“An’ syne whan nichts grew cauld an’ lang,
Ae while he sicht–ae while he sang.”
Second edition, with additions. London, 1845.
We cannot give a notion of the plan and contents of this little volume better than by copying some passages from the Preface:
“The narrative portion of theses pages,” says Thom, “is a record of scenes and circumstances interwoven with my experience—with my destiny. * * The feelings and fancies, the pleasure and the pain that hovered about my aimless existence were all my own—my property. These aerial investments I held and fashioned into measured verse. * * The self-portraiture herein attempted is not altogether Egotism neither, inasmuch as the main lineaments of the sketch are to be found in the separate histories of a thousand families in Scotland within these last ten years. That fact, however, being contemplated in mass, and in reference to its bulk only, acts more on the wonder than on the pity of mankind, as if human sympathies, like the human eye, could not compass an object exceedingly large, and, at the same time, exceedingly near. It is no small share in the end and aim of the present little work, to impart to one portion of the community a glimpse of what is sometimes going on in another; and even if only that is accomplished, some good service will be done, I have long had the notion that many of the heart-burnings that run through the SOCIAL WHOLE spring not so much from the distinctiveness of classes as their mutual ignorance of each other. The miserably rich look upon the miserably poor with distrust and dread, scarcely giving them credit for sensibility sufficient to feel their own sorrows. That is ignorance with its gilded side. The poor, in turn, foster a hatred of the wealthy as a sole inheritance—look on grandeur as their natural enemy, and bend to the rich man’s rule in gall and bleeding scorn. Shallows on the one side and Demagogues on the other, are the portions that come oftenest into contact. These are the luckless things that skirt the great divisions, exchanging all that is offensive therein. ‘MAN, KNOW THYSELF,’ should be written on the right hand; on the left, ‘Men, know EACH OTHER.’” * * * * *
In this book, the Recollections are introduced for the sake of the “Rhymes,” and in the same relationship as parent and child, one the offspring of the other; and in that association alone can they be interesting. “I write no more either than what I knew—and not all of that—so Feeling has left Fancy little to do in the matter.”
There are two ways of considering Poems, or the products of literature in general. We may tolerate only what is excellent, and demand that whatever is consigned to print for the benefit of the human race should exhibit fruits in perfect shape, color, and flavor, enclosing kernels of permanent value.
Those who demand this will be content only with the Iliads and Odysseys of the mind’s endeavor.—They can feed no where but at rich men’s tables; in the wildest recess of nature roots and berries will not content them. They say, “If you can thus satiate your appetite it is degrading; we, the highly cultivated in taste and the tissue of the mind, can nowhere be appeased unless by golden apples, served up on silver dishes.”
But on the other hand, literature may be regarded as the great mutual system of interpretation between all kinds and classes of men. It is an epistolary correspondence between brethren of one family subject to many and wide separations, and anxious to remain in spiritual presence one of another. These letters may be written by the prisoner in soot and water, illustrated by rude sketches in charcoal;—by nature’s nobleman, free to use his inheritance, in letters of gold, with the fair margin filled with exquisite miniatures;—to the true man each will have value, first in proportion to the degree of its revelation as to the life of its human soul, second, in proportion to the perfection of form in which that revelation is expressed.
In like manner are there two modes of criticism. One which tries by the highest standard of literary perfection the critic is capable of conceiving each work which comes his way; rejecting all that it is possible to reject and reserving for toleration only what is capable of standing the severest test. It crashes to the earth without mercy all the humble buds of Phantasy, all the plants that, though green and fruitful, are also a prey to insects, or have suffered by drouth. It weeds well the garden, and cannot believe that the weed in its native soil may be a pretty graceful plant.
There is another way which enters into the natural history of every thing that breathes and lives, which believes no impulse to be entirely in vain, which scrutinizes circumstances, motive and object before it condemns, and believes there is a beauty in its natural form, if its law and purpose be understood. It does not consider literature merely as the garden of the nation, but as the growth of the entire region, with all its variety of mountain, forest, pasture, and tillage lands. Those who observe in the spirit will often experience from some humble offering to the Muses, the delight felt by the naturalist in the grasses and lichens of some otherwise barren spot. These are the earliest and humblest efforts of nature, but to a discerning eye they indicate the entire range of her energies.
These two schools have each their dangers. The first tends to hypercriticism and pedantry, to a cold restriction of the unstudied section of a large and flowing life. In demanding that the stream should always flow transparent over golden sands, it tends to repress its careless majesty, its vigor, and its fertilizing power.
The other shares the usual perils of the genial and affectionate; it tends to indiscriminate indulgence and a levelling of the beautiful with what is merely tolerable. For indeed the vines need judicious pruning if they are to bring us the ruby wine.
In the golden age to which we are ever looking forward, these two tendencies will be harmonized. The highest sense of fulfilled excellence will be found to consist with the largest appreciation of every sign of life. The eye of man is fitted to range all around no less than to be lifted on high.
Meanwhile the spirit of the time, which is certainly seeking, though by many and strange ways, the greatest happiness for the greatest number, by discoveries which facilitate mental no less than bodily communication, till soon it will be almost as easy to get your thought printed or engraved on a thousand leaves as to drop it from the pen on one, and by the simultaneous bubbling up of rills of thought in a thousand hitherto obscure and silent places, declares that the genial and generous tendency shall have the lead, at least for the present.
We are not ourselves at all concerned, lest excellent expression should cease because the power of speech to some extent becomes more general. The larger the wave and the more fish it sweeps along the likelier that some fine ones should enrich the net. It has always been so. The great efforts of art belong to artistic regions, where the boys in the street draw sketches on the wall and torment melodies on rude flutes; shoals of sonneteers follow in the wake of the great poet. The electricity which flashes with the thunderbolts of Jove must first pervade the whole atmosphere.
How glad then are we to see such men as Prince and Thom, if they are forced by ‘poorith cauld’ to sigh much in the long winter night, which brings them neither work nor pleasure, can also sing between.
Thom passed his boyhood in a factory, where, beside the disadvantage of ceaseless toil and din, he describes himself as being under the worst moral influences. These, however, had no power to corrupt his native goodness and sweetness. One of the most remarkable things about him is his disposition to look on the bright side, and the light and gentle playfulness with which he enlivened, when possible, the darkest passages of his life.
The only teachers that found access to the Factory were some works of contemporary poets. These were great contemporaries for him. Scott, Byron, Moore, breathed full enough to fan a good blaze.—But still more important to the Scotsman and the craftsman were the teachings of those commemorated in the following passage which describes the first introduction of them to the literary world, and gives no unfair specimen both of his prose and his poetry:
“Nearer and dearer to hearts like ours was the Ettrick Shepherd, then in his full tide of song and story; but nearer and dearer still than he, or any living songster—to us dearer—was our ill-fated fellow-craftsman, Tannahill, who had just then taken himself from a neglecting world, while yet that world waxed mellow in his lay. Poor weaver chiel! What we owe to thee! Your “Braes o’ Balquidder,” and “Yon Burnside,” and “Gloomy Winter,” and the “Minstrel’s” wailing ditty, and the noble “Gleneifer.” Oh! how they did ring above the rattling of a hundred shuttles! Let me again proclaim the debt we owe those Spirit Songs, as they walked in melody from loom to loom, ministering to the low-hearted; and when the breast was filled with everything but hope and happiness, and all but seared, let only break forth the healthy and vigorous chorus. “A man’s a man for a’ that,” the fagged weaver brightens up. His very shuttle skytes boldly along, and clatters through in faithful time to the tune of his merrier shopmates!
Who dare measure in doubt the restraining influences of these very Songs? To us they were all instead of sermons. Had one of us been bold enough to enter a church, he must have been ejected for the sake of decency. His forlorn and curiously patched habiliments would have contested the point of attraction with the ordinary eloquence of that period. So for all parties it was better that he kept to his garret, or wandered far “in the deep green wood.” Church bells rang not for us. Poets were indeed our Priests. But for those, the last relic of our moral existence would have surely passed away!
Song was the dew-drops that gathered during the long dark night of despondency, and were sure to glitter in the very first blink of the sun. * * * * To us Virtue, in whatever shape, came only in shadow, but even by that we saw her sweet proportions, and sometimes fain would have sought a kind acquaintance with her.—Thinking that the better features of humanity could not be utterly defaced where song and melody were permitted to exist, and that where they were not all crushed, Hope and Mercy might yet bless the spot, some waxed bold, and for a time took leave of those who were called to “sing ayont the moon,” groping amidst the material around and stringing it up, ventured on a home-made lilt—Short was the search to find a newly kindled love, or some old heart abreaking. Such was aye amongst us and not always unnoticed, nor, as ye shall see, unsung.
It was not enough that we merely chaunted, and listened; but some more ambitious, or idle if ye will, they in time would try a self-conceived song. Just as if some funny little boy, bolder than the rest, would creep into the room where laid Neil Gow’s fiddle, and touch a note or two he could not name. How proud he is! how blest! for he had made a sound, and more, his playmates heard it, faith! Here I will introduce one of these early touches, not for any merit of its own, but it will show that we could sometimes bear and even seek for our minds a short residence, though not elegant at least sinless,—a fleeting visit of healthy things, though small they were in size and few in number. Spray from a gushing “linn,” if it slackened not the thirst, it cooled the brow.
The following ditty had its foundation in one of those luckless doings which ever and aye follow misguided attachments; and in our abode of freedom these were almost the only kind of attachments known; so they were all on the wrong side of durability and happiness.
We’ll meet in the you wood, ’neath a starless sky,
When wrestling leaves forsake ilk tree;
We mauna speak mair o’ the days gane by,
Nor o’ friends that again we never maun see;
Nae weak word o’mine shall remembrance gie
O’ vows that were made and were broken to me:
I’ll seem in my silence to reckon them dead,
A’ wither’d and lost as the leaves that we tread.
Alane ye maun meet me, when midnight is near,
By yon blighted auld bush that we fatally ken;
The voice that allured me, O! let me nae hear,
For my heart mauny beat to its music again.
In darkness we’ll meet, and in silence remain
Ilk word now and look now, were mockful or vain;
Ae mute moment morne the dream that mislead,
Syne sinder as cauld as the leaves that we tread.
This ditty was sung in the weaving shops, and when in the warbling of one who could lend a good voice to the occasion, and could coax the words and air into a sort of social understanding, then was it a song.
I cannot remember the precise date of this melancholy creation. Sure enough some time about 1826, when banks were falling like meteors, but rather oftener; the world seemed hurrying to ruin. The very Sun on high lent a helping heat—kindling Mirrimachi—Could Caledonia lay baked and cracked—yielding Lilliputian crops—a parody on corn. Amidst all this, and more than all this, weavers would sing. The factory-distinguished writer of these verses, though at fist indifferent, yet as they became more favored by his shopmates, and had actually been named without the gates, conceit gradually stole away under his better judgment; and at last one of his eyes—the weather eye—became firmly shut, while the other was immovably fixed on Parnassus. Why should his powers live and die in this black boundary? His song not be heard beyond the unpoetical brick walls of a factory? It was settled. He is off.—The shuttle for a time may go rot. No heed, no care of the hungry hours and hard weaving that must follow.—There he goes, and over his beating heart lies a well-folded, fairly-copied version of his first-born, as he wends his way to the printing office of the Aberdeen Journal.
One special crony, and only one, was in confidence, and no mean sharer was he in the unutterably curious feeling that sets in on the first throes of authorship.—Early on the morning of publication the anxious pair stood watchfully in a court that led to the printing office. The Confidant was in that moderately troublesome state known as fidgets, with now and then a qualm, inasmuch as having talked away two days’ work, there was not withal to settle up matters in his boarding-house that night. The Principal, although in the very same plight, felt not the very same way. His pain—for pain it was—had no connection with aught on earth, save and except the printing-office on which he gazed. Did his verses exist in print?
Woes on me! Why don’t they buy a paper? Man after man, lad and elderly women, passed each other with Journal at nose, heedless of all beside.
“Ask that man for a peep.”
“Have not I besought it of twenty?”
“Then let us try that chappie coming up.”
This was meant for a sulky little fellow, who refused flat to open his paper. Patience could do no more; it becked* away, quite; good manners and honesty followed. “We were left to ourselves.” The obstinate journal bearer was bourne into a house entry; we shut the door; and while he kicked and roared, we groped for the Poor Man’s Corner in the Journal, and were blest—the song was there!
Thom had no furtherance for many years after this first appearance. It was hard work at all times to win bread; when work failed he was obliged to wander on foot elsewhere to procure it, losing his youngest child in a barn from the hardships endured one cold night of this untimely “flitting;” his admirable wife too died prematurely from the same cause. At one time he was obliged to go with his little daughter and his flute (on which he is an excellent performer,) into the streets as a mendicant, to procure bread for his family. This last seems to have been far more cruel than any hardship to the honest pride native to the Scotchman. But there is another side. Like Prince, he was happily, as men in a rank more favored by fortune seldom are, in his choice of a wife. He had an equa mena, refined love, a brave, gentle and uncomplaining companion in every sorrow, and wrote from his own experience the following lines:
AIR—“Gin a bodie meet a bodie.”
They speak o’ wyles in woman’s smiles,
An’ ruin in her e’e—
I ken they bring a pang at whiles
That’s unco sair to dree;
But mind ye this, the half-ta’en kiss,
The first fond fa’in’ tear,
Is, Heaven kens, fu’ sweet amends
And tints o’ heaven here.
When twa leal hearts in fondness meet,
Life’s tempests howl in vain—
The very tears o’ love are sweet
When paid with tears again.
Shall napless prudence shake its pow,
Shall cauldrife caution fear?
Oh, dinna, dinna droun the lowe
That lichts a heaven here!
He was equally happy in his children, though the motherless bairns had to be sent, the little girl to tend cows, the darling boy to a hospital (where his being subjected, when alone, to a surgical operation, is the occasion of one of the poor Poet’s most touching strains.) They were indeed his children in love and sympathy, the source of thought and joy such as is never known to the rich man who gives up for banks and ships all the immortal riches, domestic joys might bring him, leaving his children first to the nursery-maid, then to hired masters, and last to the embrace of a corrupt world. He was also most happy in his “aerial investments,” and like Prince, so fortunate midway in life before his power of resistance was exhausted, and those bitterest of all bitter words TOO LATE, stamped upon his brow, to secure the enlightened assistance of one generous journal, the timely assistance of one generous friend, which, though little in money, was large in results. So Thom is far from an unfortunate man, though the portrait which we find in his book is marked with the wrinkles of such premature depth. Indeed he declares that while work was plenty and his wife with him, he was blest for “nine years with such happiness as rarely falls to the lot of a human being.”
Thom has a poetical mind, rather than is a poet. He has a delicate perception of relations, and is more a poet in discerning good occasions for poems than in using them. Accordingly, his prefaces too, or notes upon, his verses, are often, as was the case with Sir Walter Scott, far more poetical than the verses themselves. This is the case as to those which followed this little sketch:
“For a period of seventeen years, I was employed in a great weaving factory in Aberdeen. It contained upwards of three hundred looms, worked by as many male and female weavers. ’T was a sad place, indeed, and many a curiosity sort of man and woman entered that blue gate. Amongst the rest, that little, sly fellow Cupid would steal past ‘Willie the porter’ (who never dreamed of such a being)—steal in amongst us, and make a very harvest of it. Upon the remembrance of one of his rather grave doings, the song of ‘Mary’ is composed.—One of our shopmates, a virtuous young woman, fairly, though unconsciously, carried away the whole bulk and value of a poor weaver’s heart. He became restless and miserable, but could never muster spirit to speak his flame. “He never told his love”—yes, he told it to me. At his request, I told it to Mary, and she laughed. Five weeks passed away, and I saw him to the churchyard. For many days ere he died, Mary watched by his bedside, a sorrowful woman, indeed. Never did widow’s tears fall more burningly. It is twenty years since then. She is now a wife and a mother; but the remembrance of that, their last meeting, still haunts her sensitive nature, as if she had done a deed of blood.”
The charming little description of one of the rural academies known by the name of a “Wifie’s Squeel,” we reserve to reprint in another connexion.—As we are overstepping all limits, we shall give, in place of further comments, three specimens of how the Muse sings while she throws a shuttle. They are all interesting in different ways. “One of the Heart’s Struggles” is a faithful transcript of the refined feelings of the craftsman, how opposite to the vulgar selfishness which so often profanes the name of Love! “A Chieftain Unknown to the Queen,” expresses many thoughts that arose in our own mind as we used to read the bulletins of the Royal Progress through Scotland so carefully transferred to the columns of American journals. “Whisper Low” is perhaps the best specimen of song as song, to be found in this volume.*
AIR—“Willie was a wanton wag.”
“Oh! let me gang, ye dinna ken
How sair my mither flate yestreen—
An’, mourin’ o’er and o’er again,
Speir’d whaur I gaed sae later at e’en.
An’ aye I saw her dicht her een—
My very heart maist brak to see ’t—
I ’d byde a flyte though e’er sae keen,
But canna, canna thole her greet.”
“Oh! blessin’s guard my lassie’s brow,
And fend her couthie heart frae care;
Her lowein’ breast o’ love sae fu’—
How can I grudge a mither’s share?
The hinnysuckle ’s no sae fair,
In gloamin’s dewy pearl weet,
As my love’s e’en when tremblin’ there
The tear that owns a mither’s greet.”
“A heart a’ warmed to mither’s love—
Oh! that’s the heart whaur I wad be;
An’ when a mither’s lips reprove,
Oh! Gie me then the glist’nin’ e’e.
For feckless fa’s that look on me.
Howe’er sae feigned in cunnin’s sweet—
And loveless—luckless—is the e’e
That, tearless kens a mither’s greet.”
Auld Scotland cried “Welcome your Queen!”
Ilk glen echoed “Welcome your Queen!”
While turret and tower to mountain and moor,
Cried “Wauken and welcome out Queen!”
Syne, oh! sic deray was exprest,
As Scotland for lang hadna seen;
When bodies cam bickerin’ a’ clad in their best—
To beck their bonnie young Queen.
When a’ kinds o’ colors cam south,
An’ scarlet* frae sly Aberdeen;
Ilk flutterin’ heart flitted up to the mouth,
A’ pantin’ to peep at our Queen.
There were Earls on that glittering strand,
Wi’ diamonded Dame mony ane;
An’ weel might it seem that the happiest land
Was trod by the happiest Queen.
Then mony a chieftain’s heart
Beat high ’neath its proud tartar screen;
But one sullen chief stood afar and apart,
Nor recked he the smile o’ the Queen.
“Wha ’s he winna blink on our Queen,
Wi’ his haffets sae lyart and lean t’
O ho! Its is Want, wi’ his gathering gaunt,
An’ his millions of mourners unseen.
Proud Scotland cried “Hide them; of, hide!†
An’ lat nae them lich on her een;
Wi’ their bairnies bare, it would sorrow her sair!
For a mither’s heart moves in our Queen.”
* Scarlet is the town’s livery.
† The Paisley weavers form a portion in the retinue of this sulky chief. At the very time Scotland, with its best foot foremost, was prancing before its beloved Sovereign, the street orange-sellers of Edinburgh were ordered “to bed” till the Queen left, by the same sage authorities that were snoring when the Queen came. So—so—behind the fairest painting you will find mere canvas–aye, canvas!
Slowly, slowly the cauld moon creeps
Wi’ a licht unlo’esome to see;
It dwalls on the window whaur my love sleeps,
An’ she winna wauken to me.
Wearie, wearie the hours, and slow,
Wauken, my lovie, an’ whisper low!
There’s nae ae sang in heaven’s hicht,
Nor on the green earth doun,
Like soun’s that kind love kens at nicht,
When whispers hap the soun’;
Whisper, my bonnie lovie, whisper low!
They lack nae licht wha weel can speak
In love’s ain wordless wile;
Har ee-bree creepin’ on my cheek
Breathin’—bonnie lovie, whisper low!
Was yon a waft o’ her wee white han’,
Wi’ a warnin’ “wheesht” to me?
Or was it a gleam o’ that fause moon fa’in’
On my puir misguided e’e?
Waulken, my lovie, an’ whisper low!
“Thom’s Poems.” New-York Daily Tribune, 22 August 1845, p. 1.