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Scottish Poets in America
M'Lachlan, Alexander


Creative Genius! from thy hand
What shapes of order, beauty, rise,
When waves thy potent, mystic wand
To people ocean, earth and skies!

Alexander M’Lachlan holds a prominent position in the circle of Scottish bards who have made for themselves a home in the new world. A native of Johnston, in Renfrewshire, Scotland, he was born in the year 1820. His father, a mechanic to trade, was possessed of considerable poetic talent, and the son at an early age became strongly imbued with his spirit and soon established a reputation for himself in the neighborhood as a writer of rather intelligent verses. His education, however, amounted to very little, and it certainly speaks well for him now that he is in nearly all respects a self-educated man. As a boy he was fond of reading, and he early acquired a thorough acquaintance with history and general literature. His father died while returning from a visit to Canada, leaving a widow and four small children unprovided for. Alexander was first sent to work in a cotton factory, but soon left this occupation and became a tailor’s apprentice. While a young man he took an active interest in the Chartist movement, and many of his early efforts in verse were full of sympathy and encouragement for those who were struggling for more freedom. In 1840 he emigrated to Canada and went to work on a farm. He was thus engaged for many years, during which time, however, he gave vent to his thoughts and reflections in poems of so beautiful and valuable a character that they stamped him as no ordinary man, and sent his name ringing throughout the Dominion. In 1855 he was induced to publish a small collection of his poems. It met with a ready sale and was followed in 1858 by another volume entitled “Lyrics,” which was also accorded a favorable reception. Three years later appeared his “Emigrant and Other Poems,” and in 1874 “Poems and Songs,” a large 8vo volume, containing nearly all of his poetical writings up to that date. The opening poem in the last named volume is entitled “God,” and is probably the finest piece of poetry which Mr. M’Lachlan has written. It at once gives us an idea of his powers as a poet, and, as one writer remarks, “is equal in grandeur and sublimity to the best efforts of the greatest Anglo-Saxon or Celtic poets.” We quote a few stanzas:

God of the great old solemn woods,
God of the desert solitudes,
And trackless sea:
God of the crowded city vast,
God of the present and the past,
Can man know Thee?

God of the blue sky overhead,
Of the green earth on which we tread,
Of time and space:
God of the worlds which Time conceals,
God of the worlds which Death reveals
To all our race.

From out thy wrath the earthquakes leap
And shake the world’s foundation deep,
Till Nature groans:
In agony the mountains call,
And ocean bellows throughout all
Her frightened zones.

But when thy smile its glory sheds,
The lilies lift their lovely heads,
And the primrose rare:
And the daisie decked with pearls
Richer than the proudest earls
On their mantles wear.

These thy preachers of the wild-wood,
Keep they not the heart of childhood
Fresh within us still?
Spite of all our life’s sad story,
There are gleams of thee and glory
In the daffodil.

And old Nature’s heart rejoices,
And the rivers lift their voices,
And the sounding sea:
And the mountains old and hoary
With their diadems of glory,
Shout, Lord, to Thee!

The mysterious in nature seems to be a fascinating subject for our author, and one at which his muse loves to draw inspiration. On such occasions his writings are eloquent and profound and they display a large amount of sound philosophical reasoning. He is extremely earnest in purpose and no one can fail to observe the sincere longing with which his heart is filled for a knowledge of the unseen. There is a great deal more than poetry in his verses entitled “Mystery”:

Mystery! mystery!
All is a mystery,
Mountain and valley, woodland and stream;
Man’s troubled history,
Man’s mortal destiny
Are but a phase of the soul’s troubled dream.

Mystery! mystery!
All is a mystery!
Heart-throbs of anguish and joy’s gentle dew,
Fall from a fountain
Beyond the great mountain,
Whose summits forever are lost in the blue.

Mystery! mystery!
All is a mystery!
The sigh of the night winds, the song of the waves:
The visions that borrow
Their brightness from sorrow, .
The tales which flowers tell us, the voices of graves.

Mystery! mystery!
All is a mystery!
Ah, there is nothing we wholly see through!
We are all weary,
The night’s long and dreary—
Without hope of morning O what would we do?

In another poem, entitled “Who Knows?” we have verses similar to the following:

From deep to deep, from doubt to doubt,
While the night still deeper grows;
Who knows the meaning of this life?
When a voice replied, Who knows?

Shall it always be a mystery?
Are there none to lift the veil?
Knows no one aught of the land we left,
Or the port to which we sail?

Poor shipwrecked mariners driven about
By every wind that blows;
Is there a haven of rest at all?
And a voice replies, Who knows?

O why have we longings infinite
And affections deep and high;
And glorious dreams of immortal things,
If they are but born to die?

Are they but will-o’-wisps that gleam,
Where the deadly nightshade grows?
Do they end in dust and ashes all?
And the voice still cried, Who knows?

No poet was ever blessed with a finer conception of the beauties of external nature, however, than the subject of our sketch. He has a happy faculty for describing rural scenes, and his poems entitled “Spring,” “Indian Summer,” “Far in the Forest Shade,” “The Song of the Sun ” and “The Hall of Shadows” are replete with descriptive passages of the very highest order of merit. Mingling with his poetry is the rich perfume of buds and blossoms, the warble of the birds, the murmur of the brook, the hum of insects and the rustle of autumn leaves. He loves them all with the love of a poet, and his muse is ever ready and delights in proclaiming their beauties, whether in the field or the forest, the highway or the hillside. The following may be taken as a specimen of his descriptive pieces:

MAY.

O sing and rejoice!
Give to gladness a voice,
Shout a welcome to beautiful May!
Rejoice with the flowers,
And the birds ’mong the bowers,
And away to the green woods away!
O, blithe as the fawn
Let us dance in the dawn
Of this life-giving, glorious day!
’Tis bright as the first Over Eden that burst—
O, welcome, young, joy-giving May!

The cataract’s horn Has awakened the morn,
Her tresses are dripping with dew
O hush thee, and hark!
’Tis her herald the lark
That’s singing afar in the blue,
It’s happy heart’s rushing,
In strains wildly gushing,
That reach to the revelling earth:
And sinks through the deeps
Of the soul till it leaps
Into raptures far deeper than mirth.

All nature’s in keeping!
The live streams are leaping
And laughing in gladness along;
The great hills are heaving,
The dark clouds are leaving,
The valleys have burst into song.
We’ll range through the dells
Of the bonnie blue bells,
And sing with the streams on their way
We’ll lie in the shades
Of the flower-covered glades,
And hear what the primroses say.

O crown me with flowers,
’Neath the green spreading bowers,
With the gems and the jewels May brings;
In the light of her eyes,
And the depth of her dyes,
We’ll smile at the purple of kings.
We’ll throw off our years,
With their sorrows and tears,
And time will not number the hours
We’ll spend in the woods Where no sorrow intrudes,
With the streams, and the birds, and the flowers.

Home and the affections also claim a particular niche in our author’s heart, and he has given us many very fine poems on these subjects. He begins one:

“Where’er we may wander,
Whate’er be our lot
The heart’s first affections,
Still cling to the spot
Where first a fond mother,
With rapture has prest,
Or sung us to slumber
In peace on her breast.”

But the finest specimen of all, is his well-known poem entitled, “Old Hannah,” a poem so real and yet so exquisite in construction and finish that no one but a true poet could have conceived and written it.

OLD HANNAH.

’Tis Sabbath morn, and a holy balm
Drops down on the heart like dew
And the sunbeams gleam
Like a blessed dream
Afar on the mountains blue,
Old Hannah’s by her cottage door,
In her faded widow’s cap;
She is sitting alone
On the old gray stone,
With the Bible in her lap.

An oak is hanging above her head,
And the burn is wimpling by;
The primroses peep
From their sylvan keep,
And the lark is in the sky.
Beneath that shade her children played,
But they’re all away with Death,
And she sits alone On that old gray stone,
To hear what the Spirit saith.

Her years are o’er threescore and ten,
And her eyes are waxing dim,
But the page is bright With a living light,
And her heart leaps up to Him
Who pours the mystic harmony
Which the soul can only hear:
She is not alone On the old gray stone,
Tho’ no earthly friend is near.

There’s no one left to love her now;
But the eye that never sleeps
Looks on her in love From the heavens above,
And with quiet joy she weeps;
For she feels the balm of bliss is pour’d
In her lone heart’s deepest rut;
And the widow lone
On the old gray stone
Has a peace the world knows not.

There are no weak of frivolous pieces to be found in Mr. M’Lachlan’s latest volume. There is life and energy and strength, and true poetry in all that he writes, and it proceeds from him naturally and gracefully at all times. He has had the highest encomiums passed on his powers as a poet by men who were well able to judge of his abilities. Says the Rev. Dr. Dewart:—“As long ago as 1S64, in my ‘Selections from Canadian Poets', I said of Mr. M’Lachlan: ‘It is no empty laudation to call him the Burns of Canada. In racy humor, in natural pathos, in graphic portraiture of character, he will compare favorably with the great peasant bard; while in moral grandeur and beauty he frequently strikes higher notes than ever echoed from the harp of Burns.’ After nearly a quarter of a century I am prepared to stand by this estimate still.”

No notice of our author would be complete without referring to his lyrical pieces. These embrace many that are written in the Scottish dialect, and which have added considerably to his fame as a poet. There is a wealth of poetic feeling and language, simplicity and tenderness in such songs as “ Lovely Alice,” “ My Love is Like the Lily Flower,” and “ Mary White,” that is not to be met with in the Scottish song of to-day. We quote the following as a specimen of his Doric. The title lias long since become a familiar proverb with the Scottish people :

WE’RE A’ JOHN TAMSON’S BAIRNS.

O, come and listen to my sang,
Nae matter wha ye be,
For there’s a human sympathy
That sings to you and me;
For as some kindly soul has said—
All underneath the starns,
Despite of country, clime and creed,
Are a’ John Tamson’s bairns.

The higher that we sclim the tree
Mair sweert arc we to fa’,
And, spite o’ fortune's heights and houghs,
Death eqnal-aqnals a’;
And a’ the great and mighty anes
Wha slumber ’neath the cairns
They ne’er forgol, though e’er so great,
We’re a’ John Tamson’s bairns.

Earth’s heroes spring frae high and low,
There’s beauty in ilk place,
There’s nae monopoly o’ worth ,
Amang the human race;
And genius ne’er was o’ a class,
But, like the moon and starns,
She sheds her kindly smile alike
On a’ John Tamson’s bairns.

There’s nae monopoly o’ pride—
For a’ wi’ Adam fell—
I’ve seen a joskin sae transformed,
He scarcely kent himsel’.
The langer that the wise man lives,
The mair he sees and learns,
And aye the deeper care he takes
Owre a’ John Tamson’s bairns.

There’s some distinction, ne’er a doubt,
’Tween Jock and Master John,
And yet it’s maistly in the dress,
When everything is known;
Where’er you meet him, rich or poor,
The man o’ sense and barns,
By moral worth he measures a’
Puir auld John Tamson’s bairns.

There’s ne’er been country yet nor kin
But has some weary flaw,
And he’s the likest God aboon
Who loves them ane and a’;
And after a’ that’s come and gane, .
What human heart but yearns,
To meet at last in light and love,
Wi’ a’ John Tamson’s bairns.

Among the poems not already referred to, “The Halls of Holy-rood,” “Martha,” “The Settler’s Sabbath Day," “Napoleon on St. Helena,” “Wilson’s Grave” and “Up and be a Hero” prove themselves the work of a master poet. In each instance the diction is pure, the rhyme easy and flowing, and the ideas original and choice.

“His ‘Britannia’ and ‘Garibaldi,’” says Dr. Daniel Clark, “stir us as would the clarion notes of a bugle call on a battlefield. His ‘Lang Heided Laddie’ shows his quiet humour, versatility, and good-intended sarcasm. His ‘Balaclava’ does not lose by comparison with Macaulay’s ‘Lays of Ancient Rome,’ or Aytoun’s ‘Historic Ballads of Scottish Chivalry.’”

One other poem, which we are unable to quote on account of its length, deserves special mention, viz: “Old Adam.” This is one of his most admired productions. The description of the old man, his peculiarities, sympathies and desires, are all graphically set forth, and form a picture which is at once interesting and true to life.

“He was nae thing that stood apart
Frae universal nature:
But had a corner in his heart
For every living creature.”

In conclusion we would allude to the fact that at a public meeting recently held in Toronto it was unanimously resolved, as a mark of respect to the genius of Mr. M’Lachlan, to purchase and present him with the valuable farm upon which he now resides. And surely the poet is worthy of such distinguished recognition at the hands of his admirers. The talents entrusted to his keeping have been nobly employed, and have yielded an abundant harvest. He has accomplished the work he was sent to perform, and after he passes to his reward, his good works will keep his memory revered and honored among the sons of song on earth.


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