1794
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Elegy on an old Wig found in the Street.

New York Magazine and Literary Repository 5 (February 1794) 120-22.

Richard Bingham Davis


A burlesque elegy in 22 quatrains signed "D." The poem pokes fun at the many sentimental imitations of Gray's Elegy that were thronging the periodicals of the 1780s and 90s. The wig is imagined as the former property of some dignified person, judge, professor, scholar, doctor, but now fallen upon hard times: "For tho' cast off, neglected and forgot, | 'Twas once thy fate in other scenes to shine; | Thine was in happier times a splendid lot; | Beauty and worth and dignity were thine." After describing the wig's present unhappy lot, Richard B. Davis concludes by recounting, not his own death, but his own unnoticed disappearance as recounted by his barber. The hapless Davis contributed both poems and essays to the New York Magazine, including a self-portrait reprinted in the memoir in his posthumous Poems (1807).

Note in Poems: "Mr. Davis was a member of the Callopean Society, a literary club established in the city of New York. Some of their productions were published in the New-York Magazine, under the head of the Drone; those numbers written by Mr. Davis were designated by the letter D" (1807) xv-xvi.



How many a scene in life demands our tears!
Thick on the heart what sad reflections press!
At ev'ry turn some sight of woe appears,
At ev'ry step some object of distress.

Of those who once in fortune's splendour shone,
By crouds attended, by the world carest,
How many a sigh, neglected and unknown,
Or known but as insulted and opprest!

This shapeless mass, which mud and filth disgrace,
The helpless victim of the pelting storm,
Whose faded beauties Taste no more can trace,
Or ev'n Conjecture analyse its form;

Was once a Wig — How alter'd now its state!
Where are its beauties now? its glories where?
Distinguish'd by the notice of the great,
Grac'd by the admiration of the fair?

Gone — gone! — O Wig! — Yet, while thou bidst adieu
To all the glories of each once gay scene,
Fain would the muse ('tis all she can) renew
The mem'ry of what thou, alas! hast been:

For tho' cast off, neglected and forgot,
'Twas once thy fate in other scenes to shine;
Thine was in happier times a splendid lot;
Beauty and worth and dignity were thine.

Some Judge sagacious, learned in the law,
Us'd thee, perhaps, his solemn frown t' improve;
While culprits, juries, courts, with rev'rend awe,
Shook like Olympus at the nod of Jove.

Some grave professor's head has been thy place;
Haply 'twas thine his office to bespeak,
While, clinging closely round his classic face,
Each learned curl seem'd buckled stiff with Greek.

Some bard, perhaps, in meditation deep,
Some student hard of Demosthenian stamp,
Giving to study the soft hours of sleep,
Has sing'd thy tresses at the midnight lamp.

Or it has been thy niggard lot to bind
Some miser's wrinkled brow, (while o'er his chest
He hung, with base idolatry inclin'd,)
Whose "auri sacra fames" broke his rest.

Thou mayst have grac'd some Doctor's sapient phiz,
Like owl in snow-clad bush with solemn pride,
Whose patients seem'd to hear the harmless whiz
Of Death's weak shafts, turn'd by his art aside.

Or, sentenc'd to a more ignoble fate,
Thou may'st have hung upon an empty scull;
For Wisdom's ensigns oft give Folly state,
And many a rev'rend wig adorns a fool.

Fain would the muse proceed — but what avails
That once thou hast sustain'd a splendid part?—
Sad Truth condemns such visionary tales,
And turns her steady eye to what thou art.

Like Woolsey, thou hast bid a long farewell
To all thy greatness; all thy pomp is o'er;
No more dost thou the pride of grandeur swell;
Plebeians tremble at thy nod no more.

What art thou now? disgrac'd, soil'd, mangled, torn,
Neglected, save that the mischievous dog
Shakes thee in sportive rage, or, more forlorn,
Thou form'st a pillow for the wallowing hog.

Thus, buried far amid the sandy waste,
Palmyra's broken columns meet the eye;
Thus Nimrod's lofty walls no more are trac'd;
Thus Israel's sacred domes in ruins lie.

"The cloud-capt towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples," like this wig must fall;
Their names shall die, their memory shall cease,
And Time's oblivious darkness bury all.

Then he, whose plaintive strains now mourn thy fate,
Must sure expect an humbler destiny;
For, never notic'd by the fair or great,
A simple, solitary bard is he.

No verse shall mourn, no stranger hear his fall—
Sometimes, perhaps, a barber's boy may tell,
(While, on coarse paper, stuck against the wall,
This verse adorns his shop) "I knew him well;

"Each weak to trim his visage sharp and thin
Was my employ — nor hard the task was found;
Twelve straggling hairs I scrap'd from off his chin,
Twelve more, behind, an inch of ribbon bound.

"He lately disappear'd — but when, or where
He went, or how, or why he's gone,
None know, nor do I think that any care,
For he, while here, appear'd to care for none.

"Thoughtful and silent in the shop he sat;
No object seem'd his vacant eye to call;
He heeded none of all our various chat;
And now we hear of him no more — that's all."

[pp. 120-22]