Verses on Sir Joshua Reynold’s Painted Window at New College, Oxford
Ah, stay thy treacherous hand, forbear to trace
Those faultless forms of elegance and grace!
Ah, cease to spread the bright transparent mass,
With Titian’s pencil, o’er the speaking glass!
Nor steal, by strokes of art with truth combin’d,
The fond illusions of my wayward mind!
For long, enamour’d of a barbarous age,
A faithless truant to the classic page;
Long have I lov’d to catch the simple chime
Of minstrel-harps, and spell the fabling rime;
To view the festive rites, the knightly play,
That deck’d heroic Albion’s elder day;
To mark the mouldering halls of barons bold,
And the rough castle, cast in giant mould;
With Gothic manners Gothic arts explore,
And muse on the magnificence of yore.
But chief, enraptur’d have I lov’d to roam,
A lingering votary, the vaulted dome,
Where the tall shafts, that mount in massy pride,
Where elfin sculptors, with fantastic clew,
O’er the long roof their wild embroidery drew;
Where Superstition with capricious hand
In many a maze the wreathed window plann’d,
With hues romantic ting’d the gorgeous pane,
To fill with holy light the wondrous fane;
To aid the builder’s model, richly rude,
By no Vitruvian symmetry subdu’d;
To suit the genius of the mystic pile:
Whilst as around the far-retiring aisle,
And fretted shrines, with hoary trophies hung,
Her dark illumination wide she flung,
With new solemnity, the nooks profound,
The caves of death, and the dim arches frown’d.
From bliss long felt unwillingly we part:
Ah, spare the weakness of a lover’s heart!
Chase not the phantoms of my fairy dream,
Phantoms that shrink at Reason’s painful gleam!
That softer touch, insidious artist, stay,
Nor to new joys my struggling breast betray!
Such was a pensive bard’s mistaken strain.
But, oh, of ravish’d pleasures why complain?
No more the matchless skill I call unkind,
That strives to disenchant my cheated mind.
For when again I view thy chaste design,
The just proportion, and the genuine line;
Those native portraitures of Attic art,
That from the lucid surface seem to start;
Those tints, that steal no glories from the day,
Nor ask the sun to lend his streaming ray:
The doubtful radiance of contending dyes,
That faintly mingle, yet distinctly rise;
‘Twixt light and shade the transitory strife;
The feature blooming with immortal life:
The stole in casual foldings taught to flow,
Not with ambitious ornaments to glow;
The tread majestic, and the beaming eye,
That lifted speaks its commerce with the sky;
Heaven’s golden emanation, gleaming mild
O’er the mean cradle of the Virgin’s child:
Sudden, the sombrous imagery is fled,
Which late my visionary rapture fed:
Thy powerful hand has broke the Gothic chain,
And brought my bosom back to truth again;
To truth, by no peculiar taste confin’d,
Whose universal pattern strikes mankind;
To truth, whose bold and unresisted aim
Checks frail caprice, and fashion’s fickle claim;
To truth, whose charms deception’s magic quell,
And bind coy Fancy in a stronger spell.
Ye brawny Prophets, that in robes so rich,
At distance due, possess the crisped niche;
Ye rows of Patriarchs, that sublimely rear’d
Diffuse a proud primeval length of beard:
Ye Saints, who clad in crimson’s bright array,
More pride than humble poverty display:
Ye Virgins meek, that wear the palmy crown
Of patient faith, and yet so fiercely frown:
Ye Angels, that from clouds of gold recline,
But boast no semblance to a race divine:
Ye tragic tales of legendary lore,
That draw devotion’s ready tear no more;
Ye martyrdoms of unenlighten’d days,
Ye miracles, that now no wonder raise:
Shapes, that with one broad glare the gazer strike,
Kings, bishops, nuns, apostles, all alike!
Ye colours, that th’ unwary sight amaze,
And only dazzle in the noontide blaze!
No more the sacred window’s round disgrace,
But yield to Grecian groups the shining space.
Lo, from the canvas Beauty shifts her throne,
Lo, Picture’s powers a new formation own!
Behold, she prints upon the crystal plain,
With her own energy, th’ expressive stain!
The mighty master spreads his mimic toil
More wide, nor only blends the breathing oil;
But calls the lineaments of life complete
From genial alchymy’s creative heat;
Obedient forms to the bright fusion gives,
While in the warm enamel Nature lives.
Reynolds, ’tis thine, from the broad window’s height,
To add new lustre to religious light:
Not of its pomp to strip this ancient shrine,
But bid that pomp with purer radiance shine:
With arts unknown before, to reconcile
The willing Graces to the Gothic pile.