The Borough. Letter Iii: The Vicar--The Curate - Poem by George Crabbe
WHERE ends our chancel in a vaulted space,
Sleep the departed Vicars of the place;
Of most, all mention, memory, thought are past -
But take a slight memorial of the last.
To what famed college we our Yicar owe,
To what fair county, let historians show:
Few now remember when the mild young man,
Ruddy and fair, his Sunday-task began;
Few live to speak of that soft soothing look
He cast around, as he prepared his book;
It was a kind of supplicating smile,
But nothing hopeless of applause the while;
And when he finished, his corrected pride
Felt the desert, and yet the praise denied.
Thus he his race began, and to the end
His constant care was, no man to offend;
No haughty virtues stirr'd his peaceful mind;
Nor urged the Priest to leave the Flock behind;
He was his Master's Soldier, but not one
To lead an army of his Martyrs on:
Fear was his ruling passion; yet was Love,
Of timid kind, once known his heart to move;
It led his patient spirit where it paid
Its languid offerings to a listening Maid:
She, with her widow'd Mother, heard him speak,
And sought awhile to find what he would seek:
Smiling he came, he smiled when he withdrew,
And paid the same attention to the two;
Meeting and parting without joy or pain,
He seem'd to come that he might go again.
The wondering girl, no prude, but something nice,
At length was chill'd by his unmelting ice;
She found her tortoise held such sluggish pace,
That she must turn and meet him in the chase:
This not approving, she withdrew, till one
Came who appear'd with livelier hope to run;
Who sought a readier way the heart to move,
Than by faint dalliance of unfixing love.
Accuse me not that I approving paint
Impatient Hope or Love without restraint;
Or think the Passions, a tumultuous throng,
Strong as they are, ungovernably strong:
But is the laurel to the soldier due,
Who, cautious, comes not into danger's view?
What worth has Virtue by Desire untried,
When Nature's self enlists on Duty's side?
The married dame in vain assail'd the truth
And guarded bosom of the Hebrew youth;
But with the daughter of the Priest of On
The love was lawful, and the guard was gone;
But Joseph's fame had lessened in our view,
Had he, refusing, fled the maiden too.
Yet our good priest to Joseph's praise aspired,
As once rejecting what his heart desired;
'I am escaped,' he said, when none pursued;
When none attack'd him, 'I am unsubdued;'
'Oh pleasing pangs of love!' he sang again,
Cold to the joy, and stranger to the pain.
E'en in his age would he address the young,
'I too have felt these fires, and they are strong;'
But from the time he left his favourite maid,
To ancient females his devoirs were paid:
And still they miss him after Morning-prayer;
Nor yet successor fills the Vicar's chair,
Where kindred spirits in his praise agree,
A happy few, as mild and cool as he;
The easy followers in the female train,
Led without love, and captives without chain.
Ye Lilies male! think (as your tea you sip,
While the town small-talk flows from lip to lip;
Intrigues half-gather'd, conversation-scraps,
Kitchen cabals, and nursery-mishaps),
If the vast world may not some scene produce,
Some state where your small talents might have use;
Within seraglios you might harmless move,
'Mid ranks of beauty, and in haunts of love;
There from too daring man the treasures guard,
An easy duty, and its own reward;
Nature's soft substitutes, you there might save
From crime the tyrant, and from wrong the slave.
But let applause be dealt in all we may,
Our Priest was cheerful, and in season gay;
His frequent visits seldom fail'd to please;
Easy himself, he sought his neighbour's ease:
To a small garden with delight he came,
And gave successive flowers a summer's fame;
These he presented, with a grace his own,
To his fair friends, and made their beauties known,
Not without moral compliment; how they
'Like flowers were sweet, and must like flowers decay.'
Simple he was, and loved the simple truth,
Yet had some useful cunning from his youth;
A cunning never to dishonour lent,
And rather for defence than conquest meant;
'Twas fear of power, with some desire to rise,
But not enough to make him enemies;
He ever aim'd to please; and to offend
Was ever cautious; for he sought a friend;
Yet for the friendship never much would pay,
Content to bow, be silent, and obey,
And by a soothing suff'rance find his way.
Fiddling and fishing were his arts: at times
He alter'd sermons, and he aim'd at rhymes;
And his fair friends, not yet intent on cards,
Oft he amused with riddles and charades.
Mild were his doctrines, and not one discourse
But gain'd in softness what it lost in force:
Kind his opinions; he would not receive
An ill report, nor evil act believe;
'If true, 'twas wrong; but blemish great or small
Have all mankind; yea, sinners are we all.'
If ever fretful thought disturb'd his breast,
If aught of gloom that cheerful mind oppress'd,
It sprang from innovation; it was then
He spake of mischief made by restless men:
Not by new doctrines: never in his life
Would he attend to controversial strife;
For sects he cared not; ' They are not of us,
Nor need we, brethren, their concerns discuss;
But 'tis the change, the schism at home I feel;
Ills few perceive, and none have skill to heal:
Not at the altar our young brethren read
(Facing their flock) the decalogue and creed;
But at their duty, in their desks they stand,
With naked surplice, lacking hood and band:
Churches are now of holy song bereft,
And half our ancient customs changed or left;
Few sprigs of ivy are at Christmas seen,
Nor crimson berry tips the holly's green;
Mistaken choirs refuse the solemn strain
Of ancient Sternhold, which from ours amain
Comes flying forth from aisle to aisle about,
Sweet links of harmony and long drawn out.'
These were to him essentials; all things new
He deemed superfluous, useless, or untrue:
To all beside indifferent, easy, cold,
Here the fire kindled, and the woe was told.
Habit with him was all the test of truth:
'It must be right: I've done it from my youth.'
Questions he answer'd in as brief a way:
'It must be wrong--it was of yesterday.'
Though mild benevolence our Priest possess'd,
'Twas but by wishes or by words expressed.
Circles in water, as they wider flow,
The less conspicuous in their progress grow,
And when at last they touch upon the shore,
Distinction ceases, and they're view'd no more.
His love, like that last circle, all embraced,
But with effect that never could be traced.
Now rests our Vicar. They who knew him best,
Proclaim his life t'have been entirely rest;
Free from all evils which disturb his mind
Whom studies vex and controversies blind.
The rich approved,--of them in awe he stood;
The poor admired,--they all believed him good;
The old and serious of his habits spoke;
The frank and youthful loved his pleasant joke;
Mothers approved a safe contented guest,
And daughters one who back'd each small request;
In him his flock found nothing to condemn;
Him sectaries liked,--he never troubled them:
No trifles fail'd his yielding mind to please,
And all his passions sunk in early ease;
Nor one so old has left this world of sin,
More like the being that he entered in.
ASK you what lands our Pastor tithes?--Alas!
But few our acres, and but short our grass:
In some fat pastures of the rich, indeed,
May roll the single cow or favourite steed;
Who, stable-fed, is here for pleasure seen,
His sleek sides bathing in the dewy green;
But these, our hilly heath and common wide
Yield a slight portion for the parish-guide;
No crops luxuriant in our borders stand,
For here we plough the ocean, not the land;
Still reason wills that we our Pastor pay,
And custom does it on a certain day:
Much is the duty, small the legal due,
And this with grateful minds we keep in view;
Each makes his off'ring, some by habit led,
Some by the thought that all men must be fed;
Duty and love, and piety and pride,
Have each their force, and for the Priest provide.
Not thus our Curate, one whom all believe
Pious and just, and for whose fate they grieve;
All see him poor, but e'en the vulgar know
He merits love, and their respect bestow.
A man so learn'd you shall but seldom see,
Nor one so honour'd, so aggrieved as he; -
Not grieved by years alone; though his appear
Dark and more dark; severer on severe:
Not in his need,--and yet we all must grant
How painful 'tis for feeling Age to want:
Nor in his body's sufferings; yet we know
Where Time has ploughed, there Misery loves to sow;
But in the wearied mind, that all in vain
Wars with distress, and struggles with its pain.
His father saw his powers--'I give,' quoth he,
'My first-born learning; 'twill a portion be:'
Unhappy gift! a portion for a son!
But all he had: --he learn'd, and was undone!
Better, apprenticed to an humble trade,
Had he the cassock for the priesthood made,
Or thrown the shuttle, or the saddle shaped,
And all these pangs of feeling souls escaped.
He once had hope--Hope, ardent, lively, light;
His feelings pleasant, and his prospects bright:
Eager of fame, he read, he thought, he wrote,
Weigh'd the Greek page, and added note on note.
At morn, at evening, at his work was he,
And dream'd what his Euripides would be.
Then care began: --he loved, he woo'd, he wed;
Hope cheer'd him still, and Hymen bless'd his bed -
A curate's bed ! then came the woeful years;
The husband's terrors, and the father's tears;
A wife grown feeble, mourning, pining, vex'd
With wants and woes--by daily cares perplex'd;
No more a help, a smiling, soothing aid,
But boding, drooping, sickly, and afraid.
A kind physician, and without a fee,
Gave his opinion--'Send her to the sea.'
'Alas!' the good man answer'd, 'can I send
A friendless woman? Can I find a friend?
No; I must with her, in her need, repair
To that new place; the poor lie everywhere; -
Some priest will pay me for my pious pains:' -
He said, he came, and here he yet remains.
Behold his dwelling! this poor hut he hires,
Where he from view, though not from want, retires;
Where four fair daughters, and five sorrowing sons,
Partake his sufferings, and dismiss his duns;
All join their efforts, and in patience learn
To want the comforts they aspire to earn;
For the sick mother something they'd obtain,
To soothe her grief and mitigate her pain;
For the sad father something they'd procure
To ease the burden they themselves endure.
Virtues like these at once delight and press
On the fond father with a proud distress;
On all around he looks with care and love,
Grieved to behold, but happy to approve.
Then from his care, his love, his grief, he steals,
And by himself an Author's pleasure feels:
Each line detains him; he omits not one,
And all the sorrows of his state are gone. -
Alas! even then, in that delicious hour,
He feels his fortune, and laments its power.
Some Tradesman's bill his wandering eyes engage,
Some scrawl for payment thrust 'twixt page and page;
Some bold, loud rapping at his humble door,
Some surly message he has heard before,
Awake, alarm, and tell him he is poor.
An angry Dealer, vulgar, rich, and proud,
Thinks of his bill, and, passing, raps aloud;
The elder daughter meekly makes him way -
'I want my money, and I cannot stay:
My mill is stopp'd; what, Miss! I cannot grind;
Go tell your father he must raise the wind:'
Still trembling, troubled, the dejected maid
Says, 'Sir! my father!'--and then stops afraid:
E'en his hard heart is soften'd, and he hears
Her voice with pity; he respects her tears;
His stubborn features half admit a smile,
And his tone softens--'Well! I'll wait awhile.'
Pity! a man so good, so mild, so meek,
At such an age, should have his bread to seek;
And all those rude and fierce attacks to dread.
That are more harrowing than the want of bread;
Ah! who shall whisper to that misery peace!
And say that want and insolence shall cease?
'But why not publish?'--those who know too well,
Dealers in Greek, are fearful 'twill not sell;
Then he himself is timid, troubled, slow,
Nor likes his labours nor his griefs to show;
The hope of fame may in his heart have place,
But he has dread and horror of disgrace;
Nor has he that confiding, easy way,
That might his learning and himself display;
But to his work he from the world retreats,
And frets and glories o'er the favourite sheets.
But see! the Man himself; and sure I trace
Signs of new joy exulting in that face
O'er care that sleeps--we err, or we discern
Life in thy looks--the reason may we learn?
'Yes,' he replied, 'I'm happy, I confess,
To learn that some are pleased with happiness
Which others feel--there are who now combine
The worthiest natures in the best design,
To aid the letter'd poor, and soothe such ills as mine.
We who more keenly feel the world's contempt,
And from its miseries are the least exempt;
Now Hope shall whisper to the wounded breast
And Grief, in soothing expectation, rest.
'Yes, I am taught that men who think, who feel,
Unite the pains of thoughtful men to heal;
Not with disdainful pride, whose bounties make
The needy curse the benefits they take;
Not with the idle vanity that knows
Only a selfish joy when it bestows;
Not with o'erbearing wealth, that, in disdain,
Hurls the superfluous bliss at groaning pain;
But these are men who yield such blest relief,
That with the grievance they destroy the grief;
Their timely aid the needy sufferers find,
Their generous manner soothes the suffering mind;
There is a gracious bounty, form'd to raise
Him whom it aids; their charity is praise;
A common bounty may relieve distress,
But whom the vulgar succour they oppress;
This though a favour is an honour too,
Though Mercy's duty, yet 'tis Merit's due;
When our relief from such resources rise,
All painful sense of obligation dies;
And grateful feelings in the bosom wake,
For 'tis their offerings, not their alms we take.
'Long may these founts of Charity remain,
And never shrink, but to be fill'd again;
True! to the Author they are now confined,
To him who gave the treasure of his mind,
His time, his health,--and thankless found mankind:
But there is hope that from these founts may flow
A side-way stream, and equal good bestow;
Good that may reach us, whom the day's distress
Keeps from the fame and perils of the Press;
Whom Study beckons from the Ills of Life,
And they from Study; melancholy strife!
Who then can say, but bounty now so free,
And so diffused, may find its way to me?
'Yes! I may see my decent table yet
Cheer'd with the meal that adds not to my debt;
May talk of those to whom so much we owe,
And guess their names whom yet we may not know;
Blest, we shall say, are those who thus can give,
And next who thus upon the bounty live;
Then shall I close with thanks my humble meal.
And feel so well--Oh, God! how shall I feel!'
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