Tuesday 18 September 2012

Ivy When Wrong

On this day in 1643 was born Gilbert Burnet, the eminent divine and church historian who, among many other accomplishments, rose to be Bishop of Salisbury. In my own limited mental world, which seldom extends far into 17th-century church history, he features only as the man who achieved the wellnigh miraculous deathbed conversion of the wicked John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester - and as the supposed illustrious ancestor of Ivy Compton Burnett. The ineffable Ivy [search in the box above for more of her] asserted, and very probably believed, that the good Bishop was an ancestor, and in the Kensington mansion flat where for many years she lived and reigned, a portrait of Gilbert Burnet held pride of place. This dubious lineage was, however, destined to be one of the many elements of the ICB myth put paid to by Hilary Spurling in her brilliant biography, Ivy When Young. There was not, in point of historical fact, the slightest chance of any family connection between Ivy and the illustrious Bishop.
  However, there is another trail that links Gilbert Burnet to English literature. His daughter Elizabeth married the distinguished lawyer Richard West, and their son, also Richard, was the friend - and much more - of the poet Thomas Gray. He is the subject of one of the most heartbreaking - or rather heartbroken - poems in the language, Gray's Sonnet on the Death of Mr Richard West -

'In vain to me the smiling mornings shine,
And redd'ning Phoebus lifts his golden fire:
The birds in vain their amorous descant join;
Or cheerful fields resume their green attire:
These ears, alas! for other notes repine,
A different object do these eyes require:
My lonely anguish melts no heart but mine;
And in my breast the imperfect joys expire.
Yet morning smiles the busy race to cheer,
And new-born pleasure brings to happier men:
The fields to all their wonted tribute bear;
To warm their little loves the birds complain:
I fruitless mourn to him that cannot hear,
And weep the more, because I weep in vain.'

The story of Gray's doomed love for West is beautifully told in David Cecil's Two Quiet Lives, which I recommend.

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