I AM quite alone here.
England may have been invaded and London sacked, for aught I know. Several
weeks since a newspaper, accidentally blown to my solitude, informed me
that the Great Eastern, with the second American telegraphic cable
on board, had got under way, and was about to proceed to sea. There is
great joy, I perceive. Human nature stands astonished at itself—felicitates
itself on its remarkable talent, and will for months to come complacently
purr over its achievement in magazines and reviews. A fine world,
messieurs, that will attain to heaven—if in the power of steam. A very
fine world; yet for all that, I have withdrawn from it for a time, and
would rather not hear of its remarkable exploits. In my present mood, I do
not value them the coil of vapour on the brow of Blaavin, which, as I
gaze, smoulders into nothing in the fire of sunrise.
Goethe informs us that in
his youth he loved to shelter himself in the Scripture narratives from the
marching and counter-marching of armies, the cannonading, fighting, and
retreating, that went on everywhere around him. He shut his eyes, as it
were, and a whole war-convulsed Europe wheeled away into silence and
distance; and in its place, lo! the patriarchs, with their tawny tents,
their man- servants and maid-servants, and countless flocks in perceptible
procession whitening the Syrian plains. In this, my green solitude, I
appreciate the full sweetness of the passage. Everything here is silent as
the Bible plains themselves. I am cut off from former scenes and
associates as by the sullen Styx and the grim ferrying of Charon’s boat.
The noise of the world does not touch me. I live too far inland to hear
the thunder of the reef. To this place no postman comes; no tax-gatherer.
This region never heard the sound of the churchgoing bell. The land is
Pagan as when the yellow-haired Norseman landed a thousand years ago. I
almost feel a Pagan myself. Not using a notched stick, I have lost all
count of time, and don’t know Saturday from Sunday. Civilisation is like
a soldier’s stock, it makes you carry your head a good deal higher,
makes the angels weep a little more at your fantastic tricks, and half
suffocates you the while. I have thrown it away, and breathe freely. My
bed is the heather, my mirror the stream from the hills, my comb and brush
the sea breeze, my watch the sun, my theatre the sunset, and my evening
service—not without a rude natural religion in it—watching the
pinnacles of the hills of Cuchullin sharpening in intense purple against
the pallid orange of the sky, or listening to the melancholy voices of the
sea-birds and the tide; that over, I am asleep, till touched by the
earliest splendour of the dawn. I am, not without reason, hugely enamoured
of my vagabond existence.
My bothy is situated on the
shores of one of the Lochs that intersect Skye. The coast is bare and
rocky, hollowed into fantastic chambers; and when the tide is making,
every cavern murmurs like a sea-shell. The land, from frequent rain, green
as emerald, rises into soft pastoral heights, and about a mile inland
soars suddenly up into peaks of bastard marble, white as the cloud under
which the lark sings at noon, and bathed in rosy light at sunset. In front
are the Cuchullin hills and the monstrous peak of Blaavin; then the green
strath runs narrowing out to sea, and the Island of Rum, with a white
cloud upon it, stretches like a gigantic shadow across the entrance of the
loch, and completes the scene. Twice every twenty-four hours the Atlantic
tide sets in upon the hollowed shores; twice is the sea withdrawn, leaving
spaces of smooth sand on which mermaids, with golden combs, might sleek
alluring tresses; and black rocks, heaped with brown dulse and tangle, and
lovely ocean blooms of purple and orange; and bare islets—marked at full
of tide by a glimmer of pale green amid the universal sparkle—where most
the sea-fowl love to congregate. To these islets, on favourable evenings,
come the crows, and sit in sable parliament; business despatched, they
start into air as at a gun, and stream away through the sunset to their
roosting-place in the Armadale woods. The shore supplies for me the place
of books and companions. Of course Blaavin and the Cuchullin hills are the
chief attractions, and I never weary watching them. In the morning they
wear a great white caftan of mist; but that lifts away before noon, and
they stand with all their scars and passionate torrent-lines bare to the
blue heavens, with perhaps a solitary shoulder for a moment gleaming wet
to the sunlight. After a while a vapour begins to steam up from their
abysses, gathering itself into strange shapes, knotting and twisting
itself like smoke ; while above, the terrible crests are now lost, now
revealed, in a stream of flying rack. In an hour a wall of rain, gray as
granite, opaque as iron to the eye, stands up from sea to heaven. The loch
is roughening before the wind, and the islets, black dots a second ago,
are patches of roaring foam. You hear fierce sound of its coming. Anon,
the lashing tempest sweeps over you, and looking behind, up the long
inland glen, you can see the birch-woods and over the sides of the hills,
driven on the wind, the white smoke of the rain. Though fierce as a charge
of Highland bayonets these squalls are seldom of long duration, and you
bless them when you creep from your shelter, for out comes the sun, and
the birch-woods are twinkling, and more intensely flash the levels of the
sea, and at a stroke the clouds are scattered from the wet brow of Blaavin,
and to the whole a new element has been added; the voice of the swollen
stream as it rushes red over a hundred tiny cataracts, and roars
river-broad into the sea, making turbid the azure. Then I have my
amusements in this solitary place. The mountains are of course open, and
this morning, at dawn, a roe swept past me like the wind, with its nose to
the dewy ground—" tracking," they call it here. Above all, I
can wander on the ebbed beach. Hogg speaks of that
"Undefined and mingled
Voice of the desert, never dumb."
But far more than the
murmuring and insecty air of the moorland does the wet chirk-chirking of
the living shore give one the idea of crowded and multitudinous life. Did
the reader ever hunt razor-fish? —not sport like tiger-hunting, I admit;
yet it has its pleasures and excitements, and can kill a forenoon for an
idle man agreeably. On the wet sands yonder the razor-fish are spouting
like the fountains at Versailles on a féte day. The shy fellow
sinks on discharging his watery feu de joie. If you are quickly
after him through the sand, you catch him, and then comes the tug of war.
Address and dexterity are required. If you pull vigorously, he slips out
of his sheath a " mother-naked" mollusc, and escapes. If you do
your spiriting gently, you drag him up to light, a long thin case, with a
white fishy bulb protruding at one end like a root. Rinse him in sea
water, toss him into your basket, and plunge after another watery flash.
These razor-fish are excellent eating, the people say, and when used as
bait no fish that swims the ocean stream—cod, whiting, haddock, flat
skate, broad-shouldered crimson bream—no, not the detested dog-fish
himself, this summer swarming in every Loch and becursed by every
fisherman—can keep himself off the hook, and in an hour your boat is
laden with glittering spoil. Then, if you take your gun to the low islands—and
you can go dry-shod at
ebb of tide—you have your chance of sea-fowl. Gulls of all kinds are
there, dookers and divers of every description, flocks of shy curlews, and
specimens of a hundred tribes to which my limited ornithological knowledge
cannot furnish a name. The solan goose yonder falls from heaven into the
water like a meteor-stone. See the solitary scart, with long narrow wing
and outstretched neck, shooting towards some distant promontory. Anon,
high above head, come wheeling a covey of lovely sea-swallows. You fire,
one flutters down, never more to skim the horizon or to dip in the
sea-sparkle. Lift it up; is it not beautiful? The wild, keen eye is
closed, but you see the delicate slate-colour of the wings, and the long
tail-feathers white as the creaming foam. There is a stain of blood on the
breast, hardly brighter than the scarlet of its beak and feet. Lay it
down, for its companions are dashing round and round, uttering harsh cries
of rage and sorrow; and had you the heart, you could shoot them one by
one. At ebb of tide wild-looking children, from turf cabins on the
hill-side, come down to hunt shell-fish. Even now a troop is busy; how
their shrill voices go the while! Old Effie I see is out to-day, quite a
picturesque object, with her white cap and red shawl. With a tin can in
one hand, an old reaping-hook in the other, she goes poking among the
tangle. Let us see what sport she has had. She turns round at our
salutation—very old, old almost as the worn rocks around. She might have
been the wife of Wordsworth’s "Leechgatherer." Her can is
sprawling with brown crabs; and, opening her apron, she exhibits a large
black and blue lobster—a fellow such as she alone can capture. A queer
woman is Effie, and an awesome. She is familiar with ghosts and
apparitions. She can relate legends that have power over the superstitious
blood, and with little coaxing will sing those wild Gaelic songs of hers—-of
dead lights on the sea, of fishing-boats going down in squalls, of
unburied bodies tossing day and night upon the gray peaks of the waves,
and of girls that pray God to lay them by the sides of their drowned
lovers, although for them should never rise mass nor chant, and although
their flesh should be torn asunder by the wild fishes of the sea.
Rain is my enemy here; and
at this writing I am suffering siege. For three days this rickety dwelling
has stood assault of wind and rain. Yesterday a blast breached the door,
and the tenement fluttered for a moment like an umbrella caught in a gust.
All seemed lost; but the door was got closed again, heavily barred across,
and the enemy foiled. An entrance, however, had been effected, and that
portion of the attacking column which I had imprisoned by my dexterous
manoeuvre, maddened itself into whirlwind, rushed up the chimney,
scattering my turf-fire as it went, and so escaped. Since that time the
windy columns have retired to the gorges of the hills, where I can hear
them howl at intervals; and the only thing I am exposed to is the musketry
of the rain. How viciously the small shot peppers the walls! Here must I
wait till the cloudy armament breaks up. One’s own mind is a dull
companion in such circumstances. A Sheridan himself—wont with his wit to
brighten the feast, whose mind is a phosphorescent sea, dark in its rest,
but when touched giving out a flash of splendour for response—if cooped
up here would be dull as a Lincolnshire fen at midnight, unenlivened by a
single Jack-o’-Lantern. Books are the only refuge on a rainy day; but in
Skye bothies books are rare. To me, however, the gods have proved kind—for
in my sore need I found on a shelf here two volumes of the old Monthly
Review, and I have sauntered through those dingy literary catacombs
with considerable satisfaction. What a strange set of old fogies the
writers are! To read them is like conversing with the antediluvians. Their
opinions have fallen into disuse long ago, and resemble to-day the rusty
armour and gimcracks of an old curiosity shop. Mr Henry Rogers has written
a fine essay on the "Glory and Vanity of Literature"—in
my own thoughts, out of this dingy material before me I can frame a finer.
These essays and criticisms were thought brilliant, I suppose, when they
appeared last century; and authors praised therein doubtless considered
themselves rather handsome flies preserved in pure critical amber for the
inspection and admiration of posterity. The volumes were published, I
notice, from 1790 to 1792, and exhibit a period of wonderful literary
activity. Not to speak of novels, histories, travels, farces, tragedies,
upwards of two hundred poems, short and long, are brought to judgment; and
several of these—with their names and the names of their authors I have,
during the last two days, made acquaintance for the first time—are
assured of immortality. Perhaps they deserved it; but they have gone down
like the steamship President and left no trace. On the whole, these
Monthly Reviewers worked hard, and with proper spirit and deftness. They
had a proud sense of the importance of their craft, they laid down the law
with great gravity, and from critical benches shook their awful wigs on
offenders. How it all looks now! "Let us indulge ourselves
with another extract," quoth one, "and contemplate once more the
tear of grief before we are called upon to witness the tear of
rapture." Both tears dried up long ago—like those that may
have sparkled on a Pharaoh’s cheek. Hear this other, stern as
Rhadamanthus. Behold Duty steeling itself against human weakness! "It
grieves us to wound a young man’s feelings: but our judgment must not be
biased by any plea whatsoever. Why will men apply for our opinion when
they know that we cannot be silent, and that we will not lie !"
Listen to this prophet in Israel, one who has not bent the knee to Baal,
and say if there be not a plaintive touch of pathos in him :— "Fine
words do not make fine poems. Scarcely a month passes in which we are not
obliged to issue this decree. But in these days of universal heresy our
decrees are no more respected than the bulls of the Bishop of Rome."
Oh that men would hear, that they would incline their hearts to wisdom!
One peculiarity I have noticed—the advertisement sheets which
accompanied the numbers are bound up with them, and form an integral
portion of the volumes. And just as the tobacco-less man whom we met at
the entrance to Glen Sligachan smoked the paper in which his roll of
pigtail had been wrapped, so when I had finished the criticisms I attacked
the advertisements, and found them much the more amusing reading. Might
not the magazine-buyer of to-day follow the example of the unknown
Islesman? Depend upon it, to the reader of the next century the
advertising sheets will be more interesting than the poetry, or the
essays, or the stories. The two volumes were a godsend; but at last I
began to weary of the old literary churchyard in which the poet and his
critic sleep in the same oblivion. When I closed the books, and placed
them on their shelves, the rain peppered the walls as pertinaciously as
when I took them down.
Next day it rained still.
It was impossible to go out; the volumes of the Monthly Review were
sucked oranges, and could yield no further amusement or interest. What was
to be done? I took refuge with the Muse. Certain notions had got into my
brain,—certain stories had taken possession of my memory,—and these I
resolved to versify and finally to dispose of. Here are "Poems
Written in a Skye Bothy." The competent critic will see at a glance
that they are the vilest plagiarisms,—that as throughout I have called
the sky "blue" and the grass "green," I have stolen
from every English poet from Chaucer downwards; he will observe also, from
occasional uses of "all" and "and," that they are the
merest Tennysonian echoes. But they served their
purpose,—they killed for me the languor of the rainy days, which is more
than they are likely to do for the critic. Here they are:—
THE well gleams by a mountain road
Where travellers never come and go
From city proud, or poor abode
That frets the dusky plain below.
All silent as the mouldering lute
That in a ruin long hath lain;
All empty as a dead man’s brain—
untrod by human foot,
That, thread-like, far away doth run
To savage peaks, whose central spire
Bids farewell to the setting sun,
Good-morrow to the morning’s fire.
The country stretches out beneath
In gloom of wood and gray of heath;
The carriers’ carts with mighty loads
Black dot the long white country roads;
The stationary stain of smoke
Is crown’d by spire and castle rock;
A silent line of vapouly white,
The train creeps on from shade to light;
The river journeys to the main
Throughout a vast and endiless plain,
Far-shadow’d by the Iabouring breast
Of thunder leaning o’er the west.
A rough uneven waste of gray,
The landscape stretches day by day;
But strange the sight when evening sails
Athwart the mountains and the vales;
Furnace and forge, by daylight tame,
Uplift their restless towers of flame,
And cast a broad and angry glow
Upon the rain-cloud hanging low;
As dark and darker grows the hour,
More wild their colour, vast their power,
Till by the glare in shepherd’s shed,
The mother sings her babe a-bed:
From town to town the pedlar wades
Through far-flung crimson lights and shades.
As softly fall the autumn nights
The city blossoms into lights;
Now here, now there, a sudden spark
Sputters the twilight’s light-in-dark;
Afar a glimmering crescent shakes;
The gloom across the valley breaks
In glow-worms; swiftly, strangely fair,
A bridge of lamps leaps through the air,
And hangs in night; and sudden shines
The long street’s splendour-fretted lines.
Intense and bright that fiery bloom
Upon the bosom of the gloom;
At length the starry clusters fail,
Afar the lustrous crescents pale,
Till all the wondrous pageant dies
In gray light of damp-dawning skies.
High stands that lonely mountain ground
Above each babbling human sound;
Yet from its place afar it sees
Night scared by angry furnaces;
The lighting up of city proud,
The brightness o’er it in the cloud.
The foolish people never seek
Wise counsel from that silent peak,
Though from its height it looks abroad
All-seeing as the eye of God,
Haunting the peasant on the down,
The workman in the busy town;
Though from the closely-curtain’d
The day is by the mountain drawn—
Whether the slant lines of the rain
Fill high the brook and shake the pane;
Or noonday reapers, wearied, halt
On sheaves beneath a blinding vault,
Unshaded by a vapour’s
Though from that mountain summit old
The cloudy thunder breaks and rolls,
Through deep reverberating souls;
Though from it cornea the angry light,
Whose forky shiver scars the sight,
And rends the shrine from floor to dome,
And leaves the gods without a home.
And ever In that under-world,
Round which the weary clouds are furl’d
The cry of one that buys and sells,
The laughter of the bridal bells
Clear-breaking from cathedral towers;
The pedlar whistling o’er the moors;
The sun-burnt reapers, merry corps,
behind and grain before;
The huntsman cheering on his hounds,
Build up one sound of many sounds.
As instruments of diverse tone,
The organ’s temple-shaking groan,
Proud trumpet, cymbal’s piercing cry,
Build one consummate harmony:
As smoke that drowns the city’s spires,
Is fed by twice a million fires;
As midnight draws her complex grief
From sob and wail of bough and leaf:
And on those favourable days
When earth is free from mist and haze,
And heaven is silent as an ear
Down-leaning, loving words to hear,
Stray echoes of the world are blown
around those pinnacles of stone—
The saddest sound beneatri rae sun,
Earth’s thousand voices blent in one.
And purely gleams the crystal well
Amid the silence terrible;
On heaven its eye is ever wide,
At morning and at eventide;
And as a lover in the sight
And favour of his maiden bright,
Bends till his face he proudly spies
In the clear depths of upturn’d eyes—
The mighty heaven above it bow’d,
Looks down and sees its crumbling cloud;
Its round of summer blue immense,
Drawn in a yard’s circumference,
And lingers o’er the image there,
Than its once self more purely fair.
Whence come the waters, garner’d up
So purely in that rocky cup?
They come from regions high and far,
Where blows the wind, and shines the star.
The silent dews that Heaven distils
At midnight on the lonely hills;
The shower that plain and mountain dims,
On which the dazzling rainbow swims:
The torrents from the thunder gloom,
Let loose as by the crack of doom,
The whirling waterspout that cracks
Into a scourge of cataracts,
Are swallow’d by the thirsty ground,
And day and night without a sound,
Through banks of marl, and belts of ores,
They filter through a million pores,
Losing each foul and turbid stain:
So fed by many a trickling vein,
The well, through silent days and years,
Fills softly, like an eye with tears.
HAPPY Tourist, freed from London,
The planets’ murmur in the Times !
Seated here with task work undone,
I must list the city chimes
A fortnight longer. As I gaze
On Pentland’s back, where noon-day piles his
Mists and vapours: old St Giles’s
Coronet in sultry haze:
A hoary ridge of ancient town
Smoke-wreathed, picturesque, and still;
Cirque of crag and templed hill,
And Arthur’s lion couching down
In watch, as If the news of Flodden
Stirr’d him yet—my fancy flies
To level wastes and moors untrodden
Purpling ‘neath the low-hung skies.
I see the burden’d orchards, mute and mellow:
I see the sheaves; while, girt by reaper trains,
And blurr’d by breaths of horses, through a yellow
September moonlight, roll the swaggering wanes.
While in this delicious weather
The apple ripens row on row,
I see the footsteps of the heather
Purpling ledges: to and fro
In the wind the restless swallows
Turn and twitter; on the crag
The ash, with all her scarlet berries,
Dances o’er a burn that hurries
Foainily from jag to jag:
Now it babbles over shallows
Where great scales of sunlight flicker
Narrow’d ‘gainst the bank it quicker
Runs in many a rippled ridge;
Anon in purple pools and hollows.
It slumbers: and beyond the bridge,
On which a troop of savage children clamber,
A sudden ray comes out
And scuds a startled trout
O’er golden stones, through chasms brilliant amber.
To-day one half remembers
With a sigh,
In the yellow-moon’d Septembers
Long gone by,
Many a solitary stroll
With an over-flowing soul
When the moonbeam, falling white
On the wheat fields, was delight;
When the whisper of the river
Was a thing to list for ever;
When the call of lonely bird
Deeper than all music stirr’d;
When the restless spirit shook
O’er some prophesying book,
In whose pages dwelt the hum
Of a life that was to come;
When I, in a young man’s fashion,
Long’d for some excess of passion—
Melancholy, glory, pleasure,
Heap’d up to a lover’s measure;
For some unknown experience
To unlock this mortal fence,
And let the coop’d-up spirit range
A world of wonder, sweet and stranges
And thought, O joy all joys above!
Experience would be faced like Love.
When I dream’d that youth would be
Blossom’d like an apple-tree,
The fancy in extremest age
Would dwell within the spirit sage,
Like the wall-flower on the ruin,
With Its smile at Time’s undoing,
Like the wall-flower on the ruin,
The brighter from the wreck it grew in
Ah, how dearly one remembers
But I start, as well I may,
I have wasted half a day.
The west is red above the sun,
And my task work unbegun.
Nature will not hold a truce
With a beauty without use:
Spring, though blithe and debonair,
Ripens plum and ripens pear.
O mellow, mellow orchard bough !
O yellow, yellow wheaten plain!
Soon will reaper wipe his brow,
Gleaner glean her latest grain,
October, like a gipsy bold,
Pick the berries in the lane,
And November, woodman old,
With fagots gather’d ‘gainst the cold,
Trudge through wind and rain.
In the exuberance of hope and life,
When one is play’d on like an instrument
By passion, and plain faces are divine;
When one holds tenure in the evening star,
We love the pensiveness of autumn air,
The songless fields, brown stubbles, hectic woods:
For as a prince may in his splendour sigh,
Because the splendours are his common wear,
Youth pines within the sameness of delight :
And the all-trying spirit, uncontent
With aught that can be fully known, beguiles
Itself with melancholy images,
Sits down at gloomy banquets, broods o’er graves,
Tries unknown sorrow’s edge as curiously
(And not without a strange prophetic thrill)
As one might try a sword’s, and makes itself
The Epicunis of fantastic griefs
But when the blood chills and the years go
As we resemble autumn more, the more
We love the resurrection time of spring.
And spring is now around me. Snowdrops came;
Crocuses gleam’d along the garden walk
Like footlights on the stage. But these are gone.
And now before my door the poplar burns,
A torch enkindled at an emerald fire.
The flowering currant is a rosy cloud;
One daffodil is hooded, one full blown:
The sunny mavis from the tree top sings;
Within the flying sunlights twinkling troops
Of chaffinches jerk here and there; beneath
The shrubbery the blackbird runs, then flits,
With chattering cry: demure at ploughman’s heel,
Within the reddrawn furrow, stalks the rook,
A pale metallic glister on his back;
And, like a singing arrow upwards shot
Far out of sight, the lark is in the blue.
This morning, when the stormy front of
Is mask’d with June, and has as sweet a breath,
And sparrows fly with straws, and in the elms
Rooks flap and caw, then stream off to the fields,
And thence returning, flap and caw again,
I gaze in idle pleasantness of mood,
Far down upon the harbour and the sea—
The smoking steamer half-way ‘cross the Firth
Shrunk to a beetle’s size, the dark-brown sails
Of scatter’d fishing-boats, and still beyond,
Seen dimly through a veil of tender haze,
The coast of Fife endorsed with ancient towns,—
As quaint and strange to-day as when the queen,
In whose smile lay the headsman’s glittering axe,
Beheld them from her tower of Holyrood,
And sigh’d for fruitful France, and turning, cower’d
From the lank shadow, Darnley, at her side.
Behind, the wondrous city stretches dim
With castle, spire, and column, from the line
Of wavy Pentland, to the pillar’d range
That keeps in memory the men who fell
In the great war that closed at Waterloo.
Whitely the pillars gleam against the hill,
While the light flashes by. The wondrous town,
That keeps not summer, when the summer comes,
Without her gates, but takes it to her heart!
The mighty shadow of the castle falls
At noon athwart deep gardens, roses blow
And fade in hearing of the chariot-wheel.
High-lifted capital that look’st abroad,
With the great lion couchant at thy side,
O’er fertile plains emboss’d with woods and towns;
O’er silent Leith’s smoke-huddled spires and masts;
O’er unllnk’d Forth, slow wandering with her isles
To ocean’s azure, spreading faint and wide,
O’er which the morning comes—if but thy spires
Were dipp’d in deeper sunshine, tenderer shade,
Through bluer heavens rolled a brighter sun,
The traveller would call thee peer of Rome,
Or Florence, white-tower’d, on the mountain side.
Burns trod thy pavements with his ploughman’s
And genius-flaming eyes. Scott dwelt in thee,
The homeliest-featured of the demigods;
Apollo, with a deep Northuinbrian burr,
And Jeffrey with his sharp-cut critic face,
And Lockhart with his antique Roman taste,
And Wilson. reckless of his splendid gifts,
As hill-side of its streams in thunder rain;
And Chalmers, with those heavy slumberous lids,
Veiling a prophet’s eyes; and Miller, too,
Primeval granite amongst smooth-rubb’d men;
Of all the noble race but one remains,
Aytoun—with silver bugle at his side,
That echo’d through the gorges of romance—
Pity that ‘tis so seldom at his lip!
This place is fair; but when the year hath
From snow-drops to the dusk auricula,
And spaces throng’d to-day with naked boughs,
Are banks of murmuring foliage, chestnut-flower’d,
Far fairer. Then, as in the summer past,
From the red village underneath the hill,
When the long daylight closes, in the hush
Comes the pathetic mirth of children’s games:
Or clear sweet trebles, as two lines of girls
Advance and then retire, singing the while
Snatches of some old ballad sore decay’d,
And crumbling to no-meaning through sheer age—
A childish drama watch’d by labouring men,
In shirt-sleeves, smoking at the open doors,
With a strange sweetness stirring at their hearts.
Then when the darkness comes and voices cease,
The long-ranged brick-kilns glow, the far-stretch’d pie,
Breaks out, like Aaron’s rod, in buds of fire;
And with a startling suddenness the light,
That like a glow-worm slumbers on Inchkeith,
Broadens, then to a glow-worm shrinks again.
The sea is dark, but on the darker coast
Beyond, the ancient towns Queen Mary knew
Glitter, like swarms of fire-flies, here and there.
Come, Summer, from the south, and grow apace
From flower to flower, until thy prime is reach’d,
Then linger, linger, linger o’er the rose!
UPON a ruin by the desert shore,
I sat one autumn day of utter peace,
Watching a lustrous stream of vapour pour
O’er Blaavin, fleece on fleece.
The blue frith stretch’d in front without
Huge boulders on the shore lay wreck’d and strown;
Behind arose, storm-bleach’d and lichen-pale,
Buttress and wail of stone.
And sitting on the Norseman’s ruin’d
While through the shining vapours downward roil’d,
A ledge of Blaavin gleam’d out, wet and hare,
I heard this story told :—
"All night the witch sang, and the
Up from the reck, with tower and turret crown’d:
All night she sang—when fell the morning dew
‘Twas finish’d round and round.
"From out the morning ambers opening
A galley, many-oar’d and dragon-beak’d,
Came, bearing bridegroom Sigurd, happy-eyed,
Bride Hilda, brilliant-cheek’d.
"And in the witch’s castle,
They dwelt in bridal sweetness many a year,
Till tumult rose in Norway, blood was spilt,—
Then Sigurd grasp’d his spear.
"The Islesmen murmur’d ‘gainst the
Jan Sigurd led them—many a skull he cleft,
Ere, ‘neath his fallen standard, battle-axe
Blood-painted to the heft,
"He lay at sunset propp’d up by his
(Leader and kerne that he had smitten down,)
Stark, rigid; in his haut face scorn and pain,
Fix’d in eternal frown.
"When they brought home the bloody
man, the sight
Blanch’d Hilda to her hair of bounteous gold;
That day she was a happy bride, that night
A woman gray and old.
"The dead man left his eyes beneath
Of Hilda, in a child whose loosened speech
Prattled of sword, spear, buckler, idle rows
Of galleys on the beach.
"And Hilda sang him songs of northern
Weird songs of foamy wraith and roaming sail,
Songs of gaunt wolves, clear icebergs, magic brands,
Enchanted shirts of mail.
"The years built up a giant broad and
With florid locks, and eyes that look’d men through;
A passion for the long lift of the wave
From roaming sires he drew.
"Amongst the craggy islands did he
And, like an eagle, took and rent his prey;
Oft, deep with battle-spoil, his galleys clove
Homeward their joyous way.
"He towering, full-arm’d, in the
van, with spear
Outstretch’d, and hair blown backward like a flame:
While to the setting sun his oarsmen rear
The glory of his name.
"Once, when the sea his battle galleys
His mother, sickening, turn’d from summer light,
And faced death as the Norse land, clench’d with frost,
Faces the polar night.
"At length his masts came raking
through the mist:
He pour’d upon the beach his wild-eyed bands:
The fierce, fond, dying woman turn’d and kiss’d
His orphan-making hands,
"And lean’d her head against his
In pure content, well knowing so to live
One single hour was all that death could wrest
Away, or life could give;
"And murmur’d as her dying fingers
Farewell of cheek and brow, then fondly drown’d
Themselves in tawny hair—’ I cannot brook
To sleep here under ground.
"My women through my chambers weep and
I would not waste one tear-drop though I could:
When they brought home that lordly length of mail
With bold blood stain’d and glued,
"I wept out all my tears. Amongst my
I cannot sleep; so upon Marsco’s head,
Right in the pathway of the Norway wind,
See thou and make my bed!
"The north wind blowing on that lonely
Will comfort me. Kiss me, my Torquil !
Feel the big hot tears plashing on my face.
How easy ‘tis to die!’
"The farewell-taking arms around him
Clung closer; and a feeble mouth was raised,
Seeking for his in darkness—ere they met
The eyeballs fix’d and glazed.
"Dearer that kiss, by pain and death
Than ever yet touch’d lip! Beside the bed
The Norseman knelt till sunset, then he call’d
The dressers of the dead,
"Who, looking on her
face, were daunted more
Than when she, living, flash’d indignant fires;
For in the gathering gloom the features wore
A look that was her sire’s.
"And upward to a sea-o’erstaring
With lamentation was the Princess borne,
And, looking northward, left with evening meek,
And fiery-shooting morn."
In this wise ran the story
full of breaks:
And brooding o’er that subtle sense of death
That sighs through all our happy days, that shake,
All raptures of our breath,
Methought I saw the ancient
By sorrow in her witch.built home—and still
The radiant billows of autumnal cloud
Flow’d on the monstrous hill.
Across to Kilmuir,
The road was rough,
But his horse was sure,
The mighty sun taking
His splendid sea-bath,
Made golden the greenness
Of valley and strath.
He cared not for sunset,
For gold rock nor isie:
O’er his dark face their flitted
His cousin, the great
London merchant was dead,
Edenbain was his heir—
buy lands," he said.
"Men fear death. How should I !
live and we learn!‘ faith,
death has done me
The handsomest turn.
Young, good-looking, thirty—
on, Roger, hie!)
I’ll taste every pleasure
That money can buy.
"Duntulm and Dunsciach
May laugh at my birth.
Let them laugh! Father Adam
Was made out of earth.
What are worm-eaten castles
And ancestry old,
‘Gainst a modern purse stuff’d
With omnipotent gold?"
He saw himself riding
To kirk and to fair,
Hats lifting, arms nudging,
He thought of each girl
He had known in his life,
Nor could fix on which sweetness
To pluck for a wife.
Home Edenbain canter’d,
With pride in his heart,
When sudden he pull’d up
His horse with a start.
The road, which was bare
As the desert before,
Was cover’d with people
A hundred and more.
‘Twas a black creeping funeral;
And Edenbain drew
Ills horse to the side of
The roadway. He knew
In the cart rolling past
That a coffin was laid—
But whose? the
Was hid by a plaid.
The cart pass’d. The mourners
Came marching behind:
In front his own father,
And far-removed cousins,
His own stock and race,
Came after in silence,
A cloud on each face.
Together walk’d Mugstot
And fiery-soul’d Ord,
Whom six days before
He had left at his board.
Behind came the red-bearded
Sons of Tormore
With whom he was drunk
Scarce a fortnight before.
"Who is dead? Don’t they know me
Thought young Edenbain,
With a weird terror gathering
In heart and in brain.
In a moment the black
Crawling funeral was gone,
And he sat on his horse
On the roadway alone.
"‘Tis the second sight," cried
"Tis strange that I miss
Myself ‘mong the mourners!
Whose burial is this?
And the blood left his heart,
As he thought of the dead man
That lay in the cart.
The sun, ere he sank in
His splendid sea-bath,
Saw Edenbain spur through
The golden-green strath.
Past a twilighted shepherd
At watch rush’d a horse,
With Edenbain dragged
At the stirrup a corse.
I LAY in my bedroom at Peebles
With my window curtains drawn,
While there stole over bill of pasture and pine
The unresplendent dawn.
And through the deep silence I listen’d,
With a pleased, half-waking heed,
To the sound which ran through the ancient town—
The shallow-brawling Tweed.
For to me ‘twas a realisation
Of dream; and I felt like one
Who first sees the Alps, or the Pyramids,
World-old, in the setting sun;
First, crossing the purple Campagna,
eholds the wonderful dome
Which a thought of Michael Angelo hung
In the golden air of Rome.
And all through the summer morning
I felt it a joy indeed
To whisper again and again to myself;
This is the voice of the Tweed.
Of Dryburgh, Melrose, and Neidpath,
Norham Castle brown and bare,
The merry sun shining on merry Carlisle,
And the Bush aboon Traquair,
I had dream’d: but most of the river,
That, glittering mile on mile,
Flow’d through my imagination,
As through Egypt flows the Nile.
Was it absolute truth, or a dreaming
That the wakeful day disowns,
That I heard something more in the stream, as it ran,
Than water breaking on stones?
Now the hoofs of a flying mosstrooper,
Now a bloodhound’s bay, half caught,
The sudden blast of a hunting horn,
The burr of Walter Scott?
Who knows? But of this I am certain,
That but for the ballads and wails
That make passionate dead things, stocks and stones,
Make piteous woods and dales.
The Tweed were as poor as the Amazon,
That, for all the years it has roll’d,
Can tell but how fair was the morning red,
How sweet the evening gold.
JUBILATION OF SERGEANT M’TURK
ON WITNESSING THE HIGHLAND GAMES
HURRAH for the Highland glory!
Hurrah for the Highland fame!
For the battles of the great
And the pass of the gallant Graeme !
Hurrah for the knights and nobles
That rose up in their place,
And perill’d fame and fortune
For Charlie’s bonny face!
Awa frae green Lochaber
He led his slender clans:
The rising skin o’ our bagpipes
Sir John at Prestonpans.
Ance mair we gather’d glory
In Falkirk’s battle stoure,
Ere the tartans lay red-soak’d in bluid
On black Drumossie Moor.
An’ when the weary time was
When the head fell frae the neck,
Wolfe heard the cry,
"They run, they run!"
On the heights aboon Quebec.
We fell on sword and targe:
Hurt Moore was lifted up to
An’ aye the pipe
An’ aye the tartans
The first frae bluidy
To bluidier Waterloo.
We have sail’d owre many a
sea, my lads,
We have fought ‘neath many
And it’s where the fight
has hottest raged
That the tartans
We landed, lads, in
When in our bosom’s
One bitter memory
burn’d like hell—
The shambles at Cawnpore.
Weel ye mind our
march through the furnace-heath,
Wed ye mind the heaps of slain,
As we follow’d
through his score of fights
Brave ‘Havèlock the
Hurrah for the
Hurrah for the
God bless you, noble
God love you, bonny dames!
And sneer not at the brawny
And the strength of
our Highland men—
When the bayonets next are levell’d,
They may all be
These verses I had no
sooner copied out in my best hand than, looking up, I found that the rain
had ceased from sheer fatigue, and that great white vapours were rising up
from the damp valleys. Here was release at last—the beleaguering army
had raised the siege; and, better than all, pleasant as the sound of
Blucher’s cannon on the evening of Waterloo, I heard the sound of wheels
on the boggy ground: and just when the stanched rain-clouds were burning
into a sullen red at sunset, I had the M’Ians, father and son, in my
bothy, and pleasant human intercourse. They came to carry me off with
I am to stay with Mr M’Ian
to-night. A wedding has taken place up among the hills, and the whole
party have been asked to make a night of it The mighty kitchen has been
cleared for the occasion; torches are stuck up, ready to be lighted; and I
already hear the first mutterings of the bagpipes’ storm of sound. The
old gentleman wears a look of brightness and hilarity, and vows that he
will lead off the first reel with the bride. Everything is prepared; and
even now the bridal party are coming down the steep hill-road. I must go
out to meet them. To-morrow I return to my bothy to watch; for the weather
has become fine now, the sunny mists congregating on the crests of Blaavin—Blaavin
on which the level heaven seems to lean.
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