ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

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{North Coast and other Poems - Revisions}

 

Several poems, originally published in North Coast, were revised by Buchanan for inclusion in the 1874, three volume edition of his Poetical Works published by Henry S. King. These later versions were then included in the 1884 edition of The Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan published by Chatto & Windus. Two of the poems from North Coast, ‘A Prelude’ and ‘Celtic Mystics’, were reworked for The Book of Orm and those changes are also detailed below.

 

North Coast - Revisions

 

MEG BLANE

A PRELUDE

AN ENGLISH ECLOGUE

THE BATTLE OF DRUMLIEMOOR

THE NORTHERN WOOING

A SCOTTISH ECLOGUE

CELTIC MYSTICS

_____

 

MEG BLANE.

 

I.

STORM.

 

‘LORD, hearken to me!
     Save all poor souls at sea!
Thy breath is on their cheeks,—
     Their cheeks are wan wi’ fear;
Nae man speaks,
     For wha could hear?
The wild white water screams,
     The wind cries loud;
The fireflaught gleams
     On tattered sail and shroud!
Under the red mast-light
     The hissing surges slip;                                                        [1:12]
Thick reeks the storm o’ night
     Round him that steers the ship,—
And his een are blind,
     And he kens not where they run.                                         [1:16]
LORD, be kind!
     Whistle back Thy wind,
For the sake of Christ Thy Son!’

. . . And as she prayed she knelt not on her knee,
But, standing on the threshold, looked to Sea,
     Where all was blackness and a watery roar,
Save when the dead light, flickering far away,
     Flash’d on the line of foam upon the shore,
And showed the ribs of reef and surging bay!
     There was no sign of life across the dark,
     No piteous light from fishing-boat or bark,
Albeit for such she hush’d her heart to pray.
With tattered plaid wrapt tight around her form,
She stood a space, spat on by wind and rain,
Then, sighing deep, and turning from the Storm,
     She crept into her lonely hut again.

’Twas but a wooden hut under the height,
     Shielded in the black shadow of the crag:
One blow of such a wind as blew that night
     Could rend so rude a dwelling like a rag.
There, gathering in the crannies overhead,
Down fell the spouting rain heavy as lead,—
     So that the old roof and the rafters thin
Dript desolately, looking on the surf,
While blacker rain-drops down the walls of turf
     Splash’d momently on the mud-floor within.
There, swinging from the beam, an earthen lamp
Waved to the wind and glimmered in the damp,
     And shining in the chamber’s wretchedness,
Illumed the household things of the poor place,
And flicker’d faintly on the woman’s face
     Sooted with rain, and on her dripping dress.
               A miserable den wherein to dwell,
               And yet she loved it well.

               ‘O Mither, are ye there?’
A deep voice filled the dark; she thrill’d to hear;
     With hard hand she pushed back her wild wet hair,
And kissed him. ‘Whisht, my bairn, for Mither’s near.’
     Then on the shuttle bed a figure thin
               Sat rubbing sleepy eyes:
     A bearded man, with heavy hanging chin,
               And on his face a light not over-wise.
‘Water!’ he said; and deep his thirst was quelled
Out of the broken pitcher she upheld,
And yawning sleepily, he gazed around,
And stretched his limbs again, and soon slept sound.
Stooping, she smooth’d his pillow ’neath his head,
     Still looking down with eyes liquid and mild,
And while she gazed, softly he slumberëd,
               That bearded man, her child.
     And a child’s dreams were his; for as he lay,
     He uttered happy cries as if at play,
     And his strong hand was lifted up on high
     As if to catch the bird or butterfly;
     And often to his bearded lips there came
               That lonely woman’s name;
     And though the wrath of Ocean roared so near,
               That one sweet word
               Was all the woman heard,
               And all she cared to hear.

Not old in years, though youth had passed away,
And the thin hair was tinged with silver gray,
Close to the noontide of the day of life,
She stood, calm featured like a wedded wife;
And yet no wedded wife was she, but one
     Whose foot had left the pathways of the just,
Yet meekly, since her penance had been done,
     Her soft eyes sought men’s faces, not the dust.
Her tearful days were over: she had found
Firm footing, work to do upon the ground;
The Elements had welded her at length
               To their own truth and strength.

This woman was no slight and tear-strung thing,
Whose easy sighs fall soft on suffering,
But one in whom no stranger’s eyes would seek
               For pity mild and meek.
Man’s height was hers—man’s strength and will thereto,
     Her shoulders broad, her step man-like and long;
’Mong fishermen she dwelt, a rude, rough crew,
     And more than one had found her hand was strong.
And yet her face was gentle, though the sun
               Had made it dark and dun;
               Her silver-threaded hair
Was combed behind her ears with cleanly care;
And she had eyes liquid and sorrow-fraught,
     And round her mouth were delicate lines, that told
She was a woman sweet with her own thought,
     Though built upon a large, heroic mould.

               Who did not know Meg Blane?
What hearth but heard the deeds that Meg had done?
               What fisher of the main
But knew her, and her little-witted son?
For in the wildest waves of that wild coast
Her black boat hover’d and her net was tost,
And lonely in the watery solitude
The son and mother fished for daily food.
When on calm nights the herring hosts went by,
     Her frail boat followed the red smacks from shore
And steering in the stern the man would lie
     While Meg was hoisting sail or plying oar;
Till, a black speck against the morning sky,
     The boat came homeward, with its silver store.
And Meg was cunning in the ways of things,
     Watching what every changing lineament
Of wind and sky and cloud and water meant,
Knowing how Nature threatens ere she springs.
She knew the clouds as shepherds know their sheep,
     To eyes unskilled alike, yet different each;
She knew the wondrous voices of the Deep;
     The tones of sea-birds were to her a speech.
Much faith was hers in GOD, who was her guide;
     Courage was hers such as GOD gives to few,
For she could face His terrors fearless-eyed,
     Yet keep the still sane woman’s nature true.
     Lives had she snatched out of the waste by night,
         When wintry winds were blowing;
     To sick-beds sad her presence carried light,
     When (like a thin sail lessening out of sight)
Some rude, rough life to the unknown Gulf was going;
     For men who scorned a feeble woman’s wail
Would heark to one so strong and brave as she,
     Whose face had braved the lightning and the gale,
               And ne’er grown pale,
Before the shrill threat of the murderous Sea.

Yet often, as she lay a-sleeping there,
     This woman started up and blush’d in shame,
Stretching out arm embracing the thin air,
               Naming an unknown name;
There was a hearkening hunger in her face
     If sudden footsteps sounded on her ear;
And when strange seamen came unto the place
     She read their faces in a wretched fear;
And finding not the object of her quest,
Her hand she held hard on her heaving breast,
And wore a white look, and drew feeble breath,
               Like one that hungereth.

It was a night of summer, yet the wind
     Had wafted from God’s wastes the rain-clouds dank,
Blown out Heaven’s thousand eyes and left it blind,
Though now and then the Moon gleamed moist behind
     The rack, till, smitten by the drift, she sank.
               But the Deep roared;
Sucked to the black clouds, spumed the foam-fleck’d main,
     While lightning rent the storm-rack like a sword,
And earthward rolled the gray smoke of the Rain.

’Tis late, and yet the woman doth not rest,
But sitteth with chin drooping on her breast:
Weary she is, yet will not take repose;
Tired are her eyes, and yet they cannot close;
She rocketh to and fro upon her chair,
               And stareth at the air!

Far, far away her thoughts were travelling:
     They could not rest—they wandered far and fleet,
As the storm-petrels o’er the waters wing,
     And cannot find a place to rest their feet;
And in her ear a thin voice murmurëd,
               ‘If he be dead—be dead!’
Then, even then, the woman’s face went white
     And awful, and her eyes were fixed in fear,
For suddenly all the wild screams of night
     Were hushed: the Wind lay down; and she could hear
Strange voices gather round her in the gloom,
Sounds of invisible feet across the room,
     And after that the rustle of a shroud,
               And then a creaking door,
     And last the coronach, full shrill and loud,
Of women clapping hands and weeping sore.

Now Meg knew well that ill was close at hand,
               On water or on land,
Because the Glamour touched her lids like breath,
     And scorch’d her heart: but in a waking swoon,
Quiet she stayed,—not stirring,—cold as death,
               And felt those voices croon;
Then suddenly she heard a human shout,
The hurried falling of a foot without,
Then a hoarse voice—a knocking at the door—
               ‘Meg, Meg! A Ship ashore!’

Now mark the woman! She hath risen her height,
Her dripping plaid is wrapt around her tight,
Tight clenchëd in her palm her fingers are
Her eye is steadfast as a fixëd star.
One look upon her child—he sleepeth on—
One step unto the door, and she is gone:
Barefooted out into the dark she fares,
     And comes where, rubbing eyelids thick with sleep,
The half-clad fishers mingle oaths and prayers,
               And look upon the Deep.

               . . . Black was the oozy lift,
               Black was the sea and land;
Hither and thither, thick with foam and drift,
               Did the deep Waters shift,
     Swinging with iron clash on stone and sand.
Faintlier the heavy Rain was falling,
Faintlier, faintlier the Wind was calling,
     With hollower echoes up the drifting dark!
While the swift rockets shooting through the night
Flash’d past the foam-flecked reef with phantom light,
     And showed the piteous outline of the bark,
Rising and falling like a living thing,
               Shuddering, shivering,
While, howling beastlike, the white breakers there
Spat blindness in the dank eyes of despair.
Then one cried, ‘She has sunk!’—and on the shore
     Men shook, and on the heights the women cried;
But, lo! the outline of the bark once more!
     While flashing faint the blue light rose and died.
Ah, GOD, put out Thy hand! all for the sake
Of little ones, and weary hearts that wake
     Be gentle! chain the fierce waves with a chain!
Let the gaunt seaman’s little boys and girls
Sit on his knee and play with his black curls
               Yet once again!
And breathe the frail lad safely through the foam
Back to the hungry mother in her home!
And spare the bad man with the frenzied eye;
Kiss him, for CHRIST’S sake, bid Thy Death go by—
               He hath no heart to die!

Now faintlier blew the wind, the thin rain ceased,
     The thick cloud cleared like smoke from off the strand,
For, lo! a bright blue glimmer in the East,—
               GOD putting out His hand!
And overhead the rack grew thinner too,
               And through the smoky gorge
The Wind drave past the stars, and faint they flew
               Like sparks blown from a forge!
And now the thousand foam-flames o’ the Sea
               Hither and thither flashing visibly;
And gray lights hither and thither came and fled,
Like dim shapes searching for the drownëd dead;
And where these shapes most thickly glimmer’d by,
     Out on the cruel reef the black hulk lay,
And cast, against the kindling eastern sky,
     Its shape gigantic on the shrouding spray.

Silent upon the shore, the fishers fed
     Their eyes on horror, waiting for the close,
     When in the midst of them a shrill voice rose:
               ‘The boat! the boat!’ it said.
Like creatures startled from a trance, they turned
     To her who spake; tall in the midst stood she,
With arms uplifted, and with eyes that yearned
               Out on the murmuring Sea.
Some, shrugging shoulders, homeward turned their eyes,
     And others answered back in brutal speech;
But some, strong-hearted, uttering shouts and cries,
     Followed the fearless woman up the beach.
A rush to seaward—black confusion—then
     A struggle with the surf upon the strand—
’Mid shrieks of women, cries of desperate men,
     The long oars smite, the black boat springs from land!
               Around the thick spray flies;
The waves roll on and seem to overwhelm.
     With blowing hair and onward-gazing eyes
The woman stands erect, and grips the helm. . . .

Now fearless heart, Meg Blane, or all must die!
Let not the skill’d hand thwart the steadfast eye
The crested wave comes near,—crag-like it towers
Above you, scattering round its chilly showers:
One flutter of the hand, and all is done!
Now steel thy heart, thou woman-hearted one!
               Softly the good helm guides;
Round to the liquid ridge the boat leaps light,—
Hidden an instant,—on the foaming height,                                        [17:9]
     Dripping and quivering like a bird, it rides.
Athwart the ragged rift the Moon looms pale,
               Driven before the gale,
And making silvern shadows with her breath,
Where on the sighing Sea it shimmereth;
And, lo! the light illumes the reef; ’tis shed
     Full on the wreck, as the dark boat draws nigh.
A crash!—the wreck upon the reef is fled;
     A scream!—and all is still beneath the sky,
     Save the wild waters as they whirl and cry.

 

II.

DEAD CALM.

 

DAWN; and the Deep was still. From the bright strand,
Meg, shading eyes against the morning sun,
Gazed seaward. After trouble, there was peace.

Smooth, many-coloured as a ring-dove’s neck
Stretch’d the still Sea, and on its eastern rim
The dewy light, with liquid yellow beams,
Gleamed like a sapphire. Overhead, soft airs
To feathery cirrus flecked the lightening blue,
Beneath, the Deep’s own breathing made a breeze;
And up the weedy beach the blue waves crept,
Falling in one thin line of cream-white foam.                                      [2:8]

Seaward the woman gazed, with keen eye fixed
On a dark shape that floated on the calm,
Drifting as seaweed; still and black it lay,—
The outline of a lifeless human shape:
And yet it was no drownëd mariner,
For she who looked was smiling, and her face
Looked merry; still more merry when a boat,
With pale and timorous fishermen, drew nigh;
And as the fearful boatmen paused and gazed,
A boat’s length distant, leaning on their oars,
The shape took life—dash’d up a dripping head,
Screaming—flung up its limbs with flash of foam,
And, with a shrill and spirit-thrilling cry,
Dived headlong, as a monster of the main
Plunges deep down when startled on its couch
Of glassy waters. ’Twas the woman’s child,
The witless water-haunter—Angus Blane.

     For Angus Blane, not fearful as the wise
Are fearful, loved the Ocean like a thing
Born amid algæ of the slimy ooze.
A child, he sported on its sands, and crept
Splashing with little feet amid the foam;
And when his limbs were stronger, and he reached
A young man’s stature, the great Gulf had grown
Fair and familiar as his mother’s face.
Far out he swam, on windless summer days,
Floating like fabled mermen far from land,
Plunging away from startled fishermen
With eldrich cry and wild phantasmic glare,
And in the untrodden halls below the sea
Awaking wondrous echoes that had slept
Since first the briny Spirit stirred and breathed.
On nights of summer in the gleaming bay
He glistened like a sea-snake in the moon,
Splashing with trail of glistening phosphor-fire,
And laughing shrill till echo answer’d him,
And the pale helmsman on the passing boat,
Thinking some Demon of the waters cried,
Shivered and prayed. His playmates were the waves,
The sea his playground. On his ears were sounds
Sweeter than human voices. On his sense,
Though sadden’d with his silent life, there stole
A motion and a murmur that at times
Brake through his lips, informing witless words
With strange sea-music. In his infancy,
Children had mocked him: he had shunned their sports,
And haunted lonely places, nurturing
The bright, fierce, animal splendour of a soul
That ne’er was clouded by the mental mists
That darken oft the dreams of wiser men.
Only in winter seasons he was sad;
For then the loving Spirit of the Deep
Repulsed him, and its smile was mild no more;
And on the strand he wandered; from dark caves                             [4:37]
Gazed at the Tempest; and from day to day
Moaned to his mother for the happy time
When swifts are sailing on the wind o’ the South,
And summer smiles afar off through the rain,
Bringing her golden circlet to the Sea.

     And as the deepening of strange melody,
Caught from the unknown shores beyond the seas,
Was the outspreading of his life to her
Who bare him; yea, at times, the woman’s womb
Seemed laden with the load of him unborn,
So close his being clave unto her flesh,
So link’d was his strange spirit with her own.
The faint forebodings of her heart, when first
She saw the mind-mists in his infant eyes,
And knew him witless, turned as years wore on
Into more spiritual, less selfish love
Than common mothers feel; and he had power
To make her nature deeper, more alive
Unto the supernatural feet that walk
Our dark and troubled waters. Thence was born
Much of her strength upon the Sea, her trust
In the Sea’s MASTER! thence, moreover, grew
Her faith in visions, warnings, fantasies,
Such as came ever thronging on her heart
When most her eyes looked inward—to the place
Fraught with her secret sorrow.

                                               As she gazed,
Smiling, the bearded face of Angus rose
Nearer to shore, and panting in the sun,
Smiled at the fishers. Then the woman turned,
And took, with man-like step and slow, a path
That, creeping through the shadows of the cliffs,
Wound to the clachan. In the clear, bright dawn
Lay Thornock glittering, while, thin and blue,
Curl’d peat-smoke from the line of fisher-huts
That parted the high shingle from the land,

The tide was low: amid the tangled weeds
The many-coloured rocks and sparkling pools,
Went stooping men and women, seeking spoil,
Treasure or drift-wood floating from the wreck;
Beyond, some stood in fish-boats, peering down,
Seeking the drownëd dead; and, near at hand,
So near, a tall man might have waded thither
With a dry beard, the weedy reef loom’d red,
And there the white-fowl ever and anon
Rose like a flash of foam, whirl’d in the air,
And, screaming, settled. But not thitherward
Now look’d Meg Blane. Along the huts she went—
Among the rainy pools where played and cried
Brown and barefooted bairns—among the nets
Stretch’d steaming in the sun—until she reached
The cottage she was seeking. At the door,
Smoking his pipe, a grizzly Fisher sat,
Looking to sea. With him she spake awhile,
Then, with a troubled look, entered the hut,
And sought the inner chamber.

                                             Faint and pale
Light glimmer’d through a loop-hole in the wall,
A deep white streak across the sand-strewn floor,
All else in shadow; and the room was still,
Save for a heavy breathing, as of one
In quiet sleep. Within the wall’s recess,
On the rude bed of straw the sleeper lay,
His head upon his arm, the sickly light
Touching his upturn’d face; while Meg drew near,
And gazed upon him with a stranger’s eyes,
Quiet and pitying. Though his sleep was sound,
His dreams were troubled. Throwing up his arms,
He seemed to beckon, muttering; then his teeth
Clench’d tight, a dark frown wrinkled on his brow,
And still he lay like one awaiting doom;
But suddenly, in agony supreme,
He breathed like one who struggles, sinks, and drowns;
Strangling, with wavering arms and quivering limbs,
And screaming in his throat, he fought for life;
Till, half-awakening with the agony,
His glazëd eyes he opened, glaring round,
While Meg drew shivering back into the shade;
Again, with deeper breath, as if relieved,
He dropp’d his bearded face upon his arm,
And dream’d again.

                             Then Meg stole stilly forth,
And in the outer chamber found a lamp,
And lit the same in silence, and returned
On tiptoe to the sleeper. As she went,
White as a murdered woman’s grew her face,
Her teeth were clench’d together; and her eyes
With ring on ring of widening wonder glared
In fever’d fascination upon him
Who slumbered. Closer still she crept,
Holding the lamp aloft, until his breath
Was hot upon her cheek,—so gaunt, so white,
It seemed her time was come. Yet in her look
Was famine. As one famish’d looks on food
After long agony, and thinks it dream,
She gazed and gazed, nor stirred, nor breathed, nor lived,
Save in her spirit’s hunger flashing forth
Out of her face; till suddenly the man,
Half-opening his eyes, reached out his arms
And gript her, crying, ‘Silence! pray to GOD!
She’s sinking!’ then, with shrill and awful groan,
Awakened.

                 And the woman would have fled,
Had he not gript her. In her face he gazed,
Thrusting one hand into his silvered hair,
Seeking to gather close his scattered thoughts,
And his eye brightened, and he murmured low,
‘Where am I? Dead or living? Ah, I live!
The ship? the ship?’ Meg answered not, but shrank
Into the shadow; till she saw the mists
Pass from his bearded face and leave it clear,
And heard his voice grow calmer, measured now
By tranquil heart-beats. Then he asked again,
‘The ship? How many live of those aboard?’
And when she answered he alone was saved,
He groaned; but with a sailor’s fearless look,
Thank GOD for that!’ he said; ‘and yet He might
Have spared a better man. Where am I, friend?’
‘On the north coast,’ said Meg, ‘upon the shore
At Thornock.’

                   Could the seaman, while she spake,
Have marked the lurid light on that pale face,
All else,—the Storm, the terrible fight for life,—
Had been forgotten; but his wearied eye
Saw dimly. Grasping still her quivering wrist,
He question’d on; and, summoning strength of heart,
In her rude speech she told him of the storm:
How from the reef the rending Ship had rolled
As aid drew nigh; how, hovering near its tomb,
The fishers from the whirling waters dragged
Two drownëd seamen, and himself, a corpse
In seeming; how by calm and tender care,
They wound his thin and bloody thread of life
Out of the slowly-loosening hands of Death.

 

III.

A TROUBLED DEEP.

 

THEN, with strange trouble in her eyes, Meg Blane
Stole swiftly back unto her hut again,
Like one that flyeth from some fearful thing;
Then sat and made a darkness, covering
Her face with apron old, thinking apart;
And yet she scarce could think, for ache of heart,
But saw dead women and dead men go by,
And felt the wind, and heard the waters cry,
And on the waters, as they washed to shore,
Saw one Face float alone and glimmer hoar
Through the green darkness of the breaking brine.

     And Meg was troubled deep, nor could divine
The wherefore of her trouble, since ’twas clear
The face long wearied for at last was near,
Since all her waiting on was at an end.
Ay, Meg was dull, and could not comprehend
How GOD put out His breath that day, and blew
Her lover to her feet before she knew,
Yet misted the dull future from her sight;
Wherefore she stared stark down on her delight
As on a dead face washing in from sea.
But when she understood full certainly
The thing had come according to her prayer,
Her strength came back upon her unaware,
And she thank’d GOD, albeit the pleasure seemed
Less absolute a bliss than she had dreamed
When it was a sweet trouble far away;
For she was conscious how her hair was gray,
Her features worn, her flesh’s freshness gone,
Through toiling in the sun and waiting on;
And quietly she murmur’d, weeping not,
‘Perchance—for men forget—he hath forgot!’

     And two long days she was too dazed and weak
To step across the sands to him, and speak;
But on the third day, pale with her intent,
She took the great hand of her son, and went,
Not heeding while the little-witted one,
Mouth’d at the sea and muttered in the sun,
And firmly stepping on along the shore,
She saw, afar off at the cottage door,
The figure of her shipwrecked mariner;
When, deeply troubled by a nameless fear,
She lingered, and she lingered, pale and wan.

     Then, coming near, she noted how the man
Sat sickly, holding out his arm to please
A fisher child he held between his knees,
Whose eyes looked on the mighty arm and bare,
Where ships, strange faces, anchors, pictured were,
Prick’d blue into the skin with many a stain;
And, sharply marking the man’s face, Meg Blane
Was cheered and holpen, and she trembled less,
Thinking, ‘His heart is full of kindliness.’
And, feeling that the thing if to be done
Must be done straight, she hastened with her son,
And, though she saw the man’s shape growing dim,
Came up with sickly smile and spake to him,
Pausing not, though she scarce could hear or see—
‘Has Angus Macintyre forgotten me?’
And added quickly, ‘I am Maggie Blane!’

     Whereat the man was smit by sudden pain
And wonder—yea, the words he heard her speak
Were like a jet of fire upon his cheek;
And, rising up erect, ‘Meg Blane!’ he cried,
And, white and chilly, thrust the bairn aside,
And peered upon the woman all amazed,
While, pressing hard upon her heart, she gazed
Blankly at the dim mist she knew was he.

     For a short space both stood confusedly,
In silence; but the man was first to gain
Calmness to think and power to speak again;
And, though his lips were bloodless and prest tight,
Into his eyes he forced a feeble light,
Taking her shivering hand, naming her name
In forced kind tones, yet with a secret shame;—
Nor sought to greet her more with touch or kiss.
But she, who had waited on so long for this,
Feeling her hand between his fingers rest,
Could bear no more, but fell upon his breast,
Sobbing and moaning like a little bairn.

     Then, with her wild arms round him, he looked stern,
With an unwelcome burden ill at ease,
While her full heart flowed out in words like these—
‘At last! at last! O Angus, let me greet! 1
GOD’s good! I ever hoped that we would meet!
Lang, lang hae I been waiting by the Sea,
Waiting and waiting, praying on my knee;
And GOD said I should look again on you,
And, though I scarce believed, GOD’s word comes true,
And He hath put an end to my distress!’—
E’en as she spoke, her son plucked at her dress,
Made fierce grimaces at the man, and tried
To draw her from the breast whereon she cried;
But looking up, she pointed to her child,
And look’d into her lover’s eyes, and smiled.
‘GOD help him, Angus! ’Tis the Bairn!’ she said;—
Nor noted how the man grew shamed and red,
With child and mother ill at ease and wroth,
And wishing he were many a mile from both.

1 To greet; Anglicè, to weep.

     For now Meg’s heart was wandering far away,
And to her soul it seemed but yesterday
That, standing inland in a heathery dell,
At dead of night, she bade this man farewell,
And heard him swear full fondly in her ear
Sooner or late to come with gold and gear,
And marry her in church by holy rite;
And at the memory a quiet light,
Rose-like and maiden, came upon her face,
And softened her tall shape to nameless grace,
As warm winds blowing on a birk-tree green
Make it one rippling sheet of radiant sheen.

     But soon from that remembrance driven again
By the man’s silence and his pallid pain,
She shivered for a moment as with cold,
And left his bosom, looking grieved and old,
Yet smiling, forcing a strange smile, and seeking
For tokens in his face more sweet than speaking.
     But he was dumb, and with a pallid frown,
Twitching his fingers quick, was looking down.
‘What ails thee, Angus?’ cried the woman, reading
His face with one sharp look of interceding;
Then, looking downward too, she paused apart,
With blood like water slipping through her heart,
Because she thought, ‘Alas, if it should be
That Angus cares no more for mine and me,
Since I am old and worn with sharp distress,
And men like pretty looks and daintiness;
And since we parted twenty years have past,
And that, indeed, is long for a man’s love to last!’

     But, agonised with looking at her woe,
And bent to end her hope with one sharp blow,
The troubled man, uplifting hands, spake thus,
In rapid accents, sharp and tremulous:
‘Too late, Meg Blane! seven years ago I wed
Another woman, deeming you were dead,—
And I have bairns!’ And there he paused, for fear.

     As when, with ghostly voices in her ear,
While in her soul, as in a little well
The silver moonlight of the Glamour fell,
She had been wont to hark of nights alone,
So stood she now, not stirring, still as stone,
While in her soul, with desolate refrain,
The words, ‘Too late!’ rang o’er and o’er again;
Into his face she gazed with ghastly stare;
Then raising her wild arms into the air,
Pinching her face together in sharp fear,
She quivered to the ground without a tear,
And put her face into her hands, and thrust
Her hair between her teeth, and spat it forth like dust.

And though, with pity in his guilty heart,
The man spake on and sought to heal her smart,
She heard not, but was dumb and deaf in woe;
But when, in pain to see her grieving so,
Her son put down his hand, and named her name,
And whispered, ‘Mither! mither! let us hame!’
She seized the hand, and smoothed her features wan,
And rose erect, not looking at the man,
But, gazing down, moved slowly from the spot.

     Over this agony I linger not.
Nor shall I picture how on that sad shore
They met and spoke and parted yet once more,
So calmly that the woman understood
Her hope indeed had gone away for good.
But ere the man departed from the place
It seemed to Meg, contemplating his face,
Her love for him had ne’er been so intense
As it had seemed when he was far from thence;
And many a thing in him seemed little-hearted
And mean and loveless; so that ere they parted
She seemed unto her sorrow reconciled.
And when he went away, she almost smiled,
But bitterly, then turned to toil again,
And felt most hard to all the world of men.

 

IV.

‘And the Spirit of God moved upon the waters.’

 

         LORD, with how small a thing
Thou canst prop up the heart against the grave!
               A little glimmering
                   Is all we crave!
               The lustre of a love
                   That hath no being,
     The pale point of a little star above
               Flashing and fleeing,
               Contents our seeing.
The house that never will be built; the gold
         That never will be told;
The task we leave undone when we are cold;
The dear face that returns not, but is lying,
     Lick’d by the leopard, in an Indian cave;
The coming rest that cometh not, till, sighing,
     We turn our tremulous gaze upon the grave.
         And, Lord, how should we dare
               Thither in peace to fall,
     But for a feeble glimmering even there—
               Falsest, some sigh, of all?
We are as children in Thy hands indeed,
And Thou hast easy comfort for our need,—
The shining of a lamp, the tinkling of a bell,
                   Content us well.

And even when Thou bringest to our eyes
     A thing long-sought, to show its worthlessness,
Anon we see another thing arise,
     And we are comforted in our distress;
And, waiting on, we watch it glittering,
Till in its turn it seems a sorry thing;
                   And even as we weep
Another rises, and we smile again!
Till, wearied out with watching on in vain,
                   We fall to sleep.

And oft one little light that looks divine
     Is all some strong Soul seeks on mortal ground;
               There are no more to shine
         When that one thing is found.
     If it be worthless, then what shall suffice?
The lean hand grips a speck that was a spark,
         The heart is turned to ice,
               And all the world is dark.
Hard are Thy ways when that one thing is sought,
     Found, touch’d, and proven nought.
Far off it is a mighty magic, strong
                   To lead a life along.
But, lo! it shooteth thitherward, and now
     Droppeth, a rayless stone, upon the sod.—
The world is lost: perchance not even Thou
               Survivest it, Lord God!

               In poverty, in pain,
         For weary years and long,
One faith, one fear, had comforted Meg Blane,
         Yea, made her brave and strong;
A faith so faint it seemed not faith at all,
     Rather a trouble and a dreamy fear,—
A hearkening for a voice, for a footfall,
     She never hoped in sober heart to hear:
         This had been all her cheer!
               Yet with this balm
               Her Soul might have slept calm
         For many another year.
     In terror and in desolation, she
         Had been sustained,
     And never felt abandoned utterly
         While that remained.
Lord, in how small and poor a space can hide
The motives of our patience and our pride,—
The clue unto the fortunate man’s distress,
The secret of the hero’s fearlessness!
What had sustained this Woman on the sea
         When strong men turned to flee?
               Not courage, not despair,
               Not pride, not household care,
         Not faith in Thee!
Nought but a hungry instinct blind and dim—
         A fond pathetic pain:
A dreamy wish to gaze again on him
     She never wholly hoped to see again!

Not all at once,—not in an hour, a day
     Did the strong Woman feel her force depart,
Or know how utterly had passed away
         The strength of her sad heart.
It was not Love she missed, for Love was dead,
     And surely had been dead long ere she knew;
She did not miss the man’s face when it fled,
         As passionate women do.
She saw him walk into the world again,
         And had no pain;
She shook him by the hand, and watched him go,
         And thought it better so.
She turned to her hard task-work as of old,
Tending her bearded child with love tenfold,
Hoisted the sails and plied the oar,
         Went wandering out from shore,
               And for a little space
               Wore an unruffled face,
Though wind and water helped her heart no more.
But, mark: she knelt less often on her knees,
         For, labour as she might,
               By day or night,
She could not toil enough to give her ease.
And presently her tongue, with sharper chimes,
               Chided at times;
And she who had endured such sharp distress
Grew peevish, pain’d at her own peevishness;
         And though she did not weep,
     Her features grew disfigur’d, dark, and dead,
And in the night, when bitterest mourners sleep,
     She feverishly tossed upon her bed.

Slowly the trouble grew, and soon she found
     Less pleasure in the fierce yet friendly Sea;
The wind and water had a wearier sound,
     The moon and stars were sick as corpse-lights be;
Then more and more strange voices filled her ear,
         And ghostly feet came near,
And strange fire blew her eyelids down, and then
         Dead women and dead men
Dripping with phosphor, rose, and ere she wist
         Went by in a cold mist;
Nor left her strengthen’d in her heart and bold,
               As they had done of old;
     But ever after they had stolen away                                             [6:13]
         She had no heart to pray:
               Bitter and dull and cold,
Her Soul crawl’d back into the common day.

               Out of the East by night
                   Drew the dark drifting cloud;
The air was hushed with snow-flakes wavering white,
                   But the seas below were loud;
     And out upon the reef the rapid light                                             [7:5]
         Rose from a shipwrecked bark
                   Into the dark!
Pale stood the fishers, while the wind wail’d by,
Till suddenly they started with one cry,
And forth into the foam the black boat flew,
And fearless to their places leapt the crew.
Then one called out, ‘Meg Blane!’
     But Meg stood by, and trembled and was dumb,
Till, smit unto the heart by sudden pain,
     Into her hair she thrust her fingers numb,
               And fell upon the sands,
Nor answer’d while the wondering fishers called,
     But tore the slippery seaweed with her hands,
         And screamed, and was appalled.

For, lo! the Woman’s spiritual strength
               Snapt like a thread at length,
And tears, ev’n such as suffering women cry,
               Fell from her eyes anon;
And she knew well, although she knew not why,
     The charm she had against the deep was gone!
               And after that dark hour,
                   She was the shadow of a strong Soul dead,
               All terrible things of power
                   Turned into things of dread,
     And all the peace of all the world had fled.

Then only in still weather did she dare
     To seek her bread on Ocean, as of old,
And oft in tempest time her shelf was bare,
     Her hearth all black and cold;
Then very bitterly, with heart gone wild,
               She clung about her child,
And hated all the earth beneath the skies,
Because she saw the hunger in his eyes.
For on his mother’s strength the witless wight
               Had leant for guide and light,
And food had ever come into his hand,
     And he had known no thought of suffering;
Yea, all his life and breath on sea and land
               Had been an easy thing.
And now there was a change in his sole friend
               He could not comprehend.
Yet slowly to the shade of her distress
His nature shaped itself in gentleness!
And when he found her weeping, he too wept,
     And, if she laughed, laughed out in company;
Nay, often to the fisher-huts he crept,
     And begged her bread, and brought it tenderly,
Holding it to her mouth, and till she ate
     Touching no piece, although he hungered sore.
And these things were a solace to her fate,
     But wrung her heart the more.

     Thus to the bitter dolour of her days                                             [10:1]
In witless mimicry he shaped his ways!
They fared but seldom now upon the Sea,
     But wandered ’mid the marshes hand in hand,
Hunting for faggots on the inland lea,
     Or picking dulse for food upon the strand.
Something had made the world more sad and strange,
But easily he changëd with the change.
For in the very trick of woe he clad
His features, and was sad since she was sad,
Yea, leant his chin upon his hands like her,
     Looking at vacancy; and when the Deep
     Was troublous, and she started up from sleep,
He too awoke, with fearful heart astir;
And still, the more her bitter tears she shed
     Upon his neck, marking that mimic-woe,
The more in blind deep love he fashionëd
     His grief to hers, and was contented so.

But as a tree inclineth weak and bare
Under an unseen weight of wintry air,
Beneath her load the weary Woman bent,
And, stooping double, waver’d as she went;
And the days snow’d their snows upon her head
                   As they went by,
               And ere a year had fled
                   She felt that she must die.

Then like a thing whom very witlessness
     Maketh indifferent, she lingered on,
Not caring to abide with her distress,
               Not caring to be gone;
But gazing with a dull and darkening eye,
         And seeing Dreams pass by.
Not speculating whither she would go,
But feeling there was nought she cared to know,
         And melting even as snow.
Save when the man’s hand slipped into her own,
         And flutter’d fondly there,
And she would feel her life again, and groan,
‘O GOD! when I am gone, how will he fare?’
     And for a little time, for Angus’ sake,
         Her hopeless heart would ache,
     And all life’s stir and anguish once again
         Would swoon across her brain.

         ‘O bairn, when I am dead,
               How shall ye keep frae harm?
         What hand will gie ye bread?
               What fire will keep ye warm?
How shall ye dwell on earth awa’ frae me?’—
                   ‘O Mither, dinna dee!’

         ‘O bairn, by night or day
               I hear nae sounds ava’,
               But voices of winds that blaw,
         And the voices of ghaists that say                                           [14:4]
               “Come awa! come awa!”
The LORD that made the Wind, and made the Sea,
         Is sore on my son and me,
     And I melt in His breath like snaw,’—
         ‘O Mither, dinna dee!’

     ‘O bairn, it is but closing up the een,
         And lying down never to rise again.
     Many a strong man’s sleeping hae I seen,—
               There is nae pain!
     I’m weary, weary, and I scarce ken why;
         My summer has gone by,
And sweet were sleep, but for the sake o’ thee.’—
         ‘O Mither, dinna dee!’

When summer scents and sounds were on the Sea,
     And all night long the silvern surge plash’d cool,
     Outside the hut she sat upon a stool,
And with thin fingers fashion’d carefully,
While Angus leant his head against her knee,
         A long white dress of wool.
‘O Mither,’ cried the man, ‘what make ye there?’
         ‘A blanket for our bed!’
     ‘O Mither, it is like the shroud folk wear
         When they are drown’d and dead!’
And Meg said nought, but kissed him on the lips,
     And looked with dull eye seaward, where the moon
Blacken’d the white sails of the passing ships,
     Into the Land where she was going soon.

     And in the reaping-time she lay abed,
And by her side the dress unfinishëd,
And with dull eyes that knew not even her child
She gazed at vacancy and sometimes smiled;
And ever her fingers work’d, for in her thought
Stitching and stitching, still the dress she wrought;
And then a beldame old, with blear-eyed face,
For CHRIST and Charity came to the place,
And stilly sewed the woollen shroud herself,
And set the salt and candle on a shelf.
And like a dumb thing crouching moveless there,
         Gripping the fingers wan,
Marking the face with wild and wondering stare,
     And whining beast-like, watch’d the witless man.

     Then like a light upon a headland set,
In winds that come from far-off waters blowing,
     The faint light glimmered—fainter—fainter yet!
But suddenly it brighten’d, at its going;
And Meg sat up, and, lo! her features wore
The stately sweetness they had known of yore;
And delicate lines were round her mouth, mild rest
     Was in her eyes, though they were waxing dim;
And when the man crept close unto her breast,
         She brighten’d kissing him.
                   And it was clear
She had heard tidings it was sweet to hear,
And had no longer any care or fear.
‘I gang, my bairn, and thou wilt come to me!’                                    [18:14]
         ‘O Mither, dinna dee!’
But as he spake she dropt upon the bed,
And darken’d, while the breath came thick and fleet:
‘O Jessie, see they mind my Bairn!’ she said,
     And quivered,—and was sleeping at God’s Feet.

When on her breast the plate of salt was laid,
     And the corse-candle burned with sick blue light,
The man crouch’d, fascinated and afraid,
     Beside her, moaning through the night;
And answered not the women who stole near,
         And would not see nor hear;
And when a day and night had come and gone,
Ate at the crusts they brought him, gazing on;
And when they took her out upon a bier,
He followed quietly without a tear;
And when on the hard wood fell dust and stone,
     He murmur’d a thin answer to the sound,
And in the end he sat, with a dull moan,
         Upon the new-made mound.

Last, as a dog that mourns a master dead,
     The man did haunt that grave in dull dumb pain;
Creeping away to beg a little bread,
         Then stealing back again;
And only knaves and churls refused to give
The gift of bread or meal that he might live—
         Till pale and piteous-eyed,
He moan’d beneath a load too hard to bear.
         ‘Mither!’ he cried,—
And crawled into the Dark, to seek her there.

[Notes:
This is the final, 1884 version of ‘Meg Blane’. The slight differences between this and the earlier revision, from the 1874 Poetical Works, are listed below:

Part I:
v. 1, l. 12: The hissing waters slip;
v. 1, l. 16: And he knows not where they run.
v. 17, l. 9: Hidden an instant,—on the foamy height,
Part II:
v. 2, l. 8: Thrilling one thin line of cream-white foam.
v. 4, l. 37: And on the strand he wandered; from deep caves
Part IV:
v. 6, l. 13: But ever after they had wail’d away
v. 7, l. 5: And out upon the reef the piteous light
v. 10, l. 1: God, to the bitter dolour of her days,
v. 14, l. 4: And the voices of sprites that say
v. 18, l. 14: ‘I go, my bairn, and thou wilt come to me!’ ]

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