, and savage Penances;
Each social Joy approves. Oh! without thee,
Fair Friendship, Life were nothing; without thee,
The Page of Fancy would no longer charm,
And Solitude disgust e'en pensive Minds.

Nought I condemn but that Excess which clouds
The mental Faculties, to soothe the Sense:
Let Reason, Truth, and Virtue, guide thy Steps,
And ev'ry Blessing Heav'n bestows be thine.

[pp. 72-77]