“Thoughts on the Author’s Own Death. Written when very Young”
Thus, when the fatal stroke of Death’s design’d,
On oozy banks th’ expiring swan reclin’d,
Her own sad requiem sings in languid note,
While o’er the stream the dying echoes float.
But, ah! can youth dwell on the tragic part? 5
Can I describe the trembling, panting heart?
In Fancy’s frolic age can I relate
The pangs, the terrors of a dying state?
Yes—tho’ unskill’d, I’ll the grim shade pursue,
And bring the distant terror to my view; 10
Dwell on the horrors of that gloomy hour;
Death, made familiar, loses half his power.
Peace then, ye passions of ungovern’d youth,
Foes to reflection, enemies to the truth!
Let me, unruffled by your clamorous voice, 15
Make the drear regions of the tomb my choice;
And while sad Fancy paints the dismal scene,
Where reflects ghosts by midnight moons are seen
Stalk o’er the gloomy grave, Muse! be it thine
To rouse the vain, the giddy, and supine, 20
Who Pleasure’s rounds pursue; while young Desire
Wakes the gay dream, and feeds the dangerous fire:
From these I fly—and now, my pensive soul
Mark the harsh scream of yon death-bonding owl;
Perhaps she calls some lingering, tardy ghost 25
To smell the world, ere the dread hour be loft
That parts the night from morn. Come, restless souls,
Relax from torture; you whom Fate controuls
To purge your earthly crimes in liquid fire,
In anguish plung’d, till ages shall expire; 30
(This, ROME’S grand tenet) sin thus wash’d away,
Pure, bright, and cleans’d, you’ll wing to endless day.
Presumption, hold! Lo, o’er yon misty tomb
Leans a sad spectre, and bemoans the doom
Of never-erring Justice; heavenly power! 35
Support and guard me in this gloomy hour
Of dread inquiry!—”Say, thou wretched soul,
O teach a young, rash, inexperienced fool,
What ‘tis to die, and where thou wing’dst thy way,
When turn’d a wanderer from thy house of clay? 40
Did’st tread soft lawns, or seek Elysian groves,
Where Poets feign lover’s spirit roves?
Or, on light pinions cut the closing air,
And to each planetary world repair?
Or, guideless, stray where dismal groans rebound, 45
And forked lightnings quiver on the ground?
Or did sad fiends thy unhous’d spirit meet,
And with shrill yellings the poor trembler greet
To the dark world? Describe that scene of woe
Which thou hast felt, and may I ever know!” 50
“Thou’lt know, indeed,” it answers with a groan,
“The pangs of death too sure shall by thy own;
Pains yet unfelt must seize thy every part,
And Death’s cold horrors hover round thy heart;
Thy dying eyes fix’d on some darling friend, 55
While strong convulsions their wild orbs extend;
One gasp, and deep eternity in view,
The soul shoots forth, and groans a last adieu.
I dare no more—but Oh! too curious maid,
Seek not to pierce th’impenetrable shade 60
Which wraps futurity; thou‘rt sure to die;
Rest there, nor farther search, nor question why;
Scan not Omnipotence—of that beware;
Oft the too curious eye is dimm’d by blank despair.”
Farewel, poor Ghost! ye horrors of the night, 65
Begone, nor more my shudd’ring soul affright;
The question unresolv’d I soon shall know,
Then let me haste from this sad scene of woe.
Henceforth, vain Pleasure, I renounce thy joy,
Enchanting Fair, who tempt’st but to destroy; 70
Ye thoughtless maids who transient dreams pursue,
No more my moments must be lost with you;
No more my soul in empty mirth shall share,
Or fondly relish pleasures ting’d with care.
And thou, all-merciful! omniscient Power! 75
O teach me to redeem each mis-spent hour;
In youth the mind’s best gifts most strongly shine,
Ah! let them not too suddenly decline!
In mercy add a few remaining years,
The grave shall lose its sting, my soul shall lose its fears. 80
2 expiring swan reclin’d Greek mythological “swan-song;” “a song like that fabled to be sung by a dying swan; the last work of a poet or musician, composed shortly before death; any final performance, action, or effort” (OED).
20 supine Lying on one’s back (OED).
24 Harsh scream of yon death-bonding owl Roman mythology denotes the owl as an omen of ill-fortune or death; contrarily, the Greeks thought owls to bring imminent good fortune.
31 tenet A doctrine, dogma, principle, or opinion, in religion, philosophy, politics, or the like, held by a school, sect, party, or person (OED).
40 house of clay Colloquially this means, “of the Earth”; see also King James Bible, Job 4:19, “How much more them that dwell in houses of clay….”
41 Elysian Of the nature of, or resembling, what is in Elysium (The supposed state or abode of the blessed after death in Greek mythology.); beatific, glorious (OED).
43 pinions A bird’s wing; esp. the wing of a bird in flight (OED).
61 futurity The quality, state, or fact of being future (OED).
63 Omnipotence As an abstract concept: all-powerfulness, almightiness; force, person, or being representing or embodying this quality; God (OED).
71 transient Passing by or away with time; not durable or permanent; temporary (OED).
73 mirth Pleasurable feeling; enjoyment, gratification; joy, happiness (OED).
Source: Poems, on Several Occasions, 4th edn. (London, 1786), pp. 15-20. [Google Books]
Edited by Abby Bergman