An Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, Considered as the Subject of Poetry

Original Text: 
Royal Society of Edinburgh, Proceedings (Edinburgh, 1784).
1   Home, thou return'st from Thames, whose naiads long
2     Have seen thee ling'ring with a fond delay
3     'Mid those soft friends, whose hearts, some future day,
4Shall melt, perhaps, to hear thy tragic song.
5     Go, not unmindful of that cordial youth
6Whom, long endear'd, thou leav'st by Lavant's side;
7     Together let us wish him lasting truth,
8And joy untainted, with his destin'd bride.
9     Go! nor regardless, while these numbers boast
10My short-liv'd bliss, forget my social name;
11     But think far off how, on the southern coast,
12I met thy friendship with an equal flame!
13     Fresh to that soil thou turn'st, whose ev'ry vale
14Shall prompt the poet, and his song demand:
15     To thee thy copious subjects ne'er shall fail;
16Thou need'st but take the pencil to thy hand,
17And paint what all believe who own thy genial land.
18   There must thou wake perforce thy Doric quill;
19     'Tis Fancy's land to which thou sett'st thy feet;
20     Where still, 'tis said, the fairy people meet,
21Beneath each birken shade, on mead or hill.
22There, each trim lass that skims the milky store
23     To the swart tribes their creamy bowl allots;
24By night they sip it round the cottage door,
25     While airy minstrels warble jocund notes.
26There every herd, by sad experience, knows
27     How, wing'd with fate, their elf-shot arrows fly,
28When the sick ewe her summer food forgoes,
29     Or, stretch'd on earth, the heart-smit heifers lie.
30Such airy beings awe th' untutor'd swain:
31     Nor thou, though learn'd, his homelier thoughts neglect;
32Let thy sweet muse the rural faith sustain;
33     These are the themes of simple, sure effect,
34That add new conquests to her boundless reign.
35And fill, with double force, her heart-commanding strain.
36   Ev'n yet preserv'd, how often may'st thou hear,
37     Where to the pole the Boreal mountains run,
38     Taught by the father to his list'ning son,
39Strange lays, whose power had charm'd a Spenser's ear.
40     At ev'ry pause, before thy mind possest,
41Old Runic bards shall seem to rise around,
42     With uncouth lyres, in many-coloured vest,
43Their matted hair with boughs fantastic crown'd:
44     Whether thou bidd'st the well-taught hind repeat
45The choral dirge that mourns some chieftain brave,
46     When ev'ry shrieking maid her bosom beat,
47And strew'd with choicest herbs his scented grave;
48     Or whether, sitting in the shepherd's shiel,
49Thou hear'st some sounding tale of war's alarms;
50     When at the bugle's call, with fire and steel,
51The sturdy clans pour'd forth their bony swarms,
52And hostile brothers met to prove each other's arms.
53   'Tis thine to sing, how, framing hideous spells,
54     In Sky's lone isle, the gifted wizard seer,
55     Lodged in the wintry cave with [fate's fell spear,]
56Or in the depth of Uist's dark forest dwells:
57     How they, whose sight such dreary dreams engross,
58With their own visions oft astonish'd droop.
59     When, o'er the wat'ry strath, or quaggy moss,
60They see the gliding ghosts unbodied troop.
61     Or, if in sports, or on the festive green,
62Their [piercing] glance some fated youth descry,
63     Who now, perhaps, in lusty vigour seen,
64And rosy health, shall soon lamented die.
65     For them the viewless forms of air obey;
66Their bidding heed, and at their beck repair:
67     They know what spirit brews the stormful day,
68And heartless, oft like moody madness, stare
69To see the phantom train their secret work prepare.
[Twenty-five lines lost]
95       What though far off, from some dark dell espied,
96His glimm'ring mazes cheer th' excursive sight,
97     Yet turn, ye wand'rers, turn your steps aside,
98Nor trust the guidance of that faithless light;
99     For watchful, lurking, 'mid th' unrustling reed,
100At those mirk hours the wily monster lies,
101     And listens oft to hear the passing steed,
102And frequent round him rolls his sullen eyes,
103If chance his savage wrath may some weak wretch surprise.
104   Ah, luckless swain, o'er all unblest indeed!
105     Whom late bewilder'd in the dank, dark fen,
106     Far from his flocks and smoking hamlet then!
107To that sad spot [his wayward fate shall lead]:
108     On him, enrag'd, the fiend in angry mood,
109Shall never look with pity's kind concern,
110     But instant, furious, raise the whelming flood
111O'er its drown'd bank, forbidding all return.
112     Or, if he meditate his wish'd escape,
113To some dim hill that seems uprising near,
114     To his faint eye the grim and grisly shape,
115In all its terrors clad, shall wild appear.
116     Meantime the wat'ry surge shall round him rise,
117Pour'd sudden forth from ev'ry swelling source.
118     What now remains but tears and hopeless sighs?
119His fear-shook limbs have lost their youthly force,
120And down the waves he floats, a pale and breathless, corse.
121   For him in vain his anxious wife shall wait,
122     Or wander forth to meet him on his way;
123     For him in vain at to-fall of the day,
124His babes shall linger at th' unclosing gate.
125     Ah, ne'er shall he return! Alone, if night
126Her travell'd limbs in broken slumbers steep,
127     With drooping willows dress'd, his mournful sprite
128Shall visit sad, perchance, her silent sleep:
129     Then he, perhaps, with moist and wat'ry hand,
130Shall fondly seem to press her shudd'ring cheek,
131     And with his blue-swoln face before her stand,
132And, shiv'ring cold, these piteous accents speak:
133     "Pursue, dear wife, thy daily toils pursue,
134At dawn or dusk, industrious as before;
135     Nor e'er of me one hapless thought renew,
136While I lie welt'ring on the osier'd shore,
137Drown'd by the kelpie's wrath, nor e'er shall aid thee more!"
138   Unbounded is thy range; with varied style
139     Thy Muse may, like those feath'ry tribes which spring
140     From their rude rocks, extend her skirting wing
141Round the moist marge of each cold Hebrid isle.
142     To that hoar pile, which still its ruin shows:
143In whose small vaults a pigmy-folk is found,
144     Whose bones the delver with his spade upthrows,
145And culls them, wond'ring, from the hallow'd ground!
146     Or thither, where, beneath the show'ry west,
147The mighty kings of three fair realms are laid:
148     Once foes, perhaps, together now they rest,
149No slaves revere them, and no wars invade:
150     Yet frequent now, at midnight's solemn hour,
151The rifted mounds their yawning cells unfold,
152     And forth the monarchs stalk with sov'reign pow'r,
153In pageant robes, and wreath'd with sheeny gold,
154And on their twilight tombs aerial council hold.
155   But, O! o'er all, forget not Kilda's race,
156     On whose bleak rocks, which brave the wasting tides,
157     Fair Nature's daughter, Virtue, yet abides.
158Go, just, as they, their blameless manners trace!
159     Then to my ear transmit some gentle song,
160Of those whose lives are yet sincere and plain,
161     Their bounded walks the rugged cliffs along,
162And all their prospect but the wintry main.
163     With sparing temp'rance, at the needful time,
164They drain the sainted spring; or, hunger-prest,
165     Along th' Atlantic rock undreading climb,
166And of its eggs despoil the solan's nest.
167     Thus blest in primal innocence, they live,
168Suffic'd and happy with that frugal fare
169     Which tasteful toil and hourly danger give.
170Hard is their shallow soil, and bleak and bare;
171Nor ever vernal bee was heard to murmur there!
172   Nor need'st thou blush that such false themes engage
173     Thy gentle mind, of fairer stores possest;
174     For not alone they touch the village breast,
175But fill'd in elder time th' historic page.
176     There Shakespeare's self, with ev'ry garland crown'd,
177[Flew to those fairy climes his fancy sheen],
178     In musing hour, his wayward sisters found,
179And with their terrors drest the magic scene.
180     From them he sung, when 'mid his bold design,
181Before the Scot afflicted and aghast,
182     The shadowy kings of Banquo's fated line
183Through the dark cave in gleamy pageant pass'd.
184     Proceed, nor quit the tales which, simply told
185Could once so well my answ'ring bosom pierce;
186     Proceed, in forceful sounds, and colours bold,
187The native legends of thy land rehearse;
188To such adapt thy lyre and suit thy powerful verse.
189   In scenes like these, which, daring to depart
190     From sober truth, are still to nature true,
191     And call forth fresh delight to Fancy's view,
192Th' heroic muse employ'd her Tasso's art!
193     How have I trembled, when, at Tancred's stroke,
194Its gushing blood the gaping cypress pour'd;
195     When each live plant with mortal accents spoke,
196And the wild blast upheav'd the vanish'd sword!
197     How have I sat, when pip'd the pensive wind,
198To hear his harp by British Fairfax strung;
199     Prevailing poet! whose undoubting mind
200Believ'd the magic wonders which he sung!
201     Hence, at each sound, imagination glows;
202[Hence, at each picture, vivid life starts here!]
203     Hence his warm lay with softest sweetness flows;
204Melting its flows, pure, num'rous, strong, and clear,
205And fills th' impassion'd heart, and wins the harmonious ear!
206   All hail, ye scenes that o'er my soul prevail!
207     Ye [spacious] friths and lakes, which, far away,
208     Are by smooth Annan fill'd or past'ral Tay,
209Or Don's romantic springs at distance, hail!
210     The time shall come when I, perhaps, may tread
211Your lowly glens, o'erhung with spreading broom;
212     Or, o'er your stretching heaths, by fancy led;
213[Or o'er your mountains creep, in awful gloom!]
214     Then will I dress once more the faded bow'r,
215Where Jonson sat in Drummond's [classic] shade;
216     Or crop, from Tiviot's dale, each [lyric flower,]
217And mourn, on Yarrow's banks, [where Willy's laid!]
218     Meantime, ye Pow'rs, that on the plains which bore
219The cordial youth, on Lothian's plains, attend,
220     Where'er he dwell, on hill, or lowly muir,
221To him I lose, your kind protection lend,
222And, touch'd with love like mine, preserve my absent friend!
Publication Start Year: 
1784
RPO poem Editors: 
N. J. Endicott
RPO Edition: 
2RP 2.699.