Verse > Anthologies > William Stanley Braithwaite, ed. > The Book of Georgian Verse
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William Stanley Braithwaite, ed.  The Book of Georgian Verse.  1909.
 
Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland
By William Collins (1721–1759)
 
HOME, 1 thou return’st from Thames, whose Naiads long
  Have seen thee lingering with a fond delay,
  ’Mid those soft friends, whose hearts, some future day,
Shall melt, perhaps, to hear thy tragic song.
Go, not unmindful of that cordial youth        5
  Whom, long endear’d, thou leav’st by Levant’s side;
Together let us wish him lasting truth,
  And joy untainted with his destined bride.
Go! nor regardless, while these numbers boast
  My short-lived bliss, forget my social name;        10
But think, far off, how, on the southern coast,
  I met thy friendship with an equal flame!
Fresh to that soil thou turn’st, where every vale
  Shall prompt the poet, and his song demand:
To thee thy copious subjects ne’er shall fail;        15
  Thou need’st but take thy pencil to thy hand,
And paint what all believe, who own thy genial land.
 
There must thou wake perforce thy Doric quill;
  ’Tis Fancy’s land to which thou sett’st thy feet;
  Where still, ’tis said, the fairy people meet,        20
Beneath each birken shade, on mead or hill.
There, each trim lass, that skims the milky store,
  To the swart tribes their creamy bowls allots;
By night they sip it round the cottage door,
  While airy minstrels warble jocund notes.        25
There, every herd, by sad experience, knows
  How, wing’d with fate, their elf-shot arrows fly,
When the sick ewe her summer food foregoes,
  Or, stretch’d on earth, the heart-smit heifers lie.
Such airy beings awe the untutor’d swains;        30
  Nor thou, though learn’d, his homelier thoughts neglect;
Let thy sweet muse the rural faith sustain;
  These are the themes of simple, sure effect,
That add new conquests to her boundless reign
  And fill, with double force, her heart-commanding strain.        35
 
E’en yet preserved, how often mayst thou hear,
  Where to the pole the Boreal mountains run,
  Taught by the father, to his listening son,
Strange lays, whose power had charm’d a Spenser’s ear.
At every pause, before thy mind possest,        40
  Old Runic bards shall seem to rise around,
With uncouth lyres, in many-colour’d vest,
  Their matted hair with boughs fantastic crown’d:
Whether thou bid’st the well-taught hind repeat
  The choral dirge, that mourns some chieftain brave,        45
When every shrieking maid her bosom beat,
  And strew’d with choicest herbs his scented grave!
Or whether, sitting in the shepherd’s shiel,
  Thou hear’st some sounding tale of war’s alarms;
When at the bugle’s call, with fire and steel,        50
  The sturdy clans pour’d forth their brawny swarms,
And hostile brothers met, to prove each other’s arms.
 
’Tis thine to sing, how, framing hideous spells,
  In Sky’s lone isle, the gifted wizard seer,
  Lodged in the wintry cave with Fate’s fell spear,        55
Or in the depth of Uist’s dark forest dwells:
  How they, whose sight such dreary dreams engross,
With their own visions oft astonish’d droop,
  When, o’er the watery strath, or quaggy moss,
They see the gliding ghosts unbodied troop.        60
  Or, if in sports, or on the festive green,
Their destined glance some fated youth descry,
  Who now, perhaps, in lusty vigour seen,
And rosy health, shall soon lamented die.
  For them the viewless forms of air obey;        65
Their bidding heed, and at their beck repair:
  They know what spirit brews the stormful day,
And, heartless, oft like moody madness, stare
To see the phantom train their secret work prepare.
 
(To monarchs dear, some hundred miles astray,        70
  Oft have they seen Fate give the fatal blow!
  The seer, in Sky, shriek’d as the blood did flow,
When headless Charles warm on the scaffold lay!
As Boreas threw his young Aurora forth, 2
  In the first year of the first George’s reign,        75
And battles raged in welkin of the North,
  They mourn’d in air, fell, fell Rebellion slain!
And, as, of late, they joy’d in Preston’s fight,
  Saw, at sad Falkirk, all their hopes near crown’d!
They raved! divining, through their second sight, 3        80
  Pale, red Culloden, where these hopes were drown’d!
Illustrious William! 4 Britain’s guardian name!
  One William saved us from a tyrant’s stroke;
He, for a sceptre, gain’d heroic fame,
  But thou, more glorious, Slavery’s chain hast broke,        85
To reign a private man, and bow to Freedom’s yoke!
 
These, too, thou’lt sing! for well thy magic muse
  Can to the topmost heaven of grandeur soar;
  Or stoop to wail the swain that is no more!
Ah, homely swains! your homeward steps ne’er lose;        90
  Let not dank Will 5 mislead you to the heath;
Dancing in mirky night, o’er fen and lake,
  He glows to draw you downward to your death,
In his bewitch’d, low, marshy, willow brake!)
What though far off, from some dark dell espied,        95
  His glimmering mazes cheer the excursive sight,
Yet turn, ye wanderers, turn your steps aside,
  Nor trust the guidance of that faithless light;
For watchful, lurking, ’mid the unrustling reed,
  At those mirk hours the wily monster lies,        100
And listens oft to hear the passing steed,
  And frequent round him rolls his sullen eyes,
If chance his savage wrath may some weak wretch surprise.
 
Ah, luckless swain, o’er all unblest indeed!
  Whom late bewilder’d in the dank, dark fen,        105
  Far from his flocks, and smoking hamlet, then!
To that sad spot where hums the sedgy weed:
  On him, enraged, the fiend in angry mood,
Shall never look with pity’s kind concern,
  But instant, furious, raise the whelming flood        110
O’er its drown’d banks, forbidding all return!
  Or, if he meditate his wish’d escape,
To some dim hill, that seems uprising near,
  To his faint eye the grim and grisly shape,
In all its terrors clad, shall wild appear.        115
  Meantime the watery surge shall round him rise,
Pour’d sudden forth from every swelling source!
  What now remains but tears and hopeless sighs?
His fear-shook limbs have lost their youthly force,
And down the waves he floats, a pale and breathless corse!        120
 
For him in vain his anxious wife shall wait,
  Or wander forth to meet him on his way;
  For him in vain at to-fall of the day,
His babes shall linger at the unclosing gate!
  Ah, ne’er shall he return! Alone, if night        125
Her travel’d limbs in broken slumber steep,
  With drooping willows drest, his mournful sprite
Shall visit sad, perchance, her silent sleep:
  Then he, perhaps, with moist and watery hand,
Shall fondly seem to press her shuddering cheek,        130
  And with his blue swoln face before her stand,
And, shivering cold, these piteous accents speak;
  ‘Pursue, dear wife, thy daily toils pursue,
At dawn or dusk, industrious as before;
  Nor e’er of me one helpless thought renew,        135
While I lie weltering on the osier’d shore,
Drown’d by the Kelpie’s 6 wrath, nor e’er shall aid thee more!’
 
Unbounded is thy range; with varied skill
  Thy muse may, like those feathery tribes which spring
  From their rude rocks, extend her skirting wing        140
Round the moist marge of each cold Hebrid isle,
  To that hoar pile 7 which still its ruins shows:
In those small vaults a pigmy folk is found,
  Whose bones the delver with his spade upthrows,
And culls them, wondering, from the hallow’d ground!        145
Or thither, 8 where, beneath the showery west,
  The mighty kings of three fair realms are laid;
Once foes, perhaps, together now they rest,
  No slaves revere them, and no wars invade:
Yet frequent now, at midnight’s solemn hour,        150
  The rifted mounds their yawning cells unfold,
And forth the monarchs stalk with sovereign power,
  In pageant robes, and wreath’d with sheeny gold,
And on their twilight tombs aerial council hold.
 
But O, o’er all, forget not Kilda’s race,        155
  On whose bleak rocks, which brave the wasting tides,
  Fair Nature’s daughter, Virtue, yet abides.
Go! just as they, their blameless manners trace!
Then to my ear transmit some gentle song,
Of those whose lives are yet sincere and plain,        160
  Their bounded walks the rugged cliffs along,
And all their prospect but the wintry main.
  With sparing temperance, at the needful time,
They drain the scented spring; or, hunger-prest,
  Along the Atlantic rock, undreading climb,        165
And of its eggs despoil the solan’s nest.
  Thus, blest in primal innocence, they live
Sufficed, and happy with that frugal fare
  Which tasteful toil and hourly danger give.
Hard is their shallow soil, and bleak and bare;        170
  Nor ever vernal bee was heard to murmur there!
 
Nor need’st thou blush that such false themes engage
  Thy gentle mind, of fairer stores possest;
  For not alone they touch the village breast,
But fill’d, in elder time, the historic page.        175
There, Shakespeare’s self, with every garland crown’d,
  Flew to those fairy climes his fancy sheen,
In musing hour, his wayward Sisters found,
  And with their terrors drest the magic scene.
From them he sung, when, ’mid his bold design,        180
  Before the Scot, afflicted, and aghast!
The shadowy kings of Banquo’s fated line
  Through the dark cave in gleamy pageant pass’d.
Proceed! nor quit the tales which, simply told,
  Could once so well my answering bosom pierce;        185
Proceed, in forceful sounds, and colours bold,
  The native legends of thy land rehearse;
To such adapt thy lyre, and suit thy powerful verse.
 
In scenes like these, which, daring to depart
  From sober truth, are still to nature true,        190
  And call forth fresh delight to Fancy’s view,
The heroic muse employ’d her Tasso’s art!
How have I trembled, when, at Tancred’s stroke,
  Its gushing blood the gaping cypress pour’d!
When each live plant with mortal accents spoke,        195
  And the wild blast upheaved the vanish’d sword!
How have I sat, when piped the pensive wind,
  To hear his harp by British Fairfax strung!
Prevailing poet! whose undoubting mind
  Believed the magic wonders which he sung!        200
Hence, at each sound, imagination glows!
  Hence, at each picture, vivid life starts here!
Hence his warm lay with softest sweetness flows!
  Melting it flows, pure, murmuring, strong, and clear,
And fills the impassion’d heart, and wins the harmonious ear!        205
 
All hail, ye scenes that o’er my soul prevail!
  Ye splendid friths and lakes, which, far away,
  Are by smooth Annan fill’d, or pastoral Tay,
Or Don’s romantic springs; at distance, hail!
The time shall come, when I, perhaps, may tread        210
  Your lowly glens, o’erhung with spreading broom;
Or, o’er your stretching heaths, by Fancy led;
  Or o’er your mountains creep, in awful gloom!
Then will I dress once more the faded bower,
  Where Jonson sat in Drummond’s classic shade;        215
Or crop, from Tiviot’s dale, each lyric flower,
  And mourn, on Yarrow’s banks, where Willy’s laid;
Meantime, ye powers that on the plains which bore
  The cordial youth, on Lothian’s plains, attend!—
Where’er Home dwells, on hill, or lowly moor,        220
  To him I lose, your kind protection lend,
And, touch’d with love like mine, preserve my absent friend!
 
Note 1. In the Essay prefixed to Mrs. Barbauld’s edition of Collins’ poems, published in 1802, she says of this Ode: “To the poems which have usually been published as the work of Collins is now first added An Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, which was read by the Rev. Dr. Carlyle on the 19th of April, 1784, at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. It was inscribed to Mr. John Home, and fell into the hands of Dr. Carlyle, among the papers of a deceased friend, where it lay unregarded, till a hint given by Dr. Johnson, in his Life of Collins, of the existence of such a poem, revived the remembrance of it, and after diligent search it was found in the handwriting of the author. It seems to have been the first rough draft of the poem: it was written in 1749, and probably the author, who died in 1756 (the true date of Collins’ death has been determined as 1759), never enjoyed spirits sufficient to finish it. Several hemistichs and words left blank have been supplied by Dr. Carlyle: and the fifth, and half of the sixth stanza, by Dr. Mackenzie.” Sir Egerton Brydges, in his Essay prefixed to the Aldine Edition of Collins, states his conviction that the interpolated stanzas mentioned above were by other hands, while Dyce appears to have accepted the entire poem as Collins. [back]
Note 2. Young Aurora forth: Collins here refers to the first appearance of the Northern Lights which occurred about 1715. [back]
Note 3. Their second sight: a term used for the divination of the highlanders. [back]
Note 4. Illustrious William: the Duke of Cumberland who defeated the Pretender at the battle of Culloden. [back]
Note 5. Dank Will: Will-o’-the-Wisp, Jack-o’-Lantern, a fiery meteor that hovers in the air over marshy and fenny places. [back]
Note 6. Kelpie’s: a water fiend. [back]
Note 7. To that hoar pile: referring to the Isle of Pigmies in the Hebrides, where it is said that several miniature human bones have been dug up in the ruins of a chapel there. [back]
Note 8. Or thither: i.e., Icolmkill where many ancient Scottish, Irish, and Norwegian kings are buried. [back]
 
 
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