1824 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Cock

James Cock, "Sketch of the Author's Life" in Cock, Hamespun Lays (1820; 1824) v-xvii.



The following sheets contain a collection of simple Poems, the productions of an illiterate pen, covered with obscurity, and accustomed to incessant toil from childhood up to 68 years, and who has trudged through life, with honest poverty and a spotless fame, all along conversant with the lower classes of the community. Being a lover of solitude and retirement from the earliest stages of manhood, by which I was led forward to contemplation, reflection, and observation, these are the only sources from which my intellect had any degree of improvement. Altogether excluded from the enlightening beams of science or learning, in any degree, as is well known by my cotemporaries, therefore it cannot be expected that any thing coming from my pen can be adorned with any of those beauties which attract the eye of the learned.

In the year 1806, being then labouring under a complaint of the stone, under which I groaned for six years, and being greatly disabled from labour, I applied my self to the composition of poetry. Reduced to extreme necessity, with the advice of some friends, I forced myself out to public view, and at the above date, published the first copy of my lame productions. Thanks to a candid and generous public, the friendly and liberal reception my poetical labours met with tended much to relieve my depressed and afflicted situation. My complaint continued to increase, to such an alarming degree, that my tender wife and family were so affected by my sighs and agonizing groans, that the cravings of nature and appetite could find no enjoyment, and meal-time was often spent in sighs and tears, until the hour of labour called them out from the affecting scene. In March, 1807, I went through a painful operation, being then in the 55th year of my age; made an excellent recovery, — and, by the blessing of God on human endeavours, I obtained a radical cure. The smallest symptom of that complaint has never made its appearance, neither has that hazardous operation left any of those bad effects which many have to complain of, who make the painful experiment. The operation was performed by the learned, tender-hearted, and most attentive Doctor, at that time one of the Surgeons of the Infirmary of Aberdeen: the stone which he extracted from me is of a hard solid smooth texture, much like a pebble on the sea beach. This gentleman's name shall ever be dear to me, while I enjoy the powers of thought and recollection. In 1810, I published a second volume of Poems. With a heartfelt sigh of gratitude I acknowledge the goodness of a sympathising and humane public, on both these emergencies; and I owe much to those characters of distinction who felt interested in promoting the sale of both publications, the good effects of which removed, in a great degree, those unwelcome visitants, want and penury, from my humble home.

For haggard want and poverty
Too often dwell with poetry.

As I never presumed to rise in public life, or to imitate the fashionable world, at the expence of others, or to better my circumstances by running in debt, I always loved to keep my credit short. By these means, I made the hard-earned shilling keep the wolf from my door.

I jogg'd awa' my auld jog trot,
Tho' whiles beneath a thread-bare coat:
The chiel that disna' rise ava'
May rest content — he'll never fa'.

As I was born to no patrimony, nor obtained any by my marriage, I have no reason to look back with regret on spending a fortune left me by my progenitors. It is well known, the profession of a weaver is the most laborious occupation followed by the labouring part of the community. It will be admitted by all who have any experience of that craft, that the man who works his way with a family, and has no other finances than what his shuttle affords, must bend beneath an insupportable burden, which never fails to bring upon him premature old age, with all its dreary attendants: this I can aver, from 54 years experience of many different branches of that toilsome business. But what is most of all to be lamented after the unremitting slavery and rigid economy which weavers are subjected to, they never have it in their power to save a shilling, to warm the winter of old age. Beneath obscurity, penury, and want, he lingers out the remains, perhaps, of four-score toilsome years, day by day sighing for that relief which death and the grave can alone afford.

I've left the smiling day of youth behind,
With hoary age I sit sedate and sad;
Frail nature sinking in decay I find,
And toilsome years have bleach'd my hoary head.

Propitious heaven has ever been my guard,
Through three times five and fifty years now past,
And kept me honest; — tho' my lot's been hard,
I hope to leave a spotless name at last.

At present, I am resolved never to publish any more of my productions. Nothing but the hard hand of necessity shall ever force me out to public view; but if my all-wise Creator appoints me to remain on the stage of time, and to linger beneath a helpless state of old age, in that case the following pages will be my last resource. It is my earnest wish and intention at present to leave them to the fate of futurity, as my posthumous works if they fall into the hands of those whose bosoms are open to the impressions of the blind and forlorn, my helpless daughter might be benefited by their being published.

All cloth'd in darkness see the youthful maid,
Who sits forlorn amid the beams of day;
The precious light is from her eye-balls fled,
Nor e'er vouchsafes one faint, one glimm'ring ray.

As I am now writing to those who may peruse this and the following sheets when I am removed for the place appointed for all living, I shall so far intrude on the candid reader as to give a short sketch of my original:—

I was born at Elgin, February 19th, 1752, of humble but respected parents. I was bred by my father to the laborious occupation of a weaver, and arrived at some proficiency in the figured and more ingenious, departments of that profession. The circumstances of my parents could afford me but a very scanty education, whilst the calls of their numerous family, and afterwards that of my own, rendered my early industry and a rigid attention to business absolutely necessary.

I was very early attracted by the fair sex. When about ten years of age, I fixed on a blooming girl, who resided with her parents about half a mile from Elgin. She had the only place in my affections until I reached the 19th year of my age, at which time she was married; and although my addresses met with friendly and affectionate reception, owing to my circumscribed circumstances, I had it not in my power to complete that union which had long been the wish and ultimate aim of us both. I can, with pleasure, look back on all my interviews with this amiable young woman; they were conducted with modesty, and the purest innocence. It is impossible for the tongue of eloquence to describe, or the most learned pen to define, the impression this first object of my affection made upon me, or what I felt from disappointed hope. I did every thing in my power to obliterate these emotions with which love had inspired me, sometimes almost to distraction. My heart began to palpitate, had I seen her at a distance. My last experiment, however, in some degree, effected a recovery from this dilemma, under which I had sighed for some years — I resolved on abandoning my native country for ever. In October, 1771, I went on board of a vessel bound for America, and sailed from Fort George. After being eight days at sea, the ship was, by stress of weather, drove into Stromness, in Orkney, where I left her, and returned to Elgin, and in that town and neighbourhood followed my business, until I reached the 23d year of my age. I then fixed my fancy on a young woman, who resided with her parents about three miles from Elgin, and in a few weeks we were joined together in holy matrimony, all our stock on the day after being 2s. 6d. to begin the world with.

True love in sincerity form'd that cement
Which join'd us together as one;
All the pow'rs of black jealousy never could rent
Nor stain the sweet smiles of my Nan.

The hamlet was rais'd from the moss-coverd sod,
Simplicity laid out the plan,
And rural felicity bless'd the abode
Which foster'd my lovely sweet Nan.

Thro' forty long years of sweet wedlock we've gone,
Now wrinkles appear in our face;
With tender endearments thro' life we go on,
With mutual contentment and peace.

Tho' fled is the' warmth of that mutual embrace,
Once glow'd in the bosom of youth;
Yet age, hoary age, loves the tender caress
Which flows from affection and truth.

About three years after marriage, I was sent for by Lady SALTOUN, near Fraserburgh, who wished me to settle there. I accepted of her Ladyship's encouragement, and in April, 1781, I hired a boat at Burghead, and put on board my household effects, three looms, and a warping mill. When I landed at Fraserburgh, the greatest friendly attention was paid me by this noble lady; and I was now placed in a most agreeable and promising situation: but, alas, soon was this fair prospect blasted by the death of the ever-memorable Hon. Lord GEORGE FRASER, the steady friend of the poor and labouring part of the community who had the good fortune to be placed under him. I was now removed from Philorth to Kinnaird's-head, being the family jointure-house, to look after the rooms, and take care of the keys of that important outlook. The memorable year 1782 overtook me there, which brought on the want of employment; in consequence, penury ensued. At the above date, my son, Thomas, was born. Although employed by some of the most respectable families in the neighbourhood and town of Fraserburgh, the want of work compelled me. to leave Kinnaird's-head in September, 1784, and return once more to Elgin, where I continued twelve years. In 1796, I had an offer of a birth from the honourable and well-known Company, LEYS, MASSON, Co. to settle at Grandholm Mills, near Aberdeen, as an overseer at that extensive work. About two years after I settled there, disease and death began to spread their ravages amongst my once promising and hopeful family, which consisted of three sons and five daughters, which, by the blessing of divine providence on our mutual prudent conjugal assiduity, we reared up to the years of manhood. I was first attacked with the stone and gravel, as above described. My oldest daughter, when about 22 years of age, left her situation in Aberdeen, without my knowledge; and I never again heard of her, with any certainty, until of late I had a report of her death, in St. Vincent, West Indies. My youngest son, James, a boy of more than ordinary promising genius, who was blessed with the understanding of a man by the time he had reached the tenth year of his age, and who, at his fourteenth year, had a most attracting and complete figure of body, and no less perfect in his intellect, went as a servant to Mrs. MOIR, Scotstown; but, shortly after, was taken ill with a complaint which baffled all the powers of medicine — a numbedness and want of feeling and faculty in his lower limbs; then mortifications took place to an alarming degree, five of them at once in his back and limbs, the torturing pains of which threw him into hysterical fits. During these fits, when all sensation was suspended, I have often cut the mortified flesh off his bones, as black as pitch; however, they all healed up, and his mental powers continued unimpaired, and expanded. For the space of nine years, he remained, a deplorable object, confined to a couch night and day, and departed this life in the 23d year of his age. All the time of his confinement, he was a most agreeable companion: his improvements, in arithmetic, music, and writing, are admired by all who see what he has left, and will perpetuate his memory for a long series of years. He died in August, 1814, and was interred in the church-yard of Aberdeen.

The fairest blossom nature forms,
How soon it must decay!
Ah! wayward fate's disastrous storms
Its beauties sweep away.

All-wise direction oft permits
The deadly blast to blow,
That mortals' hearts should ne'er be set
On any thing below.

This lower world can nothing give
To fill the soul's desire;
It sighs for joys beyond the grave,
That never will expire.

Margaret, after lingering in a decline three years, left the stage of time in April, 1815, in the 22d year of her age; and Janet was deprived of her sight in the 20th year of her age, and remains totally blind. Every hope of the recovery of her sight is fled long since. In her Lamentation for her Brother's Death, who was most affectionately attached to her, the reader will find her case described in the most melancholy strains. The next stroke of affliction was the death of my oldest son, Thomas, a blooming young man, in the full vigour of youth and manhood in the 34th year of his age. He had the misfortune to have a natural son born to him. A few days after he placed his child with a nurse, which was the last thing he did in Aberdeen, he repaired to my house and family, and never saw the poor innocent more. He was attacked with an illness in his brain, under which he laboured for three months, in the most excruciating pains; and on the 27th of February bade adieu to all terrestrial things, and left me to provide for his infant son. I refer the reader to a poem composed on his death, from which I take the following lines:

A weight of years adds to may weight of grief,
Now from my time-worn breast my comfort's torn;
O! what below the sky can give relief,
With hoary hairs and wrinkles left to mourn.

Ah! what is life, with all its boasted pride—
What's youth's fantastic dream of future years—
But false delusion, or an empty shade,
Which flatt'ring hope or fickle fancy rears.

No more around our homely board he'll join
The lov'd companions of domestic peace;
When ev'ry comfort of this life was mine,
And sweet contentment smil'd in every face.

When youth and health and love adorn'd the feast,
And fond affection warm'd each kindred heart;
Where all combin'd to cheer my time-worn breast,
And every smile did mutual bliss impart.

We are now in the fortieth and first year of our wedlock life; four of our family we have carried to the grave, and four yet remain with us, by whose mutual industry and my own endeavours, we enjoy the moderate necessaries of life. My faithful and my bosom friend is now in the 68th year of her age. Thus we have struggled through the different vicissitudes of life, hand in hand with cold poverty; blessed with a fund of mutual happiness and conjugal peace, and such a degree of domestic concord and family affection as outvies all the luxuries of wealth and affluence, and which have remained unimpaired through all the wayward incidents of life. Had wealth increased our joys might have been stained

By dissipation, luxury, or ease;
Excess, by habit, o'er our reason gain'd
The power to cloud the evening of our days.

Amid all the toils, cares, and disappointments of life, being of a contemplative turn of mind, and of course fond of retirement, no bar was sufficient long to oppose this propensity of my nature, or to prevent indulging my fondness for the sequestered retreat: for although by no means considered by those within my own sphere as destitute of those qualities which constitute the social friend and agreeable companion, yet I have often stolen from the festive scene, and even from my nightly slumbers, to indulge my native longing for contemplation and retirement. Having, in youth, acquired the habit of early rising, it was my constant practice to repair to some of my favourite retreats, of which, when at Elgin, I had three. One was, what is known by the name of the Bog of Oldmills; another, the Corriet hills, by the gentle stream of Lossie; a third was on the top of that hill above the church of New Spynie, whence stones are brought for building.

In yonder grove, hard by the busy mill,
Or on the banks of yonder winding rill,
Hard by the margin of the waving wood,
Or on the summit of yon hill, I stood;
Such was the landscape open'd to my view,
It fix'd my soul in awe and wonder too.

The exquisite pleasure I enjoyed in these retreats is beyond description. It far surpasses the most powerful pen to describe what the eye comprehends from this favourite spot. A part of nine counties is unfolded to the view, whilst the eye darts, with the rapidity of lightning, over mountains, hills, spires, vallies, streams, woods, gentlemen's seats, and venerable ruins, until the eye loses itself to the eastward, terminating an extensive and picturesque landscape in the rolling billows of the German ocean. Were this spot known to the curious and contemplative, it would be resorted to with enthusiastic fondness. Here, when tired of looking down on all sublunary things, I frequently reclined myself on the mossy heath, lost in astonishment at the grand prospect.

As on this moss-clad height I lean,
And sweep the variegated scene,
Swift as the vivid lightning flies,
As all around I roll mine eyes—
See mountains pil'd on mountains rise,
And mix their summits with the skies;
With humbler hills, and moorland wilds,
With long stretch'd plains and cultur'd fields,
And streams that thro' the vallies glide,
And end their current in the tide;
Where churches rear'd of modern date,
And spires a prey to time and fate;
Where waving woods and silver shades,
And hamlets smoke in lonely glades;
Where sumptuous domes in grandeur shine,
And ancient ruins in decline:
Then sweep the long-extending shore,
Where hoary ocean-billows roar;
There sky and water both unite,
And terminate at last the sight.

When Phoebus ting'd the eastern sky,
I fondly sought the lone retreat;
When, to commence the toilsome day,
I often left it with regret.

Cheerful at work I pass'd the day,
Tho' pinch'd my cot, and coarse my fare,
And then at night I bent my way
To solitude, to banish care.

I do not know if I have here the good fortune to offer any thing that is calculated to please; but such a regard will, I hope, appear to have been every where preserved for all that is either sacred, moral, or decent, as cannot fail of being agreeable to the virtuous. Not offending against religion and good manners is a qualification in poetry without which all others would be insufficient. This may, in some degree, atone for the many and great literary imperfections under which I labour.

The learn'd and discerning must see
The want of refinement in this;
The candid and gen'rous are free
To censure whate'er is amiss.