Henry Kirke White’s Moongazing

Alexander Freer

The most beloved objects of contemplation for Kirke White were nocturnal. Above all, he loved the moon. One of his earlier published poems, the sonnet ‘To The Moon, Written in November’ associates moonlight with the suspension of earthly glories and cares. The ‘pale arbitress of night’ stands as judge over an unchanging night; hers is a ‘sublime’ sight, Kirke White suggests, because it renders the passing concerns of days and years insignificant, neutralising the year’s autumnal ‘funeral dirge’ and returning onlookers to ‘life’s earliest spring.’[1]

Sublime, emerging from the misty verge
  Of the horizon dim, thee, Moon, I hail,
  As, sweeping o’er the leafless grove, the gale
Seems to repeat the year’s funereal dirge.
Now Autumn sickens on the languid sight,
  And falling leaves bestrew the wand’rer’s way,
Now unto thee, pale arbitress of night,
  With double joy my homage do I pay.
  When clouds disguise the glories of the day,
And stern November sheds her boisterous blight,
  How doubly sweet to mark the moony ray
Shoot through the mist from the ethereal height,
  And, still unchang’d, back to the memory bring
  The smiles Favonian of life’s earliest spring.

In the more ambitious and equally Wordsworthian ‘Fragment of an Ode to the Moon,’ it is ‘A pathless wanderer o’er a lonely wild … Which oft in childhood my lone thoughts beguil’d’. Through its rhetorical turns, the ode addresses the moon as both a figure of an unacknowledged poet’s longing and a balm to the restless dreams of one ‘who pants for fame.’[2]

Mild orb, who floatest through the realm of night,
  A pathless wanderer o’er a lonely wild;
Welcome to me thy soft and pensive light,
  Which oft in childhood my lone thoughts beguil’d.
    Now doubly dear as o’er my silent seat,
    Nocturnal study’s still retreat,
 It casts a mournful melancholy gleam,
    And through my lofty casement weaves, 
    Dim through the vine’s encircling leaves,
      An intermingled beam.

These feverish dews that on my temples hang,
  This quivering lip, these eyes of dying flame;
These the dread signs of many a secret pang,
     These are the meed of him who pants for fame!
Pale Moon, from thoughts like these divert my soul;
  Lowly I kneel before thy shrine on high;
My lamp expires;—beneath thy mild control,
These restless dreams are ever wont to fly.

Come, kindred mourner, in my breast
Soothe these discordant tones to rest,
    And breathe the soul of peace;
Mild visitor, I feel thee here,
It is not pain that brings this tear,
    For thou hast bid it cease.
Oh! Many, a year has pass’d away
Since I, beneath thy fairy ray,
    Attun’d my infant reed;
When wilt thou, Time, those days restore,
Those happy moments now no more,
When on the lake’s damp marge I lay,
  And mark’d the northern meteor’s dance;
Bland Hope and Fancy ye were there
  To inspirate my trance.
    Twin sisters, faintly now ye deign
Your magic sweets on me to shed,
In vain your powers are now essay’d
    To chase superior pain.

And art thou fled, thou welcome orb,
  So swiftly pleasure flies;
So to mankind in darkness lost,
  The beam of ardour dies.
Wan Moon thy nightly task is done,
And now encurtain’d in the main,
    Thou sinkest into rest;
But I, in vain, on thorny bed
Shall woo the god of soft repose-- 

(See especially 19-29)

Kirke White’s moon intimates no immortality. It soothes as only a beautiful, inanimate object can: with a spirit of mourning but no chance of recompense. What is mourned is a kind of doubly dead labour: intellectual work pursued on a budget of borrowed time and cheap candles, predestined to fall on deaf ears. A similar dynamic emerges in a third lunar composition, the ode ‘To Midnight,’ where ‘the holy calm of night’ and its ‘pensive orb’ both rouse the soul to acts of creation and condemn it to unacknowledged solitude.[3]

Season of general rest, whose solemn still
Strikes to the trembling heart a fearful chill,
  But speaks to philosophic souls delight;
Thee do I hail, as at my casement high,
My candle waning melancholy by,
  I sit and taste the holy calm of night.

Yon pensive orb, that through the ether sails,
And gilds the misty shadows of the vales,
  Hanging in thy dull rear her vestal flame;
To her, while all around in sleep recline,
Wakeful I raise my orisons divine,
  And sing the gentle honours of her name;

While Fancy lone o’er me, her votary bends,
To lift my soul her fairy visions sends,
  And pours upon my ear her thrilling song,
And Superstition’s gentle terrors come,—
See, see yon dim ghost gliding through the gloom!
  See round yon churchyard elm what spectres throng!

Meanwhile I tune, to some romantic lay,
My flageolet—and as I pensive play,
  The sweet notes echo o’er the mountain scene:
The traveller late journeying o’er the moors,
Hears them aghast,—(while still the dull owl pours
  Her hollow screams each dreary pause between).

Till in the lonely tower he spies the light,
Now faintly flashing on the glooms of night,
  Where I, poor muser, my lone vigils keep,
And, ’mid the dreary solitude serene,
Cast a much-meaning glance upon the scene,
  And raise my mournful eye to Heaven, and weep.

The sheer volume of moon poems in Kirke White’s relatively small corpus speaks to a personal fixation, but also the brute fact that throughout his working life, writing time could be found most easily at night. The ‘Ode to the Harvest Moon’ makes this economic logic explicit, aligning the ‘modest’ moon with nocturnal rural labour and the fleeting promise of ‘plenty’ for the agricultural poor. With almost the mocking lethargy of Pope’s ‘ten low words oft creep’, he announces: ‘Sons of luxury, to you / Leave I sleep’s dull power to woo.’[4] In a universe divided between the daily affairs of the notable and the masses whose only hope is for posthumous reward, the moonlight is halfway to heaven:

Moon of Harvest, herald mild
    Of plenty, rustic labour’s child,
    Hail! oh hail! I greet thy beam,
    As soft it trembles o’er the stream,
    And gilds the straw-thatch’d hamlet wide,
    Where innocence and peace reside;
’Tis thou that gladd’st with joy the rustic throng,
Promptest the tripping dance, th’ exhilarating song.

    Moon of Harvest, I do love
    O’er the uplands now to rove,
    While thy modest ray serene
    Gilds the wide surrounding scene;
    And to watch thee riding high
    In the blue vault of the sky,
Where no thin vapour intercepts thy ray,
But in unclouded majesty thou walkest on thy way.

    Pleasing ’tis, oh! modest moon!
    Now the night is at her noon,
    ’Neath thy sway to musing lie,
    While around the zephyrs sigh,
    Fanning soft the sun-tann’d wheat,
    Ripen’d by the summer’s heat;
    Picturing all the rustic’s joy
    When boundless plenty greets his eye,
      And thinking soon,
      Oh, modest Moon!
    How many a female eye will roam
      Along the road,
      To see the load,
    The last dear load of harvest home.

    Storms and tempests, floods and rains,
    Stern despoilers of the plains,
    Hence, away, the season flee,
    Foes to light-heart jollity;
    May no winds careering high
    Drive the clouds along the sky;
But may all nature smile with aspect boon,
When in the heavens thou shew’st thy face, oh Harvest Moon!

    ’Neath yon lowly roof he lies,
    The husbandman, with deep-seal’d eyes;
    He dreams of crowded barns, and round
    The yard he hears the flail resound;
    Oh! may no hurricane destroy
    His visionary views of joy:
God of the winds! oh hear his humble pray’r,
And while the moon of harvest shines, thy blust’ring whirlwind spare.     

Sons of luxury, to you
    Leave I sleep’s dull power to woo;
    Press ye still the downy bed,
    While fev’rish dreams surround your head;
    I will seek the woodland glade,
    Penetrate the thickest shade,
    Wrapp’d in contemplation’s dreams,
    Musing high on holy themes,
      While on the gale
      Shall softly sail
The nightingale’s enchanting tune,
      And oft my eyes
      Shall grateful rise
To thee, the modest Harvest Moon!

[1] Kirke White, Poetical works and Remains of Henry Kirke White 2 vols (London: Longman, 1807), II, 102.

[2] Kirke White, Remains, II, 94–95.

[3] Kirke White, Remains, II, 87–88.

[4] Kirke White, ‘Ode to the Harvest Moon’ in The Poetical Works of Robert Bloomfield, Thomson, and Kirke White, vol. 3 (London: William Tegg, 1847), pp. 119–21.