INTRODUCTION TO CANTO THIRD.
TO WILLIAM ERSKINE, ESQ.
Ashestiel, Ettrick Forest.
Like April morning clouds, that pass,
With varying shadow, o’er the grass,
And imitate, on field and furrow,
Life’s chequer’d scene of joy and sorrow;
Like streamlet of the mountain north, 5
Now in a torrent racing forth,
Now winding slow its silver train,
And almost slumbering on the plain;
Like breezes of the autumn day,
Whose voice inconstant dies away, 10
And ever swells again as fast,
When the ear deems its murmur past;
Thus various, my romantic theme
Flits, winds, or sinks, a morning dream.
Yet pleased, our eye pursues the trace 15
Of Light and Shade’s inconstant race;
Pleased, views the rivulet afar,
Weaving its maze irregular;
And pleased, we listen as the breeze
Heaves its wild sigh through Autumn trees; 20
Then, wild as cloud, or stream, or gale,
Flow on, flow unconfined, my Tale!
Need I to thee, dear Erskine, tell
I love the license all too well,
In sounds now lowly, and now strong, 25
To raise the desultory song?
Oft, when ‘mid such capricious chime,
Some transient fit of lofty rhyme
To thy kind judgment seem’d excuse
For many an error of the muse, 30
Oft hast thou said, ‘If, still misspent,
Thine hours to poetry are lent,
Go, and to tame thy wandering course,
Quaff from the fountain at the source;
Approach those masters, o’er whose tomb 35
Immortal laurels ever bloom:
Instructive of the feebler bard,
Still from the grave their voice is heard;
From them, and from the paths they show’d,
Choose honour’d guide and practised road; 40
Nor ramble on through brake and maze,
With harpers rude of barbarous days.
‘Or deem’st thou not our later time
Yields topic meet for classic rhyme?
Hast thou no elegiac verse 45
For Brunswick’s venerable hearse?
What! not a line, a tear, a sigh,
When valour bleeds for liberty?-
Oh, hero of that glorious time,
When, with unrivall’d light sublime,- 50
Though martial Austria, and though all
The might of Russia, and the Gaul,
Though banded Europe stood her foes-
The star of Brandenburgh arose!
Thou couldst not live to see her beam 55
For ever quench’d in Jena’s stream.
Lamented Chief!-it was not given
To thee to change the doom of Heaven,
And crush that dragon in its birth,
Predestined scourge of guilty earth. 60
Lamented Chief!-not thine the power,
To save in that presumptuous hour,
When Prussia hurried to the field,
And snatch’d the spear, but left the shield!
Valour and skill ‘twas thine to try, 65
And, tried in vain, ‘twas thine to die.
Ill had it seem’d thy silver hair
The last, the bitterest pang to share,
For princedoms reft, and scutcheons riven,
And birthrights to usurpers given; 70
Thy land’s, thy children’s wrongs to feel,
And witness woes thou could’st not heal!
On thee relenting Heaven bestows
For honour’d life an honour’d close;
And when revolves, in time’s sure change, 75
The hour of Germany’s revenge,
When, breathing fury for her sake,
Some new Arminius shall awake,
Her champion, ere he strike, shall come
To whet his sword on BRUNSWICK’S tomb, 80
‘Or of the Red-Cross hero teach
Dauntless in dungeon as on breach:
Alike to him the sea, the shore,
The brand, the bridle, or the oar:
Alike to him the war that calls 85
Its votaries to the shatter’d walls,
Which the grim Turk, besmear’d with blood,
Against the Invincible made good;
Or that, whose thundering voice could wake
The silence of the polar lake, 90
When stubborn Russ, and metal’d Swede,
On the warp’d wave their death-game play’d;
Or that, where Vengeance and Affright
Howl’d round the father of the fight,
Who snatch’d, on Alexandria’s sand, 95
The conqueror’s wreath with dying hand.
‘Or, if to touch such chord be thine,
Restore the ancient tragic line,
And emulate the notes that rung
From the wild harp, which silent hung 100
By silver Avon’s holy shore,
Till twice an hundred years roll’d o’er;
When she, the bold Enchantress, came,
With fearless hand and heart on flame!
From the pale willow snatch’d the treasure, 105
And swept it with a kindred measure,
Till Avon’s swans, while rung the grove
With Montfort’s hate and Basil’s love,
Awakening at the inspired strain,
Deem’d their own Shakspeare lived again.’ 110
Thy friendship thus thy judgment wronging,
With praises not to me belonging,
In task more meet for mightiest powers,
Wouldst thou engage my thriftless hours.
But say, my Erskine, hast thou weigh’d 115
That secret power by all obey’d,
Which warps not less the passive mind,
Its source conceal’d or undefined;
Whether an impulse, that has birth
Soon as the infant wakes on earth, 120
One with our feelings and our powers,
And rather part of us than ours;
Or whether fitlier term’d the sway
Of habit, form’d in early day?
Howe’er derived, its force confest 125
Rules with despotic sway the breast,
And drags us on by viewless chain,
While taste and reason plead in vain.
Look east, and ask the Belgian why,
Beneath Batavia’s sultry sky, 130
He seeks not eager to inhale
The freshness of the mountain gale,
Content to rear his whiten’d wall
Beside the dank and dull canal?
He’ll say, from youth he loved to see 135
The white sail gliding by the tree.
Or see yon weatherbeaten hind,
Whose sluggish herds before him wind,
Whose tatter’d plaid and rugged cheek
His northern clime and kindred speak; 140
Through England’s laughing meads he goes,
And England’s wealth around him flows;
Ask, if it would content him well,
At ease in those gay plains to dwell,
Where hedge-rows spread a verdant screen, 145
And spires and forests intervene,
And the neat cottage peeps between?
No! not for these will he exchange
His dark Lochaber’s boundless range;
Not for fair Devon’s meads forsake 150
Bennevis grey, and Carry’s lake.
Thus while I ape the measure wild
Of tales that charm’d me yet a child,
Rude though they be, still with the chime
Return the thoughts of early time; 155
And feelings, roused in life’s first day,
Glow in the line, and prompt the lay.
Then rise those crags, that mountain tower
Which charm’d my fancy’s wakening hour.
Though no broad river swept along, 160
To claim, perchance, heroic song;
Though sigh’d no groves in summer gale,
To prompt of love a softer tale;
Though scarce a puny streamlet’s speed
Claim’d homage from a shepherd’s reed; 165
Yet was poetic impulse given,
By the green hill and clear blue heaven.
It was a barren scene, and wild,
Where naked cliff’s were rudely piled;
But ever and anon between 170
Lay velvet tufts of loveliest green;
And well the lonely infant knew
Recesses where the wall-flower grew,
And honey-suckle loved to crawl
Up the low crag and ruin’d wall. 175
I deem’d such nooks the sweetest shade
The sun in all its round survey’d;
And still I thought that shatter’d tower
The mightiest work of human power;
And marvell’d as the aged hind 180
With some strange tale bewitch’d my mind,
Of forayers, who, with headlong force,
Down from that strength had spurr’d their horse,
Their southern rapine to renew,
Far in the distant Cheviots blue, 185
And, home returning, fill’d the hall
With revel, wassel-rout, and brawl.
Methought that still with trump and clang,
The gateway’s broken arches rang;
Methought grim features, seam’d with scars, 190
Glared through the window’s rusty bars,
And ever, by the winter hearth,
Old tales I heard of woe or mirth,
Of lovers’ slights, of ladies’ charms,
Of witches’ spells, of warriors’ arms; 195
Of patriot battles, won of old
By Wallace wight and Bruce the bold;
Of later fields of feud and fight,
When, pouring from their Highland height,
The Scottish clans, in headlong sway, 200
Had swept the scarlet ranks away.
While stretch’d at length upon the floor,
Again I fought each combat o’er,
Pebbles and shells, in order laid,
The mimic ranks of war display’d; 205
And onward still the Scottish Lion bore,
And still the scattered Southron fled before.
Still, with vain fondness, could I trace,
Anew, each kind familiar face,
That brighten’d at our evening fire! 210
From the thatch’d mansion’s grey-hair’d Sire,
Wise without learning, plain and good,
And sprung of Scotland’s gentler blood;
Whose eye, in age, quick, clear, and keen,
Show’d what in youth its glance had been; 215
Whose doom discording neighbours sought,
Content with equity unbought;
To him the venerable Priest,
Our frequent and familiar guest,
Whose life and manners well could paint 220
Alike the student and the saint;
Alas! whose speech too oft I broke
With gambol rude and timeless joke:
For I was wayward, bold, and wild,
A self-will’d imp, a grandame’s child; 225
But half a plague, and half a jest,
Was still endured, beloved, caress’d.
From me, thus nurtured, dost thou ask
The classic poet’s well-conn’d task?
Nay, Erskine, nay-On the wild hill 230
Let the wild heath-bell flourish still;
Cherish the tulip, prune the vine,
But freely let the woodbine twine,
And leave untrimm’d the eglantine:
Nay, my friend, nay-Since oft thy praise 235
Hath given fresh vigour to my lays;
Since oft thy judgment could refine
My flatten’d thought, or cumbrous line;
Still kind, as is thy wont, attend,
And in the minstrel spare the friend. 240
Though wild as cloud, as stream, as gale,
Flow forth, flow unrestrain’d, my Tale!