Old John

A poem by Thomas Edward Brown

Old John, if I could sit with you a day
At Abram’s feet upon the asphodel,
There, while the grand old patriarch dreamed away,
To you my life’s whole progress I would tell;
To you would give accompt of what is well,
What ill performed; how used the trusted talents,
Since last we heard the sound of Braddan bell,
"A wheen bit callants."

You were not of our kin nor of our race,
Old John, nor of our church, nor of our speech;
Yet what of strength, or truth, or tender grace
I owe, ‘twas you that taught me. Born to teach
All nobleness, whereof divines may preach,
And pedagogues may wag their tongues of iron,
I have no doubt you could have taught the leech
That taught old Chiron.

For so it is, the nascent souls may wait,
And lose the flexile aptness of their years;
But if one meets them at the opening gate
Who fans their hopes and modifies their fears,
Then thrives the soul : the various growth appears,
Or meet for sunny blooms or tempests’ grappling,
No wind uproots, drought quells, frost nips, blight sears
The well-fed sapling.

Old John, do you remember how you ran
Before the tide that choked the narrowing firth,
When Cumbria took you, ere you came to Man,
From distant Galloway that saw your birth?
Methinks I hear you with athletic mirth
Deride the baffled sleuth-hounds of the ocean,
As on you sped, not having where on earth
You were a notion.

What joy was mine I what straining of the knees
To test the peril of that strenuous mile,
To hear the clamour of the yelping seas!
And step for step to challenge you the while,
And see the sunshine of your constant smile!
I loved you that you dared the splendid danger;
I loved you that you landed on our Isle
A helpless stranger.

Old John, Old John! the air of heaven is calm,
No ripple curls upon the glassy sea;
But, as you wave on high the golden palm,
Though love subdues the thrill of victory,
You must remember how at Trollaby
Your five-foot-one of sinew tough and pliant
Threw Illiam of the Union Mills, and he
Was quite a giant.

O wholesome food for keen and passionate hearts,
Tempering the fine pugnacity of youth
With timely culture of all generous arts,
Rejecting menial tricks and wiles uncouth!
Old John, your soul was valiant for the truth;
But ever ‘twas a chivalrous contention:
Love whispered justice, and the mild-eyed ruth
Kissed grim dissension.

Old John, if in the battle of this life
I have not sought your precepts to fulfil,
If ever I have stirred ignoble strife,
If ever struck foul blow, as bent to kill,
Not conquer, by the love you bear me still,
O! intercede that I may be forgiven.
Stern Protestant, not pray to saints? I will
To you in Heaven.

Old John, you must have much to do indeed
If I am all forgotten from your mind.
Ah! blame me not: I cannot hold a creed
That would impute you selfish or unkind.
Ask Luther, Calvin; ask the old man blind
That painted Eden; ask the grim Confession
Of Augsburg what black error lurks behind
Such intercession.

Old John, you were an interceder here;
For me you interceded with great cries.
How have I stood with mingled love and fear,
And not a little merriment! My eyes
Beheld you not, Old John; your groans and sighs
And gasps I heard by listening at the gable,
Inside of which you knelt, and shook the skies,
But first the stable.

It was a mighty "wrastling" with the Lord:
The hot June air was feverish with the heat
And agony of that great monochord;
Our old horse, standing on his patient feet,
Ripped from the rack the hay that smelt so sweet;
And, when there came a pause, their breath soft pouring
I heard the cows; while prone upon "the street"
Our swine were snoring.

You prayed for all, but for my father most,
"The Maister," as you called him, that on rock
Of sure foundation he might keep the post,
And (by a change of metaphor) might stock
God’s heritage with vines to endure the shock
Pf time and sense, being planted with his planting;
That so (another trope) of all the flock
Not one be wanting.

Old John, I think you must have met him there,
My father, somewhere in the fields of rest:
From doubt enlarged, released from mortal care,
Earth’s troubles heave no more his tranquil breast.
O! tell him what you once to me confessed,
That, all the varied modes of rhetorick trying,
You ever liked "the Maister’s" sermons best
When he was crying.

Old John, do you remember how we picked
Potatoes for you in the days of old?
Bright flashed the grep, and with its sharp prong pricked
The pink-fleshed tubers. We were blithe and bold.
Dear John, what jokes you cracked! what tales you told!
So garrulous to cheer your "little midges,"
What time the setting sun shot shafts of gold
Athwart the ridges!

And when the season changed, and hay was mown,
You weighed the balance of our emulous powers,
How "Maister" Hugh was strong the ponderous cone
To pitchfork; but to build the fragrant towers
Was none like "Maister Wulliam." Blessed hours!
The empty cart we young ones scaled, glad riders
And screamed at beetles exiled from their bowers,
And homeless spiders.

But when the corn was ripe, and truculent churls
Forbade us, as we culled the cushaged stook,
Your eye flashed fire, your voice was loosed in skins
Of rage. Old Covenanter, how could you look
The very genius of the pastoral crook,
Tythe-twined, established, dominant? "In our ashes
Still live our wonted fires." You could not brook,
You said, "their fashes."

A perfect treasury of rustic lore
You were to me, Old John: how nature thrives,
In horse or cow, their points; if less or more
Convex the grunter’s spine; the cackling wives
Of Chanticleer how marked; the bird that dives,
And he that gobbles reddening, all the crises
You told, and ventures of their simple lives,
Also their prices.

The matchless tales your own great Wizard penned
To us were patent when you gave the key:
I knew Montrose; stern Clavers was my friend;
I carved the tombs with Old Mortality;
I sailed with Hatterick on the stormy sea;
Curled Cavalier, and Roundhead atrabiliar,
The shifts of Caleb Balderstone, to me
Were quite familiar.

But most of all, where all was most, I liked
To hear the story of the martyrs’ doom:
The camp remote by stubborn hands bedyked;
The bones that bleached amid the heather bloom;
The gray-haired sire; the intrepid maid for whom
Old Soiway piled his waters monumental,
And gave that glorious heart a glorious tomb
Worth Scotia’s rental.

Old John, such stories were to me a proof
That ‘neath the dimpling of the temporal tides
A power is working still in our behoof
A primal power that in the world abides.
In virgins’ hearts it lives, and tender brides
Confess it. Veil your crests, ye powers of evil!
It is an older power, and it derides
Your vain upheaval.

Old John, do you remember Injebreck,
And that fine day we went to get a load
Of perfumed larch? From many a ruddy fleck
The resin oozed and dropped upon the road;
And ever as we trudged you taught the code
Traditional of woodcraft. Night came sparkling
With all her gems, and devious to Tromode
The stream ran darkling.

But we the westward height laborious clomb;
Then from Mount Rule descended on the Strang,
And saw afar the pleasant lights of home,
Whereat your cheering speech, "We’ll nae be lang"!
Also a wondrous chirp of eld you sang,
Till, when we came to Braddan Bridge, the clinging
Of that inveterate awe enforced a pang
That stopped the singing.

Yet when we gained the vantage of the hill,
And breathed more freely on the gentler slope,
Then quickly we recovered, as men will:
For Life’s sweet buoyancy with Death can cope,
Being strung by Nature for that genial scope:
And so, when you had ceased from your dejection,
You talked with me of God, and faith, and hope,
And resurrection.

‘Twas thus I learned to love the various man,
Rich patterned, woven of all generous dyes,
Like to the tartan of some noble clan,
Blending the colours that alternate rise.
So ever ‘tis refreshing to mine eyes
To look beyond convention’s flimsy trammel,
And see the native tints, in anywise,
Of God’s enamel.

Old John, you were not of the Calvinists;"
The doctrine o’ yElaction," you declared,
You gentlest of all gentle Methodists,
"A saul-destroying doctrine."
Whoso dared God’s mercy limit, he must be prepared
For something awful, not propounded clearly,
But dark as deepest doom that Dante bared,
Or very nearly.

On Sunday morning early to the "class,"
Then Matins, as it’s called in ritual puff
Correct, then Evensong, but let that pass:
Our curate frowns. Nor then had you enough;
But, with your waistcoat pocket full of snuff,
You scorned the flesh, suppressed the stomach’s clamour,
And went where you could get "the rael stuff"
Absolved from grammar.

And who shall blame you, John?
Our prayers are good,
Compact of precious fragments, passion-clips
Of many souls, cemented with the blood
Of suffering. So we kiss them with the lips
Of awful love; but when the irregular grips
Of zeal constrain the cleric breast or laic,
Into a thousand fiery shreds it rips
Our old mosaic.

And so it was with you, Old John!
The form Was excellent; but you were timely nursed
Upon a Cameronian lap, the storm
Of that great strife inherited: the thirst
For God was in you from the very first!
The rushing flood, the energy ecstatic,
O’erwhelmed you that you could not choose but burst
All bonds prelatic.

No gentler soul e’er took its earthward flight
From Heaven’s high towers, or clove the ethereal blue
With softer wings, or full of purer light,
Sweet Saint Theresa, bathed in virgin dew,
Your sister was; but Jenny Geddes was too!
The false Archbishop feared the accents surly
Of your firm voice, you were John Knox, and you
Balfour of Burley.

Then is it wonderful in me you found
Disciple apt for every changing mood?
I also had a root in Scottish ground.
No tale of ancient wrong my spirit wooed
In vain: I loved the splendid fortitude,
Although we served in different battalions,
Your folk were Presbyterians, mine were lewd

What joy it was to you the day I came
To visit that dear home, no longer mine!
I sat belated, having seen the flame
Of sunset flash from well-known windows.
Nine Was struck upon the clock, and yet no sign
Of my departure; then some admiration
Of what I purposed; then I could divine
A consultation.

That I should sleep with you was their intent,
And so we slept, being comrades old and tried
It was to me a very sacrament,
As you lay hushed and reverent at my side.
Your comely portance filled my soul with pride
To think how human dignity surpasses
The estimate of those who "can’t abide
The lower classes."

And, severed by a curtain on a string,
Slept Robert, and his wife, your daughter, slept;
Slept little Beenie, and the bright-eyed thing
You Maggie called, she to her mother crept
And snuggled in the dark. The night wind swept
"Aboon the thatch"; came dawn, and touched each rafter
With tongue of gold; then from the bed I leapt
As light as laughter.

But I must "break my fast" before I went:
And so I sat, and shared the pleasant meal;
And all were up, and happy, and content;
And last you prayed. May Fashion ne’er repeal
That self-respect, those manners pure and leal
My countrymen, I charge you never stain them;
But, as you love your Island’s noblest weal,
Guard and maintain them.

O faithfullest! my debt to you is long:
Life’s grave complexity around me grows.
From you it comes if in the busy throng
Some friends I have, and have not any foes;
And even now, when purple morning glows,
And I am on the hills, a night-worn watchman,
I see you in the centre of the rose,
Dear, brave, old Scotchman!

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