The Borough. Letter Xix: The Parish-Clerk - Poem by George Crabbe
WITH our late Vicar, and his age the same,
His clerk, hight Jachin, to his office came;
The like slow speech was his, the like tall slender
But Jachin was the gravest man on ground,
And heard his master's jokes with look profound;
For worldly wealth this man of letters sigh'd,
And had a sprinkling of the spirit's pride:
But he was sober, chaste, devout and just,
One whom his neighbours could believe and trust:
Of none suspected, neither man nor maid
By him were wrong'd, or were of him afraid.
There was indeed a frown, a trick of state
In Jachin;--formal was his air and gait:
But if he seem'd more solemn and less kind,
Than some light men to light affairs confined,
Still 'twas allow'd that he should so behave
As in high seat, and be severely grave.
This book-taught man, to man's first foe
Defiance stern, and hate that knew not rest;
He held that Satan, since the world began,
In every act, had strife with every man;
That never evil deed on earth was done,
But of the acting parties he was one;
The flattering guide to make ill prospects clear;
To smooth rough ways the constant pioneer;
The ever-tempting, soothing, softening power,
Ready to cheat, seduce, deceive, devour.
'Me has the sly Seducer oft withstood,'
Said pious Jachin,--'but he gets no good;
I pass the house where swings the tempting sign,
And pointing, tell him, 'Satan, that is thine:'
I pass the damsels pacing down the street,
And look more grave and solemn when we meet;
Nor doth it irk me to rebuke their smiles,
Their wanton ambling and their watchful wiles:
Nay, like the good John Bunyan, when I view
Those forms, I'm angry at the ills they do;
That I could pinch and spoil, in sin's despite,
Beauties, which frail and evil thoughts excite.
'At feasts and banquets seldom am I found,
And (save at church) abhor a tuneful sound;
To plays and shows I run not to and fro,
And where my master goes, forbear to go.'
No wonder Satan took the thing amiss,
To be opposed by such a man as this -
A man so grave, important, cautious, wise,
Who dared not trust his feeling or his eyes;
No wonder he should lurk and lie in wait,
Should fit his hooks and ponder on his bait;
Should on his movements keep a watchful eye;
For he pursued a fish who led the fry.
With his own peace our Clerk was not content;
He tried, good man! to make his friends repent.
'Nay, nay, my friends, from inns and taverns
You may suppress your thirst, but not supply:
A foolish proverb says, 'the devil's at home;'
But he is there, and tempts in every room:
Men feel, they know not why, such places please;
His are the spells--they're idleness and ease;
Magic of fatal kind he throws around,
Where care is banish'd, but the heart is bound.
'Think not of beauty;--when a maid you meet,
Turn from her view and step across the street;
Dread all the sex: their looks create a charm,
A smile should fright you and a word alarm:
E'en I myself, with all my watchful care,
Have for an instant felt the insidious snare;
And caught my sinful eyes at the endang'ring stars;
Till I was forced to smite my bounding breast
With forceful blow, and bid the bold-one rest.
'Go not with crowds when they to pleasure run,
But public joy in private safety shun:
When bells, diverted from their true intent,
Ring loud for some deluded mortal sent
To hear or make long speech in parliament;
What time the many, that unruly beast,
Roars its rough joy and shares the final feast?
Then heed my counsel, shut thine ears and eyes;
A few will hear me--for the few are wise.'
Not Satan's friends, nor Satan's self could
The cautious man who took of souls such care;
An interloper,--one who, out of place,
Had volunteered upon the side of grace:
There was his master ready once a week
To give advice; what further need he seek?
'Amen, so be it:'--what had he to do
With more than this?--'twas insolent and new;
And some determined on a way to see
How frail he was, that so it might not be.
First they essay'd to tempt our saint to sin,
By points of doctrine argued at an inn;
Where he might warmly reason, deeply drink,
Then lose all power to argue and to think.
In vain they tried; he took the question up,
Clear'd every doubt, and barely touch'd the cup:
By many a text he proved his doctrine sound,
And look'd in triumph on the tempters round.
Next 'twas their care an artful lass to find,
Who might consult him, as perplex'd in mind;
She they conceived might put her case with fears,
With tender tremblings and seducing tears;
She might such charms of various kind display,
That he would feel their force and melt away:
For why of nymphs such caution and such dread,
Unless he felt, and fear'd to be misled?
She came, she spake: he calmly heard her case,
And plainly told her 'twas a want of grace;
Bade her 'such fancies and affections check,
And wear a thicker muslin on her neck.'
Abased, his human foes the combat fled,
And the stern clerk yet higher held his head.
They were indeed a weak, impatient set,
But their shrewd prompter had his engines yet;
Had various means to make a mortal trip,
Who shunn'd a flowing bowl and rosy lip;
And knew a thousand ways his heart to move,
Who flies from banquets and who laughs at love.
Thus far the playful Muse has lent her aid,
But now departs, of graver theme afraid;
Her may we seek in more appropriate time, -
There is no jesting with distress and crime.
Our worthy Clerk had now arrived at fame,
Such as but few in his degree might claim;
But he was poor, and wanted not the sense
That lowly rates the praise without the pence:
He saw the common herd with reverence treat
The weakest burgess whom they chanced to meet;
While few respected his exalted views,
And all beheld his doublet and his shoes:
None, when they meet, would to his parts allow
(Save his poor boys) a hearing or a bow:
To this false judgment of the vulgar mind,
He was not fully, as a saint, resign'd;
He found it much his jealous soul affect,
To fear derision and to find neglect.
The year was bad, the christening-fees were
The weddings few, the parties paupers all:
Desire of gain with fear of want combined,
Raised sad commotion in his wounded mind;
Wealth was in all his thoughts, his views, his
And prompted base desires and baseless schemes.
Alas! how often erring mortals keep
The strongest watch against the foes who sleep;
While the more wakeful, bold, and artful foe
Is suffer'd guardless and unmark'd to go.
Once in a month the sacramental bread
Our Clerk with wine upon the table spread:
The custom this, that as the vicar reads,
He for our off'rings round the church proceeds;
Tall spacious seats the wealthier people hid,
And none had view of what his neighbour did:
Laid on the box and mingled when they fell,
Who should the worth of each oblation tell?
Now as poor Jachin took the usual round,
And saw the alms and heard the metal sound,
He had a thought--at first it was no more
Than--'these have cash and give it to the poor.'
A second thought from this to work began -
'And can they give it to a poorer man?'
Proceeding thus,--'My merit could they know;
And knew my need, how freely they'd bestow;
But though they know not, these remain the same,
And are a strong, although a secret claim:
To me, alas! the want and worth are known;
Why then, in fact, 'tis but to take my own.'
Thought after thought pour'd in, a tempting
'Suppose it done,--who is it could complain?
How could the poor? for they such trifles share,
As add no comfort, as suppress no care;
But many a pittance makes a worthy heap, -
What says the law? that silence puts to sleep: -
Nought then forbids, the danger could we shun,
And sure the business may be safely done.
'But am I earnest?--earnest? No.--I say,
If such my mind, that I could plan a way;
Let me reflect;--I've not allow'd me time
To purse the pieces, and if dropp'd they'd chime:'
Fertile is evil in the soul of man. -
He paused,--said Jachin, 'They may drop on bran.
Why then 'tis safe and (all consider'd) just,
The poor receive it,--'tis no breach of trust:
The old and widows may their trifles miss,
There must be evil in a good like this:
But I'll be kind--the sick I'll visit twice,
When now but once, and freely give advice.
Yet let me think again:'--Again he tried,
For stronger reasons on his passion's side,
And quickly these were found, yet slowly he
The morning came: the common service done,
Shut every door,--the solemn rite begun, -
And, as the priest the sacred sayings read,
The clerk went forward, trembling as he tread:
O'er the tall pew he held the box, and heard
The offer'd piece, rejoicing as he fear'd:
Just by the pillar, as he cautious tripp'd,
And turn'd the aisle, he then a portion slipp'd
From the full store, and to the pocket sent,
But held a moment--and then down it went.
The priest read on, on walk'd the man afraid,
Till a gold offering in the plate was laid:
Trembling he took it, for a moment stopp'd,
Then down it fell, and sounded as it dropp'd;
Amazed he started, for th' affrighted man,
Lost and bewilder'd, thought not of the bran.
But all were silent, all on things intent
Of high concern, none ear to money lent;
So on he walk'd, more cautious than before,
And gain'd the purposed sum and one piece more.
'Practice makes perfect:' when the month came
He dropp'd the cash, nor listen'd for a sound:
But yet, when last of all th' assembled flock
He ate and drank,--it gave th' electric shock:
Oft was he forced his reasons to repeat,
Ere he could kneel in quiet at his seat;
But custom soothed him--ere a single year
All this was done without restraint or fear:
Cool and collected, easy and composed,
He was correct till all the service closed;
Then to his home, without a groan or sigh,
Gravely he went, and laid his treasure by.
Want will complain: some widows had express'd
A doubt if they were favour'd like the rest;
The rest described with like regret their dole,
And thus from parts they reason'd to the whole:
When all agreed some evil must be done,
Or rich men's hearts grew harder than a stone.
Our easy vicar cut the matter short;
He would not listen to such vile report.
All were not thus--there govern'd in that year
A stern stout churl, an angry overseer;
A tyrant fond of power, loud, lewd, and most
Him the mild vicar, him the graver clerk,
Advised, reproved, but nothing would he mark.
Save the disgrace; 'and that, my friends,' said he,
'Will I avenge, whenever time may be.'
And now, alas! 'twas time: --from man to man
Doubt and alarm and shrewd suspicions ran.
With angry spirit and with sly intent,
This parish-ruler to the altar went:
A private mark he fix'd on shillings three,
And but one mark could in the money see:
Besides in peering round, he chanced to note
A sprinkling slight on Jachin's Sunday-coat:
All doubt was over: --when the flock were bless'd,
In wrath he rose, and thus his mind express'd: -
'Foul deeds are here!' and saying this, he took
The Clerk, whose conscience, in her cold-fit,
His pocket then was emptied on the place;
All saw his guilt; all witness'd his disgrace:
He fell, he fainted, not a groan, a look,
Escaped the culprit; 'twas a final stroke -
A death-wound never to be heal'd--a fall
That all had witness'd, and amazed were all.
As he recover'd, to his mind it came,
'I owe to Satan this disgrace and shame:'
All the seduction now appear'd in view;
'Let me withdraw,' he said, and he withdrew:
No one withheld him, all in union cried,
E'en the avenger,--'We are satisfied:'
For what has death in any form to give,
Equal to that man's terrors, if he live?
He lived in freedom, but he hourly saw
How much more fatal justice is than law;
He saw another in his office reign,
And his mild master treat him with disdain:
He saw that all men shunn'd him, some reviled,
The harsh pass'd frowning, and the simple smiled;
The town maintain'd him, but with some reproof,
And clerks and scholars proudly kept aloof.
In each lone place, dejected and dismay'd,
Shrinking from view, his wasting form he laid;
Or to the restless sea and roaring wind
Gave the strong yearnings of a ruin'd mind:
On the broad beach, the silent summer-day,
Stretch'd on some wreck, he wore his life away;
Or where the river mingles with the sea,
Or on the mud-bank by the elder tree,
Or by the bounding marsh-dike, there was he:
And when unable to forsake the town,
In the blind courts he sat desponding down -
Always alone: then feebly would he crawl
The church-way walk, and lean upon the wall:
Too ill for this, he lay beside the door,
Compell'd to hear the reasoning of the poor:
He look'd so pale, so weak, the pitying crowd
Their firm belief of his repentance vow'd;
They saw him then so ghastly and so thin,
That they exclaim'd, 'Is this the work of sin?'
'Yes,' in his better moments, he replied,
'Of sinful avarice and the spirit's pride; -
While yet untempted, I was safe and well;
Temptation came; I reason'd, and I fell:
To be man's guide and glory I design'd,
A rare example for our sinful kind;
But now my weakness and my guilt I see,
And am a warning--man, be warn'd by me!'
He said, and saw no more the human face;
To a lone loft he went, his dying place,
And, as the vicar of his state inquired,
Turn'd to the wall and silently expired!
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