A NEW EDITION IN TWO VOLUMES
WILLIAM BLACKWOOD AND SONS EDINBURGH AND LONDON MDCCCLXVIII
CONTENTS OF VOL. II.
PAGE MAY-DAY 1
CHAPTER I., 38
CHAPTER II., 53
CHAPTER III., 75
CHAPTER IV., 88
CHRISTOPHER IN HIS AVIARY:—
FIRST CANTICLE, 98
SECOND CANTICLE, 125
THIRD CANTICLE, 149
FOURTH CANTICLE, 165
FIRST COURSE, 182
SECOND COURSE, 194
THIRD COURSE, 203
FOURTH COURSE, 212
SOLILOQUY ON THE SEASONS:—
FIRST RHAPSODY, 224
SECOND RHAPSODY, 239
A FEW WORDS ON THOMSON, 253
THE SNOWBALL BICKER OF PEDMOUNT, 274
CHRISTMAS DREAMS, 285
OUR WINTER QUARTERS, 304
STROLL TO GRASSMERE:—
FIRST SAUNTER, 327
SECOND SAUNTER, 355
* * * * *
REMARKS ON THE SCENERY OF THE HIGHLANDS, 385
Art thou beautiful, as of old, O wild, moorland, sylvan, and pastoral Parish! the Paradise in which our spirit dwelt beneath the glorious dawning of life—can it be, beloved world of boyhood, that thou art indeed beautiful as of old? Though round and round thy boundaries in half an hour could fly the flapping dove—though the martens, wheeling to and fro that ivied and wall-flowered ruin of a Castle, central in its own domain, seem in their more distant flight to glance their crescent wings over a vale rejoicing apart in another kirk-spire, yet how rich in streams, and rivulets, and rills, each with its own peculiar murmur—art Thou with thy bold bleak exposure, sloping upwards in ever lustrous undulations to the portals of the East! How endless the interchange of woods and meadows, glens, dells, and broomy nooks, without number, among thy banks and braes! And then of human dwellings—how rises the smoke, ever and anon, into the sky, all neighbouring on each other, so that the cock-crow is heard from homestead to homestead; while as you wander onwards, each roof still rises unexpectedly—and as solitary, as if it had been far remote. Fairest of Scotland's thousand parishes—neither Highland, nor Lowland—but undulating—let us again use the descriptive word—like the sea in sunset after a day of storms—yes, Heaven's blessing be upon thee! Thou art indeed beautiful as of old!
The same heavens! More blue than any colour that tinges the flowers of earth—like the violet veins of a virgin's bosom. The stillness of those lofty clouds makes them seem whiter than the snow. Return, O lark! to thy grassy nest, in the furrow of the green brairded corn, for thy brooding mate can no longer hear thee soaring in the sky. Methinks there is little or no change on these coppice-woods, with their full budding branches all impatient for the spring. Yet twice have axe and bill-hook levelled them with the mossy stones, since among the broomy and briery knolls we sought the grey linnet's nest, or wondered to spy, among the rustling leaves, the robin-redbreast, seemingly forgetful of his winter benefactor, man. Surely there were trees here in former times, that now are gone—tall, far-spreading single trees, in whose shade used to lie the ruminating cattle, with the small herd-girl asleep. Gone are they, and dimly remembered as the uncertain shadows of dreams; yet not more forgotten than some living beings with whom our infancy and boyhood held converse—whose voices, laughter, eyes, forehead—hands so often grasped—arms linked in ours, as we danced along the braes—have long ceased to be more than images and echoes, incapable of commanding so much as one single tear. Alas! for the treachery of memory to all the holiest human affections, when beguiled by the slow but sure sorcery of time.
It is MAY-DAY, and we shall be happy as the season. What although some sad and solemn thoughts come suddenly across us, the day is not at nightfall felt to have been the less delightful, because shadows now and then bedimmed it, and moments almost mournful, of an unhymning hush, took possession of field or forest. We are all alone—a solitary pedestrian; and obeying the fine impulses of a will, whose motives are changeable as the cameleon's hues, our feet shall bear us glancingly along to the merry music of streams—or linger by the silent shores of lochs—or upon the hill-summit pause, ourselves the only spectator of a panorama painted by Spring, for our sole delight—or plunge into the old wood's magnificent exclusion from sky—where, at midsummer, day is as night—though not so now, for this is the season of buds and blossoms; and the cushat's nest is yet visible on the half-leafed boughs, and the sunshine streams in upon the ground-flowers, that in another month will be cold and pale in the forest gloom, almost as those that bedeck the dead when the vault door is closed and all is silence.
What! shall we linger here within a little mile of the MANSE, wherein and among its pleasant bounds our boyish life glided murmuring away, like a stream that never, till it leaves its native hills, knows taint or pollution, and not hasten on to the dell, in which nest-like it is built, and guarded by some wonderful felicity of situation equally against all the winds? No. Thither as yet have we not courage to direct our footsteps—for that venerable Man has long been dead—not one of his ancient household now remains on earth. There the change, though it was gradual and unpainful, according to the gentlest laws of nature, has been entire and complete. The "old familiar faces" we can dream of, but never more shall see—and the voices that are now heard within those walls, what can they ever be to us, when we would fain listen in the silence of our spirit to the echoes of departed years? It is an appalling trial to approach a place where once we have been happier—happier far than ever we can be on this earth again; and a worse evil doth it seem to our imagination to return to Paradise, with a changed and saddened heart, than at first to be driven from it into the outer world, if still permitted to carry thither something of that spirit that had glorified our prime.
But yonder, we see, yet towers the Sycamore on the crown of the hill—the first great Tree in the parish that used to get green; for stony as seems the hard glebe, constricted by its bare and gnarled roots, they draw sustenance from afar; and not another knoll on which the sun so delights to pour his beams. Weeks before any other Sycamore, and almost as early as the alder or the birch—the GLORY OF MOUNT PLEASANT, for so we schoolboys called it, unfolded itself like a banner. You could then see only the low windows of the dwelling—for eaves, roof, and chimneys all disappeared—and then, when you stood beneath, was not the sound of the bees like the very sound of the sea itself, continuous, unabating, all day long unto evening, when, as if the tide of life had ebbed, there was a perfect silence!
MOUNT PLEASANT! well indeed dost thou deserve the name, bestowed on thee perhaps long ago, not by any one of the humble proprietors, but by the general voice of praise, all eyes being won by thy cheerful beauty. For from that shaded platform, what a sweet vision of fields and meadows, knolls, braes, and hills, uncertain gleamings of a river, the smoke of many houses, and glittering perhaps in the sunshine, the spire of the House of God! To have seen Adam Morrison, the Elder, sitting with his solemn, his austere Sabbath-face, beneath the pulpit, with his expressive eyes fixed on the Preacher, you could not but have judged him to be a man of a stern character and austere demeanour. To have seen him at labour on the working days, you might almost have thought him the serf of some tyrant-lord, for into all the toils of the field he carried the force of a mind that would suffer nothing to be undone that strength and skill could achieve; but within the humble porch of his own house, beside his own board, and his own fireside, he was a man to be kindly esteemed by his guests, by his own family tenderly and reverently beloved. His wife was the comeliest matron in the parish, a woman of active habits and a strong mind, but tempering the natural sternness of her husband's character with that genial and jocund cheerfulness, that of all the lesser virtues is the most efficient to the happiness of a household. One daughter only had they, and we could charm our heart even now, by evoking the vanished from oblivion, and imaging her over and over again in the light of words; but although all objects, animate and inanimate, seem always tinged with an air of sadness when they are past—and as at present we are resolved to be cheerful—obstinately to resist all access of melancholy—an enemy to the pathetic—and a scorner of shedders of tears—therefore let Mary Morrison rest in her grave, and let us paint a pleasant picture of a May-Day afternoon, and enjoy it as it was enjoyed of old, beneath that stately Sycamore, with the grandisonant name of THE GLORY OF MOUNT PLEASANT.
There, under the murmuring shadow round and round that noble stem, used on MAY-DAY to be fitted a somewhat fantastic board, all deftly arrayed in home-spun drapery, white as the patches of unmelted snow on the distant mountain-head; and on various seats—stumps, stones, stools, creepies, forms, chairs, armless and with no spine, or high-backed and elbowed, and the carving-work thereof most intricate and allegorical—took their places, after much formal ceremony of scraping and bowing, blushing and curtsying, old, young, and middle-aged, of high and low degree, till in one moment all were hushed by the Minister shutting his eyes, and holding up his hand to ask a blessing. And "well worthy of a grace as lang's a tether," was the MAY-DAY meal spread beneath the shadow of the GLORY OF MOUNT PLEASANT. But the Minister uttered only a few fervent sentences, and then we all fell to the curds and cream. What smooth, pure, bright burnished beauty on those horn-spoons! How apt to the hand the stalk—to the mouth how apt the bowl! Each guest drew closer to his breast the deep broth-plate of delft, rather more than full of curds, many million times more deliciously desirable even than blanc-mange, and then filled to overflowing with a blessed outpouring of creamy richness that tenaciously descended from an enormous jug, the peculiar expression of whose physiognomy, particularly the nose, we will carry with us to the grave! The dairy at MOUNT PLEASANT consisted of twenty cows—almost all spring calvers, and of the Ayrshire breed—so you may guess what cream! The spoon could not stand in it,—it was not so thick as that—for that was too thick,—but the spoon, when placed upright in it, retained its perpendicularity for a while, and then, when uncertain on which side to fall, was grasped by the hand of hungry schoolboy, and steered with its fresh and fragrant freight into a mouth already open in wonder. Never beneath the sun, moon, and stars, were such oatmeal cakes, pease-scones, and barley-bannocks, as at MOUNT PLEASANT. You could have eaten away at them with pleasure, even although not hungry—and yet it was impossible of them to eat too much—Manna that they were!! Seldom indeed is butter yellow on May-day. But the butter of the gudewife of Mount Pleasant—such, and so rich was the old lea-pasture—was coloured like the crocus, before the young thrushes had left the nest in the honey-suckled corner of the gavel-end. Not a single hair in the churn. Then what honey and what jam! The first, not heather, for that is too luscious, especially after such cream, but the pure white virgin honey, like dew shaken from clover, but now querny after winter keep; and oh! over a layer of such butter on such barley bannocks was such honey, on such a day, in such company, and to such palates, too divine to be described by such a pen as that now wielded by such a writer! The Jam! It was of gooseberries—the small black hairy ones—gathered to a very minute from the bush, and boiled to a very moment in the pan! A bannock studded with some dozen or two of such grozets was more beautiful than a corresponding expanse of heaven adorned with as many stars. The question, with the gaucy and generous gudewife of Mount Pleasant, was not—"My dear laddie, which will ye hae—hinny or jam?" but, "Which will ye hae first?" The honey, we well remember, was in two huge brown jugs, or jars, or crocks; the jam, in half-a-dozen white cans of more moderate dimensions, from whose mouths a veil of thin transparent paper was withdrawn, while, like a steam of rich distilled perfumes, rose a fruity fragrance, that blended with the vernal balminess of the humming Sycamore. There the bees were all at work for next May-day, happy as ever bees were on Hybla itself; and gone now though be the age of gold, happy as Arcadians were we, nor wanted our festal-day or pipe or song; for to the breath of Harry Wilton, the young English boy, the flute gave forth tones almost as liquid sweet as those that flowed from the lips of Mary Morrison herself, who alone, of all singers in hut or hall that ever drew tears, left nothing for the heart or the imagination to desire in any one of Scotland's ancient melodies.
Never had Mary Morrison heard the old ballad-airs sung, except during the mid-day hour of rest, in the corn or hay field—and rude singers are they all—whether male or female voices—although sometimes with a touch of natural pathos that finds its way to the heart. But as the nightingale would sing truly its own variegated song, although it never were to hear any one of its own kind warbling from among the shrub-roots, and the lark, though alone on earth, would sing the hymn well known at the gate of heaven, so all untaught but by the nature within her, and inspired by her own delightful genius alone, did Mary Morrison feel all the measures of those ancient melodies, and give them all an expression at once simple and profound. People who said they did not care about music, especially Scottish music, it was so monotonous and insipid, laid aside their indifferent looks before three notes of the simplest air had left Mary Morrison's lips, as she sat faintly blushing, less in bashfulness than in her own emotion, with her little hands playing perhaps with flowers, and her eyes fixed on the ground, or raised, ever and anon, to the roof. "In all common things," would most people say, "she is but a very ordinary girl—but her musical turn is really very singular indeed;"—but her happy father and mother knew, that in all common things—that is, in all the duties of an humble and innocent life, their Mary was by nature excellent as in the melodies and harmonies of song—and that while her voice in the evening-psalm was as angel's sweet, so was her spirit almost pure as an angel's, and nearly inexperienced of sin.
Proud, indeed, were her parents on that May-day to look upon her—and to listen to her—as their Mary sat beside the young English boy—admired of all observers—and happier than she had ever been in this world before, in the charm of their blended music, and the unconscious affection—sisterly, yet more than sisterly, for brother she had none—that towards one so kind and noble was yearning at her heart.
Beautiful were they both; and when they sat side-by-side in their music, insensible must that heart have been by whom they were not both admired and beloved. It was thought that they loved one another too, too well; for Harry Wilton was the grandson of an English Peer, and Mary Morrison a peasant's child; but they could not love too well—she in her tenderness—he in his passion—for, with them, life and love was a delightful dream, out of which they were never to be awakened. For as by some secret sympathy, both sickened on the same day—of the same fever—and died at the same hour;—and not from any dim intention of those who buried them, but accidentally, and because the burial-ground of the Minister and the Elder adjoined, were they buried almost in the same grave—for not half a yard of daisied turf divided them—a curtain between the beds on which brother and sister slept.
In their delirium they both talked about each other—Mary Morrison and Harry Wilton—yet their words were not words of love, only of common kindness; for although on their death-beds they did not talk about death, but frequently about that May-day Festival, and other pleasant meetings in neighbours' houses, or in the Manse. Mary sometimes rose up in bed, and in imagination joined her voice to that of the flute which to his lips was to breathe no more; and even at the very self-same moment—so it wonderfully was—did he tell all to be hushed, for that Mary Morrison was about to sing the Flowers of the Forest.
Methinks that no deep impressions of the past, although haply they may sleep for ever, and seem as if they had ceased to be, are ever utterly obliterated; but that they may, one and all, reappear at some hour or other however distant, legible as at the very moment they were first engraven on the memory. Not by the power of meditation are the long-ago vanished thoughts or emotions restored to us, in which we found delight or disturbance; but of themselves do they seem to arise, not undesired indeed, but unbidden, like sea-birds that come unexpectedly floating up into some inland vale, because, unknown to us who wonder at them, the tide is flowing and the breezes blow from the main. Bright as the living image stands now before us the ghost—for what else is it than the ghost—of Mary Morrison, just as she stood before us on one particular day—in one particular place, innumerable years ago! It was at the close of one of those midsummer days which melt away into twilight, rather than into night, although the stars are visible, and bird and beast asleep. All by herself, as she walked along between the braes, was she singing a hymn,—
"And must this body die? This mortal frame decay? And must these feeble limbs of mine Lie mouldering in the clay?"
Not that the child had any thought of death, for she was as full of life as the star above her was of lustre—tamed though they both were by the holy hour. At our bidding she renewed the strain that had ceased as we met, and continued to sing it while we parted, her voice dying away in the distance, like an angel's from a broken dream. Never heard we that voice again, for in three little weeks it had gone, to be extinguished no more, to join the heavenly choirs at the feet of the Redeemer.
Did both her parents lose all love to life, when their sole daughter was taken away? And did they die finally of broken hearts? No—such is not the natural working of the human spirit, if kept in repair by pure and pious thought. Never were they so happy indeed as they had once been—nor was their happiness of the same kind. Oh! different far in resignation that often wept when it did not repine—in faith that now held a tenderer commerce with the skies! Smiles were not very long of being again seen at Mount Pleasant. An orphan cousin of Mary's—they had been as sisters—took her place, and filled it too, as far as the living can ever fill the place of the dead. Common cares continued for a while to occupy the Elder and his wife, for there were not a few to whom their substance was to be a blessing. Ordinary observers could not have discerned any abatement of his activities in field or market; but others saw that the toil to him was now but a duty that had formerly been a delight. Mount Pleasant was let to a relative, and the Morrisons retired to a small house, with a garden, a few hundred yards from the kirk. Let him be strong as a giant, infirmities often come on the hard-working man before you can well call him old. It was so with Adam Morrison. He broke down fast, we have been told, in his sixtieth year, and after that partook but of one sacrament. Not in tales of fiction alone do those who have long loved and well, lay themselves down and die in each other's arms. Such happy deaths are recorded on humble tombstones; and there is one on which this inscription may be read—"HERE LIE THE BODIES OF ADAM MORRISON AND OF HELEN ARMOUR HIS SPOUSE. THEY DIED ON THE 1ST OF MAY 17—. HERE ALSO LIES THE BODY OF THEIR DAUGHTER, MARY MORRISON, WHO DIED JUNE 2, 17—." The headstone is a granite slab—as they almost all are in that kirkyard—and the kirk itself is of the same enduring material. But touching that grave is a Marble Monument, white almost as the very snow, and, in the midst of the emblazonry of death, adorned with the armorial bearings belonging to a family of the high-born.
Sworn Brother of our soul! during the bright ardours of boyhood, when the present was all-sufficient in its own bliss, the past soon forgotten, and the future unfeared, what might have been thy lot, beloved Harry Wilton, had thy span of life been prolonged to this very day? Better—oh! far better was it for thee and thine that thou didst so early die; for it seemeth that a curse is on that lofty lineage; and that, with all their genius, accomplishments, and virtues, dishonour comes and goes, a familiar and privileged guest, out and in their house. Shame never veiled the light of those bold eyes, nor tamed the eloquence of those sunny lips, nor ever for a single moment bowed down that young princely head that, like a fast-growing flower, seemed each successive morning to be visibly rising up towards a stately manhood. But the time was not far distant, when to thee life would have undergone a rueful transformation. Thy father, expatriated by the spells of a sorceress, and forced into foreign countries, to associate with vice, worthlessness, profligacy, and crime! Thy mother, dead of a broken heart! And that lovely sister, who came to the Manse with her jewelled hair—But all these miserable things who could prophesy, at the hour when we and the weeping villagers laid thee, apart from the palace and the burial-vault of thy high-born ancestors, without anthem or organ-peal, among the humble dead? Needless and foolish were all those floods of tears. In thy brief and beautiful course, nothing have we who loved thee to lament or condemn. In few memories, indeed, doth thy image now survive; for in process of time what young face fadeth not away from eyes busied with the shows of this living world? What young voice is not bedumbed to ears for ever filled with its perplexing din? Yet thou, Nature, on this glorious May-day, rejoicing in all the plenitude of thy bliss—we call upon thee to bear witness to the intensity of our never-dying grief! Ye fields, that long ago we so often trode together, with the wind-swept shadows hovering about our path—Ye streams, whose murmur awoke our imaginations, as we lay reading, or musing together in day-dreams, among the broomy braes—Ye woods, where we started at the startled cushat, or paused, without a word, to hear the creature's solitary moans and murmurs deepening the far-off hush, already so profound—Ye moors and mosses, black yet beautiful, with your peat-trenches overshadowed by the heather-blossoms that scented the wilderness afar—where the little maiden, sent from the shieling on errands to town or village in the country below, seemed, as we met her in the sunshine, to rise up before us for our delight, like a fairy from the desert bloom—Thou loch, remote in thy treeless solitude, and with nought reflected in thy many-springed waters but those low pastoral hills of excessive green, and the white-barred blue of heaven—no creature on its shores but our own selves, keenly angling in the breezes, or lying in the shaded sunshine, with some book of old ballads, or strain of some Immortal yet alive on earth—one and all bear witness to our undying affection, that silently now feeds on grief! And, oh! what overflowing thoughts did that shout of ours now awaken from the hanging tower of the Old Castle—"Wilton, Wilton!" The name of the long-ago buried faintly and afar-off repeated by an echo!
A pensive shade has fallen across MAY-DAY; and while the sun is behind those castellated clouds, our imagination is willing to retire into the saddest places of memory, and gather together stories and tales of tears. And many such there are, annually sprinkled all round the humble huts of our imaginative and religious land, even like the wildflowers that, in endless succession, disappearing and reappearing in their beauty, Spring drops down upon every brae. And as ofttimes some one particular tune, some one pathetic but imperfect and fragmentary part of an old melody, will nearly touch the heart, when it is dead to the finest and most finished strain; so now a faint and dim tradition comes upon us, giving birth to uncertain and mysterious thoughts. It is an old Tradition. They were called the BLESSED FAMILY! Far up at the head of yonder glen of old was their dwelling, and in their garden sparkled the translucent well that is the source of the stream that animates the parish with a hundred waterfalls. Father, mother, and daughter—it was hard to say which of the three was the most beloved! Yet they were not native here, but brought with them, from some distant place, the soft and silvery accents of the pure English tongue, and manners most gracious in their serene simplicity; while over a life composed of acts of charity was spread a stillness that nothing ever disturbed—the stillness of a thoughtful pity for human sins and sorrows, yet not unwilling to be moved to smiles by the breath of joy. In those days the very heart of Scotland was distracted—persecution scattered her prayers—and during the summer months, families remained shut up in fear within their huts, as if the snowdrifts of winter had blocked up and buried their doors. It was as if the shadow of a thunder-cloud hung over all the land, so that men's hearts quaked as they looked up to heaven—when, lo! all at once, Three gracious Visitants appeared! Imagination invested their foreheads with a halo; and as they walked on their missions of mercy, exclaimed—How beautiful are their feet! Few words was the Child ever heard to speak, except some words of prayer; but her image-like stillness breathed a blessing wherever it smiled, and all the little maidens loved her, when hushed almost into awe by her spiritual beauty, as she knelt with them in their morning and evening orisons. The Mother's face, too, it is said, was pale as a face of grief, while her eyes seemed always happy, and a tone of thanksgiving was in her voice. Her Husband leant upon her on his way to the grave—for his eye's excessive brightness glittered with death—and often, as he prayed beside the sick-bed, his cheek became like ashes, for his heart in a moment ceased to beat, and then, as if about to burst in agony, sounded audibly in the silence. Journeying on did they all seem to heaven; yet as they were passing by, how loving and how full of mercy! To them belonged some blessed power to wave away the sword that would fain have smitten the Saints. The dewdrops on the greensward before the cottage door, they suffered not to be polluted with blood. Guardian Angels were they thought to be, and such indeed they were, for what else are the holy powers of innocence?—Guardian Angels sent to save some of God's servants on earth from the choking tide and the scorching fire. Often, in the clear and starry nights, did the dwellers among all these little dells, and up along all these low hill-sides, hear music flowing down from heaven, responsive to the hymns of the Blessed Family. Music without the syllabling of words—yet breathing worship, and with the spirit of piety filling all the Night-Heavens. One whole day and night passed by, and not a hut had been enlightened by their presence. Perhaps they had gone away without warning as they had come—having been sent on another mission. With soft steps one maiden, and then another, entered the door, and then was heard the voice of weeping and of loud lament. The three lay, side by side, with their pale faces up to heaven. Dora, for that is the name tradition has handed down—Dorothea, the gift of God, lay between her Father and her Mother, and all their hands were lovingly and peacefully entwined. No agonies had been there—unknown what hand, human or divine, had closed their eyelids and composed their limbs; but there they lay as if asleep, not to be awakened by the burst of sunshine that dazzled upon their smiling countenances, cheek to cheek, in the awful beauty of united death.
The deep religion of that troubled time had sanctified the Strangers almost into an angelic character; and when the little kirk-bells were again heard tinkling through the air of peace (the number of the martyrs being complete), the beauty with which their living foreheads had been invested, reappeared to the eyes of imagination, as the Poets whom Nature kept to herself walked along the moonlight hills. "The Blessed Family," which had been as a household word, appertaining to them while they lived, now when centuries have gone by, is still full of a dim but divine meaning; the spirit of the tradition having remained, while its framework has almost fallen into decay.
How beautifully emerges that sun-stricken Cottage from the rocks, that all around it are floating in a blue vapoury light! Were we so disposed, methinks we could easily write a little book entirely about the obscure people that have lived and died about that farm, by name LOGAN BRAES. Neither is it without its old traditions. One May-day long ago—some two centuries since—that rural festival was there interrupted by a thunderstorm, and the party of youths and maidens, driven from the budding arbours, were all assembled in the ample kitchen. The house seemed to be in the very heart of the thunder; and the master began to read, without declaring it to be a religious service, a chapter of the Bible; but the frequent flashes of lightning so blinded him, that he was forced to lay down the Book, and all then sat still without speaking a word; many with pale faces, and none without a mingled sense of awe and fear. The maiden forgot her bashfulness as the rattling peals shook the roof-tree, and hid her face in her lover's bosom; the children crept closer and closer, each to some protecting knee, and the dogs came all into the house, and lay down in dark places. Now and then there was a convulsive, irrepressible, but half-stifled shriek—some sobbed—and a loud hysterical laugh from one overcome with terror sounded ghastly between the deepest of all dread repose—that which separates one peal from another, when the flash and the roar are as one, and the thick air smells of sulphur. The body feels its mortal nature, and shrinks as if about to be withered into nothing. Now the muttering thunder seems to have changed its place to some distant cloud—now, as if returning to blast those whom it had spared, waxes louder and fiercer than before—till the Great Tree that shelters the house is shivered with a noise like the masts of a ship carried away by the board. "Look, father, look—see yonder is an Angel all in white, descending from heaven!" said little Alice, who had already been almost in the attitude of prayer, and now clasped her hands together, and steadfastly, and without fear of the lightning, eyed the sky. "One of God's Holy Angels—one of those who sing before the Lamb!" And with an inspired rapture the fair child sprung to her feet. "See ye her not—see ye her not—father—mother! Lo! she beckons to me with a palm in her hand, like one of the palms in that picture in our Bible, when our Saviour is entering into Jerusalem! There she comes, nearer and nearer the earth—Oh! pity, forgive, and have mercy on me, thou most beautiful of all the Angels—even for His name's sake." All eyes were turned towards the black heavens, and then to the raving child. Her mother clasped her to her bosom, afraid that terror had turned her brain—and her father going to the door, surveyed an ampler space of the sky. She flew to his side, and clinging to him again, exclaimed in a wild outcry, "On her forehead a star! on her forehead a star! And oh! on what lovely wings she is floating away, away into eternity! The Angel, father, is calling me by my Christian name, and I must no more abide on earth; but, touching the hem of her garment, be wafted away to heaven!" Sudden as a bird let loose from the hand, darted the maiden from her father's bosom, and with her face upward to the skies, pursued her flight. Young and old left the house, and at that moment the forked lightning came from the crashing cloud, and struck the whole tenement into ruins. Not a hair on any head was singed; and with one accord the people fell down upon their knees. From the eyes of the child, the Angel, or Vision of the Angel, had disappeared; but on her return to heaven, the Celestial heard the hymn that rose from those that were saved, and above all the voices, the small sweet silvery voice of her whose eyes alone were worthy of beholding a Saint Transfigured.
For several hundred years has that farm belonged to the family of the Logans, nor has son or daughter ever stained the name—while some have imparted to it, in its humble annals, what well may be called lustre. Many a time have we stood when a boy, all alone, beginning to be disturbed by the record of heroic or holy lives, in the kirkyard, beside the GRAVE OF THE MARTYRS—the grave in which Christian and Hannah Logan, mother and daughter, were interred. Many a time have we listened to the story of their deaths, from the lips of one who well knew how to stir the hearts of the young, till "from their eyes they wiped the tears that sacred pity had engendered." Nearly a hundred years old was she that eloquent narrator—the Minister's mother—yet she could hear a whisper, and read the Bible without spectacles—although we sometimes used to suspect her of pretending to be reading off the Book, when, in fact, she was reciting from memory. The old lady often took a walk in the kirkyard—and being of a pleasant and cheerful nature, though in religious principle inflexibly austere, many were the most amusing anecdotes that she related to us and our compeers, all huddled round her, "where heaved the turf in many a mouldering heap." But the evening converse was always sure to have a serious termination—and the venerable matron could not be more willing to tell, than we to hear again and again, were it for the twentieth repetition, some old tragic event that gathered a deeper interest from every recital, as if on each we became better acquainted with the characters of those to whom it had befallen, till the chasm that time had dug between them and us disappeared, and we felt for the while that their happiness or misery and ours were essentially interdependent. At first she used, we well remember, to fix her solemn spirit-like eyes on our faces, to mark the different effects her story produced on her hearers; but ere long she became possessed wholly by the pathos of her own narrative, and with fluctuating features and earnest action of head and hands poured forth her eloquence, as if soliloquising among the tombs.
"Ay, ay, my dear boys, that is the grave o' the Martyrs. My father saw them die. The tide o' the far-ebbed sea was again beginning to flow, but the sands o' the bay o' death lay sae dry, that there were but few spots where a bairn could hae wat its feet. Thousands and tens o' thousands were standing a' roun' the edge of the bay—that was in shape just like that moon—and then twa stakes were driven deep into the sand, that the waves o' the returning sea michtna loosen them—and my father, who was but a boy like ane o' yourselves noo, waes me, didna he see wi' his ain een Christian Logan, and her wee dochter Hannah, for she was but eleven years auld—hurried alang by the enemies o' the Lord, and tied to their accursed stakes within the power o' the sea. He who holds the waters in the hollow o' his hand, thocht my father, will not suffer them to choke the prayer within those holy lips—but what kent he o' the dreadfu' judgments o' the Almighty? Dreadfu' as those judgments seemed to be, o' a' that crowd o' mortal creatures there were but only twa that drew their breath without a shudder—and these twa were Christian Logan and her beautifu' wee dochter Hannah, wi' her rosy cheeks, for they blanched not in that last extremity, her blue een, and her gowden hair, that glittered like a star in the darkness o' that dismal day. 'Mother, be not afraid,' she was heard to say, when the foam o' the first wave broke about their feet—and just as these words were uttered, all the great black clouds melted away from the sky, and the sun shone forth in the firmament like the all-seeing eye of God. The martyrs turned their faces a little towards one another, for the cords could not wholly hinder them, and wi' voices as steady and as clear as ever they sang the psalm within the walls o' that kirk, did they, while the sea was mounting up—up from knee—waist—breast—neck—chin—lip—sing praises and thanksgivings unto God. As soon as Hannah's voice was drowned, it seemed as if her mother, before the water reached her own lips, bowed and gave up the ghost. While the people were all gazing the heads of both martyrs disappeared, and nothing then was to be seen on the face o' the waters, but here and there a bit white breaking wave or silly sea-bird floating on the flow o' the tide into the bay. Back and back had aye fallen the people, as the tide was roarin' on wi' a hollow soun'—and now that the water was high aboon the heads o' the martyrs, what chained that dismal congregation to the sea-shore? It was the countenance o' a man that had suddenly come down frae his hiding-place amang the moors—and who now knew that his wife and daughter were bound to stakes deep down in the waters o' the very bay that his eyes beheld rolling, and his ears heard roaring—all the while that there was a God in heaven! Naebody could speak to him—although they all beseeched their Maker to have compassion upon him, and not to let his heart break and his reason fail. 'The stakes! the stakes! O Jesus! point out to me, with thy own scarred hand, the place where my wife and daughter are bound to the stakes—and I may yet bear them up out of the sand, and bring the bodies ashore—to be restored to life! O brethren, brethren!—said ye that my Christian and my Hannah have been for an hour below the sea? And was it from fear of fifty armed men, that so many thousand fathers and mothers, and sons and daughters, and brothers and sisters, rescued them not from such cruel, cruel death?' After uttering mony mair siclike raving words, he suddenly plunged into the sea, and, being a strong swimmer, was soon far out into the bay—and led by some desperate instinct to the very place where the stakes were fixed in the sand. Perfectly resigned had the martyrs been to their doom—but in the agonies o' that horrible death, there had been some struggles o' the mortal body, and the weight o' the waters had borne down the stakes, so that, just as if they had been lashed to a spar to enable them to escape from shipwreck, baith the bodies came floatin' to the surface, and his hand grasped, without knowing it, his ain Hannah's gowden hair—sairly defiled, ye may weel think, wi' the sand—baith their faces changed frae what they ance were by the wrench o' death. Father, mother, and daughter came a'thegither to the shore—and there was a cry went far and wide, up even to the hiding-places o' the faithfu' among the hags and cleuchs i' the moors, that the sea had given up the living, and that the martyrs were triumphant, even in this world, over the powers o' Sin and o' Death. Yea, they were indeed triumphant;—and well might the faithfu' sing aloud in the desert, 'O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?' for these three bodies were but as the weeds on which they lay stretched out to the pitying gaze of the multitude, but their spirits had gane to heaven to receive the eternal rewards o' sanctity and truth."
Not a house in all the parish—scarcely excepting Mount Pleasant itself—all round and about which our heart could in some dreamy hour raise to life a greater multitude of dear old remembrances, all touching ourselves, than LOGAN BRAES. The old people, when we first knew them, we used to think somewhat apt to be surly—for they were Seceders—and owing to some unavoidable prejudices, which we were at no great pains to vanquish, we Manse-boys recognised something repulsive in that most respectable word. Yet for the sake of that sad story of the Martyrs, there was always something affecting to us in the name of Logan Braes; and though Beltane was of old a Pagan Festival, celebrated with grave idolatries round fires ablaze on a thousand hills, yet old Laurence Logan would sweeten his vinegar aspect on May-day, would wipe out a score of wrinkles, and calm, as far as that might be, the terrors of his shaggy eyebrows. A little gentleness of manner goes a long way with such young folk as we were all then, when it is seen naturally and easily worn for our sakes, and in sympathy with our accustomed glee, by one who in his ordinary deportment may have added the austerity of religion to the venerableness of old age. Smiles from old Laurence Logan, the Seceder, were like rare sun-glimpses in the gloom—and made the hush of his house pleasant as a more cheerful place; for through the restraint laid on reverent youth by feeling akin to fear, the heart ever and anon bounded with freedom in the smile of the old man's eyes. Plain was his own apparel—a suit of the hodden-grey. His wife, when in full dress, did not remind us of a Quakeress, for a Quakeress then had we never seen—but we often think now, when in company with a still, sensible, cheerful, and comely-visaged matron of that sect, of her of Logan Braes. No waster was she of her tears, or her smiles, or her words, or her money, or her meal—either among those of her own blood, or the stranger or the beggar that was within her gates. You heard not her foot on the floor—yet never was she idle—moving about in doors and out, from morning till night, so placid and so composed, and always at small cost dressed so decently, so becomingly to one who was not yet old, and had not forgotten—why should she not remember it?—that she was esteemed in youth a beauty, and that it was not for want of a richer and younger lover that she agreed at last to become the wife of the Laird of Logan Braes.
Their family consisted of two sons and a niece;—and be thou who thou mayest that hast so far read our May-day, we doubt not that thine eyes will glance—however rapidly—over another page, nor fling it contemptuously aside, because amidst all the chance and change of administrations, ministries, and ministers in high places, there murmur along the channels of our memory "the simple annals of the poor," like unpolluted streams that sweep not by city walls.
Never were two brothers more unlike in all things—in mind, body, habits, and disposition—than Lawrie and Willie Logan—and we see, as in a glass, at this very moment, both their images. "Wee Wise Willie"—for by that name he was known over several parishes—was one of those extraordinary creatures that one may liken to a rarest plant, which nature sows here and there—sometimes for ever unregarded—among the common families of Flowers. Early sickness had been his lot—continued with scarcely any interruption from his cradle to school-years—so that not only was his stature stunted, but his whole frame was delicate in the extreme; and his pale small-featured face, remarkable for large, soft, down-looking, hazel eyes, dark-lashed in their lustre, had a sweet feminine character, that corresponded well with his voice, his motions, and his in-door pursuits—all serene and composed, and interfering with the outgoings of no other living thing. All sorts of scholarship, such as the parish schoolmaster knew, he mastered as if by intuition. His slate was quickly covered with long calculations, by which the most puzzling questions were solved; and ere he was nine years old, he had made many pretty mechanical contrivances with wheels and pulleys, that showed in what direction lay the natural bent of his genius. Languages, too, the creature seemed to see into with quickest eyes, and with quickest ears to catch their sounds—so that, at the same tender age, he might have been called a linguist, sitting with his Greek and Latin books on a stool beside him by the fireside during the long winter nights. All the neighbours who had any books, cheerfully lent them to "Wee Wise Willie," and the Manse-boys gave him many a supply. At the head of every class he, of course, was found—but no ambition had he to be there; and like a bee that works among many thousand others on the clover-lea, heedless of their murmurs, and intent wholly on its own fragrant toil, did he go from task to task—although that was no fitting name for the studious creature's meditations on all he read or wrought—no more a task for him to grow in knowledge and in thought, than for a lily of the field to lift up its head towards the sun. That child's religion was like all the other parts of his character—as prone to tears as that of other children, when they read of the Divine Friend dying for them on the cross; but it was profounder far than theirs, when it shed no tears, and only made the paleness of his countenance more like that which we imagine to be the paleness of a phantom. No one ever saw him angry, complaining, or displeased; for angelical indeed was his temper, purified, like gold in fire, by suffering. He shunned not the company of other children, but loved all, as by them all he was more than beloved. In few of their plays could he take an active share; but sitting a little way off, still attached to the merry brotherhood, though in their society he had no part to enact, he read his book on the knoll, or, happy dreamer, sunk away among the visions of his own thoughts. There was poetry in that child's spirit, but it was too essentially blended with his whole happiness in life, often to be embodied in written words. A few compositions were found in his own small beautiful handwriting after his death—hymns and psalms. Prayers, too, had his heart indited—but they were not in measured language—framed, in his devout simplicity, on the model of our Lord's. How many hundred times have we formed a circle round him in the gloaming, all sitting or lying on the greensward, before the dews had begun to descend, listening to his tales and stories of holy or heroic men and women, who had been greatly good and glorious in the days of old! Not unendeared to his imagination were the patriots, who, living and dying, loved the liberties of the land—Tell—Bruce—or Wallace, he in whose immortal name a thousand rocks rejoice, while many a wood bears it on its summits as they are swinging to the storm. Weak as a reed that is shaken in the wind, or the stalk of a flower that tremblingly sustains its blossoms beneath the dews that feed their transitory lustre, was he whose lips were so eloquent to read the eulogies of mighty men of war riding mailed through bloody battles. What matters it that this frame of dust be frail, and of tiny size—still may it be the tenement of a lordly spirit. But high as such warfare was, it satisfied not that thoughtful child—for other warfare there was to read of, which was to him a far deeper and more divine delight—the warfare waged by good men against the legions of sin, and closed triumphantly in the eye of God—let this world deem as it will—on obscurest death-beds, or at the stake, or on the scaffold, where a profounder even than Sabbath silence glorifies the martyr far beyond any shout that from the immense multitude would have torn the concave of the heavens.
What a contrast to that creature was his elder brother! Lawrie was eighteen years old when first we visited Logan Braes, and was a perfect hero in strength and stature—Bob Howie alone his equal—but Bob was then in the West Indies. In the afternoons, after his work was over in the fields or in the barn, he had pleasure in getting us Manse-boys to accompany him to the Moor-Lochs for an hour's angling or two in the evening, when the large trouts came to the gravelly shallows, and, as we waded mid-leg deep, would sometimes take the fly among our very feet. Or he would go with us into the heart of the great wood, to show us where the foxes had their earths—the party being sometimes so fortunate as to see the cubs disporting at the mouth of the briery aperture in the strong and root-bound soil. Or we followed him, so far as he thought it safe for us to do so, up the foundations of the castle, and in fear and wonder that no repetition of the adventurous feat ever diminished, saw him take the young starling from the crevice beneath the tuft of wall-flowers. What was there of the bold and daring that Lawrie Logan was not, in our belief, able to perform? We were all several years younger—boys from nine to fifteen—and he had shot up into sudden manhood—not only into its shape but its strength—yet still the boyish spirit was fresh within him, and he never wearied of us in such excursions. The minister had a good opinion of his principles, knowing how he had been brought up, and did not discountenance his visits to the Manse, nor ours to Logan Braes. Then what danger could we be in, go where we might, with one who had more than once shown how eager he was to risk his own life when that of another was in jeopardy? Generous and fearless youth! To thee we owed our own life—although seldom is that rescue now remembered—(for what will not in this turmoiling world be forgotten?) when in pride of the newly-acquired art of swimming, we had ventured—with our clothes on too—some ten yards into the Brother-Loch, to disentangle our line from the water-lilies. It seemed that a hundred cords had got entangled round our legs, and our heart quaked too desperately to suffer us to shriek—but Lawrie Logan had his hand on us in a minute, and brought us to shore as easily as a Newfoundland dog lands a bit of floating wood.
But that was a momentary danger, and Lawrie Logan ran but small risk, you will say, in saving us; so let us not extol that instance of his intrepidity. But fancy to yourself, gentle reader, the hideous mouth of an old coal-pit, that had not been worked for time immemorial, overgrown with thorns, and briers, and brackens, but still visible from a small mount above it, for some yards down its throat—the very throat of death and perdition. But can you fancy also the childish and superstitious terror with which we all regarded that coal-pit, for it was said to be a hundred fathom deep—with water at the bottom—so that you had to wait for many moments—almost a minute—before you heard a stone, first beating against its sides—from one to the other—plunge at last into the pool profound. In that very field, too, a murder had been perpetrated, and the woman's corpse flung by her sweetheart into that coal-pit. One day some unaccountable impulse had led a band of us into that interdicted field—which we remember was not arable—but said to be a place where a hare was always sure to be found sitting among the binweeds and thistles. A sort of thrilling horror urged us on closer and closer to the mouth of the pit—when Wee Wise Willie's foot slipping on the brae, he bounded with inexplicable force along—in among the thorns, briers, and brackens—through the whole hanging mat, and without a shriek, down—down—down into destruction. We all saw it happen—every one of us—and it is scarcely too much to say, that we were for a while all mad with horror. Yet we felt ourselves borne back instinctively from the horrible pit—and as aid we could give none, we listened if we could hear any cry—but there was none—and we all flew together out of the dreadful field, and again collecting ourselves together, feared to separate on the different roads to our homes. "Oh! can it be that our Wee Wise Willie has this moment died sic a death—and no a single ane amang us a' greetin for his sake?" said one of us aloud; and then indeed did we burst out into rueful sobbing, and ask one another who could carry such tidings to Logan Braes? All at once we heard a clear, rich, mellow whistle as of a blackbird—and there with his favourite collie, searching for a stray lamb among the knolls, was Lawrie Logan, who hailed us with a laughing voice, and then asked us, "Where is Wee Willie?—hae ye flung him like another Joseph into the pit?" The consternation of our faces could not be misunderstood—whether we told him or not what had happened we do not know—but he staggered, as if he would have fallen down—and then ran off with amazing speed—not towards Logan Braes—but the village. We continued helplessly to wander about back and forwards along the near edge of a wood, when we beheld a multitude of people rapidly advancing, and in a few minutes they surrounded the mouth of the pit. It was about the very end of the hay-harvest—and many ropes that had been employed that very day in the leading of the hay of the Landlord of the Inn, who was also an extensive farmer, were tied together to the length of at least twenty fathom. Hope was quite dead—but her work is often done by Despair. For a while there was confusion all round the pit-mouth, but with a white fixed face and glaring eyes, Lawrie Logan advanced to the very brink, with the rope bound in many firm folds around him, and immediately behind him stood his grey-headed father, unbonneted, just as he had risen from a prayer. "Is't my ain father that's gaun to help me to gang doun to bring up Willie's body? O! merciful God, what a judgment is this! Father—father—Oh! lie doun at some distance awa frae the sicht o' this place. Robin Alison, and Gabriel Strang, and John Borland 'ill haud the ropes firm and safe. O, father—father—lie doun, a bit apart frae the crowd; and have mercy upon him—O thou, great God, have mercy upon him!" But the old man kept his place; and the only one son who now survived to him disappeared within the jaws of the same murderous pit, and was lowered slowly down, nearer and nearer to his little brother's corpse. They had spoken to him of foul air, of which to breathe is death, but he had taken his resolution, and not another word had been said to shake it. And now, for a short time, there was no weight at the line, except that of its own length. It was plain that he had reached the bottom of the pit. Silent was all that congregation, as if assembled in divine worship. Again, there was a weight at the rope, and in a minute or two, a voice was heard far down the pit that spread a sort of wild hope—else, why should it have spoken at all—and lo! the child—not like one of the dead—clasped in the arms of his brother, who was all covered with dust and blood. "Fall down on your knees—in the face o' heaven, and sing praises to God, for my brother is yet alive!"
During that Psalm, father, mother, and both their sons—the rescuer and the rescued—and their sweet cousin too, Annie Raeburn, the orphan, were lying embraced in speechless—almost senseless trances; for the agony of such a deliverance was more than could well by mortal creatures be endured.
The child himself was the first to tell how his life had been miraculously saved. A few shrubs had for many years been growing out of the inside of the pit, almost as far down as the light could reach, and among them had he been entangled in his descent, and held fast. For days, and weeks, and months, after that deliverance, few persons visited Logan Braes, for it was thought that old Laurence's brain had received a shock from which it might never recover; but the trouble that tried him subsided, and the inside of the house was again quiet as before, and its hospitable door open to all the neighbours.
Never forgetful of his primal duties had been that bold youth—but too apt to forget the many smaller ones that are wrapt round a life of poverty like invisible threads, and that cannot be broken violently or carelessly, without endangering the calm consistency of all its ongoings, and ultimately causing perhaps great losses, errors, and distress. He did not keep evil society—but neither did he shun it: and having a pride in feats of strength and activity, as was natural to a stripling whose corporeal faculties could not be excelled, he frequented all meetings where he was likely to fall in with worthy competitors, and in such trials of power, by degrees acquired a character for recklessness, and even violence, of which prudent men prognosticated evil, and that sorely disturbed his parents, who were, in their quiet retreat, lovers of all peace. With what wonder and admiration did all the Manse-boys witness and hear reported the feats of Lawrie Logan! It was he who, in pugilistic combat, first vanquished Black King Carey the Egyptian, who travelled the country with two wives and a waggon of Staffordshire pottery, and had struck the "Yokel," as he called Lawrie, in the midst of all the tents on Leddrie Green, at the great annual Baldernoch fair. Six times did the bare and bronzed Egyptian bite the dust—nor did Lawrie Logan always stand against the blows of one whose provincial fame was high in England, as the head of the Rough-and-Ready School. Even now—as in an ugly dream—we see the combatants alternately prostrate, and returning to the encounter, covered with mire and blood. All the women left the Green, and the old men shook their heads at such unchristian work; but Lawrie Logan did not want backers in the shepherds and the ploughmen, to see fair play against all the attempts of the Showmen and the Newcastle horse-cowpers, who laid their money thick on the King; till a right-hander in the pit of the stomach, which had nearly been the gypsy's everlasting quietus, gave the victory to Lawrie, amid acclamations that would have fitlier graced a triumph in a better cause. But that day was an evil day to all at Logan Braes. A recruiting sergeant got Lawrie into the tent, over which floated the colours of the 42d Regiment, and in the intoxication of victory, whisky, and the bagpipe, the young champion was as fairly enlisted into his Majesty's service, as ever young girl, without almost knowing it, was married at Gretna Green; and as the 42d were under orders to sail in a week, gold could not have bought off such a man, and Lawrie Logan went on board a transport.
Logan Braes was not the same place—indeed, the whole parish seemed altered—after Lawrie was gone, and our visits were thenceforth anything but cheerful ones, going by turns to inquire for Willie, who seemed to be pining away—not in any deadly disease, but just as if he himself knew, that without ailing much he was not to be a long liver. Yet nearly two years passed on, and all that time the principle of life had seemed like a flickering flame within him, that when you think it expiring or expired, streams up again with surprising brightness, and continues to glimmer even steadily with a protracted light. Every week—nay, almost every day, they feared to lose him—yet there he still was at morning and evening prayers. The third spring after the loss of his brother was remarkably mild, and breathing with west-winds that came softened over many woody miles from the sea. He seemed stronger, and more cheerful, and expressed a wish that the Manse-boys, and some others of his companions, would come to Logan Braes, and once again celebrate May-day. There we all sat at the long table, and both parents did their best to look cheerful during the feast. Indeed, all that had once been harsh and forbidding in the old man's looks and manners, was now softened down by the perpetual yearnings at his heart towards "the distant far and absent long," nor less towards him that peaceful and pious child, whom every hour he saw, or thought he saw, awaiting a call from the eternal voice. Although sometimes sadness fell across us like a shadow, yet the hours passed on as May-day hours should do; and what with our many-toned talk and laughter, the cooing of the pigeons on the roof, and the twittering of the swallows beneath the eaves, and the lark-songs ringing like silver bells over all the heavens, it seemed a day that ought to bring good tidings—or, the Soldier himself returning from the wars to bless the eyes of his parents once more, so that they might die in peace. "Heaven hold us in its keeping, for there's his wraith!" ejaculated Annie Raeburn. "It passed before the window, and my Lawrie, I now know, is with the dead!"—Bending his stately head beneath the lintel of the door, in the dress, and with the bearing of a soldier, Lawrie Logan stepped again across his father's threshold, and, ere he well uttered "God be with you all!" Willie was within his arms, and on his bosom. His father and his mother rose not from their chairs, but sat still, with faces like ashes. But we boys could not resist our joy, and shouted his name aloud—while Luath, from his sleep in the corner, leapt on his master breast-high, and whining his dumb delight, frisked round him as of yore, when impatient to snuff the dawn on the hill-side. "Let us go out and play," said a boy's voice, and issuing somewhat seriously into the sunshine, we left the family within to themselves, and then walked away, without speaking, down to the Bridge.
After the lapse of an hour or more, and while we were all considering whether or no we should return to the house, the figure of Annie Raeburn was seen coming down the brae towards the party, in a way very unlike her usual staid and quiet demeanour, and stopping at some distance, to beckon with her hand more particularly, it was thought, on ourselves, as we stood a few yards apart from the rest. "Willie is worse," were the only words she said, as we hastened back together; and on entering the room, we found the old man uncertainly pacing the floor by himself, but with a composed countenance. "He expressed a wish to see you—but he is gone!" We followed into Willie's small bedroom and study, and beheld him already laid out, and his mother sitting as calmly beside him as if she were watching his sleep. "Sab not sae sair, Lawrie—God was gracious to let him live to this day, that he micht dee in his brither's arms."
The sun has mounted high in heaven, while thus we have been dreaming away the hours—a dozen miles at least have we slowly wandered over, since morning, along pleasant by-paths, where never dust lay, or from gate to gate of pathless enclosures, a trespasser fearless of those threatening nonentities, spring-guns. There is the turnpike road—the great north and south road—for it is either the one or the other, according to the airt towards which you, choose to turn your face. Behold a little WAYSIDE INN, neatly thatched, and with white-washed front, and sign-board hanging from a tree, on which are painted the figures of two jolly gentlemen, one in kilts and the other in breeches, shaking hands cautiously across a running brook. The meal of all meals is a paulopost-meridian breakfast. The rosiness of the combs of these strapping hens is good augury;—hark, a cackle from the barn—another egg is laid—and chanticleer, stretching himself up on claw-tip, and clapping his wings of the bonny beaten gold, crows aloud to his sultana till the welkin rings. "Turn to the left, sir, if you please," quoth a comely matron; and we find ourselves snugly seated in an arm-chair, not wearied, but to rest willing, while the clock ticks pleasantly, and we take no note of time but by its gain; for here is our journal, in which we shall put down a few jottings for MAY-DAY. Three boiled eggs—one to each penny-roll—are sufficient, under any circumstances, along with the same number fried with mutton ham, for the breakfast of a Gentleman and a Tory. Nor do we remember—when tea-cups have been on a proper scale, ever to have wished to go beyond the Golden Rule of Three. In politics, we confess that we are rather ultra; but in all things else we love moderation. "Come in, my bonny little lassie—ye needna keep keekin in that gate fra ahint the door"—and in a few minutes the curly-pated prattler is murmuring on our knee. The sonsy wife, well-pleased with the sight, and knowing from our kindness to children, that we are on the same side of politics with her gudeman—Ex-sergeant in the Black Watch, and once Orderly to Garth himself—brings out her ain bottle from the spence—a hollow square, and green as emerald. Bless the gurgle of its honest mouth! With prim lips mine hostess kisses the glass, previously letting fall a not inelegant curtsy—for she had, we now learned, been a lady's maid in her youth to one who is indeed a lady, all the time her lover was abroad in the army, in Egypt, Ireland, and the West Indies, and Malta, and Guernsey, Sicily, Portugal, Holland, and, we think she said, Corfu. One of the children has been sent to the field, where her husband is sowing barley, to tell him that there is fear lest dinner cool; and the mistress now draws herself up in pride of his noble appearance, as the stately Highlander salutes us with the respectful but bold air of one who has seen some service at home and abroad. Never knew we a man make other than a good bow, who had partaken freely in a charge of bayonets.
Shenstone's lines about always meeting the warmest welcome in an inn, are very natural and tender—as most of his compositions are, when he was at all in earnest. For our own part, we cannot complain of ever meeting any other welcome than a warm one, go where we may; for we are not obtrusive, and where we are not either liked, or loved, or esteemed, or admired (that last is a strong word, yet we all have our admirers), we are exceeding chary of the light of our countenance. But at an inn, the only kind of welcome that is indispensable, is a civil one. When that is not forthcoming, we shake the dust, or the dirt, off our feet, and pursue our journey, well assured that a few milestones will bring us to a humaner roof. Incivility and surliness have occasionally given us opportunities of beholding rare celestial phenomena—meteors—falling and shooting stars—the Aurora Borealis, in her shifting splendours—haloes round the moon, variously bright as the rainbow—electrical arches forming themselves on the sky in a manner so wondrously beautiful, that we should be sorry to hear them accounted for by philosophers—one-half of the horizon blue, and without a cloud, and the other driving tempestuously like the sea-foam, with waves mountain-high—and divinest show of all for a solitary night-wandering man, who has anything of a soul at all, far and wide, and high up into the gracious heavens, Planets and Stars all burning as if their urns were newly fed with light, not twinkling as they do in a dewy or a vapoury night, although then, too, are the softened or veiled luminaries beautiful—but large, full, and free over the whole firmament—a galaxy of shining and unanswerable arguments in proof of the Immortality of the Soul.
The whole world is improving; nor can there be a pleasanter proof of that than this very wayside inn—ycleped the SALUTATION. What a miserable pot-house it was long ago, with a rusty-hinged door, that would neither open nor shut—neither let you out nor in—immovable and intractable to foot or hand—or all at once, when you least expected it to yield, slamming to with a bang; a constant puddle in front during rainy weather, and heaped up dust in dry—roof partly thatched, partly slated, partly tiled, and partly open to the elements, with its naked rafters. Broken windows repaired with an old petticoat, or a still older pair of breeches, and walls that had always been plastered and better plastered and worse plastered, in frosty weather—all labour in vain, as crumbling patches told, and variegated streaks, and stains of dismal ochre, meanest of all colours, and still symptomatic of want, mismanagement, bankruptcy, and perpetual flittings from a tenement that was never known to have paid any rent. Then what a pair of drunkards were old Saunders and his spouse! Yet never once were they seen drunk on a Sabbath or a fast-day—regular kirk-goers, and attentive observers of ordinances. They had not very many children, yet, pass the door when you might, you were sure to hear a squall or a shriek, or the ban of the mother, or the smacking of the palm of the hand on the part of the enemy easiest of access; or you saw one of the ragged fiends pursued by a parent round the corner, and brought back by the hair of the head till its eyes were like those of a Chinese. Now, what decency—what neatness—what order—in this household—this private public! into which customers step like neighbours on a visit, and are served with a heartiness and goodwill that deserve the name of hospitality, for they are gratuitous, and can only be repaid in kind. A limited prospect does that latticed window command—and the small panes cut objects into too many parts—little more than the breadth of the turnpike road, and a hundred yards of the same, to the north and to the south, with a few budding hedgerows, half-a-dozen trees, and some green braes. Yet could we sit and moralise, and intellectualise, for hours at this window, nor hear the striking clock.
There trips by a blooming maiden of middle degree, all alone—the more's the pity—yet perfectly happy in her own society, and one we venture to say who never received a love-letter, valentines excepted, in all her innocent days.—A fat man sitting by himself in a gig! somewhat red in the face, as if he had dined early, and not so sure of the road as his horse, who has drunk nothing but a single pailful of water, and is anxious to get to town that he may be rubbed down, and see oats once more.—Scamper away, ye joyous schoolboys, and, for your sake, may that cloud breathe forth rain and breeze, before you reach the burn, which you seem to fear may run dry before you can see the Pool where the two-pounders lie.—Methinks we know that old woman, and of the first novel we write she shall be the heroine.—Ha! a brilliant bevy of mounted maidens, in riding-habits, and Spanish hats, with "swaling feathers"—sisters, it is easy to see, and daughters of one whom we either loved, or thought we loved; but now they say she is fat and vulgar, is the devil's own scold, and makes her servants and her husband lead the lives of slaves. All that we can say is, that once on a time it was tout une autre chose; for a smaller foot, a slimmer ankle, a more delicate waist, arms more lovely, reposing in their gracefulness beneath her bosom, tresses of brighter and more burnished auburn—such starlike eyes, thrilling without seeking to reach the soul—But phoo! phoo! phoo! she married a jolter-headed squire with two thousand acres, and, in self-defence, has grown fat, vulgar, and a scold.—There is a Head for a painter! and what perfect peace and placidity all over the Blind Man's countenance! He is not a beggar although he lives on alms—those sightless orbs ask not for charity, nor yet those withered hands, as, staff-supported, he stops at the kind voice of the traveller, and tells his story in a few words. On the ancient Dervise moves, with his long silvery hair, journeying contentedly in darkness towards the eternal light.—A gang of gypsies! with their numerous assery laden with horn-spoons, pots, and pans, and black-eyed children. We should not be surprised to read some day in the newspapers, that the villain who leads the van had been executed for burglary, arson, and murder. That is the misfortune of having a bad physiognomy, a sidelong look, a scarred cheek, and a cruel grin about the muscles of the mouth; to say nothing about rusty hair protruding through the holes of a brown hat, not made for the wearer—long, sinewy arms, all of one thickness, terminating in huge, hairy, horny hands, chiefly knuckles and nails—a shambling gait, notwithstanding that his legs are finely proportioned, as if the night prowler were cautious not to be heard by the sleeping house, nor to awaken—so noiseless his stealthy advances—the unchained mastiff in his kennel.
But, hark! the spirit-stirring music of fife and drum! A whole regiment of soldiers on their march to replace another whole regiment of soldiers—and that is as much as we can be expected to know about their movements. Food for the cannon's mouth; but the maw of war has been gorged and satiated, and the glittering soap-bubbles of reputation, blown by windy-cheeked Fame from the bole of her pipe, have all burst as they have been clutched by the hands of tall fellows in red raiment, and with feathers on their heads, just before going to lie down on what is called the bed of honour. Melancholy indeed to think, that all these fine, fierce, ferocious, fire-eaters are doomed, but for some unlooked-for revolution in the affairs of Europe and the world, to die in their beds! Yet there is some comfort in thinking of the composition of a Company of brave defenders of their country. It is, we shall suppose, Seventy strong. Well, jot down three ploughmen, genuine clodhoppers, chaw-bacons sans peur et sans reproche, except that the overseers of the parish were upon them with orders of affiliation; add one shepherd, who made contradictory statements about the number of the spring lambs, and in whose house had been found during winter certain fleeces, for which no ingenuity could account; a laird's son, long known by the name of the Neerdoweel; a Man of tailors, forced to accept the bounty-money during a protracted strike—not dungs they, but flints all the nine; a barber, like many a son of genius, ruined by his wit, and who, after being driven from pole to pole, found refuge in the army at last; a bankrupt butcher, once a bully, and now a poltroon; two of the Seven Young Men—all that now survive—impatient of the drudgery of the compting-house, and the injustice of the age—but they, we believe, are in the band—the triangle and the serpent; twelve cotton-spinners at the least; six weavers of woollens; a couple of colliers from the bowels of the earth; and a score of miscellaneous rabble—flunkies long out of place, and unable to live on their liveries—felons acquitted, or that have dreed their punishment—picked men from the shilling galleries of playhouses—and the elite of the refuse and sweepings of the jails. Look how all the rogues and reprobates march like one man! Alas! was it of such materials that our conquering army was made?—were such the heroes of Talavera, Salamanca, Vittoria, and Waterloo?
Why not, and what then? Heroes are but men after all. Men, as men go, are the materials of which heroes are made; and recruits in three years ripen into veterans. Cowardice in one campaign is disciplined into courage, fear into valour. In presence of the enemy, pickpockets become patriots—members of the swell mob volunteer on forlorn hopes, and step out from the ranks to head the storm. Lord bless you! have you not studied sympathy and l'esprit de corps? An army fifty thousand strong consists, we shall suppose, in equal portions of saints and sinners; and saints and sinners are all English, Irish, Scottish. What wonder, then, that they drive all resistance to the devil, and go on from victory to victory, keeping all the cathedrals and churches in England hard at work with all their organs, from Christmas to Christmas, blowing Te Deum? You must not be permitted too curiously to analyse the composition of the British army or the British navy. Look at them, think of them as Wholes, with Nelson or Wellington the head, and in one slump pray God to bless the defenders of the throne, the hearth, and the altar.
The baggage-waggons halt, and some refreshment is sent for to the women and children. Ay, creatures not far advanced in their teens are there—a year or two ago, at school or service, happy as the day was long, now mothers, with babies at their breasts—happy still perhaps; but that pretty face is woefully wan—that hair did not use to be so dishevelled—and bony, and clammy, and blue-veined is the hand that lay so white, and warm, and smooth in the grasp of the seducer.
Yet she thinks she is his wife; and, in truth, there is a ring on her marriage-finger. But, should the regiment embark, so many women, and no more, are suffered to go with a company; and, should one of the lots not fall on her, she may take of her husband an everlasting farewell.
The Highflier Coach! carrying six in, and twelve outsides—driver and guard excluded—rate of motion eleven miles an hour, with stoppages. Why, in the name of Heaven, are all people nowadays in such haste and hurry? Is it absolutely necessary that one and all of this dozen and a half Protestants and Catholics—alike anxious for emancipation—should be at a particular place, at one particular moment of time out of the twenty-four hours given to man for motion and for rest? Confident are we that that obese elderly gentleman beside the coachman—whose ample rotundity is encased in that antique and almost obsolete invention, a spenser—needed not to have been so carried in a whirlwind to his comfortable home. Scarcely is there time for pity as we behold an honest man's wife, pale as putty in the face at a tremendous swing, or lounge, or lurch of the Highflier, holding like grim death to the balustrades. But umbrellas, parasols, plaids, shawls, bonnets, and great-coats with as many necks as Hydra—the Pile of Life has disappeared in a cloud of dust, and the faint bugle tells that already it has spun and reeled onwards a mile on its destination.
But here comes a vehicle at a more rational pace. Mercy on us—a hearse and six horses returning leisurely from a funeral! Not improbable that the person who has just quitted it, had never, till he was a corpse, got higher than a single-horse Chay—yet no fewer than half-a-dozen hackneys must be hired for his dust. But clear the way! "Hurra! hurra! he rides a race, 'tis for a 'thousand pound!" Another, and another, and another—all working away with legs and knees, arms and shoulders, on cart-horses in the Brooze—the Brooze! The hearse-horses take no sort of notice of the cavalry of cart and plough, but each in turn keeps its snorting nostrils deep plunged in the pail of meal and water—for well may they be thirsty—the kirkyard being far among the hills, and the roads not yet civilised. "May I ask, friend," addressing ourself to the hearseman, "whom you have had inside?" "Only Dr Sandilands, sir—if you are going my way, you may have a lift for a dram!" We had always thought there was a superstition in Scotland against marrying in the month of May; but it appears that people are wedded and bedded in that month too—some in warm sheets—and some in cold—cold—cold—dripping damp as the grave.
But we must up, and off. Not many gentlemen's houses in the parish—that is to say, old family seats; for of modern villas, or boxes, inhabited by persons imagining themselves gentlemen, and, for anything we know to the contrary, not wholly deceived in that belief, there is rather too great an abundance. Four family seats, however, there certainly are, of sufficient antiquity to please a lover of the olden time; and of those four, the one which we used to love best to look at was—THE MAINS. No need to describe it in many words. A Hall on a river-side, embosomed in woods—holms and meadows winding away in front, with their low thick hedgerows and stately single trees—on—on—on—as far as the eye can reach, a crowd of grove-tops—elms chiefly, or beeches—and a beautiful boundary of blue hills. "Good-day, Sergeant Stewart! farewell, Ma'am—farewell!" And in half an hour we are sitting in the moss-house at the edge of the outer garden, and gazing up at the many-windowed grey walls of the MAINS, and its high steep-ridged roof, discoloured by the weather-stains of centuries. "The taxes on such a house," quod Sergeant Stewart, "are of themselves enough to ruin a man of moderate fortune—so the Mains, sir, has been uninhabited for a good many years." But he had been speaking to one who knew far more about the Mains than he could do—and who was not sorry that the Old Place was allowed to stand, undisturbed by any rich upstart, in the venerable silence of its own decay. And this is the moss-house that we helped to build with our own hands, at least to hang the lichen tapestry, and stud the cornice with shells! We were one of the paviers of that pebbled floor—and that bright scintillating piece of spar, the centre of the circle, came all the way from Derbyshire in the knapsack of a geologist, who died a Professor. It is strange the roof has not fallen in long ago; but what a slight ligature will often hold together a heap of ruins from tumbling into nothing! The old moss-house, though somewhat decrepit, is alive; and, if these swallows don't take care, they will be stunning themselves against our face, jerking out and in, through door and window, twenty times in a minute. Yet with all that twittering of swallows—and with all that frequent crowing of a cock—and all that cawing of rooks—and cooing of doves—and lowing of cattle along the holms—and bleating of lambs along the braes—it is nevertheless a pensive place; and here sit we like a hermit, world-sick, and to be revived only by hearkening in the solitude to the voices of other years.
What more mournful thought than that of a Decayed Family—a high-born race gradually worn out, and finally ceasing to be! The remote ancestors of this House were famous men of war—then some no less famous statesmen—then poets and historians—then minds still of fine, but of less energetic mould—and last of all, the mystery of madness breaking suddenly forth from spirits that seemed to have been especially formed for profoundest peace. There were three sons and two daughters, undegenerate from the ancient stateliness of the race—the oldest on his approach to manhood erect as the young cedar, that seems conscious of being destined one day to be the tallest tree in the woods. The twin-sisters were ladies indeed! Lovely as often are the low-born, no maiden ever stepped from her native cottage-door, even in a poet's dream, with such an air as that with which those fair beings walked along their saloons and lawns. Their beauty no one could at all describe—and no one beheld it who did not say that it transcended all that imagination had been able to picture of angelic and divine. As the sisters were, so were the brothers—distinguished above all their mates conspicuously, and beyond all possibility of mistake; so that strangers could single them out at once as the heirs of beauty, that, according to veritable pictures and true traditions, had been an unalienable gift from nature to that family ever since it bore the name. For the last three generations none of that house had ever reached even the meridian of life—and those of whom we now speak had from childhood been orphans. Yet how joyous and free were they one and all, and how often from this cell did evening hear their holy harmonies, as the Five united together with voice, harp, and dulcimer, till the stars themselves rejoiced!—One morning, Louisa, who loved the dewy dawn, was met bewildered in her mind, and perfectly astray—with no symptom of having been suddenly alarmed or terrified—but with an unrecognising smile, and eyes scarcely changed in their expression, although they knew not—but rarely—on whom they looked. It was but a few months till she died—and Adelaide was laughing carelessly on her sister's funeral day—and asked why mourning should be worn at a marriage, and a plumed hearse sent to take away the bride. Fairest of God's creatures! can it be that thou art still alive? Not with cherubs smiling round thy knees—not walking in the free realms of earth and heaven with thy husband—the noble youth, who loved thee from thy childhood when himself a child; but oh! that such misery can be beneath the sun—shut up in some narrow cell perhaps—no one knows where—whether in this thy native kingdom, or in some foreign land—with those hands manacled—a demon-light in eyes once most angelical—and ringing through undistinguishable days and nights imaginary shriekings and yellings in thy poor distracted brain!—Down went the ship with all her crew in which Percy sailed;—the sabre must have been in the hand of a skilful swordsman that in one of the Spanish battles hewed Sholto down; and the gentle Richard, whose soul—while he possessed it clearly—was for ever among the sacred books, although too long he was as a star vainly sought for in a cloudy region, yet did for a short time starlike reappear—and on his death-bed he knew us, and the other mortal creatures weeping beside him, and that there was One who died to save sinners.
Let us away—let us away from this overpowering place—and make our escape from such unendurable sadness. Is this fit celebration of merry May-day? Is this the spirit in which we ought to look over the bosom of the earth, all teeming with buds and flowers just as man's heart should be teeming—and why not ours—with hopes and joys? Yet beautiful as this May-day is—and all the country round which it so tenderly illumines, we came not hither, a solitary pilgrim from our distant home, to indulge ourself in a joyful happiness. No, hither came we purposely to mourn among the scenes which in boyhood we seldom beheld through tears. And therefore have we chosen the gayest day of all the year, when all life is rejoicing, from the grasshopper among our feet to the lark in the cloud. Melancholy, and not mirth, doth he hope to find, who after a life of wandering—and maybe not without sorrow—comes back to gaze on the banks and braes whereon, to his eyes, once grew the flowers of Paradise. Flowers of Paradise are ye still—for, praise be to Heaven! the sense of beauty is still strong within us—and methinks we could feel the beauty of this scene though our heart were broken.
We have often exposed the narrowness and weakness of that dogma, so pertinaciously adhered to by persons of cold hearts and limited understandings, that Religion is not a fit theme for poetical genius, and that Sacred Poetry is beyond the powers of uninspired man. We do not know that the grounds on which that dogma stands have ever been formally stated by any writer but Samuel Johnson; and therefore with all respect, nay, veneration, for his memory, we shall now shortly examine his statement, which, though, as we think, altogether unsatisfactory and sophistical, is yet a splendid specimen of false reasoning, and therefore worthy of being exposed and overthrown. Dr Johnson was not often utterly wrong in his mature and considerate judgments respecting any subject of paramount importance to the virtue and happiness of mankind. He was a good and wise being; but sometimes he did grievously err; and never more so than in his vain endeavour to exclude from the province of poetry its noblest, highest, and holiest domain. Shut the gates of Heaven against Poetry, and her flights along this earth will be feebler and lower,—her wings clogged and heavy by the attraction of matter,—and her voice—like that of the caged lark, so different from its hymning when lost to sight in the sky—will fail to call forth the deepest responses from the sanctuary of our spirit.
"Let no pious ear be offended," says Johnson, "if I advance, in opposition to many authorities, that poetical devotion cannot often please. The doctrines of religion may indeed be defended in a didactic poem; and he who has the happy power of arguing in verse, will not lose it because his subject is sacred. A poet may describe the beauty and the grandeur of nature, the flowers of spring and the harvests of autumn, the vicissitudes of the tide and the revolutions of the sky, and praise his Maker in lines which no reader shall lay aside. The subject of the disputation is not piety, but the motives to piety; that of the description is not God, but the works of God. Contemplative piety, or the intercourse between God and the human soul, cannot be poetical. Man admitted to implore the mercy of his Creator, and plead the merits of his Reedemer, is already in a higher state than poetry can confer.
"The essence of poetry is invention; such invention as, by producing something unexpected, surprises and delights. The topics of devotion are few, and being few are universally known: but few as they are, they can be made no more; they can receive no grace from novelty of sentiment, and very little from novelty of expression. Poetry pleases by exhibiting an idea more grateful in the mind than things themselves afford. This effect proceeds from the display of those parts of nature which attract, and the concealment of those that repel, the imagination; but religion must be shown as it is; suppression and addition equally corrupt it; and such as it is, it is known already. From poetry the reader justly expects, and from good poetry always obtains, the enlargement of his comprehension and the elevation of his fancy; but this is rarely to be hoped by Christians from metrical devotion. Whatever is great, desirable, or tremendous, is comprised in the name of the Supreme Being. Omnipotence cannot be exalted; Infinity cannot be amplified; Perfection cannot be improved.
"The employments of pious meditation are faith, thanksgiving, repentance, and supplication. Faith, invariably uniform, cannot be invested by fancy with decorations. Thanksgiving, though the most joyful of all holy effusions, yet addressed to a Being without passions, is confined to a few modes, and is to be felt rather than expressed. Repentance, trembling in the presence of the Judge, is not at leisure for cadences and epithets. Supplication to man may diffuse itself through many topics of persuasion; but supplication to God can only cry for mercy.
"Of sentiments purely religious, it will be found that the most simple expression is the most sublime. Poetry loses its lustre and its power, because it is applied to the decoration of something more excellent than itself. All that pious verse can do is to help the memory and delight the ear, and for these purposes it may be very useful; but it supplies nothing to the mind. The ideas of Christian Theology are too simple for eloquence, too sacred for fiction, and too majestic for ornament; to recommend them by tropes and figures, is to magnify by a concave mirror the sidereal hemisphere."
Here Dr Johnson confesses that sacred subjects are not unfit—that they are fit—for didactic and descriptive poetry. Now, this is a very wide and comprehensive admission; and being a right, and natural, and just admission, it cannot but strike the thoughtful reader at once as destructive of the great dogma by which Sacred Poetry is condemned. The doctrines of Religion may be defended, he allows, in a didactic poem—and, pray, how can they be defended unless they are also expounded? And how can they be expounded without being steeped, as it were, in religious feeling? Let such a poem be as didactic as can possibly be imagined, still it must be pervaded by the very spirit of religion—and that spirit, breathing throughout the whole, must also be frequently expressed, vividly, and passionately, and profoundly, in particular passages; and if so, must it not be, in the strictest sense, a Sacred poem?
"But," says Dr Johnson, "the subject of the disputation is not piety, but the motives to piety." Why introduce the word "disputation," as if it characterised justly and entirely all didactic poetry? And who ever heard of an essential distinction between piety, and motives to piety? Mr James Montgomery, in a very excellent Essay prefixed to that most interesting collection, "The Christian Poet," well observes, that "motives to piety must be of the nature of piety, otherwise they could never incite to it—the precepts and sanctions of the Gospel might as well be denied to be any part of the Gospel." And, for our own parts, we scarcely know what piety is, separated from its motives—or how, so separated, it could be expressed in words at all.
With regard, again, to descriptive poetry, the argument, if argument it may be called, is still more lame and impotent. "A poet," it is said, "may describe the beauty and the grandeur of nature, the flowers of the spring and the harvests of autumn, the vicissitudes of the tide and the revolutions of the sky, and praise his Maker in lines which no reader shall lay aside." Most true he may; but then we are told, "the subject of the description is not God, but the works of God!" Alas! what trifling—what miserable trifling is this! In the works of God, God is felt to be by us His creatures, whom He has spiritually endowed. We cannot look on them, even in our least elevated moods, without some shadow of love or awe; in our most elevated moods, we gaze on them with religion. By the very constitution of our intelligence, the effects speak of the cause. We are led by nature up to nature's God. The Bible is not the only revelation—there is another—dimmer but not less divine—for surely the works are as the words of God. No great poet, in describing the glories and beauties of the external world, is forgetful of the existence and attributes of the Most High. That thought, and that feeling, animate all his strains; and though he dare not to describe Him the Ineffable, he cannot prevent his poetry from being beautifully coloured by devotion, tinged by piety—in its essence it is religious.
It appears, then, that the qualifications or restrictions with which Dr Johnson is willing to allow that there may be didactic and descriptive sacred poetry, are wholly unmeaning, and made to depend on distinctions which have no existence.
Of narrative poetry of a sacred kind, Mr Montgomery well remarks, Johnson makes no mention, except it be implicated with the statement, that "the ideas of Christian Theology are too sacred for fiction—a sentiment more just than the admirers of Milton and Klopstock are willing to admit, without almost plenary indulgence in favour of these great, but not infallible authorities." Here Mr Montgomery expresses himself very cautiously—perhaps rather too much so—for he leaves us in the dark about his own belief. But this we do not hesitate to say, that though there is great danger of wrong being done to the ideas of Christian theology by poetry—a wrong which must be most painful to the whole inner being of a Christian; yet that there seems no necessity of such a wrong, and that a great poet, guarded by awe, and fear, and love, may move his wings unblamed, and to the glory of God, even among the most awful sanctities of his faith. These sanctities may be too awful for "fiction"—but fiction is not the word here, any more than disputation was the word there. Substitute for it the word poetry; and then, reflecting on that of Isaiah and of David, conversant with the Holy of Holies, we feel that it need not profane those other sanctities, if it be, like its subject, indeed divine. True, that those bards were inspired—with them
——"the name Of prophet and of poet was the same;"
but still, the power in the soul of a great poet, not in that highest of senses inspired, is, we may say it, of the same kind—inferior but in degree; for religion itself is always an inspiration. It is felt to be so in the prose of holy men—Why not in their poetry?
If these views be just, and we have expressed them "boldly, yet humbly"—all that remains to be set aside of Dr Johnson's argument is, "that contemplative piety, or the intercourse between God and man, cannot be poetical. Man admitted to implore the mercy of his Creator, and plead the merits of his Redeemer, is already in a higher state than poetry can confer."
There is something very fine and true in the sentiment here; but the sentiment is only true in some cases, not in all. There are different degrees in the pious moods of the most pious spirit that ever sought communion with its God and its Saviour. Some of these are awe-struck and speechless. That line,
"Come, then, expressive silence, muse his praise!"
denies the power of poetry to be adequate to adoration, while the line itself is most glorious poetry. The temper even of our fallen spirits may be too divine for any words. Then the creature kneels mute before his Maker. But are there not other states of mind in which we feel ourselves drawn near to God, when there is no such awful speechlessness laid upon us—but when, on the contrary, our tongues are loosened, and the heart that burns within will speak? Will speak, perhaps, in song—in the inspiration of our piety breathing forth hymns and psalms—poetry indeed—if there be poetry on this earth? Why may we not say that the spirits of just men made perfect—almost perfect, by such visitations from heaven—will break forth—"rapt, inspired," into poetry which may be called holy, sacred, divine?
We feel as if treading on forbidden ground—and therefore speak reverently; but still we do not fear to say, that between that highest state of contemplative piety which must be mute, down to that lowest state of the same feeling which evanishes and blends into mere human emotion as between creature and creature, there are infinite degrees of emotion which may be all embodied, without offence, in words—and if so embodied, with sincerity and humility, will be poetry, and poetry too of the most beautiful and affecting kind.
"Man, admitted to implore the mercy of his Creator, and plead the merits of his Redeemer, is already in a higher state than poetry can confer." Most true, indeed. But, though poetry did not confer that higher state, poetry may nevertheless, in some measure and to some degree, breathe audibly some of the emotions which constitute its blessedness; poetry may even help the soul to ascend to those celestial heights; because poetry may prepare it, and dispose it to expand itself, and open itself out to the highest and holiest influences of religion; for poetry there may be inspired directly from the word of God, using the language and strong in the spirit of that word—unexistent but for the Old and the New Testament.