Part 4 out of 7
spending his time, as well as in some of the stern features of his
genius, he resembled Crabbe, who, believing that every weed was a
flower, spent much of his time amidst the fields and on the sea-shores;
who extracted delight out of the meanest fungus, even as he extracted
poetry out of the humblest characters; and whose life, like Blair's, was
a harmless dream.
After spending seven years of studious solitude, he, in 1738, married
his relation, Isabella Law, daughter of Mr Law of Elvingston, who had
been professor of moral philosophy in the University of Edinburgh, and
whose death, which had happened ten years before, he had mourned in some
rather lame verses, which our readers will find in this edition. Her
brother was the sheriff-depute of East Lothian. She is described as a
lady of great beauty and amiable manners, and succeeded in making the
poet very happy. She bore him five sons and one daughter. Of these,
Robert arose, through various gradations of honour at the Scottish bar,
to be President of the Court of Session, and died in 1811. He was a man
of massive and powerful intellect. It is, we think, in 'Peter's
Letters' that Lockhart gives a glowing portraiture of President
Blair's remarkable powers. He had not the genius or "hairbrained
sentimental trace" of his father, but had inherited that clear, stern
understanding, and that profound insight into men and manners, which are
met with in every page of "The Grave."
Of this poem the author had, we said, drawn a first outline when a youth
in Edinburgh. This he completed after his settlement at Athelstaneford;
and, about the year 1742, he began to make arrangements for its
publication. He had, probably through his neighbour, the celebrated
Colonel Gardiner, who fell at the battle of Prestonpans, become
acquainted with Isaac Watts, who paid him, he says in one of his
letters, "many civilities." To him he forwarded the MS. of his poem. Dr
Watts, with characteristic candour and good taste, admired it, and
offered it to two different London booksellers, both of whom, however,
declined to publish it, expressing a doubt whether any person living
three hundred miles from town could write so as to be acceptable to the
fashionable and the polite! No poetry at that time went down except
imitations of Pope. Blair got back his MS., and, nothing daunted, sent
it to Philip Doddridge, who was also an intimate of Colonel Gardiner's,
requesting his opinion, which appears to have been as favourable as that
of Dr Watts. At length it was published in London in the year 1743, and
reprinted at Edinburgh in 1747, a year after its author's death.
Between that event and the appearance of his poem, nothing remarkable
occurred. The success of his work must have shed additional sweetness
into a cup which was rich before. "His tastes," says one of his
biographers, "were elegant and domestic. Books and flowers seem to have
been the only rivals in his thoughts. His rambles were from his fireside
to his garden; and, although the only record of his genius is of a
gloomy character, it is evident that his habits and life contributed to
render him cheerful and happy." At last that awful chasm, the terrors,
grandeurs, and moral lessons of which he had so powerfully sung, opened
its jaws to receive him, and the Grave crowned its laureate with its
cold and earthy crown. He was seized with fever, caught probably in the
exercise of his pastoral functions, and expired on the 4th of February
1746, at the early age of forty-seven, when his body and mind were both
in full vigour, and when, speaking after the manner of men, yet greater
works than "The Grave" were before him. He left his wife, who lived till
1774, and five children behind him. His body reposes in the church-yard
of Athelstaneford, without a monument, and with nothing but the initials
K.B. to mark the spot.
The fact that he died comparatively so young, sufficiently accounts for
the paucity of his poems. He had found a vein of rich and virgin gold;
he had thrown out one mass of ore, and was, as it were, resting on his
pickaxe ere recommencing his labour, when he was smitten down by a
workman who never rests nor slumbers. Still let us thankfully accept
what he has produced; the more as it is so distinctively original, so
free from any serious alloy, and so impressively religious in its spirit
This masterpiece of Blair's genius is not a great poem so much as it is
a magnificent portion, fragment, or book of a great poem. The most,
alike of its merits and its faults, spring from the fact, that it keeps
close to its subject--it daguerreotypes its dreadful theme. Many have
objected to its conclusion as lame and impotent, and would have wished a
loftier swell of hopeful anticipation of the Resurrection at the close;
but this, in fact, would have started the subject of another poem. Blair
was writing of the power and triumphs of the tomb. He left it to others,
or possibly to another poem by himself, to celebrate the victory over
it, to be gained at the resurrection. Enough for his purpose to allude
to it at the close, in such a way as to intimate his own belief in its
reality. Surely he expects too much who requires the painter of "Night"
to introduce "Morning" into the same picture.
The shortness of the poem has been objected to it. But this, we think,
shows the poet's good sense. The subject is too uniform and too gloomy
for a long poem. "The Grave, in twelve books" would have been totally
unreadable. It was far better to give, as Blair has given, a strong,
stern, rapid, and concentrated sketch of the grisly gulf. The grave, in
one respect, has no unity, and no story. It stands by itself, hollow,
solitary, with its momentary ghastly yawnings, its general repose, and
the dark mysteries which, whether open or shut, it conceals in its
silent bosom. Reverence, as well as good taste, requires the poet who
would venture on such a theme, to approach it trembling, and to withdraw
from it in haste.
Yet Blair has been accused of a want of reverence in his treatment of
this awful subject, nor is this objection altogether unfounded; the poet
does treat "the Grave" in a somewhat abrupt and cavalier fashion, and
does not seem sufficiently afraid of it. He was young when he wrote the
greater part of the poem, and of young poets we may ask as Wordsworth
asks about little children, "What can they know of death?" It had never
knocked at his door or glared in at his window. He was, besides, of a
bold and daring genius. He consulted rather strong effect than minute
finish. The tone and style of his poem, consequently, are somewhat
hirsute and unpolished. Campbell says of him, judiciously, "Blair may be
a homely and even a gloomy poet in the eye of fastidious criticism; but
there is a masculine and pronounced character even in his gloom and
homeliness that keeps it most distinctly apart from either dulness or
vulgarity. His style pleases us like the powerful expression of a
countenance without regular beauty." He excels most in describing the
darkest and most terrible ideas suggested by the subject, and seems
almost to exult, while depicting the triumphs of the grave over the
rich, the strong, the lofty, and the powerful. Death himself he assails
in language approaching virulence, as when he says
O great maneater,
Unheard-of epicure, without a fellow,
Thou must render up thy dead,
And with high interest too.
This exulting spirit, however, springs in him, less from ferocious
feeling than from conscious rejoicing power. He is not a savage,
brandishing his bloody tomahawk, so much as a Michael Angelo, hewing,
with heat and haste, at one of his terrible pieces of statuary. He
characterizes the miser severely; he lashes the proud wicked man whom he
sees pompously hearsed into Hell; with stern irony he pursues the beauty
from her looking-glass to the clods where
"The high-fed worm, in lazy volumes roll'd,
Feeds on her damask cheek;"
he derides the baffled son of AEsculapius, who is deserted and deceived
by his own drugs; and he exerts all the fearful force of his genius to
show us the suicide in that "Other Place," where
"The common damn'd shun his society,
And look upon themselves as fiends less foul."
But the fine imagery and the rapid touch serve alike to show that though
he is angry, it is with the wrath of a man--not with the malignity of a
demon. We have sometimes been induced to fancy that Pollok, in the
"Course of Time," loves to linger amid the ruins of fallen and lost
natures; and finds a savage luxury in the contemplation of the agonies
of those whom he represents as damned. He tells us that he loved no
scenery so well as that of solitary wastes, where nature was utterly
barren and seemed willing to decay--where the dark wings of monotonous
gloom and eternal silence met and sullenly embraced over the dreary
region; and he seems to have had the same passion for moral as for
physical desolations. Blair, on the other hand, never tarries long in
such scenes; he does not dwell amidst, and brood over them like an owl,
but crosses them with the swift brushing wing of a bird returning to her
evening nest. He never goes out of his way to search for them--he sees
and shows them merely because they meet him on his path. There is
nothing morbid nor much that is melancholy in this poem. He takes the
hard fact as it is, and paints it with all his force, but he does not
seek to exaggerate or discolour it. He shows "the Grave" in various
lights, at morning, night, and noon--not under the uniform weight of a
leaden midnight sky, or only by the ghastly illumination of a waning
Southey, in his "Life of Cowper," has fallen into the mistake of
supposing Blair one of the imitators of Young. Now, in fact, Blair's
poem was 'written' before the "Last Day" of Young, or the "Night
Thoughts" had appeared. Its originality is indeed one of its greatest
merits and charms. The author has copied no style, imitated no manner,
and scorned to permit any living man or poet to stand between him and
the cold stern reality of death, which he was to reflect in song. He is
worthy, thus, of the name so often misapplied, of Poet--'i.e.' Maker.
You see an original genius both in the beauties and the faults of the
work. Its language, so simply strong and daring in its homeliness, its
free and energetic motion, its fresh fearless touch, its fidelity to
nature and to life, the quick succession and sharp brief poignancy of
its pictures, its absence of elaboration, and carelessness about minute
lights and shades--all combine to prove that the author has an eye, an
imagination, and a purpose quite peculiar to himself. He treats "the
Grave" with as much originality as if he had been contemporary with the
earliest sepulchre--as if he had plucked grass from Abel's tomb; and
yet, while it has not lost to his eye its first fearful gloss and glory,
it has gathered around it the dear or dismal associations of six
thousand years; and Adam and the "new-made widow" seem to be leaning
side by side over its dust. We could have conceived of him treating the
subject more reconditely, imaginatively, and metaphysically, but not of
handling it with more direct and masculine power.
That he has done so, is, undoubtedly, one great cause of the poem's
popularity. Had he woven any gossamer of reverie or philosophic
conjecture over "the Grave," or even shown much personal interest in it,
he might have gained a more peculiar set of admirers, but would not have
won his way to the world's heart. As it is, the popularity of "The
Grave" has been unbounded. Partly from the subject, partly from the
shortness, partly from the signal truth and force of the poem, it rose
rapidly to fame. It became "everybody's Grave." The poem was copied
into all school collections. It lay along with 'Robinson Crusoe' and
Bunyan's 'Pilgrim's Progress', in the windows of cottages, and on the
tables of wayside inns--achieving thus what Coleridge predicated over
that well-thumbed copy of 'Thomson's Seasons', in the Welsh
ale-house--"true fame!" It pervaded America. It was translated into
other languages, and in its own it now transmigrated into a tract, now
filled the page of a periodical, and now became a small separate book,
telling its solemn tale to those who, though at first reluctant, as was
the wedding guest to hear the Anciente Marinere, were at last compelled
to listen, if not to learn. Light ballads and other amusing and clever
trifles, had before and have since thus "put a girdle round about the
globe in forty minutes;" but here was the phenomenon of a sad and
serious strain, with little merit or charm but Christian truth and
rugged poetry, passing, as if on telegraphic wires, through the whole
world in a moment of time. Perhaps we should add a reason, although a
very subordinate one, for the popularity of the poem. It was its
author's 'first' and 'last'. He wrote himself at once and easily
'up'--he never tried and succeeded in writing himself laboriously
The only books which should gain permanent reputation are those which
supply materials for thought, and are studded with moveable gems of
expression. We think we may divide the poems of the past and present
into two classes, which we may discriminate into 'buildings' and
'quarries'. Many works to which you can hardly deny the character of
works of genius may be likened to elegant and splendid edifices, the
structure of which you cannot but admire, although the secret of their
architecture you do not understand, and although from them you neither
do nor can extract a single stone. They stand up before the view,
dazzling and confounding,--
"Distinct but distant, clear, but ah! how cold."
Other books, less magnificent in aspect and rougher in style, are yet so
full of suggestive and germinating thought, that we must liken them to
quarries, surrounded it may be by thorns and briars, and precipices, but
containing the richest of matter, and communicating with the very depths
of the earth. Not to enter on the vexed questions connected with more
celebrated poets, we may name Darwin and Dr Thomas Brown as two
specimens of the building, and Robert Blair as an admirable example of
the quarry. In household words and sententious truths, he yields (taking
his space into consideration), not even to Young, or Pope, or Cowper,
but to Shakspeare alone. His poem is a tissue of texts; many of his
expressions might pass and have passed for bits of Hamlet. Take a few:--
"Friendship, mysterious cement of the soul,
Sweetener of life, and solder of society."
"Son of the morning, whither art thou gone?
Where hast thou hid thy many-spangled head,
And the majestic menace of thine eyes
Felt from afar?"
"Sorry pre-eminence of high descent!
Above the vulgar, born to 'rot in state'."
Hence, by the way, Byron's famous lines,--
"It seem'd the mockery of hell to fold
The 'rottenness' of eighty years in gold."
The exquisite description of beauty in the grave has been already
quoted. That of the strong man dying is quite Shakspearian, and equally
so is the picture commencing, "Death's shafts fly quick," particularly
the passage about the sexton. How much he has compressed in the few
words of the celebrated description!--
"The wind is up; hark! how it howls! methinks
Till now I never heard a sound so dreary;
Doors creak, and windows clap, and night's foul bird,
Rook'd in the spire, screams loud."
Who Blair's favourite authors were, we are not informed, but internal
evidence proves him to have frequently and profitably read Shakspeare;
and in terseness of description, comprehensiveness of vision, careless
grandeur of execution, and short felicitous strokes of genius, he bears
to him a considerable resemblance.
Blair's originality is proved by the fact, that many poets since have
been either indebted to or inspired by his manly, noble verse. A great
original, although he seldom steals himself, is the innocent cause of
much theft in others, and his writings tempt, like the unbolted gate of
a bank, to plunder. Young, although a truly gifted man, has kindled his
night-lamp again and again at the phosphoric flame of "The Grave." The
author of the "Night Thoughts" has written more sustained and sounding
passages than Blair; his style is more antithetic, and his general mode
of thought more ingenious; his book is a much larger one; he exhibits at
times gleams of deeper insight; has occasional bursts of more
impassioned earnestness; and his work has a personal interest, like an
interrupted story or imperfect plot running through it: but "The Grave"
is superior in ease, in nature, in healthy tone, and in those happy
touches which light upon even genius only in rare and favoured hours. In
some of these points, as well as in a certain power of rough moral
anatomy, and vivid hurrying sarcasm (like one in haste lifting,
handling, and striking with a red-hot falchion), Blair reminds us rather
of Cowper; but the poet of "The Task" teaches a sterner morality, wears
around him a mantle of austerer gloom, abounds more in Scriptural
reference and in purely theological matter, and exhibits a more
thoroughly bardic and prophetic spirit. James Grahame, the author of
"The Sabbath," resembles Blair somewhat in happy pictorial flashes, and
in the frequent rudeness of his versification; but is, on the whole, a
milder, a more refined, a tenderer, and a weaker writer. It is clear
that Pollok found the germ of his noble poem, "The Course of Time," in
"The Grave." They resemble each other in their want of a plot, a hinge,
a "back-bone," both being collections of loosely-strung moral sketches,
with no unity but that of spirit, as also in the homely force and
boldness of the writing; and if Pollok in aught differ from Blair, it is
partly in the length of his poem and its elaboration, and partly in that
feverish, hectic heat, and that morbid intensity and fury of
temperament, which are the sources of much of Pollok's strength, and of
more of his weakness. No poem on any similar subject, in our time, can
be named with Blair's, except perhaps Bryant's "Thanatopsis." The moral
tendency, however, and religious tone of the two poems are entirely
different. "Thanatopsis" looks at the Grave solely in its physical and
poetical aspects. It never mentions either the Resurrection or the
Future State. An Indian would have coloured his poem on the sepulchre
with finer and fierier lines, like the stamp of autumn on the fallen
leaf. The main idea in it (an idea probably suggested by a line in "The
"What is this world?
What but a spacious burial-place unwall'd?")
is that of the earth as a great sepulchre; and its lesson is to
inculcate on the death-devoted dust, which we call man, the duty of
dropping into its kindred dust as quietly and gracefully as possible. It
is, as a poem, chiefly remarkable for its solemn music, which reminds
you of a burial-march, but is far inferior to the Scottish poem in lofty
moral, in theological truth, and in illustrative power. Blair, and not
Bryant, remains the laureate of the Grave.
It is much to have one's name and fame connected with one of the great
centrical truths of the universe, especially when that truth is related
to a fact. Suppose a writer to have produced a great poem on Light and
the Sun--or on Absolute Being and God--or on Immortal Life and
Heaven--how sublime and how enviable were his reputation! It were for
ever bound up, in the bundle of life, with these great Ideas and Facts.
Now, Blair has sung, in notes as yet unequalled, one of the cardinal,
although one of the gloomiest thoughts and actualities in existence, and
his name ought to stand proportionally high. He has, in a solemn yet
happy hour, turned aside from the highways, and the byeways too, of the
world, and gone a-musing and meditating, like Isaac in the evening
fields, and found among these a field of the dead, a place of skulls;
and, returning home, has recorded that one brief meditation in verse,
and made it and himself immortal. Such, precisely, is this Poem, and
such the experience of this Poet. As long as "the mourners go about the
streets," or assemble in their crowds, blackening the silent 'braes' on
their way to the country churchyard--as long as the grass of the grave
murmurs out its moral in the western wind, and the sunshine seems to
sadden as it shines upon the memorials and monuments of the dead--so
long shall men read the "The Grave," and turn with pensive joy and
tearful gratitude to the memory of its poet.
While some affect the sun, and some the shade,
Some flee the city, some the hermitage;
Their aims as various, as the roads they take
In journeying through life;--the task be mine,
To paint the gloomy horrors of the tomb;
The appointed place of rendezvous, where all
These travellers meet.--Thy succours I implore,
Eternal king! whose potent arm sustains
The keys of Hell and Death.--The Grave, dread thing!
Men shiver when thou'rt named: Nature appall'd 10
Shakes off her wonted firmness. Ah! how dark
Thy long-extended realms, and rueful wastes!
Where nought but silence reigns, and night, dark night,
Dark as was chaos, ere the infant Sun
Was roll'd together, or had tried his beams
Athwart the gloom profound.--The sickly taper,
By glimmering through thy low-brow'd misty vaults
(Furr'd round with mouldy damps, and ropy slime),
Lets fall a supernumerary horror,
And only serves to make thy night more irksome. 20
Well do I know thee by thy trusty yew,
Cheerless, unsocial plant! that loves to dwell
'Midst skulls and coffins, epitaphs and worms:
Where light-heel'd ghosts, and visionary shades,
Beneath the wan cold moon (as fame reports)
Embodied, thick, perform their mystic rounds:
No other merriment, dull tree! is thine.
See yonder hallow'd fane--the pious work
Of names once famed, now dubious or forgot,
And buried 'midst the wreck of things which were; 30
There lie interr'd the more illustrious dead.
The wind is up: hark! how it howls! Methinks
Till now I never heard a sound so dreary:
Doors creak, and windows clap, and night's foul bird,
Rook'd in the spire, screams loud: the gloomy aisles
Black-plaster'd, and hung round with shreds of 'scutcheons,
And tatter'd coats of arms, send back the sound,
Laden with heavier airs, from the low vaults,
The mansions of the dead.--Roused from their slumbers,
In grim array the grisly spectres rise, 40
Grin horrible, and, obstinately sullen,
Pass and repass, hush'd as the foot of night.
Again the screech-owl shrieks: ungracious sound!
I'll hear no more; it makes one's blood run chill.
Quite round the pile, a row of reverend elms,
Coeval near with that, all ragged show,
Long lash'd by the rude winds: some rift half down
Their branchless trunks; others so thin at top,
That scarce two crows could lodge in the same tree.
Strange things, the neighbours say, have happen'd here: 50
Wild shrieks have issued from the hollow tombs;
Dead men have come again, and walk'd about;
And the great bell has toll'd, unrung, untouch'd!
(Such tales their cheer at wake or gossipping,
When it draws near to witching time of night.)
Oft, in the lone church-yard at night I've seen,
By glimpse of moonshine chequering through the trees,
The schoolboy with his satchel in his hand,
Whistling aloud to bear his courage up,
And lightly tripping o'er the long flat stones 60
(With nettles skirted, and with moss o'ergrown),
That tell in homely phrase who lie below.
Sudden he starts! and hears, or thinks he hears,
The sound of something purring at his heels;
Full fast he flies, and dares not look behind him,
Till out of breath he overtakes his fellows;
Who gather round, and wonder at the tale
Of horrid apparition, tall and ghastly,
That walks at dead of night, or takes his stand
O'er some new-open'd grave, and, strange to tell! 70
Evanishes at crowing of the cock.
The new-made widow too, I've sometimes spied,
Sad sight! slow moving o'er the prostrate dead:
Listless, she crawls along in doleful black,
Whilst bursts of sorrow gush from either eye,
Past falling down her now untasted cheek.
Prone on the lowly grave of the dear man
She drops; whilst busy meddling memory,
In barbarous succession, musters up
The past endearments of their softer hours, 80
Tenacious of its theme. Still, still she thinks
She sees him, and, indulging the fond thought,
Clings yet more closely to the senseless turf,
Nor heeds the passenger who looks that way.
Invidious grave!--how dost thou rend in sunder
Whom love has knit, and sympathy made one!
A tie more stubborn far than nature's band.
Friendship! mysterious cement of the soul;
Sweetener of life, and solder of society!
I owe thee much: thou hast deserved from me, 90
Far, far beyond what I can ever pay.
Oft have I proved the labours of thy love,
And the warm efforts of the gentle heart,
Anxious to please.--Oh! when my friend and I
In some thick wood have wander'd heedless on,
Hid from the vulgar eye, and sat us down
Upon the sloping cowslip-cover'd bank,
Where the pure limpid stream has slid along
In grateful errors through the underwood,
Sweet murmuring,--methought the shrill-tongued thrush 100
Mended his song of love; the sooty blackbird
Mellow'd his pipe, and soften'd every note;
The eglantine smelt sweeter, and the rose
Assumed a dye more deep; whilst every flower
Vied with its fellow-plant in luxury
Of dress.--Oh! then the longest summer's day
Seem'd too, too much in haste: still the full heart
Had not imparted half! 'twas happiness
Too exquisite to last. Of joys departed,
Not to return, how painful the remembrance! 110
Dull Grave!--thou spoil'st the dance of youthful blood,
Strik'st out the dimple from the cheek of mirth,
And every smirking feature from the face;
Branding our laughter with the name of madness.
Where are the jesters now? the men of health
Complexionally pleasant? Where the droll,
Whose every look and gesture was a joke
To clapping theatres and shouting crowds,
And made even thick-lipp'd musing melancholy
To gather up her face into a smile 120
Before she was aware? Ah! sullen now,
And dumb as the green turf that covers them.
Where are the mighty thunderbolts of war?
The Roman Caesars, and the Grecian chiefs,
The boast of story? Where the hotbrain'd youth,
Who the tiara at his pleasure tore
From kings of all the then discover'd globe,
And cried, forsooth, because his arm was hamper'd,
And had not room enough to do its work?--
Alas! how slim, dishonourably slim, 130
And cramm'd into a place we blush to name!
Proud Royalty! how alter'd in thy looks!
How blank thy features, and how wan thy hue!
Son of the morning, whither art thou gone?
Where hast thou hid thy many-spangled head,
And the majestic menace of thine eyes,
Felt from afar? Pliant and powerless now,
Like new-born infant wound up in his swathes,
Or victim tumbled flat upon its back,
That throbs beneath the sacrificer's knife. 140
Mute must thou bear the strife of little tongues,
And coward insults of the base-born crowd,
That grudge a privilege thou never hadst,
But only hoped for in the peaceful grave,
Of being unmolested and alone.
Arabia's gums and odoriferous drugs,
And honours by the heralds duly paid
In mode and form even to a very scruple:
Oh, cruel irony! these come too late;
And only mock whom they were meant to honour, 150
Surely there's not a dungeon slave that's buried
In the highway, unshrouded and uncoffin'd,
But lies as soft, and sleeps as sound as he.
Sorry pre-eminence of high descent,
Above the vulgar born, to rot in state!
But see! the well plumed hearse comes nodding on,
Stately and slow; and properly attended
By the whole sable tribe that painful watch
The sick man's door, and live upon the dead,
By letting out their persons by the hour, 160
To mimic sorrow when the heart's not sad.
How rich the trappings, now they're all unfurl'd
And glittering in the sun! Triumphant entries
Of conquerors, and coronation pomps,
In glory scarce exceed. Great gluts of people
Retard the unwieldy show; whilst from the casements
And houses' tops, ranks behind ranks close wedged
Hang bellying o'er. But tell us, why this waste?
Why this ado in earthing up a carcase
That's fallen into disgrace, and in the nostril 170
Smells horrible?--Ye undertakers, tell us,
'Midst all the gorgeous figures you exhibit,
Why is the principal conceal'd, for which
You make this mighty stir?--'Tis wisely done;
What would offend the eye in a good picture,
The painter casts discreetly into shade.
Proud lineage! now how little thou appear'st!
Below the envy of the private man!
Honour, that meddlesome officious ill,
Pursues thee even to death, nor there stops short; 180
Strange persecution! when the grave itself
Is no protection from rude sufferance.
Absurd to think to overreach the grave,
And from the wreck of names to rescue ours!
The best-concerted schemes men lay for fame
Die fast away: only themselves die faster.
The far-famed sculptor, and the laurell'd bard,
Those bold insurancers of deathless fame,
Supply their little feeble aids in vain.
The tapering pyramid, the Egyptian's pride, 190
And wonder of the world; whose spiky top
Has wounded the thick cloud, and long outlived
The angry shaking of the winter's storm;
Yet spent at last by the injuries of heaven,
Shatter'd with age and furrow'd o'er with years,
The mystic cone, with hieroglyphics crusted,
At once gives way. Oh, lamentable sight!
The labour of whole ages tumbles down,
A hideous and mis-shapen length of ruins.
Sepulchral columns wrestle, but in vain, 200
With all-subduing Time: his cankering hand
With calm deliberate malice wasteth them:
Worn on the edge of days, the brass consumes,
The busto moulders, and the deep-cut marble,
Unsteady to the steel, gives up its charge.
Ambition, half convicted of her folly,
Hangs down the head, and reddens at the tale.
Here, all the mighty troublers of the earth,
Who swam to sovereign rule through seas of blood;
The oppressive, sturdy, man-destroying villains, 210
Who ravaged kingdoms, and laid empires waste,
And in a cruel wantonness of power
Thinn'd states of half their people, and gave up
To want the rest; now, like a storm that's spent,
Lie hush'd, and meanly sneak behind the covert.
Vain thought! to hide them from the general scorn
That haunts and dogs them like an injured ghost
Implacable. Here, too, the petty tyrant,
Whose scant domains geographer ne'er noticed,
And, well for neighbouring grounds, of arm as short; 220
Who fix'd his iron talons on the poor,
And gripp'd them like some lordly beast of prey;
Deaf to the forceful cries of gnawing hunger,
And piteous, plaintive voice of misery
(As if a slave was not a shred of nature,
Of the same common nature with his lord);
Now tame and humble, like a child that's whipp'd,
Shakes hands with dust, and calls the worm his kinsman;
Nor pleads his rank and birthright: Under ground
Precedency's a jest; vassal and lord, 230
Grossly familiar, side by side consume.
When self-esteem, or others' adulation,
Would cunningly persuade us we are something
Above the common level of our kind,
The Grave gainsays the smooth-complexion'd flattery,
And with blunt truth acquaints us what we are.
Beauty,--thou pretty plaything, dear deceit!
That steals so softly o'er the stripling's heart,
And gives it a new pulse, unknown before,
The Grave discredits thee: thy charms expunged, 240
Thy roses faded, and thy lilies soil'd,
What hast thou more to boast of? Will thy lovers
Flock round thee now, to gaze and do thee homage?
Methinks I see thee with thy head low laid,
Whilst, surfeited upon thy damask cheek,
The high-fed worm, in lazy volumes roll'd,
Riots unscared. For this, was all thy caution?
For this, thy painful labours at thy glass?
To improve those charms and keep them in repair,
For which the spoiler thanks thee not. Foul feeder! 250
Coarse fare and carrion please thee full as well,
And leave as keen a relish on the sense.
Look how the fair one weeps!--the conscious tears
Stand thick as dew-drops on the bells of flowers:
Honest effusion! the swoln heart in vain
Works hard to put a gloss on its distress.
Strength, too,--thou surly, and less gentle boast
Of those that laugh loud at the village ring!
A fit of common sickness pulls thee down
With greater ease than e'er thou didst the stripling 260
That rashly dared thee to the unequal fight.
What groan was that I heard?--deep groan indeed!
With anguish heavy laden; let me trace it:
From yonder bed it comes, where the strong man,
By stronger arm belabour'd, gasps for breath
Like a hard-hunted beast. How his great heart
Beats thick! his roomy chest by far too scant
To give the lungs full play. What now avail
The strong-built, sinewy limbs, and well spread shoulders?
See how he tugs for life, and lays about him, 270
Mad with his pains!--Eager he catches hold
Of what comes next to hand, and grasps it hard,
Just like a creature drowning;--hideous sight!
Oh! how his eyes stand out, and stare full ghastly!
While the distemper's rank and deadly venom
Shoots like a burning arrow 'cross his bowels,
And drinks his marrow up.--Heard you that groan?
It was his last.--See how the great Goliath,
Just like a child that brawl'd itself to rest,
Lies still.--What mean'st thou then, O mighty boaster! 280
To vaunt of nerves of thine? What means the bull,
Unconscious of his strength, to play the coward,
And flee before a feeble thing like man,
That, knowing well the slackness of his arm,
Trusts only in the well-invented knife?
With study pale, and midnight vigils spent,
The star-surveying sage, close to his eye
Applies the sight-invigorating tube;
And, travelling through the boundless length of space,
Marks well the courses of the far-seen orbs, 290
That roll with regular confusion there,
In ecstasy of thought. But, ah, proud man!
Great heights are hazardous to the weak head;
Soon, very soon, thy firmest footing fails;
And down thou dropp'st into that darksome place,
Where nor device nor knowledge ever came.
Here the tongue-warrior lies, disabled now,
Disarm'd, dishonour'd, like a wretch that's gagg'd,
And cannot tell his ails to passers-by.
Great man of language!--whence this mighty change, 300
This dumb despair, and drooping of the head?
Though strong persuasion hung upon thy lip,
And sly insinuation's softer arts
In ambush lay about thy flowing tongue;
Alas, how chop-fallen now! Thick mists and silence
Rest, like a weary cloud, upon thy breast
Unceasing.--Ah! where is the lifted arm,
The strength of action, and the force of words,
The well-turn'd period, and the well-timed voice,
With all the lesser ornaments of phrase? 310
Ah! fled for ever, as they ne'er had been;
Razed from the book of fame; or, more provoking,
Perchance some hackney hunger-bitten scribbler
Insults thy memory, and blots thy tomb
With long flat narrative, or duller rhymes,
With heavy halting pace that drawl along;
Enough to rouse a dead man into rage,
And warm with red resentment the wan cheek.
Here the great masters of the healing art,
These mighty mock defrauders of the tomb, 320
Spite of their juleps and catholicons,
Resign to fate.--Proud AEsculapius' son!
Where are thy boasted implements of art,
And all thy well-cramm'd magazines of health?
Nor hill nor vale, as far as ship could go,
Nor margin of the gravel-bottom'd brook,
Escaped thy rifling hand;--from stubborn shrubs
Thou wrung'st their shy retiring virtues out,
And vex'd them in the fire: nor fly, nor insect,
Nor writhy snake, escaped thy deep research. 330
But why this apparatus Why this cost?
Tell us, thou doughty keeper from the grave,
Where are thy recipes and cordials now,
With the long list of vouchers for thy cures?
Alas! thou speakest not.--The bold impostor
Looks not more silly when the cheat's found out.
Here the lank-sided miser, worst of felons,
Who meanly stole (discreditable shift!)
From back, and belly too, their proper cheer,
Eased of a tax it irk'd the wretch to pay 340
To his own carcase, now lies cheaply lodged.
By clamorous appetites no longer teased,
Nor tedious bills of charges and repairs.
But, ah! where are his rents, his comings-in?
Ay! now you've made the rich man poor indeed;
Robb'd of his gods, what has he left behind?
O cursed lust of gold! when for thy sake
The fool throws up his interest in both worlds;
First starved in this, then damn'd in that to come.
How shocking must thy summons be, O Death! 350
To him that is at ease in his possessions;
Who, counting on long years of pleasure here,
Is quite unfurnish'd for that world to come!
In that dread moment, how the frantic soul
Raves round the walls of her clay tenement,
Runs to each avenue, and shrieks for help,
But shrieks in vain!--How wishfully she looks
On all she's leaving, now no longer her's!
A little longer, yet a little longer,
Oh! might she stay, to wash away her stains, 360
And fit her for her passage.--Mournful sight!
Her very eyes weep blood;--and every groan
She heaves is big with horror: but the foe,
Like a staunch murderer, steady to his purpose,
Pursues her close through every lane of life,
Nor misses once the track, but presses on;
Till, forced at last to the tremendous verge,
At once she sinks to everlasting ruin.
Sure 'tis a serious thing to die! My soul,
What a strange moment it must be, when near 370
Thy journey's end, thou hast the gulf in view!
That awful gulf no mortal e'er repass'd
To tell what's doing on the other side.
Nature runs back and shudders at the sight,
And every life-string bleeds at thoughts of parting;
For part they must: body and soul must part;
Fond couple! link'd more close than wedded pair.
This wings its way to its Almighty Source,
The witness of its actions, now its judge:
That drops into the dark and noisome grave, 380
Like a disabled pitcher of no use.
If death were nothing, and nought after death;
If when men died, at once they ceased to be,
Returning to the barren womb of nothing,
Whence first they sprung; then might the debauchee
Untrembling mouth the heavens:--then might the drunkard
Reel over his full bowl, and, when 'tis drain'd,
Fill up another to the brim, and laugh
At the poor bugbear Death: then might the wretch
That's weary of the world, and tired of life, 390
At once give each inquietude the slip,
By stealing out of being when he pleased,
And by what way, whether by hemp, or steel.
Death's thousand doors stand open.--Who could force
The ill pleased guest to sit out his full time,
Or blame him if he goes? Sure he does well,
That helps himself, as timely as he can,
When able.--But if there's an Hereafter;
And that there is, conscience, uninfluenced,
And suffer'd to speak out, tells every man; 400
Then must it be an awful thing to die:
More horrid yet to die by one's own hand.
Self-murder!--name it not: our island's shame,
That makes her the reproach of neighbouring states.
Shall nature, swerving from her earliest dictate,
Self-preservation, fall by her own act?
Forbid it, Heaven!--Let not upon disgust
The shameless hand be foully crimson'd o'er
With blood of its own lord.--Dreadful attempt!
Just reeking from self-slaughter, in a rage 410
To rush into the presence of our Judge;
As if we challenged him to do his worst,
And matter'd not his wrath!--Unheard-of tortures
Must be reserved for such: these herd together;
The common damn'd shun their society,
And look upon themselves as fiends less foul.
Our time is fix'd; and all our days are number'd;
How long, how short, we know not:--this we know,
Duty requires we calmly wait the summons,
Nor dare to stir till Heaven shall give permission: 420
Like sentries that must keep their destined stand,
And wait the appointed hour, till they're relieved.
Those only are the brave who keep their ground,
And keep it to the last. To run away
Is but a coward's trick: to run away
From this world's ills, that at the very worst
Will soon blow o'er, thinking to mend ourselves,
By boldly venturing on a world unknown,
And plunging headlong in the dark;--'tis mad!
No frenzy half so desperate as this. 430
Tell us, ye dead! will none of you, in pity
To those you left behind, disclose the secret?
Oh! that some courteous ghost would blab it out;
What 'tis you are, and we must shortly be.
I've heard that souls departed have sometimes
Forewarn'd men of their death:--'twas kindly done
To knock, and give the alarm.--But what means
This stinted charity?--'Tis but lame kindness
That does its work by halves.--Why might you not
Tell us what 'tis to die? do the strict laws 440
Of your society forbid your speaking
Upon a point so nice?--I'll ask no more:
Sullen, like lamps in sepulchres, your shine
Enlightens but yourselves. Well, 'tis no matter;
A very little time will clear up all,
And make us learn'd as you are, and as close.
Death's shafts fly thick!--Here falls the village-swain,
And there his pamper'd lord!--The cup goes round;
And who so artful as to put it by?
'Tis long since death had the majority; 450
Yet, strange! the living lay it not to heart.
See yonder maker of the dead man's bed,
The Sexton, hoary-headed chronicle;
Of hard, unmeaning face, down which ne'er stole
A gentle tear; with mattock in his hand
Digs through whole rows of kindred and acquaintance,
By far his juniors.--Scarce a skull's cast up,
But well he knew its owner, and can tell
Some passage of his life.--Thus hand in hand
The sot has walk'd with death twice twenty years; 460
And yet ne'er younker on the green laughs louder,
Or clubs a smuttier tale: when drunkards meet,
None sings a merrier catch, or lends a hand
More willing to his cup.--Poor wretch! he minds not,
That soon some trusty brother of the trade
Shall do for him what he has done for thousands.
On this side, and on that, men see their friends
Drop off, like leaves in autumn; yet launch out
Into fantastic schemes, which the long livers
In the world's hale and undegenerate days 470
Could scarce have leisure for.--Fools that we are!
Never to think of death and of ourselves
At the same time: as if to learn to die
Were no concern of ours.--O more than sottish,
For creatures of a day, in gamesome mood,
To frolic on eternity's dread brink
Unapprehensive; when, for aught we know,
The very first swoln surge shall sweep us in!
Think we, or think we not, time hurries on
With a resistless, unremitting stream; 480
Yet treads more soft than e'er did midnight thief,
That slides his hand under the miser's pillow,
And carries off his prize.--What is this world?
What but a spacious burial-field unwall'd,
Strew'd with death's spoils, the spoils of animals
Savage and tame, and full of dead men's bones!
The very turf on which we tread once lived;
And we that live must lend our carcases
To cover our own offspring: in their turns
They too must cover theirs.--'Tis here all meet! 490
The shivering Icelander, and sun-burnt Moor;
Men of all climes, that never met before;
And of all creeds, the Jew, the Turk, the Christian.
Here the proud prince, and favourite yet prouder,
His sovereign's keeper, and the people's scourge,
Are huddled out of sight.--Here lie abash'd
The great negotiators of the earth,
And celebrated masters of the balance,
Deep read in stratagems, and wiles of courts.
Now vain their treaty skill: death scorns to treat. 500
Here the o'er-loaded slave flings down his burden
From his gall'd shoulders;--and when the cruel tyrant,
With all his guards and tools of power about him,
Is meditating new unheard-of hardships,
Mocks his short arm,--and, quick as thought, escapes
Where tyrants vex not, and the weary rest.
Here the warm lover, leaving the cool shade,
The tell-tale echo, and the babbling stream
(Time out of mind the favourite seats of love),
Fast by his gentle mistress lays him down, 510
Unblasted by foul tongue.--Here friends and foes
Lie close; unmindful of their former feuds.
The lawn-robed prelate and plain presbyter,
Erewhile that stood aloof, as shy to meet,
Familiar mingle here, like sister streams
That some rude interposing rock had split.
Here is the large-limb'd peasant;--here the child
Of a span long, that never saw the sun,
Nor press'd the nipple, strangled in life's porch.
Here is the mother, with her sons and daughters; 520
The barren wife; the long-demurring maid,
Whose lonely unappropriated sweets
Smiled like yon knot of cowslips on the cliff,
Not to be come at by the willing hand.
Here are the prude severe, and gay coquette,
The sober widow, and the young green virgin,
Cropp'd like a rose before 'tis fully blown,
Or half its worth disclosed. Strange medley here!
Here garrulous old age winds up his tale;
And jovial youth, of lightsome vacant heart, 530
Whose every day was made of melody,
Hears not the voice of mirth.--The shrill-tongued shrew,
Meek as the turtle-dove, forgets her chiding.
Here are the wise, the generous, and the brave;
The just, the good, the worthless, the profane;
The downright clown, and perfectly well-bred;
The fool, the churl, the scoundrel, and the mean;
The supple statesman, and the patriot stern;
The wrecks of nations, and the spoils of time,
With all the lumber of six thousand years. 540
Poor man!--how happy once in thy first state!
When yet but warm from thy great Maker's hand,
He stamp'd thee with his image, and, well pleased,
Smiled on his last fair work.--Then all was well.
Sound was the body, and the soul serene;
Like two sweet instruments, ne'er out of tune,
That play their several parts.--Nor head, nor heart,
Offer'd to ache: nor was there cause they should;
For all was pure within: no fell remorse,
Nor anxious casting-up of what might be, 550
Alarm'd his peaceful bosom.--Summer seas
Show not more smooth, when kiss'd by southern winds
Just ready to expire.--Scarce importuned,
The generous soil, with a luxuriant hand,
Offer'd the various produce of the year,
And everything most perfect in its kind.
Blessed! thrice-blessed days!--But ah, how short!
Blest as the pleasing dreams of holy men;
But fugitive like those, and quickly gone.
O slippery state of things!--What sudden turns! 560
What strange vicissitudes in the first leaf
Of man's sad history!--To-day most happy,
And ere to-morrow's sun has set, most abject!
How scant the space between these vast extremes!
Thus fared it with our sire:--not long he enjoy'd
His paradise.--Scarce had the happy tenant
Of the fair spot due time to prove its sweets,
Or sum them up, when straight he must be gone,
Ne'er to return again.--And must he go?
Can nought compound for the first dire offence 570
Of erring man? Like one that is condemn'd,
Fain would he trifle time with idle talk,
And parley with his fate. But 'tis in vain;
Not all the lavish odours of the place,
Offer'd in incense, can procure his pardon,
Or mitigate his doom. A mighty angel,
With flaming sword, forbids his longer stay,
And drives the loiterer forth; nor must he take
One last and farewell round. At once he lost
His glory and his God. If mortal now, 580
And sorely maim'd, no wonder!--Man has sinn'd.
Sick of his bliss, and bent on new adventures,
Evil he needs would try: nor tried in vain.
(Dreadful experiment! destructive measure!
Where the worst thing could happen is success.)
Alas! too well he sped:--the good he scorn'd
Stalk'd off reluctant, like an ill-used ghost,
Not to return; or if it did, its visits,
Like those of angels, short and far between:
Whilst the black Demon, with his hell-scaped train, 590
Admitted once into its better room,
Grew loud and mutinous, nor would be gone;
Lording it o'er the man: who now too late
Saw the rash error which he could not mend:
An error fatal not to him alone,
But to his future sons, his fortune's heirs.
Inglorious bondage! Human nature groans
Beneath a vassalage so vile and cruel,
And its vast body bleeds through every vein.
What havoc hast thou made, foul monster, Sin! 600
Greatest and first of ills: the fruitful parent
Of woes of all dimensions: but for thee
Sorrow had never been,--All-noxious thing,
Of vilest nature! Other sorts of evils
Are kindly circumscribed, and have their bounds.
The fierce volcano, from his burning entrails
That belches molten stone and globes of fire,
Involved in pitchy clouds of smoke and stench,
Mars the adjacent fields for some leagues round,
And there it stops. The big-swoln inundation, 610
Of mischief more diffusive, raving loud,
Buries whole tracts of country, threatening more;
But that too has its shore it cannot pass.
More dreadful far than these! Sin has laid waste,
Not here and there a country, but a world:
Despatching, at a wide-extended blow,
Entire mankind; and for their sakes defacing
A whole creation's beauty with rude hands;
Blasting the foodful grain, the loaded branches;
And marking all along its way with ruin. 620
Accursed thing!--Oh! where shall fancy find
A proper name to call thee by, expressive
Of all thy horrors?--Pregnant womb of ills!
Of tempers so transcendantly malign,
That toads and serpents of most deadly kind
Compared to thee are harmless.--Sicknesses
Of every size and symptom, racking pains,
And bluest plagues, are thine.--See how the fiend
Profusely scatters the contagion round!
Whilst deep-mouth'd slaughter, bellowing at her heels, 630
Wades deep in blood new-spilt; yet for to-morrow
Shapes out new work of great uncommon daring,
And inly pines till the dread blow is struck.
But, hold! I've gone too far; too much discover'd
My father's nakedness, and nature's shame.
Here let me pause, and drop an honest tear,
One burst of filial duty and condolence,
O'er all those ample deserts Death hath spread,
This chaos of mankind.--O great man-eater!
Whose every day is carnival, not sated yet! 640
Unheard-of epicure, without a fellow!
The veriest gluttons do not always cram;
Some intervals of abstinence are sought
To edge the appetite: Thou seekest none.
Methinks the countless swarms thou hast devour'd,
And thousands at each hour thou gobblest up,
This, less than this, might gorge thee to the full!
But, ah! rapacious still, thou gap'st for more:
Like one, whole days defrauded of his meals,
On whom lank Hunger lays her skinny hand, 650
And whets to keenest eagerness his cravings:
As if diseases, massacres, and poison,
Famine, and war, were not thy caterers.
But know that thou must render up thy dead,
And with high interest too.--They are not thine,
But only in thy keeping for a season,
Till the great promised day of restitution;
When loud-diffusive sound from brazen trump
Of strong-lung'd cherub shall alarm thy captives,
And rouse the long, long sleepers into life, 660
Day-light, and liberty.--
Then must thy gates fly open, and reveal
The mines that lay long forming under ground,
In their dark cells immured; but now full ripe,
And pure as silver from the crucible,
That twice has stood the torture of the fire
And inquisition of the forge. We know,
The illustrious Deliverer of mankind,
The Son of God, thee foil'd. Him in thy power
Thou couldst not hold: self-vigorous he rose, 670
And, shaking off thy fetters, soon retook
Those spoils his voluntary yielding lent:
(Sure pledge of our releasement from thy thrall!)
Twice twenty days he sojourn'd here on earth,
And show'd himself alive to chosen witnesses,
By proofs so strong, that the most slow-assenting
Had not a scruple left. This having done,
He mounted up to heaven. Methinks I see him
Climb the aerial heights, and glide along
Athwart the severing clouds: but the faint eye, 680
Flung backwards in the chase, soon drops its hold;
Disabled quite, and jaded with pursuing.
Heaven's portals wide expand to let him in;
Nor are his friends shut out: as some great prince
Not for himself alone procures admission,
But for his train. It was his royal will
That where he is, there should his followers be.
Death only lies between: a gloomy path,
Made yet more gloomy by our coward fears;
But not untrod, nor tedious: the fatigue 690
Will soon go off. Besides, there's no bye-road
To bliss. Then why, like ill-condition'd children,
Start we at transient hardships in the way
That leads to purer air, and softer skies,
And a ne'er-setting sun?--Fools that we are!
We wish to be where sweets unwithering bloom;
But straight our wish revoke, and will not go.
So have I seen, upon a summer's even,
Fast by the rivulet's brink a youngster play:
How wishfully he looks to stem the tide! 700
This moment resolute, next unresolved:
At last he dips his foot; but as he dips,
His fears redouble, and he runs away
From the inoffensive stream, unmindful now
Of all the flowers that paint the further bank,
And smiled so sweet of late.--Thrice welcome death!
That after many a painful bleeding step
Conducts us to our home, and lands us safe
On the long-wish'd-for shore.--Prodigious change!
Our bane turn'd to a blessing!--Death, disarm'd, 710
Loses his fellness quite.--All thanks to him
Who scourged the venom out!--Sure the last end
Of the good man is peace!--How calm his exit!
Night dews fall not more gently to the ground,
Nor weary, worn-out winds expire so soft.
Behold him in the evening-tide of life,
A life well spent, whose early care it was
His riper years should not upbraid his green:
By unperceived degrees he wears away;
Yet, like the sun, seems larger at his setting. 720
High in his faith and hopes, look how he reaches
After the prize in view! and, like a bird
That's hamper'd, struggles hard to get away:
Whilst the glad gates of sight are wide expanded
To let new glories in, the first fair fruits
Of the fast-coming harvest.--Then, oh then!
Each earth-born joy grows vile, or disappears,
Shrunk to a thing of nought.--Oh! how he longs
To have his passport sign'd, and be dismiss'd!
'Tis done! and now he's happy! The glad soul 730
Has not a wish uncrown'd.--Even the lag flesh
Rests, too, in hope of meeting once again
Its better half, never to sunder more.
Nor shall it hope in vain:--the time draws on,
When not a single spot of burial earth,
Whether on land, or in the spacious sea,
But must give back its long-committed dust
Inviolate!--and faithfully shall these
Make up the full account; not the least atom
Embezzled, or mislaid, of the whole tale. 740
Each soul shall have a body ready furnish'd;
And each shall have his own.--Hence, ye profane!
Ask not how this can be?--Sure the same power
That rear'd the piece at first, and took it down,
Can re-assemble the loose scatter'd parts,
And put them as they were.--Almighty God
Has done much more; nor is his arm impair'd
Through length of days: and what he can, he will:
His faithfulness stands bound to see it done.
When the dread trumpet sounds, the slumbering dust, 750
Not unattentive to the call, shall wake;
And every joint possess its proper place,
With a new elegance of form, unknown
To its first state. Nor shall the conscious soul
Mistake its partner, but, amidst the crowd,
Singling its other half, into its arms
Shall rush, with all the impatience of a man
That's new come home; and, having long been absent,
With haste runs over every different room,
In pain to see the whole. Thrice happy meeting! 760
Nor time, nor death, shall ever part them more.
Tis but a night, a long and moonless night;
We make the grave our bed, and then are gone.
Thus, at the shut of even, the weary bird
Leaves the wide air, and in some lonely brake
Cowers down, and dozes till the dawn of day,
Then claps his well-fledged wings, and bears away.
DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF THE LATE LEARNED AND
EMINENT MR WILLIAM LAW, PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY
IN THE UNIVERSITY OF EDINBURGH.
In silence to suppress my griefs I've tried,
And kept within its banks the swelling tide!
But all in vain: unbidden numbers flow;
Spite of myself my sorrows vocal grow.
This be my plea.--Nor thou, dear Shade, refuse
The well-meant tribute of the willing muse,
Who trembles at the greatness of its theme,
And fain would say what suits so high a name.
Which, from the crowded journal of thy fame,--
Which of thy many titles shall I name? 10
For, like a gallant prince, that wins a crown,
By undisputed right before his own,
Variety thou hast: our only care
Is what to single out, and what forbear.
Though scrupulously just, yet not severe;
Though cautious, open; courteous, yet sincere;
Though reverend, yet not magisterial;
Though intimate with few, yet loved by all;
Though deeply read, yet absolutely free
From all the stiffnesses of pedantry; 20
Though circumspectly good, yet never sour;
Pleasant with innocence, and never more.
Religion, worn by thee, attractive show'd,
And with its own unborrow'd beauty glow'd:
Unlike the bigot, from whose watery eyes
Ne'er sunshine broke, nor smile was seen to rise;
Whose sickly goodness lives upon grimace,
And pleads a merit from a blubber'd face.
Thou kept thy raiment for the needy poor,
And taught the fatherless to know thy door; 30
From griping hunger set the needy free;
That they were needy, was enough to thee.
Thy fame to please, whilst others restless be,
Fame laid her shyness by, and courted thee;
And though thou bade the flattering thing give o'er,
Yet, in return, she only woo'd thee more.
How sweet thy accents! and how mild thy look!
What smiling mirth was heard in all thou spoke;
Manhood and grizzled age were fond of thee,
And youth itself sought thy society. 40
The aged thou taught, descended to the young,
Clear'd up the irresolute, confirm'd the strong;
To the perplex'd thy friendly counsel lent,
And gently lifted up the diffident;
Sigh'd with the sorrowful, and bore a part
In all the anguish of a bleeding heart;
Reclaim'd the headstrong; and, with sacred skill,
Committed hallow'd rapes upon the will;
Soothed our affections; and, with their delight,
To gain our actions, bribed our appetite. 50
Now, who shall, with a greatness like thy own,
Thy pulpit dignify, and grace thy gown?
Who, with pathetic energy like thine,
The head enlighten, and the heart refine?
Learn'd were thy lectures, noble the design,
The language _Roman_, and the action fine;
The heads well ranged, the inferences clear,
And strong and solid thy deductions were:
Thou mark'd the boundaries out 'twixt right and wrong,
And show'd the land-marks as thou went along. 60
Plain were thy reasonings, or, if perplex'd,
Thy life was the best comment on thy text;
For, if in darker points we were deceived,
'Twas only but observing how thou lived.
Bewilder'd in the greatness of thy fame,
What shall the Muse, what next in order name?
Which of thy social qualities commend--
Whether of husband, father, or of friend?
A husband soft, beneficent, and kind,
As ever virgin wish'd, or wife could find; 70
A father indefatigably true
To both a father's trust and tutor's too;
A friend affectionate and staunch to those
Thou wisely singled out; for few thou chose:
Few, did I say, that word we must recall;
A friend, a willing friend, thou wast to all.
Those properties were thine, nor could we know
Which rose the uppermost, so all wast thou.
So have I seen the many-colour'd mead,
Brush'd by the vernal breeze, its fragrance shed: 80
Though various sweets the various field exhaled,
Yet could we not determine which prevail'd,
Nor this part _rose_, that _honey-suckle_ call
But a rich bloomy aggregate of all.
And thou, the once glad partner of his bed,
But now by sorrow's weeds distinguished,
Whose busy memory thy grief supplies,
And calls up all thy husband to thine eyes;
Thou must not be forgot. How alter'd now!
How thick thy tears! How fast thy sorrows flow! 90
The well known voice that cheer'd thee heretofore,
These soothing accents thou must hear no more.
Untold be all the tender sighs thou drew,
When on thy cheek he fetch'd a long adieu.
Untold be all thy faithful agonies,
At the last anguish of his closing eyes;
For thou, and only such as thou, can tell
The killing anguish of a last farewell.
This earth, yon sun, and these blue-tinctured skies,
Through which it rolls, must have their obsequies: 100
Pluck'd from their orbits, shall the planets fall,
And smoke and conflagration cover all:
What, then, is man? The creature of a day,
By moments spent, and minutes borne away.
Time, like a raging torrent, hurries on;
Scarce can we say _it is_, but that 'tis gone.
Whether, fair shade! with social spirits, tell
(Whose properties thou once described so well),
Familiar now thou hearest them relate
The rites and methods of their happy state: 110
Or if, with forms more fleet, thou roams abroad,
And views the great magnificence of God,
Points out the courses of the orbs on high,
And counts the silver wonders of the sky!
Or if, with glowing seraphim, thou greets
Heaven's King, and shoutest through the golden streets,
That crowds of white-robed choristers display,
Marching in triumph through the pearly way?
Now art thou raised beyond this world of cares,
This weary wilderness, this vale of tears; 120
Forgetting all thy toils and labours past,
No gloom of sorrow stains thy peaceful breast.
Now, 'midst seraphic splendours shalt thou dwell,
And be what only these pure forms can tell.
How cloudless now, and cheerful is thy day!
What joys, what raptures, in thy bosom play!
How bright the sunshine, and how pure the air!
There's no difficulty of breathing there.
With willing steps a pilgrim at thy shrine,
To dew it with my tears the task be mine; 130
In lonely dirge, to murmur o'er thy urn
And with new-gather'd flowers thy turf adorn:
Nor shall thy image from my bosom part;
No force shall rip thee from this bleeding heart.
Oft shall I think o'er all I've left in thee,
Nor shall oblivion blot thy memory;
But grateful love its energy express
(The father gone) now to the fatherless.
END OF BLAIR'S POEMS.
THE LIFE AND POETRY OF
It may seem singular how the life of a sailor--a life so full of
vicissitude and enterprise, of hair's-breadth escapes, of contact with
wild men and wild usages, and of intercourse with a form of nature so
vast, so fluctuating, so mysterious, and so terribly sublime as the
ocean, which, in its calm and silence, forms an emblem of all that is
peaceful and profound, and, in its tempestuous rage, of all that is
unreconciled and anarchical in the mind of man, now comparable to a
"Cradled child in dreamless slumber bound!"
and now to a mad sister of the earth, screaming and foaming in fierce
and aimless antagonism to her brother--should have reared so few poets.
This may arise either from the uncultivated and careless character of
sailors as a class, or from the influence of habit in deadening the
effect of the grandest objects. It is the same with other modes of life
equally romantic. What more so than that of a shepherd among the
Grampian Mountains, constantly living between the everlasting hills and
the silent sun and stars, surrounded by streams, cataracts, deep dun
moorlands, and the wild-eyed and wild-winged creatures which dwell in
them alone, their life hid in Nature, and their cries of rude praise
going up continually to Nature's God? And yet the Highlands of Scotland
have not hitherto produced one great rural poet, except Macpherson, who
did belong to the peasantry. And so of the seafaring class; only, so far
as we remember, have expressed, the one in verse, and the other in
prose, the 'poetry' of their calling,--namely, Cooper and Falconer, both
of whose descriptions of sea storms and scenery have been equalled, if
not surpassed, however, by such landsmen as Byron and Scott. A poetic
mind, which comes in contact with strange and wonderful events or
scenery only at intervals, often carries away a much more vivid idea of
their striking features than those who reside constantly in their midst.
It must be a very rough rope, to borrow an image from the theme, which
does not feel softer after long handling. It is the short and sudden
impression, made in the twinkling of an eye, which is at once the most
lively and the most lasting. When, however, enthusiasm continues, as in
some favoured cases, unabated by familiarity, and is united to thorough
technical knowledge, then the professional man may be nearly as
successful as the amateur, or if there be any deficiency in freshness of
feeling, it is made up for by accuracy of knowledge. It was so in the
case of James Hogg, the poet of the shepherd life of Southern Scotland,
and in William Falconer, the poet of British shipwreck. We shall
afterwards show how his knowledge of his profession partly helped and
partly hindered him in his poem.
William Falconer was born in Edinburgh in the year 1736. He was the son
of a poor barber in the Netherbow, who had two other children, both deaf
and dumb, who ended their days in a poor-house. He early, through
frequent visits to Leith, came in contact with that tremendous element
which he was to sing so powerfully, and in which he was to sink at
last--which was to give him at once his glory and his grave. While a
mere boy, he went, by his own account, reluctantly on board a Leith
merchant ship, and was afterwards in the Royal Navy. Of his early
education or habits very little is known. He had all his scholarship
from one Webster. We figure him (after the similitude of a dear lost
sailor boy, a relative of our own) as a stripling, with curling hair,
ruddy cheek, form prematurely developed into round robustness, frank,
free, and manly bearing, returning ever and anon from his ocean
wanderings, and bearing to his friends some rare bird or shell of the
tropics as a memorial of his labours and his love. Before he was
eighteen years of age, Providence supplied him with the materials whence
he was to pile up the monument of his future fame. He became second mate
in the ship 'Britannia', a vessel trading in the Levant. This vessel was
shipwrecked off Cape Colonna, exactly in the manner described in the
poem, which is just a coloured photograph of the adventures,
difficulties, dangers, and disastrous result of the voyage. In 1751 we
find him living in Edinburgh, and publishing his first poem. This was an
elegy on the death of Frederick, Prince of Wales. It was followed by
other pieces, which appeared in the 'Gentleman's Magazine', and which
will be found in this volume. Some have claimed for him the authorship
of the favourite sea song, "Cease, Rude Boreas," but this seems
Falconer is supposed to have continued in the merchant service (one of
his biographers maintains that he was for some time in the 'Ramilies', a
man-of-war, which suffered shipwreck in the Channel) till 1762, when he
published his "Shipwreck." This poem was dedicated to the Duke of York,
who had newly become Rear-Admiral of the Blue on board the 'Princess
Amelia', attached to the fleet under Sir Edward Hawke. The Duke was not
a Solomon, but he had sense enough to perceive, that the sailor who
could produce such a poem was no ordinary man, and generous enough to
offer him promotion, if he should leave the merchant service for the
Royal Navy. Falconer, accordingly, was promoted to be a midshipman on
board the 'Royal George' (Sir Edward Hawke's ship); the same, we
believe, which afterwards went down in such a disastrous manner, and
furnished a subject for one of Cowper's boldest little poems. "The
Shipwreck" was highly commended by the 'Monthly Review',--then the
leading literary organ,--and became widely popular.
While in the 'Royal George', Falconer contrived to find time for his
poetical studies. Retiring sometimes from his messmates, into a small
space between the cable-trees and the ship's side, he wrote his Ode on
"the Duke of York's Second Departure from England, as Rear-Admiral."
This poem was severely criticised in the 'Critical Review'. It has
certainly much pomp, and thundering sound of language and versification,
but wants the genuine Pindaric inspiration.
At the peace of 1763 the 'Royal George' was paid off, and Falconer
became purser of the 'Glory', frigate of 32 guns. About this time he
married a young lady named Hicks, daughter of a surgeon in
Sheerness-yard--a lady more distinguished by her mental than her
physical qualities. The poet dubbed her in his verses, "Miranda." It is
hinted that he had some difficulty in procuring her consent to marry
him, and was forced to lay regular siege to her in rhyme. At length she
capitulated, and the marriage was eminently happy. She survived her
husband many years; lived at Bath, and enjoyed a comfortable livelihood
on the proceeds of her husband's "Marine Dictionary."
When the 'Glory' was laid up at Chatham, Commissioner Hanway, brother of
the once celebrated Jonas Hanway (whom Dr Johnson so justly chastised
for his diatribe against Tea), showed much interest in the pursuits and
person of our poet. He even ordered the captain's cabin to be fitted up
with every comfort, that Falconer might pursue his studies without
expense, and with all convenience. Here he brought his "Marine
Dictionary" to a conclusion--a work which had occupied him for years,
and which supplied a desideratum in the literature of the profession.
The design had been suggested by one Scott, and approved of by Sir
Edward Hawke; and the book, when it appeared in 1769, was greatly
commended by Dr Hamel, the Frenchman, who had gained note himself, by
producing some works on naval architecture. From the 'Glory' Falconer
received an appointment in the 'Swift-sure'. In 1764 he issued a new
edition of "The Shipwreck," carefully corrected, and with considerable
additions. The next year he issued a political poem, in which, like a
true tar of the 'Royal George', he took the King's side, and emitted
much dull and drivelling bile against Lord Chatham, Wilkes, and
Churchill. The satire proved that, though at home on the ocean, he was
utterly "at sea" in land-politics.
Falconer had now left his cabin study with its many pleasant
accommodations, and become a scribbler of all work in a London garret.
Here his existence ran on for a while in an obscure and probably
miserable current. It is said that Murray, the bookseller, the father of
'the' John Murray, of Albemarle Street, wished to take the poet into
partnership,--upon terms of great advantage,--but that Falconer, for
reasons which are not known, declined the offer. "My Murray," as Byron
calls him, was destined instead to have his name connected with a
grander and ghastlier shipwreck than it lay in the brain of the
projected partner of his firm to conceive, or in his genius to
execute--that, namely, described in the ever-detestable, yet
ever-memorable, second canto of "Don Juan."
In 1769, a third edition of his poem was called for, and he was employed
in making improvements and additions when he was again summoned to sea.
In his hurry of departure, he is said to have committed these to the
care of the notorious David Mallett, the son of a Crieff innkeeper, the
friend of Thomson, the biographer of Bacon, and, as Johnson called him,
the "beggarly Scotchman, who drew the trigger of Bolingbroke's
blunderbuss of infidelity," who seems to have paid no manner of
attention to his trust, as mistakes in the nautical terms and a frequent
inferiority in execution manifest.
Falconer had undoubtedly thought the sea a hard and sickening
profession; but latterly found that writing for the booksellers was a
slavery still more abject and unendurable. He resolved once more to
embark upon the "melancholy main." Often as he had hugged its horrors,
laid his hand on its mane, and narrowly escaped its devouring jaws, he
was drawn in again as by the fatal suction of a whirlpool into its
power. Perhaps he had imbibed a passion for the sea. At all events, he
accepted the office of purser to the Aurora frigate, which was going out
to India, and on the 30th of September 1769, he left England for ever.
The Aurora was never heard of more! Some vague rumours, indeed,
prevailed of a contradictory character--that she had been burned--that
she had foundered in the Mozambique Channel--that she had been cast away
on a reef of rocks near Macao--that five persons had been saved from her
wreck, but nothing certain transpired, except that she was lost; and
this fine singer of the sea along with her. Unfortunate Aurora! dawn
soon overcast! Unfortunate poet, so speedily removed!
"It was that fatal and perfidious bark,
Built i' the eclipse, and rigg'd with curses dark,
That laid so low that sacred head of thine."
The drowning of one poet of far loftier genius in the Bay of Spezia,
latterly proved that the offering up of Falconer's life had not fully
appeased the wrath of old Neptune, and that bards may still entertain,
in the lines of Wordsworth,
"Of the old sea some reverential fear."
Burns heard of and deplored the loss of the Poet of the Shipwreck. In
one of his letters to Mrs Dunlop, he mentions the fact, and adds the
beautiful words, "He was one of those daring, adventurous spirits which
Scotland beyond any other country is remarkable for producing. Little
does the fond mother think, as she hangs delighted over the sweet little
leech at her bosom, where the poor fellow may hereafter wander, and what
may be his fate. I remember a stanza in an old Scottish ballad, which
speaks feelingly to the heart--
'Little did my mother think,
That day she cradled me,
What land I was to travel on,
Or what death I should die.'"
Falconer is represented as a bluff, blunt, but cheerful sailor--fond of
amusing his shipmates with acrostics on the names of their
mistresses--with little learning except in seamanship, and what he had
picked up in his travels. His smaller pieces scarcely deserve criticsm.
His whole reputation now reposes on the one pillar of his one poem, "The
This poem was greatly overrated when it first appeared. It was by some
critics preferred to Virgil's "AEneid," and compared to the "Odyssey." It
is now, we think, as unjustly depreciated. That there is a good deal of
swollen commonplace in the diction and sentiments, must be admitted.
Falconer arose in a bad age in respect of poetry. The terseness of Pope
was gone, and in his imitators only his tinkle remained. His exquisite
sense and trembling finish had vanished, and only his conventional
diction--the ghost of his greatness--was to be found in the poets of the
time. It was extremely natural that a half-taught mind like Falconer's
should be captivated by what was the mode of the day. Indeed, Burns
himself was only saved from the same error by continuing to write in
Scotch; many of his English verses and his letters are marred by more or
less of the disgusting and vicious affectation of style which then
prevailed; and in parts of Campbell's "Pleasures of Hope," we find the
last modified specimen of the evil. Hence, in Falconer the obsolete
mythological allusions--the names with classical terminations--the
perpetual apostrophes--the set and stilted speeches he puts into the
mouths of heroes--the bombast, verbiage, and sounding sameness of much
of his verse. Nor do we greatly admire the story which he introduces
with the poem, nor the discrimination of his characters, nor, what may
be called strictly, the pathos of the piece. Indeed, considering the
size of the poem, there is so much that is vapid and common, that the
counter-balancing excellences must be great ere they could have floated
it so long. To use an expression suitable to the theme, the vessel which
has sailed so far, notwithstanding its numerous leaks, must be of a
strong and sturdy build.
And this is the main merit of "The Shipwreck." It has in most of its
descriptive passages a certain rugged strength and truth, which prove at
once the perspicacity and the poetic vision of the author, who, while he
sees all the minute details of his subject, sees also the glory of
imagination shining around them. A ship appears before his view, with
its every spar and yard, clear and distinct as if seen in meridian
sunshine, and yet with a radiance of poetry around it all, as if he were
looking at it by moonlight, or in the magical light of a dream. Take the
following lines, for instance:--
"Up-torn reluctant from its oozy cave,
The ponderous anchor rises o'er the wave.
High on the slipp'ry masts the yards ascend,
And far abroad the canvas wings extend.
Along the glassy plain the vessel glides,
While azure radiance trembles on her sides."
We grant, indeed, that sometimes his technical lore rises up, as it
were, and drowns the poetry. What imaginative quality, for example, have
we in the following verses?
"The mainsail, by the squall so lately rent,
In streaming pendants flying, is unbent;
With brails refixed, another soon prepared,
Ascending spreads along beneath the yard;
To each yard-arm the head-rope they extend,
And soon their ear-rings and their robans bend.
That task perform'd, they first the braces slack,
Then to the chess-tree drag the unwilling tack;
And, while the lee clue-garnet's lower'd away,
Taught aft the sheet they tally, and belay."
This is mere log-book; and such passages are common in the poem. But
frequently he bathes the web of the shrouds and ship-rigging in rich
ideal gold. Take the following:--
"With equal sheets restrain'd, the bellying sail
Spreads a broad concave to the sweeping gale;
While o'er the foam the ship impetuous flies,
The helm the attentive timoneer applies:
As in pursuit along the aerial way,
With ardent eye the falcon marks his prey,
Each motion watches of the doubtful chase,
Obliquely wheeling through the fluid space;
So, govern'd by the steersman's GLOWING hands,
The regent helm her motion still commands."
Falconer may in some points be likened to Crabbe. Like him, he excels in
minute and patient painting. Like him he is capable at times of
extracting the imaginative element from the barest and simplest details.
And, like him, he sometimes sets before us, mere dry inventories or
invoices, instead of such poetical catalogues as Homer gives of ships,
and Milton of devils. It is remarkable that Falconer never shines at all
except when he is describing ships or sea scenery.
"His path is on the mountain waves,
His home is on the deep."
No words in Scripture are so strange to him as these, "There shall be no
more sea." The course of his voyage in the Shipwreck, brings him past
lands the most famous in the ancient world for arts and arms, for
philosophy, patriotism, and poetry. And sore does he labour to lash
himself into inspiration as he apostrophizes them; but in vain--the
result is little else than furious feebleness and stilted bombast. But
when he returns to the element, the impatient, irregular, changeful,
treacherous, terrible ocean--and watches the night, winged with black
storm and red lightning, sinking down over the Mediterranean, and the
devoted bark which is helplessly struggling with its billows, then his
blood rises, his verse heaves, and hurries on, and you see the full-born
"High o'er the poop the audacious seas aspire,
Uproll'd in hills of fluctuating fire:
With labouring throes she rolls on either side,
And dips her gunnells in the yawning tide.
Her joints unhinged in palsied langour play,
As ice-flakes part beneath the noontide ray;
The gale howls doleful through the blocks and shrouds,
And big rain pours a deluge from the clouds.
From wintry magazines that sweep the sky,
Descending globes of hail incessant fly;
High on the masts with pale and lurid rays,
Amid the gloom portentous meteors blaze!
The ethereal dome in mournful pomp array'd,
Now buried lies beneath impervious shade,--
Now flashing round intolerable light,
Redoubles all the horrors of the night.
Such terror Sinai's trembling hill o'erspread,
When Heaven's loud trumpet sounded o'er its head.
It seem'd the wrathful angel of the wind,
Had all the horrors of the skies combined;
And here to one ill-fated ship opposed,
At once the dreadful magazine disclosed."
This is noble writing. "Deep calleth unto deep." It reminds us of Pope's
translation of that tremendous passage in the 8th Book of the Iliad,
where Jove comes forth, and darts his angry lightnings in the eyes of
the Grecians, and repels and appals their mightiest; Nestor alone, but
with his horse wounded by the dart of Paris, sustaining the divine
Lord Byron, in his letter to Bowles in defence of Pope, alludes to
Falconer's Shipwreck, and cites it in proof of the poetical use which
may be made of the works of art. But it has justly been remarked by
Hazlitt, in his very masterly reply, published in the 'London Magazine',
that the finest parts of the Shipwreck are not those in which he appears
to versify parts of his own Marine Dictionary, or in which he makes vain
efforts to describe the vestiges of Grecian grandeur, but those in
which, as in the above passage, he mates with the sublime and terrible
'natural' phenomena he meets in his voyage--the gathering of the
storm--the treacherous lull of the sea, breathing itself like a tiger
for its fatal spring--the ship, now walking the calm waters of the
glassy sea, and now wrestling like a demon of kindred power and fury
with the angry billows--the last fearful onset of the maddened
surge--and the secret stab given by the assassin rock from below, which
completes the ruin of the doomed vessel, and scatters its fragments o'er
the tide, growling in joy--these, as the poet describes them, constitute
the poetical glory of "The Shipwreck," and these have little connexion
with art, and much with nature.
Lord Byron was better at emulating than at criticising Falconer's
'chef-d'oeuvre'. We have already once or twice alluded to 'his'
Shipwreck--surely the grandest and most characteristic effort of his
genius, in its demoniac force, and demoniac spirit. As we have elsewhere
said, "he describes the horrors of a shipwreck, like a fiend who had,
invisible, sat amid the shrouds, choked with laughter--with immeasurable
glee had heard the wild farewell rising from sea to sky--had leaped into
the long-boat as it put off with its pale crew--had gloated o'er the
cannibal repast--had leered, unseen, into the 'dim eyes of those
shipwreck'd men'--and with a loud and savage burst of derision had seen
them at length sinking into the waves." The superiority of his picture
over Falconer's, lies in the simplicity and strength of the style, in
the ease of the narrative, in the variety of the incidents and
characters, and in certain short masterly touches, now of pathos, now of
infernal humour, and now of description, competent only to Byron and to
Shakspeare. Such are,--
"Then shriek'd the timid and stood still the brave."
"The bubbling cry
Of some strong swimmer in his agony."
"For he, poor fellow, had a wife and children,
Two things to dying people quite bewildering,"--
and the inimitable description of the rainbow, closing with,--
"Then changed like to a bow that's bent, and then--
Forsook the dim eyes of these shipwreck'd men."
The technicalities introduced are fewer; and are handled with greater
force, and made to tell more on the general effect. You marvel, too, at
the versatility of the writer, who seems this moment to be looking at
the scene with the eye of the melancholy Jacques; the next, with the
philosophical aspect of the moralizing Hamlet; the next, with the rage
of a misanthropical Timon; and the next, with the bitter sneer of a
malignant Iago: and yet, who, amidst all these disguises, leaves on you
the impression that he is throughout acting the part, and displaying the
spirit, of a demon--a deep current of mockery at man's miseries, and at
God's providence, running under all his moods and imitations. We read it
once, when recovering from an illness, and shall never forget the
withering horror, and the shock of disgust and loathing, which it gave
to our weakened nerves.
Since Falconer's time, besides Byron, Scott, in the Pirate, and Cooper,
there has not, as we hinted, been much of the poetical extracted from
the sea. The subject suggested in Boswell's Johnson, by General
Oglethorpe, as a noble theme for a poem--namely, "The Mediterranean," is
still unsung, at least by any competent bard. Mrs Hemans has one sweet
strain on the "Treasures of the Deep." Allan Cunningham's "Wet Sheet and
Flowing Sea," and Barry Cornwall's "The Sea, the Sea," are in
everybody's mouth. We remember a young student at Glasgow College, long
since dead--George Gray by name--a thin lame lad, with dark mild eyes,
and a fine spiritual expression on his pale face, handing in to
Professor Milne of the Moral Philosophy class, some lines which he read
to his class, and by which they, as well as the old, arid, although
profound and ingenious philosopher, were perfectly electrified. We shall
quote all we remember of them, and it will be thought much, when we
state that twenty-five years have elapsed since we read them. They
"The storm is up; the anchor spring,
And man the sails, my merry men;
I must not lose the carolling
Of ocean in a hurricane;
My soul mates with the mountain storm,
The cooing gale disdains.
Bring Ocean in his wildest form,
All booming thunder-strains;
I'll bid him welcome, clap his mane;
I'll dip my temples in his yeast,
And hug his breakers to my breast;
And bid them hail! all hail, I cry,
My younger brethren hail!
The sea shall be my cemetery
How glorious 'tis to have the wave
For ever dashing o'er thee;--
Besides that dull and lonesome grave,
Where worms and earth devour thee.
My messmates, when ye drink my dirge,
Go, fill the cup from ocean's surge;
And when ye drain the beverage up,
Remember Neptune in the cup.
For he has been my _brawling host_,
Since first I roam'd from coast to coast;
And he my _brawling_ host shall be--
I love his ocean courtesy--
His _boisterous_ hospitality."
These lines, to us at least, seem to echo the rough roar of the
breakers, as they rush upon an iron-bound coast. Poor G. Gray! He now
sleeps, not in the bosom of that old Ocean he loved so dearly, but, we
think, in the kirkyard of Douglas, in the Upper Ward of Lanarkshire,--a
light early quenched,--but whose memory this notice and these lines may,
perhaps, for a season, preserve! The SEA still lies over, after all
written in prose or rhyme regarding it, as the subject for a great poem;
and it will task all the energies of even the truest poet.
IN THREE CANTOS.
THE TIME EMPLOYED IN THIS POEM IS ABOUT SIX DAYS.
Quaeque ipse miserrima vidi,
Et quorum pars magna fui.
VIRG. AEN. lib. ii.
INTRODUCTION TO THE POEM.
While jarring interests wake the world to arms,
And fright the peaceful vale with dire alarms,
While Albion bids the avenging thunder roll
Along her vassal deep from pole to pole;
Sick of the scene, where War with ruthless hand
Spreads desolation o'er the bleeding land;
Sick of the tumult, where the trumpet's breath
Bids ruin smile, and drowns the groan of death;
'Tis mine, retired beneath this cavern hoar,
That stands all lonely on the sea-beat shore, 10
Far other themes of deep distress to sing
Than ever trembled from the vocal string:
A scene from dumb oblivion to restore,
To fame unknown, and new to epic lore;
Where hostile elements conflicting rise,
And lawless surges swell against the skies,
Till hope expires, and peril and dismay
Wave their black ensigns on the watery way.
Immortal train! who guide the maze of song,
To whom all science, arts, and arms belong; 20
Who bid the trumpet of eternal fame
Exalt the warrior's and the poet's name,
Or in lamenting elegies express
The varied pang of exquisite distress;
If e'er with trembling hope I fondly stray'd
In life's fair morn beneath your hallow'd shade,
To hear the sweetly-mournful lute complain,
And melt the heart with ecstasy of pain,
Or listen to the enchanting voice of love,
While all Elysium warbled through the grove: 30
Oh! by the hollow blast that moans around,
That sweeps the wild harp with a plaintive sound;
By the long surge that foams through yonder cave,
Whose vaults remurmur to the roaring wave;
With living colours give my verse to glow,
The sad memorial of a tale of woe!
The fate in lively sorrow to deplore
Of wanderers shipwreck'd on a leeward shore.
Alas! neglected by the sacred Nine,
Their suppliant feels no genial ray divine: 40
Ah! will they leave Pieria's happy shore
To plough the tide where wintry tempests roar?
Or shall a youth approach their hallow'd fane,
Stranger to Phoebus, and the tuneful train?
Far from the Muses' academic grove
'Twas his the vast and trackless deep to rove;
Alternate change of climates has he known,
And felt the fierce extremes of either zone:
Where polar skies congeal the eternal snow,
Or equinoctial suns for ever glow, 50
Smote by the freezing, or the scorching blast,
'A ship-boy on the high and giddy mast,' 
From regions where Peruvian billows roar,
To the bleak coasts of savage Labrador;
From where Damascus, pride of Asian plains,
Stoops her proud neck beneath tyrannic chains,
To where the Isthmus,  laved by adverse tides,
Atlantic and Pacific seas divides:
But while he measured o'er the painful race
In fortune's wild illimitable chase, 60
Adversity, companion of his way,
Still o'er the victim hung with iron sway,
Bade new distresses every instant grow,
Marking each change of place with change of woe:
In regions where the Almighty's chastening hand
With livid pestilence afflicts the land,
Or where pale famine blasts the hopeful year,
Parent of want and misery severe;
Or where, all-dreadful in the embattled line,
The hostile ships in naming combat join, 70
Where the torn vessel wind and waves assail,
Till o'er her crew distress and death prevail.
Such joyless toils in early youth endured,
The expanding dawn of mental day obscured,
Each genial passion of the soul oppress'd,
And quench'd the ardour kindling in his breast.
Then censure not severe the native song,
Though jarring sounds the measured verse prolong,
Though terms uncouth offend the softer ear,
Yet truth and human anguish deign to hear: 80
No laurel wreath these lays attempt to claim,
Nor sculptured brass to tell the poet's name.
And, lo! the power that wakes the eventful song
Hastes hither from Lethean banks along:
She sweeps the gloom, and rushing on the sight,
Spreads o'er the kindling scene propitious light.
In her right hand an ample roll appears,
Fraught with long annals of preceding years,
With every wise and noble art of man,
Since first the circling hours their course began: 90
Her left a silver wand on high display'd,
Whose magic touch dispels oblivion's shade:
Pensive her look; on radiant wings that glow
Like Juno's birds, or Iris' flaming bow,
She sails; and swifter than the course of light
Directs her rapid intellectual flight:
The fugitive ideas she restores,
And calls the wandering thought from Lethe's shores;
To things long past a second date she gives,
And hoary time from her fresh youth receives; 100
Congenial sister of immortal Fame,
She shares her power, and Memory is her name.
O first-born daughter of primeval time!
By whom transmitted down in every clime
The deeds of ages long elapsed are known,
And blazon'd glories spread from zone to zone;
Whose magic breath dispels the mental night,
And o'er the obscured idea pours the light:
Say on what seas, for thou alone canst tell,
What dire mishap a fated ship befell, 110
Assail'd by tempests, girt with hostile shores?
Arise! approach! unlock thy treasured stores!
Full on my soul the dreadful scene display,
And give its latent horrors to the day.
[Footnote 1: 'A ship-boy,' &c.: Shakspeare's 'Henry the Fourth,' act
[Footnote 2: 'Isthmus:' of Darien.]
THE SCENE OF WHICH LIES NEAR THE CITY OF CANDIA.
TIME, ABOUT FOUR DAYS AND A HALF.
I. Retrospect of the voyage.
Arrival at Candia.
State of that island.
Season of the year described.
II. Character of the master, and his officers, Albert, Rodmond, and
Palemon, son to the owner of the ship.
Attachment of Palemon to Anna, the daughter of Albert.
Unmoor by moonlight.
Sun's azimuth taken.
Beautiful appearance of the ship, as seen by the natives from the
I. A ship from Egypt, o'er the deep impell'd
By guiding winds, her course for Venice held:
Of famed Britannia were the gallant crew,
And from that isle her name the vessel drew.
The wayward steps of fortune they pursued,
And sought in certain ills imagined good:
Though caution'd oft her slippery path to shun,
Hope still with promised joys allured them on;
And, while they listen'd to her winning lore,
The softer scenes of peace could please no more. 10
Long absent they from friends and native home
The cheerless ocean were inured to roam;
Yet Heaven, in pity to severe distress,
Had crown'd each painful voyage with success;
Still, to compensate toils and hazards past,
Restored them to maternal plains at last.
Thrice had the sun, to rule the varying year,
Across the equator roll'd his naming sphere,
Since last the vessel spread her ample sail
From Albion's coast, obsequious to the gale; 20
She o'er the spacious flood, from shore to shore
Unwearying wafted her commercial store;
The richest ports of Afric she had view'd,
Thence to fair Italy her course pursued;
Had left behind Trinacria's burning isle,
And visited the margin of the Nile.
And now that winter deepens round the pole,
The circling voyage hastens to its goal:
They, blind to fate's inevitable law,
No dark event to blast their hope foresaw; 30
But from gay Venice soon expect to steer
For Britain's coast, and dread no perils near:
Inflamed by hope, their throbbing hearts, elate,
Ideal pleasures vainly antedate,
Before whose vivid intellectual ray
Distress recedes, and danger melts away.