1794
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Pilchard-Seine: a Fragment.

Sketches in Verse, with Prose Illustrations.

Rev. Richard Polwhele


A Miltonic burlesque "written on a Tour through Cornwall, in 1794" in which Richard Polwhele strives to overgo the traditional fishwives and oyster-women by describing an even lower order of humanity, the makers of fish-oil. The poem opens with the arrival of the herrings, describes the process of sorting them into piles and compressing them in barrels, and concludes with an invocation: "Say, Muse, who court'st the airs | Breath'd from the tender myrtle bower, that marks | Each little garden fast by tinkling rill; | Say, how canst thou depict, on palet meet, | The pilchard process, from which Hottentots | Might shrink disdainful?" Polwhele departs from the conventional presentation of description in imitations of Philips's Splendid Shilling, offering neither a verse character nor a burlesque encomium, though the common influence of Dutch genre painting links this "sketch" to others works in the Milton series. This 1796 volume was published anonymously and not well received.

John Aikin: "Though these sketches are not devoid of poetical ideas, yet they are not wrought either with that felicity of genius, or that correctness of taste, which can entitle them to distinction among the numerous productions of the muse. Amid the variety of subjects which they comprise, the writer seems to succeed best in the descriptive and picturesque" Monthly Review NS 21 (September 1796) 108.



See, to the surface of the sea they rise,
Colouring the tremulous wave with ruddy beams,
Now from the boats deep-laden, at the beach,
Are pour'd forth myriads of the glittering race
In many a mountain-heap — What numerous lives
Struggle and faint, then melt into thin air!
Pure spirits that, commingled with the skies,
No mortal sense assail. Alas! not so
Their grosser bodies; that, ere long, attack
The nerve olfactory with noisome stench,
Such as the cunning Reynard ne'er effus'd
The bloody pack to annoy. Anon, a crowd
Of boisterous females, ruder far than those
Yclept of Billingsgate, snuff up with glee
The savoury blessing. Lo, the cellar-gates
Flung open to receive the prize, they part
From the fat-bellied the more puny fry:
Kindly manure, to enrich the slaty land.
Others, meantime, in curious order, place
The silver rows; scattering with hands profuse,
Those nitrous particles by which the world
Exists, unputrified. Rank above rank,
The scales arise, in regular array,
Till the pile, deep and well-compacted, mount
E'en to the cellar roofs, a mighty bulk.
There for awhile it rests. But say, O Muse,
Who lov'st to lead thy votary o'er the hills
Of Manathon, whence many a winding creek
Fring'd with luxuriant coppice, whence the sea's
Green bosom he surveys — or bid'st, perchance,
The nearer landscape his fond eye attract
To the soft verdure of its elmy dales,
To its neat hamlets percht on crags aloft,
To its trim orchards, to its clustering hops,
Or to its ragged oaks, whose pale crests moan
The western gale — Say, Muse, who court'st the airs
Breath'd from the tender myrtle bower, that marks
Each little garden fast by tinkling rill;
Say, how canst thou depict, on palet meet,
The pilchard process, from which Hottentots
Might shrink disdainful? — To pull down the pile
That erst so regular arose, to wash
The scaled salt from every tasteful fish,
To fill the unheaded barrels with the fry,
To range the saturated casks, to set
On each its weight enormous, and to urge
The groaning press till floods of oil descend,
And copious, down the pebbled channel roll;
Such is the task of beings that scarce claim
The name of human, toiling amidst filth
Pestiferous, and by ardent draughts sustain'd.

Sicken'd by these effluvia, I return
To where Condurra shall with other steams
Ere long salute my nostrils — steams, exhal'd
From fruits ambrosial — racy apples crisp,
Such as exhilarate my frame, and give
My glowing Muse to aim at loftier themes.

[pp. 38-41]