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{London Poems 1866}








De Karlemane et de Rolant,
Et d’Olivier, et des vassaus,
Qui moururent à Rainscevaux!



DEAD was Gerard the fair, the woman-mouth’d, the gay,
Who jested with the foe he slung his sword to slay;
Dead was the giant Guy, big-hearted, small of brain;
Dead was the hunchback Sanche, his red haunch slit in twain;
Dead was the old hawk Luz, and sleeping by his side
His twin-sons, Charles the Fleet, and Pierre the serpent-eyed;
Dead was Antoine, the same who swore to speak no word                                    198
Till twice a hundred heads fell by his single sword;
Dead was the wise Gerin, who gripp’d both spear and pen;
Sansun was dead, Gereir was dead!—dead were the mighty men!



     Then Roland felt his sense return, and stirr’d, and cried,
Felt down if Adalmar lay safe against his side,
And smilèd quietlie, for joy the sword was there,
With heavy mailèd hand push’d back his bloody hair,
And lying prone upon his back, beheld on high
The stars like leopard-spots strewn in the deep gray sky,
And turn’d his head, and saw the great hills looming dim,
And in the west the Moon with red and wasting rim;
Then sighing deep, swung round his head as in a swoon,
And met the hunchback's eyne, glazèd beneath the Moon.
Chill was the air, and frosty vapours to and fro,                                                      199
Like sheeted shapes, in dim moonshine, crawl’d to and fro;
And Roland thought, because his wound had made him weak,
The cold shapes breathed alive their breath upon his cheek,
And crawling to his knees, shivering in the cold,
Loosen’d his helm, and dimly gleaming down it roll’d;
And slowly his faint eyes distinguish’d things around,—
The dark and moveless shapes asleep upon the ground,
A helmet glittering dim, a sword-hilt twinkling red,
A white horse quivering beside a warrior dead,
And in one moonlit place, a ring on a white hand,
When Roland thought, “Gerard! the merriest of the band!”
And no one stirr’d; behind, the hills loom’d cold and dim;
And in the west the waning Moon with red and wasting rim.



     Then Roland cried aloud, “If living man there be
Among these heaps of slain, let that man answer me!”
And no man spake. The wind crept chilly over all,                                                  200
But no man felt it breathe, or heard the leader call.
“Ho, Olivier! Gerin! speak, an’ ye be not dead!”
Small voices of the hills afar off echoèd,—
Only a heathen churl rose cursing on his side,
And spat at him who spake, and curl’d his limbs, and died.
Then Roland’s mighty heart was heavy with its woes,—
When suddenly, across the fields, faint radiance rose,
First a faint spark, and then a gleam, and then a glare,
Then smoke and crimson streaks that mingled in the air,
And as the thick flame clear’d, and the black smoke swam higher,
There loom’d beyond a shape like one girt round with fire.
And Roland cried aloud, because his joy was great,
And brandish’d Adalmar, and fell beneath the weight,
And lying prone strain’d eyes, and, gazing through the night,
Still saw the glittering shape girt round with smoky light,
And seemèd in a dream, and could not think at all,
Until his heart rose up, and he had strength to crawl,
Then, like a bruisèd worm weary he crept and slow,                                               201
Straining his fever’d eyes lest the sweet light should go,
And often paused to breathe, feeling his pulses fail,
’Mong heathens foul to smell and warriors clad in mail,
But coming near the light beheld the godly man,
Turpin the archbishòp, unhelm’d and gaunt and wan,—
Gripping with skinny hand the ivory Cross sat he,
Clad head to heel in bright white mail and propp’d against a tree.



     And when on hands and knees the stricken chief came near,
The Bishop raised the Cross, and knew his comrade dear;
And Roland did not speak, though tears were in his ee,
But touch’d the blessèd Cross, and smilèd painfullie;
While, “Glory be to God!” the Bishop faintly said,
“Thou livest, kinsman dear, though all the rest be dead!
For while I linger’d here and listen’d for a sound,
And in the dim red moon beheld the dead around,
Thinking I heard a cry, I sought to cry again,
But all my force had fled, and I was spent with pain;
When, peering round, I saw this heathen at my heel,                                                202
And search’d his leathern scrip and found me flint and steel,
Then crawl’d, though swooning-sick, and found his charger gray,
And searching in the bags found wither’d grass and hay,
And made a fire, a sign for thee, whoe’er thou wert,
And fainted when it blazed, for I am sorely hurt;
And waken’d to behold thee near, wounded and weak,
The red fire flaming on thy face, thy breath upon my cheek.”



     Then those brave chiefs wrung hands, and as the smoky flare
Died out, and all was dark, the Bishop said a prayer,
And shadows loom’d out black against the frosty shine,
While Turpin search’d his pouch and murmur’d, “Here is wine!”
And Roland on his elbows raised himself and quaff’d,
Drank, till his head swam round, a deep and goodly draught,
And quickly he felt strong, his heart was wild and light,                                            203
He placed his dear sword softly down, and rose his height,
Loosening his mail, drew forth the shirt that lay beneath,
And took the blood-stain’d silk and tore it with his teeth,
And dress’d the Bishop’s wounds with chilly hand and slow,
Then, while the Bishop pray’d, bound up his own wide wound alsoe.



     Then Roland search’d around, dipping his hands in blood,
Till in a henchman’s pack he found a torch of wood,
And taking flint and steel, blew with his mouth, and lo!
The torch blazed bright, and all grew crimson in the glow;
And gave the torch unto the man of holy fame,
Who glittering like fire, sat sickening in the flame,
And crept across the mead, into the dark again,
And felt the faces of the slain, seeking the mighty men.



     Bless’d be thy name, white Mary, for thy breath and light,
Like vapour cold, did fill the nostrils of thy knight!
Yea, all his force came back, his red wound ceased to bleed,
And he had hands of strength to do a blessèd deed!
For one by one he found each well-belovèd head,
Sought out the mighty chiefs, among the heaps of dead,
Softly unloosed their helms, let the long tresses flow,
Trail’d them to Turpin’s feet and set them in a row;
And underneath the tree the pine-torch blazèd bright
On dreadful shapes in mail and faces ghastly white:
Sansun, who held his sword with grip that ne’er unloosed;
Gerin, with chin on breast, as if he breathed and mused;
Great Guy, with twisted limbs, and bosom gash’d and bare,
And blood-clots on his arms the cold had frozen there;
Old Luz, his skinny hands fill’d with a foeman's beard;
Charles with his feet lopp’d off, Pierre with his green eye spear’d;
Sanche, the fierce woman’s foe, and round his neck, behold!                                  205
A lock of lady’s hair set in a ring of gold;
Antoine, with crafty smile, as if new fights he plann’d;
Gerard, still smiling on the ring upon his hand;
And, brightest of the band, our Roland’s comrade dear,
The iron woman-shape, the long-lock’d Olivier,
Who gript the bladeless hilt of Durandal his pride,
And held it to his kissing lips, as when he swoon’d and died.



And Turpin raised the torch, counted them one by one:
“Ah, woe is me, sweet knights, for now your work is done!”
Then, reaching with the Cross, he touch’d their brows and cried:
“White Mary take your souls, and place them at her side!
White Mary take your souls, and guard them tenderlie,—
For ye were goodly men as any men that be!”
And Roland stooping touch’d the brow of Olivier,
Smoothing the silken hair behind the small white ear,
And cried, “Ah, woe is me, that we should ever part!”                                            206
And kiss’d him on the foamy lips, and swoon’d for ache of heart.



And Turpin dropp’d the torch, that flamed upon the ground,
But meeting new-shed blood, went out with hissing sound;
He groped for Roland’s heart, and felt it faintly beat,
And, groping on the earth, he found the wine-flask sweet,
And fainting with the toil, slaked not his own great drouth,
But, shivering, held the flask to Roland’s foamy mouth:
E’en then, his Soul shot up, and in its shirt of steel
The corse sank back with crash like ice that cracks beneath the heel.



The frosty night-wind waken’d Roland from his swound,
And, spitting salt foam from his tongue, he look’d around,
And saw the Bishop dear lying at length close by,—                                               207
Touch’d him, and found him cold, and utter’d up a cry:
“Now, dead and cold, alas! lieth the noblest wight
For preaching sermons sweet and wielding sword in fight;
His voice was as a trump that on a mountain blows,
He scatter’d oils of grace and wasted heathen-foes,—
White Mary take his soul, to join our comrades dear,
And let him wear his bishop’s crown in heaven above as here!”



Then it grew chiller far, the grass grew moist with dew,
The landskip glimmer’d pale, the hoary breezes blew,
The many stars above melted like snow-flakes white,
And far behind the hills the east was laced with light,
The dismal vale loom’d clear against a crimson glow,
Clouds spread above like wool, pale steam arose below,
And on the faces dead the frosty morning came,
On mighty men, and foes, and squires unknown to fame,
And armèd mail gleam’d bright, and broken steel gleam’d gray,                              208
And cold dew fill’d the wounds of those who sleeping lay;
And Roland, rising, drank the dawn with lips apart,
But scents were in the air that sicken’d his proud heart!
Yea, all was deathly still; and now, though it was day,
The moon grew small and pale, but did not pass away,
The white mist wreath’d and curl’d over the glittering dead,
A cock crew, far among the hills, and echoes answerèd.



Then peering to the east, across the dewy steam,
He spied a naked wood, and there a running stream;
Thirsting full sore, he rose, and thither did he hie,
Faintly, and panting hard, because his end was nigh;
But first he stooping loosed from Turpin’s fingers cold
The Cross inlaid with gems and wrought about with gold,
And bare the holy Cross aloft in one weak hand,
And with the other trail’d great Adalmar his brand.
Thus wearily he came into the woody place,                                                           209
And stooping to the stream dippèd therein his face,
And in the pleasant cold let swim his great black curls,
Then swung his forehead up, glittering as with pearls;
And while the black blood spouted in a burning jet,
He loosed the bandage of his wound and made it wet,
Wringing the silken bands, making them free from gore,
Then placed them cool upon the wound, and tighten’d them once more.



     Eastward rose cloudy mist, drifting like smoke in wind,
Ghastly and round the sun loom’d dismally behind,
High overhead the moon faded with sickle chill,
The frosty wind dropp’d down, and all was deathlier still,
And Roland, drawing deep the breath of vapours cold,
Beheld three marble steps, as of a ruin old,
And at the great tree-bolls lay many a carven stone,
Thereto a dial quaint, where slimy grass had grown;
And frosted were the boughs that gatherèd around,                                                210
And cold the runlet crept, with soft and soothing sound,
And Roland smilèd sweet, and thought, “Since death is nigh,
In sooth, I know no gentler place where gentle man could die!”



     Whereon the warrior heard a sound of breaking boughs,
And, from the thicket wild, leapt one with tannèd brows;
Half-naked, glistening dark with oily limbs, he came,
His long-nail’d fingers curl’d, his little eyes aflame,
Shrieking in his own tongue, as on the chief he flew,
“Yield thee thy sword of fame, and thine own flesh thereto!”
Then Roland gazed and frown’d, though nigh unto his death,
Sat still, and drew up all his strength in a great breath,
Pray’d quickly to the saints he served in former days
With right hand clutch’d the sword he was too weak to raise,
And in the left swung up the Cross, and, shrieking hoarse,                                     211
Between the eyebrows smote the foe with all his force,
Yea, smote him to the brain, crashing through skin and bone,
And prone the heathen fell, as heavy as a stone,
And gold and gems of price were loosen’d by the blow,
And, as he fell, rain’d round the wild hair of the foe;
But Roland kiss’d the cross, and, laughing, backward fell,
And on the hollow air the laugh rang heavy, like a knell.



     And Roland thought: “I surely die; but, ere I end,
Let me be sure that thou art ended too, my friend!
For should a heathen hand grasp thee when I am clay,
My ghost would grieve full sore until the judgment day!”
Then to the marble steps, under the tall bare trees,
Trailing the mighty sword, he crawl’d on hands and knees,
And on the slimy stone he struck the blade with might—                                         212
The bright hilt, sounding, shook, the blade flash’d sparks of light;
Wildly again he struck, and his sick head went round,
Again there sparkled fire, again rang hollow sound;
Ten times he struck, and threw strange echoes down the glade,
Yet still unbroken, sparkling fire, glitter’d the peerless blade.



     Then Roland wept, and set his face against the stone—
“Ah, woe, I shall not rest, though cold be flesh and bone!”
And pain was on his soul to die so cheerless death;
When on his naked neck he felt a touch, like breath,
And did not stir, but thought, “O God, that madest me,
And shall my sword of fame brandish’d by heathens be?
And shall I die accursed, beneath a heathen’s heel,
Too weak to slay the slave whose hated breath I feel?”
Then, clenching teeth, he turn’d to look upon the foe,                                             213
His bright eyes growing dim with coming death; and lo!
His life shot up in fire, his heart arose again,
For no unhallow’d face loom’d dark upon his ken,
No heathen-breath he felt,—though he beheld, indeed,
The white arch’d head and round brown eyes of Veillintif, his steed!



And pressing his moist cheek on his who gazed beneath,
Curling the upper lip to show the large white teeth,
The white horse, quivering, look’d with melancholy eye,
Then waved his streaming mane, and uttered up a cry;
And Roland’s bitterness was spent—he laugh’d, he smiled,
He clasp’d his darling’s neck, wept like a little child;
He kiss’d the foamy lips, and hugged his friend, and cried:
“Ah, nevermore, and nevermore, shall we to battle ride!
Ah, nevermore, and nevermore, shall we sweet comrades be!                                214
And Veillintif, had I the heart to die forgetting thee?
To leave thy mighty heart to break, in slavery to the foe?
I had not rested in the grave, if it had ended so.
Ah, never shall we conquering ride, with banners bright unfurl’d,
A shining light ’mong lesser lights, a wonder to the world!”



And Veillintif neigh’d low, breathing on him who died,
Wild rock’d his great strong heart beneath his silken hide,
Tears roll’d from his brown eyes upon his master’s cheek,
And Roland, gathering strength, though wholly worn and weak,
Held up the point of Adalmar the peerless brand,
And at his comrade’s heart push’d with his dying hand;
And the black blood sprang forth, while heavily as lead,                                         215
With quivering, silken side, the mighty steed fell dead;
And Roland, for his eyes with frosty film were dim,
Groped for the steed, crept close, and smiled, embracing him,
And, pillow’d on his neck, kissing the pure white hair,
Clasp’d Adalmar the brand, and tried to say a prayer,
And that he conquering died, wishing all men to know,
Set firm his lips, and turn’d his face towards the foe,
And closèd eyes, and slept, and never woke again.

Roland is dead, the gentle knight! dead is the crown of men!


The quotation is from the Roman de Rou by Wace (ed. Fr. Pluquet, 1827 II p. 214).

‘London, 1864’ concludes the ‘London Poems’ of 1866. To complete the edition, four poems are added in a Miscellaneous section. A revised version of ‘The Death of Roland’ appeared in The Poetical Works Vol. I (London: H. S. King & Co., 1874. Boston: James R. Osgood and Co., 1874) and this version was included in the ‘Miscellaneous Poems (1866-70)’ section of the 1884 edition of The Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan. This later version is available at the end of the ‘Additional London Poems’ section. A shorter version of the poem, consisting of the last eight stanzas, was published in the 1882 Selected Poems.]






Fathoms deep the ship doth lie,
     Wreath’d with ocean weed and shell,
The cod slips past with round white eye,
Still and deep the shadows lie,
     Dusky as a forest dell:
Tangled in the twisted sail,
     With the breathing of the Sea,
Stirs the Man who told this tale
     Staring upward dreamilie.


I LAID him here, and scarcely wept; but look!
His grave is green and wild and like a wave,
And strewn with ocean-weeds instead o’ flowers.

     You saw him, Jack, langsyne, on board the Crow,
Cod-fishing in Newfoundland, and (you mind?)
We drank a gill, all three, the very day                                               217
Before the Crow went down off Baker’s Head,
And all the crew were drown’d but brother Dan.
To think a man who faced so many a storm,
And stood on splitting planks and never quail’d,
And swam to save his life a dozen times,
Should ever die ashore! Why, from the first,
We twins were meant for sailors:—God himself
Planted a wind in both our brains to blow
Our bodies up and down His calms and storms.
Never had wilder, stormier year been known
Here in the clachan, than the very year
When Dan and I were born;—waters and winds
Roar’d through the wintry season, and the sounds
And sights weigh’d on our Highland mother’s heart,
Giving her whims and moods in which the bairns
Beneath her heart were fashion’d; and in March,
The Scaith came down the valley, roaring past
Our mother’s ears the hour we grat and saw.
Ay! we were made to sail the seas, and hear
The battling of the waters and the winds,
And should have sail’d the seas until the end.
Green fields and wimpling streams and inglesides
Were never meant for cairds like Dan and I.

     When other boys were mumping at the school,                               218
Or yellowing their white livers at a desk,
I went as cabin-lad on board a whaler,
And Dan took his big handkerchief, tied up
His sark and comb and brush, and two or three
Big home-baked bannocks, and a lump of cheese,
Kiss’d mother, (that’s her grave beside his own,)
And walk’d to Abereden, where he found
A berth on board a brig—the Jessie Gray,
Bound south for Cadiz. After that, for years
We drifted up and down;—and when we met
Down in the Clyde, and journey’d home together,
We both were twenty, Dan was poor as ever,
But I had saved. How changed he look’d! how fine!
Brown cheek and bit o’ whisker, hands like steel,
A build as sturdy as a mountain fir’s,—
Ay, every inch a sailor! Then, the tales
We had for one another!—tales of storms,
And sights on land, pranks play’d and places seen!—
But, “Bob, I’m tired of being on the seas,
The life’s a hard one at the best,” says Dan;
And I was like a fool, and thought the same.
So home we came, found father dead and gone,
And mother sorely push’d; and round her neck
We threw our arms, and kiss’d her, and she cried,                              219
And we cried too, and I took out my pay
And pour’d it in her lap; but Dan look’d grieved,
And, glancing from the pay to mother, cried,
“I’ll never, never go to sea again!”

     ’Tis thirty years ago, and yet right well
I mind it all. How pleasant for a time
Was life on land: the tousling with the girls,
The merry-making in the public-house,
The cosy bed on winter nights. We work’d—
I at the fishing, Dan at making nets—
And kept old mother for a year and more.
But ere the year was out, the life grew dull:
We never heard the wind blow, but we thought
Of sailing on the sea,—we got a knack
Of lying on the beach and listening
To the great waters. Still, for mother’s sake,
Ashore we had to tarry. By and by,
The restlessness grew worse, and show’d itself
In other ways,—taking a drop too much,
Fighting and cutty-stooling—and the folk
Began to shake their heads. Amid it all,
One night when Dan was reading out God’s Book,
(That bit about the storm, where Peter tries                                         220
To walk on water, and begins to sink,)
Old mother sigh’d and seem’d to go to sleep,
And when we tried to wake her, she was dead.

     With sore, sore hearts we laid poor mother down;
And walk’d that day up yonder cliffs, and lay
A hearkening to the sea that wash’d beneath:
Far, far away we saw a sail gleam wet
Out of a rainy spot below the line
Where sky and water meet; the sea was calm,
And overhead went clouds whose shadows floated
Slowly beneath, and here and there were places
Purple and green and blue, and close to land
The red-sail’d fish-boats in a violet patch.
I look’d at brother Dan, Dan look’d at me,—
And that same morning, off we went again!

     No rest for us on land from that day forth.
We grew to love the waters; they became
Part of our flesh and blood; the Sea, the Sea,
The busy whistling round the foam-girt world,
Was all our pleasure. Now and then we met,—
Once in a year or two, and never came
To Scotland but we took a journey here                                             221
To look on mother’s grave, and spend a day
With old companions. But we never thought
Of resting long, and never hoped to die
Ashore, like mother: we had fix’d it, Jack,
That we must drown some day. At last, by luck,
We ran together. Dan had got a place
As captain of a brig, and, press’d by him,
They made me mate. Ten years we sail’d together,
From Liverpool to New South Wales and back;
And we were lads no more, but staid, strong men,
Forty and upward,—yet with kibble arms,
Brown cheeks, and cheerful hearts. Then the ill wind
That blew no good to any one began,
And puff’d us back to Scotland, to this place
Where we were born and bred.

                                                 Now, mark you, Jack,
Even a sailor is but flesh and blood,
Though out upon the water he can laugh
At women and their ways; a run on shore,
A splash among the dawties and the drink,
Soon tires, soon tires—then hey! away again
To the wild life that’s worthy of a man!
At forty, though, a sailor should be wise,                                             222
And ’ware temptation: whole a sailor, free,
But only half a sailor, though afloat,
When wedded. Don’t you guess? Though Dan was old,
His head was turn’d, while in the clachan here,
And by a woman,—Effie Paterson,
The daughter of a farmer on the hills,
And only twenty. Bonnie, say you? Ay!
As sweet a pout as ever grew on land;
But soft and tender, with a quiet face
That needed the warm hearth to light it up,
And went snow-pallid at a puff of wind
Or whiff of danger. When I saw the trap,
I tried my best to wheedle Dan away,
Back to the brig; but, red as ricks on fire,
He glinted dark with those deep eyes of his,
And linger’d. Then, ’twas nearly time to sail;
I talk’d of going, and it all came out:
He meant to marry, Jack!—and not content
With marrying, he meant to stop ashore!

     Why, if a lightning flash had split our brig,
I should have wonder’d less. But, “Bob,” says he,
“I love this lassie as I never thought
’Twas in my heart to love; and I have saved;                                       223
And I am tired of drifting here and there
On the great waters: I have earn’d my rest,
And mean to stop ashore until I die.”
’Twas little use to argue things with Dan
When he had settled aught within his mind;
So all I said was vain. What could I do
But put a sunny face upon it all,
And bid him hasten on the day, that I
Might see his wedding, and be off again?

     Yet soon I guess’d, before the wedding day,
That Effie did not care a cheep for Dan,
But scunner’d at his brave rough ways and tales
Of danger on the deep. His was a voice
Meant for the winds, with little power to whisper
The soft sleek things that make the women blush,
And tingle, and look sweet. Moreover, Dan
Was forty, and the lassie but a child.
I saw it all, but dared not speak my thought!
For Dan had siller, Effie's folks were poor,
And Dan was blind, and Effie gave consent,
And talk was no avail. The wedding guests
Went up to Jessie’s home one pleasant day,
The minister dropp’d in, the kirk-bells rang,                                        224
And all was over. ’Twas a summer morn,
The blue above was fleck’d with feathery down,
The sea was smooth, and, like a ringdove’s neck,
Changeful and full of colours, and the kirk
Stood mossy here upon the little hill,
And seem’d to ring a blessing over all.

     And Effie? Ah! keep me from women, Jack!
Give them a bit o’ sunshine—and they smile,
Give them a bit o’ darkness—and they weep;
But smiles and tears with them are easy things,
And cheat ye like the winds. On such a day,
With everybody happy roundabout,
Effie look’d happy too; and if her face
Flush’d and was fearful, that was very joy;
For when a woman blushes, who can tell
Whether the cause be gladness, pride, or shame?
And Dan (God bless him!) look’d as young as you,
Trembled and redden’d lass-like, and I swear,
Had he not been a sailor, would have cried.
So I was cheer’d, next day, when off I went
To take his post as captain of the brig,
And I forgot my fears, and thought them wrong,
And went across the seas with easy heart,                                          225
Thinking I left a happy man behind.

     But often, out at sea, I thought of Dan,
Wonder’d if he was happy. When the nights
Were quiet, and the cabin where I slept
Was steaming with the moonshine, I would lie
And listen to the lapping of the waves,
And think: “I wonder if this very light
Is shining far away on poor old Dan?
And if his face looks happy in it, while
He sleeps by Effie’s side?” On windy nights
I used to think of Dan with trouble and fear;
And often, when the waves were ribb’d and white,
And on we drove bare-poled before the wind,
The foamy waters seem’d to take the shape
Of this old clachan, and I seem’d to hear
Dan calling me; and I would drink the salt,
And pace the deck with all my blood on fire,
And cry—“If Dan were driving on out here,
Dashing and weather-beaten, never still,
He would be happier!”

                                       Ay! though the storm
Roll’d fierce between us, voices came from Dan                                 226
To tell me he was weary of the land.
Often, when I was floating in the ship,
He hung about these caves and watch’d the moon
Silv’ring the places where no wind was blowing,
And thought of me! or on the beach he lay,
And wearied to the breaking of the waves!
Or out from land he row’d his boat, and gazed
Wistfully eastward! or on windy nights
He speel’d yon cliffs above the shore, and set
His teeth together in the rain and wind,
Straining eyes seaward, seeking lights at sea,
And pacing up and down upon the brinks
As if he trode the decks! Why, things like those
Saved him from withering, salted all his blood,
And soothed his heartache. Wind and wave are far
More merciful than a young woman’s heart.

     Why, had she been a bickering hizzie, fill’d
With fire and temper, stubborn as a whin,
And cushlingmushling o’er a cheerless fire,
Dan might have brought her round: that was the work
He understood full well; and, right or wrong,
He would have been the skipper to the end.
But though a man who has been train’d at sea,                                    227
Holding a hard strong grip on desperate men,
Can sink his voice and play a gentle part
In sunny seasons, he has little power
To fight with women’s weapons. Dan, be sure,
Loved Effie with a love the deeper far
And tenderer because he had been bred
On the rough seas; but when, from day to day,
He met a weary and a waning face,
That tried to smile, indeed, but could not smile,
And saw the tears where never tears should be,
Yet never met an angry look or word,
What could he do? He loved the lass too well
To flyte; tried tender words, but they were spent
Upon a heart where the cold crancreuch grew;
And, when the sorrow grew too sharp to dree,
Turn’d soopit from the dwelling. Plain he saw
The lass was dreary, though she kept so still,
And loved him not, though nothing harsh was said,
But fretted, and grew thin, and haunted him
With a pale face of gentleness and blame.
O Jack, Jack, Jack, of all the things accurst,
Worse than a shipwreck on a savage coast,
Worse than a tempest and the rocks ahead,
Is dismal cloudy weather and dead calm!                                            228
Homeless and sad and troubled by her face,
If Dan had let his heart and brain keep still,
Let the damp mildew settle on his heart,
He would have shrunk into a wretched thing
The rains might beat on, and the winds might lash,
And ne’er have had the heart to stand erect,
And set his teeth, and face them, and subdue.
What could he do, but try to ease his birn
By haunting yonder beach, and glorying
In stormy seasons, thinking of the life
He used to lead, with ocean-sound for ever
Making a second life within his blood,
Thinking of me, and feeling that his heart
Was help’d a bit by his old friend the Sea?

     And Effie Widdershins, from day to day,
Turn’d from the happy shining of the sun,
In wanrest and in tears; and poor old Dan
Dree'd bitterly the dreary life in hand.
No stanchgrass ever heal’d a wound so deep.

     ’Twas comfort dwelling in so wild a place,
So near to open water; but for that,
I do not think he could have borne to dwell                                        229
Pining ashore. His trouble grew and grew:
No corsy-belly warm’d at Effie’s fire,
No doctor’s watch tick’d by the jizzen-bed,
No sound of tiny footfalls fill’d the house
With happy cheer; the dull and lifeless mood
Grew on the wife; her sense of shame seem’d gone;
She paid no heed to dress, or to the house,
But wearied, like a pale-faced, listless flower,
Grown in a weedy garden. Then, indeed,
To see all household ties neglected so,
The crowsfeet gathering round Effie’s eyes,
The ingleside so dreary and so cold,
Dan clench’d his fists, and storm’d with thunder-voice;
But Effie only trembled, and was still,
Or threw her apron o’er her face and wept;
And Dan, who never in his life could bear
To see a woman greet, pleaded and begg’d,—
Without avail. Then many and many a night
He roam’d the silent cliffs till peep of day,
Or join’d the fishers, out upon the sea;
And many and many a night he thought he heard
My voice a-calling him. One night of storm,
When the sky murmur’d, and the foamy sea
Flash’d in the fireflaught round the shadowy cliffs,                               230
He fix’d to run away; but could not go,
Until he gazed on Effie’s face once more;
And when he stole into her room unheard,
He saw her sleeping with a happy smile,
So still, so sweet, so bonnie in her dream,
So like the shining lass she used to be,
That his heart fail’d, he swaver’d forth again,
And lay upon the waterside and wept,
And though the wind was whistling in his eyes,
And the still fireflaught whiten’d all the sea,
He felt o’er weak, o’er gentle, and o’er sad,
To quit her in the little cottage here,
And leave the little lamp that lit her face
Many and many a stormy mile behind,
And dree again the darkness of the deep.

     The house is yonder—ay, the red-tiled house,
With little patch of garden. Mark the pool
Of water at the door. Beyond you see
The line of boats, drawn high and dry, and yonder
The dull, green water, with the purple stain
Out eastward, and the sunlight peeping through
Upon a sail. Mark how the clachan lies
Down in the gully, with the barren hills,                                                231
Where never ran-tree waves its silver hair,
On either side. Look backward, now! The glen,
Hollow’d between the hills, goes inland, far
As eye can see,—with yellow pools of rain,
And cattle looking shadowy in the mists
Upon the slopes. How still and dull looks all!
’Tis plain you gather, with a sailor’s eye,
The danger. When the rains have lasted long,
The yellow waters (rightly christen’d here
The Scaith o’ Bartle) gather up the glen,
Suck in the strength of flying mist and cloud,
And, bursting from the hollows where they meet,
Rush seaward, with a roaring like the sea,
O’erwhelming all. Thrice has the mischief come
In one-and-twenty years.

                                           When I came home,
A month ago, and walk’d across the hills
From Cardy town, I paused on yonder cliffs,
And saw the clachan lying at my feet,—
The setting sun shining upon the house
Where Dan was dwelling. Nought was alter’d there!
The very punts and fish-boats just the same
As when I quitted. While I stood and gazed,                                      232
I saw a stooping figure with a staff,
Standing hard by me on the cliffs, and gazing
Wistfully seaward. As I look’d, he turn’d,
And though the face was haggard, worn, and old,
And every hair upon the head was gray,
And the fresh strength about the limbs was gone,
I knew old Dan, and, shouting blithely, ran
To hug him to my heart; and he turn’d white,
Shaking like straw in wind, to find ’twas me.
Then, when the shock was over, and we talk’d,
He brighten’d,—as a bit of snow turns bright
When shone on. But my heart was shock’d and sore!
He was the ghost of what he once had been;
His voice was broken, and his welcome seem’d
Like one’s who, sinking to the slumber, smiles
To see a face he loves before he dies;
And when his air grew cheerier, and at last
His love for me came brighter on his look,
His cheeriness seem’d sadder far than all.
Swavering down the path, he took my arm,
Leant heavily on his staff, as if he dream’d,
Talk’d of old times, and friends alive and dead,
Until we halted at his cottage door;
And, while he lifted up the latch, he cast                                             233
His eyes to windward, read the weather signs,
After old habit, ere he enter’d in.

     Effie was there,—changed too; she welcomed me,
Moved but and ben the house with a light step,
And smiled a wee: all women have a smile,
A happiness, a kind of second self,
Kept for fresh faces. Yet I saw full soon
The bield was homeless; little love was there;
Ah, that was common crack aroundabout!
The first flush faded soon from Effie’s face,
Leaving it dull and wan; she moved about
Like a sick lassie risen from a dream;
And aft, when we were seated in the lowe,
She started, and her colour went and came;
And though her features wore a kind of fear,
There was a light of youth there: she would keek
At Dan, whose eyes were steady on the fire,
Hang o’er her knitting, breathing deep, and then
Hearken and hearken, till the soft bright blush
Died by degrees, her face became composed
To pallor, and the light had gone away,
Leaving her sick and soopit once again.

     At last, when we were smoking in the bield                                    234
One dull day in November, Dan arose
And took his stick, and beckoning me went out,
I follow’d; and he never spake a word,
But gript me by the arm, and walk’d along,
Until we left the clachan far behind,
And took a path that winded up the hills.
For many weeks, at intervals, the rain
Had fallen; and the hills were dreeping damp,
And down their sides ran many burns new-born,
Making an eerie murmur. Far away
Ben Callachan was glimmering through a mist,
And all round Bartle rose a dewy steam
Silent and gray, with cattle here and there
Dismally looming; here and there a gull
Blowing to seaward. Still and dull was all,
So still, so still; only the faint sharp stir
That is a sound, but seems a click within
The ear itself; save when from far away
A cow would low, and echoes faint and sad
Died inland, or when blowing on the wind
A cry came from the sea, whose waves we saw
Beyond us, breaking in a shadowy cloud,
With gleams of glittering foam. But Dan walk’d on,
Scarce heeding ought; and yet his sailor’s eye                                     235
Took in the signs, and glinted up and down
With the old cunning; but his heart was full,
His voice was broken like a greeting wean’s,
And as we went along he told me all.

     All that you ken! but somewhat more—a thought
Of later growth, a nettle in his heart—
That Effie was not true, as wives should be;
Not that, while keeping care beneath her cloak,
She carried consolation ’neath her sark;
That would have meant a bloody deed with Dan;
But that her happiest thoughts were fallen things
That clung around a fresh young kimmer’s knees.
I stared at Dan, and hearken’d in amaze!
His grip was tight upon my arm, his face
White as the snow on Callachan, his voice
Shrill as a seagull’s shriek; and all at once
He waved his arms, turn’d his wild face away,
And cried aloud with a full heart—“O God!
Why did I ever cease to sail the sea?”

     I tried to cheer him; ’twas but useless work,
Stirring a muddy pool with bonnie flowers!
I tried to argue with him—he was dumb!                                             236
And yet I saw, had I been daft enough
To echo him, he would have hated me.
He only half believed the things he said,
And would have turn’d in wrath on any man
Who could believe them true, and say the same.
He loved the braxie still, as few can love,
Save the good Shepherd, who has love for all!
Could not have tholed to hear another’s mouth
Condemn her! blamed himself for all his grief!
And gladly would have died beneath her feet,
To win one word, one kiss, one shining look,
To show his love had not been quite in vain!

     But on we fared, so fill’d with our own thoughts,
We scarcely saw how far away we wander’d,
How mirk all grew, how close the gathering clouds
Drew to the hill-tops, while the cattle raised
Their heads into the dismal air and cried.
Then, suddenly, there came a lightning flash
That for a moment lighted up the hills,
The far-off cliffs, and the white lines of foam,
And faded,—to a sound as if the earth
And heavens were torn asunder. Soon the storm
Deepen’d—the thunder and the lightning came                                    237
Ofter than dark or silence; and I felt
Far less myself on those dull endless heights,
Than seeing, hearing, from my ship at sea.
But Dan said little; only, as the drops
Of rain began to fall, he led the way
Into a mountain shieling, roof’d with peat,
Where we in shelter cowried, and talk’d on
Of his dull ingleside, his cheerless days,
How his heart gizzen’d looking from the land,
The terror and the pain he had to dree,
And “all I care for now is ended, Bob!
I want to die, but not to leave the wife
Untended and unhappy. After all,
I cannot blame her for her crancreuch face,—
She is so young—mid-eild is past with me—
Be sure that she would love me if she could!”
And then he glower’d out on the dark, and groan’d,
“Would I were in my grave!—would I were doom’d
Among the waves!—would I were far out yonder,
Praying and sinking in a boat at sea!”

     And I was silent; but the elements
Made answer. With a clash like iron fell
The headlong torrent of the soot-dark clouds,                                      238
Drowning the thunders with its dreesome cry,
Birming above, around, and smiting earth
With strength of stone. Never for many a year
Had such a fall been known: it seem’d the Lord
Unlocking all His waters to destroy
The bad world o’er again. No rainbow there
To promise sunshine and a speedy end!
For ’twas the Black Rain, which had once or twice
Gone southward, making frighted elders groan,
Caught ruffling cockernonies after prayers
And which old wives in Bartle often call
The “Deil’s rain,” thinking Satan flies himself,
Dropping the sooty blackness from above.
Silent we cowried, watching, and the air
Was full of a great roar—the earth beneath
Seem’d shaking—and the torrent forced a way
Through the thick turf above our heads, and fell
Upon us, splashing, as with watery ink,
Our hands and faces. But I saw Dan’s eye
Had kindled. He was younger. For the sounds
Quicken’d his sense of life, brought up his heart,
And minded him of former fearsome days
Upon the ocean; and his other self—
The weary self that lived the life on land—                                          239
Forsook him. Then there was a lull, a pause—
Not broken by the further fall of rain,
Nor by the thunder-claps, but by a sign
More terrible than all—a roar, a groan,
A motion as of waters, and a sound
Like the dread rushing of an angry sea.

     And Dan threw up his arms, screaming aloud,
“THE SCAITH! THE SCAITH!”—and groan’d, and rush’d away,
I following close behind him in the mirk.

     And on he rush’d, until he gain’d a craig,
Above the glen, yonder between the hills;
And cattle huddled round him, lowing loud,
And the Scaith thicken’d, and the murmur grew,
While we gazed down. The mists hung round the heights,
The rain still fell, but softly,—and below,
Roaring on seaward, snatching in its course
Boulders and trees and cattle, rush’d the Scaith,
A blacken’d yellow rush of waters, foaming
Where’er it touch’d the feet of craig or steep,
And dizzily whirling round the great tree-roots                                      240
To twist them from their beds. White, scared, and stunn’d,
Dan groan’d, and sank upon his knees, and wept.
Done was the thunder; but the waters made
Another thunder, and the fireflaught came
Fainter and fainter. Then we heard from far
A sound more awful—shrieks of living men,
Children and women; while the thinning clouds
Parted to westward, brightening at the rims,
And rays of misty sunset slanted down
On Bartle, and the Scaith had seized its prey.

     “Effie!” cried Dan; and sped along the hills,
And would have rush’d right downward to his death
Had I not gript him. But we found a way
O’er the hillside, and gain’d the northern height
Above the clachan. Jack, until I die,
That hour will haunt me! For the clachan lay
Naip-deep beneath the moaning rain-dyed flood,
And bields sank shatter’d, and the sunset cold
Gleam’d upon Bartle and the sea beyond;
And on the slopes on either side there gather’d
Women and men: some screeching as they saw
The Scaith drink up their houses and their goods,                                241
Some crying for the friends they could not see,
Some sitting still, and looking on their bairns,
As if they had gone wild. Then Dan glared round,
Seeking for Effie,—but he saw her not;
And the damp sunset gleaming on his face,
Grimed with the sooty rain-drops, ghastlied it,
But he was cool as he had often been
On gruesome nights at sea. “She is not here!”
He whisper’d; “yet she cannot but be saved;
Perchance she gathers with the folk that stand
Waving their arms yonder across the flood:
Oh, would my eyes were young, that I might see.”
That way I gazed; but all that I could see
Were mists beyond the clachan; down below,
The slow-subsiding waters; here and there
Women and children screaming on the naips,
While punts and fish-boats glided here and there,
Piloting slowly through the rocks and walls,
To succour those unsaved; at intervals
A leafless tree-top peering through the water,
While frighted birds lit on its twigs, or wheel’d
Around it crying. Then, “A boat! a boat!”
Dan cried; but he was crying to the air:
The folk around him heard and made a stir,—                                    242
But some scarce raised their wild and greeting eyes,
And some stopp’d moaning, look’d at him who cried,
And then again sat rocking to and fro,
Gazing straight downward, and with eerie groans
Bewailing their own sorrow.

                                               Then the place
Blacken’d in gloaming—mists rose from the flood—
The sky turn’d black, with neither stars nor moon,
And down below, flashing from place to place,
The lights, like corpse-lights warning folk of death,
Flitted and faded, showing where the boats
Still moved about upon their weary work;
And those who grieved were stiller all around;
And the deep moaning of the Scaith was hush’d,
And you could hear the breaking of the Sea;
And only now and then a hollow splash
Spake plain of walls that yielded and slipt down
Into the waters. Then a light came near,
And to the water’s edge a fishing-boat
Brought a dead fisher, and a greeting wean
Who cried for “mither;” and as he who row’d
Handed the bairn to hungry outstretch’d arms,
And landed with the corpse, old Dan leapt in,                                      243
Snatching the lanthorn from the fisher’s hand,
Push’d off ere I could follow, and had flown
Into the darkness. . . .

                                       Jack,—I never again
Saw poor old Dan, alive! Yet it was well
His days were ended; for that very day,
Ere the Scaith came, Effie had flown from home,—
Ay, with another man;—and ere I knew
The truth, why, she was out upon the waves,
And fleeing with the loon to Canada.
Ill winds pursue her! God will find her out!
He sent His water down to free old Dan,
And He is after her across the deep!

     Next dawning, when the water was subdued,
And sinking slowly through the cracks of earth,
Pouring in deep brown burns to join the sea,
Fouling with mud the line of breaking foam,
It was a piteous sight to watch the folk,
With spade and mattock, digging at the graves
Of their own dwellings; taking what was saved
With bitter thankless faces. Fallen walls,
And trees uprooted from the waste hillsides,                                       244
And boulders swept from far along the glen,
And household lumber gather’d everywhere,
Mingled in ruin; and the frailer bields
Were swept away for ever. As for me,
I had my work in hand. I took a spade
And waded through the thick and muddy pool,
(’Twas still knee-deep,) right onward to the place
Where Dan had dwelt. For something drew me there,
Foremost of all. The bield was standing still,
Though doors and windows had been beaten in;
And as I splash’d along the passage, bits
Of household lumber tripped me; but I went
Right on to Effie’s room, and there the flood
Was lying deep and cold; and there lay Dan.

     Drifting upon the water, with his face
Turn’d downward, his hands clench’d, his long gray hair
Floating around him—stiff, and cold, and dead!
And when I turn’d his face up to the light,
I did not scunner much, it look’d so strong,
And seaman-like, and fine. I saw it all!
How he had drifted thither in the mirk,
And found the water low around the bield,                                          245
But slowly rising; how he fought his way,
Search’d but and ben, and last, in Effie’s room,
Stood ghastly in the lanthorn light, and saw
The place was toom; and how, while there he stood,
Staring in horror, with an eldritch cry
The wild Scaith struck the crashing window panes,
Dash’d down the lanthorn, gript him in the dark,
Roar’d in his ears; and while it struck him down,
Out of his nostrils suck’d the breath of life.
Jack, Jack, we know there comes to men who drown
A sudden flashing vision of their life,—
And ah! how pitiful, how pitiful,
Remembrance came, that minute ere he died:
A vision of the sounding sea afar,
A ghaistly ship upon it,—Effie’s face,
Coming and going like to floating foam,—
The picture of the kirk upon the hill,
And sunshine glittering on the wedding guests,—
The shadowy cliffs where he had paced in pain,
The waves, the sun, the moon, the thought of me,
All thicken’d on him as he scream’d her name,
And struggled with the cruel Scaith, and died!

     Ay! God Almighty’s water, e’en ashore,                                        246
More merciful than women, found him out;
And here he lies, but should have lain elsewhere.
Had Scots law, and the blethering women's tongues,
Not hinder’d, Jack,—I would have ta'en a boat,
And sewn his body in a sheet, with stones
Fasten’d beneath his feet to sink him down,
And row’d out yonder, westward, where the sun
Dips red beneath the straight blue line of sea,
And said a prayer, and softly sent him down
Where he could sleep in peace, and hear for ever
The washing of the waters through the deeps:
With flag-weeds o’er his head, great weeds all round,
And white salt foam-bells hanging in his ears,
His would have been a sailor’s sleep indeed!
But as it is, he slumbers here on land,
In shade of Bartle Kirk, ’mong country loons
And fishermen that screech at open sea.


A revised version of ‘The Scaith O’ Bartle’ appeared in The Poetical Works Vol. I (London: H. S. King & Co., 1874. Boston: James R. Osgood and Co., 1874) and this version was included in the ‘North Coast, and other Poems (1867-68)’ section of the 1884 edition of The Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan. This later version is available at the end of the ‘Additional London Poems’ section.]



London Poems 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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