James Hyslop

A. B. Todd, in David McAllister, Poets and Poetry of the Covenant (1894) 17-27.

This popular poet of the Scottish Covenant was born in 1798, and by descent was one of those of whom Richard Savage thus pathetically writes in his poem The Bastard:

He lives to build, not boast, a generous race—
No tenth transmitter of a foolish face;

and he is said to have felt keenly the stain upon his birth, although his mother returned to the paths of virtue, and lived an exemplary Christian life till the end of her days.

The future poet was brought up in the humble abode of his maternal grandfather, George Lambie, whose little cottage stood in the green pastoral glen of the limpid Crawick, about two miles from the ancient royal burgh of Sanquhar, so renowned and important in Covenanting story; where in all the hill country round, the Covenanters, sought shelter in the dark and evil days of persecution, rendering it just such a "meet nurse for the poetic child" as it became to James Hyslop.

Adopting the calling of a shepherd, he went forth to the world with but a scanty education; but so ardent was thirst for it that before he was twenty, he by attending evening schools and self-tuition, had become not only an excellent English scholar, but had likewise acquired a good knowledge of Latin, French, mathematics, and algebra.

When very young he tended flocks at Dalblain, amid the deep mountain solitudes of Glenmuir; passing from thence to Nether Wellwood, a few miles to the north-east, and on the banks of the infant Ayr, and at the eastern end of Airsmoss,

Where Cameron's sword and his Bible are seen,
Engraved on the stone where, the heather grows green.

With the history, traditions, and struggles of the Covenanters, Hyslop had become early acquainted under the roof of his pious grandfather; and now he drew the inspiration of poetry, as well as patriotism, from the scenes amid which he was a sojourner.

From being a shepherd, he became a school-master, teaching the children of the farmers and small country lairds. When he had reached the age of twenty-one, he went to the town of Greenock (where no poet was ever known to meet with any countenance) and opened a school, which proved unsuccessful, when for a short time he returned to his native wilds and pastoral employment. In 1821, the poem by which he is best known, and on which his fame securely, rests, The Cameronian's Dream, appeared in The Scot's Magazine, and attracted wide attention, the great critic Lord Jeffrey, being one of its admirers.

About this time he was a frequent contributor, both of poetry and of prose, to the Magazine. Dr. Muirhead, the editor, having said that "the sphere of Scottish poetry must now be contracted," Mr. Hyslop replied in some spirited letters to the editor, in one of which he thus beautifully says: "Had you spent as many Sabbath-days among the Scottish peastantry as I have done, I dare say you would join with me in thinking that there is yet an extensive field for the cultivation of a higher order of poetry than much that has ever yet appeared in our language. It is certain that the subjects of some of our most admired Scottish poets are far from being exhausted. To mention one particular instance: how different a poem would Burns have produced had he carried the spirit of The Cottar's Saturday Night into the morning of his Sacramental Sabbath? The poem would certainly have appeared to as much advantage, and the respectability of the Scottish character and religion might, perhaps, have been more indebted to him; as it is, however, he has left abundant room for the display of future talent, and, I think, it is much to be wished that some mighty genius, equal to the task, would step forward and mingle at once the social and religious feelings of the Scottish peasantry in the poetry of our native land. While such subjects remain unsung, shall it ever be said that the poetry of Scotland is susceptible of no further improvement? Our bosom has often trembled with delight at the soft melting music of the Scottish harp when struck by the hands of a powerful master; but we shall never be sensible of the highest power of its heart-melting melody till its wild notes be sounded in concert and unison with the songs of Zion."

In his subsequent and beautiful poem, The Scottish Sacramental Sabbath, Mr. Hyslop gave excellent proof of the correctness of his views on the subject of Scottish poetry; for that poem which is in the same measure as The Cottar's Saturday Night, would have done high honour even to the genius of Robert Burns himself, being vivid, striking and true as a picture, beautiful in its descriptive power, and intensely pious in spirit.

Hyslop himself gives the incident upon which the poem was founded, and which occurred when the sacrament of the supper was being dispensed, in the open air, in the beautiful tree-shaded churchyard of Sanquhar, during the pastorate of the Rev. Mr. Rankine, an able and a godly minister. The account is as follows:

"After the action sermon, which, in those days, was preached from a tent in the field of graves, and when the first table was about to be served, a hasty thunder-storm, no uncommon occurrence, had gathered among the hills, and stretching the awning of its tempest-cloud over the valley beneath, discharged its contents with ominous vehemence on the heads of the convening congregation. The noise of the thunder, and the rushing of the rain, caused some interruption; and Mr. Rankine, designedly leaving the thread of his discourse, addressed the audience in the following dignified and highly poetic strain, as if heaven inspired him at the moment: — 'My friends, how dreadful is this place! This is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven. He before whom we must appear in judgment, from his pavilion of dark waters and thick clouds of the skies, in a voice of thunder is now addressing us who are assembled round his table; and I have no doubt that if the thin veil by which we are separated from the invisible world were drawn aside, we might discover, among these dark clouds where the thunder is rolling, the throne of Him from whose face the earth and the heavens shall flee away; we might behold on the mountains around us the bright armies of heaven drawn up in their shining ranks under the banners of the King of righteousness; we might behold those who have joined us at this table, whose graves are now rising green beneath our feet, but whose spirits are in glory; — I say, we might behold them looking upon us with heavenly joy and satisfaction, while we join ourselves, to the Lord in an everlasting covenant never to be forgotten.'" Such was Mr. Rankine's address; and Mr. Hyslop adds: "How awfully sublime after this was the devotion when the assembled multitudes were singing to the mild and simple melody (Coleshill) that awakens all the sacramental associations of departed years, as the elements were about to be distributed." This, then, was the ground-work of the poem.

In 1821, Hyslop was, through the influence of Lord Jeffrey and other Edinburgh friends, appointed teacher on board the man-of-war ship Doris, and went with it on a cruise to South America; and it was when on this voyage, and when thinking of his native valley of the Nith, that he wrote The Scottish Sacramental Sabbath. On his return home, the same kind patrons, through their friends in London, got him appointed a parliamentary reporter on the leading newspaper there; and afterwards head master of an academy near the city. All the while, however, it was the dearest wish of his heart to be able some day to return and spend his days in the pursuits of literature in his native green and bowery valley of the Crawick.

In the autumn of 1827, through the influence of Lord Spencer, he was appointed tutor on board the war vessel Tweed, then bound for the Cape of Good Hope. In high spirits, and full of bright prospects, he sailed away from his native isle, but, ah! to return no more forever. On her outward way the ship called at the Cape de Verde Islands, when a party of fifteen landed and remained till night on the island of St. Jago. On their return, to the ship they were all seized with fever, and within two days eight of them, principally officers, died; one of them was James Hyslop, and the literary world long lamented the premature death of "The Muirkirk Shepherd" — the name by which he first became known to the poetic world. His death took place on the 5th of December, 1827, when he was only in the 29th year of his age.

Hyslop's poetry is very unequal; and while some of his productions are all aglow with poetic fire, and are spirited and elegant, others are dull, flat, and prosaic. This is particularly the case with his longest, and most ambitious poem, The Cameronian's Vision, though written some six years after The Cameronian's Dream. One stanza, however, is as beautiful as it is true. Referring to the times of the persecution, under the evil rule of the profligate Charles the Second, and his stolid and pig-headed brother James, when the saintly men of the Covenant, who had grown up during the Second Reformation, were driven from their churches into the desert moors, he says:

For in cities the wells of salvation were sealed,
More brightly to burst in the moor and the field;
And the spirit which fled from the dwellings of men,
Like a manna-cloud rained round the camp in the glen.

The poem is descriptive of the martyrdom of the saintly John Brown of Priesthill, far up in the mountain wilds of Ayrshire, and closes with these vigorous stanzas put into the mouth of his new-made widow, and spoken by her to Claverhouse, as he rode away and left her alone in that wild and lonely desert, with the bloody corpse of her murdered husband and her two terror-stricken babes; and we commend them to those hardly less heartless writers, who, in our day have set themselves to whitewash this the most dastardly ruffian that ever bore a sword or commanded a troop, and from whose blood-crimsoned hands all the waters of Helicon could not wash away a single stain:

Thou friendless, forsaken, hast left me and mine,
Yet my lot is a bless'd one, when balanc'd with thine.
With the viper remorse on thy vitals to prey,
And the blood on thy hands that will ne'er wash away.

Thy name shall be wafted to far future time,
A proverb for cruelty, cursing, and crime;
Thy dark picture, painted in blood shall remain
While the heather waves green o'er the graves of the slain.

Thy glory shall wither; its wreaths have been gain'd
By the slaughter of shepherds thy sword who disdained—
That sword thou hast drawn on thy country for hire;
And the title it brings shall in blackness expire.

Thy name shall be Claver'se, the blood-thirsty Scot,
The godly, the guiltless, the grey-haired who shot.
Round my Brown's bloody brow glory's garlands shall wave,
When the muse marketh "murderer" over thy grave.

In a dream of the night I was wafted away
To the moorland of mist where the martyrs lay;
Where Cameron's sword and his Bible are seen,
Engraved on the stone where the heather grows green.

'Twas a dream of those ages of darkness and blood,
When the minister's home was the mountain and wood;
When in Wellwood's dark moorlands the standard of Zion,
All bloody and torn, 'mong the heather was lying.

It was morning; and summer's young sun, from the east.
Lay in loving repose on the green mountain's breast.
On Wardlaw and Cairn-Table the clear shining dew
Glistened sheen 'mong the heath-bells and mountain flowers blue.

And far up in heaven in the white sunny cloud,
The song of the lark was melodious and loud;
And in Glenmuir's wild solitudes, lengthened and deep,
Was the whistling of plovers and the bleating of sheep.

And Wellwood's sweet valley breathed music and gladness;
The fresh meadow blooms hung in beauty and redness;
Its daughters were happy to hail the returning,
And drink the delights of green July's bright morning.

But ah! there were hearts cherished far other feelings,
Illumed by the light of prophetic revealings,
Who drank from this scenery of beauty but sorrow,
For they knew that their blood would bedew it to-morrow.

'Twas the few faithful ones who, with Cameron, were lying
Concealed 'mong the mist, where the heath-fowl was crying;
For the horsemen of Earlshall around them were hovering,
And their bridle-reins rang through the thin misty covering.

Their faces grew pale, and their swords were unsheathed,
But the vengeance that darkened their brows was unbreathed;
With eyes raised to Heaven, in meek resignation,
They sang their last song to the God of Salvation.

The hills with the deep mournful music were ringing,
The curlew and plover in concert were singing;
But the melody died 'midst derision and laughter,
As the hosts of ungodly rushed on to the slaughter.

Though in mist and in darkness and fire they were shrouded,
Yet the souls of the righteous stood calm and unclouded;
Their dark eyes flashed lightning, as, proud and unbending,
They stood like the rock which the thunder is rending.

The muskets were flashing; the blue swords were gleaming;
The helmets were cleft, and the red blood was streaming;
The heavens grew dark, and the thunder was rolling,
When in Wellwood's dark moorlands the mighty were falling.

When the righteous had fallen, and the combat had ended,
A chariot of fire through the dark cloud descended.
The drivers were angels on horses of whiteness,
And its burning wheels turned upon axles of brightness.

A seraph unfolded its doors bright and shining.
All dazzling like gold of the seventh refining;
And the souls that came forth out of great tribulation
Have mounted the chariot and steeds of salvation.

On the arch of the rainbow the chariot is gliding;
Through the paths of the thunder the horsemen are riding.
Glide swiftly, bright spirits, the prize is before ye,
A crown never fading, a kingdom of glory!