George Crabbe

(24 December 1754 - 3 February 1832 / Aldeburgh, Suffulk)

The Borough. Letter Ii: The Church - Poem by George Crabbe

'WHAT is a Church?'--Let Truth and Reason speak,
They would reply, 'The faithful, pure, and meek;
From Christian folds, the one selected race,
Of all professions, and in every place.'
'What is a Church?'--'A flock,' our Vicar cries,
'Whom bishops govern and whom priests advise;
Wherein are various states and due degrees,
The Bench for honour, and the Stall for ease;
That ease be mine, which, after all his cares,
The pious, peaceful prebendary shares.'
'What is a Church?'--Our honest Sexton tells,
''Tis a tall building, with a tower and bells;
Where priest and clerk with joint exertion strive
To keep the ardour af their flock alive;
That, by its periods eloquent and grave;
This, by responses, and a well-set stave:
These for the living; but when life be fled,
I toll myself the requiem for the dead.'
'Tis to this Church I call thee, and that place
Where slept our fathers when they'd run their race:
We too shall rest, and then our children keep
Their road in life, and then, forgotten, sleep;
Meanwhile the building slowly falls away,
And, like the builders, will in time decay.
The old Foundation--but it is not clear
When it was laid--you care not for the year;
On this, as parts decayed by time and storms,
Arose these various disproportion'd forms;
Yet Gothic all--the learn'd who visit us
(And our small wonders) have decided thus:-
'Yon noble Gothic arch,' 'That Gothic door;'
So have they said; of proof you'll need no more.
Here large plain columns rise in solemn style,
You'd love the gloom they make in either aisle;
When the sun's rays, enfeebled as they pass
(And shorn of splendour) through the storied glass,
Faintly display the figures on the floor,
Which pleased distinctly in their place before.
But ere you enter, yon bold tower survey,
Tall and entire, and venerably gray,
For time has soften'd what was harsh when new,
And now the stains are all of sober hue;
The living stains which Nature's hand alone,
Profuse of life, pours forth upon the stone:
For ever growing; where the common eye
Can but the bare and rocky bed descry;
There Science loves to trace her tribes minute,
The juiceless foliage, and the tasteless fruit;
There she perceives them round the surface creep,
And while they meet their due distinction keep;
Mix'd but not blended; each its name retains,
And these are Nature's ever-during stains.
And wouldst thou, Artist! with thy tints and brush,
Form shades like these? Pretender, where thy blush?
In three short hours shall thy presuming hand
Th' effect of three slow centuries command?
Thou may'st thy various greens and grays contrive;
They are not Lichens, nor like ought alive;-
But yet proceed, and when thy tints are lost,
Fled in the shower, or crumbled by the frost;
When all thy work is done away as clean
As if thou never spread'st thy gray and green;
Then may'st thou see how Nature's work is done,
How slowly true she lays her colours on;
When her least speck upon the hardest flint
Has mark and form, and is a living tint;
And so embodied with the rock, that few
Can the small germ upon the substance view.
Seeds, to our eyes invisible, will find
On the rude rock the bed that fits their kind;
There, in the rugged soil, they safely dwell,
Till showers and snows the subtle atoms swell,
And spread th' enduring foliage;--then we trace
The freckled flower upon the flinty base;
These all increase, till in unnoticed years
The stony tower as gray with age appears;
With coats of vegetation, thinly spread,
Coat above coat, the living on the dead;
These then dissolve to dust, and make a way
For bolder foliage, nursed by their decay:
The long-enduring Ferns in time will all
Die and depose their dust upon the wall;
Where the wing'd seed may rest, till many a flower
Show Flora's triumph o'er the falling tower.
But ours yet stands, and has its Bells renown'd
For size magnificent and solemn sound;
Each has its motto: some contrived to tell,
In monkish rhyme, the uses of a bell;
Such wond'rous good, as few conceive could spring
From ten loud coppers when their clampers swing.
Enter'd the Church--we to a tomb proceed,
Whose names and titles few attempt to read;
Old English letters, and those half pick'd out,
Leave us, unskilful readers, much in doubt;
Our sons shall see its more degraded state;
The tomb of grandeur hastens to its fate;
That marble arch, our sexton's favourite show,
With all those ruff'd and painted pairs below;
The noble Lady and the Lord who rest
Supine, as courtly dame and warrior drest;
All are departed from their state sublime,
Mangled and wounded in their war with Time,
Colleagued with mischief: here a leg is fled,
And lo! the Baron with but half a head:
Midway is cleft the arch; the very base
Is batter'd round and shifted from its place.
Wonder not, Mortal, at thy quick decay -
See! men of marble piecemeal melt away;
When whose the image we no longer read,
But monuments themselves memorials need.
With few such stately proofs of grief or pride,
By wealth erected, is our Church supplied;
But we have mural tablets, every size,
That woe could wish, or vanity devise.
Death levels man--the wicked and the just,
The wise, the weak, lie blended in the dust;
And by the honours dealt to every name,
The King of Terrors seems to level fame.
- See! here lamented wives, and every wife
The pride and comfort of her husband's life;
Here, to her spouse, with every virtue graced,
His mournful widow has a trophy placed;
And here 'tis doubtful if the duteous son,
Or the good father, be in praise outdone.
This may be Nature: when our friends we lose,
Our alter'd feelings alter too our views;
What in their tempers teased us or distress'd,
Is, with our anger and the dead, at rest;
And much we grieve, no longer trial made,
For that impatience which we then display'd;
Now to their love and worth of every kind
A soft compunction turns th' afflicted mind;
Virtues neglected then, adored become,
And graces slighted, blossom on the tomb.
'Tis well; but let not love nor grief believe
That we assent (who neither loved nor grieve)
To all that praise which on the tomb is read,
To all that passion dictates for the dead;
But more indignant, we the tomb deride,
Whose bold inscription flattery sells to pride.
Read of this Burgess--on the stone appear
How worthy he! how virtuous! and how dear!
What wailing was there when his spirit fled,
How mourned his lady for her lord when dead,
And tears abundant through the town were shed;
See! he was liberal, kind, religious, wise,
And free from all disgrace and all disguise;
His sterling worth, which words cannot express,
Lives with his friends, their pride and their distress.
All this of Jacob Holmes? for his the name:
He thus kind, liberal, just, religious?--Shame!
What is the truth? Old Jacob married thrice;
He dealt in coals, and av'rice was his vice;
He ruled the Borough when his year came on,
And some forget, and some are glad he's gone;
For never yet with shilling could he part,
But when it left his hand it struck his heart.
Yet, here will Love its last attentions pay,
And place memorials on these beds of clay;
Large level stones lie flat upon the grave,
And half a century's sun and tempest brave;
But many an honest tear and heartfelt sigh
Have follow'd those who now unnoticed lie;
Of these what numbers rest on every side!
Without one token left by grief or pride;
Their graves soon levell'd to the earth, and then
Will other hillocks rise o'er other men;
Daily the dead on the decay'd are thrust,
And generations follow, 'dust to dust.'
Yes! there are real Mourners--I have seen
A fair, sad Girl, mild, suffering, and serene;
Attention (through the day) her duties claim'd,
And to be useful as resign'd she aim'd:
Neatly she dress'd, nor vainly seem'd t'expect
Pity for grief, or pardon for neglect;
But when her wearied parents sunk to sleep,
She sought her place to meditate and weep:
Then to her mind was all the past display'd,
That faithful Memory brings to Sorrow's aid;
For then she thought on one regretted Youth,
Her tender trust, and his unquestioned truth;
In ev'ry place she wander'd, where they'd been,
And sadly sacred held the parting scene;
Where last for sea he took his leave--that place
With double interest would she nightly trace;
For long the courtship was, and he would say,
Each time he sail'd,--'This once, and then the day:
Yet prudence tarried, but when last he went,
He drew from pitying love a full consent.
Happy he sail'd, and great the care she took
That he should softly sleep and smartly look;
White was his better linen, and his check
Was made more trim than any on the deck;
And every comfort men at sea can know
Was hers to buy, to make, and to bestow?
For he to Greenland sail'd, and much she told
How he should guard against the climate's cold;
Yet saw not danger; dangers he'd withstood,
Nor could she trace the fever in his blood:
His messmates smiled at flushings in his cheek,
And he too smiled, but seldom would he speak;
For now he found the danger, felt the pain,
With grievous symptoms he could not explain;
Hope was awaken'd, as for home he sail'd,
But quickly sank, and never more prevail'd.
He call'd his friend, and prefaced with a sigh
A lover's message--'Thomas, I must die:
Would I could see my Sally, and could rest
My throbbing temples on her faithful breast,
And gazing go!--if not, this trifle take,
And say, till death I wore it for her sake:
Yes! I must die--blow on, sweet breeze, blow on!
Give me one look before my life be gone,
Oh! give me that, and let me not despair,
One last fond look--and now repeat the prayer.'
He had his wish, had more: I will not paint
The Lovers' meeting: she beheld him faint, -
With tender fears, she took a nearer view,
Her terrors doubling as her hopes withdrew;
He tried to smile, and, half succeeding, said,
'Yes! I must die;' and hope for ever fled.
Still long she nursed him: tender thoughts meantime
Were interchanged, and hopes and views sublime:
To her he came to die, and every day
She took some portion of the dread away;
With him she pray'd, to him his Bible read,
Soothed the faint heart, and held the aching head:
She came with smiles the hour of pain to cheer:
Apart she sigh'd; alone, she shed the tear:
Then as if breaking from a cloud, she gave
Fresh light, and gilt the prospect of the grave.
One day he lighter seemed, and they forgot
The care, the dread, the anguish of their lot;
They spoke with cheerfulness, and seem'd to think,
Yet said not so--'Perhaps he will not sink:'
A sudden brightness in his look appear'd,
A sudden vigour in his voice was heard, -
She had been reading in the Book of Prayer,
And led him forth, and placed him in his chair;
Lively he seem'd, and spoke of all he knew,
The friendly many, and the favourite few;
Nor one that day did he to mind recall
But she has treasured, and she loves them all:
When in her way she meets them, they appear
Peculiar people--death has made them dear.
He named his Friend, but then his hand she press'd,
And fondly whisper'd, 'Thou must go to rest;'
'I go,' he said: but as he spoke, she found
His hand more cold, and fluttering was the sound!
Then gazed affrighten'd; but she caught a last,
A dying look of love,--and all was past!
She placed a decent stone his grave above,
Neatly engraved--an offering of her love;
For that she wrought, for that forsook her bed,
Awake alike to duty and the dead;
She would have grieved, had friends presum'd to spare
The least assistance--'twas her proper care.
Here will she come, and on the grave will sit,
Folding her arms, in long abstracted fit;
But if observer pass, will take her round,
And careless seem, for she would not be found;
Then go again, and thus her hour employ,
While visions please her, and while woes destroy.
Forbear, sweet Maid! nor be by Fancy led,
To hold mysterious converse with the dead;
For sure at length thy thoughts, thy spirit's pain,
In this sad conflict will disturb thy brain;
All have their tasks and trials; thine are hard,
But short the time, and glorious the reward;
Thy patient spirit to thy duties give,
Regard the dead, but to the living live.

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Poem Submitted: Friday, April 16, 2010

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