1786
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Physiognomist: a Descriptive Poem, in imitation of Spenser.

Poems by James Fordyce, D.D.

Rev. James Fordyce


"The Physiognomist," an allegorical poem consisting chiefly of a series of Theophrastan characters, is in forty Spenserian stanzas; the poem appears to have been suggested by the "mirror of vanity" episode in the first canto of Thomson's Castle of Indolence. James Fordyce was for a time one of the most popular preachers in London and this poem probably something to the art of rhetoric. The opening stanzas describe how the poet, straying from his retirement, encountered a mob of people, including one of "meagre form, and searching look" who directs his attention to the features of those meandering about in the throng of people. The strange figure explains, "The Passions early print a sev'ral Line | On ev'ry Form: each Line I have perus'd. | Those Passions it reveals without design" p. 185. This is a fact well understood by the painter, poet, statuary, and actor. The wizard then proceeds to sketch the moral attributes of twenty-two characters, one to a stanza, in which traditional types are recast in the mode of contemporary sensibility that made Fordyce a successful pulpit orator.

The slothful and vain character is distinguished from that of virtue; the envious from the friendly; choleric from the calculating man. Pride is contrasted with modesty, and hypocrisy, of "glozing passion, and of cunning sleek," with mental instability, guilt, and folly. The fop and the courtier are distinguished from the generous man, libertinism from false modesty. Next appear the city merchant and the country squire, "To nice roast beef and pudding ever staunch." The catalogue concludes with a pious contemplative, who p-presumably knows how to read characters. The poem breaks off; "The Hist'ry were too long, | Did I minutely ev'ry Line explain, | The Wizard-Wight mark'd out in that mix'd Throng" p. 201. Compare Cornelius Arnold, The Mirror. A Poetical Essay in the Manner of Spenser (1755).

English Review: "Dr. Fordyce's poems have a merit of no common kind; they are entirely his own. We seldom meet with poetical common places; with ideas and expressions taken from other poets; with shreds of purple and scarlet stolen from the nobles of Parnassus, and inserted incongruously on a plain ground" 9 (January 1787) 29.

William Enfield: "The respectable Author of the poems now before us, to whose pulpit-eloquence we have often paid he tribute of unfeigned respect, will, therefore, pardon us, if we find ourselves incapable of allowing him equal merit in his new character. Good sense, warm feelings, and flowing language, we every where discover in these pieces; but cannot, we confess, perceive that boldness of conception, and that elevation and strength of diction, which characterize the true poet. The turn of expression is often prosaic; the melody of the verse is not equally preserved; and the rhimes are often exceedingly faulty. Within the compass of s single page, we find the following rhimes: 'too,' 'crew'; 'scoff,' 'laught'; 'cause,' stars'; 'chace,' excess.'... Several of the pieces in this collection breathe a spirit of piety, which greatly increases their value" Monthly Review 77 (November 1787) 376-78.



There liv'd a Wizard, old and wan,
Phys'ognomist yclep'd,
Long wont to spy the thoughts of man:
They seldom him escap'd.

'Tis not for me to know, yet less depaint
The Soul, and all her passions to unveil;
My days mid musty books now long yspent,
My life sequester'd in a lonely Cell!
I much desir'd in social scenes to dwell:
But sickness, toil, and pain, me drove away,
To drink the freshness of the hill and dale,
On heaths, in lawns, and silent groves to stray,
And now and then with prattling children fond to play.

But erst I fell into a Public Walk,
Where pensive, grave, and odd, I stroll'd along,
There did I see ten thousand figures stalk;
While I was lost amid the motley throng,
Unheeding where I was, or whom among:
Till suddenly aroused by a Wight
Unlike the rest, as though by chaunce there flung.
Earnest he kest me on his prying sight.
Surpris'd, appall'd, at first I thought to take my flight.

Nathless, his meagre form, and searching look,
Awak'd me to attention in my turn.
I felt as if with him I then partook:
He seem'd as if dispos'd mankind to mourn.
In sooth, their lot doth oft appear forlorn.
But though eftsoons I learnt, he hated vice,
And cunning from his heart would ever spurn,
He aye with ardour lov'd the good and wise,
And all his soul did in their happiness rejoice.

In brief, some sympathetic power me bound.
By him I sat me down beneath a tree,
And begg'd to know, what mortal I had found,
Whose Guise and Visage so engaged me?
He answer'd kind, "In you, I clearly see,
Your soul is molten with a fervent flame:
You long from sin to set your fellows free:
And certes, there is cause! I feel the same:
Much cause I hourly find. — PHYS'OGNOMIST my name!"

I ask'd, what motive brought him to th at crowd,
Whence he divin'd the cares that fill'd my breast,
How he could bide a multitude so loud,
And why he did not 'scape from such unrest?
He said, his heart right early was impress'd
With eager zeal to read the inmost Mind;
That all occasions long he had embrac'd
To scan its thoughts; and still he was inclin'd
To share the joys and sorrows of his native kind.

Like to the Limner's eye by Nature made
To catch her boldest lines, his too was taught
To seize her Moral Features, when survey'd
By quick instinctive glance with feeling fraught.
And als by constant study he had sought
To point with truest aim the mental ray.
Ne yet he deem'd such skill too dearly bought,
Though what he saw would oft times cause dismay:
But chief on fairest views his charmed sight would stay.

I then rejoin'd, "O tell me, Sir, the source,
From whence you draw these notions so clear.
Tell me, I pray you, by what hidden force
Into the secret soul you look so near,
Deeply contemplating her inmost sphere;
And measuring exact the Human Face,
Whereon your wond'rousd system firm you rear,
The various Characters of men to trace,
Distain'd by sin, or bright array'd in heav'nly grace.

He mild replied, "The Power that made the heart,
And all its divers feelings first infus'd,
The Outward Frame did mould with ans'wring art;
So that unless by practice vile abus'd,
To show th' Inside it seldom hath refus'd.
The Passions early print a sev'ral Line
On ev'ry Form: each Line I have perus'd.
Those Passions it reveals without design;
Nor oft I them mistake, though subtle oft, and fine.

"Sometimes I grant, this world's disguising wiles
Shall the true mintage of the Mind efface:
And eke sometimes fair Virtue's strenuous toils
Shall evil thoughts, and wrong desires, repress;
And though the Stamp there left we may yet trace,
Her triumph happily our eye deceives.
But Vice can rarely hide her just disgrace;
Though that it is not known the fool believes.
And from her flatterers applauses gross receives.

"'Tis said by those unskill'd in Nature's lore,
The Face is a false glass, however sheen:
Though men have told us otherwise of yore,
And numbers since, the soul is seldom seen.
A vulgar error! Sicker, in the Eyne
She sits as in her windows to descry
Each thing around: and there, I truly ween,
Her and her ways we often may espy,
Unless we unconcern'd and heedless passen by.

"Nor to her Windows is the Soul confin'd:
To all the Mansion she extends her care.
To serve her purposes therewith combin'd,
Her laws through all she fails not to declare.
The Mouth, the Voice, the Ears, she doth not spare
To form: the Head and Feet obey her will.
Their motions all to her lye ever bare:
Her universal energy they feel;
Nor dare they her commands to cross, or oft conceal.

"The Painter's and the Statuary's Art,
Built on this deep-laid ground, doth chiefly aim
To mark the Plastic Mind in Ev'ry part.
On this alone she seeks to raise a name,
And eke from this the Poet draws his fame.
On this broad basis rests the Actor's skill,
All, all its truth and consequence proclaim:
That Ruling Power within t' exhibit still,
All, all this highest purpose labour to fulfill.

"But why to Art or Study here resort?
Phys'ognomy is felt by ev'ry breast.
Who hath not heard the rustic swain report
Th' effect spontaneous on his heart impress'd,
When natively its feelings he confess'd,
Although he could not tell from whence they flow'd?
His simple mind in simple phrase was dress'd;
That Moll he lov'd, and for his wife had wood'd,
Because that, to his thinking, Moll look'd sweet and good.

"To Animals themselves hath Nature giv'n,
A meaning countenance that shadows forth
Their special tendencies? And yet would Heav'n
Deny to Man, the Lord of all on earth,
To man whose mind from Heav'n deriv'd its birth,
A speaking Phys'ognomy that mote areed
To each observant eye his inward worth,
Or else his baseness? No! it was decreed,
That Wisdom still unerring should in all proceed.

"The very sooth to say, imperial Man
Is oft times character'd by semblance strong
To Birds and Beasts; as if his Maker's plan,
In Features visible their race among,
Were to restrain his conscious Soul from wrong;
Lest shameful guise of vilest Brutes should prove,
That to their lowest ranks she doth belong,
In place of striving, by celestial love,
To look like glorious Spirits the bright stars above.

"Let us, my Friend, those Strangers now survey
That close by where we rest unweeting sweep,
In slow succession: though they pass away,
Yet lasting information we may reap.
In public scenes the mind is not asleep,
'Tis there the passions chiefly are awake:
Things transient there oft leave impression deep;
And signatures, that on the Thoughts they make,
By lively sympathy the Senses all partake.

"There are, we own, tribes of unmeaning things,
Whose pond'rous souls, if souls indeed they have,
Lye sunk in sloth, ne ever spread their wings:
To eat and drink, and dream, is all they crave.
As quick sensation none they do receive,
So, certes, none they can display;
But merely seem like drones withouten stings,
Dull, drowsy, idle; or, the truth to say,
We may pronounce them Lumps of coarse unkneaded clay.

"And now, though doubtless cast in fairer mould,
Though dight so fine in Beauty's gay attire,
How many silly figures I behold,
That true affection never could inspire!
Their bosoms never glow'd with friendly fire.
You see them flounce and flutter as they god.
None but their foolish selves they do admire.
Mark how they toss their heads still to and fro!
Insipid, vain, they only think to make a show.

"But ah! what blessed Angel from above!
Grace is in all her steps, Heav'n in her Eye,
In ev'ry Gesture dignity and love.
Most sure she is descended from the Sky.
Attentive note her as she passeth by.
Her Look exalted, and her Air serene,
Speak conscious peace, and thoughts divinely high:
They tell that all is calm and right within,
As she of sacred Virtue were the very Queen.

"Far other Form draws nigh with haughty Gait.
She darts around her many a Leer malign,
And swells her Crest with all the pride of state.
Her soul ne'er breath'd one sentiment benign.
Those serpent Eyes with crafty rancour pine,
Her selfish heart fair Honour cannot bind.
Like slipp'ry snakes still in a crooked line,
She wists not how to fix her wav'ring mind,
Ne can a thought impart sincerely free or kind.

"See next that dove-like Look, and open Face,
That mild Demeanour, and that gentle Mien:
They shew sweet courtesy to human race:
In them a soft and gen'rous heart is seen.
This Man ne'er knew in all his life the spleen:
But still he went about the pleasing toil,
Whiles friendship melted in his hazel Eyne,
Men to relieve; and often he would smile;
And his benignity would aye his cares beguile.

"Shield me, ye Powers of Innocence and Truth,
Oh! shield me from that fiery furious Wight:
For sure his bosom is devoid of truth.
Black guilt and falsehood are his sole delight,
Infernal rage, foul passions, and despight.
Mark his fierce feeling Eye! His thund'rous Voice
Bewrays his breast, the region of affright!
Fain would he hide his terrours in that noise,
By horrour still pursued, and startled with surprise.

"But yet I do not like a Voice suppress'd,
Guarded, and smooth: it smacks too strong of art.
Sweet liquid Tones, yet powerful, please me best:
With tender force they vibrate to the heart,
And each idea full and true impart.
Nor do I love a Forehead round and high:
It shows resolves that nought can e'er divert.
Unconquer'd stubbornness I there descry:
There I perceive no yielding meek humility."

The Wizard paus'd, and then proceeded thus:
"Saw you yon pompous Fool that forward rush'd
Through op'ning ranks, and made a mighty fuss,
With swagg'ring haste, as though he would have crush'd
All in his way: so strangely is he flush'd
With self-importance! Prithee, mark him well:
He now returns. That Mortal never blush'd.
Oh, how with pride puff'd up his Nostrils swell;
While redd'ning arrogance upon his front doth dwell!

"In him who next moves on with sober pace,
Of fancied greatness you behold no flare.
In his calm aspect sits unstudied grace:
He never aim'd to make the rabble stare.
O Modesty, how lovely, and how rare!
In thee no look elate of consequence:
'Tis only little minds that court a glare.
Alas! what lack they show of manly sense!
True dignity rests on itself without pretence.

"Remark that trowling Tongue, that laughing Eye,
Small, dark, dry, twinkling oft; and that smooth Cheek:
Cautious beware of sly hypocrisy,
Of glozing passion, and of cunning sleek.
A soul from sooth and worth estrang'd they speak.
But now survey those sweet, cerulean Eyne,
Moist, sparkling, gently moving, open, meek.
Pure love and lasting friendship here are seen,
With honest frankness, faith, and truth serene!

"What melancholy, mutt'ring thing stalks there,
With little glaring Eyes sunk in his head?
Lo! how they roll sometimes, and sometimes stare!
Ah! well I weet, the wretched man is mad.
'Tis very long since the poor soul was glad,
And yet full oft he dreams he is a Saint,
But then anon he wishes he were dead.
With holy rage, and dark despair yblent,
His intellect is gone, and all his breast is rent.

"Close to him comes another woeful Wight,
See him now run, now stop, now sudden start!
He looks as though a ghost did him affright,
With guilty consciousness of some dire art,
Or secret crime, that harrows up his heart.
Haggard suspicion haunts him all the way,
Till balmy sleep quite from his eyes depart.
Some dreaded vengeance holds his soul at bay;
And his dark thoughts 'mong graves and gibbets fearful stray.

"But see that titt'ring Ideot brisk advance;
How loud she laughs and talks! Now louder still!
With round unthinking Face she throws a glance,
That ev'ry passing beau must surely kill,
Or make him all obedience to her will.
A gorgeous suit appears! O la', she cries,
How fine! Such splendour doth her bosom thrill.
Alas! how wrinkled age will her surprise!
Nonsense and dress her All, whilst youth with beauty flies!

"And now an airy Coxcomb trips alone,
With gogle-Eyne he gazeth all about,
Gaping and wond'ring at the female throng.
If he meet harlot gay, O such a rout!
If modest ladies frown, he perks his snout;
Now turns, his own dear person to admire;
Now stands on tip-toe, all those prudes to flout;
Assur'd each finer wench's heart to fire
With love and joy, and fondest passion to inspire.

"Note next that smiling coaxing Courtier there.
See how he smirks, and grins, and shrugs, and bends;
So easy, degage! He wears an air,
As if he thought that all he met were Friends.
Fell jealousy, nathless, his bosom rends.
If I could serve you, Sir, he bowing cries,
Squeezing the hand that chiefly him offends.
For rank, and power, and place he only sighs;
And all his life is hidden anguish and disguise.

"Now mark his Contrast, open, frank, and kind,
With Lion-brow, and aspect somewhat stern.
There you may read a brave undaunted mind;
As in those glist'ning Eyes you may discern,
That over human woe his heart doth yearn.
A gen'rous pride he ever will maintain,
But while right hard he toils, his bread to earn,
To succour others he doth often strain,
Though still his Look is odd, and Manner mighty plain.

"Yet diff'rent far from yon rude noisy Fool,
Who prides himself on being wondrous free!
Of proper 'haviour he regards no rule,
But winks, and wags, and bawls, and slaps your knee;
Pretending all the time to harmless gless—
I hope, Sir, no offence: it is my way—
Your way, Sir, I must tell you, suits not me.
With grooms and porters you are fit to play:
In civil company, I vow, you shall not stay.

"Here follows next, with silent step, and slow,
A Vet'ran, arm'd all o'er with utmost art.
His constant care to parry ev'ry blow;
Aye cool and cautious he doth hide his heart,
In closest guile: no warmth it can impart.
Beneath those pendant Brows, observe his Eye
Taking of you a stolen peep athwart,
To see if your intents he may espy,
While thus he wears the guise of bashful modesty.

"Lo! yonder one of Mammon's fav'rite Sons.
He sneaks with eager Face, and louting Head.
The fear of falling stocks, him sorely stuns.
What if he yet should starve for want of bread?
The stocks mount up: his terrours now are fled.
He snaps his thumbs, and plays his harpy hands,
To think how well his anxious cares have sped;
Now counts his gold; then wanders o'er his lands;
And strictest watch to keep he ev'ry night command.

"But see that rosey Squire, with swolen Paunch!
His oily Looks proclaim, he lives to eat.
To nice roast beef and pudding ever staunch,
His God his belly, and his Soul his meat!
He licks his lubber Lips, and in the plate
He pokes his broad flat Nose, to snuff the steam:
Then puffs and gorges. — Ah! it is so sweet!
With rapture he pursues the glorious theme,
And swears that all beside is but an empty dream.

"How much superior that sickly Wight,
His high-illumined Features clearly tell.
To think, to feel, to fly, is his delight;
That in the air his soul doth seem to dwell,
And Nature's sacred myst'ries there can spell,
From lower pleasures he was early driv'n.
O, how his breast with thoughts sublime doth swell!
And as he darts his Eagle-Eye to Heav'n,
Its brightest, warmest, purest flame to him is giv'n.

"Thrice blest the Soul refin'd, that doth not moil;
But lives abstract from care; no wretched thrall
To sensual appetite, sprung from the coil
Of gross mortality! From this low ball,
Of Truth celestial she hears the call,
And to her native seat she pants to rise,
And heights attain from whence she shall not fall,
To breathe seraphic love in yonder skies,
Where Sickness is not known, and Wisdom never dies!

"Alas! what pity, when th' immortal Mind,
Where God's own Superscription should be read,
Printed in fairest characters, you find
With filth and thick pollution all o'erspread,
Each lovely lineament for ever fled;
The hapless Man into a Brute transmew'd,
His Maker's beauteous Image now quite dead,
His noblest faculties to earth fast glued,
That he can never more approach the Sov'reign Good!"

But here we cease. The Hist'ry were too long,
Did I minutely ev'ry Line explain,
The Wizard-Wight mark'd out in that mix'd Throng.
With me the recollection will remain:
What strikes us deep we readily retain.
But this soft Age soon tires of Doctrines grave:
Its jovial spirit flies the touch of pain;
Though conscious guilt to own, 'tis much too brave.
Ah me! how few from Vice or Folly we can save!

[pp. 181-201]