Mary Botham Howitt.

Ballads and other poems .. online

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An old man bent and hoar,

And he broke flints upon the road
With labor long and sore.

The day, it was a day in June,
The nightingales sung loud,

And with their loads of snowy bloom
The hawthorn branches bowed.


The highway side was bright with flowers ;

The leafy oak-trees wove,
Above me and the brooding bird,

A peaceful, green alcove.

The earth, the air, the sun-lit sky,

Of gladness they were full ;
My heart rejoiced ; just then I heard

Laborious sounds and dull.

They were the old man's hammer strokes.

That fell upon the stone,
Stroke after stroke, with bootless aim ;

Yet he kept striving on.

I watched him : coach and chariot bright

Rolled past him at full speed.
Horsemen and peasants went along ;

And yet he took no heed.

Stroke after stroke, the hammer fell

Upon the self-same stone ;
A child had been as strong as he :

Yet he kept toiling on.

Before him lay a heap of flints,

Hard flints not yet begun,
His day's work, 'mid the singing birds

And 'neath the joyous sun.

I watched him still ; and still he toiled

Upon the self-same stone,
Nor ever raised his head to me,

But still kept toiling on.


" My friend," said I, " your task is hard,
And bootless seems your labor ;
The strokes you give go here and there,
A waste of power, good neighbor."

Upon his tool he propped himself,
And turned toward me his eye,

Yet did not raise his head the while ;
Then slowly made reply :

" The parish metes me out my work.
Twelve pence my daily fee ;
I'm weak, God knows, and I am old,
Fourscore my age and three.

" Five weeks I could not strike a stroke ;
The parish helped me then ;
Now, I must pay them back the cost ;
Hard times for aged men.

" I have been palsied, aguod, racked
With pains enough to kill ;

I cannot lift my head, and yet
I must keep working still,

For I've the parish loan to pay ;
Yet I am weak and ill."

Then slowly lifting up his tool.
The minute strokes went on ;

I left him, as I found him first,
At work upon that stone.

The nightingales sang loudly out ;

Joy through all nature ran;
But my very soul was sick, to think

On this poor Englishman.


Again : it was the young spring time,
When natural hearts o'erflow

With love to breathe the genial air,
To see the wild flowers blow.

Anear a populous town, I walked
In meadows green and fair ;

And, as I sauntered slowly on,
A little child came there.

A child she was of ten years old.
Yet with no mirth of mien ;

With sunken eyes and thin pale face,
And body small and lean.

Yet walked she on among the flowers.

For all her pallid hue ;
And gathered them with eager hands,

As merry children do.

Poor child ! the tears were in my eyes,
Her thin small hands to see

Grasping the healthy flowers that looked
More full of life than she.

" You take delight in flowers," I said.

And looked into her face :
" No wonder ; they're so beautiful [

Dwell you anear this place ?"

" No," said the cliild : " within the town
I live ; but here I run
Just for a flower, at dinner time,
And just to feel the sun.


" For oh ! the factory is so hot,
And so doth daze my brain ;
I just run here to breathe the air,
And then run back again.

"And now the fields are fresh and green,
I cannot help but stay,
And get for Tommy's garden-plot
These pretty flowers to-day."

" And Tommy, who is he ?" I asked.

" My brother," she replied.
" The engine-wheels they broke his arms.
And sorely hurt his side :

" He'll be a cripple all his days.

For him these flowers I got :
He has a garden in the yard,

The neighbors harm it not ;
The drunken blacksmith strides across

Poor Tommy's garden plot."

As thus we talked we neared the town,
When, like a heavy knell.

Amid the jarring sounds was heard
A distant factory bell.

The child she made a sudden pause.
Like one who could not move ;

Then threw poor Tommy's flowers away,
For fear had mastered love :

And with unnatural speed she ran
Down alleys dense and warm ;

A frightened toiling thing of care.
Amid the toiling swarm.


Her scattered flowers lay in the street,

To wither in the sun,
Or to be crushed by passing feet ;

They were of worth to none.
The factory-bell had cut down joy,

And still kept ringing on.

Proud was I, when I was a child.

To be of English birth ;
For I surely thought the English-bom

Had not a care on earth.

That was my creed when I was young,

It is my creed no more ;
For I know, woe's me ! the difference now

Betwixt the I'ich and poor.




She lay down in her poverty.
Toil-stricken, though so young ;

And words of human sorrow
Fell trembling from her tongue.

There were palace-homes around her ;

And pomp and pride swept by
The poor deserted chamber.

Where she lay down to die.

She lay down in her poverty,
Toil-stricken, though so young ;

And words of human anguish
Fell trembling from her tongue.

" Oh Lord ! thick clouds of darkness
About my soul are spread,
And the waters of affliction
Have gathered o'er my head ;


" My life has been a desert

Whose cheering springs are dry,
A weary, barren wilderness :
Yet it is hard to die.

" For love, the clinging, deathless,
Is with my life entwined,
And the feeble spirit doth rebel
To leave the loved behind.

" Dear Saviour, who didst drain the dregs
Of human woe and pain,
[n this, the fiercest trial-hour.
My doubting soul sustain !

" I sink ! I sink ! support me !
Deep waters round me roll.
I fear ! I faint ! Oh Saviour,
Sustain my sinking soul !"


Young spirit, freed from bondage.

Rejoice ! Thy work is done ;
The weary world is 'neath thy feet ;

Thou, brighter than the sun.

Arise ! Put on the garments

Which the redeemed win.
Now, sorrow hath no part in thee,

Thou, sanctified from sin.

Awake, and breathe the living air

Of our celestial clime !
Awake to love which knows no change,

Thou, who hast done with time !



Awake ! Lift up thy joyful eyes,
See, all heaven's host appears ;

And be thou glad exceedingly,
Thou, who hast done with tears.

Awake ! ascend ! Thou art not now
With those of mortal birth ;

The living God hath touched thy lips.
Thou who hast done with earth.



Steeped in fresh dews and rosy light,
A land was opened to my sight
In the sweet hour 'twixt day and night.

A light, not of the sun, was there ;
A breeze, but not of common air ;
A joy that circled everywhere.

The land had hills, not bare and rent,
But each imparadised ascent
Rose green up to heaven's firmament ;

And trees that cast impervious shade :
Yet all was fresh and undecayed,
As they could neither die nor fade.

The waters of that land were clear
As its serenest atmosphere ;
Their flow was music to the ear :

And all around the air was stirred
With the sweet song of many a bird
Whose voice I ne'er before had heard.

And in the mountain's golden sheen,
And in the distant valleys green.
Fair, shining companies were seen.

I saw each separate face from far,
A beauty which no time could mar,
Beaming serenely, like a star.


They neared me, and my heart bent high
As those strange, lovely forms drew nigh :
They saw me not, and passed me by.

Some passed on with deliberate feet,
Togetlier, rapt in converse sweet,
As friends who from long partings meet.

Some bounded on in joyful madness,
So full of youth and life and gladness :
What could they know of pain or sadness ?

Some slowly wandered through the wood,
As they some pleasant quest pursued,
And these were nearest where I stood.

Concealed from them within that place,
I gazed upon them face to face ;
I marvelled at their wondrous grace.

Their faces beamed with love and ruth ;
Their speech was full of earnest truth,
Of wisdom with the warmth of youth.

And while I gazed my soul was wrought
Into the urgency of thought ;
I spoke the words my feelings brought.

" Oh beings pure and blest und bright !"

Exclaimed my spirit in delight,
" How have I panted for your sight !
Ye are my kindred ; weW I know

The bonds of soul that make us so ;

Let me go with you where ye go.
The toil of earth is hard and vain ;

There strive we heights and depths to gain,

And are withheld as by a chain.
There man is mean, suspicious, cold ;


There crafty villany is bold ;

There nothing is esteemed but gold.
Oh ! I am weary of the strife,

The selfish, sordid ways of life,

Where only evil schemes are rife.
My strift hath ever been for good ;

I have passed onward unsubdued,

Though disappointment hath ensued.
But this is hard : and weak and low

The ever-striving heart must grow,

Which no requited hope doth know ;
And mine is faint : but now I see

My kindred in your spirits free.

In your pure natures. Let me be

One of your joyful company !"
My spirit- words were all too faint,

Or bore too much the earthly taint

Of fear and petulant complaint.
I was unheard ; no voice replied,

The woodland sounds on every side

Filled all the air with concord wide.
None turned on me his ardent gaze,

None looked in sorrow or amaze,

But threaded still the wooded ways.
I turned me round and wept for pain,

To think no audience 1 could gain.

To think that I had pled in vain.
Again, with tear-half-blinded eyes,

I turned to that bright paradise,

And saw two forms of beauteous guise,
The sight at once my woe dispelled ;

The one was old whom. I beheld,

His strength was crowned by age, not quelled.



The beauty of a life well-spent,

A nobler boast than long descent,

Was his majestic ornament.
By him a woman sate, benign ;

A creature of such grace divine

As man alone describes by sign ;
Of perfect form, angelic face,

The visible type of inward grace

Which nothing outward can efface.
No sculptor's art or poet's dream

Made their divinest woman seem

So worthy of the soul's esteem,
As was the woman whom I viewed

Beside the old man in the wood,

Tender and pure and nobly good,

A vision fair of womanhood.
They spake : like balm their words were sent

Into my heart ; my soul intent

Listened to their lofty argument.
Their converse was on themes sublime,

Themes worthy of immortal rhyme,

Solving the mysteries of time.
Light dawned within my soul, as still

They spoke of life, of good and ill.

Of man and the Eternal Will.

I heard them tell why guilt so long

Goes unrebuked : why crime is strong ;
And right yields trembling to the wrong :

Why still the weak and poor must bear
Through life an unrequited share
Of toil and hardship and despair :

Why wealth begetteth wealth : why they


Who have, from others take away :
Why power goes forth to crush and slay.

And then I heard the old man cast

His memory backward through the past,
Which was to him a treasury vast.

I heard him tell how he had borne

For seventy years the rich man's scorn,
Fresh toil beginning every morn.

His toil had won him daily bread,
And ofttimes he was scantly fed.
And had not where to lay his head.

A bruised heart was his, a mind
That as pinioned eagle pined,
Seeking for what it could not find.

His life it was a trial stern ;

A school wherein he had to learn
'Mid evil what to good should turn.

By this I knew those creatures bright

Were the redeemed heirs of light.

My soul rose into day from night :
For these I saw so greatly blest.

Had been on earth the poor oppressed.

I saw that toil shall yet have rest ;
I saw that tears have joy in store :

I said, I will repine no more,

But trust as never heretofore.

224 A LIFE.




Mother and child in their chamber.

Our dear ones are torn from us ; one by one

The golden links of our soul's love are severed j

And 'mid the quicksands and the shoals of life

The heavy billows of adversity

Cast us forlorn and naked. It is well,

For God hath stricken us. Still, from the depths

Of our great desolation goeth up.

Like his, the frail disciple on the sea,

Our feeble cry : " Lord, help us or we perish !"

Yet, though thou chastenest me, I flee unto thee,
And put my trust in thee, and at thy feet
Lay down my precious things ; nor would I murmur
Though thy good Providence saw meet to strip me
Even of the one dear blessing thou hast left.
And, for thou yet art merciful, my soul
Shall not withhold aught from thee. Oh ! my Father,
Accept mine offering : this one poor lamb
I dedicate to thee in life or death ;
Accept thou him ; thou hast mine other treasures ?


Boy, clasp thy hands, and raise thy heart to God ;
And here, before him, in the face of day,
Here, in the chamber of our poverty,
With our sore desolation round about us,
I dedicate thy life and all thy powers
To him and his great human family.
Father ! behold thy child ; and what in him
Comes short of thy requirings, give him further.
Give him true courage : not such as makes men
Stand, sword in hand, to meet their enemy ;
But such as nerved the Saviour to drive forth
The traders from the Temple ; as sustained him
'Mid the revilers in the outer court,
When, crowned with thorns, he answered not again.
Give him persuasive speech : not with bland lies
To win the ear of courts, or to take captive
The hearts of women, but with eloquent words
To lure men's souls to virtue ; to make felt
How beautiful is love, and to instil
The spirit of love, even like a holy essence,
Where'er his presence comes. Oh ! gracious Father,
That this poor child of mine might be thy herald
Among mankind ! to the lorn prisoner,
Within the hopeless dungeon, carrying knowledge
Better than life, light better than the day ;
That to tlie judge upon the high tribunal
He might impart mercy and charity !
Oh ! let him sit by death beds, and in homes
Made desolate, and with the faint in heart,
And the poor, weary sinner ! Let him compass
Both land and sea to speak peace to the mourner !

Father, I ask not wealth, nor length of days,

226 A LIFE.

But bread to eat and raiment to put on,
And that thou wilt support me to make fit
This child for thy great works.



The Ulterior of a poor dwelling.


Speak low, methinks he sleeps. I smoothed his pillow
Scarce fifteen minutes past, and he since then
Hath hardlv moved.


Sleeps he ? He will do well ;
God grant he sleep till eve !


I will not stir ;
But I will lay me down upon the hearth
And sleep too, lest I wake him. But think you
That really he will die ?


Come life or death,
All will be well with him. I heard last eve
More than I knew before, though we so long
Have known him and the holy life he led.
'T was he, who like an angel stood between
The living and the dead, when raged the plague
I' th' city ; it was he, who in the war-time
Lived in the hospital among the wounded,


Tending them with the kindness of a woman,
And comforting and cheering them in death.

God's blessing on him !



He was one time sent for,
Wheh or wherefore I know not, to the court ;
And lands were offered him and place and wealth.
So he would sell himself to do their will,
Which was for evil.


That would he not.
Gold could not bribe him to an evil deed.


Yet he was poor, and had an aged mother
Dependent on him, but they could not buy him.
He loved, he said, far more his peace of mind
Than lands or wealth ; and that the favor of God
Was higher than that of kings.


"T was a brave man !


Brave ! thou shouldst hear old Nathan talk of him.
Nathan and his grand-children were in bed
When flames burst forth, and all the house was fire,
For 't was a gusty night. The neighbors stood
In panic terror, wildly looking on ;

228 A LIFE.

And, though poor Nathan and the little children
Cried out for help, none dared to rescue them :
When suddenly that young man, hurrying forward,
Without reproaching those whom fear made cowards,
Seized on a ladder, rushed into the chamber,
And, amid raging fire, brought forth the inmates,
As if his life were nothing unto theirs.
Ay, thou shouldst hear old Nathan speak of him.


The deed was like him : thus he ever did ;

His life was a self-sacrifice. Those whom

The world looked coldly on, and, with hard judgment,

Spurned from its presence as a thing unholy,

He sought out, pitying their blind ignorance,

— Harsh was he unto no one but himself; —

And first he taught them to respect themselves.

And then with goodness lured them on to virtue.

He hated sin, but the poor outcast sinner

Was still his human brother. This was goodness,

And tWs was greatness too ; but, to my thinking,

It does not show such strength of innate virtue

As that refusal of the offered wealth.

Seeing he was poor, and had an aged mother

Dependent on him, loving so that mother.

Why, most men would have snatched the gold in triumph.

Smoothing the prize on 't to an easy conscience.


He was not of their sort.


But I must to him.
How calm he lies with parted smiling lips !


— Oh God, thou hast ta'en thine own !


Ah ! is he dead ?
Yes, this is death ; sleep ne'er was calm like this.
But what an angel's face it is in death !

He's with his mother now, a saint in heaven.

Well may'st thou weep, nor can I keep back tears.



" Thy voice is weak, thine eyes are dim,"

The holy father said to him ;
" The damp of death is on thy brow,

Whate'cr thy sin, confess it now,

Confess it, ere it be too late,

Is it blood, or pride, or restless hate ?"

" I have shed no blood," he thus replied,
" I have hated none, I have known no pride,
Yet have sinned as few men sin beside.
I have bound myself, by oath and spell,
To the faery people of field and fell,
With solemn rites and mysteries,
Can the church absolve from sins like these ?"

" My son," said the friar, "tell to me
How such enchantment fell on thee.
Thou must have sold thyself to sin.
Ere such enchantment power could win."

The sick man lay on the greensward low,
But he raised himself, and his words were slow

" I dwelt as the minstrel dwells at best,
The thymy wold was my couch of rest ;


I watched on the ancient mountains grey,

I dwelt in the greenwood day by day ;

I knew each bird that singeth free ;

I had knowledge of each herb and tree ;

I called each little star by name ;

I watched the lightning's subtle flame ;

I was learned in the skies and seas,

And earth's profoundest mysteries :

But best I loved, in the moonlight glade.

To be where the faery people played ;

And to list their music sweet and low,

Too soft for joy, too wild for woe ;

And I tuned my harp, both even and morn.

To the witching airs of the faery horn,

Till I knew them all, and at will could bring

The revellers wild from their grassy ring.

Then 1 sate with them at a banquet spread,

I drank their wine that was ruby red.

And a deadly sleep came o'er my brain :

But, when I opened my eyes again,

I was not beneath any earthly tree ;

A heavy darkness hung o'er me.

I lay in a couch-like chariot wide,

And one who drove me sate beside ;

I heard him urge the horses fleet ;

I heard the sound of their ceaseless feet.

On they went, o'er the rugged road.

For days and days, with their easy load :

Swiftly we sped, and the passing air

Was cool on my cheek and lifted my hair.

On we went over mountains high.

And roaring waters we journeyed by,


And through thick woods where the air was cold,
O'er sandy wastes and the furzy wold,
Day after day, as it seemed to me,
In a gloom, like the night of eternity.

At length I sate in another land,
With the faery people on either hand.
Where was that land I cannot say :
Its light was not like the light of day :
The air was not like the air of earth ;
'T was the wondrous land where dreams have birth.
There were marvellous things of shape divine ;
There were fountains that poured forth purple wine ;
There were trees that bent with their golden load
Of fruits, ihat all gifts of mind bestowed ;
The very air did breathe and sigh,
As if o'erburdened with melody.
But then there were frightful creeping things ;
The coil of the adder, the harpy's wings,
The screech of the owl, the death-bed moan,
And eyes that would turn the blood to stone.
I was set to the feast, and half in dread
I drank of the cup, and I ate the bread ;
I was told to bathe, and half in fear
I bathed myself in those waters clear :
I ate, I drank, I bathed, and then
I could no longer have part with men.
I dwelt 'mid the faeries, their merry king ;
I danced on the earth, in the charmed ring ;
I learned the songs of awful mirth
That were made ere man abode on earth.
In the time of chaos, stern and grey,
'Mid the ruins of old worlds passed away.


A careless joyful life I led
Till thrice seven years, as a day, had sped ;
Then a longing wish was in my mind
To dwell once more among my kind :
So up I rose, but I told to none
What journey I was departing on ;
And at the close of a summer's day
I laid me down on the flowery brae.

Ere long came one, and a friar was he,
Muttering over his rosary :
He was lean and crabbed and old ;
His voice was thick, and his prayers were cold ;
He moved not my heart. Then came there by
A fair child, chasing a butterfly ;
'T was a lovely boy, with his free, bright hair,
Like a sunny cloud, o'er his shoulders bare ;
And, as he danced in his glee along,
He filled the air with a joyful song.
I blessed the child from my inmost heart,
With a faery gift that could ne'er depart.
Next came a maiden, all alone,
And down she sate on a mossy stone :
Fair was she as the morning's smile ;
But her serious eye had a tear the while.
Then she raised to heaven her thoughtful look,
And drew from her bosom a clasped book.
Page by page of that book she read ;
Hour by hour I listened.
Still on she read sedate and low,
And at every word I was wrung with woe ;
For she taught what I ne'er had known before,
The holy truths of the Christian lore.


And I saw the sinful life I led,
And my human heart was shook with dread ;
And I, who had lived in pleasures wild,
Now wept in awe, like a stricken child.

Down I knelt, and I strove to pray,
But never a hope to my soul found way ;
For with that spell I was bound and bound,
And with elvish snares was compassed round :
But a prayer was ever on my tongue.
For soon I learned that prayers were strong
To unweave the webs that were in my track
To win my soul to the faery back.
I have wrestled hard, I have vainly striven
'Gainst them, and for my peace with Heaven j
But now my strength doth ebb apace.
" Father, can the Church award me grace,
And among the blessed a dwelling-place ?"

" My son," the reverend friar spake,
" Behold how the faery webs shall break.
Thou hast fought the fight, thou hast battled long,
And the victor here is not the strong ;
But the gates of heaven stand open wide.
And the contrite heart is the sanctified.
Give up ; stand, like the Hebrews, still,
And behold the wonders of God's will.
Lay down thy strife, lay down thy pride,
Lay all thy hope on Christ who died.
And thou art saved ; for, at his spell,
Not faery webs, but the gates of hell
Are dashed aside like the morning's mist.
Oh, vainly might fay or fiend resist !


Have faith ; 't is the spell of glory, given
To burst all bars on the way to heaven.
Have faith, have heaven, my son !"

There ran
A sudden joy through the dying man ;
And the holy father bent his knee,
Chanting " To laudamus, Domine !"




Like the wild birds on the trees,
Like the winged autumn breeze,
Like whate'er has life and gladness,
Unallied to thought and sadness,
Are ye, children blithe and boon.
Shouting to the harvest-moon :
And your joy, like waters free,
Bubbles forth perpetually.
Naught ye heed that ye must toil,
Sons and daughters of the soil ;
That within this quiet place
Ye must run your simple race,
Never know the stir and strife
Of a loftier, nobler life ;
That your bones, where ye have played,

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