A strikingly gothic ruin-poem in thirty-five elegiac quatrains "Most respectfully inscribed to Nathaniel Ryder, Esq.; Member of Parliament for Tiverton, Devon" signed "W. P. Malling, Kent, July 31, 1771." The 'Norton" of the title is T. S. Eliot's "Burnt Norton." William Perfect's elegy relates the curious history of the place to 1771. William Keyt, bart. (1668-1741) had completed an elegant estate at Norton House when his marriage broke up and he took to drink and gambling. In 1741 he deliberately burned the house, and himself with it. The ruins were sold in 1753 to Sir Dudley Ryder, and were inherited by Nathaniel Ryder (1735-1803) who did not, as Perfect proposes, rebuild the house. The remains of the house described in the poem were pulled down in 1789. The landscape park of course survived the fire; on its vicissitudes see Edward Malins, "Burnt Norton" Garden History 7 (1979) 78-85.
As a physician, William Perfect specialized in cases of mental disease, which may have attracted him to the subject of William Keyt, whose story is related in the manner of Gray's Elegy: "When rear'd the Structure, all its Pomp of Pride, | Tyrannic Madness, guided by Despair, | Thro' Envy's Glass the splendid Portrait ey'd, | And whirl'd a fun'ral Brand with blazing Hair." As in that elegy, the tale is related by a hoary-headed swain, though with an allusion to Oliver Goldsmith's recently published Deserted Village: "Happ'ly I met, amidst the straggling Sheep, | Slow in the Function of his Morning Toil, | To cut the Thistle from the grassy Steep, | The sad Historian of the ruin'd Pile." "Norton, an Elegy" seems not to have been reprinted or collected.
Author's Note: Norton, "Situated in the Parish of Wesson, near the Town of Campden, in Gloucestershire. It was a Seat to the Estate of the late unhappy Sir William Keyte, who perished in the Flames he had raised for its Destruction, in the Year 1739, soon after it was finished. The beautiful Form of the House is entirely preserved, it being at this Time almost a complete Shell of Brickwork, owing, it is said, to a leaden Reservoir of Water that had been made upon the Top of the House, which falling in extinguished the Flames before they could destroy the more solid Parts of the Edifice. The Estate is now in the Possession of Nathaniel Ryder, Esq. to whom the Elegy is inscribed. This Line ["The Curfew tolls the Knell of parting Day"] is made applicable to the Custom which is still retained of tolling a Bell at Eight o'Clock at Campden, from whence the Writer begins his elegiac Progress."
Richard Graves, who lived near Norton in Gloucestershire, gives an account of William Keyt's dissipation and death in The Spiritual Quixote (1773), book 10, chapters 26 to 29, under the title of "Narrative of a licentious Amour." It concludes with the following account of the death of the Baronet: "On the morning of the day on which he executed his fatal resolution, Sir. W. sent for his son, and for his new mistress; with what intention can only be conjectured: but luckily neither of them obeyed the summons. Early in the evening (it being in the month of October, I think) the Butler had lighted two candles, as usual, and set them upon the marble table in the hall. Sir W. came down, and took them up himself, as he frequently did. After some time, however, one of the House-maids ran down stairs in a great fright, and said, 'the lobby was all in a cloud of smoke.' The servants, and a Tradesman that was in the house upon business, ran immediately up, and, forcing open the door whence the smoke seemed to proceed, they found Sir W. had set fire to a large heap of fine linen (piled up in the middle of the room), which had been given by some old Lady, a relation, as a legacy to his eldest son. Whilst the attention of the servants was entirely taken up with extinguishing the flames in the room, Sir W. had made his escape into an adjoining chamber, where was a cotton bed, and which was wainscoted with deal, as most finished rooms then were. When they had broke open the door, the flames had burst out upon them with such fury, that they were all glad to make their escape out of the house; the principal part of which sumptuous pile was in a few hours burnt to the ground; and no other remains of Sir. W. were found the next morning, than his hip-bone, and the vertebrae, or bones of the back; with two or three keys, and a gold watch, which he had in his pocket. This was the dreadful consequence of a a licentious passion, not checked in its infancy: or rather, thus may every unregenerate man expect to be drawn on from one degree of wickedness to another, when deserted by the Spirit, and given up to his own imaginations" (1783) 3:172-74.
"The Curfew tolls the Knell of parting Day,"
The Evening Shadows lengthen o'er the Dale,
Thy Muse, O Melancholy, directs the Way
Where Norton's variegated Glooms prevail.
See Sadness sits enshrin'd on yonder Brow!
Where Wesson's Precincts Norton's Relicks hold;
Come, sighing Elegy, thy Dirges now
In all the Luxury of Plaint unfold.
I leave the path-worn Mead, the shelving Hill,
The ample Prospect, and the corn-full Glade;
Thick-mingling Trees, ye Friends to Fancy's Quill,
My Muse conducts me to your darken'd Shade.
Sweet musing Solitude, this Spot is thine;
Thine, pensive Maid, this desolated Scene:
I feel thy Pow'r instructively divine;
How sweetly solemn looks thy peaceful Mien.
Thy silent Confines, Norton, wrap my Thought;
Permit a stranger to explore your Gloom:
I've not in vain the twisting Vista sought,
It leads me to a Mansion and a Tomb.
Ah me! how mournful looks the sadden'd Pile!
It seems to weep a most uncommon Fate;
How fresh the Architect's ingenious Toil!
Its Ruin speaks a much too early Date.
What rough Mischance did to this Spot extend?
The Dress of Elegance, in finish'd Taste,
Did once with Order thro' the Structure blend,
What sad Misfortune caus'd this beauteous Waste?
What dire Disaster, hapless Building say,
Has thus disrob'd thee of thy stately joy?
Thy roofless Tops are open to the Day,
Thy frameless Windows gape upon the Eye.
Forth from thy Threshold's Front the Elder peeps,
The pensive Owl flies screaming from thy Walls,
Athwart the naked Bricks the Ivy creeps,
And here the Cornice, there the Timber falls.
Within, the Nettles spring, the Thorns surround,
And matted Weeds o'erspread the shatter'd Floor.
'Tis Silence drear, save where the Echo's Sound
The boding Ravens croaking Throats explore.
Save where the scaly Beetle, Evening's Guest,
Flits murm'ring by upon the murky Breeze:
Tinkle the distant Folds; the Land-rails quest,
Or Zephyrs whisper thro' the dark-blue Trees.
No more the Clock the passing Hour repeats,
Each Stroke is banish'd from its rueful Face;
The bending Fane almost its Turret meets,
And sinking hangs as conscious of Disgrace.
The rust-eroded Gates support the Arms
Which, to their Master, Heraldry bestow'd;
Ah, vain Atchievement! mournful are the Charms
Thou wouldst perpetuate o'er this sad Abode.
All's Horror round! Distraction marks the Spot!
In one wild Chaos see the Gardens lie!
Fair Culture's Parent Duty is forgot,
The Walls disparted moulder on the Eye.
The straggling Limes protruding Branches meet,
The shaggy Satyrs in the Walks are seen,
The sullen Toad possesses this Retreat,
Where mining Vipers nurture mortal Spleen.
Low in the Grass the fallen Statue lies,
His pensive Head upon his Hand reclin'd;
Methinks fresh Sorrow seems to dim his Eyes,
For Fancy will indulge the musing Mind.
The Lares fled! Amidst yon deep-dark Bow'r
Aerial Sorrows take their wonted Stand;
Black Night approaches; let me fly the Hour,
For Phantoms rise — a fear-instilling Band!
Retires the Muse, by Melancholy bent,
Till Morn's glad Face returns; Aurora's Ray
Till Morn shall aid the Poet's weak Intent,
O'er Norton's Waste to pour another Lay.
Parent of Dews, the Morning lifts her Head,
Effusing Lustre from the bright'ning East;
To Cotswould Flocks by careful Shepherds led
Delicious Verdure yields an early Feast.
Struck with the pensive Pleasures Ev'ning brought
To Contemplation's Eye, the Muse essays,
By curious Speculation fondly taught,
To re-assume her elegiac Lays.
Not Dover's Hill my wand'ring Steps detains,
Not all the Prospects which its Height commands,
Of Hills, and Churches, Villages, and Plains;
The crowded Picture of extending Lands.
Thy Summit, Aston Hill, I scarcely climb,
'Ere, in dark Horrors clad with rigid Frown
Revolves the Scene in Ruins so sublime;
Whence sprung, O Norton, this thy sad Renown?
Happ'ly I met, amidst the straggling Sheep,
Slow in the Function of his Morning Toil,
To cut the Thistle from the grassy Steep,
The sad Historian of the ruin'd Pile.
Ah! me, his Story calls up Pity's Tear
The sad Narration is with Horror fraught;
His honest Sorrow weeps the fatal Year,
Fresh on the Table of his anguish'd Thought:
When rear'd the Structure, all its Pomp of Pride,
Tyrannic Madness, guided by Despair,
Thro' Envy's Glass the splendid Portrait ey'd,
And whirl'd a fun'ral Brand with blazing Hair.
Black was the Night, and dreadful to the Eye,
When Flames rapacious thro' the Windows pour'd,
Tremendous Wreaths ascended to the Sky,
And distant Aid the fatal Spot explor'd.
O dire Catastrophe! the fun'ral Pyre
With Frensy's Torch the Master's Hand supplied.
Of Help regardless, seen amidst the Fire
With pre-destin'd Rage he sunk and died.
Unhappy Man! The Chaos of thy Brain
When Reason fled, Compassion gives to mourn;
Remembrance, struck with sympathetic Pain,
Lets fall a Tear upon thy self-rais'd Urn.
Since then the Dye's irrevocably cast,
Why should this Monument of frantic Woe
To each enquiring Eye recite the Blast
By which Destruction laid its Beauties low?
Once more let Pleasure reign with festive Face,
Diffuse lost Comfort to the Landscape round;
Too long has stood this melancholy Place,
In Ruin's Mantle of Confusion crown'd.
Far-fam'd for Merit close this dreary Scene;—
To thee, O Ryder, let the Muse complain;
The imag'd Pow'rs of Norton all convene
To join the Muse's supplicating Strain.
With lavish Beauty in her brightest Vest,
This graceful Spot has Nature's Hand supplied,
The Hills with Sheep, the Fields with Plenty drest,
And Shades which give Retirement's lonely Pride.
Be thou her Guardian; let Improvements smile,
Destruction's long-held Triumph supersede;
And, to reward thy meritorious Toil,
Be ev'ry Blessing from above decreed
For thee, whom now the manly Virtues weave
A Chaplet, Ryder, of most fair Renown:
Domestic Happiness might Norton give;
Contentment's Sweets should all thy Minutes crown.
The happy Contrast my unpolish'd Muse
Devoutly wishes; whilst in fair Arrange
Each social Good the Path of Bounty strews,
That rustic joy may gratulate the Change.