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