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'Ah! let not hope fallacious, airy, wild'
Helen Maria Williams
In the 1790s, the Paris salon of Helen Maria Williams was the meeting place
of many writers and intellectuals. Her Letters from France, published between
1790 and 1815, were important and widely read accounts of Revolutionary
and post-Revolutionary events. Some of her sonnets first appeared in her
novel Julia (1790) and in her translation of Bernardin St. Pierre's Paul et
Virginie (1795). William Wordsworth could recite from memory her sonnet
"To Hope," and his earliest published poem was entitled "Sonnet, on Seeing
Miss Helen Maria Williams Weep at a Tale of Distress" (1787).
40. To Twilight
Meek Twilight! soften the declining day,
And bring the hour my pensive spirit loves;
When, o'er the mountain slow descends the ray
That gives to silence the deserted groves.
Ah, let the happy court the morning still,
When, in her blooming loveliness arrayed,
She bids fresh beauty light the vale, or hill,
And rapture warble in the vocal shade.
Sweet is the odor of the morning's flower,
And rich in melody her accents rise;
Yet dearer to my soul the shadowy hour,
At which her blossoms close, her music dies—
For then, while languid nature droops her head,
She wakes the tear 'tis luxury to shed.
41. To Hope
Oh, ever skilled to wear the form we love!
To bid the shapes of fear and grief depart,
Come, gentle Hope! with one gay smile remove
The lasting sadness of an aching heart.
Thy voice, benign enchantress! let me hear;
Say that for me some pleasures yet shall bloom!
That fancy's radiance, friendship's precious tear,
Shall soften, or shall chase, misfortune's gloom.—
But come not glowing in the dazzling ray
Which once with dear illusions charmed my eye!
Oh strew no more, sweet flatterer! on my way
The flowers I fondly thought too bright to die.
Visions less fair will soothe my pensive breast,
That asks not happiness, but longs for rest!
A CENTURY OF SONNETS
42. To the Moon
The glitt'ring colors of the day are fled;
Come, melancholy orb! that dwell'st with night,
Come! and o'er earth thy wandering luster shed,
Thy deepest shadow, and thy softest light;
To me congenial is the gloomy grove,
When with faint light the sloping uplands shine;
That gloom, those pensive rays alike I love,
Whose sadness seems in sympathy with mine!
But most for this, pale orb! thy beams are dear,
For this, benignant orb! I hail thee most:
That while I pour the unavailing tear,
And mourn that hope to me in youth is lost,
Thy light can visionary thoughts impart,
And lead the Muse to soothe a suffering heart.
43. To the Strawberry
The strawberry blooms upon its lowly bed,
Plant of my native soil!—the lime may fling
More potent fragrance on the zephyr's wing;
The milky cocoa richer juices shed;
The white guava lovelier blossoms spread—
But not like thee to fond remembrance bring
The vanished hours of life's enchanting spring,
Short calendar of joys for ever fled!—
Thou bidst the scenes of childhood rise to view,
The wild-wood path which fancy loves to trace;
Where veiled in leaves, thy fruit of rosy hue
Lurked on its pliant stem with modest grace—
But ah! when thought would later years renew,
Alas, successive sorrows crowd the space!
44. To the Curlew
Soothed by the murmurs on the sea-beat shore,
His dun-gray plumage floating to the gale,
The Curlew blends his melancholy wail,
With those hoarse sounds the rushing waters pour—
Like thee, congenial bird! my steps explore
The bleak lone sea-beach, or the rocky dale,
And shun the orange bower, the myrtle vale,
Whose gay luxuriance suits my soul no more.
I love the ocean's broad expanse, when dressed
In limpid clearness, or when tempests blow;
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When the smooth currents on its placid breast
Flow calm as my past moments used to flow;
Or, when its troubled waves refuse to rest,
And seem the symbol of my present woe.
45. To the Torrid Zone
Pathway of light! o'er thy empurpled zone,
With lavish charms perennial summer strays;
Soft 'midst thy spicy groves the zephyr plays,
While far around the rich perfumes are thrown;
The amadavid-bird for thee alone,
Spreads his gay plumes that catch thy vivid rays;
For thee the gems with liquid luster blaze,
And nature's various wealth is all thy own.
But ah! not thine is twilight's doubtful gloom,
Those mild gradations, mingling day with night;
Here, instant darkness shrouds thy genial bloom,
Nor leaves my pensive soul that lingering light,
When musing memory would each trace resume
Of fading pleasures in successive flight.
46. To the White Bird of the Tropic
Bird of the Tropic! thou, who lov'st to stray,
Where thy long pinions sweep the sultry line,
Or mark'st the bounds which torrid beams confine
By thy averted course, that shuns the ray
Oblique, enamored of sublimer day—
Oft' on yon cliff thy folded plumes recline,
And drop those snowy feathers Indians twine,
To crown the warrior's brow with honors gay—
O'er trackless oceans what impels thy wing?
Does no soft instinct in thy soul prevail?
No sweet affection to thy bosom cling,
And bid thee oft thy absent nest bewail?—
Yet thou again to that dear spot can'st spring—
But I my long-lost home no more shall hail!
William Lisle Bowles
William Lisle Bowles was a clergyman whose literary pursuits kept him in the
public eye for much of his life. The success of his Fourteen Sonnets (1789)
encouraged him to expand this series of topographical sonnets. Reviewers
initially compared Bowles's sonnets with Charlotte Smith's, sometimes
A CENTURY OF SONNETS
accusing him of imitating her. Samuel Taylor Coleridge praised both Smith
and Bowles for reviving the sonnet and, in his Biographia Literaria, remarks
upon the enormous influence Bowles's sensibility and technique had on him
as a young man. Censurious remarks in Bowles's 1806 edition of Alexander
Pope's poetry provoked an angry attack by Lord Byron.
47. To a Friend
Bereave me not of these delightful dreams,
Which charmed my youth; or mid her gay career
Of hope, or when the faintly-paining tear
Sat sad on memory's cheek—though loftier themes
Await the awakened mind, to the high prize
Of wisdom, hardly earned with toil and pain,
Aspiring patient; yet on life's wide plain
Cast friendless, where unheard some sufferer cries
Hourly, and oft our road is lone and long,
'Twere not a crime, should we awhile delay,
Amid the sunny field, and happier they
Who, as they wander, woo the charm of song,
To cheer their path—till they forget to weep,
And the tired sense is hushed, and sinks to sleep.
48. 'Languid, and sad, and slow'
Languid, and sad, and slow from day to day,
I journey on, yet pensive turn to view
(Where the rich landscape gleams with softer hue)
The streams, and vales, and hills, that steal away.
So fares it with the children of the earth:
For when life's goodly prospect opens round,
Their spirits beat to tread that fairy ground,
Where every vale sounds to the pipe of mirth.
But them, vain hope, and easy youth beguiles,
And soon a longing look, like me, they cast
Back o'er the pleasing prospect of the past:
Yet fancy points where still far onward smiles
Some sunny spot, and her fair coloring blends,
Till cheerless on their path the night descends.
49. Written at Tinemouth, Northumberland,
after a Tempestuous Voyage
As slow I climb the cliffs ascending side,
Much musing on the track of terror past,
When o'er the dark wave rode the howling blast,
A CENTURY OF SONNETS
Pleased I look back, and view the tranquil tide,
That laves the pebbled shore; and now the beam
Of evening smiles on the gray battlement,
And yon forsaken tower that time has rent:—
The lifted oar far off with silver gleam
Is touched, and the hushed billows seem to sleep!
Soothed by the scene, even thus on sorrow's breast
A kindred stillness steals, and bids her rest;
Whilst sad airs stilly sigh along the deep,
Like melodies which mourn upon the lyre,
Waked by the breeze, and as they mourn, expire.
50. Written at Bamborough Castle
Ye holy towers that shade the wave-worn steep,
Long may ye rear your aged brows sublime,
Though, hurrying silent by, relentless Time
Assail you, and the winter whirlwind's sweep!
For far from blazing grandeur's crowded halls,
Here charity hath fixed her chosen seat,
Oft listening tearful when the wild winds beat,
With hollow bodings round your ancient walls;
And pity, at the dark and stormy hour
Of midnight, when the moon is hid on high,
Keeps her lone watch upon the topmost tower,
And turns her ear to each expiring cry;
Blest if her aid some fainting wretch might save,
And snatch him cold and speechless from the wave.
51. To the River Wensbeck
As slowly wanders thy sequestered stream,
Wensbeck! the mossy-scattered rocks among,
In fancy's ear still making plaintive song
To the dark woods above, that waving seem
To bend o'er some enchanted spot, removed
From life's vain scenes; I listen to the wind,
And think I hear meek sorrow's plaint, reclined
O'er the forsaken tomb of one she loved!—
Fair scenes, ye lend a pleasure, long unknown,
To him who passes weary on his way—
The farewell tear, which now he turns to pay,
Shall thank you,—and whene'er of pleasures flown
His heart some long-lost image would renew,
Delightful haunts! he will remember you.