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Scottish Poets in America
Telford, William

As wine, that with its own weight runs, is best,
And counted much more noble than the rest,
So is the poetry, whose generous strains
Flow without servile study, art or pains.

Mr. William Telford, a respected resident for many years of Smith, Peterboro, Ontario, and a Scottish poet of more than local fame, was born at Leitholm, Berwickshire, Scotland, on the sixth of January, 1828. He was sent to school in his seventh year, but on account of a long and serious illness which prostrated his father and left him incapable of providing for his family as he had hitherto done, he was compelled to quit his studies at the age of ten, and join his brothers at work digging drains, we are told in winter, and rendering whatever assistance he could in a brick and tile yard in summer. “ But the severe labor he was forced to perform,” writes his biographer, “ did not crush out his inspirations for mental improvement. He rose superior to his prosaic environments, and the words of the poet Gray, applied to genius, extinguished in undevelopment, could not be applied to him:

Chill penury repressed their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul!

He triumphed over conditions which would have brought discouragement, or plodding content, with ignorance, to a less aspiring soul. Day after day, in the rare intermissions of arduous toil, he strove, though but a child, with the energy and determination of a man, to improve his mental condition. He had neither books nor means to procure them, and he had consequently to rely on the kindness of neighbors, who sympathised with his aspirations, and the scanty supply of books their cottage shelves contained, and in the long winter evenings he was to be seen sitting in the ingle-nook of his mother’s cottage poring over some old volume. In prose, the books to which he had access were such works as Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,' Baxter’s 'Saint’s Rest,’ ‘Man’s Four-fold Estate,’ ‘Josephus’ History,’ ‘Hervey’s Meditations,’ ‘Afflicted Man’s Companion,’ and such works—one would think, the least alluring in their ponderous sanctity to the lively temperament of youth. In poetry, Burns was his chief delight, although Pope, Moore, Montgomery, Tannahill, and other poets were conned by him with diligent delight. In his younger years the knowledge of grammar was to him as a sealed book, and the first dictionary he bought was for the use of his eldest son in school.” In 1850 Mr. Telford emigrated to Canada, and has followed bucolic pursuits with marked success ever since. During these many years, however, he has found constant enjoyment in the companionship of the muse. He has wooed her at all times and under all circumstances, although he says that he never lost one hour’s work with poetry. When a poetic idea came to him in the day time, he brooded over and cherished it until the evening meal was past, when he would sit down and endeavor to weave it into a poem. A few months ago he collected his pieces together and published them in a large 8vo volume. Nearly one thousand copies of this book have already been sold, showing conclusively that the author has a large circle of friends and readers who appreciate his talents and worth. Mr. Telford introduces himself to his patrons in the beginning of the volume thus:

Look not for language, lofty or refined,
Within this book, you no such tiling will find;
I never stood in high school class or college,
God, books and nature, true sources of my knowledge
If high your learning, kindly condescend—
Some pity show to your less learned friend;
Your high attainments, use not to deride,
While criticising lean to mercy’s side.

Education is seldom obtained by stealth,
Learning requires no small amount of wealth.
My humble parents wished and nobly tried,
To give to me what poverty denied.
Many bright gems lies buried in the dust,
Many heaven-sent gifts for lack of learning rust;
Many golden talents lie in heads obscure,
Because the parents and the sons were poor.

Following these lines are numerous gems of poetry and song, both in the English and in the author’s mother tongue, and of which he may justly feel proud. These are replete with beautiful ideas and suggestions and they embrace a large variety of subjects, both commonplace and otherwise. Take the following as a specimen of his serious writings. The thoughts embodied in the poem flashed through his mind one day while he was engaged in sowing grain in one of his fields:


I am sowing, will I reap it?
That is more than I can say,
Before these seeds can germinate
I may have passed away.

I know my life is fleeting fast,
Those hands with which I sow
May both be clasped in Death’s embrace
Ere the first green blade grow.

I am scattering, who will gather?
'Tis a mystery dark to me;
Long before the full ear openeth
In the cold grave I may be.

As I watch the small seed falling
Upon the fruitful ground,
Ah, alas! while they are growing
I may sleep beneath the mound.

I am sowing, yes, and trusting,
But my hopes may all be vain;
Perhaps my hands will never bear
The sheaves of golden grain.

I may sow, another reap it,
'Tis the common fate of man;
Death regards no times nor seasons,
But destroys each hope and plan.

It is seed-time now, when harvest comes
Will I be there to reap?
Or will death, that dreaded reaper
Close my eyes in their last sleep?

Will I reap? No man can answer,
It is God alone that knows;
Mysterious all His ways and He
Doth none to man disclose.

But there was a greater seed-time,
And we are the seeds then sown;
By God’s own hand we sprang to life,
Sustained, perserved and grown.

There will be as great a harvest,
We must all be present then;
When His angels will be reapers,
And the grain the souls of men.

Many of Mr. Telford’s finest productions have been inspired by the love which he possesses for the beauties of nature. Indeed this may be said to be a special characteristic of his muse as it asserts itself more or less in all of his writings. In addition to this his descriptive powers are remarkably keen. Among the poems in which those two qualities blend harmoniously together, and which we have read with sincere pleasure and profit, are ‘‘The Fall of the Leaf,” “An Address to Spring,” “The Scenery of Scotland,” “The First Day of April,” “The Pioneer’s Retrospect” and “Thoughts on the Season of Death.” We quote a few stanzas from the latter piece:

I would not die in Autumn, with all summer beauties past,
Faded foliage, leafless branches, swaying with the northern blast,
Hoar frost shining, chilling breezes, drizzling rain and blinding sleet,
Frost-nipped herbage, leaves of yellow, crisping underneath our feet,
Gloomy season, bright sun clouded, every leaf stript from the tree,
Herb and plant, bright flowers of summer, I don’t wish to die with thee.
Some that loved me might feel anxious to strew garlands o’er their dead,
Alas! they find but withered flowers wherewith to grace my coffin lid.

Die in Winter! surely never! how I shudder at the thought,
Shall my life’s decisive battle in the winter time be fought?
Not one glimpse of summer’s beauty, not one beam of sunlit ray
Sent to cheer my spirit as it leaves its prison-house of clay.
As from the hearse to open grave move my pall-bearers sad and slow
In silence bear my lifeless body over wreaths of drifted snow,
Death brings its terror at all times—in winter it adds gloom,
To sleep the first night’s sleep of death beneath a snow-clad tomb.

If I possessed the keys of death I would not die in Spring,
When nature bursts its wintery bonds and birds begin to sing,
The ice-bound lake begins to wave, the frozen streams to flow,
The radiant beams of April sun, the balmy breezes blow,
With bud and blossom, early flowers, burst forth to life anew,
The snow-drop white, the violet, shows its variegated hue;
Cut me not down, ’mid fresh bloomed flowers permit me just to stay,
To gaze upon their richest bloom before I pass away.

Oh, Thou that ruleth life and death, supreme on earth and sky,
Oh, grant to me my earnest wish, in Summer let me die,
Amidst all beauty earth affords, each field arid forest green;
Nature in dazzling splendor, robed to brighten up death’s scene;
Push wide my bedroom door ajar, raise up the windows high,
Let the sweet fragrance of the flowers blow o’er me as I die;
They tell me there are flowers above, fade not with heat or cold,
Then let me gaze on those below till brighter I behold.

Another portion of our author’s numerous writings relate to Scotland, or are in connection with Scottish subjects, such as the anniversary of Robert Burns, St. Andrew’s Night, addresses to the Sons of Scotia, the members of the Peterborough, St. Andrew’s Society, etc. Many of these are strikingly patriotic in their expression, while others are overflowing with love and admiration for the old land. “A Nicht Like Harae,” “Grand Here to Gather,” “Auld Scotia as It was and is,” “Help Your Brither Scot” and “The Land o’ Cakes,” are all noble poems in this respect. The following piece may be taken as a specimen. It was inspired by a present of a small bunch of heather from his friend, Mr. John Cameron, and is one of the shortest of his compositions:


Yes he brought it. I have got it,
Can you guess what it might be?
It’s the'heather’John did gather
On Auld Scotia’s hills for me.

First he pu’ed it, then he viewed it,
With its blossoms’ varied hue,
Paper folded, therein rolled it,
Saying, “ Bill, this is for you.”

When I took it, how I looket
At the sprig I so well knew,
Silent blessed it, almost kissed it,
For the sake of where it grew.

When I showed it, yes, they knew it,
Every Scotchman which I met;
Fast they held it and they smelled it,
O, its scent they won’t forget.

We adore it, true Scots wore it,
In their Highland caps of yore
Their foes feared it, as they neared it,
Highland blood the heather bore.

Time has tried it, blood has dyed it,
Yes the best in Scotland shed,
They prayed on it, and laid on it,
Oft the martyr’s dying bed,

You may prize it, or despise it
As your inclination be
Don’t annoy it or destroy it,
’Tis a precious gem to me.

Yes, I have it, I will save it
While its twigs will hang thegither
Time will move them, but I love them,
Both Auld Scotia and her heather.

Conspicuous among Mr. Telford’s longer poems are the following: “Don’t Mortgage Your Farm,” “A Poor Scholar; or, My Own Difficulties,” “The Age of Sham,” “A True Husband’s Wish,” “A Voice From Behind the Plough;” his various epistles to the late Mr. David Kennedy, the Scottish vocalist, and his two very excellent poems on the late President Garfield. These poems exhibit considerable originality and power. They are not encumbered with any useless or unnecessary lines, and the language used is at all times select and appropriate. Take a few verses from one of the last-named poems for instance:

Endowed with talents bright and numerous too,
Rapid expanding as in years he grew,
His youthful soul sought not an empty name,
Increase of knowledge was liis greatest aim.

His plans and hopes oft left him in despair,
His means were scarce, he little wealth did sliare,
Bravely he struggled up life’s adverse road
Till every barrier underneath he trod.

As wild waves wash the pebbles to the beach,
What he had learned he stood prepared to teach,
Not to gain honor nor to hoard up pelf,
But earn an honest living for himself.

But soon the teacher’s rod he laid aside,
And grasped the sword to hold his country’s pride;
His daring bravery, in command displayed,
A Major-General he was promptly made.

Onward he pressed with persevering tread,
Till earth’s highest honors graced his noble head:
Esteem and favor, gained on every hand,
Placed him head ruler o’er his native land.

* * * * *

The land he ruled is draped in mourning o’er
And great men wept that seldom wept before,
Their grief is light, though tears bedim their eyes,
Compared with those bound by endearing ties.

* * * *

Son, husband, father, ruler is no more,
His honored name shines brighter than before;
The name of Garfield and his tragic end
To men unborn, in history will descend.

The few specimens of Mr. Telford’s muse which we have here presented to our readers are sufficient, we think, to prove that he is endowed with poetic gifts of a very high order. When we consider the disadvantages which he has had to contend with, chiefly arising from a deficient education, the many years of incessant and laborious toil through which he has passed; the trials, privations and griefs which have fallen to his lot, especially in the early years of his life ; when we consider these facts we cannot but wonder that he has had the inclination, or found the opportunity, to compose so many beautiful and meritorious poems as he has done. His life from boyhood has certainly been a busy and eventful one, but he has conquered all obstacles and is now in more than comfortable circumstances. While we have not touched, to any extent, on his religious musings, the few pieces of this nature which we have perused prove him to be a sincerely religious man and his writings altogether give evidence that he has always made the noblest use of the talents created in him.

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