[Editor: This poem by Charles Harpur was published in The Bushrangers; A Play in Five Acts, and Other Poems (1853).]
My own wild Burns! these rude-wrought rhymes of thine
In golden worth are like the unshapely coin
Of some new realm, yet pure as from the mine —
And Art may well be spared with such alloy
As dims the bullion to improve the die!
I love the truths of Art but more indeed
The simplest truths of Nature; and I read
To find her visibly enthroned on all
His muse hath builded like a fiery wall
Round national faith and patriotic pride
And Love and Valour both at Beauty’s side.
Yea, more his outward rudeness, doth impress
Upon me still his innate strengthiness*
Even as imperfect features oft enhance
Th’ intrinsic power of some fine countenance.
How various too the spirit of his lyre —
How many-hued his soul’s poetic fire!
In his one Muse such qualities we find
Mingled, as most are several in their kind:
Mirth like a billow brightening up before
The blasts of Grief — to die on Misery’s shore,
Humour and Scorn and Pathos, with a reach
Above all effort, each exalting each!
Yea, Terror wedding its own sense of evil
To mother Pity — even for the Devil!
But best he moves to tears, or wakes such sighs
As fan the vital fire in Beauty’s lustrous eyes.
Hark! when the winding Nith, the Afton, Clyde,
Rave downward or in gleaming quiet glide,
How Passion’s very soul keeps burning by
In his wild verse from every covert nigh!
Or by the “bonnie Doon” or “gurgling Ayr,”
What heart-sweet memories like perfumes there
Re-breathe of bloomy joys untimely shed
And Love that followed the belovëd dead
To Heaven! — and then while Pity weeps aloud
Clad in the pale ideal of a shroud,
Who would exchange the luxury of her woe
For all the pleasures that the heartless know!
But should we need relief — another page
Shall blow the trumpet of his warlike rage!
And vilest of the villain herd is he
Who to his battle-dirge can listener be
Nor feel that he could die for Liberty!
Or who, while volleys forth the charging lay
Revoicing Bannockburn’s all-glorious day,
From his exalted manhood then not spurns
Whate’er is traitorous, with a shout for Burns!
And now in thought I track with steps of fear
The noble peasant in his wild career.
The haven of his youth is left: the sea
Of Life is loudening all around; and she,
Who ’mid its perilous breakers might have stood
’Twixt him and evil influencing for good,
His first sweet love — she is not! Heaven looks bright
Still, and the hills laugh round him for delight,
But, ah! beneath the sun he finds no more
The Eden where his genius dwelt before!
And does he wander by his native Ayr?
The spirit of gladness hath gone up even there —
Up like the blithe notes of the lark when they
Have faded heavenward utterly away.
The more he mixes with his kind in mirth
The more he feels the homelessness of earth,
Till Life’s lost charm seems beckoning him afar
In the white beauty of each lovely star!
She is not! — only sweeter is the tone
Of his wild lyre for the wild loss thus known.
But storying thus with love his native streams,
Thus by the life of his poetic dreams
Breathing suggestions that exalt and thrill
Into the spirit of each warrior hill;
Yea lighting Scotia’s universal face
With mental beauty and affectionate grace,
Yet, did he die the victim of excess?
Alas! even Poesy by her mute distress
Admits the blot, nor could she save her son,
Her star-bright Rob, her love-anointed one!
Whilst yet the bard by Fortune unsubdued
Had only like a wild bird of the wood
Sung his own simple joys, then happy being good —
Ere he had sounded the world’s heart and spurned
The soulless tone its hollowness returned,
His habitudes how temperate we find
From a self-pleasing tunefulness of mind.
But afterwards, that such a being so
Alive to joy and sensitive to woe,
With all in sympathy of rich and rare
Flushing his soul, as in the evening air
A western cloud grows grateful to the sense
With all the sun’s unspeakable affluence
Of golden glory — mightily endowed
By genius too, with motives nobly proud
And full-summ’d wings of spiritual flame
Wherewith to mount against the burning eye of Fame;
Yet “bounded in a nutshell,” or but wooed
By Fortune from a barren solitude,
Just to be stared at by her minions vain —
A sort of mental monster newly ta’en!
That such a being should resort at length
To whatsoever might repair the strength
Of ruined Joy a moment or inspire
The heart of dying Hope though with fallacious fire,
Was I believe, howe’er the truth appal,
Almost inevitably natural.
Ah, Scotia! it behoved thee then to guard
The worldly welfare of thy peasant bard!
But no, thou wouldst not — and thy gifted son
So placed, again the like career should run —
Again be naked left to Fortune’s slurs,
A hound-like spirit in a land of curs!
But ah! if such may always be the fate
Of Genius native to a low estate,
For mercy’s sake, nay for the sake of Burns,
Whose spirit methinks tow’rds each poor brother yearns,
Away the mask of kindred let us fling
At once, and brand it as an outcast thing!
Above communion with the rude, by mind
Exalted, and yet shunned by the refined!
Yea, let this warning in its face be hurl’d
As the collective verdict of the world:—
“Enrich the age with beauty if you will,
But you must do so at your peril still!
The sole reward’s a life-long lack of bread,
And lastly a most desolate death-bed,
And then some century after, when the loss
And agony of Genius on the cross
Of Passion, shall have spread into a tale
Wherewith to spice the tavern lounger’s ale,
Then shall your lowly grave, long grass o’ergrown,
Become a national sentiment in stone!
Yes, then a costly monument shall grace
And guard it in the land, a sacred place!”
Oh, must not Scorn have reeled with laughter — yes,
Even until shocked at her own bitterness,
To see by Scotland such a work up-piled
In honour of its so neglected child
Of grace and glory beautifully wild?
But there it stands — a type (at least to me)
Of intellectual hypocrisy!
Sad Poesy beholding, from it turns
And murmurs — What, a monument to Burns?
No: ’tis a sordid scoff perpetual made —
A final insult to his injured Shade!
The thankless country that denied him bread,
Now gives this stone — for he is safely dead!
* At first sight, it may appear that strength would be here the only proper word, and that the two added syllables are tacked on to it merely for the sake of the metre and rhyme; but the reader will perceive, by the context, that strength is not so much meant as the indication of it; namely, strengthiness.
Charles Harpur, The Bushrangers; A Play in Five Acts, and Other Poems, Sydney: W. R. Piddington, 1853, pages 116-120
Afton = the River Afton (Ayrshire, Scotland)
Ayr = the River Ayr (Ayrshire, Scotland)
Bannockburn = the site of a battle between Scotland (under Robert the Bruce) and England (under Edward II), fought on 24 June 1314
Burns = Robert Burns (1759-1796), the famous Scottish poet
Clyde = the River Clyde (which flows through the counties of South Lanarkshire, Argyll, and Ayrshire, in Scotland)
dirge = a song, chant, or music, especially of a mournful nature and slow, used for a funeral, memorial, or commemoration; a lamentation for the dead
Doon = the River Doon (Ayrshire, Scotland)
Eden = a place or situation which is regarded as a paradise; the Garden of Eden, mentioned in the Bible
ere = before (from the Middle English “er”, itself from the Old English “aer”, meaning early or soon)
’mid = an abbreviation of “amid” or “amidst”: of or in the middle of an area, group, position, etc.
muse = a source of artistic inspiration; a person, especially a woman, or a force personified as a woman, who is the source of inspiration for an artist (derived from the Muses of Greek and Roman mythology, who were said to provide inspiration for artists and writers)
nay = no
Nith = the River Nith (which starts in East Ayrshire, Scotland)
oft = often
pathos = compassion or pity; or an experience, or a work of art, that evokes feelings of compassion or pity
poesy = poetry or the art of poetic composition
rude = primitive, raw, or rough, or in an unfinished state or natural condition (distinct from the modern usage of “rude” as someone being discourteous or ill-mannered)
Scotia = Scotland
shade = ghost; disembodied spirit
’twixt = betwixt, between (can be given either with or without an apostrophe)
yea = yes; indeed; truly; an affirmation (especially an affirmative vote), an indication of assent
Old spelling in the original text:
methinks (I think)