James Grahame Poems >>
British Georgics. January

The labours of the plough, the various toils
That, still returning with the changeful year,
Demand the husbandman's and cottar's care;
The joys and troubles of the peasant's life;
His days and nights of festive mirth, that serve,
Though few, yet long foreseen, remembered long,
To lighten every task; his rural sports
Afield, at home; the fickle season's signs;
The varying face of nature, wood, and stream,
And sky, and fruitful field, -- these now I sing.

  The wintry sun shoots forth a feeble glimpse,
Then yields his short-lived empire to the night.
Hail, Night! pavilioned 'neath the rayless cope,
I love thy solemn state, profoundly dark;
Thy sable pall; thy lurid throne of clouds,
Viewless save by the lightning's flash; thy crown,
That boasts no starry gem; thy various voice,
That to the heart, with eloquence divine,
Now in soft whispers, now in thunder speaks.
Not undelightful is thy reign to him
Who wakeful gilds, with reveries bright, thy gloom,
Or listens to the music of the storm,
And meditates on Him who sways its course:
Thy solemn state I love, yet joyful greet
The long-expected dawn's ambiguous light,
That faintly pencils out the horizon's verge.

  Long ere the lingering dawn of that blithe morn
Which ushers in the year, the roosting cock,
Flapping his wings, repeats his larum shrill;
But on that morn no busy flail obeys
His rousing call; no sounds but sounds of joy
Salute the year,-- the first-foot's entering step,
That sudden on the floor is welcome heard,
Ere blushing maids have braided up their hair;
The laugh, the hearty kiss, the good new year
Pronounced with honest warmth. In village, grange,
And burrow town, the steaming flaggon, borne
From house to house, elates the poor man's heart,
And makes him feel that life has still its joys.
The aged and the young, man, woman, child,
Unite in social glee; even stranger dogs,
Meeting with bristling back, soon lay aside
Their snarling aspect, and in sportive chace,
Excursive scour, or wallow in the snow.
With sober cheerfulness, the grandam eyes
Her offspring round her, all in health and peace;
And, thankful that she's spared to see this day
Return once more, breathes low a secret prayer,
That God would shed a blessing on their heads.

  Thus morning passes, till far south, the sun
Shines dimly through the drift, and warning gives,
That all the day must not be idly spent.
Some works brook not delay; the stake, the stall,
And fold, at this rough season, most demand
Assiduous care; the sheep-rack must be filled
With liberal arms, and, from the turnip field,
A plenteous load should spread the boulted snow;
While winters, by hedge or bush that cowr,
Expect their wonted sheaf.

       Throughout this month
Much it imports your fences to survey;
For oft the heifers, tempted by the view
Of some green spot, where springs ooze out, and thaw
The falling flakes as fast as they alight,
Bound o'er the hedge; or at neglected gaps
Burst scrambling through, and widen every breach.
A stake put timely in, or whinny bush,
Until the season come when living plants
May fill the vacant space, much harm prevents.

  Some husbandmen deem fences only formed
To guard their fields from trespass of their own
Or neighbours' herd or flock; and lightly prize
The benefits immense which shelter brings.
Mark how, within the shelter of a hedge,
The daisy, long ere winter quits the plain,
Opens its yellow bosom to the sun.

  A hedge full grown, if with a hedge-row joined,
Or circling, belt, the climate of your field
Improves, transmutes from bleak and shivering cold
To genial warmth : no graduated scale
Is needed to demonstrate this plain truth,
Obvious as true; for there a vivid green
Tinges your early sward, there lingers long
When winter winds have blanched the neighbouring lea.

  Some fences tend but little to abate
The biting cold ;-- the wall, unless around
A narrow field, or raised of towering height,
But small degree of sheltering warmth affords.
It is by artificial calm that fields
Are warmed; and walls but slightly check
The sweeping blast. The liquid air is ruled
By laws analagous to those which sway
The watery element :-- See how a stream
Surmounts obstructing rocks, or crossing dams,
Seeming as if resistance gave new force;
But, if obstructed by a fallen tree,
Or dipping branch, smoothly it glides along
In gentler course, and dimples as it flows;
So through the pervious check of spray and twig,
The blast, impeded in its course, not turned,
Slackens its boisterous speed, and sighs along the vale.

  Whoe'er delights in sheltered winter walks,
Or garden well protected from the blight
Of nipping winds, should cultivate the beech.
Quickly it grows, and through the year retains
Its foliage: withered though it be, yet warm,
Its very rustle warms the wint'ry blast.

  List not to him, who says that sheltered fields
Suffer from lack of air; that corn once lodged
Is lost, if not exposed to every breeze.
True wisdom oft consists but in a choice
Of ills; and, if sometimes luxuriant crops
Are injured by an atmosphere confined,
Far oftener are they in their early stage
Protected thus from pelting rains, which else
Lay bare the roots, and save, I ween, all risque
Of growth luxuriant, or of prostrate stalks.

  Now broadened, blinding flakes, by day, by night,
In thickening showers descend, and oft, ere morn,
The crow of chanticleer, obtusely heard,
Announces that a deeper fall has thatched
His chinky roof; the doors are half blocked up;
From house to barn the path deep buried lies;
And, nigh waist-deep sinking, the threshers wade
To play their early task. Cheerful the sound
Of double strokes, ceasing but till the sheaf
Be turned, or new one loosed: but sorrowful
The sound of single flail; it tells that peace
Is not within our gates.

       All out-door work
Now stands; the waggoner, with wisp-wound feet,
And wheelspoke almost filled, his destined stage
Scarcely can gain. O'er hill, and vale, and wood,
Sweeps the snow-pinioned blast, and all things veils
In white array, disguising to the view
Objects well known, now faintly recognized.
One colour clothes the mountain and the plain,
Save where the feathery flakes melt as they fall
Upon the deep blue stream, or scowling lake;
Or where some beetling rock o'erjutting hangs
Above the vaulty precipice's cove.
Formless, the pointed cairn now scarce o'ertops
The level dreary waste; and coppice woods,
Diminished of their height, like bushes seem.
With stooping heads, turned from the storm, the flocks,
Onward still urged by man and dog, escape
The smothering drift, while, skulking at a side,
Is seen the fox, with close down-folded tail,
Watching his time to seize a straggling prey;
Or from some lofty crag he ominous howls,
And makes approaching night more dismal fall.

  But not with night's approach the shepherd's toils
Are ended; through the deep and dreary glooms,
Without one guiding star, he struggling wades
The rising wreath; till, quite o'erspent, compelled
To leave his flock to time and chance, he turns
Homeward his weary and uncertain steps,
Much doubting of his way, foreboding much.
In vain he tries to find his wonted marks,--
The hill-side fountain, with its little plat
Of verdant sward around; the well-known cairn;
The blasted branchless oak; the ancient stone
Where murdered martyrs fell, and where they lie:
In vain he lists to hear the rushing stream,
Whose winding course would lead him to his home.
O'ercome at last, yielding to treacherous rest,
He sits him down, and folds within his plaid,
In fond remembrance, the sharer of his toils,
The partner of his childrens' infant sports.
His children! thought of them wakes new resolves
To make one last despairing effort more.
Meanwhile they, crouching round the blazing hearth,
Oft ask their mother when he will return.
She on her rocking infant looks the while,
Or, starting, thinks she hears the lifted latch;
And oft the drift comes sweeping o'er the floor,
While anxiously she looks into the storm,
Returning soon to stir the dying brands,
That with their blaze her sinking hopes reive;
Alas, her hopes are transient as that blaze,
And direful images her fancy crowd,--
The dog returning masterless; the search
By friends and kinsmen wandering far o'er moss
And moor; the sad success,-- his body found
Half buried in a wreath; the opening door
To let the bearers in! ... The door is opened:
Shook from poor Yarrow's fur, a sleety mist
Is scattered round, and in his master steps.
What joy! what silent tearful joy pervades
The late despairing groupe! Round him they cling;
One doffs his stiffened plaid, and one his shoes;
Kneeling, one chafes his hands and feet benumbed:
The sleeping babe is roused to kiss its sire,
Restored past hope; and supper, long forgot,
Crowns the glad board: Nor is their evening prayer
This night omitted; fervent, full of thanks,
From glowing hearts in artless phrase it flows!
Then, simply chaunted by the parent pair,
And by the lisping choir, the song of praise,
Beneath the heath-roofed cottage in the wild,
Ascends more grateful to the heavenly throne,
Than pealing diapason, and the loud
Swelling acclaim of notes by art attuned.

  But clearer skies succeed; the downy fall
No longer dims the welkin, and, low poised,
The sun gleams slanting o'er the beauteous waste
Of snow, here smoothing o'er each bosky bourne,
Or heaved into a mimic moveless wave,
There drifted up against some cottage wall,
In easy slop uniting with the roof.
How dazzling white the illimitable glare!
With ruby-tinted beams twinkling, till aches
The wearied eye, that vainly seeks to find
A resting place, compelled at last to close.

  Soon as, by frequent hoof and wheel, the roads
A beaten path afford, 'tis time to yoke
The rested team, and, from the neighbouring town,
To drive the well-heaped loads of rich manure;
Or, from the smoke-enveloped kilns, bring home
The fertilizing stone. Now compost mounds
Ought from their snowy covering to be cleared,
To feel the powerful influences of the frost.

  But chiefly, in this rigorous month, attend
To keep the team in order for the field:
Unyoke betimes, whatever be the task,
And house them ere the disappearing sun
Shoot, as he sinks, a feeble parting glimpse.
Then see their nightly lair be warm and clean,
Of well-dried fern or straw; this profits more
Than half their food; nor is it wasteful care:
For thus, 'gainst spring's return, the strutting cock,
Proud of his height upon your reeking pile,
Tells, as he crows, of early thriving brairds.

  How pleasant when the smoking cribs are filled,
Closing the door, to turn, with listening ear,
And hearken to the sound of busy mouths;
Then, with an upward gaze, to wander o'er
The starry host, and think that He, who rolls
Yon spheres innumerable, deigns to feed
Both man and beast, and all the fowls of heaven.

  O nightly miracle! to me still new,
Though long beheld: O soul-elating sight!
Stupendous record, witnessing to man
A ruling power, almighty and benign.

  Be not forgot, amid your evening cares,
To see that all be safe beneath the roof,
Where snugly, with his dames, sits chanticleer.
Each hole shut up, then every part explore,
Lest, ambushed in a corner, couches sly
The thirsty foumart, by his eyes betrayed,
That, glaring from some darksome nook, outshine
Your glimmering lamp :-- with tiptoe step glide out;
Up from the fireside rouse your sleeping cur;
Haste then, not weaponless, and, followed close
By man and boy, all eager for the sport,
Rush in, and, if the fell destroyer 'scape
Your hurried ill-aimed strokes, Luath, more cool,
Will seize him fast, and lay him at your feet:
A deed remembered long on winter nights,
When scarce a fragment of the trophied scalp,
Grinning, remains to grace your stable-door.

  Ruddy is now the dawning as in June,
And clear and blue the vault of noon-tide sky:
Nor is the slanting orb of day unfelt.
From sunward rocks, the icicle's faint drop,
By lonely river-side, is heard at times
To break the silence deep; for now the stream
Is mute, or faintly gurgles far below
Its frozen ceiling: silent stands the mill,
The wheel immoveable, and shod with ice.
The babbling rivulet, at each little slope,
Flows scantily beneath a lucid veil,
And seems a pearly current liquified;
While, at the shelvy tide, in thousand shapes
Fantastical, the frostwork domes uprear
Their tiny fabrics, gorgeously superb
With ornaments beyond the reach of art:
Here vestibules of state, and colonnades;
There Gothic castles, grottos, heathen fanes,
Rise in review, and quickly disappear;
Or through some fairy palace fancy roves,
And studs, with ruby lamps, the fretted roof;
Or paints with every colour of the bow
Spotless parterres, all freakt with snow-white flowers,
Flowers that no archetype in nature own;
Or spreads the spiky crystals into fields
Of bearded grain, rustling in autumn breeze.

  Upon the river's brink the schoolboy stands,
And, hesitating, eyes the clear expanse
Of solid water. First, a stone he throws,--
It o'er the elastic surface, ringing, bounds
With frequent leap, then smoothly glides along;
Cautious he forward steps, starting dismayed,
To hear, as if a rent struck upward far,
And see beneath his foot the dialled ice.
Fear not, poor elf; but venturing enjoy
Thy harmless pastime : yielding ice is strong,
And safer still as farther from the shore.
Or, heedful of the fond parental fears,
Wait patient till another starry night
Has, in that frozen mirror-plate, beheld
Another galaxy inverted shine.
'Tis then deep shoots the penetrating power,
Compacting hard, o'er brook and river wide,
A seamless pavement, luculent yet strong.

  But chiefly is the power of frost displayed
Upon the lake's crystalline broad expanse,
Wherein the whole reflected hemisphere
Majestically glows, and the full sweep,
From pole to pole, of shooting star is seen:
Or when the noon-day sun illumes the scene,
And mountain hoar, tree, bush, and margin reed,
Are imaged in the deep. At such a time,
How beautiful, O Duddingston! thy smooth
And dazzling gleam, o'er which the skaiter skims
From side to side, leaning with easy bend,
And motion fleet, yet graceful : wheeling now
In many a curve fantastic ; forward now,
Without apparent impulse, shooting swift,
And thridding, with unerring aim, the throng
That all around enjoy the mazy sport:
Dunedin's nymphs the while the season brave,
And, every charm enhanced, -- the blooming cheek,
The eye beaming delight, the breathing lips
Like rosebuds wreathed in mist, -- the nameless grace
Of beauty venturing on the slippery path,--
Heighten the joy, and make stern winter smile.
Scared from her reedy citadel, the swan,
Beneath whose breast, when summer gales blew soft,
The water lily dipped its lovely flower,
Spreads her broad pinions mounting to the sky,
Then stretches o'er Craigmillar's ruined towers,
And seeks some lonely lake remote from man.

  Now rival parishes, and shrievedoms, keep,
On upland lochs, the long-expected tryst
To play their yearly bonspiel. Aged men,
Smit with the eagerness of youth, are there,
While love of conquest lights their beamless eyes,
New-nerves their arms, and makes them young once more.

  The sides when ranged, the distance meted out,
And duly traced the tees, some younger hand
Begins, with throbbing heart, and far o'ershoots,
Or sideward leaves, the mark: in vain he bends
His waist, and winds his hand, as if it still
Retained the power to guide the devious stone,
Which, onward hurling, makes the circling groupe
Quick start aside, to shun its reckless force.
But more and still more skilful arms succeed,
And near and nearer still around the tee,
This side, now, that, approaches; till at last
Two seeming equidistant, straws or twigs
Decide as umpires 'tween contending coits.

  Keen, keener still, as life itself were staked,
Kindles the friendly strife: one points the line
To him who, poising, aims and aims again;
Another runs and sweeps where nothing lies.
Success alternately, from side to side,
Changes; and quick the hours un-noted fly,
Till light begins to fail, and deep below,
The player, as he stoops to lift his coit,
Sees, half incredulous, the rising moon.
But now the final, the decisive spell,
Begins; near and more near the sounding stones,
Some winding in, some bearing straight along,
Crowd justling all around the mark, while one,
Just slightly touching, victory depends
Upon the final aim: long swings the stone,
Then with full force, careering furious on,
Rattling it strikes aside both friend and foe,
Maintains its course, and takes the victor's place.
The social meal succeeds, and social glass;
In words the fight renewed is fought again,
While festive mirth forgets the winged hours.--
Some quit betimes the scene, and find that home
Is still the place where genuine pleasure dwells.

  Dear to the peasant's heart his fire-side blaze,
And floor new swept to greet his glad return!
And dear the welcome of his child, and dog
Fawning to share his favour, still bestowed
Upon the climbing infant: sweet meanwhile,
His only guest, the redbreast, wakened, trills
A summer carol short, then 'neath his wing,
In trust implicit, veils his little head.
May be some ancient volume read aloud
Fixes the listening groupe; perhaps the deeds
Of Wallace are the theme, -- rude though the strain,
And mingling false with true, relished by all
Who Scotland love ,-- who liberty adore.
Hope, fear, and joy, alternate paint each face,
As fluctuates the fortune of the chief:
Or terror, all unmingled, sways the breast,
And shakes the frame, when Fawdon's ghost appears.
Perhaps the godly lives, the fearless deaths
Triumphant, of the men who, on the field.
Or not less honourable scaffold, fell,
Asserting Freedom and Religion's cause,
Arouse each generous feeling of the soul;
Or Ramsay's page pourtrays the rural life
In all the grace of truth; or Burns calls forth
Each passion at his will; then, with a smile,
A beauteous winning smile of Nature's face,
Soothes their full storm into a gentle calm.

  This is no tale which fabling poet dreams,
No fancied picture of some former age
When truth, and plain though useful knowledge dwelt
With virtue, pure religion, simple joy,
And innocence, beneath the rustic roof:
No, 'tis a faithful portrait, unadorned,
Of manners lingering yet in Scotia's vales.
Still there, beside the church-yard path, is heard,
From lowly dwelling, rise the noise confused
Of many tongues, of some who con, or seem
To con with look intent, their little task;
There, still the village master and the priest
Unite to spread instruction o'er the land.
And let not him who ploughs a wide domain
Ask, with contemptuous sneer, what that avails
In making fruitful fields? Are fields alone
Worthy the culture of a fostering state!
What is a country rich in waving grain,
In sweeping herds and flocks, barren of men,
Or, fruitful of a race degenerate, sunk
In gloomy ignorance, without a ray
Of useful, or of pleasing lore, to cheer
The listless hours, when labour folds his arms?
What heart so base, so sordid, as engross,
Not only all the luxuries and joys
Which affluence can minister to man,
But would, from common use, lock up the fount
Of knowledge pure, lest men should be too wise!
What sacrilegious tongue dare to arraign
The glorious work, by which the sacred page
Was patent made to every eye that looks
Upon the light of heaven, and blesses God
That yet a brighter light illumes his soul!
Who dares, with brow of adamant, maintain,
That Britain's sons, who sent him to defend
Their rights, -- whose delegated voice derives
Its power from them, -- dares, with a cynic jest,
Deny the right of Englishmen to read!