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Stanzas on Some Skulls in Beauly Abbey, Near Inverness

I
In silent barren Synod met,
Within those roofless walls where yet
The shafted arch and carved fret
Cling to the ruin,
The brethren’s skulls mourn, dewy wet,
Their creed’s undoing.

II
The mitred ones of Nice and Trent
Were not so tongue-tied — no, they went
Hot to their Councils, scarce content
With orthodoxy;
But ye, poor tongueless things, were meant
To speak by proxy.

III
Your chronicles no more exist,
Since Knox, the revolutionist,
Destroyed the work of every fist
That scrawled black letter.
Well! I’m a craniologist
And may do better.

IV
This skull-cap wore the cowl from sloth
Or discontent, perhaps from both,
And yet one day, against his oath,
He tried escaping,
For men, though idle, may be loth
To live on gaping.

V
A toper this! he plied his glass
More strictly than he said the Mass,
And loved to see a tempting lass
Come to confession,
Letting her absolution pass
O’er fresh transgression.

VI
This crawled through life in feebleness,
Boasting he never knew excess,
Cursing those crimes he sarce could guess,
Or feel but faintly,
With prayers that Heaven would come to bless
Men so unsaintly.

VII
Here’s a true Churchman! he’d affect
Much charity, and ne’er neglect
To pray for mercy on th’ elect,
But thought no evil
In sending heathen, Turk and sect
All to the Devil!

VIII
Poor skull, thy fingers set ablaze,
With silver Saint in golden rays,
The holy missal. Thou didst craze
‘Mid bead and spangle,
While others passed their idle days
In coil and wrangle.

IX
Long time this sconce a helmet wore,
But sickness smites the conscience sore;
He broke his sword, and hither bore
His gear and plunder,
Took to the cowl — then raved and swore
At his damned blunder!

X
This lily-coloured skull, with all
The teeth complete, so white and small,
Belonged to one whose early pall
A lover shaded;
He died ere superstition’s gall
His heart invaded.

XI
Ha! here is ” undivulged crime!”
Despair forbade his soul to climb
Beyond this world, this mortal time
Of fevered sadness,
Until their monkish pantomime
Dazzled his madness!

XII
A younger brother this! A man
Aspiring as a Tartar Khan,
But, curbed and baffled, he began
The trade of frightening.
It smacked of power! — and here he ran
To deal Heaven’s lightning.

XIII
This idiot-skull belonged to one,
A buried miser’s only son,
Who, penitent, ere he’d begun
To taste of pleasure,
And hoping Heaven’s dread wrath to shun,
Gave Hell his treasure.

XIV
Here is the forehead of an ape,
A robber’s mark — and near the nape
That bone, fie on’t, bears just the shape
Of carnal passion;
Ah! he was one for theft and rape,
In monkish fashion!

XV
This was the Porter! — he could sing,
Or dance, or play, do anything,
And what the friars bade him bring,
They ne’er were balked of
(Matters not worth remembering
And seldom talked of).

XVI
Enough! why need I further pore?
This corner holds at least a score,
And yonder twice as many more
Of Reverend Brothers;
‘Tis the same story o’er and o’er —
They’re like the others!

 

Written early in August 1818

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