Poem of the Week: Ann Radcliffe, “St Albans Abbey: A Metrical Tale”

Ann Radcliffe  (1764-1823) is best known for her Gothic novels, including The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian. Her poetry is less familiar, and little attention seems ever to have been paid to the “Metrical Tale” published after her death, St Albans Abbey (1826). The poem deals mainly with the War of the Roses and the Battle of St Albans; but the impressive first Canto is devoted to the Abbey itself, its history and its present state. Among other things, it sheds an intriguing light on the nineteenth-century Abbey before it achieved cathedral status, and before the restorations of Grimthorpe. Here are some extended excerpts.



Know ye that pale and ancient choir,
Whose Norman tower lifts its pinnacled spire?
Where the long Abbey-aisle extends
And battled roof o’er roof ascends;
Cornered with buttresses, shapely and small,
That sheltered the Saint in canopied stall;
And, lightened with hanging turrets fair,
That so proudly their dental coronals wear,
They blend with a holy, a warlike air;
While they guard the Martyr’s tomb beneath,
And patient warriors, laid in death?

Know ye that transept’s far-stretched line,
Where stately turrets, more slenderly fine,
Each with a battlement round its brow,
Win the uplifted eye below?
How lovely peers the soft blue sky
Through their small double arch on high!
Deepening the darkness of its shade,
And seeming holier peace to spread.
More grandly those turrets, mossed and hoar,
Upon the crimson evening soar.
Yet lovelier far their forms appear
When they lift their heads in the moonlight air;
And softening beams of languid white
Tip their shadowy crowns with light.
But most holy their look, when a fleecy cloud
O’er them throws its trembling shroud.
Then palely thinly dies away.
And leaves them to the full bright ray.
Thus Sorrow fleets from Resignation’s smile;
The virtue lives — the suffering dies the while.

And, as these moonlight-towers we trace,
A living look, a saintly grace
Beams o’er them, when we seem to hear
The midnight-hymn breathe soft and clear,
As from this choir of old it rose.
Each hallowed thought they seem to own,
Expressed by music’s heavenly tone;
And patient, sad, and pale and still,
As if resign’d to wait Time’s will.
Such choral swell and dying close
Stole on the Abbot’s hour of rest,
Like solemn air from spirit blest,
And shaped his vision of repose.
The pious instinct of his soul,
Not even slumber might control:
Soon as he caught the distant lay,
His gathering thoughts half woke to pray;
Celestial smile came’ o’er his brow.
Though sealed in sleep the lid below;
And, when in silence died the strain,
The lingering prayer
His lips forbear,
And deep his slumbers fall again.

Bold is this Abbey’s front, and plain;
The walls no shrined saint sustain.
Nor tower, nor airy pinnet crown;
But broadly sweeps the Norman arch
Where once in brightened shadow shone
King Offa, on his pilgrim-march
And proudly points the mouldered stone
Of the high-vaulted porch beneath,
Where Norman beauty hangs a wreath
Of simple elegance and grace;
Where slender columns guard the space
On every side, in clustered row,
The triple arch through arch disclose.
And lightly o’er the vaulting throw
The thwart-rib and the fretted rose.
Beside this porch, on either hand,
Giant buttresses darkly stand.
And still their silent vanguard hold
For bleeding Knights, laid here of old;
And* Mercian Offa and his Queen
The portal’s guard and grace are seen.
This western front shows various style.
Less ancient than the central pile.
No furrows deep upon its brow
The frown of seven stern centuries show;
Yet the sad grandeur of the whole
Gives it such a look of soul,
That, when upon its silent walls
The silvered grey of moonlight falls,
And the fixed image dim appears,
It seems some shade of parted years
Left watching o’er the mouldering dead,
Who here for pious Henry bled,
And here, beneath the wide-stretched ground
Of nave, of choir, of chapels round,
For ever — ever, rest the head.

* The busts of Offa and his Queen are at the springs of the arch of the great porch.

Now know ye this pale and ancient Choir,
Where the massy tower lifts a slender spire?
Here forty abbots have ruled and one,
Twenty with pall and mitre on,
And bowed them to the Pope alone.
Their hundred monks, in black arrayed,
The Benedictine rules obeyed;
O’er distant lands they held their sway;
Freed from Peter’s-pence were they;
The gift of palle from Pope they claimed,
And Cardinal-Abbots were they named;
And even old Canterbury’s lord
Was long refused the premier board;
For this was the first British Martyr’s bier,
And the Pope said “His priest shall have no peer”
Now know ye St. Alban’s bones rest here.

* * * *

[The next cantos deal with a range of matters including the hospitality of the Abbey and the grand feasts hosted by the Abbots. Radcliffe then shifts to the quieter pleasures of the monks reading in the cloisters, listening to the offices of the dead and contemplating the tombs….]

And when could festal joy e’er vie
With the calm rapture of the sigh
Breathed in that Cloister’s solemn shade,
When the lone monk would muse and read,
And meditate on ancient lore,
Or view the warrior on his tomb,
With raised hands seeming to implore
Of Heaven a mitigated doom?
So shaded would such figure lie,
Tall arches pointing o’er the head,
That, though a window, placed on high,
Its gleam through distant colours shed, —
So dim would lie in shades below,
That, whether living shape, or dead,
The monk, who gazed, might hardly know.
And often, at the midnight-watch,
(The shrine-watch in the aisle beside)
His ear attent low sound would catch,
That stole along the tomb and died,
As though he had some holy word
In whisper from the marble heard!
Followed a stillness all profound;
Was it some spirit from the ground
That breathed a spell of death around?
If the monk watched some little space.
Life would seem trembling o’er the face!
The pallid stone would change its hue,
And tremble to his doubting view!

Gone is that Cloister’s shadowy walk,
Where the more aged would pace and talk,
Or, resting in the well-carved nook,
Leisurely read the rare LENT BOOK,
Turning each page with reverend care.
Th’ illuminator’s work to spare;
Or tell some legend of a saint,
Or allegory, little worth,
Of monkish virtues pictured forth
In leonine, of Latin quaint.
Whate’er it were, ’twas fine repose.
In cloister-shade, at evening close.
To lean along that oaken seat,
And, all enwrapt in quiet gloom.
Hear the still Vesper rising sweet
From sainted Oswyn’s shrine and tomb.
Or Obit from the chantry near
Of the good Abbot Delamere,
Swell faint and die upon the ear.
And solemn ’twas and sweet, the while,
To mark upon some distant aisle,
Seen through deep arch of transept-door.
The streaming torch-light break the shade,
Strike the tall arches over head,
Or, slanting low that long aisle o’er,
Show, some dim sepulchre before,
The lonely, duteous mourner there,
Kneeling and veiled in watch of prayer.

There, ranged around in silent guard.
Seventeen kings yet watch and ward
The good Duke Humphrey’s mouldering form,
Here rescued from the earthly storm,
Raised by a rival — now a worm!
And, when the midnight chaunts were still,
Strange sounds the vault below would fill.
A ghastly shade, with mitred head,
Has stalked, that lonely tomb around,
And knelt upon the honoured ground,
With hands upon its white palle spread,
In seeming prayer and penance lost ;
‘Twas guessed this was a murderer’s ghost,
Condemned to wander round the grave
Of him, whom kindness could not save.
There were, who in that shade could see
(Or ’twas the moonbeam’s mockery)
Beaufort of cruel memory!
Such look as dying he had shown,
When hope of Heaven he did not own,
And Horror stared beside his bed;
Such grisly look this visage had.

And, at such hour, was sometimes seen,
Veiled in thin shadowy weeds of woe,
The image of a stately Queen,
Near the cold marble pacing slow.
The crown upon her hair gleamed faint,
And more of heroine than saint
Was drawn upon her lofty brow.
The proud, heroic graces there,
The grandeur of her step and air,
No softer charms of pity share.
Alas! that such commanding mind
Were not with truth and mercy joined!
Now, were her look, her eye of fire.
That once could warlike bands inspire,
Dimmed with the tear of vain remorse:
Far less had been a kingdom’s loss,
Than loss of holy innocence;
So said her fixed and anguished countenance.

But Margaret’s moan, nor Beaufort’s word,
Was heard at Vesper’s hallowed hour
To musing monk, in cloister-bower ;
Pious sounds alone he heard.
And listened oft, with saintly smile.
When Autumn’s gale swept o’er the aisle.
And bore the swelling hymn away
Up to the realms of heavenly day!
But, when the fitful gust was gone,
Rose that strain with a sweeter tone;
The hymn of Peace it seemed to be —
Her hushed and meekest minstrelsy —
Her welcome to the Just, when free
From this short world of misery.
The monk, who listened, many a still tear shed,
By trembling Hope and blessed Pity fed;
The listener’s self how soon among the dead!


But who the changing scenes may tell
This Abbey’s ancient walls have known!
When London tolled the Plague’s death-bell, /
Justice here held her courts alone ;
Here, in this nave, was placed her throne.
An earlier age showed scenes more dread,
For shrines and tombs around were spread
With bleeding knights and nobles dead.
Next age, the latter Henry’s bands
Each consecrated altar spoiled,
Seized on the Abbey’s ample lands,
And recklessly for plunder toiled.
Then, nearer to the living day,
Here other spoilers bore the sway,
Who, feigning Reason for their guide,
Indulged an impious, bigot pride.
All arrogant in their chicane,
They dared these reverend walls profane.
Then Cromwell’s bands on grave-stones lay.
And storied brasses tore away;
The sculptured marble tombs defaced
Of those, who, nameless, sleep below;
That the tall arch, with web-work traced
That shadowed form of Prophet graced,
Was shattered by their impious blow.

* * * *

But, though these lighted halls are gone.
And darkly stands that tower and lone,
The sacred temple still endures;
A truer worship it secures.
And, though the gorgeous shrines are o’er,
And their pale watch-monks now no more;
Though torch, nor voice, from chantry-tomb,
Break, solemn, through the distant gloom;
Though pilgrim-trains no more ascend
Where far-seen arches dimly bend,
And fix in awe th’ admiring eye
Upon the Martyr’s crown, on high,
And watch upon his funeral-bed;
Nor hundred Monks, by Abbot led,
Through aisle and choir, by tomb and shrine,
Display the long-devolving line,
To notes of solemn minstrelsy,
And hymns, that o’er the vaulting die
Yet, we here feel the inward peace,
That in long-reverenced places dwells;
Our earthly cares here learn to cease;
The Future all the Past expels.
And stilly so solemn falls the shade,
Where once the weeping Palmer prayed,
We feel, as o’er the graves we tread,
His thrill of reverential dread.

Thou silent Choir, whose only sound
Is whispering step o’er graves around,
Or echo faint from vault, on high,
Of the poor redbreast’s minstrelsy.
Who, perched on some carved mask of stone.
By lofty gallery dim and lone,
Sends sweet, short note, but sparely heard.
That sounds e’en like the farewell word
Of some dear friend, whose smile in vain
We seek through tears to view again!
Thou holy shade — unearthly gloom!
That hoverest o’er the Martyr’s tomb;
Ye awful vaults, whose aspect wears
The ghastliness of parted years!
The very look, the steadfast frown,
That ye on ages past sent down,
Strange, solemn, wonderful and dread,
Pageant of living and of dead; —
Thou silent Choir! thou holy shade!
Ye walls that guard the Martyr’s head!
Meet agents are ye to inspire
The lone enthusiast’s thought of fire;
High ministers of Alban’s fame,
Ye are his tomb, and breathe his name.

And when, enthroned on field of war.
This Abbey’s walls are seen afar.
When it’s old dark-drawn aisles extend
Upon the light; and, bold and broad,
The central tower is seen t’ ascend,
And sternly look their sovereign lord,
We feel again such transports rise.
As fixed that way-worn Palmer’s eyes,
When, gaining first the toilsome brow,
Rose to his sight the Shrine below,
When, as he caught it’s aspect pale,
He shouted “Alban! Martyr! hail!”
And knelt and wept, and kissed the long-sought ground.