Helen Maria Williams

From Poems (1786)


"Sonnet: To Twilight"

"To Sensibility"

"A Song."

"Part Of an Irregular Fragment, Found in a Dark Passage of the Tower."

"Sonnet: To Mrs. Siddons."

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 fill,
When, in her blooming loveliness array'd,
She bids fresh beauty light the vale, or hill,
And rapture warble in the vocal shade.
Sweet is the odour 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.

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In Sensibility's lov'd praise
I tune my trembling reed;
And seek to deck her shrine with bays,
On which my heart must bleed!

No cold exemption from her pain
I ever wish'd to know;
Cheer'd with her transport, I sustain
Without complaint her woe.

Above whate'er content can give,
Above the charm of ease,
The restless hopes, and fears that live
With her, have power to please.

Where but for her, were Friendship's power
To heal the wounded heart,
To shorten sorrow's ling'ring hour,
And bid its gloom depart?

"Tis she that lights the melting eye
With looks to anguish dear;
She knows the price of ev'ry sigh,
The value of a tear.

She prompts the tender marks of love
Which words can scarce express;
The heart alone their force can prove,
And feel how much they bless.

Of ever finer bliss the source!
'Tis she on love bestows
The softer grace, the boundless force
Confiding passion knows;

When to another, the fond breast
Each thought for ever gives;
When on another, leans for rest,
And in another lives!

Quick, as the trembling metal flies,
When heat or cold impels,
Her anxious heart to joy can rise,
Or sink where anguish dwells!

Yet tho' her soul must griefs sustain
Which she alone, can know;
And feel that keener sense of pain
Which sharpens every woe;

Tho she the mourner's grief to calm,
Still shares each pang they feel,
And, like the tree distilling balm,
Bleeds, others wounds to heal;

While she, whose bosom fondly true,
Has never wish'd to range;
One altered look will trembling view,
And scarce can bear the change;

Tho' she, if death the bands should tear,
She vainly thought secure;
Thro' life must languish in despair
That never hopes a cure;

Tho' wounded by some vulgar mind,
Unconscious of the deed,
Who never seeks those wounds to bind
But wonders why they bleed;----

She oft will heave a secret sigh,
Will shed a lonely tear,
O'er feelings nature wrought so high,
And gave on terms so dear;

Yet who would hard INDIFFERENCE choose,
Whose breast no tears can steep?
Who, for her apathy, would lose
The sacred power to weep?

Tho' in a thousand objects, pain,
And pleasure tremble nigh,
Those objects strive to reach, in vain,
The circle of her eye.

Cold, as the fabled god appears
To the poor suppliant's grief,
Who bathes the marble form in tears,
And vainly hopes relief.

Ah Greville! why the gifts refuse
To souls like thine allied?
No more thy nature seem to lose
No more thy softness hide.

No more invoke the playful sprite
To chill, with magic spell,
The tender feelings of delight,
And anguish sung so well;

That envied ease thy heart would prove
Were sure too dearly bought
With friendship, sympathy, and love,
And every finer thought.

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No riches from his scanty shore
My lover could impart;
He gave a boon I valued more----
He gave me all his heart!

His soul sincere, his gen'rous worth,
Might well this bosom move;
And when I ask'd for bliss on earth,
I only meant his love.

But now for me, in search of gain
From shore to shore he flies:
Why wander riches to obtain,
When love is all I prize!

The frugal meal, the lowly cot
If blesh my love with thee!
That simple fare, that humble lot,
Were more than wealth to me.

While he the dang'rous ocean braves,
My tears but vainly flow:
Is pity in the faithless waves
To which I pour my woe?

The night is dark, the waters deep,
Yet soft the billows roll;
Alas! at every breeze I weep----
The storm is in my soul.

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The following Poem is formed on a very singular and sublime idea. A young gentleman, possessed of an uncommon genius for drawing, on visiting the Tower of London, passing one door of a singular construction, asked what apartment it led to, and expressed a desire to have it opened. The person who shewed the place shook his head, and answered, "Heaven knows what is within that door--it has been shut for ages."--This answer made small impression on the other hearers, but a very deep one on the imagination of this youth. Gracious Heaven! an apartment shut up for ages--and in the Tower!

"Ye Towers of Julius! London's lasting shame,
"By many a soul and midnight murder fed."

Genius builds on a slight foundation, and rears beautiful structures on "the baseless fabric of vision." The above transient hint dwelt on the young man's fancy, and conjured into his memory all the murders which history records to have been committed in the Tower; Henry the Sixth, the Duke of Clarence, the two young princes, sons of Edward the Fourth, Sir Thomas Overbury, &c. He supposes all their ghosts assembled in this unexplored apartment, and to these his fertile imagination has added several others. One of the spectres raises an immense pall of black velvet, and discovers the remains of a murdered royal family, whose story is lost in the lapse of time.--The gloomy wildness of these images struck my imagination so forcibly, that endeavouring to catch the fire of the youth's pencil, this Fragment was produced.

Rise, winds of night! relentless tempests rise!
Rush from the troubled clouds, and o'er me roll;
In this chill pause a deeper horror lies,
A wilder fear appals my shudd'ring soul.--
Twas on this day[1], this hour accurst,
That Nature starting from repose
Heard the dire shrieks of murder burst--
From infant innocence they rose,
And shook these solemn towers!--
I shudd'ring pass that fatal room
For ages wrapt in central gloom;--
I shudd'ring pass that iron door
Which Fate perchance unlocks no more;
Death, smear'd with blood, o'er the dark portal lowers.

How fearfully my step resounds
Along these lonely bounds:--
Spare, savage blast! the taper's quiv'ring fires,
Deep in these gath'ring shades its flame expires.
Ye host of heaven! the door recedes--
It mocks my grasp--what unseen hands
Have burst its iron bands?
Nor mortal force this gate unbarr'd
Where danger lives, which terrors guard--
Dread powers! its screaming hinges close
On this dire scene of impious deeds--
My feet are fix'd!--Dismay has bound
My step on this polluted ground--
But lo! the pitying moon, a line of light
Athwart the horrid darkness dimly throws,
And from yon grated window chases night.

Ye visions that before me roll,
That freeze my blood, that shake my soul!
Are ye the phantoms of a dream?
Pale spectres! are ye what ye seem?
They glide more near--
Their forms unfold!
Fix'd are their eyes, on me they bend--
Their glaring look is cold!
And hark!--I hear
Sounds that the throbbing pulse of life suspend.

"No wild illusion cheats thy sight
"With shapes that only live in night--
"Mark the native glories spread
"Around my bleeding brow!
"The crown of Albion wreath'd my head,
"And Gallia's lilies[2] twin'd below--
"When my father shook his spear,
"When his banner sought the skies,
"Her baffled host recoil'd with fear,
"Nor turned their shrinking eyes:--
"Soon as the daring eagle springs
"To bask in heav'n's empyreal light,
"The vultures ply their baleful wings,
"A cloud of deep'ning colour marks their flight,
"Staining the golden day:--
"But see! amid the rav'nous brood
"A bird of fiercer aspect soar--
"The spirits of a rival race,[3]
"Hang on the noxious blast, and trace,
"With gloomy joy his destin'd prey;
"Inflame th' ambitious wish that thirsts for blood,
"And plunge his talons deep in kindred gore.

"View the stern form that hovers nigh,
"Fierce rolls his dauntless eye
"In scorn of hideous death;
"Till starting at a brother's[4] name,
"Horror shrinks his glowing frame,
"Locks the half utter'd groan,
"And chills the parting breath:--
"Astonish'd Nature heav'd a moan!
"When her affrighted eye beheld the hands
"She form'd to cherish, rend her holy bands.

"Look where a royal infant[5] kneels,
"Shrieking, and agoniz'd with fear,
"He sees the dagger pointed near
"A much-lov'd brother's[6] breast,
"And tells an absent mother all he feels:--
"His eager eye he casts around;
"Where shall her guardian form be found,
"On which his eager eye would rest!
"On her he calls in accents wild,
"And wonders why her step is slow
"To save her suff'ring child!--
"Rob'd in the regal garb, his brother stands
"In more majestic woe--
"And meets the impious stroke with bosom bare,
"Then fearless grasps the murd'rer's hands,
"And asks the minister of hell to spare
"The child whose feeble arms sustain
"His bleeding form from cruel Death.--
"In vain fraternal fondness pleads
"For cold is now his livid cheek,
"And cold his last, expiring breath:
"And now with aspect meek,
"The infant lifts his mournful eye,
"if death will cure his heaving heart of pain--
"His heaving heart now bleeds--
"Foul tyrant! o'er the gilded hour
"That beams with all the blaze of power,
"Remorse shall spread her thickest shroud;
"The furies in thy tortur'd ear
"Shall howl, with curses deep, and loud,
"And wake distracting fear!
"I see the ghastly spectre rise,
"Whose blood is cold, whose hollow eyes
"Seem from his head to start----
"With upright hair, and shiv'ring heart,
"Dark o'er thy midnight could he bends,
"And clasps thy shrinking frame, thy impious spirit rends."

Now his thrilling accents die--
His shape eludes my searching eye--
But who is he*, convuls'd with pain,
That writhes in every swelling vein?
Yet in so deep, so wild a groan,
A sharper anguish seems to live
Than life's expiring pang can give:--
He dies deserted, and alone--
If pity can allay thy woes
Sad spirit they shall find repose--
Thy friend, thy long-lov'd friend is near!
He comes to pour the parting tear,
He comes to catch the parting breath--
Ah heaven! no melting look he wears,
His alter'd eye with vengeance glares;
Each frantic passion at his soul,
"Tis he has dash'd that venom'd bowl
With agony, and death.

But whence arose that solemn call?
Yon bloody phantom waves his hand,
And beckons me to deeper gloom--
Rest, troubled form! I come--
Some unknown power my step impels
To horror's secret cells--
"For thee I raise this sable pall,
"It shrouds a ghastly band:
"Stretch'd beneath, thy eye shall trace
"A mangled regal race:
"A thousand suns have roll'd, since light
"Rush'd on their solid night--
"See, o'er that tender frame grim famine hangs,
"And mocks a mother's pangs!
"The last, last drop which warm'd her veins
"That meagre infant drains--
"Then gnaws her fond, sustaining breast--
"Stretch'd on her feeble knees, behold
"Another victim sinks to lasting rest--
"Another, yet her matron arms would fold
"Who strives to reach her matron arms in vain--
"Too weak her wasted form to raise,
"On him she bends her eager gaze;
"She sees the soft imploring eye
"That asks her dear embrace, the cure of pain--
"She sees her child at distance die--
"But now her stedfast heart can bear
"Unmov'd, the pressure of despair--
"When first the winds of winter urge their course
"O'er the pure stream, whose current smoothly glides,
"The heaving river swells its troubled tides;
"But when the bitter blast with force,
"O'er the high wave an icy fetter throws,
"The harden'd wave is fix'd in dead repose."--

"Say who that hoary form? alone he stands,
"And meekly lifts his wither'd hands--
"His white beard streams with blood--
"I see him with a smile, deride
"The wounds that pierce his shrivel'd side,
"Whence flows a purple flood--
"But sudden pangs his bosom tear--
"On one big drop, of deeper dye,
"I see him fix his haggard eye
"In dark, and wild despair!
"That sanguine drop which wakes his woe--
Say, spirit! whence its source."--
"Ask no more its source to know--
"Ne'er shall mortal eye explore
"Whence flow'd that drop of human gore,
"Till the starting dead shall rise,
"Unchain'd from earth, and mount the skies,
"And time shall end his fated course."--
"Now th' unfathom'd depth behold--
"Look but once! a second glance
"Wraps a heart of human mold
"In death's eternal trance."

"That shapeless phantom sinking slow
"Deep down the vast abyss below,
"Darts, thro' the mists that shroud his frame,
"A horror, nature hates to name!"--
"Mortal, could thine eyes behold
"All those sullen mists enfold,
"Thy sinews at the sight accurst
"Would wither, and thy heart-strings burst;
"Death would grasp with icy hand
"And drag thee to our grizly band--
"Away! the sable pall I spread,
"And give to rest th' unquiet dead--
"Haste! ere its horrid shroud enclose
"Thy form, benumb'd with wild affright,
"And plunge thee far thro' wastes of night,
"In yon black gulph's abhorr'd repose!"--
As starting at each step, I fly,
Why backward turns my frantic eye,
That closing portal past?--
Two sullen shades half-seen, advance!--
On me, a blasting look they cast,
And fix my view with dang'rous spells,
Where burning frenzy dwells!--
Again! their vengeful look--and now a speechless--
* * * * * *

Notes: (by Williams)
[1]Line 5: The anniversary of the murder of Edward the Fifth, and his brother Richard, Duke of York. [1]
[2]line 46: Henry the Sixth, crowned when an infant, at Paris. [2]
[3]line 58: Richard the Third, by murdering so many near relations, seemed to revenge the sufferings of Henry the Sixth, and his family, on the House the York. [3]
[4]line 66: Richard the Third, who murdered his brother the Duke of Clarence. [4]
[5]line 73: Richard Duke of York. [5]
[6]line 76: Edward the Fifth. [6]

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SIDDONS! the Muse, for many a joy refin'd,
Feelings which ever seem so swiftly fled--
For those delicious tears she loves to shed,
Around thy brow the wreath of praise would bind--
But can her feeble notes thy praise unfold?
Repeat the tones each changing passion gives,
Or mark where nature in thy action lives,
Where, in thy pause, she speaks a pang untold!
When fierce ambition steels thy daring breast,
When from thy frantic look our glance recedes; 10
Or oh, divine enthusiast! when opprest
By anxious love, that eye of softness pleads--
The sun-beam all can feel, but who can trace
The instant light, and catch the radiant grace!

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