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{Idyls and Legends of Inverburn 1865}








To Inverburn, well loved, well memoried,
The pink of ancient Scottish villages!
When Spring, a herald bright apparellëd,
Stood on the mountain-tops and blew aloud
The clarion of the winds, ere pacing slow
On dewy foot into the dusky dells,—
To Inverburn, whose quiet catches not
The smoky rumour of a city’s sin,
To Inverburn, by rail and road, I fled.


TO breathe the glory of the taintless air
With pleasurable pantings of the blood,
To wander over sweetly-smelling fields,
To lie upon the heathery slopes and dream,
To dream, to plan, to picture,—surely this
Were sweeter than to share the smoke with Higgs,
The callous cockney with the humorous vein,
In Babylonia? Wherefore, for a time,
I vow’d to slough the chrysalis of the grub
Of Grub Street, and become a butterfly
Blown with no will thro’ thyme and heather-bells
By the mild motion of the country air,—
And in the woods and meadows I might glean                                     2
Such consciousness of pastoral content,
As should compose the frenzy in the eyes
And cool the fever of the lips that thirst.

     One night, I lay as restless as a slave
For whom the darkness glimmers, froths, and makes
A picture of a tawny mother’s face
Sunlit and looking westward ’neath the palm;
The next, beneath the shade of Arthur’s Seat,
I slept as rich a slumber as a maid
Whose soul shuts softly like a rose’s leaves
To keep its dewy love-dream warm and sure;
Then, lastly, westward I was whirl’d by train,
And lighting at a lonely halting-place—
Whence far away I watch’d the city’s smoke
Float dim and spiral in the fading east—
Walkt seven Scots miles by wood and stream and moor
And saw the sunset redden Inverburn.

     Seven pleasant miles by wood, and stream, and moor,
Seven miles along the country road that wound
Uphill and downhill in a thin red line,
Then from the forehead of a hill, behold—                                          3
Lying below me, sparkling ruby-like,—
The village!—quaint old gables, roofs of thatch,
A glimmering spire that peep’d above the firs,
The sunset lingering orange-red on all,
And nearer, tumbling thro’ a mossy bridge,
The river that I knew! No wondrous peep
Into the faëry land of Oberon,
Its bowers, its glowworm-lighted colonnades
Where pigmy lovers wander two by two,
Could weigh upon the city wanderer’s heart
With peace so pure as this! Why, yonder stood,
A fledgeling’s downward flight beyond the spire,
The grey old manse, endear’d by memories
Of Jean the daughter of the minister;
And in the cottage with the painted sign,
Hard by the bridge, how many a winter night
Had I with politicians sapient-eyed
Discuss’d the county paper’s latest news
And tippled Sandie’s best!—And nought seem’d changed!                  [3:23]
The very gig before the smithy door,
The barefoot lassie with the milking pail                                              [3:25]
Pausing and looking backward from the bridge,
The last rook wavering homeward to the wood,                                 4
All seem’d a sunset-picture, every tint
Unchanged, since I had bade the place farewell.                                  [3: 29]
My heart grew garrulous of olden times
And my face sadden’d, as I saunter’d down.
There came a rural music on my ears,—                                              [3:32]
The waggons in the lanes, the waterfall
With cool sound plunging in its wood-nest wild,
The rooks amid the windy rookery,
The shouts of children, and afar away                                                  [3:36]
The crowing of a cock. Then o’er the bridge
I bent, above the river gushing down
Thro’ mossy boulders, making underneath
Green-shaded pools where now and then a trout
Sank in the ripple of its own quick leap;
And like some olden and familiar tune,
Half humm’d aloud, half tinkling in the brain,
Troublously, faintly, came the buzz of looms.

     And here I linger’d, nested in the shade
Of Peace that makes a music as she grows;
And when the vale had put its glory on
The bitter aspiration was subdued,
And Pleasure, tho’ she wore a woodland crown,                                5
Look’d at me with Ambition’s serious eyes.
Amid the deep green woods of pine, whose boughs
Made a sea-music overhead, and caught
White flakes of sunlight on their highest leaves,
I foster’d solemn meditations;
Stretch’d on the sloping river banks, fresh prink’d                              [4:11]
With gowans and the meek anemone,                                                [4:12]
I watch’d the bright king-fisher dart about,
His quick small shadow with an azure gleam
Startling the minnows in the pool beneath;
Or out upon the moors, where far away                                              [4:16]
Across the waste the sportsman with his gun
Stood a dark speck across the sky, what time                                     [4:18]
The heath-hen flounder’d thro’ the furze and fell,                                 [4:19]
I caught the solemn wind that wander’d down
With thunder-echoes heaved among the hills.
Nor lack’d I, in the balmy summer nights,
Or on the days of rain, such counterpoise
As books can give. The honey-languaged Greek
Who gently piped the sweet bucolic lay,
The wit who raved of Lesbia’s loosen’d zone
And loved divinely what was less than earth,
Were with me; others, of a later date:                                                 6
The eagle-eyed comedian divine;
The English Homer, not the humpback’d one
Who sung Belinda’s curl at Twickenham,
But Chapman, master of the solemn line;                                            [4:32]
Moreover, those few singers who have lit
The beacon-lights of these our latter days—
Chief, young Hyperion, who setting soon
Sent his pale look along the future time,
And the tall figure on the hills, that stoopt
To see the daisy’s shadow on the grass.

     But Higgs was in my spirit now and then,
Pricking me like a thorn, the cynic Higgs,
The representative of all his race;
And looking round upon the courteous vale,
I probed the wound and argued with my heart.
“Fame,” said I, “is a problem Poets solve
By looking outward for the Beautiful:
The one exists beyond us, in the skies,
And in the legible gospel of the earth;
The other is conferr’d, wherever Truth
Demands it, from the living Poet’s soul.”
And in mine inner ear methought I heard                                              7
The mellow winy laugh I hated so.
For “Sing your loudest, “ whisper’d Higgs; “devote
Three precious summers (like a friend of mine)
To learning how to paint a cabbage-rose;
Plot, plan, devise, refine, burn midnight oil,
Plod, labour: Who will thank you? Faith, not I.
Your utmost: you can tell us nothing new.”
The scented sweetness of the placid vale
Blew on my cheek, and help’d me in my need;
Mild influences blew my gloomy mood
Apart, as softest breezes part a cloud;
And lark-like launch’d to ether by my joy,
I sang for singing’s sake—until at last,
I listen’d for the voice of Fame, and found
The viewless angel of the Beautiful
Among the men and women, and the scenes,
Or fair or true, which I, a latter bard,
Paint in the songs that follow.

                                               Higgs survives,
Higgism is, has been, and still will be;
Nathless I sang, nathless I sing. May God,
Even with the purity of mine own intent,                                               8
Even with the impulse heavenward that remains
When much I loved so well is God’s again,
Hallow my singing. Blow, thou balmy Spring,
Thy softest kisses on the wood-nest wild
Where I am lying! tip my tongue, O Spring,
With honey, that the heart of men may hear!
Fly to the city, Spirit of the Spring,
Breathe softly on the lids of those who read,
And make a gentle picture of the scene
Wherein these shapes and shadows come and go:
The clachan with its humming sound of looms,
The small green valley ridged with heathery slopes,
The stream whose soft blue arm encircles all,
And far away, the northern mountian-tops,
Hued like the azure of the dew-berrie,
And mingling with the regions of the Rain.


In the Second Edition of Idyls and Legends of Inverburn, published in 1866, the introductory verse is replaced by the following:

Fly to the city, Spirit of the Spring,
Breathe softly on the eyes of those who read,
And make a gentle picture of the scene
Wherein these men and women come and go:
The clachan with its humming sound of looms,
The quaint old gables, roofs of turf and thatch,
The glimmering spire that peeps above the firs,
The waggons in the lanes, the waterfall
With cool sound plunging in its wood-nest wild,
The stream whose soft blue arms encircle all,—
And in the background heathery norland hills,
Hued like the azure of the dew-berrie,
And mingling with the regions of the Rain!

The rest of the ‘Preamble’ is omitted.

In the 1884 edition of The Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan, lines 8 and 9 of this revised opening verse are omitted but verses 3 and 4 of the original ‘Preamble’ are retained under the title, ‘The Lowland Village’, with the following alterations:
v. 3, l. 23: And read of toppling thrones!—And nought seem’d changed!
v. 3, l. 25: The barefoot maiden with the milking pail
v. 3, l. 29: Unchanged, since I had bidden it farewell.
v. 3, l. 32: Then came a rural music on my ears,—
v. 3, l. 36: The shouts of children, and more far away
v. 4, l. 11: Stretch’d on the sloping river banks, fresh strewn
v. 4, l. 12: With speedwell, primrose, and anemone,
v. 4, l. 16: Or later on the moors, where far away
v. 4, l. 18: Stood a dark speck across the azure, while
v. 4, l. 19: The heath-hen tower’d with beating wings and fell,
v. 4, l. 32: But Chapman, master of the long strong line; ]











“An old man’s tale, a tale for men grey-hair’d,
Who wear, thro’ second childhood, to the Lord.”


’TIS two-and-thirty summers since I came
To school the village lads of Inverburn.

     My father was a shepherd old and poor,
Who, dwelling ’mong the clouds on norland hills,
His tartan plaidie on, and by his side
His sheep-dog running, redden’d with the winds
That whistle saltly south from Polar seas:                                             [2:5]
I follow’d in his footsteps when a boy,
And knew by heart the mountains round our home;
But when I went to Edinglass, to learn
At college there, I look’d about the place,
And heard the murmur of the busy streets
Around me, in a dream;—and only saw                                              12
The clouds that snow around the mountain-tops,
The mists that chase the phantom of the moon
In lonely mountain tarns,—and heard the while,
Not footsteps sounding hollow to and fro,
But winds sough-soughing thro’ the woods of pine.                            [2:16]
Time pass’d; and day by day those sights and sounds
Grew fainter,—till they troubled me no more.

     O Willie, Willie, are you sleeping sound?
And can you feel the stone that I have placed
Yonder above you? Are you dead, my doo?
Or did you see the shining Hand that parts
The clouds above, and becks the bonnie birds,
Until they wing away, and human eyes,
That watch them till they vanish in the blue,                                        [3:7]
Droop and grow tearful? Ay, I ken, I ken,
I’m talking folly, but I loved the child!
He was the bravest scholar in the school!
He came to teach the very dominie—
Me, with my lyart locks and sleepy heart!

     O well I mind the day his mother brought                                      [4:1]
Her tiny trembling tot with yellow hair,                                               13
Her tiny poor-clad tot six summers old,
And left him seated lonely on a form
Before my desk. He neither wept nor gloom’d;
But waited silently, with shoeless feet
Swinging above the floor; in wonder eyed
The maps upon the walls, the big black board,
The slates and books and copies, and my own
Grey hose and clumpy boots; last, fixing gaze
Upon a monster spider’s web that fill’d
One corner of the whitewash’d ceiling, watch’d
The speckled traitor jump and jink about,
Till he forgot my unfamiliar eyes,
Weary and strange and old. “Come here, my bairn!”
And timid as a lamb he seedled up.
“What do they call ye?” “Willie,” coo’d the wean,
Up-peeping slyly, scraping with his feet.
I put my hand upon his yellow hair,
And cheer’d him kindly. Then I bade him lift
The small black bell that stands behind the door
And ring the shouting laddies from their play.
“Run, Willie!” And he ran, and eyed the bell,
Stoop’d o’er it, seem’d afraid that it would bite,
Then grasp’d it firm, and as it jingled gave                                           14
A timid cry—next laugh’d to hear the sound—
And ran full merry to the door and rang,
And rang, and rang, while lights of music lit
His pallid cheek, till, shouting, panting hard,
In ran the big rough laddies from their play.

     Then rapping sharply on the desk I drove
The laddies to their seats, and beckon’d up
The stranger—smiling, bade him seat himself
And hearken to the rest. Two weary hours
Buzz-buzz, boom-boom, went on the noise of school,
While Willie sat and listen’d open-mouthed;
Till school was over, and the big and small
Flew home in flocks. But Willie stay’d behind.
I beckon’d to the mannock with a smile,
And took him on my knee and crack’d and talk’d.                            [5:10]

     First, he was timid; next, grew bashful; next,
He warm’d and told me stories of his home,
His father, mother, sisters, brothers, all;
And how, when strong and big, he meant to buy
A gig to drive his father to the kirk;
And how he long’d to be a dominie:                                                   15
Such simple prattle as I plainly see
You smile at. But to little children God                                               [6:8]
Has given wisdom and mysterious power
Which beat the mathematics. Quærere
Verum in sylvis Academi
, Sir,
Is meet for men who can afford to dwell
For ever in a garden, reading books
Of morals and the logic. Good and well!                                            [6:14]
Give me such tiny truths as only bloom
Like red-tipt gowans at the hallanstone,
Or kindle softly, flashing bright at times,
In fuffing cottage fires!

                                     The laddie still
Was seated on my knee, when at the door
We heard a scrape-scrape-scraping: Willie prick’d                            [7:3]
His ears and listen’d, then he clapt his hands—
“Hey! Donald, Donald, Donald!” [See! the rogue
Looks up and blinks his eyes—he knows his name!]                           [7:6]
“Hey, Donald, Donald!” Willie cried. At that
I saw beneath me, at the door, a Dog—
The very collie dozing at your feet,
His nose between his paws, his eyes half closed.                                 16
At sight of Willie, with a joyful bark
He leapt and gamboll’d, eyeing me the while
In queer suspicion; and the mannock peep’d
Into my face, while patting Donald’s back—
“It’s Donald! he has come to take me home!”

     An old man’s tale, a tale for men grey-hair’d,
Who wear, thro’ second childhood, to the grave!
I’ll hasten on. Thenceforward Willie came
Daily to school, and daily to the door
Came Donald trotting; and they homeward went
Together—Willie walking slow but sure,
And Donald trotting sagely by his side.
[Ay, Donald, he is dead! be still, old man!]

     What link existed, human or divine,
Between the tiny tot six summers old,
And yonder life of mine upon the hills
Among the mists and storms? ’Tis strange, ’tis strange!
But when I look’d on Willie’s face, it seem’d
That I had known it in some beauteous life
That I had left behind me in the north.
This fancy grew and grew, till oft I sat—                                              17
The buzzing school around me—and would seem
To be among the mists, the tracks of rain,
Nearing the hueless silence of the snow.                                             [9:11]
Slowly and surely I began to feel
That I was all alone in all the world,
And that my mother and my father slept
Far, far away, in some forgotten kirk—
Remember’d but in dreams. Alone at nights,
I read my Bible more and Euclid less.
For, mind you, like my betters, I had been
Half scoffer, half believer; on the whole,
I thought the life beyond a useless dream,
Best left alone, and shut my eyes to themes
That puzzled mathematics. But at last,
When Willie Baird and I grew friends, and thoughts
Came to me from beyond my father’s grave,
I found ’twas pleasant late at e’en to read
My Bible—haply, only just to pick                                                    [9:26]
Some easy chapter for my pet to learn—
Yet night by night my soul was guided on
Like a blind man some angel hand convoys.

     I cannot frame in speech the thoughts that fill’d                               18
This grey old brow, the feelings dim and warm
That soothed the throbbings of this weary heart!
But when I placed my hand on Willie’s head,
Warm sunshine tingled from the yellow hair
Thro’ trembling fingers to my blood within;
And when I look’d in Willie’s stainless eyes
I saw the empty ether floating grey
O’er shadowy mountains murmuring low with winds;
And often when, in his old-fashion’d way,
He question’d me, I seem’d to hear a voice
From far away, that mingled with the cries
Haunting the regions where the round red sun
Is all alone with God among the snow.

     Who made the stars? and if within his hand
He caught and held one, would his fingers burn?
If I, the grey-hair’d dominie, was dug
From out a cabbage garden such as he
Was found in? if, when bigger, he would wear
Grey homespun hose and clumsy boots like mine,
And have a house to dwell in all alone?
Thus would he question, seated on my knee,
While Donald (wheesht, old man!) stretch’d lyart limbs                       19
Under my chair, contented. Open-mouth’d
He hearken’d to the tales I loved to tell
About Sir William Wallace and the Bruce,
And the sweet lady on the Scottish throne,
Whose crown was colder than a band of ice,
Yet seem’d a sunny crown whene’er she smiled;
With many tales of genii, giants, dwarfs,
And little folk that play at jing-a-ring
On beds of harebells ’neath the silver moon;
Stories and rhymes and songs of Wonder-land:
How Tammas Ercildoune in Elfland dwelt,
How Galloway’s mermaid comb’d her golden hair,
How Tammas Thumb stuck in the spider’s web,
And fought and fought, a needle for his sword,
Dyeing his weapon in the crimson blood
Of the foul traitor with the poison’d fangs!

     And when we read the Holy Book, the child
Would think and think o’er parts he loved the best;
The draught of fish, the Child that sat so wise
In the great Temple, Herod’s cruel law
To slay the weans, or—oftenest of all—                                             [12:5]
The crucifixion of the Good Kind Man                                               20
Who loved the weans and was a wean himself.                                  [12:7]
He speir’d of death; and were the sleepers cold
Down in the dark wet earth? and was it God
That put the grass and flowers in the kirk-yard?
What kind of dwelling-place was heaven above?
And was it full of flowers? and were there schools
And dominies there? and was it far away?
Then, with a look that made your eyes grow dim,
Clasping his wee white hands round Donald’s neck,
“Do doggies gang to heaven?” he would ask;
“Would Donald gang?” and keek’d in Donald’s face,
While Donald blink’d with meditative gaze,
As if he knew full brawly what we said,
And ponder’d o’er it, wiser far than we.
But how I answer’d, how explain’d these themes
I know not. Oft I could not speak at all.
Yet every question made me think of things
Forgotten, puzzled so, and when I strove
To reason puzzled me so much the more,
That, flinging logic to the winds, I went
Straight onward to the mark in Willie’s way,
Took most for granted, laid down premises
Of Faith, imagined, gave my wit the reins,                                           21
And oft on nights at e’en, to my surprise,                                           [12:30]
Felt palpably an angel’s glowing face
Glimmering down upon me, while mine eyes
Dimm’d their old orbs with tears that came unbid
To bear the glory of the light they saw.

     So summer pass’d. Yon chestnut at the door
Scatter’d its burnish’d leaves and made a sound
Of wind among its branches. Every day
Came Willie, seldom going home again
Till near the sunset: wet or dry he came:
Oft in the rainy weather carrying
A big umbrella, under which he walk’d—
A little fairy in a parachute,
Blown hither, thither, at the wind’s wild will.
Pleased was my heart to see his pallid cheeks
Were gathering rosy-posies, that his eyes
Were softer and less sad. Then, with a gust,
Old Winter tumbled shrieking from the hills,
His white hair blowing in the wind.

                                                       The house
Where Willie’s mother lives is scarce a mile                                         22
From yonder hallan, if you take a cut
Before you reach the village, crossing o’er
Green meadows till you reach the road again;
But he who thither goes along the road
Loses a reaper’s mile. The summer long
Wee Willie came and went across the fields:
He loved the smell of flowers and grass, the sight
Of cows and sheep, the changing stalks of wheat,
And he was weak and small. When winter came,
Still caring not a straw for wind or rain
Came Willie and the collie; till by night
Down fell the snow, and fell three nights and days,
Then ceased. The ground was white and ankle-deep;
The window of the school was threaded o’er
With flowers of hueless ice—Frost’s unseen hands
Prick’d you from head to foot with tinging heat                                    [14:18]
The shouting urchins, yonder on the green,
Play’d snowballs. In the school a cheery fire
Was kindled every day, and every day
When Willie came he had the warmest seat,
And every day old Donald, punctual, came
To join us, after labour, in the lowe.

     Three days and nights the snow had mistily fall’n.                            23
It lay long miles along the country-side,
White, awful, silent. In the keen cold air
There was a hush, a sleepless silentness,
And mid it all, upraising eyes, you felt
God’s breath upon your face; and in your blood,                                [15:6]
Though you were cold to touch, was flaming fire,
Such as within the bowels of the earth
Burnt at the bones of ice, and wreath’d them round
With grass ungrown.

                                   One day in school I saw,
Through threaded window-panes, soft, snowy flakes
Swim with unquiet motion, mistily, slowly,                                           [16:3]
At intervals; but when the boys were gone,
And in ran Donald with a dripping nose,
The air was clear and grey as glass. An hour
Sat Willie, Donald, and myself around
The murmuring fire, and then with tender hand
I wrapt a comforter round Willie’s throat,
Button’d his coat around him close and warm,
And off he ran with Donald, happy-eyed
And merry, leaving fairy prints of feet
Behind him on the snow. I watch’d them fade                                      24
Round the white curve, and, turning with a sigh,                                 [16:14]
Came in to sort the room and smoke a pipe
Before the fire. Here, dreamingly and alone,                                       [16:16]
I sat and smoked, and in the fire saw clear
The norland mountains, white and cold with snow
That crumbled silently, and moved, and changed,—
When suddenly the air grew sick and dark,
And from the distance came a hollow sound,
A murmur like the moan of far-off seas.

     I started to my feet, look’d out, and knew
The winter wind was whistling from the clouds                                    [17:2]
To lash the snow-clothed plain, and to myself
I prophesied a storm before the night.
Then with an icy pain, an eldritch gleam,                                              [17:5]
I thought of Willie; but I cheer’d my heart,
“He’s home, and with his mother, long ere this!”
While thus I stood the hollow murmur grew
Deeper, the wold grew darker, and the snow
Rush’d downward, whirling in a shadowy mist.
I walk’d to yonder door and open’d it.
Whirr! the wind swung it from me with a clang,
And in upon me with an iron-like crash                                               25
Swoop’d in the drift. With pinch’d sharp face I gazed
Out on the storm! Dark, dark was all! A mist,
A blinding, whirling mist, of chilly snow,
The falling and the driven; for the wind
Swept round and round in clouds upon the earth,                                [17:18]
And birm’d the deathly drift aloft with moans,
Till all was swooning darkness. Far above                                          [17:20]
A voice was shrieking, like a human cry.

     I closed the door, and turn’d me to the fire,
With something on my heart—a load—a sense
Of an impending pain. Down the broad lum
Came melting flakes that hiss’d upon the coal;
Under my eyelids blew the blinding smoke,
And for a time I sat like one bewitch’d,
Still as a stone. The lonely room grew dark,
The flickering fire threw phantoms of the snow                                   [18:8]
Along the floor and on the walls around;
The melancholy ticking of the clock
Was like the beating of my heart. But, hush!
Above the moaning of the wind I heard
A sudden scraping at the door; my heart
Stood still and listen’d; and with that there rose                                   26
An awsome howl, shrill as a dying screech,                                       [18:15]
And scrape-scrape-scrape, the sound beyond the door!
I could not think—I could not breathe—a dark,                                [18:17]
Awful foreboding gript me like a hand,                                               [18:18]
As opening the door I gazed straight out,
Saw nothing, till I felt against my knees
Something that moved and heard a moaning sound—
Then, panting, moaning, o’er the threshold leapt
Donald the dog, alone, and white with snow.

     Down, Donald! down, old man! Sir, look at him!
I swear he knows the meaning of my words,
And tho’ he cannot speak, his heart is full!
See now! see now! he puts his cold black nose
Into my palm and whines! he knows, he knows!
Would speak, and cannot, but he minds that night!

     The terror of my heart seem’d choking me:
Dumbly I stared and wildly at the dog,                                               [20:2]
Who gazed into my face and whined and moan’d,
Leap’d at the door, then touched me with his paws,
And lastly, gript my coat between his teeth,
And pull’d and pull’d—whiles growling, whining whiles—               27 [20:6]
Till fairly madden’d, in bewilder’d fear,                                              [20:7]
I let him drag me through the banging door
Out to the whirling storm. Bareheaded, wild,
The wind and snow-drift beating on my face
Blowing me hither, thither, with the dog,
I dash’d along the road. What follow’d seem’d
An eerie, eerie dream!—a world of snow,
A sky of wind, a whirling howling mist
Which swam around with hundred sickly eyes;                                  [20:15]
And Donald dragging, dragging, beaten, bruised,
Leading me on to something that I fear’d—
An awful something, and I knew not what!
On, on, and farther on, and still the snow
Whirling, the tempest moaning! Then I mind
Of groping, groping in the shadowy light,                                            [20:21]
And Donald by me burrowing with his nose
And whining. Next a darkness, blank and deep!
But then I mind of tearing thro’ the storm,
Stumbling and tripping, blind and deaf and dumb,
And holding to my heart an icy load
I clutch’d with freezing fingers. Far away—
It seem’d long miles on miles away—I saw
A yellow light—unto that light I tore—                                               28
And last, remember opening a door
And falling, dazzled by a blinding gleam
Of human faces and a flaming fire,
And with a crash of voices in my ears
Fading away into a world of snow.

     When I awaken’d to myself, I lay
In my own bed at home. I started up                                                  [21:2]
As from an evil dream and look’d around,
And to my side came one, a neighbour’s wife,                                   [21:4]
Mother to two young lads I taught in school.
With hollow, hollow voice I question’d her,
And soon knew all: how a long night had pass’d
Since, with a lifeless laddie in my arms,
I stumbled horror-stricken, swooning, wild
Into a ploughman’s cottage: at my side,
My coat between his teeth, a dog; and how
Senseless and cold I fell. Thence, when the storm
Had pass’d away, they bore me to my home.
I listen’d dumbly, catching at the sense;
But when the woman mention’d Willie’s name,
And I was fear’d to phrase the thought that rose,
She saw the question in my tearless eyes                                             29
And told me—he was dead.

                                               ’Twould weary you
To tell the thoughts, the fancies, and the dreams
That weigh’d upon me, ere I rose in bed,
But little harm’d, and sent the wife away,
Rose, slowly drest, took up my staff and went
To Willie’s mother’s cottage. As I walk’d
Though all the air was calm and cold and still,
The blowing wind and dazzled snow were yet
Around about. I was bewilder’d like!
Ere I had time to think I found myself
Beside a truckle bed, and at my side
A weeping woman. And I clench’d my hands,
And look’d on Willie, who had gone to sleep.

     In death-gown white, lay Willie fast asleep,
His blue eyes closed, his tiny fingers clench’d,
His lips apart a wee as if he breathed,
His yellow hair kaim’d back, and on his face
A smile—yet not a smile—a dim pale light
Such as the Snow keeps in its own soft wings.
Ay, he had gone to sleep, and he was sound!                                      30
And by the bed lay Donald watching still,
And when I look’d, he whined, but did not move.

     I turn’d in silence, with my nails stuck deep
In my clench’d palms; but in my heart of hearts
I pray’d to God. In Willie’s mother’s face
There was a cold and silent bitterness—
I saw it plain, but saw it in a dream,
And cared not. So I went my way, as grim
As one who holds his breath to slay himself.
What follow’d that is vague as was the rest:
A winter day, a landscape hush’d in snow,
A weary wind, a horrid whiteness borne                                             [24:10]
On a man’s shoulder, shapes in black, o’er all
The solemn clanging of an iron bell,
And lastly me and Donald standing both
Beside a tiny mound of fresh-heap’d earth,
And while around the snow began to fall
Mistily, softly, thro’ the icy air,
Looking at one another, dumb and cold.                                           [24:17]

     And Willie’s dead!—that’s all I comprehend—
Ay, bonnie Willie Baird has gone before:                                             31
The school, the tempest, and the eerie pain,                                       [25:3]
Seem but a dream,—and I am weary like.                                         [25:4]
I begg’d old Donald hard—they gave him me—
And we have lived together in this house
Long years with no companions. There’s no need
Of speech between us. Here we dumbly bide,
But know each other’s sorrow,—and we both                                    [25:9]
Feel weary. When the nights are long and cold,
And snow is falling as it falleth now,
And wintry winds are moaning, here I dream
Of Willie and the unfamiliar life
I left behind me on the norland hills!                                                   [25:14]
“Do doggies gang to heaven?” Willie ask’d;
And ah! what Solomon of modern days
Can answer that? Yet here at nights I sit,
Reading the Book, with Donald at my side;
And stooping, with the Book upon my knee,
I sometimes gaze in Donald’s patient eyes—
So sad, so human, though he cannot speak—
And think he knows that Willie is at peace,
Far far away beyond the norland hills,
Beyond the silence of the untrodden snow.


A revised version of ‘Willie Baird’ was published in the 1874, King edition of the Poetical Works. For the 1884, Chatto & Windus Poetical Works, Buchanan reverted to the original version, making a few more changes. The alterations in the two revisions are detailed below:

Alterations in the 1874 edition of The Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan:
Subtitle changed to ‘(SCOTTISH LOWLANDS)’.
v. 2, l. 5: That whistle southward from the Polar seas:
v. 2, l. 16: But wild winds, wailing thro’ the woods of pine.
v. 3, l. 7: That watch them while they vanish up the blue,
v. 5, l. 10: Took him upon my knee, and crack’d and talk’d.
v. 6, l. 8: Your wisdom smiles at. . . . Weel! the laddie still
v. 6, l. 9 to v. 7, l. 1 omitted.
v. 7, l. 3: We heard a sound of scraping: Willie prick’d
v. 9, l. 11: Nearing the silence of the sleeping snow.
v. 9, l. 26: The Scripture—haply, only just to pick
v. 12, l. 5: To slay the babes, or—oftenest of all—
v. 12, l. 7: Who loved the babes and was a babe himself.
v. 12, l. 30: And often in the night, to my surprise, 
v. 15, l. 6: Frost’s breath upon your face. And in your blood,
v. 16, l. 14: Round the white road, and, turning with a sigh,
v. 17, l. 2: The winter wind was whistling from the east
v. 17, l. 18: Swept round and round in spindrift on the earth,
v. 18, l. 8: The flickering fire threw phantoms of the fog
v. 18, l. 15: An anguish’d howl, shrill as a dying screech,
v. 18, l. 17: I could not think—I could not cry nor breathe—
v. 18, l. 18: A fierce foreboding gript me like a hand, 
v. 20, l. 2: Wildly I stared in wonder at the dog,
v. 20, l. 6: And pull’d and pull’d—with stifled howls and whines—
v. 20, l. 7: Till fairly madden’d, stupified with fear, 
v. 20, l. 15: Which swam around with countless flashing eyes;
v. 20, l. 21: Of stooping, groping in the shadowy light,
v. 21, l. 2: In mine own bed at home. I started up
v. 21, l. 4: When to my side came one, a neighbour’s wife,
v. 24, l. 17: Looking at one another, dumb and old.
v. 25, l. 3: omitted.
v. 25, l. 4: omitted.
v. 25, l. 14: I left behind me on those norland hills!

Alterations in the 1884 edition of The Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan:
v. 2, l. 5: That whistle southward from the Polar seas:
v. 4, l. 1: O weel I mind the day his mother brought
v. 6, l. 14: Of morals and the logic. Good and weel!
v. 7, l. 3: We heard a sound of scraping: Willie prick’d
v. 7, l. 6: Looks up and blinks his eyes—he kens his name!]
v. 9, l. 11: Nearing the awful silence of the snow.
v. 12, l. 5: To slay the bairns, or—oftenest of all—
v. 14, l. 18: Prick’d you from head to foot with tingling heat.
v. 16, l. 3: Fall with unquiet motion, mistily, slowly,
v. 16, l. 16: Before the fire. Here, dreaming all alone,
v. 17, l. 5: Then with an icy pain, an eldritch fear,
v. 17, l. 20: Till all was dreadful darkness. Far above
v. 20, l. 21: Of groping blindly in the shadowy light,
v. 24, l. 10: A weary wind, a small white coffin borne
v. 25, l. 9: But ken each other’s sorrow,—and we both

The William McTaggart painting of ‘Willie Baird’.]






LAST night I toss’d upon my bed,
Because I knew that she was dead:
The curtains were white, the pane was blue,
               The moon peep’d through,
               And its eye was red—
“I would that my love were awake!” I said.



Then I rose and the silver censer lit,                                                     [2:1]
     And over the rushes lightly stept,                                                    [2:2]
Crept to the door and open’d it,
     And enter’d the room where my lady slept;
And the censer threw a glamour grey                                                  [2:5]
Over the bed on which she lay,
And sparkled on her golden hair,                                                       33
Smiled on her lip and melted there,
And I shudder’d because she look’d so fair;—
For the curtains were white, and the pane was blue,
               And the moon look’d through,
               And its eye was red:
“I will hold her hand, and think,” I said.



And at first I could not think at all,
     Because her hand was so thin and cold;
The grey light flicker’d along the wall,
     And I seem’d to be growing old;
I look’d in her face and could not weep,
     I hated the sound of mine own deep breath,
Lest it should startle her from the sleep
     That seem’d too sweet and mild for death.
I heard the far-off clock intone
               So slowly, so slowly—
Afar across the courts of stone,
The black hound shook his chain with a moan,
               As the village clock chimed slowly, slowly, slowly.
I pray’d that she might rise in bed,                                                       34
               And smile and say one little word,
“I long to see her eyes!” I said . . .
               I should have shriek’d if she had stirr’d.



I never sinn’d against thee, Sweet!
     And yet last night, when none could see . .
I know not . . but from head to feet,
     I seem’d one scar of infamy:
Perhaps because the fingers light
I held had grown so worn and white,
Perhaps because you look’d so fair,
With the thin grey light on your golden hair.



You were warm, and I was cold,
     Yet you loved me, little one, I knew—
I could not trifle—I was old—
     I was wiser, carefuller, than you;
I liked my horse, I liked my hound,
I liked to hear the trumpet sound,                                                       [5:6]
Over my wine I liked to chat,
     But soberly, for I had mind:                                                            35
You wanted that, and only that,
     You were as light as is the wind.
At times, I know, it fretted me—
     I chid thee mildly now and then—
No fault of mine—no blame to thee—
     Women are women, men are men.
At first you smiled to see me frown,
     And laughing leapt upon my knee,
And kiss’d the chiding shadow down,
     And smooth’d my great beard merrily;
But then a change came o’er you, Sweet!
     You walk’d about with pensive head;
     You tried to read, and as you read
Patted your small impatient feet:—
     “She is wiser now!” I smiling said . .
     And ere I doubted—you were dead.



All this came back upon my brain
     While I sat alone at your white bedside,
And I remember’d in my pain
     Those words you spoke before you died—
For around my neck your arms you flung,                                            36
     And smiled so sweet though death was near—
“I was so foolish and so young!
     And yet I loved thee!—kiss me, dear!”
I put aside your golden hair,
     And kiss’d you, and you went to sleep;
And when I saw that death was there,
     My grief was cold, I could not weep;
And late last night, when you were dead,
I did not weep beside your bed,
For the curtains were white, and the pane was blue,
               And the moon look’d through,
               And its eye was red—
“How coldly she lies!” I said.



Then loud, so loud, before I knew,
The grey and black cock scream’d and crew,
And I heard the far-off bells intone
               So slowly, so slowly,
The black hound bark’d, and I rose with a groan,
               As the village bells chimed slowly, slowly, slowly.
I dropp’d the hand so cold and thin,                                                   37
     I gazed, and your face seem’d still and wise,
And I saw the damp dull dawn stare in
     Like a dim drown’d face with oozy eyes;
And I open’d the lattice quietly,
And the cold wet air came in on me,
And I pluck’d two roses with fingers chill
From the roses that grew at your window-sill,
I pluck’d two roses, a white and a red,
Stole again to the side of your bed,
Raised the edge of your winding fold.
     Dropp’d the roses upon your breast,
Cover’d them up in the balmy cold,
     That none might know—and there they rest!                                 [7:20]
And out at the castle-gate I crept
Into the woods, and then . . I wept!
But to-day they carried you from here,
     And I follow’d your coffin with tearless cheek—
They knew not about the roses, dear!—
     I would not have them think me weak.



And I am weary on my bed
Because I know you are cold and dead;                                              38
And I see you lie in darkness, Sweet!
With the roses under your winding-sheet;
The days and nights are dreary and cold,
And I am foolish, and weak, and old.


Alterations in the 1874 edition of The Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan:
v. 2, l. 1: Then I rose and the lamp of silver lit,
v. 2, l. 2: And over the carpet lightly stept,
v. 2, l. 5: And the lamplight threw a restless ray
v. 5, l. 6: I liked to hear the bugle sound,
v. 7, l. 20: This is the final line of the poem, the rest of the verse and Verse 8 are omitted.

Alterations in the 1884 edition of The Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan:
v. 2, l. 1: Then I rose and the lamp of silver lit,
v. 2, l. 5: And the silver lamp threw a feeble ray ]



Idyls and Legends of Inverburn 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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