Elegy on a Pile of Ruins

by John Cunningham

John Cunningham

In the full prospect yonder hill commands,
O'er barren heaths and cultivated plains;
The vestige of an ancient abbey stands,
Close by a ruin'd castle's rude remains.

Half buried, there lie many a broken bust,
And obelisk, and urn, o'erthrown by Time;
And many a cherub, there, descends in dust
From the rent roof, and portico sublime.

The rivulets, oft frighted at the sound
Of fragments tumbling from the tow'rs on high,
Plung'd to their source in secret caves profound,
Leaving their banks and pebbly bottoms dry.

Where reverend shrines in Gothic grandeur stood,
The nettle or the noxious night-shade spreads;
And ashlings, wafted from the neighbouring wood,
Through the worn turrets wave their trembling heads.

There Contemplation, to the crowd unknown,
Her attitude compos'd, and aspect sweet,
Sits musing on a monumental stone,
And points to the Memento at her feet.

Soon as sage Evening check'd Day's sunny pride,
I left the mantling shade in moral mood;
And seated by the Maid's sequester'd side,
Sigh'd, as the mouldering monuments I view'd.

Inexorably calm, with silent pace
Here Time hath pass'd—What ruin marks his way!
This pile, now crumbling o'er its hallow'd base,
Turn'd not his step, nor could his course delay.

Religion rais'd her supplicating eyes
In vain; and Melody her song sublime:
In vain, Philosophy, with maxims wise,
Would touch the cold unfeeling heart of Time.

Yet the hoar tyrant, though not mov'd to spare,
Relented when he struck its finish'd pride;
And partly the rude ravage to repair,
The tottering tow'rs with twisted ivy ty'd.

How solemn is the cell o'ergrown with moss,
That terminates the view, yon cloister'd way!
In the crush'd wall, a time-corroded cross,
Religion-like, stands mouldering in decay!

Where the mild sun, through saint-encipher'd glass,
Illum'd with mellow light yon dusky aisle,
Many rapt hours might Meditation pass,
Slow moving 'twixt the pillars of the pile!

And Piety, with mystic-meaning beads,
Bowing to saints on every side murn'd,
Trod oft the solitary path that leads
Where now the sacred altar lies o'erturn'd!

Through the grey grove, between those withering trees,
'Mongst a rude group of monuments, appears
A marble-imag'd matron on her knees,
Half wasted, like a Niobe in tears.

Low levell'd in the dust her darling's laid!
Death pitied not the pride of youthful bloom;
Nor could maternal piety dissuade,
Or soften the fell tyrant of the tomb.

The relics of a mitred saint may rest,
Where, mouldering in the niche, his statue stands;
Now nameless as the crowd that kiss'd his vest,
And crav'd the benediction of his hands.

Near the brown arch, redoubling yonder gloom,
The bones of an illustrious Chieftain lie;
As, trac'd among the fragments of his tomb,
The trophies of a broken Fame imply.

Ah! what avails, that o'er the vassal plain
His rights and rich demesnes extended wide!
That Honour and her knights compos'd his train,
And Chivalry stood marshall'd by his side!

Though to the clouds his castle seem'd to climb,
And frown'd defiance on the desperate foe;
Though deem'd invincible, the conqueror Time
Levell'd the fabric, as the founder, low.

Where the light lyre gave many a softening sound,
Ravens and rooks, the birds of discord, dwell;
And where Society sat sweetly crown'd,
Eternal Solitude has fix'd her cell.

The lizard and the lazy lurking bat
Inhabit now, perhaps, the painted room,
Where the sage matron and her maidens sat,
Sweet singing at the silver-working loom.

The traveller's bewilder'd on a waste;
And the rude winds incessant seem to roar,
Where, in his groves with arching arbours grac'd,
Young lovers often sigh'd in days of yore.

His aqueducts, that led the limpid tide
To pure canals, a chrystal cool supply!
In the deep dust their barren beauties hide:
Time's thirst, unquenchable, has drain'd them dry!

Though his rich hours in revelry were spent,
With Comus, and the laughter-loving crew;
And the sweet brow of Beauty, still unbent,
Brighten'd his fleecy moments as they flew:

Fleet are the fleecy moments! fly they must;
Not to be stay'd by masque or midnight roar!
Nor shall a pulse, among that mouldering dust,
Beat wanton at the smiles of Beauty more!

Can the deep Statesman, skill'd in great design,
Protract but for a day precarious breath?
Or the tun'd follower of the sacred Nine
Soothe, with his melody, insatiate Death?

No:—though the palace bar her golden gate,
Or monarchs plant ten thousand guards around;
Unerring, and unseen, the shaft of fate
Strikes the devoted victim to the ground!

What then avails Ambition's wide stretch'd wing,
The Schoolman's page, or pride of Beauty's bloom!
The crape-clad hermit, and the rich-rob'd king,
Levell'd, lie mix'd promiscuous in the tomb.

The Macedoman monarch, wise and good,
Bade, when the morning's rosy reign began,
Courtiers should call, as round his couch they stood,
"Philip! remember, thou'rt no more than man:

Though glory spread thy name from pole to pole;
Though thou art merciful, and brave, and just;
Philip, reflect, thou'rt posting to the goal,
Where mortais mix in undistinguish'd dust!"

So Saladin, for arts and arms renown'd,
(Egypt and Syria's wide domains subdued,)
Returning with imperial triumphs crown'd,
Sigh'd, when the perishable pomp he view'd.

And as he rode, high in his regal car,
In all the purple pride of conquest drest;
Conspicuous o'er the trophies gain'd in war,
Plac'd, pendent on a spear, his burial vest:

While thus the herald cry'd—"This son of pow'r,
This Saladin, to whom the nations bow'd,
May, in the space of one revolving hour,
Boast of no other spoil but yonder shroud!"

Search where Ambition rag'd, with rigour steel'd;
Where Slaughter, like the rapid lightning, ran;
And say, while Memory weeps, the blood-stain'd field,
Where lies the chief, and where the common man?

Vain then are pyramids, and motto'd stones,
And monumental trophies rais'd on high!
For Time confounds them with the crumbling bones,
That, mix'd in hasty graves, unnotic'd lie.

Rests not beneath the turf the peasant's head,
Soft as the lord's, beneath the labour'd tomb?
Or sleeps one colder, in his close clay bed,
Than t'other in the wide vault's dreary womb?

Hither, let Luxury lead her loose-rob'd train;
Here flutter Pride, on purple-painted wings:
And from the moral prospect learn,—how vain
The wish that sighs for sublunary things!

Last updated September 07, 2017