1804
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Written in Somersetshire.

Select Icelandic Poetry, translated from the Original: with Notes. Part First.

Rev. William Herbert


A Miltonic descriptive ode dated "1801." William Herbert, a student at Merton College, emulates Milton and the Wartons in a rhapsodic poem on the sources of poetic enthusiasm. The first half of the poem is chiefly concerned with history, the second with nature, culminating in a pantheistic hymn that might have raised eyebrows in some quarters. Herbert took a lifelong interest in "nature's book," abandoning a parliamentary career to take holy orders. The themes touched on in this early work would be developed in a series of poems concerned with pagan mythology and a lifelong interest in botany (Herbert published extensively and corresponded with Darwin).

The ode opens with a description of the domestic landscape before quickly digressing across the Atlantic where the poet introduces the theme of superstition in the form of Indian legends: "Such tales, tho' wild, by many a tribe believed, | Suit well the fictions of sweet poesy: | Delightful fictions of the roving mind, | And so delightful only, as they bear | The simple stamp of nature; worthless else" p. 62. The poet, however, received a different education at Oxford: "O parent dear, | From whom I drew the milk of classic lore, | And early learn'd to tune the willing lyre | To other strains, than meet the savage ear!" p. 62. There he discovered other topics for song, in sacred writ, British heroism, and Roman history. Yet Nature and solitude are compelling sources of inspiration: "At the calm hour | Of silent midnight, when the tranquil moon | Glides slowly o'er the spangled brow of heav'n, | Some sacred charm of melancholy strains | Steals soft (or seems to steal) upon the breeze, | Quiring from each bright orb to fancy's ear" p. 65. The nightingale is also inspiring: "Nor would she change her melancholy lay, | And pillow strew'd with many a mystic flow'r, | For pomp, or wealth, or pleasure's joyous dream. | The mournful music of her sorrow spreads | A strange infectious charm" p. 67. These sources of imaginative pleasure appeal to all who read in "fair nature's book," and are inspired to sacred rapture: "Mightiest, and first, and best, by all adored, | Gaudma, or Codom and Somona call'd, | Or Foe, or Boodh, one great eternal God" p. 68.



O how I love the woody steeps to climb,
Which overhang thy solitary stream,
Clear-flowing Barle! or tread the broken stones,
Round which thy never-ceasing waters foam,
And ever and anon rough-tumbling rear
Beneath the oaken shade. Hail, beauteous hills!
On whose steep sides the cooing ringdove sits,
Or diving thro' the deep expanse of air
Flaps his delighted wings, and towers again;
And thou, romantic spot, where close beneath
Mountsey's proud brow and Anstey's stately moor
Danesbrook and Barle their noisy streams unite:
Upon your sides abrupt the pausing eye
Dwells charmed, as it views each sparkling spring
Shine thro' the gloomy woods, and trickle down.
Delightful dales! your peaceful course along
Joyous I stray, nor heedless, nor unmoved,
With other thoughts, than in the circle gay.
O innocence! O peace! your simple forms,
Fair images on nature's lap impress'd,
More sweetly shew, than all the trick of art,
Or gorgeous splendor of barbaric pomp.
Had I but liberty, and power to roam
Ushakled by refinement, free from care,
Midst Americ's lakes, or Australasian wilds,
Then would I sing of many a savage race,
Who dwell in forests huge and boundless woods;
Of many a spirit, by their fancy form'd,
Who stir the whirlpool, or the tempest guide,
Invisible; and that enormous bird,
Which, (as Chepewyans tell) ere earth there was,
O'er the wide waste of trackless ocean ranged,
With eyes, that lightening glanced, and thunderous wings;
At whose enchanting touch from torpor roused
The vast earth started from its oozy bed,
And all the goodly shapes, which nature wears,
From the deep bosom of the water rose.
Such tales, tho' wild, by many a tribe believed,
Suit well the fictions of sweet poesy:
Delightful fictions of the roving mind,
And so delightful only, as they bear
The simple stamp of nature; worthless else,
Or only valued by distemper'd minds,
Which, pamper'd by the vicious hand of art,
Know not to prize the unpolluted shapes
Of beauty, loveliest, when least adorn'd.
Me other thoughts and other cares detain
Bound to my native land; whose Muses dwell
In Cam's soft breast, or Eton's fostering arms,
Whom to majestic Thames fair Isis bore,
Pledge of their married loves. O parent dear,
From whom I drew the milk of classic lore,
And early learn'd to tune the willing lyre
To other strains, than meet the savage ear!
What meeter service can thy Muses find,
(While Irreligion holds her proud career,
Shaking the thrones of kings and bulwarks old
Of social rule) than chuse some sacred theme,
And from the hallow'd springs of Palestine
Draw numbers chaste and clear? or, if the source
Of those delightful streams be whilom dried
By Milton's holy thirst, attune the lyre
To sing their country's greater poorer days,
And tell, how generous Temple's equal mind
Attemper'd Chatham's pride; while Europe saw
The kindred patriots wield the bolt of war
Invincible, and spread thro' Britain's sons
The virtues, which inform'd their mighty souls?
Nor bootless to such task the love, I bear
To those Aonian shades, where Lucan cull'd
Fresh garlands to adorn the historic page.
Proud youth, whose liberal song was loved of old,
E'en in that vicious age, when haughty Rome
Gasp'd at the foot of a licentious lord!
While Cato's name shall fill the listening ear,
And Freedom's voice be cherish'd, still shall live
Thy manly thoughts, and from the glowing mind
Draw praise, above thy verse, which bears the taint
Of that polluted time! For not to all,
Not to the bards of falling Rome was giv'n
To sound that vocal shell, whence Milton drew
Numbers sonorous, fraught with science deep;
Such as majestic Greece had wondering heard,
Nor Freedom's proudest sons disdain'd to own.
Nymphs of Permessus! ye, who chastely guard
The bowers of poesy, and guide the streams
Of witching music; pardon, if uncall'd
I tread with foot adventurous the bank
Of pale Pirene, or the flowery marge
Of fabled Helicon! O holy bards,
Whose spirits hovering yet endear the vales
Of Temple evergreen, and leafy shades
Of wood-crown'd Academus; or the grot,
Where Dorian Arethuse first heard the train
Of rural minstrelsy! your voices pure
Still sound in fancy's ear, and oft by night
Breathe from aerial lyres the liquid notes
And high-toned melody of sacred song.
Such charm is yet in your primaeval haunts
By that still gloom, in which the enraptur'd mind
Contemplates the stupendous vault of heav'n,
And feels the limitary thought expand
With thousand vast conceptions, undefined,
And stretching far amid the maze of worlds
Beyond the azure deep. At the calm hour
Of silent midnight, when the tranquil moon
Glides slowly o'er the spangled brow of heav'n,
Some sacred charm of melancholy strains
Steals soft (or seems to steal) upon the breeze,
Quiring from each bright orb to fancy's ear.
Oft have I Iisten'd to the sighing gale,
That heaves the rustling boughs, and, gazing round
With pleasing horror on the peaceful gloom,
Thought, that, while nature slept in still repose,
Some viewless spirit hover'd on the breeze
Revisiting the scenes of former joy,
To muse on one, it loved; and breathe around
O'er each lone vale, green bank, or mossy stream,
The sweet enchantment of immortal sounds.
Nor seldom, when the heart is sad, the soul
To such illusions wild its spirit lends.
For sorrow is to harmony allied
By some mysterious tie: the saddest bird
Sings sweetest, and its soul-delighting plaint
Bears melody, which not the blithesome lark
Caroling can ever reach; the maid forlorn,
Love-crazed, and blighted in the bud of youth,
Will lay her by the secret gurgling stream,
That slowly winds beneath some spreading shade,
Where mournful fancies dwell, and all the day
Warble the sorrowfullest ditties sweet;
Nor would she change her melancholy lay,
And pillow strew'd with many a mystic flow'r,
For pomp, or wealth, or pleasure's joyous dream.
The mournful music of her sorrow spreads
A strange infectious charm: the very winds,
That kiss her lovely form, more softly blow;
And, as they curl around her virgin limbs,
Waving with innocent breath her tresses loose,
Seem fearful, lest their fond and sportive touch
Should scare her gentle grief. For Zephyrs have
Their modulations mild, which sweetly lull
The melancholy soul: there's not a breeze,
That fans the purple year, and spreads around
Thousand soft odors from its gentle breath,
But leaves some sad rememberance, as it goes,
Some painful memory of past delights,
Pleasing, tho' painful. To the feeling heart
All nature breathes harmonious. Are there not
In the sweet gales, that wake the dewy morn,
In the soft night-breeze, and the murmuring stream,
Ay even in the thunderous hurricane,
Sounds exquisite, which touch some consonant nerve,
And thrill the ear? There is a mystery
In every form, in every varied sound:
For art doth but arrest the fleeting shapes
And combinations of sweet harmony;
And they, who read aright fair nature's book,
Will find a charm in every desert spot
To solace life; O sacred harmony,
Sweet gift of heaven to soothe the troubled soul,
And sweeter still to sing the giver's praise;
In every age by every worship call'd,
Christian, or Heathen, to adorn the pomp
Of holy festival! And fitly so
His pagan priests their mystic anthems raise,
In Eastern climes to his immortal name,
Mightiest, and first, and best, by all adored,
Gaudma, or Codom and Somona call'd,
Or Foe, or Boodh, one great eternal God;
Who, when the world was made, one giant foot
On stony Meeaday, on Ceylon one,
Firm fixed, did bestride the peopled earth,
Viewing his fair creation. To such strains
Holiest, enchanted nature seems to bend
In solemn acquiescence; all, that breathes,
That moves, that lives, and feels the genial sun,
Is held by witchery of sacred song
Listening its maker's praise; sweet tribute paid
To the Omnipotent, and then best paid,
When virtuous sorrow holds each meaner thought
In calm subjection. Such persuasion is
E'en in idolatrous strains; raised by the voice
Of zealous priests to the creative Pow'r,
Whose word hath hung the infinite of heav'n
With countless worlds and vast; whose anger sends
Destruction forth amongst his guilty sons,
Tempest, and war, and famine's blighting scath,
And wither'd shapes of pestilential death
In yellow autumn, when the hollow winds
Howl sickly, loaded with the wrath of heav'n.

[pp. 60-69]