Ode to Consumption.

Poems. Second Edition.

Mary Russell Mitford

An allegorical ode first printed in the second edition of Mary Russell Mitford's Poems. The general inspiration is perhaps William Collins's Ode to Fear, though the Ode to Consumption might better be regarded as a late example of the Della Cruscan poetry popular two decades earlier. The poem turns on the paradoxical effect of a disease that heightens the beauty of the victims it will eventually kill: "Beauty her only warning given, | Thou trickest out a bride for Heaven. | So thin, she floats upon the eye, | Like light clouds o'er the evening sky; | It seems as no terrestrial creature | Could so throw off all earthly feature" p. 188.

Avaunt, gay mockery of truth!
Thou canker in the bud of youth!
Thou gilded serpent, whose bright show
Conceals thy poison bags below!
Consumption, hence! thou, hand in hand
With madness, broodest o'er the land:
Bright mischief, hence! the church-yards groan
With victims by thy power o'erthrown.
Insatiate thou of human blood,
Most delicate glutton in thy food;
The best and fairest chasing still,
And breaking hearts thou canst not kill.
Thine ear drinks heirless fathers' groans;
And childless widows' hollow moans,
And plighted maidens' agony;
And this to thee is harmony!—
Thou seest the parent first awaking;
Through hope's fond dream seest terror breaking,
Seest doubt and fear come rushing on,
And markest, when all hope is gone,
Despair's fix'd look and tearless eye,
And quivering lips that breathe no sigh
And this to thee is extasy!

O smiling mischief! angel bright
Thy victim seems to human sight:
Beauty her only warning given,
Thou trickest out a bride for Heaven.
So thin, she floats upon the eye,
Like light clouds o'er the evening sky;
It seems as no terrestrial creature
Could so throw off all earthly feature.
Bright vision of the element!
'Tis snow thy dazzling fairness lent:
The sky, thy veins of softest blue;
The rainbow, thy cheeks' rosy hue;
The Sun, the lambent flames that fly,
Dazzling and burning, from thine eye:
So beautiful thou art! 'Tis sad
To view thee — Beauty makes us glad;
But still, as grows thy loveliness,
Dread signs of woe our joys repress:
The panting breath, the ghastly smile;
The short and frequent cough; the toil
With which thy gayest speeches come;
All have a tongue to speak thy doom;
The lightning flashes of thine eye
Tell, in their brightness, thou must die.

O many a mother who has trod,
O'er one fair victim's funeral sod,
Watches, with sad and fearful glance,
The sister beauty's charms advance;
She trembles at the form's light grace,
At youths' pure blush and lovely face;
Shivers to mark those eye-beams clear,
Deems thee, thou cruel spoiler, near,
And dies a living death in fear.
As he, once wreck'd, in summer's breeze
Dark rocks and hovering tempests sees.

Dreadful that fear: more dread the hope,
When nought the husband's eyes can ope,
Which hang enraptur'd on the charms
That tear the lov'd one from his arms.
Thy shaft is sped; she dies not yet,
Consumption, soon thou'lt claim thy debt;
Blooming till life itself be o'er;
Love cannot heal, nor skill restore.—
The woodbine thus, when some rude shower
Has snapp'd the fair but fragile flower,
Suspended by one slender thread,
Hangs mournfully its drooping head.
Then, if some maid, in pitying guise,
To its lov'd tree the blossom ties,
Awhile it lives beneath her care,
As sweet in scent, in form as fair:
Again the fair one seeks the tree,
Her renovated flower to see;
But drooping now, the pallid head,
Which late in flaunting beauty spread;
But wither'd now the tubes, whose store
Of sweets the humming pilgrims bore;
But shrunk and curl'd the leaves, whose green
Late glitter'd through the dew-drops sheen;
And the fair girl, in pensive hour,
Sighs o'er her desolated flower.

Such are thy works! I may not scan
The ruin thou hast wrought in Man.
The cannonry in battle-field,
To Death less glorious harvest yield:
They sweep the corn-sheaves standing near;
Thou pluck'st from each the fairest ear;
Thou throb'st in Valor's pulses high;
Light'st treacherous fire in Genius' eye;
And giv'st Ambition strength, — to die!

[pp. 187-92]