Devon’s Poly-Obion Poem by Joanna Baillie

Devon’s Poly-Obion



FIRST of Devon's thousand streams--
(Beside whose banks no poet dreams,
Since to her praise old Drayton fram'd
His pastoral reed, yet scarcely named--)
--Silver AXE --who, though her course
She fetches from a distant source,
And Dorset's Downs, as on she glides,
From fruitful Somerset divides,
Yet justly I Devonian name her,
And for that nobler province claim her
(No less than Exe, or western Tamer,)
Amongst whose nymphs she's always number'd,
And christens sea-port, burgh, and hundred.
From London cares and London follies,
To Devon's verdant oaks and hollies
As, year by year, the dog-star leads me,
And with sweet thoughts of childhood feeds me--
(Those best and purest thoughts that ever,
Through life's long intermittent fever,
Like health-restoring cordials enter,
And in the inmost bosom center--)
--Thee first, sweet nymph, my eyes salute--
Thee last, when autumn's faded fruit,
Falling in lap of sad November,
Bids me the waning months remember,
And leave the country's tranquil joys
For city crowds and wrangling noise.
Hail, modest streamlet!--on whose bank
No willows grow, nor osiers dank,
Whose waters form no stagnant pool,
But ever sparkling, pure, and cool,
Their snaky channel keep, between
Soft swelling hills of tender green,
That freshens still as they descend
In gradual slope of graceful bend,
And in the living emerald end--
--On whose soft turf supinely laid
Beneath the spreading beechen shade,
I trace, in Fancy's waking dream,
The current of thine infant stream.
Then crowd upon my mental gaze,
Dim visions of the elder days;
Shrouded in black Cistercian cowl,
They pass like spectres o'er my soul,
On each pale cheek and furrow'd brow,
Impress'd the wretched exile's woe.
But pious Adeliza, there,
Fair Devon's Countess--rich as fair,
And, more than fair or rich, devout,
Beheld them on their homeward rout,
With liberal hand reliev'd their woes--
And Ford's majestic abbey rose.
Age after age since then has roll'd,
O'er generations dead and cold,
From sire to son twice ten times told,--
Yet flows, and will flow on for ever,
The current of that peaceful river,
While priest and monk have pass'd away,
And sable cowl, and amice grey,--
And 'broider'd cope with jewels' shine,
High rood, and consecrated shrine.
In dust the holy relics lie--
The hands that dried them hard by--
The mitred abbot dispossest,
The leveller with his ribald jest,
The wily lawyer, by whose craft,
Was temper'd the destructive shaft,
That kept its destin'd aim conceal'd,
Behind Religion's frowning shield,
The work of Reformation ended,
And in one common ruin blended,
All holy and all hallow'd things,
Altars and thrones, and priests and kings.
The solemn pageant pass'd away,
Where next, sweet river, wilt thou stray?
To Wycroft's bridge, and mouldering wall,
Which faintly marks the embattled hall,
By lordly Cobham once possest,
And trod by high and princely guest.
--In Thorncombe's aisle you still may trace,
The features of a gentle face,
Of knight's degree, and Cobham's race--
Glorious in brass--and at his side,
The image of his lady-bride,
And character'd in letters fair,
Thomas Brook, Knyghte, engraven there.
--No more remains--the when, the where,
The how, he liv'd, and fought, and died,
Or who the lady at his side,
The brass has long forgot to tell--
Nor can the keen explorer spell,
(With all his pains,) one smallest trace
Of the short, pious prayer for grace,
That ends the monumental scroll--
'The Lord have mercy on his soul.'
Yet to the heart it teaches more,
Than tomes of theologic lore;
A proverb, or grave homily,
One most sententious brevity,
On mortal durability.
--Such wisdom is in crumbled bones!
Such are the sermons preach'd by stones!
Let but a few short lustres pass--
The tablet of recording brass
(Rais'd for eternity,) may shew
No more than he who sleeps below,--
Nay--ev'n his feeble fleshly form,
'Spite of corruption and the worm,
Outlasts, within its bed of earth,
The pompous verse that boasts its worth.
So hard the pious task, to save
One plank from Time's o'erwhelming wave--
But would we trace his earlier stream,
' 'Tis all a cloud--'tis all a dream'.
--The Druid walk'd yon stone-girt round,--
The Roman rear'd yon grassy mound,--
This for defence--(a chosen site)--
That for observance, day or night,
Of hallow'd, or unhallow'd rite.
Clear as the sun--nay, all agree,
--Ev'n so, sage dreamer, let it be.
Why then, wear life's brief candle out,
In proving that which none can doubt?
--Why with such shrewd suspicion eye
Yon grey-beard swain who passes by,
As if a word his tongue might say,
Would puff your theory away?
--Well may you dread that rustic smile--
'He minds the bigging' of the pile.
Yet may we trust without a crime,
The legends of the olden time,
And still pursue, by croft and mill,
Deep vale and gently-sloping hill,
(Sweet Axe!) the mazes of thy rill,
To plains which (long ere Ford was known,
Or Newenham's sister abbey shone,
Transcendant from the Holy Rood,)
Blush'd, crimson-deep, with Danish blood
--Lo! from the bosom of the deep,
The sea-king's swift ascending sweep,--
From Seaton's cliffs they wind their way,
(Old Moridunum's doubted bay,)
The boding raven in their van,
To meet renowned Athelstan.
--Nor Erin's lonely harp, that day,
Nor Scotia's royal lion, may
Be absent from the bloody fray.
Dream they of conquest or of spoil,
(Fit guerdon of the warrior's toil)?
Do they for fame or plunder burn?
--Ah! destin'd never to return!
For noble Athelstan is there,
And Edward, with the yellow hair,
The dangers of the field to share--
And with their standard follow free,
The flower of England's chivalry.
--'Tis done--and on the battle plain,
Five kings, and eight stout earls lie slain,--
Nor stone is rais'd, nor mound, to tell
They bravely fought, or nobly fell.
But these who for their country bled,
For them their country's tears are shed.
Shrin'd in their parent soil they sleep--
There holy priests their vigils keep--
And altars burn, and pray'rs arise
In swelling anthems to the skies
From full-ton'd choirs, for their repose.
--Such honours grateful England owes;
And such be ever duly paid
To her lov'd patriot's peaceful shade.
Leave we the clouds of ancient story,
For scenes of later-parted glory.
When scarce a river flows unsung,
Or murm'ring brook but hath its tongue
To praise whate'er of great or good,
Beside its sacred banks hath stood,
Shall Marlborough's native current keep
Its channel to the ocean-deep,
Unhonour'd by one tuneful voice
That may his mighty ghost rejoice?
--No--through the dazzling radiance shed
By conquest round his laurell'd head,
Let him in dim perspective see
The tender scenes of infancy
Reflected by the Muse's art--
Then feel the welcome tear-drop start,
Richer than all the jewels set
In his bright princely coronet.
--Dismantled now the courts and void,
The goodly fabric half destroy'd,
And at the hospitable hearth,
Once echoing to the festive mirth
Of knights and squires assembled round
The board their morning's sport had crown'd,
Unmindful of the waste of years,
The good-wife plies her household cares,
Or marks the embers as they burn,
To greet the farmer's late return.
Couchant, the coil'd and winged snake
That figures forth the name of Drake--
--With daring crest and scaly hide--
Such as Sir Bernard's ill-starr'd pride
(In pomp of heraldry) denied
To a far greater Drake, whose fame
Out-shone the herald's loftiest claim--
Not as the Maiden Queen, in scorn
Of ancestry, would have it borne
By her great captain--wise as brave--
(When for his proud device she gave
The ship that bore him o'er the wave)
--On 'scutcheon downward hung, and fast
Suspended to the boastful mast.
Now to old ocean's hollow cave
Axe pours a broader, deeper wave,
Swoln by a thousand nameless rills,
Fast trickling from the western hills,
That with their woody summits crown
Old Colyton's baronial town,
And Colcombe's walls (with ivy dark)
And Shute's grey towers and mossy park
--No longer now defiance breathing,
As when stout Devon's Earl, unsheathing
The sword in sainted Henry's right,
Challeng'd fierce Bonville to the fight,
(--Plantagenet's devoted knight).
--This is no dream! I see them yet,
As when on Clyst's brown heath they met,
(Radiant in arms,)--and with them, set
In meet array on either side,
(As sway'd by favour, or allied
In kindred ties of blood and name,)
All Devon's worthies crowding came,
Eager to try the desp'rate game.
Alike regardless of the cause,
Each for his feudal chieftain draws
The ready glaive, content to share
With him the toils and meed of war,
And leave the schoolmen to debate
Those knottier subtleties of state,
Whether the Red Rose or the White,
The King in fact, or King by right,
Holds Heaven's commission in the fight.
Ere half the promis'd song is sung,
My voice is check'd, my harp unstrung--
The knightly vision melts away
Of glittering arms and banners gay --
Imagination quits her throne--
The winged fancies all have flown,
And leave the field to noise and strife,
The dull realities of life.
Farewell, my muse! Another day
We may renew our pleasant play--
But now--although it grieve my heart--
'Tis time that thou and I should part.
Farewell, my muse! Another year
Will soon speed on in swift career--
Dark winter's fogs will soon take wing,
And fly before the laughing spring--
Soon bright-ey'd summer pass--and soon
Brown autumn, with his harvest moon
Return--and we wilt loiter then
'Mongst Devon's river-nymphs again.
And is it thus our idle rhyme
Would urge the flying wheels of time?
And dare we thus (infirm of will)
In blind anticipation still
Of some imagin'd hour unknown,
Lose that which only is our own?
--Farewell, my muse! Another day
Will bring such leisure as it may--
--That's not for me or you to say.
All is, though we're no longer young,
As when we first together sung--
Though time has check'd your wanton flow,
And plac'd some wrinkles on my brow--
We are not yet too old to sport
Where Mirth and Fancy keep their court.
And so my farewell I repeat,
Not as if doom'd no more to meet,
Yet dwelling on the unwelcome word,
Like some fond lover, who has heard
The well-known signal to be gone--
And still looks back, and lingers on,
Afraid to strike the note of sorrow,
Though hoping to return to-morrow.

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