At The Burns Centennial

A poem by James Russell Lowell



A hundred years! they're quickly fled,
With all their joy and sorrow;
Their dead leaves shed upon the dead,
Their fresh ones sprung by morrow!
And still the patient seasons bring
Their change of sun and shadow;
New birds still sing with every spring,
New violets spot the meadow.


A hundred years! and Nature's powers
No greater grown nor lessened!
They saw no flowers more sweet than ours,
No fairer new moon's crescent.
Would she but treat us poets so,
So from our winter free us,
And set our slow old sap aflow
To sprout in fresh ideas!


Alas, think I, what worth or parts
Have brought me here competing,
To speak what starts in myriad hearts
With Burns's memory beating!
Himself had loved a theme like this;
Must I be its entomber?
No pen save his but's sure to miss
Its pathos or its humor.


As I sat musing what to say,
And how my verse to number,
Some elf in play passed by that way,
And sank my lids in slumber;
And on my sleep a vision stole.
Which I will put in metre,
Of Burns's soul at the wicket-hole
Where sits the good Saint Peter.


The saint, methought, had left his post
That day to Holy Willie,
Who swore, 'Each ghost that comes shall toast
In brunstane, will he, nill he;
There's nane need hope with phrases fine
Their score to wipe a sin frae;
I'll chalk a sign, to save their tryin',--
A hand ([Illustration of a hand]) and "Vide infra!"'


Alas! no soil's too cold or dry
For spiritual small potatoes,
Scrimped natures, spry the trade to ply
Of diaboli advocatus;
Who lay bent pins in the penance-stool
Where Mercy plumps a cushion,
Who've just one rule for knave and fool,
It saves so much confusion!


So when Burns knocked, Will knit his brows,
His window gap made scanter,
And said, 'Go rouse the other house;
We lodge no Tam O'Shanter!'
'We lodge!' laughed Burns. 'Now well I see
Death cannot kill old nature;
No human flea but thinks that he
May speak for his Creator!


'But, Willie, friend, don't turn me forth,
Auld Clootie needs no gauger;
And if on earth I had small worth,
You've let in worse I'se wager!'
'Na, nane has knockit at the yett
But found me hard as whunstane;
There's chances yet your bread to get
Wi Auld Nick, gaugin' brunstane.'


Meanwhile, the Unco' Guid had ta'en
Their place to watch the process,
Flattening in vain on many a pane
Their disembodied noses.
Remember, please, 'tis all a dream;
One can't control the fancies
Through sleep that stream with wayward gleam,
Like midnight's boreal dances.


Old Willie's tone grew sharp 's a knife:
'In primis, I indite ye,
For makin' strife wi' the water o' life,
And preferrin' aqua vitæ!'
Then roared a voice with lusty din,
Like a skipper's when 'tis blowy,
'If that's a sin, I'd ne'er got in,
As sure as my name's Noah!'


Baulked, Willie turned another leaf,--
'There's many here have heard ye,
To the pain and grief o' true belief,
Say hard things o' the clergy!'
Then rang a clear tone over all,--
'One plea for him allow me:
I once heard call from o'er me, "Saul,
Why persecutest thou me?"'


To the next charge vexed Willie turned,
And, sighing, wiped his glasses:
'I'm much concerned to find ye yearned
O'er-warmly tow'rd the lasses!'
Here David sighed; poor Willie's face
Lost all its self-possession:
'I leave this case to God's own grace;
It baffles my discretion!'


Then sudden glory round me broke,
And low melodious surges
Of wings whose stroke to splendor woke
Creation's farthest verges;
A cross stretched, ladder-like, secure
From earth to heaven's own portal,
Whereby God's poor, with footing sure,
Climbed up to peace immortal.


I heard a voice serene and low
(With my heart I seemed to hear it,)
Fall soft and slow as snow on snow,
Like grace of the heavenly spirit;
As sweet as over new-born son
The croon of new-made mother,
The voice begun, 'Sore tempted one!'
Then, pausing, sighed, 'Our brother!


'If not a sparrow fall, unless
The Father sees and knows it,
Think! recks He less his form express,
The soul his own deposit?
If only dear to Him the strong,
That never trip nor wander,
Where were the throng whose morning song
Thrills his blue arches yonder?


'Do souls alone clear-eyed, strong-kneed,
To Him true service render,
And they who need his hand to lead,
Find they his heart untender?
Through all your various ranks and fates
He opens doors to duty,
And he that waits there at your gates
Was servant of his Beauty.


'The Earth must richer sap secrete,
(Could ye in time but know it!)
Must juice concrete with fiercer heat,
Ere she can make her poet;
Long generations go and come,
At last she bears a singer,
For ages dumb of senses numb
The compensation-bringer!


'Her cheaper broods in palaces
She raises under glasses,
But souls like these, heav'n's hostages,
Spring shelterless as grasses:
They share Earth's blessing and her bane,
The common sun and shower;
What makes your pain to them is gain,
Your weakness is their power.


'These larger hearts must feel the rolls
Of stormier-waved temptation;
These star-wide souls between their poles
Bear zones of tropic passion.
He loved much!--that is gospel good,
Howe'er the text you handle;
From common wood the cross was hewed,
By love turned priceless sandal.


'If scant his service at the kirk,
He paters heard and aves
From choirs that lurk in hedge and birk,
From blackbird and from mavis;
The cowering mouse, poor unroofed thing,
In him found Mercy's angel;
The daisy's ring brought every spring
To him love's fresh evangel!


'Not he the threatening texts who deals
Is highest 'mong the preachers,
But he who feels the woes and weals
Of all God's wandering creatures.
He doth good work whose heart can find
The spirit 'neath the letter;
Who makes his kind of happier mind,
Leaves wiser men and better.


'They make Religion be abhorred
Who round with darkness gulf her,
And think no word can please the Lord
Unless it smell of sulphur,
Dear Poet-heart, that childlike guessed
The Father's loving kindness,
Come now to rest! Thou didst his hest,
If haply 'twas in blindness!'


Then leapt heaven's portals wide apart,
And at their golden thunder
With sudden start I woke, my heart
Still throbbing-full of wonder.
'Father,' I said, ''tis known to Thee
How Thou thy Saints preparest;
But this I see,--Saint Charity
Is still the first and fairest!'


Dear Bard and Brother! let who may
Against thy faults be railing,
(Though far, I pray, from us be they
That never had a failing!)
One toast I'll give, and that not long,
Which thou wouldst pledge if present,
To him whose song, in nature strong,
Makes man of prince and peasant!

Reader Comments

Tell us what you think of 'At The Burns Centennial' by James Russell Lowell

comments powered by Disqus

Home | Search | About this website | Contact | Privacy Policy