William Motherwell

Mary Russell Mitford, "Scottish Poets. William Motherwell" Recollections of a Literary Life; or Books, Places, and People (1852) 540-46.

Two of the ballads of William Motherwell are among the most beautiful in the Scottish dialect, so full of lyrical beauty and yet the one which is the most touching is scarcely known, except to a few lovers of poetry. "Jeanie Morrison," indeed, has an extensive popularity in Scotland, and yet even that charming song is comparatively little known in this country.

Burns is the only poet with whom, for tenderness and pathos, Motherwell can be compared. The elder bard has written much more largely, is more various, more fiery, more abundant; but I doubt if there be in the whole of his collection any thing so exquisitely finished, so free from a line too many, or a word out of place, as the two great ballads of Motherwell. And let young writers observe that this finish was the result, not of a curious felicity, but of the nicest elaboration. By touching and retouching, during many years, did "Jeanie Morrison" attain her perfection, and yet how completely has art concealed art! How entirely does that charming song appear like an irrepressible gush of feeling that would find vent. In "My heid is like to rend, Willie," the appearance of spontaneity is still more striking, as the passion is more intense, — intense, indeed, almost to painfulness.

Like Burns, Motherwell died before he attained his fortieth year, and like him, too, although a partisan of far different opinions, he was ardently engaged in political discussion as the editor of a Tory newspaper in Glasgow. He was even the Secretary of an Institution that sounds strangely in English ears — a Scotch Orange Lodge. I notice these facts only to observe, that they are already almost forgotten. The elements of bitterness and hatred, in which the politician revels, live through their little day, then pass away forever: while the deep and pure feelings of a true poet are imperishable.

As with "Percy's Reliques," my own copy of Motherwell has to me an interest beside that of its high literary merits. If I would explain the source of that interest, I must even tell the story, luckily a very short one.

Three years ago a friend, to whom I owe a thousand obligations of all sorts and kinds, posted London over to procure this volume. Now my friend is a man of book-shops and book-stalls, but only one copy could he meet with, and that was neither Scotch nor English, but American, from the great Boston publishers, Ticknor and Company. The book became immediately a favorite, and was laid on the table — a phrase which in my little drawing-room has a very different sense from that which it bears in the House of Commons.

One fine summer afternoon, shortly after I had made this acquisition, two young Americans made their appearance, with letters of introduction from some honored friends. There was no mention of profession or calling, but I soon found that they were not only men of intelligence and education, but of literary taste and knowledge; one especially had the look, the air, the conversation of a poet. We talked on many subjects, and got at last to the delicate question of American reprints of English authors; on which, much to their delight, and a little to their surprise, there was no disagreement; I for my poor part pleading guilty to the taking pleasure in such a diffusion of my humble works. "Beside," continued I, "you send us better things — things otherwise unattainable. I could only procure the fine poems of Motherwell in this Boston edition." My two visitors smiled at each other. "This is a most singular coincidence," cried the one whom I knew by instinct to be a poet. "I am a younger partner in this Boston house, and at my pressing instance this book was reprinted. I can not tell you how pleased I am to see it here!"

Mr. Field's visit was necessarily brief; but that short interview has laid the foundation of a friendship which will, I think, last as long as my frail life, and of which the benefit is all on my side. He sends me charming letters, verses which are fast ripening into true poetry, excellent books; and this autumn he brought back himself, and came to pay me a visit; and he must come again, for of all the kindnesses with which he loads me, I like his company best.

My heid is like to rend, Willie,
My heart is like to break,—
I'm wearin' aff my feet, Willie,
I'm dying for your sake!
O lay your cheek to mine, Willie,
Your hand on my briest-bane,
—O say ye'll think on me, Willie,
When I am deid and gane!

It's vain to comfort me, Willie,
Sair grief maun hae its will,—
But let me rest upon your briest,
To sob and greet my fill.
Let me sit on your knee, Willie,
Let me shed by your hair,
And look into the face, Willie,
I never sall see mair!

I'm sittin' on your knee, Willie,
For the last time in my life,—
A puir heart-broken thing, Willie,
A mither, yet nae wife.
Ay, press your hand upon my heart,
And press it mair and mair,—
Or it will burst the silken twine,
Sae strong is its despair!

Oh wae's me for the love, Willie,
When we thegither met,—
Oh wae's me for the time, Willie,
That our first tryst was set!
Oh wae's me for the loanin' green
Where we were wont to gae,—
And wae's me for the destinie
That gart me love thee sae!

Oh! dinna mind my words, Willie,
I donna seek to blame,—
But oh! it's hard to live, Willie,
And dree a warld's shame!
Het tears are hailin' o'er your cheek
And hailin' o'er your chin;
Why weep ye sae for worthlessness,
For sorrow and for sin?

I'm weary o' this warld, Willie,
And sick wi' a' I see,—
I canna live as I hae lived,
And be as I should be.
But fauld unto your heart, Willie,
The heart that still is thine,—
And kiss once mair the white, white cheek
Ye said was red lang syne.

A stoun' gaes through my heid, Willie,
A sair stoun' through my heart,—
Oh! hand me up and let me kiss
Thy brow ere we twa pairt.
Anither, and anither yet,
How fast my heart-strings break!
Fareweel! fareweel! through yon kirkyard
Step lichtly for my sake!

The loo'rock in the lift, Willie,
That lilts far ower our heid,
Will sing the morn as merrilie
Abuve the clay-cauld deid;
And this green turf we're sittin' on
Wi' dew-draps skimmerin' sheen,
Will hap the heart that luvit thee
As warld hae seldom seen.

But oh! remember me, Willie,
On land where'er ye be,—
And oh! think on the leal, leal heart,
That ne'er luvit ane but thee!
And oh! think on the cauld, cauld mools,
That file my yellow hair,—
That kiss the cheek, and kiss the chin
Ye never sall kiss mair!

The following Cavalier Song was first given by Motherwell as an original manuscript by Lovelace, accidentally discovered on a fly-leaf of his poems. The story found believers. They ought to have seen that the imitation, though very skillful, was too close. Lovelace was the last man in the world to have repeated his own turns of phrase.

A steede! a steede of matchless speed,
A sword of metal keene!
All else to noble heartes is drosse,
All else on earth is meane.
The neighyinge of the war-horse prowde,
The rowlinge of the drum,
The clangor of the trumpet lowde,
Be soundes from heaven that come.
And oh! the thundering presse of knightes
When as their war-cryes swell,
May roll from heaven an angel brighte,
And rouse a fiend from hell.

Then mounte! then mounte brave gallants all,
And don your helmes amaine;
Death's couriers, Fame and Honor, call
Us to the field againe.
No shrewish teares shall fill our eye
When the sword-hilt's in our hand,—
Heart whole we'll part, and no whit sighe
For the fayrest of the land;
Let piping swaine and craven wight
Thus weep and puling crye,
Our business is like men to fight,
And Nero-like to die!

I've wandered east, I've wandered west,
Through mony a weary way;
But never, never can forget
The luve o' life's young day!
The fire that's blawn on Beltane e'en
May weel be black gin Yule;
But blacker fa' awaits the heart
Where first fond luve grows cule.

O dear, dear Jeanie Morrison,
The thochts o' bygane years
Still fling their shadows ower my path
And blind my een wi' tears:
They blind my een wi' saut, saut tears,
And sair and sick I pine,
As memory idly summons up
The blithe blinks o' langsyne.

'Twas then we luvit ilk ither weel,
'Twas then we twa did part;
Sweet time! sad time! twa bairns at schule,
Twa bairns and but ae heart!
'Twas then we sat on ae laigh bink,
To leir ilk ither lear;
And tones and looks and smiles were shed,
Remembered ever mair,

I wonder, Jeanie, aften yet,
When sitting on that bink,
Cheek touchin' cheek, loop locked in loop,
What our wee heads could think?
When baith hen doun ower ae braid page
Wi' ae buik on our knee,
Thy lips were on thy lesson, but
My lesson was in thee.

Oh mind ye how we hung our heads,
How cheeks brent red wi' shame,
Whene'er the schule-weans laughin' said
We clecked thegither hame?
And mind ye o' the Saturdays,
(The scule then skail't at noon,)
When we ran off to speel the braes,
The broomy braes o' June?

My head rins round and round about,
My heart flows like a sea,
As ane by ane the thochts rush back
O' schule-time and o' thee.
O mornin' life! O mornin' luve!
O lichtsome days and lang,
When hinnied hopes around our hearts
Like simmer blossoms sprang.

Oh, mind ye, hive, how oft we left
The deavin' dinsome toun,
To wander by the green burnside,
And hear its waters croon?
The simmer leaves hung ower our heads,
The flowers burst round our feet,
And in the gloamin' o' the wood
The throssil whusslit sweet;

The throssil whusslit in the wood,
The burn sang to the trees,
And we with nature's heart in tune
Concerted harmonies;
And, on the knowe abune the burn,
For hours thegither sat
I' the silentness o' joy, till baith
Wi' very gladness grat.

Ay, ay, dear Jeanie Morrison,
Tears trinkled doun your cheek,
Like dew-beads on a rose, yet nane
Had ony power to speak!
That was a time, a blessed time,
When hearts were fresh and young,
When freely gushed all feelings forth
Unsyllabled, unsung!

I marvael, Jeanie Morrison,
Gin I hae been to thee
As closely twined wi' earliest thochts
As ye hae been to me?
Oh! tell me gin their music fills
Thine ear as it does mine?
Oh! say gin e'er your heart grows grit
Wi' dreamings o' lang syne?

I've wandered east, I've wandered west,
I've borne a weary lot;
But in my wanderings, far or near,
Ye never were forgot.
The fount that first burst frae this heart
Still travels on its way
And channels deeper, as it rins,
The luve o' life's young day.

Oh dear, dear Jeanie Morrison,
Since we were sindered young,
I've never seen your face nor heard
The music o' your tongue;
But I could hug all wretchedness,
And happy could I die,
Did I but ken your heart still dreamed
O' bygane days and me!