William Combe – The English Dance of Death, 1815-16

dr syntax portrait skeleton


BY Love conducted FLAVIA came,
(I must not tell her other name)
To yield the charms that deck her face,
Her Cherub smiles and Angel grace,
To the accomplish’d Painter’s art,
Which to the canvas might impart
The fair resemblance of a Maid,
Whom Nature had so well array’d.
FLAVIA was seated to receive
The Likeness which that art could give,
And while, obedient to his will,
The pencil mark’d its rapid skill,
Enamour’d FLORIO, who sat by,
And trac’d the work with curious eye,
By tender love and beauty fir’d,
And as the faithful Muse inspir’d,
In tuneful accents thus address’d
The fond instructions of his breast.—

‘ PAINTER, vain ‘s thy utmost art
‘ To draw the Idol of my heart:
‘ Thy canvas never can receive
‘ The varied charms her features give.
‘ When, grave, she wears the awful grace
‘ That ‘s seen in regal JUNO’S face:
‘ When on her cheeks the smiles appear,
‘ Tis VENUS better self is there;
‘ And when she looks with studious eye,
‘ Another PALLAS we descry.
‘ PAINTER, thy pencil well may trace
‘ A JUNO’S awful, heavenly grace;
‘ Upon your easel may be seen,
‘ Chaste Beauty’s fair, imperial Queen;
‘ E’en Wisdom’s goddess may appear
‘ In all her native splendor there:
‘ But in my breast alone can be
‘ The perfect image of the THREE.’

Thus did the Muse the art defy:
The Pencil, eager to reply,
Dash’d on the cloth, in colours warm,
The semblance of the lovely form.
And now her smiling cheeks disclose
The lily mingled with the rose;
And soon her beaming eyes dispense
The soften’d rays of manly sense:
Her graceful form, her auburn hair,
All, all the magic power declare.
Loose flows the robe upon the ground,
And many a Cupid flutters round:
The bending branches kindly spread
Their verdant beauties o’er her head,
And, far beyond, the hills arise
Which seem to mingle with the skies.
At length, with happiest art array’d,
The canvas’ spreading form display’d
The beauties of the charming maid.
The Artist then avow’d his pride,
And thus th’ enraptur’d Muse replied.

‘ Ah happy Canvas, that dost bear
The features of my lovely Fair.
Upon thy surface, mild and clear,
I see the heavenly form appear,
With all the glories of her face,
Her winning smiles and gentle grace.
But where ‘s the virtue of her mind,
Which makes her of Angelic kind ?
Where is the softness of her heart,
To pity prone and void of art ?
These cannot on thy bosom shine:
They ‘re only to be found in mine.’

Thus did the Muse pursue her song;
Nor did she do the Painter wrong.
Whatever bounties partial art
By Genius aided, can impart,
She knows are his, whose talents bear
The marks of their united care.
But frolic Nature will undo
The works of Art and Genius too :
Her cunning patterns render vain
The Painter’s toil, the Sculptor’s pain.
All of the Fair, that Art could give,
Does on the glossy canvas live;
In touches warm, and colours true,
As REYNOLDS’ pencil ever knew.

Thus FLORIO sung, and FLAVIA heard
The pleasing strain which Love preferred,
Nor did the Painter’s hand refuse
The aiding impulse of the Muse.

The Sitting o’er, the pair remove
To talk of Taste, and think of Love.
And while, as objects strike, they praise
The various works on which they gaze;
A far, far different form appears,
Bent with an heavy load of years:
For a short time the Figure stood,
The image of Decripitude;–
Then took his seat;—- when Art began
To sketch the good, old ALDERMAN,
Whose Portrait was to grace the wall
Of Cordwainers’ or Goldsmiths’ Hall.
The Painter mark’d the face of Age,
And dignified the Civic Sage,
With all the force and all the truth,
Which had pourtray’d the grace of youth.
At length, some yawning fits transpir’d
That mark’d the Alderman was tir’d.
‘ If, my good Sir,’ the Painter said,
‘ You wish the work to be delay’d;
‘ If, to retire it is your pleasure,
‘ My pencil waits upon your leisure.’
‘ I ‘m in no hurry,’ he replied,
‘ But I slept ill last night: beside,
‘ To tell the truth, I cannot say
‘ But I am out of sorts to-day;
‘ I have a feel I cannot name;
‘ A kind of chill throughout my frame,
‘ That seems to pour on ev’ry part,
‘ And threatens to approach my heart:
‘ Now, if you could some cordial give
‘ It might my languid state ‘relieve.’ —
‘ That you shall have,’ the Artist cried;
And soon his pallet laid aside:
Then hasten’d with no common speed,
To do the hospitable deed.

Scarce had he made this kind retreat,
When Death stepp’d in and took his seat:
And soon he chang’d the whole design:–
The lights which had been seen to shine,
Were more than half-obscur’d in shade;
And dismal tints the whole pervade:
The forehead ‘s moist with mortal dew ;
The sinking frame appears to view;
The head reclines in calm repose;
The lips grow pale, the eyelids close;
The yielding hand can grasp no more,
The crutch lies prostrate on the floor;
And, with one stroke, throughout the piece,
All animation ‘s made to cease.

–The Painter brings the promis’d aid,
And views the change that has been made.
He sees the Picture’s alter’d state,
And owns the master-hand of Fate.

‘ But why,’ he cries, ‘ should Artists grieve
‘ When MODELS die, if PICTURES live ? ‘

William Combe, 1741-1823, illustrations by Thomas Rowlandson, 1756-1827

The English Dance of Death, 1815-16

Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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