Thursday, 8 November 2012

Canning's Elegy for his Son, 1820

Canning had been a minister in Pitt's and Castlereigh's cabinet throughout the early years of the 19th-century, but he withdrew himself to Paris (tried to resign, in fact, but was unable) over Queen Caroline's trial. Whilst he was there his son George died at the brutally premature age of 19. Canning wrote the following elegy:
Though short thy span, God's unimpeach'd decrees,
Which made that shorten'd span one long disease,
Yet merciful in chastening, gave thee scope
For mild, redeeming virtues, Faith and Hope;
Meek Resignation; pious Charity
And, since this world was not the world for thee,
Far from thy path removed, with partial care,
Strife, Glory, Gain, and Pleasure's flowery snare,
Bade Earth's temptations pass thee harmless by,
And fix'd on Heaven thine unadverted eye!
Oh! mark'd from birth, and nurtur'd for the skies!
In youth, with more than learning's wisdom, wise!
As sainted martyrs, patient to endure!
Simple as unweari'd infancy and pure!
Pure from all stain (save that of human clay,
Which Christ's atoning blood hath wash'd away!)
By mortal sufferings now no more oppress'd,
Mount sinless Spirit, to thy destined rest!
While I—reversed our nature's kindlier doom
Pour forth a father's sorrows on thy tomb.
It's touching stuff; an effect only slightly diminished by the reflection that Canning has nicked the final image from Burke's Letter to a Noble Lord (1796), where he [Burke, that is] talks of the loss of his own son, Richard: 'I live in an inverted order. They who ought to have succeeded me are gone before me. They who should have been to me a posterity are in the place of ancestors. I owe to the dearest relation (which ever must subsist in memory) that act of piety, which he would have performed to me.'

Canning writes a 20-line poem to memorialise the death of his 19-year old son; which makes the last, 20th line (on the father's grief) in a manner of speaking doubly posthumously framed -- a formal embodiment of the belatedness out of which any elegy is composed.

He served as Prime Minister for the last few months of his life, in 1827.

No comments: