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{David Gray, and other Essays, chiefly on Poetry 1868}


‘DAVID GRAY’ - continued



AT the request of many friends, I append to the biography of David Gray the two poems which have reference to his life and poems, 139 and which are to be found scattered among my other writings. The first poem, however, must not be read as literally interpreting all the facts of Gray’s life. It is merely a work of imagination, with a true experience for its groundwork.





O Loom, that loud art murmuring,
What doth he hear thee say or sing?
Thou hummest o’er the dead one’s songs,
     He cannot choose but hark,
His heart with tearful rapture throngs,
     But all his face grows dark.

O cottage Fire, that burnest bright,
What pictures sees he in thy light?
A city’s smoke, a white white face,
     Phantoms that fade and die,
And last, the lonely burial-place
     On the windy hill hard by.


’TIS near a year since Andrew went to sleep—
A winter and a summer. Yonder bed
Is where the boy was born, and where he died,
And yonder o’er the lowland is his grave:
The nook of grass and gowans where in thought                            140
I found you standing at the set o’ sun . . .
The Lord content us—’tis a weary world.
     These five-and-twenty years I’ve wrought and wrought   
In this same dwelling;—hearken! you can hear
The looms that whuzzle-whazzle ben the house,
Where Jean and Mysie, lassies in their teens,
And Jamie, and a neighbour’s son beside,
Work late and early. Andrew who is dead
Was our first-born; and when he crying came,
With beaded een and pale old-farrant face,
Out of the darkness, Mysie and mysel’
Were young and heartsome; and his smile, be sure,
Made daily toil the sweeter. Hey, his kiss
Put honey in the very porridge-pot!
His smile strung threads of sunshine on the loom!
And when he hung around his mother’s neck,
He decked her out in jewels and in gold
That even ladies envied! . . . Weel! . . . in time
Came other children, newer gems and gold,
And Andrew quitted Mysie’s breast for mine.
So years rolled on, like bobbins on a loom;
And Mysie and mysel’ had work to do,                                         141
And Andrew took his turn among the rest,
No sweeter, dearer; till, one Sabbath day,
When Andrew was a curly-pated tot
Of sunny summers six, I had a crack 
With Mister Mucklewraith the Minister,
Who put his kindly hand on Andrew’s head,
Call’d him a clever wean, a bonnie wean,
Clever at learning, while the mannikin
Blushed red as any rose, and peeping up
Went twinkle-twinkle with his round black een;
And then, while Andrew laughed and ran awa’,
The Minister went deeper in his praise,
And prophesied he would become in time
A man of mark. This set me thinking, sir,
And watching,—and the mannock puzzled me.

     Would sit for hours upon a stool and draw
Droll faces on the slate, while other lads
Were shouting at their play; dumbly would lie
Beside the Lintock, sailing, piloting,
Navies of docken-leaves a summer day;
Had learn’d the hymns of Doctor Watts by heart, 
And as for old Scots songs, could lilt them a’—
From Yarrow Braes to Bonnie Bessie Lee—                                  142
And where he learn’d them, only Heaven knew;
And oft, although he feared to sleep his lane,
Would cowrie at the threshold in a storm
To watch the lightning,—as a birdie sits,
With fluttering fearsome heart and dripping wings,
Among the branches. Once, I mind it weel,
In came he, running, with a bloody nose,
Part tears, part pleasure, to his fluttering heart
Holding a callow mavis golden-billed,
The thin white film of death across its een,
And told us, sobbing, how a neighbour’s son
Harried the birdie’s nest, and how by chance
He came upon the thief beside the burn
Throwing the birdies in to see them swim,
And how he fought him, till he yielded up
This one, the one remaining of the nest;—
And “O the birdie’s dying!” sobb’d he sore,
“The bonnie birdie’s dying!”—till it died;
And Andrew dug a grave behind the house,
Buried his dead, and covered it with earth,
And cut, to mark the grave, a grassy turf
Where blew a bunch of gowans. After that,
I thought and thought, and thick as bees the thoughts
Buzz’d to the whuzzle-whazzling of the loom—                               143
I could make naething of the mannikin!
But by-and-by, when Hope was making hay,      
And web-work rose, I settled it and said
To the good wife, “’Tis plain that yonder lad
Will never take to weaving—and at school
They say he beats the rest at all his tasks
Save figures only: I have settled it:
Andrew shall be a minister—a pride
And comfort to us, Mysie, in our age:
He shall to college in a year or twa
(If fortune smiles as now) at Edinglass.”
You guess the wife open’d her een, cried “Foosh!”
And called the plan a silly senseless dream,
A hopeless, useless castle in the air;
But ere the night was out, I talked her o’er,
And here she sat, her hands upon her knees,
Glow’ring and heark’ning, as I conjured up,
Amid the fog and reek of Edinglass
Life’s peaceful gloaming and a godly fame.
So it was broached, and after many cracks
With Mister Mucklewraith, we planned it a’,
And day by day we laid a penny by
To give the lad when he should quit the bield.

     And years wore on; and year on year was cheered                     144
By thoughts of Andrew, drest in decent black,
Throned in a Pulpit, preaching out the Word,
A house his own, and all the country-side
To touch their bonnets to him. Weel, the lad
Grew up among us, and at seventeen
His hands were genty white, and he was tall,
And slim, and narrow-shouldered; pale of face,
Silent, and bashful. Then we first began
To feel how muckle more he knew than we,
To eye his knowledge in a kind of fear,
As folk might look upon a crouching beast,
Bonnie, but like enough to rise and bite.
Up came the cloud between us silly folk
And the young lad that sat among his Books    
Amid the silence of the night; and oft
It pained us sore to fancy he would learn
Enough to make him look with shame and scorn
On this old dwelling. ’Twas his manner, sir!
He seldom lookt his father in the face,
And when he walkt about the dwelling, seemed
Like one superior; dumbly he would steal
To the burnside, or into Lintlin Woods,
With some new-farrant book,—and when I peeped,      
Behold a book of jingling-jangling rhyme,                                        145
Fine-written nothings on a printed page;      
And, pressed between the leaves, a flower perchance,
Anemone or blue Forget-me-not,                  
Pluckt in the grassy woodland. Then I peeped      
Into his drawer, among his papers there,
And found—you guess?—a heap of idle rhymes,
Big-sounding, like the worthless printed book:
Some in old copies scribbled, some on scraps
Of writing-paper, others finely writ
With spirls and flourishes on big white sheets.
I clenched my teeth, and groaned. The beauteous dream
Of the good Preacher in his braw black dress,
With house and income snug, began to fade
Before the picture of a drunken loon
Bawling out songs beneath the moon and stars,—
Of poet Willie Clay, who wrote a book
About King Robert Bruce, and aye got fu’,     
And scattered stars in verse, and aye got fu’,    
Wept the world’s sins, and then got fu’ again,—   
Of Ferguson, the feckless limb o’ law,—
And Robin Burns, who gauged the whiskey-casks
And brake the seventh commandment. So at once                          146
I up and said to Andrew, “You’re a fool!
You waste your time in silly senseless verse,
Lame as your own conceit: take heed! take heed!
Or, like your betters, come to grief ere long!”
But Andrew flusht and never spake a word,
Yet eyed me sidelong with his beaded een,
And turned awa’, and, as he turned, his look—
Half scorn, half sorrow—stang me. After that,
I felt he never heeded word of ours,
And though we tried to teach him common-sense
He idled as he pleased; and many a year,
After I spake him first, that look of his
Came dark between us, and I held my tongue,
And felt he scorned me for the poetry’s sake.
This coldness grew and grew, until at last
We sat whole nights before the fire and spoke
No word to one another. One fine day,
Says Mister Mucklewraith to me, says he,
“So! you’ve a Poet in your house!” and smiled;
“A Poet? God forbid!” I cried; and then
It all came out: how Andrew slyly sent
Verse to the paper; how they printed it
In Poets’ Corner; how the printed verse   
Had ca’t a girdle in the callant’s head;                                             147
How Mistress Mucklewraith they thought half daft
Had cut the verses out and pasted them
In albums, and had praised them to her friends.
I said but little; for my schemes and dreams
Were tumbling down like castles in the air,
And all my heart seemed hardening to stone.
But after that, in secret stealth, I bought
The papers, hunted out the printed verse,
And read it like a thief; thought some were good,
And others foolish havers, and in most
Saw naething, neither common-sense nor sound—
Words pottle-bellied, meaningless, and strange,
That strutted up and down the printed page,
Like Bailies made to bluster and look big.

     ’Twas useless grumbling. All my silent looks
Were lost, all Mysie’s flyting fell on ears
Choke-full of other counsel; but we talked
In bed o’ nights, and Mysie wept, and I
Felt stubborn, wrothful, wronged. It was to be!
But mind you, though we mourned, we ne’er forsook
The college scheme. Our sorrow, as we saw       
Our Andrew growing cold to homely ways,
And scornful of the bield, but strengthened more                             148
Our wholesome wish to educate the lad,
And do our duty by him, and help him on
With our rough hands—the Lord would do the rest,
The Lord would mend or mar him. So at last,
New-clad from top to toe in home-spun cloth,
With books and linen in a muckle trunk,
He went his way to college; and we sat,
Mysie and me, in weary darkness here;
For though the younger bairns were still about,
It seemed our hearts had gone to Edinglass
With Andrew, and were choking in the reek
Of Edinglass town.

                                 It was a gruesome fight,  
Both for oursel’s at home, and for the boy,
That student life at college. Hard it was
To scrape the fees together, but beside,
The lad was young and needed meat and drink.
We sent him meal and bannocks by the train,
And country cheeses; and with this and that,
Though sorely pushed, he throve, though now and then  
With empty wame: spinning the siller out                                         149
By teaching grammar in a school at night.
Whiles he came home: weary old-farrant face
Pale from the midnight candle; bring home
Good news of college. Then we shook awa’
The old sad load, began to build again
Our airy castles, and were hopeful Time
Would heal our wounds. But, sir, they plagued me still—
Some of his ways! When here, he spent his time
In yonder chamber, or about the woods,
And by the waterside,—and with him books
Of poetry, as of old. Mysel’ could get
But little of his company or tongue;
And when we talkt, atweel, a kind of frost,—
My consciousness of silly ignorance,
And worse, my knowledge that the lad himsel’
Felt sorely, keenly, all my ignorant shame,
Made talk a torture out of which we crept
With burning faces. Could you understand
One who was wild as if he found a mine
Of golden guineas, when he noticed first
The soft green streaks in a snowdrop’s inner leaves?
And once again, the moonlight glimmering    
Through watery transparent stalks of flax?                                       150
A flower’s a flower! . . . But Andrew snooved about,
Aye finding wonders, mighty mysteries,
In things that ilka learless cottar kenned.
Now, ’twas the falling snow or murmuring rain;
Now, ’twas the laverock singing in the sun,
And dropping slowly to the callow young;
Now, an old tune he heard his mother lilt;
And aye those trifles made his pallid face
Flush brighter, and his een flash keener far,
Than when he heard of yonder storm in France,
Or a King’s death, or, if the like had been,
A city’s downfall.

                               He was born with love
For things both great and small; yet seemed to prize    
The small things best. To me, it seemed indeed
The callant cared for nothing for itsel’,
But for some special quality it had
To set him thinking, thinking, or bestow    
A tearful sense he took for luxury.
He loved us in his silent fashion weel;
But in our feckless ignorance we knew                                            151
’Twas when the humour seized him—with a sense
Of some queer power we had to waken up
The poetry—ay, and help him in his rhyme!
A kind of patronising tenderness,         
A pitying pleasure in our Scottish speech
And homely ways, a love that made him note
Both ways and speech with the same curious joy
As fill’d him when he watched the birds and flowers.

     He was as sore a puzzle to us then
As he had been before. It puzzled us,
How a big lad, down-cheeked, almost a man,
Could pass his time in silly childish joys . . .
Until at last, a hasty letter came
From Andrew, telling he had broke awa’
From college, packed his things, and taken train
To London city, where he hoped (he said)
To make both fortune and a noble fame
Through a grand poem, carried in his trunk;
How, after struggling on with bitter heart,
He could no longer bear to fight his way
Among the common scholars; and the end
Bade us be hopeful, trusting God, and sure        
The light of this old home would guide him still                                 152
Amid the reek of evil.

                                     Sae it was!
We twa were less amazed than you may guess,
Though we had hoped, and feared, and hoped, sae long! 
But it was hard to bear—hard, hard to bear!   
Our castle in the clouds was gone for good;
And as for Andrew—other lads had ta’en
The same mad path, and learned the bitter task
Of poortith, cold, and tears. She grat. I sat 
In silence, looking on the fuffing fire,
Where streets and ghaistly faces came and went,
And London city crumbled down to crush
Our Andrew; and my heart was sick and cold.
Ere long, the news across the country-side
Speak quickly, like the crowing of a cock
From farm to farm—the women talkt it o’er
On doorsteps, o’er the garden rails; the men
Got fu’ upon it at the public-house,
And whispered it among the fields at work.
A cry was quickly raised from house to house,
That all the blame was mine, and cankered een     
Lookt cold upon me, as upon a kind                                               153
Of upstart. “Fie on pride!” the whisper said,
“The fault was Andrew’s less than those who taught
His heart to look in scorn on honest work,—
Shame on them!—but the lad, poor lad, would learn!”
O sir, the thought of this spoiled many a web
In yonder—tingling, tingling, in my ears,
Until I fairly threw my gloom aside,
Smiled like a man whose heart is light and young,
And with a future-kenning happy look
Threw up my chin, and bade them wait and see . .
But, night by night, these een lookt London ways,
And saw my laddie wandering all alone
’Mid darkness, fog, and reek, growing afar
To dark proportions and gigantic shape—
Just as the figure of a sheep-herd looms,
Awful and silent, through a mountain mist.      

     Ye aiblins ken the rest. At first, there came        
Proud letters, swiftly writ, telling how folk
Now roundly called him “Poet,” holding out
Bright pictures, which we smiled at wearily—
As people smile at pictures in a book,          
Untrue but bonnie. Then the letters ceased,                                    154
There came a silence cold and still as frost,—
We sat and hearkened to our beating hearts,
And prayed as we had never prayed before.
Then lastly, on the silence broke the news
That Andrew, far awa’, was sick to death,
And, weary, weary of the noisy streets,
With aching head and weary hopeless heart,
Was coming home from mist and fog and noise
To grassy lowlands and the caller air.

     ’Twas strange, ’twas strange!—but this, the weary end
Of all our bonnie biggins in the clouds,
Came like a tearful comfort. Love sprang up
Out of the ashes of the household fire,
Where Hope was fluttering like the loose white film;
And Andrew, our own boy, seemed nearer now        
To this old dwelling an our aching hearts
Than he had ever been since he became
Wise with book-learning. With an eager pain,
I met him at the train and brought him home;
And when we met that sunny day in hairst,
The ice that long had sundered us had thawed,                                155
We met in silence, and our een were dim.
Och, I can see that look of his this night!       
Part pain, part tenderness—a weary look     
Yearning for comfort such as God the Lord
Puts into parents’ een. I brought him here.
Gently we set him here beside the fire,       
And spake few words, and hushed the noisy house;
Then eyed his hollow cheeks and lustrous een,
His clammy hueless brow and faded hands,
Blue veined and white like lily-flowers. The wife
Forgot the sickness of his face, and moved
With light and happy footstep but and ben,
As though she welcomed to a merry feast
A happy guest. In time, out came the truth:
Andrew was dying: in his lungs the dust
Of cities stole unseen, and hot as fire
Burnt—like a deil’s red een that gazed at Death.
Too late for doctor’s skill, though doctor’s skill
We had in plenty; but the ill had ta’en
Too sure a grip. Andrew was dying, dying:
The beauteous dream had melted like a mist
The sunlight feeds on: a’ remaining now
Was Andrew, bare and barren of his pride, 
Stark of conceit, a weel-belovèd child,                                          156
Helpless to help himsel’, and dearer thus,
As when his yaumer*—like the corn-craik’s cry
Heard in a field of wheat at dead o’ night—
Brake on the hearkening darkness of the bield.

     And as he nearer grew to God the Lord,
Nearer and dearer ilka day he grew
To Mysie and mysel’—our own to love,
The world’s no longer. For the first last time,
We twa, the lad and I, could sit and crack
With open hearts—free-spoken, at our ease;
I seem’d to know as muckle then as he,
Because I was sae sad.

                                       Thus grief, sae deep
It flowed without a murmur, brought the balm
Which blunts the edge of worldly sense and makes
Old people weans again. In this sad time,
We never troubled at his childish ways;
We seemed to share his pleasure when he sat
List’ning to birds upon the eaves; we felt

— * Yaumer, a child’s cry. —

Small wonder when we found him weeping o’er                              157
His old torn books of pencilled thoughts and verse;
And if, outbye, I saw a bonnie flower,
I pluckt it carefully and bore it home
To my sick boy. To me, it somehow seemed
His care for lovely earthly things had changed,—  
Changed from the curious love it once had been,
Grown larger, bigger, holier, peacefuller;
And though he never lost the luxury
Of loving beauteous things for poetry’s sake,
His heart was God the Lord’s, and he was calm.
Death came to lengthen out his solemn thoughts
Like shadows to the sunset. So no more        
We wondered. What is folly in a lad 
Healthy and heartsome, one with work to do,
Befits the freedom of a dying man. . .
Mother, who chided loud the idle lad
Of old, now sat her sadly by his side,
And read from out the Bible soft and low,
Or lilted lowly, keeking in his face,
The old Scots songs that made his een so dim.       
I went about my daily work as one
Who waits to hear a knocking at the door,       
Ere Death creeps in and shadows those that watch;                        158
And seated here at e’en i’ the ingleside,
I watched the pictures in the fire and smoked
My pipe in silence; for my head was fu’
Of many rhymes the lad had made of old
(Rhymes I had read in secret, as I said),
No one of which I minded till they came
Unsummoned, murmuring about my ears             
Like bees among the leaves.

                                         The end drew near.
Came Winter moaning, and the Doctor said
That Andrew couldna live to see the Spring;
And day by day, while frost was hard at work,
The lad grew weaker, paler, and the blood
Came redder from the lung. One Sabbath day—
The last of winter, for the caller air
Was drawing sweetness from the barks of trees—
When down the lane, I saw to my surprise
A snowdrop blooming underneath a birk,
And gladly pluckt the flower to carry home
To Andrew. Ere I reached the bield, the air
Was thick wi’ snow, and ben in yonder room            
I found him, Mysie seated at his side,                                             159
Drawn to the window in the old arm-chair,
Gazing wi’ lustrous een and sickly cheek    
Out on the shower, that wavered softly down
In glistening siller glamour. Saying nought,
Into his hand I put the year’s first flower,
And turned awa’ to hide my face; and he . .
. . He smiled . . and at the smile, I knew, not why,
It swam upon us, in a frosty pain,
The end was come at last, at last, and Death    
Was creeping ben, his shadow on our hearts.
We gazed on Andrew, called him by his name,
And touched him softly . . and he lay awhile,
His een upon the snow, in a dark dream,
Yet neither heard nor saw; but suddenly,
He shook awa’ the vision wi’ a smile,
Raised lustrous een, still smiling, to the sky,
Next upon us, then dropt them to the flower
That trembled in his hand, and murmured low,
Like one that gladly murmurs to himsel’—    
“Out of the Snow, the Snowdrop,—out of Death            
Comes Life;” then closed his eyes and made a moan,  
And never spake another word again.             

     . . And you think weel of Andrew’s book? You think                160
That folk will love him, for the poetry’s sake,
Many a year to come? We take it kind
You speak so weel of Andrew!—As for me,
I can make naething of the printed book;
I am no scholar, sir, as I have said,
And Mysie there can just read print a wee.
Ay! we are feckless, ignorant of the world!
And though ’twere joy to have our boy again
And place him far above our lowly house,
We like to think of Andrew as he was
When, dumb and wee, he hung his gold and gems   
Round Mysie’s neck; or—as he is this night—
Lying asleep, his face to heaven—asleep,      
Near to our hearts, as when he was a bairn,
Without the poetry and human pride
That came between us to our grief, langsyne.    

                   From “Idyls and Legends of Inverburn,” by
                                                     Robert Buchanan.







                   LO! the slow moon roaming
                   Through fleecy mists of gloaming,
Furrowing with pearly edge the jewel-powdered sky!
                   Lo, the bridge moss-laden,
                   Arched like foot of maiden,
And on the bridge, in silence, looking upward, you and I!
                   Lo, the pleasant season
                   Of reaping and of mowing—
The round still moon above,—beneath, the river duskily flowing!


                   Violet coloured shadows,
                   Blown from scented meadows,
Float o’er us to the pine-wood dark from yonder dim corn-ridge;
                   The little river gushes
                   Through shady sedge and rushes,                                        162
And gray gnats murmur o’er the pools, beneath the mossy bridge;—
                   And you and I stand darkly,
                   O’er the keystone leaning,
And watch the pale mesmeric moon, in the time of gleaners and gleaning.


                   Do I dream, I wonder?
                   As, sitting sadly under
A lonely roof in London, through the grim square pane I gaze?
                   Here of you I ponder,
                   In a dream, and yonder
The still streets seem to stir and breathe beneath the white moon’s rays.
                   By the vision cherished,    
                   By the battle bravéd,
Do I but dream a hopeless dream, in the city that slew you, David?


                   Is it fancy also,
                   That the light which falls so
Faintly upon the stony street below me as I write,                                     163
                   Near tall mountains passes
                   Through churchyard weeds and grasses,
Barely a mower’s mile away from that small bridge, to-night?
                   And, where you are lying,—
                   Grass and flowers above you—
Is mingled with your sleeping face, as calm as the hearts that love you?


                   Poet gentle-hearted,
                   Are you then departed,
And have you ceased to dream the dream we loved of old so well? 
                   Has the deeply cherished
                   Aspiration perished,
And are you happy, David, in that heaven where you dwell?
                   Have you found the secret
                   We, so wildly, sought for,
And is your soul enswathed, at last, in the singing robes you fought for?



                   In some heaven star-lighted,
                   Are you now united
Unto the poet-spirits that you loved, of English race?
                   Is Chatterton still dreaming?
                   And, to give it stately seeming,
Has the music of his last strong song passed into Keats’s face?
                   Is Wordsworth there? and Spenser?
                   Beyond the grave’s black portals,
Can the grand eye of Milton see the glory he sang to mortals?


                   You at least could teach me,
                   Could your dear voice reach me,
Where I sit and copy out for men my soul’s strange speech,
                   Whether it be bootless,
                   Profitless, and fruitless,—
The weary aching upward strife to heights we cannot reach,
                   The fame we seek in sorrow,
                   The agony we forego not,                                                   165
The haunting singing sense that makes us climb—whither we know not.


                   Must it last for ever,
                   The passionate endeavour,
Ay, have ye, there in heaven, hearts to throb and still aspire?
                   In the life you know now,
                   Rendered white as snow now,
Do fresher glory-heights arise, and beckon higher—higher?
                   Are you dreaming, dreaming, 
                   Is your soul still roaming,
Still gazing upward as we gazed, of old in the autumn gloaming?


                   Lo, the book I hold here,
                   In the city cold here!
I hold it with a gentle hand and love it as I may;  
                   Lo, the weary moments!
                   Lo, the icy comments!
And lo, false Fortune’s knife of gold swift-lifted up to slay!                       166
                   Has the strife no ending?
                   Has the song no meaning?
Linger I, idle as of old, while men are reaping or gleaning?


                   Upward my face I turn to you,
                   I long for you, I yearn to you,
The spectral vision trances me to utt’rance wild and weak;
                   It is not that I mourn you,       
                   To mourn you were to scorn you,
For you are one step nearer to the beauty singers seek.
                   But I want, and cannot see you,
                   I seek and cannot find you,
And, see! I touch the book of songs you tenderly left behind you!


                   Ay, me! I bend above it,
                   With tearful eyes, and love it,
With tender hand I touch the leaves, but cannot find you there!                167
                   Mine eyes are haunted only
                   By that gloaming sweetly lonely,
The shadows on the mossy bridge, the glamour in the air!
                   I touch the leaves, and only
                   See the glory they retain not—
The moon that is a lamp to Hope, who glorifies what we gain not!


                   The aching and the yearning,
                   The hollow, undiscerning,
Uplooking want I still retain, darken the leaves I touch— 
                   Pale promise, with much sweetness
                   Solemnizing incompleteness,
But ah, you knew so little then—and now you know so much!
                   By the vision cherished,
                   By the battle bravèd,
Have you, in heaven, shamed the song, by a loftier music, David?



                   I, who loved and knew you,
                   In the city that slew you,
Still hunger on, and thirst, and climb, proud-hearted and alone:
                   Serpent-fears enfold me,
                   Syren-visions hold me,
And, like a wave, I gather strength, and gathering strength, I moan;
                   Yea, the pale moon beckons,
                   Still I follow, aching,
And gather strength, only to make a louder moan, in breaking


                   Though the world could turn from you,
                   This, at least, I learn from you:
Beauty and Truth, though never found, are worthy to be sought,
                   The singer, upward-springing,
                   Is grander than his singing,
And tranquil self-sufficing joy illumes the dark of thought.
                   This, at least, you teach me,
                   In a revelation:                                                                     169
That gods still snatch, as worthy death, the soul in its aspiration.


                   And I think, as you thought,
                   Poesy and Truth ought
Never to lie silent in the singer’s heart on earth;
                   Though they be discarded,
                   Slighted, unrewarded,
Though, unto vulgar seeming, they appear of little worth,—
                   Yet tender brother-singers,
                   Young or not yet born to us,
May seek there, for the singer’s sake, that love which sweeteneth scorn to us!


                   While I sit in silence,
                   Comes from mile on mile hence,
From English Keats’s Roman grave, a voice that sweetens toil!
                   Think you, no fond creatures
                   Draw comfort from the features
Of Chatterton, pale Phäethon, hurled down to sunless soil?                       170
                   Scorched with sunlight lying,
                   Eyes of sunlight hollow,
But, see! upon the lips a gleam of the chrism of Apollo!


                   Noble thought produces
                   Noble ends and uses,
Noble hopes are part of Hope wherever she may be,
                   Noble thought enhances
                   Life and all its chances,
And noble self is noble song,—all this I learn from thee!
                   And I learn, moreover,  
                   ’Mid the city’s strife too,
That such faint song as sweetens Death can sweeten the singer’s life too!


                   Lo, my Book!—I hold it
                   In weary hands, and fold it
Unto my heart, if only as a token I aspire;
                   And, by song’s assistance,                                                   171
                   Unto your dim distance,
My soul uplifted is on wings, and beckon’d higher, nigher.
                   By the sweeter wisdom
                   You return unspeaking,
Though endless, hopeless, be the search, we exalt our souls in seeking.


                   Higher, yet, and higher,
                   Ever nigher, ever nigher,
To the glory we conceive not, let us toil and strive and strain!—
                   The agonizëd yearning,  
                   The imploring and the burning,
Grown awfuller, intenser, at each vista we attain,
                   And clearer, brighter, growing,
                   Up the gulfs of heaven wander,
Higher, higher yet, and higher, to the Mystery we ponder!


                   Yea, higher yet, and higher,
                   Ever nigher, ever nigher,
While men grow small by stooping and the reaper piles the grain,—          172
                   Can it then be bootless,
                   Profitless and fruitless,
The weary aching upward search for what we never gain?
                   Is there not awaiting
                   Rest and golden weather,
Where, passionately purified, the singers may meet together?


                   Up! higher yet, and higher,
                   Ever nigher, ever nigher,
Through voids that Milton and the rest beat still with seraph-wings;
                   Out through the great gate creeping
                   Where God hath put his sleeping—
A dewy cloud detaining not the soul that soars and sings;
                   Up! higher yet, and higher,
                   Fainting nor retreating,
Beyond the sun, beyond the stars, to the far bright realm of meeting!



                   O Mystery! O Passion!
                   To sit on earth, and fashion,
What floods of music visibled may fill that fancied place!
                   To think, the least that singeth,
                   Aspireth and upspringeth,
May weep glad tears on Keats’s breast and look in Milton’s face!
                   When human power and failure
                   Are equalized for ever,
And the one great Light that haloes all is the passionate bright endeavour!


                   But ah, that pale moon roaming
                   Through fleecy mists of gloaming,
Furrowing with pearly edge the jewel-powdered sky,
                   And ah, the days departed
                   With your friendship gentle-hearted,
And ah, the dream we dreamt that night, together, you and I!
                   Is it fashioned wisely,                                                          174
                   To help us or to blind us,
That at each height we gain we turn, and behold a heaven behind us?

                                               Undertones, by ROBERT BUCHANAN.



[Note: I have added some more information concerning David Gray (including Buchanan’s original essay, published in February, 1864 in The Cornhill Magazine and James Hedderwick’s Memoir from The Luggie and Other Poems, published in 1862) which may be of interest.]

Notes on David Gray











IT is not so easy to be alone as it used to be. Fresh dropt, as it were, from the moon, and amazed at the hum and roar of innumerable mortals similarly bewildered, the mortal traveller finds it difficult now to creep into a cave or to pitch a tent in the desert. Even if beneficent Providence feed and clothe him free of trouble, the temptation to action is almost certain to be too strong for him; when everybody is fighting, he is indeed cold-blooded who does not seek a share of the blows and the glory. He is pulled into the public vortex—fights, debates, writes, studies by all means to outwrestle his neighbours and to get a head higher. Entering the city gates, greeted 178 by a wail as shrill and sad as if he were penetrating the middle circle of the Inferno, his heart is stirred and he becomes a philanthropist. Observing the phenomena of society and the inexorable laws of trade, he turns political economist. Marking the tendency of the race to equalization, observing how much may be done even by tall talk to commeasure freedom, he mounts the rostrum and delivers political oracles. But he is never alone. Once caught by the whirligig, he is kept dancing round and round. He is doomed to be a public man, big or little, one of the crowd,—doomed in this fatal way, that once committed to combined action with masses, no other action contents him. With sword or with pen, in the senate or in the pulpit, as constitution-conserver or liberal elector, he is for ever on the move. Is it to be wondered at that he soon loses his identity? The man is lost in the vocation; we know him no longer by his face and voice, but by his badge of office. He is a wave in the great waters. His business is public, and he is coerced by his associates.
     The collective public opinion of this crowd of travellers is what may be termed “contemporary 179 truth.” This, of necessity, changes from generation to generation. From Hindooism to the pantheism of Greece and Rome, from that to the Catholicism of the early Church, from that to the fierce bigotry of the later Church, from that to the sour eclecticism of France, contemporary truth changes and changes. That which is true to Julius Caesar is smiled at by Augustus; what the cowls approve the eighth Henry soon proves to be ephemeral, until Henry, in his turn, is shown to have only just begun the work of alteration. It is the same in all other movements not religious. Now contemporary truth is for monarchies, then for republics one and indivisible; now it insists upon the encyclopædia as the embodiment of all knowledge, again it indignantly tears the encyclopædia and burns the effigy of Voltaire. Noisy, vehement, dogmatic, yet earnest, beat the waters of opinion on the heavenly shore, where the sun comes and goes, and the stars keep vigil in the intervals of his coming and going; and contemporary truth is the barest froth thereof. The crowd roars, and the angels are smiling at its oracles.
     180 Evermore, however, in all periods, in all climates and countries, there have been individuals who cared neither to lead nor to be led, who grew weary of action, however irresponsible, and who, in a supreme moment, have crept away from the mass and sought solitude. Yet in no selfish or exclusive spirit have they sought to be alone,—in no scorn of their fellows, in no fear of blows or pain, in no wish to secure a monopoly of the grand shows which nature makes in solitary places. Spiritual astronomers, they discovered early that it was their business to regard the heavens, not to delve in the earth, nor build cities, nor preach in the market-place. Stargazers, they speculate from what star they and the other travellers have fallen. The tumult, the glory, the wonder of the world electrifies, instead of disturbing, their contemplation. These men are the Students,—pale men, with melancholy eyes, which seem to suffer from the burning light they shed on fellow-mortals.
     What, then, do the Students seek, turning their eyes to these transmortal directions, troubled evermore by the passage of wondrous lights across 181 the heavenly shore? They are seeking, not contemporary, but “eternal truth,”—the law beyond local law, the religion beyond creeds, the holy government beyond governments which come and go. They are noting, in a word, not merely the phenomena which are constantly changing, but the truths which regulate such phenomena, which are evermore recurring with fresh force and novelty, and which may fairly be regarded as unchangeable. Plato, the grand great brow, gleaming divinely in the pale pure light of pagan sunset; Spinoza, shading his wondrous eyes under heavy Jewish eyelids from a perfect glare and agony of light; Comte, consuming a frail body in the distress of too fixed a contemplation: these, all such as these, and the host of lesser labourers, constitute the class of Students, embracing in one fine brotherhood metaphysicians, spiritualists, positivists, men of science, poets, painters, and musicians. However much they differ in most matters, however opposite they may be in personal hopes and aspirations, they have one great point of contact:—their vocation is the study of eternal, not contemporary truth, and, to perfect 182 that vocation, they find it imperatively necessary to live alone.
     Thus, here and there, by the busy wayside, the earthly traveller catches glimpses of faint footpaths, some leading to places of nestling green, others winding up to the mountain-peaks, others conducting to the brink of waste waters peopled by the phantoms of the clouds. These paths wind to the nooks where the students dwell, hearing faintly from afar the tramp of busy feet and the cry of voices. Not always, however, do the Students remain apart. Ever and anon, at the point where the footpath joins the highway, appears a pale face, and a white hand is uplifted demanding silence. The Student has stept down with a message. Ere that message can be heard, the crowd must still itself and pause, and in that pause all loud cries are lost and the Student is heard saying: “Rest awhile and listen to the message I bring you! I want you just for a minute to turn with me to the infinite. Even if my words be worthless, the pause will do you good, and you will struggle along all the more freshly afterwards.” In these pauses is contained 183 the history of all literatnres and all arts. In them, at intervals, the eternal calm steals strangely upon the finite unrest. Throughout all these is the whisper: '”Contemporary truth is not final, and there is a light, my brothers, beyond the light of setting suns.”
     But the sore difficulty is how to get the crowd to pause, how to still the waters, for ever so brief a period of listening. By only one charm is the crowd won, and that charm is thorough disinterestedness—the very quality which is impossible to the crowd itself, or any member of the crowd. Just in so far as the Student is disinterested, will the Student fascinate his hearers. They can get stump-orators, singers for praise, fighters, German prophets, every day, but they are spell-bound at the novelty of the man who seeks no bonus. He is a kind of angelic wonder, just dropt glittering from cloudland. The sign of disinterestedness is beneficence, true love for the species; the selfish crowd never mistake unselfishness; not till that is clear will they hearken. Therefore, we never hear the true Student talk brutally of the black man, nor mock the poor temporary Philistinism 184 of people in earnest, nor solicit attention by useless ravings and insincerities. The Student is calm. He knows he must win the crowd by disinterestedness, or by nothing. He will not bawl, though their backs are to him. If they ignore him for a time, he waits gently until they are ready. And the further proof of his disinterestedness is this,—that, however much his message is to shock the world, he will never say it brutally or conceitedly, but lovingly and reverently, always adding—“Mind, this message is not final. It is the very nature of eternal truth to evade a decisive definition; and although I have seen something in that lofty region, and wish to report what I have seen, I pretend to settle nothing by authority.” The exhibition of contempt for the audience he addresses is the first fatal sign of contempt for his vocation. The fool proves himself unfit to be a messenger, by assuming the prevision of a god.
     We need not go far to seek for an example of a Student who despises his vocation. The last wild utterance of Thomas Carlyle still rings in our ears.
     185 This writer began reverently and gained hearers. He read affectionately in books and in nature, wrote nobly, aspired calmly to the contemplation of eternal truth. He secured quiet, and was recognized as a Student. Thus much, however, did not content him; and the first signs of discontent were certain false notes in the voice—German guttural sounds, elaborate word-building, wild mannerism. Clearly hungry for more influence, he wrote privately to a friend that he would begin to “prophesy,” and avowedly with a view to widening his circle of hearers—as if true prophet ever began by perceiving that there was a public, and calculating how such public might be stirred to emotion. He did prophesy. For a time, the crowd listened, till slowly and painfully his interestedness grew upon them. So thoroughly had he begun to despise his vocation, that he no longer took the trouble to utter his prophecies beautifully. So completely did he despise his public, that he deemed the grossest and least-weighed brutalities amply good enough for them. Instead of looking towards eternal truth, he gazed with the vision of a contemporary. How 186 has this ended? The pause he once secnred is broken. We merely hear his voice at intervals, and then always in the midst of a roar of voices. He has been whirled down into the crowd, and, though he shriek his loudest, there is no standing still to hear him.
     It so happens in this case, that circumstances have so arranged themselves as to prove that Mr. Carlyle possessed very little prophetic vision. His dismal prediction of anarchy and all sorts of accompanying evils, as likely to result to England because she disagreed with him as to the mights of man, has by no means yet been realized, and the “nigger” is free. Such a man was not likely to be silenced even by the contemplation of the grand American triumph of truth and human beneficence. The more the crowd has roared around about him, the louder he has screamed. His last utterance, though uttered in a shriller and fiercer key, embodies precisely what he has been saying ever since he despised his vocation. “Ragged dung-heap of a world;” “the Almighty Maker has appointed the Nigger to be a servant;” “servantship must become a contract of 187 permanency;” “in a limited time, say fifty years hence, the Church, all churches and so-called religions, the Christian religion itself, shall have deliquesced into liberty of conscience, progress of opinion, progress of intellect, philanthropic movements, and other aqueous residues of a vapid badly-scented character;” “manhood suffrage,—horsehood, doghood, not yet treated of;” “universal glorious liberty—to sons of the devil in overwhelming majority, as would appear.” In these sentences culminates the degradation of a Student stript of his gown. How utterly he has become swamped in the crowd, when the language he employs is that of the wildest roughs and rowdies in the swarm.
     Now, if there be one true mark of the true Student it is the endeavour to express himself exquisitely. Plotinus defines the beautiful “as the splendour of the good;” and after this beautiful—not merely good, but good glorified—the Student aims. He studies the poetic terminology, and culls all felicities of speech which secure the radiant passage of meanings to the minds of hearers. He shapes his glowing 188 thoughts into melodious syllables, such as common men may not employ. Add to perfect disinterestedness, perfect sweetness of voice,—and the people are spell-bound. Their souls are raised, their ears delighted. Though liberalism be their watchword, they will even listen to the gospel according to the Tories,—calmly hearken, I mean, to him who wishes to show that eternal truth is on the Tory side. Had Carlyle spoken in this fashion, his own reverence for what he conceived true would have been his safeguard and his honour.
     For public men are even nowadays quite ready to admit the services and honour the sincerity of the private inquirer,—especially in his capacity of reader of books. They say clearly, “We are too busy to seek precedents or study tomes—we have no time to collect learning—and we must employ you to study in our place.” So while the public men are fighting keenly with a view to making some truth or seeming truth live, the Student familiarizes himself with history, philosophy, religion, science, in order to see what things have died in the past, or are dying in the 189 present, and what things, having never been known really to die, may now be fairly assumed to be eternal. Busy people, too, are very grateful when the Student brings to them at second-hand the result of all this learned inquiry. They hearken to it, commit it to memory, even pay for it liberally; not, however, until they are perfectly satisfied of the calmness, disinterestedness, and veracity of the person who supplies it. But when the Student not only brings his message, but lards it with follies and insolencies of his own, the public retort is simple:—“The message you bring is a LIE.” “Brutes! idiots!” perhaps screams the Student; “do ye dare to despise eternal truth?” And the public, justly exasperated, lynches the fellow, crying, “Eternal truth is all very fine, but we are now convinced of the contemporary truth that you are a humbug and a ranter.”
     Nor will the public men, the strugglers en masse, tolerate on the part of the Student any vain affectation of superiority. They know very well that the Student, from Pythagoras to Goethe, has always been a human being, however close his communication with the Olympian 190 principalities; and moreover, they know this—that mere living, even physical living, is any day as wondrous, as important, and as grand a thing as mere thinking. What right has the professor to bully the tradesman? On what grounds does a poet scorn an alderman, a philosopher despise a member of parliament, a monk scowl at a milliner? It is quite another thing, however, to bid the busy man, the man whose work is mean, the toiler and moiler at the tag-ends of society, pause occasionally, and inhale a sweet breath from the solitude,—to see what the stargazer is seeing, to hear what the minstrel is playing, to follow what the theorizer is proving in stately terms. But how lovingly, how reverently, does the true Student communicate with the people!—how wisely does he defer to them in matters wherein they even have their authority! The fine affectionate love for the species is in his eyes, and every word he utters is vocal with the music of humanity. The Man’s face shines radiant under the academic cowl, and the appeal at the best is an appeal from a man’s heart to the heart of men. The sinner is dealt with tenderly, though the sin 191 is never spared. The erring class is reasoned with sweetly, while the error is unmercifully turned inside out. And the contemporary strugglers, pausing to listen, feel how calm and tender a thing, how loving and how beneficent, is that eternal truth which scholiasts would lock up in their secretaries, and scientific monkeys (the true apes of Goethe’s Witch’s cave) seek in vain to put in a crucible.
     Here, certainly, is the true clue to the wondrous influence of Mr. John Stuart Mill. Of all our Students, this one has shown himself, not the most profound, but the most reverent, the most gentle, and the most unassuming. He had the true philosophic calm,—the true rest typical of the eternal. He had no gall. Merciless in argument, he was tender and brotherly to every antagonist. All this was true of Mr. Mill, previous to his entry into parliament. The Student has since been lost in the politician—the pause difficult to secure—the influence scattered and doubtful. That a thinker so acute and thorough as this should have dreamt it possible to reconcile eternal and contemporary truth—to 192 be a student and a politician at the same time—has been to me one of those mysteries which are to be classed as insoluble. I have watched Mr. Mill’s career with deep and grateful interest,—and thousands, as well as myself, felt bitter when the Light was put under the bushel of the House of Commons. How is it possible to connect eternal truth with the bigotry and folly which is represented to us by the reports in the daily newspapers,—to think of philosophy in connection with the blatant periods of Mr. Bright and the polished pettiness of Mr. Lowe,—and to associate calm and intellectual repose with the juggling insincerities of each successive Chancellor of the Exchequer?
     Mr. Mill has really done what is being every day done by inferior men. Among the signs which accompany the vast political crisis which is at present agitating England, not least is the irritating attitude of the Student,—the class of man whose business it should be to mark, accompany, and emphasise progress, instead of muddying the stream of controversy. As I have suggested, the Student is losing the fine old reverence for his 193 own vocation, and wasting his energies in matters over which he has really no concern. He would be an authority in the world of action as well as in the sphere of meditation,—claiming the privileges of the politician, the historian, the man of science, and the pamphleteer. He would decide great controversies by private authority, instead of calmly throwing the radiance of perfect private sight on the tendencies of his time. Dogmatism and puppyism supervene:—the Student no longer takes the trouble to express himself exquisitely; the crudest utterance suffices; the most listless looseness of thought, consequent on a contempt for his audience. Mr. Carlyle, as we have seen, preaches brutalism in language as harsh as the barking of Cerberus. Masters of Arts, Fellows of Colleges, and all the tribe of people who remain at school all their lives, imitate Mr. Amold’s manner, even while disagreeing with his opinions. The two sets of egotists join issue in denouncing the tendencies of their period. Some of these men might secure real and lasting influence if they reverenced and clearly pursued their own vocation. They claim double and 194 irreconcilable privileges—the authority of the private scholar, and the authority of the public leader.
     Deep philosophic repose is the air inhaled on the mountain tops, close to the stars, and must by no means be confounded with vulgar consciousness of calm. A person may step forward in an academic gown, saying: “My papa was so skilled in developing the juvenile mind as to produce out of fair materials a novelist at fourteen, a philosopher two years later, and at eighteen an authority on every question under the sun—a wondrous little Salaputium, warranted perfect, and certain never to grow any more. Oh, I am so calm, and so clever. Yet see, how admirably I hide my knowledge; that is calm, that is restraint. I am prepared to settle all questions by means of an insect exterminator, which has never been known to fail.” But how does the public receive such a person. “The Student,” it replies, “evinces restraint and calm, does not talk about them; they are, in fact, merely personal qualities. You fellows grow too quickly and stop too soon, and your calm and restraint are merely the inactivity and torpor consequent on a 195 system of early forcing. You have by no means lived enough to determine living questions, and the best proof of that is the unmanliness of your manner.” And are the public wrong? Do the scholastic persons show any such real love for their kind, any such ignoring of self, any such telling enthusiasm in great questions, as would soon win the confidence of men and women who live in the world outside the academy? I fear not. They are not Students, nor do they live alone. Brought up in classes, inoculated with the usual stuff very early, they hate solitude hugely. They must think in bodies, or they are miserable.*
     But the career of the true Student has been two-fold,—a period of probation in the world of action, previous to the period of retreat to the sphere of thought. In that first period, no matter

—    * I must not be understood as underrating true scholarship,—only as noting the vicious effect of schools. Why should the scholar not be a Student? Look at Clough! He had the true calm, and his religious hunger was a real thing. He kept his own way, without being tempted into exhibitions; and for this very reason he will have influence, when more pretentious and noisy schoolmen are forgotten. —

196 how short, a man not only learns what action is and his unfitness for it, but gets such knowledge of great busy powers as makes him treat power wisely all the rest of his life. How should he know that God meant him to be a Student, until he ascertained his unfitness for aught else? Hence the misfortune of early forcing. The schoolboys are wise too soon. They begin recklessly trading without capital; evolving out of their own inner consciousness, like the German, a monster which they christen “man,” and a number of little monsters which they label “facts,” and going wrong in everything, because their “facts” and “man” are wrong at starting:—

Humano capiti cervicem pictor equinam
Jungere si velit, et varias inducere plumas
Undique collatis membris, ut turpiter atrum
Desinat in piscem mulier formosa superne;
Spectatum admissi risum teneatis, amici?

A little actual contact with men—not merely with people teaching and people taught—would save them, too, from regarding earth as one vast seminary. They know this truth themselves in the end. We find them yearning wildly for 197 action, writing verses of discontent, longing for the vague busy motion they have never experienced; interspersing such dissatisfied moments by putting finishing touches to their own intellectual beauty, with the complacence of a fine lady putting on powder and rouge, and praying to God as to a skilful professor passionately attached to prodigies developed by early forcing.
     Too much reducing of life to system will not suit the Student. How should it, when he is growing grey in the vain search of a truth that is absolutely final. He is the man that leaves margins. He is very careful, therefore, how he deals even with contemporary superstitions, lest he may imitate the French writers, who destroyed, not only the superstitions themselves, but the noble truths underlying them. Coming on the highway, he steps among swarms of tiny lives, and he cannot, step too cautiously, if he would avoid crushing something that is beautiful.
     Clear on all sides of us, in the highways and the byeways, in the crowd’s voices, in the Students’ messages, rises one great belief, in which eternal and contemporary truth seem to unite,—that we 198 are moving on to multiplicity. The mass is rising, rights are widening, mights are broadening. Meanwhile, some few alarmists shriek out that we lack individuals and must die. Then the reply is, “Let us die,” if the vindication of eternal principles is fatal. Never, to the thinking of many, was there a time fraught with so much hope to man. The emancipation of the slave, the steps of Germany towards freedom, the extension of the suffrage, are all signs and portents. Henceforth, freedom is vindicated as a personal right, and every man is to be recognized as a responsible citizen.
     And what, in the face of these things, are the cries of alarmists, the shrieks of classes,—what, in fact, is the very threat of anarchy? Eternal truth seems saying “though ye perish, I will be vindicated.” Yet in honest truth, the danger is perhaps exaggerated. When matters adjust themselves there will be no lack of leaders, no lack of Students.
     If there be one truth which it behoves the Student to illustrate now, it is this mighty one,—God’s preference of His beloved children to any 199 one of His children. If there is one quality which seems His, and His exclusively, it seems that Divine philoprogenitiveness, that passionate love of distribution and expansion into living forms. He is exhaustless, a fountain. Every animal added seems a new ecstasy to the Maker; every life added a new embodiment of His love. He would swarm the earth with beings. There are never enough. Life, life, life—faces gleaming, hearts beating, must fill every cranny. Not a corner is suffered to remain empty. The whole earth breeds, and God glories. And here and everywhere, life, absolute life, is the only thing which we universally feel to be God’s, and wholly sacred.
     Because there is sin and misery in the world, because hearts ache and bodies die, shall we turn upon this sublimely exhaustless Being, and demand explanation? Is it not something to know how He delights in making, in endless creating, and that One who thus delights cannot be cruel. The explanation will come. Meantime, we move to multiplicity. Our selfish ascetics are no longer thought to possess god-like qualities; but it is noticed everywhere that the sublimest 200 sign of perfect culture is divine philanthropy, and that the nearer each man seems to approach God, the more he seems to exhibit the mysterious and god-like quality of love for the species. The vocation of the Student is clear. He must aid the work of the world, but not by noise and egotistical prattling. He shall show to the crowd the nearest human approach to the perfect disinterestedness, sweetness, and exhaustless charity of God’s Eternal Truth; and the people, listening at the lifting of his hand, and charmed by the sweetness of his voice, will be happier by a message sent to make still wider the activities of Law and Love.



[ Note: The quotation is from Horace’s Ars Poetica: “If a painter should wish to unite a horse’s neck to a human head, and spread a variety of plumage over limbs of different animals taken from every part of nature, so that what is a beautiful woman in the upper part terminates unsightly in an ugly fish below; could you, my friends, refrain from laughter, were you admitted to such a sight.”]








“Cantantes, my dear Burdett, minus via lædit.
     True; but bawling out the rights of man is not


[Note: From The Diversions of Purley: Part II by J. Horne Tooke (1805).]





THE grossest abuse on the part of the majority, and the wildest panegyric on the part of a minority, have for many years been heaped on the shoulders of the man who rests his claim for judgment on the book of miscellanies noted below.* Luckily, the man is strong enough, sane enough, to take both abuse and panegyric with calmness. He believes hugely in himself, and in the part he is destined to take in American affairs. He is neither to be put down by prudes, nor tempted aside by the serenade of pipes and timbrels. A large, dispassionate, daring, and

—    * Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” “Drum-Taps,” etc. New York, 1867. —

204 splendidly-proportioned animal, he remains unmoved, explanatory up to a certain point, but sphinx-like when he is questioned too closely on morality or religion. Yet when the enthusiastic and credulous, the half-formed, the inquiring, youth of a nation begin to be carried away by a man’s teachings, it is time to inquire what these teachings are; for assuredly they are going to exercise extraordinary influence on life and opinion. Now, it is clear, on the best authority, that the writer in question is already exercising on the youth of America an influence similar to that exercised by Socrates over the youth of Greece, or by Raleigh over the young chivalry of England. In a word, he has become a sacer vates—his ministry is admitted by palpable live disciples. What the man is, and what the ministry implies, it will not take long to explain. Let it be admitted at the outset, however, that I am in concert with those who believe his to be a genuine ministry, large in its spiritual manifestations, and abundant in capability for good.
     Sprung from the masses, as he himself tells us, Walt Whitman has for many years lived a 205 vagabond life, labouring as the humour seized him, and invariably winning his bread by actual and persistent industry. He has been alternately a farmer, a carpenter, a printer. He has been a constant contributor of prose to the republican journals. He appears, moreover, at intervals, to have wandered over the North American continent, to have worked his way from city to city, and to have consorted liberally with the draff of men on bold and equal conditions. Before the outbreak of the war, he was to be found dwelling in New York, on “fish-shape Paumanok,” basking there in the rays of the almost tropical sun, or sallying forth into the streets to mingle with strange companions,—from the lodging-house luminary and the omnibus-driver, down to the scowling rowdy of the wharf bars. Having written his first book, “Leaves of Grass,” he set it up with his own hands, in a printing-office in Brooklyn. Some of my readers may dimly remember how the work was briefly noticed by contemporary English reviews, in a way to leave the impression that the writer was a mild maniac, with morbid developments in the region of the os 206 pelvis. On the outbreak of the great rebellion, he followed in the rear of the great armies, distinguishing himself by unremitting attention to the wounded in the ambulance department, until, on receiving a clerkship in the department of the interior, he removed to Washington. Here, to the great scandal of American virtue, he continued to vagabondise as before, but without neglecting his official duties. At the street corner, at the drinking-bar, in the slums, in the hospital wards, the tall figure of Walt Whitman was encountered daily by the citizens of the capital. He knew everybody, from the president down to the crossing-sweeper.
     “Well,” said Abraham Lincoln, watching him as he stalked by, “he looks like a man.”
     Latterly his loafing propensities appear to have grown too strong for American tolerance, and he was ejected from his clerkship, on the pretext that he had written “indecent verses,” and was a “free lover.” His admirers, indignant to a man at this treatment, have accumulated protest upon protest, enumerating numberless instances of his personal goodness and self-denial, 207 and laying powerful emphasis on certain deeds, which, if truly chronicled, evince a width of sympathy and a private influence unparalleled, perhaps, in contemporary history. With all this personal business we have no concern. His admirers move for a new trial on the evidence of his written works, and to that evidence I must proceed.
     In about ten thousand lines of unrhymed verse, very Biblical in form, and showing, indeed, on every page, the traces of Biblical influence, Walt Whitman professes to sow the first seeds of an indigenous literature, by putting in music the spiritual and fleshly yearnings of the cosmical man, and, more particularly, indicating the great elements which distinguish American freedom from the fabrics erected by European politicians. Starting from Paumanok, where he was born, he takes mankind in review, and sees everywhere but one wondrous life—the movement of the great masses, seeking incessantly under the sun for guarantees of personal liberty. He respects no particular creed, admits no specific morality prescribed by the civil law, but affirms 208 in round terms the universal equality of men, subject to the action of particular revolutions, and guided en masse by the identity of particular leaders. The whole introduction is a reverie on the destiny of nations, with an undertone of forethought on the American future, which is to contain the surest and final triumph of the democratical man. A new race is to arise, dominating previous ones, and grander far, with new contests, new politics, new literatures and religions, new inventions and arts. But how dominating? By the perfect recognition of individual equality, by the recognition of the personal responsibility and spiritual significance of each being, by the abrogation of distinctions such as set barriers in the way of perfect private action—action responsible only to the being of whom it is a consequence, and inevitably controlled, if diabolic, by the combined action of masses.
     Briefly, Walt Whitman sees in the American future the grandest realization of centuries of idealism—equable distribution of property, luminous enlargement of the spiritual horizon, perfect exercise of all the functions; no apathy, no 209 prudery, no shame, none of that worst absenteeism wherein the soul deserts its proper and ample physical sphere, and sallies out into the regions of the impossible and the unknown. Very finely, indeed, does the writer set forth the divine functions of the body—the dignity and the righteousness of a habitation existing only on the condition of personal exertion; and faintly, but truly, does he suggest how from that personal exertion issues spirituality, fashioning literatures, dreaming religions, and perfecting arts. “I will make,” he exclaims, “the poems of materials, for I think they are to be the most spiritual poems; and I will make the poems of my body and of mortality: for I think I shall then supply myself with the poems of my soul and of immortality.”
     This, I hear the reader exclaim, is rank materialism; and, using the word in its big sense, materialism it doubtless is. I shall observe, further on, in what consists the peculiar value of the present manifestation. In the meantime, let me continue my survey of the work.
     Having broadly premised, describing the great movements of masses, Walt Whitman proceeds, 210 in a separate “poem” or “book,” to select a member of the great democracy, representing typically the privileges, the immunities, the conditions, and the functions of all the rest. He cannot, he believes, choose a better example than himself; so he calls this poem “Walt Whitman.” He is, for the time being, and for poetical purposes, the cosmical man, an entity, a representative of the great forces.* He describes the delight of his own physical being, the pleasure of the senses, the countless sensations through which he communicates with the material universe. All, he says, is sweet—smell, taste, thought, the play of his limbs, the fantasies of his mind; every attribute is welcome, and he is ashamed of none. He is not afraid of death; he is content to change, if it be the nature of things that he should change, but it is certain that he cannot perish. He pictures the pageant of life

—    * Let it be understood, here and elsewhere, that I shall attach my own significance to passages in themselves sufficiently mystical. I may misrepresent this writer; but, apart from the present constructions, he is to me unintelligible. —

211 in the country and in cities; all is a fine panorama, wherein mountains and valleys, nations and religions, genre pictures and gleams of sunlight, babes on the breast and dead men in shrouds, pyramids and brothels, deserts and populated streets, sweep wonderfully by him. To all those things he is bound:—wherever they force him, he is not wholly a free agent; but on one point he is very clear—that, so far as he is concerned, he is the most important thing of all. He has work to do; life is not merely a “suck or a sell;” nay, the whole business of ages has gone on with one object only—that he, the democrat, Walt Whitman, might have work to do. In these very strange passages, he proclaims the magnitude of the preparations for his private action:—

Who goes there? hankering, gross, mystical, nude;
How is it I extract strength from the beef I eat?

What is a man, anyhow? What am I? What are you?

All I mark as my own, you shall offset it with your own,
Else it were time lost listening to me.

I do not snivel that snivel the world over,
That months are vacuums, and the ground but wallow and filth;
That life is a suck and a sell, and nothing remains at the end but threadbare crape, and tears.        212

Whimpering and truckling fold with powders for invalids—conformity goes to the forth-removed;
I wear my hat as I please, indoors or out.

Why should I pray? Why should I venerate and be ceremonious?

Having pried through the strata, analysed to a hair, counsel’d with doctors, and calculated close,
I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones.

In all people I see myself—none more, and not one a barleycorn less;
And the good or bad I say of myself, I say of them.

And I know I am solid and sound;
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow;
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.

I know I am deathless;
I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by the carpenter’s compass;
I know I shall not pass like a child’s carlacue cut with a burnt stick at night.

I know I am august;
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself, or be understood;
I see that the elementary laws never apologize;
(I reckon I behave no prouder than the level I plant my house by, after all).

I exist as I am—that is enough;                                                                                            213
If no other in the world be aware, I sit content;
And if each and all be aware, I sit content.

One world is aware, and by far the largest to me, and that is myself;
And whether I come to my own to-day, or in ten thousand or ten million years,
I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I can wait.

My foothold is tenon’d and mortis’d in granite;
I laugh at what you call dissolution;
And I know the amplitude of time.

I am an acme of things accomplish’d, and I am an encloser of things to be.

My feet strike an apex of the apices of the stairs;
On every step bunches of ages, and larger bunches between the steps;
All below duly travel’d, and still I mount and mount.

Rise after rise bow the phantoms behind me;
Afar down I see the huge first Nothing—I know I was even there;
I waited unseen and always, and slept through the lethargic mist.
And took my time, and took no hurt from the fetid carbon.

Long I was hugg’d close—long and long.

Immense have been the preparations for me, ~
Faithful and friendly the arms that have help’d me.

Cycles ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing like cheerful boatmen;
For room to me stars kept aside in their own rings;                                                                214
They sent influences to look after what was to hold me.

Before I was born out of my mother, generations guided me;
My embryo has never been torpid—nothing could overlay it.
For it the nebula cohered to an orb,
The long slow strata piled to rest it on,
Vast vegetables gave it sustenance,
Monstrous sauroids transported it in their mouths, and deposited it with care.

All forces have been steadily employed to complete and delight me;
Now on this spot I stand with my robust Soul.

     It is impossible in an extract to convey an idea of the mystic and coarse, yet living, force which pervades the poem called “Walt Whitman.” I have chosen an extract where the utterance is unusually clear and vivid. But more extraordinary, in their strong sympathy, are the portions describing the occupations of men. In a few vivid touches we have striking pictures; the writer shifts his identity like Proteus, but breathes the same deep undertone in every shape. He can transfer himself into any personality, however base. “I am the man—I suffered—I was there.” 215 He cares for no man’s pride. He holds no man unclean.
     And afterwards, in the poem called “Children of Adam,” he proceeds to particularise the privileges of flesh, and to assert that in his own personal living body there is no uncleanness. He sees that the beasts are not ashamed; why, therefore, should he be ashamed? Then comes passage after passage of daring animalism; the functions of the body are unhesitatingly described, and the man asserts that the basest of them is glorious. All the stuff which offended American virtue is to be found here. It is very coarse and silly, but, as we shall see, very important. It is never, however, inhuman; indeed, it is strongly masculine—unsicklied by Lesbian bestialities and Petronian abominations. It simply chronicles acts and functions which, however unfit for art, are natural, sane, and perfectly pure. I shall attempt to show, further on, that Walt Whitman is not an artist at all, not a poet, properly so called; and that this grossness, offensive in itself, is highly significant—an essential part of very imperfect work. The general question of literary 216 immorality need not be introduced at all. No one is likely to read the book who is not intelligently chaste, or who is not familiar with numberless authors offensive to prudes—Lucretius, Virgil, Dante, Goethe, Byron, among poets; Tacitus, Rabelais, Montaigne, Cervantes, Swedenborg, among prose thinkers.
     The remainder of “Leaves of Grass” is occupied with poems of democracy, and general monotonous prophecies. There is nothing more which it would serve my present purpose to describe in detail, or to interpret. The typical man continues his cry, encouraging all men,—on the open road, in the light of day, in the region of dreams. All is right with the world, he thinks. For religion he advises, “Reverence all things;” for morality, “Be not ashamed;” for political wisdom among peoples, “Resist much—obey little.” He has no word for art; it is not in her temple that he burns incense. His language, as even a short extract has shown, is strong, vehement, instantaneously chosen; always forcible, and sometimes even rhythmical, like the prose of Plato. Thoughts crowd so thick upon him, that he has 217 no time to seek their artistic equivalent; he utters his thought in any way, and his expressions gain accidental beauty from the glamour of his sympathy. As he speaks, we more than once see a man’s face at white heat, and a man’s hand beating down emphasis at the end of periods. He is inspired, not angry; yet as even inspiration is not infallible, he sometimes talks rank nonsense.
     The second part of the volume, “Drum-Taps,” is a series of poetic soliloquies on the war. It is more American and somewhat less mystical than the “Leaves of Grass;” but we have again the old cry of democracy. Here, in proportion to the absence of self-consciousness, and the presence of vivid emotion, we find absolute music, culminating once or twice in poetry. The monody on the death of Lincoln—“when lilacs last in the door-yard bloomed”—contains the three essentials of poetic art—perfect sight, supreme emotion, and true music. This, however, is unusual in Walt Whitman. Intellectual self-consciousness generally coerces emotion, insincerities and follies ensue, and instead of rising into poetry, 218 the lines wail monotonously, and the sound drops into the circle of crabbed prose.
     For there is this distinction between Walt Whitman and the poet—that Whitman is content to reiterate his truth over and over again in the same tones, with the same result; while the poet, having found a truth to utter, is coerced by his artistic sympathies into seeking fresh literary forms for its expression. “Bawling out the rights of man,” wrote Horne Tooke, “is not singing.” Artistic sympathies Walt Whitman has none; he is that curiously-crying bird—a prophet with no taste. He is careless about beautifying his truth: he is heedless of the new forms—personal, dramatic, lyrical—in which another man would clothe it, and in which his disciples will be certain to clothe it for him. He sees vividly, but he is not always so naturally moved as to sing exquisitely. He has the swagger of the prophet, not the sweetness of the musician. Hence all those crude metaphors and false notes which must shock artists, those needless bestialities which repel prudes, that general want of balance and that mental dizziness which astonish most Europeans.
     219 But when this has been said, all blame has been said,—if, after all, a man is to incur blame for not being quite another sort of being than nature made him. Walt Whitman has arisen on the States to point the way to new literatures. He is the plain pioneer, pickaxe on shoulder, working and “roughing.” The daintier gentlemen will follow, and build where he is delving.
     Whitman himself would be the first to denounce those loose young gentlemen who admire him vaguely because he is loud and massive, gross and colossal, not for the sake of the truth he is teaching, and the grandeur of the result that may ensue. There are some men who can admire nothing unless it is “strong;” intellectual dram-drinkers, quite as far from the truth as sentimental tea-drinkers. Let it at once and unhesitatingly be admitted that Whitman’s want of art, his grossness, his tall talk, his metaphorical word-piling are faults—prodigious ones; and then let us turn reverently to contemplate these signs which denote his ministry, his command of rude forces, his nationality, his manly earnestness, and, last and greatest, his wondrous sympathy with 220 men as men. He emerges from the mass of unwelded materials—in shape much like the earth-spirit in “Faust.” He is loud and coarse, like most prophets, “sounding,” as he himself phrases it, “his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” He is the voice of which America stood most in need—a voice at which ladies scream and whippersnappers titter with delight, but which clearly pertains to a man who means to be heard. He is the clear forerunner of the great American poets, long yearned for, now prophesied, but not perhaps to be beheld till the vast American democracy has subsided a little from its last and grandest struggle. Honour in his generation is, of course, his due; but he does not seem to solicit honour. He is too thoroughly alive to care about being tickled into activity, too excited already to be much moved by finding himself that most badgered of functionaries, the recognized Sir Oracle.


[Notes: This review of Leaves of Grass and Drum-Taps was originally published in The Broadway in November, 1867. I’ve not found a copy of the relevant issue online, but there is a transcript of Buchanan’s review at The Walt Whitman Archive. There are a few minor changes in the text (‘We’ changed to ‘I’, capital letters removed from the odd noun) as well as the following alterations:

p. 205: ‘mild maniac’ replaces ‘wild maniac’ (I suspect this was a printing error in the later version).

p. 211: ‘genre pictures’ - in the original there was a comma separating the two words, which was a mistake.

p. 215: ‘It is very coarse, but, as we shall see, very important.’ - the later version adds ‘and silly’, i.e. ‘It is very coarse and silly, but, as we shall see, very important.’

p. 217: ‘perfect vision’ in the original is changed to ‘perfect sight’.

p. 220: In the original version, ‘In actual living force, in grip and muscle, he has no equal among contemporaries.’ follows the sentence: ‘Let it at once and unhesitatingly be admitted that Whitman’s want of art, his grossness, his tall talk, his metaphorical word-piling are faults—prodigious ones; and then let us turn reverently to contemplate these signs which denote his ministry, his command of rude forces, his nationality, his manly earnestness, and, last and greatest, his wondrous sympathy with men as men.’ In the later version this sentence is omitted.

The phrase, ‘a voice at which ladies scream and gigmen titter’ is changed in the later version to: ‘a voice at which ladies scream and whippersnappers titter with delight’.

In the original, ‘He is the clear forerunner of the great American poet’ is changed in the later version to ‘He is the clear forerunner of the great American poets’.]



David Gray, and other Essays, chiefly on Poetry - continued

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The Fleshly School Controversy
Buchanan and the Press
Buchanan and the Law


The Critical Response
Harriett Jay


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