Ah! who can tell how hard it is to climb
The steep where Fame’s proud temple shines afar!
Ah! who can tell how many a soul sublime
Hath felt the influence of malignant star,
And wag’d with Fortune an eternal war!
Check’d by the scoff of Pride, by Envy’s frown,
And Poverty’s unconquerable bar,
In life’s low vale remote hath pin’d alone
Then dropt into the grave, unpitied and unknown!
And yet, the languor of inglorious days
Not equally oppressive is to all.
Him, who ne’er listen’d to the voice of praise,
The silence of neglect can ne’er appal.
There are, who, deaf to mad Ambition’s call,
Would shrink to hear th’ obstreperous trump of Fame;
Supremely blest, if to their portion fall
Health, competence, and peace. Nor higher aim
Had he, whose simple tale these artless lines proclaim.
This sapient age disclaims all classic lore;
Else I should here in cunning phrase display,
How forth The Minstrel far’d in days of yore,
Right glad of heart, though homely in array;
His waving locks and beard all hoary grey:
And, from his bending shoulder, decent hung
His harp, the sole companion of his way,
Which to the whistling wind responsive rung:
And ever as he went some merry lay he sung.
Fret not yourselves, ye silken sons of pride,
That a poor Wanderer should inspire my strain.
The Muses Fortune’s fickle smile deride,
Nor ever bow the knee in Mammon’s fane;
For their delights are with the village-train,
Whom Nature’s laws engage, and Nature’s charms:
They hate the sensual, and scorn the vain;
The parasite their influence never warms,
Nor him whose sordid soul the love of wealth alarms.
Though richest hues the peacock’s plumes adorn,
Yet horror screams from his discordant throat.
Rise, sons of harmony, and hail the morn,
While warbling larks on russet pinions float;
Or seek at noon the woodland scene remote,
Where the grey linnets carol from the hill.
O let them ne’er with artificial note,
To please a tyrant, strain the little bill,
But sing what Heaven inspires, and wander where they will.
Liberal, not lavish, is kind Nature’s hand;
Nor was perfection made for man below.
Yet all her schemes with nicest art are plann’d,
Good counteracting ill, and gladness woe.
With gold and gems if Chilian mountains glow,
If bleak and barren Scotia’s hills arise;
There plague and poison, lust and rapine grow;
Here peaceful are the vales, and pure the skies,
And freedom fires the soul, and sparkles in the eyes.
Then grieve not, thou to whom th’ indulgent Muse
Vouchsafes a portion of celestial fire;
Nor blame the partial Fates, if they refuse
Th’ imperial banquet, and the rich attire.
Know thine own worth, and reverence the lyre.
Wilt thou debase the heart which God refin’d?
No; let thy heaven-taught soul to heaven aspire,
To fancy, freedom, harmony, resign’d;
Ambition’s groveling crew for ever left behind.
Canst thou forego the pure ethereal soul,
In each fine sense so exquisitely keen,
On the dull couch of Luxury to loll,
Stung with disease and stupified with spleen;
Fain to implore the aid of Flattery’s screen,
Even from thyself thy loathsome heart to hide
(The mansion then no more of joys serene)
Where fear, distrust, malevolence, abide,
And impotent desire, and disappointed pride?
O how canst thou renounce the boundless store
Of charms which Nature to her votary yields!
The warbling woodland, the resounding shore,
The pomp of groves, and garniture of fields;
All that the genial ray of morning gilds,
And all that echoes to the song of even,
All that the mountain’s sheltering bosom shields,
And all that dread magnificence of heaven,
O how canst thou renounce, and hope to be forgiven!
These charms shall work thy soul’s eternal health,
And love, and gentleness, and joy, impart.
But these thou must renounce, if lust or wealth
E’er win its way to thy corrupted heart;
For, ah! it poisons like a scorpion’s dart,
Prompting th’ ungenerous wish, the selfish scheme,
The stern resolve, unmoved by pity a smart,
The troublous day, and long distressful dream –
Return my roving Muse, resume thy purposed theme.
There lived in Gothic days, as legends tell,
A shepherd-swain, a man of low degree;
Whose sires, perchance, in Fairyland might dwell,
Sicilian groves, or vales of Arcady;
But he, I ween, was of the north country:
A nation famed for song, and beauty’s charms;
Zealous, yet modest; innocent, though free;
Patient of toil; serene amidst alarms;
Inflexible in faith; invincible in arms.
The shepherd-swain of whom I mention made,
On Scotia’s mountains fed his little flock;
The sickle, sithe, or plough, he never sway’d:
An honest heart was almost all his stock;
His drink the living water from the rock:
The milky dams supplied his board, and lent
Their kindly fleece to baffle winter’s shock:
And he, though oft with dust and sweat besprent,
Did guide and guard their wanderings, wheresoe’er they went.
From labour health, from health contentment springs,
Contentment opes the source of every joy.
He envied not, he never thought of kings;
Nor form those appetites sustain’d annoy,
That chance may frustrate, or indulgence cloy:
Nor fate his calm and humble hopes beguiled;
He morn’d no recreant friend, nor mistress coy,
For on his vows the blameless Phoebe smiled,
And her alone he loved, and loved her from a child.
No jealousy their dawn of love o’ercast,
Nor blasted were their wedded days with strife;
Each season look’d delightful, as it pass’d,
To the fond husband, and the faithful wife.
Beyond the lowly vale of shepherd life
They never roam’d; secure beneath the storm
Which in ambition’s lofty land is rife,
Where peace and love are canker’d by the worm
Of pride, each bud of joy industrious to deform.
The wight, whose tales these artless lines unfold,
Was all the offspring of this humble pair.
His birth no oracle or seer foretold:
No prodigy appear’d in death or air,
Nor aught that might a strange event declare.
You guess each circumstance of Edwin’s birth;
The parent’s transport, and the parent’s care;
The gossip’s prayer for wealth, and wit, and worth:
And one long summer-day of indolence and mirth.
And yet poor Edwin was no vulgar boy;
Deep thought oft seem’d to fix his infant eye.
Dainties he heeded not, nor gaude, nor toy,
Save one short pipe of rudest minstrelsy.
Silent when glad; affectionate, though shy;
And now his look was most demurely sad,
And now he laugh’d aloud, yet none knew why.
The neighbours stared and sigh’d, yet bless’d the lad;
Some deem’d him wonderous wise, and some believed him mad.
But why should I his childish feats display?
Concourse, and noise, and toil, he ever fled;
Nor cared to mingle in the clamorous fray
Of squabbling imps, but to the forest sped,
Or roam’d at large the lonely mountain’s head;
Or, where the maze of some bewilder’d stream
To deep untrodden groves his footsteps led,
There would he wander wild, ’till Phoebus’ beam,
Shot from the western cliff, released the weary team.
Th’ exploit of strength, dexterity, or speed,
To him nor vanity nor joy could bring.
His heart, from cruel sport estranged, would bleed
To work the wo of any living thing,
By trap, or net; by arrow, or by sling;
These he detested, those he scorn’d to wield:
He wish’d to be the guardian, not the king.
Tyrant far less, or traitor of the field.
And sure the sylvan reign unbloody joy might yield.
Lo! where the stripling, wrapp’d in wonder, roves
Beneath the precipice o’er hung with pine;
And sees, on high, amidst th’ encircling groves,
From cliff to cliff the foaming torrents shine:
While waters, woods, and winds, in concert join,
And Echo swells the chorus to the skies.
Would Edwin this majestic scene resign
For aught the huntsman’s puny craft supplies?
Ah! no: he better knows great Nature’s charms to prize.
And oft he traced the uplands, to survey,
When o’er the sky advanced the kindling dawn,
The crimson cloud, blue main, and mountain gray,
And lake, dim gleaming on the smoky lawn;
Far to the west the long, long vale withdrawn,
Where twilight loves to linger for a while;
And now he faintly kens the bounding fawn,
And villager abroad at early toil. –
But, lo! the sun appears! and heaven, earth, ocean, smile.
And oft the craggy cliff he loved to climb,
When all in mist the world below was lost.
What dreadful pleasure! there to stand sublime,
Like shipwreck’d mariners on desert coast,
And view th’ enormous waste of vapour, toss’d
In billows, lengthening to th’ horizon round
Now scoop’d in gulphs, with mountains now emboss’d!
And hear the voice of mirth and song rebound,
Flocks, herds, and waterfalls, along the hoar profound.
In truth he was a strange and wayward wight,
Fond of each gentle, and each dreadful scene.
In darkness, and in storm, he found delight:
Nor less, than when on ocean wave serene
The southern sun diffused his dazzling sheen.
Even sad vicissitude amused his soul:
And if a sigh would sometimes intervene,
And down his cheek a tear of pity roll,
A sigh, a tear, so sweet, he wish’d not to control.
‘O ye wild groves, O where is now your bloom!’
(The Muse interprets thus his tender thought).
‘Your flowers, your verdure, and your balmy gloom,
Of late so grateful in the hour of drought!
Why do the birds, that song and rapture brought
To all your bowers, their mansions now forsake?
Ah! why has fickle chance this ruin wrought?
For now the storm howls mournful thro’ the brake,
And the dead foliage flies in many a shapeless flake.
‘Where now the rill, melodious, pure, and cool,
And meads, with Life, and mirth, and beauty crown’d!
Ah! see, th’ unsightly slime, and sluggish pool,
Have all the solitary vale imbrown’d;
Fled each fair form, and mute each melting sound,
The raven croaks forlorn on naked spray:
And, hark! the river, bursting every mound,
Down the vale thunders; and, with wasteful sway,
Uproots the grove, and rolls the shatter’d rocks away.
‘Yet such the destiny of all on earth;
So flourishes and fades majestic man.
Fair is the bud his vernal morn brings forth,
And fostering gales a while the nursling fan.
O smile, ye heavens, serene; ye mildews wan,
Ye blighting whirlwinds, spare his balmy prime,
Nor lessen of his life the little span.
Borne on the swift, though silent, wings of Time,
Old age comes on apace to ravage all the clime.
‘And be it so. Let those deplore their doom,
Whose hope still grovels in the dark sojourn.
But lofty souls, who look beyond the tomb,
Can smile at Fate, and wonder how they mourn.
Shall spring to these sad scenes no more return?
Is yonder wave the sun’s eternal bed? –
Soon shall the orient with new lustre burn,
And spring shall soon her vital influence shed,
Again attune the grove, again adorn the mead.
‘Shall I be left abandon’d in the dust,
When Fate, relenting, let’s the flower revive?
Shall Nature’s voice, to man alone unjust,
Bid him, though doom’d to perish, hope to live?
Is it for this fair virtue oft must strive
With disappointment, penury, and pain?
No: Heaven’s immortal spring shall yet arrive;
And man’s majestic beauty bloom again,
Bright through th’ eternal year of Love’s triumphant reign.’
This truth, sublime his simple sire had taught,
In sooth, ’twas almost all the shepherd knew.
No subtle nor superfluous lore he sought,
Nor ever wish’d his Edwin to pursue.
‘Let man’s own sphere (quoth he) confine his view,
Be man’s peculiar work his sole delight.’
And much, and oft, he warn’d him to eschew
Falsehood and guile, and aye maintain the right,
By pleasure unseduced, unawed by lawless might.
‘And, from the prayer of Want, and plaint of Wo,
O never, never turn away thine ear.
Forlorn in this bleak wilderness below,
Ah! what were man, should heaven refuse to hear!
To others do (the law is not severe)
What to thyself thou wishest to be done.
Forgive thy foes; and love thy parent’s dear,
And friends, and native land; nor those alone;
All human weal and wo learn thou to make thine own.’
See in the rear of the warm sunny shower,
The visionary boy from shelter fly!
For now the storm of summer-rain is o’er,
And cool, and fresh, and fragrant, is the sky!
And, lo! in the dark east, expanded high,
The rainbow brightens to the setting sun:
Fond fool, that deem’st the streaming glory nigh,
How vain the chase thine ardour has begun!
‘Tis fled afar, ere half thy purposed race be run.
Yet couldst thou learn, that thus it fares with age,
When pleasure, wealth, or power, the bosom warm,
This baffled hope might tame thy manhood’s rage,
And disappointment of her sting disarm. –
But why should foresight thy fond heart alarm?
Perish the lore that deadens young desire!
Pursue, poor imp, th’ imaginary charm,
Indulge gay Hope, and Fancy’s pleasing fire:
Fancy and Hope too soon shall of themselves expire.
When the long-sounding curfew from afar
Loaded with loud lament the lonely gale,
Young Edwin, lighted by the evening star,
Lingering and listening wander’d down the vale.
There would he dream of graves, and corses pale;
And ghosts, that to the charnel-dungeon throng,
And drag a length of clanking chain, and wail,
Till silenced by the owl’s terrific song,
Or blast that shrieks by fits the shuddering aisles along.
Or when the setting moon, in crimon died,
Hung o’er the dark and melancholy deep,
To haunted stream, remote from man he hied,
Where Fays of yore their revels wont to keep;
And there let Fancy roam at large, till sleep
A vision brought to his entraced sight.
And first, a wildly-murmuring wind ‘gan creep
Shrill to his ringing ear; then tapers bright,
With instantaneous gleam, illumed the vault of Night.
Anon in view a portal’s blazon’d arch
Arose; the trumpet bids the valves unfold;
And forth a host of little warriors march,
Grasping the diamond lance, and targe of gold.
Their look was gentle, their demeanour bold,
And green their healms, and green their silk attire.
And here and there, right venerably old,
The long-robed minstrels wake the warbling wire,
And some with mellow breath the martial pipe inspire.
With merriment, and song, and timbrels clear,
A troop of dames from myrtle bowers advance:
The little warriors doff the targe and spear,
And loud enlivening strains provoke the dance.
They meet, they dart away, they wheek askance
To right, to left, they thrid the flying maze;
Now bound aloft with vigorous spring, then glance
Rapid along: with many-colour’d rays
Of tapers, gems, and gold, and echoing forests blaze.
The dream is fled. Proud harbinger of day,
Who scar’dst the vision with thy clarion shrill,
Fell chanticleer! who oft has reft away
My fancied good, and brought substantial ill!
O to thy cursed scream, discordant still,
Let Harmony aye shut her gentle ear:
Thy boastful mirth let jealous rivals spill,
Insult thy crest, and glossy pinions tear,
And ever in thy dream the ruthless fox appear!
Forbear, my Muse. Let Love attune thy line.
Revoke the spell. Thine Edwin frets not so.
For how should he at wicked chance repine,
Who feels from every change amusement flow?
Even now his eyes with smiles of rapture glow,
As on he wanders through the scenes of morn,
Where the fresh flowers in living lustre blow,
Where thousand pearls the dewy lawns adorn,
A thousand notes of joy in every breeze are borne.
But who the melodies of morn can tell?
The wild brook babbling down the mountain-side;
The lowing herd; the sheepfold’s simple bell;
The pipe of early shepherd dim descried
In the lone valley; echoing far and wide
The clamorous horn along the cliffs above;
The hollow murmur of the ocean-tide;
The hum of bees, and linnet’s lay of love,
And the full choir that wakes the universal grove.
The cottage-curs at early pilgrim bark;
Crown’d with her pail the tripping milkmaid sings;
The whistling plowman stalks afield; and, hark!
Down the rough slope the ponderous waggon rings;
Through rustling corn the hare astonish’d springs;
Slow tolls the village-clock the drowsy hour;
The partridge bursts away on whirring wings;
O Nature, how in every charm supreme!
Whose votaries feast on raptures ever new!
O for the voice and fire of seraphim,
To sing thy glories with devotion due!
Blest be the day I scap’d the wrangling crew,
From Pyrrho’s maze, and Epicurus’ sty;
And held high converse with the godlike few,
Who to th’ enraptur’d heart, and ear, and eye,
Teach beauty, virtue, truth, and love, and melody.
Deep mourns the turtle in sequester’d bower,
And shrill lark carols clear from her aereal tower.
Transcription in progress
The image is not a copy of The Minstrel, but a decorated poetry book of similar date and style – from an 1835 set of Milton, in fact
Transcription In Progress.
There are 60 stanzas in Book One and 63 stanzas in Book 2, which ends in such an unusual way with the mourning and elegy. I’m going to type them in because they are not easy to find on the internet outside pay/membership sites. But it may take me a week or so gradually.
And it is a poem I would like to help keep alive. Come back for more