1819
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Past.

The Past &c. by Miss Holford, Authoress of Wallace, a Poem.

Margaret Holford


37 Spenserians — a Beattie-Byronic rhapsody musing on the passage of time and the poetry of Ossian: "To each his theme! For me the present seems | A gleamy moment, vague and undefin'd. | My fancy wantons 'mid a world of dreams, | And Memory's passive vassal is my mind." Margaret Holford had made her reputation as a poet as an imitator of Walter Scott.

Edinburgh Magazine: "With this small poem, written, as I understand, to soothe the melancholy of her mind after the death of a beloved friend, whose sick-bed she had long and tenderly watched, few readers, perhaps, north of the Tweed may be acquainted.... The unity and tone of feeling which belong to an elegant and cultivated mind, depressed by sad and tender recollections, are sweetly and soothingly preserved through the whole; and the reader rises from the perusal of it with a melancholy that softens and betters the heart" NS 5 (December 1819) 507, 509.



Oh Earth! how fair thou art! With life, with mirth,
With freshness, and with glory, teemest thou!
Say, was the morn that wak'd thee into birth,
Than that which sheds its sunbeams on thee now,
Of purer radiance, or of rosier glow?
The clear, calm sapphire of the cloudless sky,
Noon's glance of splendour, gilding the tall brow
Of some heav'n-climbing steep; or, these gone by,
The mild controul of eve's benignant majesty;

The soft, night-wafted fragrance of the grove,
The glitt'ring dews which strew the grassy floor,
The tender strain of melancholy love,
Which some lone chantress of the woods doth pour,
When the loud chorus of the day is o'er;—
Oh! ne'er did Nature offer to the sense
Of wayward man a richer, brighter store!
How may he rightly prize the gift immense!
Earth's loveliness is his, and Heaven's magnificence!

Oh thou, of sparkling eye and jocund breast!
Oh thou, whose prime is yet upon the wing!
This is thine hour! And never hour more blest
Did Time upon his glancing current bring;
Oh, ere it passes, smite the bounding string!
Yea, haste to bid the fleeting present hail!
And let thy harp around in echoes fling,
Of youth, and life, and joy, th' inspiring tale,
One wild thanksgiving hymn o'er ocean, hill, and vale!

For thou canst feel and taste, thy glance is strong
To mingle with the sunbeam! 'Tis thy hour!
Thy heart-pulse dances light to every song;
Thy ready fingers pluck the springing flow'r,
Just as it opens to the genial show'r
Its new-born bloom. Now, even while ye may,
While yet the fibres of your heart have pow'r
To keep life's mortal weariness at bay,
Wait not to-morrow's dawn! Be glad, be glad to-day!

Ere mix'd and turbid with the mountain storm,
Drink of the stream which sparkles as it flows!
Ere eating canker, or the secret worm,
Consume the cluster which so brightly glows,
Seize thou the bloomy prize. The summer rose,
To deck thy bosom, or thy brow to wreathe,
Her fragrance and her blushes doth disclose.
Then take her ere she fade, or some rude breath
Scatter her lovely leaves thy heedless foot beneath!

The present hour, with all its charms, be thine;
All that it gives, all that it promises;
For in thy laughing eyes youth's sunbeams shine,
And all is real that thy fancy sees!
Joy whispers to thee in the morning breeze;
With thee she bounds the woodland path along;
And will she stay? Try! Grasp her ere she flees,
Oh! let her not escape, for thou art young!
Youth's pulse is in thy heart, youth's spirit swells thy song.

To each his theme! For me the present seems
A gleamy moment, vague and undefin'd.
My fancy wantons 'mid a world of dreams,
And Memory's passive vassal is my mind.
What is, it wots not, cares not; — for behind,
On that which was, are all its glances cast,
A region pale, swept by destruction's wind,
The native land of dimness and of waste,
Of ruins and of graves, — the spectre-peopled Past!

'Tis thus the Spirit of the Desert stays
Musing alone! Behold! a scatter'd heap
Lies pillar'd Tadmor, pride of elder days!
Slow o'er the wreck does cold oblivion creep,
And sand-fraught whirlwinds o'er the fragments sweep;
The grey owl, through the noon-day, undismay'd
Pours her dull chant, for all around doth sleep;
Her voice alone the silence doth pervade,
Where once Longinus thought, and once Zenobia sway'd!

Yet some bold steps still track the wilderness,
Led by devotion for the sacred Past;
For this they tempt the plain's wild emptiness,
The lurking Arab, or the fiery blast,
The huge o'erwhelming armies of the waste,
Annihilation's legions! But to gaze
A little while on majesty defaced;
To sigh and moralize; then go their ways,
Revolving in their souls deep thoughts of other days!

Long years gone by, the harp of Selma's halls
Gave to the awful Past its solemn strain;
It echoed 'mid the dank, deserted walls,
Smote by a master hand, — but, ah! in vain!
No chieftain own'd the battle-call again!
And he who wak'd it, childless and alone,
Blind and bereft, along the silent plain
Wander'd, and dream'd of life and glory gone;
Or sought his mournful haunt beside the dark-grey stone.

Shut from his sightless orbs, the present scene
To him was nothing. While the sunbeam plays
Over the blue bosom of the lake serene,
He sate in darkness 'mid the noon-tide blaze!
But he had other eyes, whose gifted gaze
Illumin'd midnight, peopled solitude;
From him did Fate the dim, inglorious days
Of present years by kind decree exclude,
Nor on his visions might their puny shapes intrude!

The feast of shells — the banquet of the brave
Was over, and within the hollow hall
The sullen mountain winds did hoarsely rave;
There the red thistle and the yarrow tall
Wav'd their rank heads; against the mildew'd wall
The spear lean'd idle — for the valiant race
Had heard the voice which bids the mighty fall!
Strong in the battle, — ardent in the chase,
But time past o'er their pride, and vacant was their place.

Yet that dark, aged, solitary sire
Thrid back the maze of life; he talk'd with those
Whose deeds of glory wak'd his harp of fire,
Whose radiant morning with his morn arose,
Who found, beneath the cromlech's heap, repose!
Of them his soul was full! The very blast,
Which raved upon the wint'ry evening's close,
Came laden with their forms, sublime and vast,
Stern, dark, and terrible — the people of the Past!

Then did the dreary bosom blaze again
With flame rekindled, — 'twas the light of song!
That light which saves the names of glorious men
From time's slow mildew, from oblivion's wrong!
Then, borne upon the eddying blast along,
The ghosts of heroes gather'd to the sound,
Each on his cloud, a dim and dusky throng!
Their forms decay beneath the turfy mound!
Their names shall die when Time gives o'er his annual round!

That lone lament, that solitary wail,
Still floats majestic down the stream of years,
And still we listen to the blind old Gael!
What is it that the antique lay endears
So to our hearts, and cheats us of our tears?
What is it wakes such solemn tenderness,
Even now, in this our day, in him who hears
That rude, wild song, born in the wilderness,
Commingling fond regrets with warlike loftiness?

Who has no sigh to sanctify the past,
No tear for Memory? Who can steer his mind
Right onward in life's road, nor pause to cast
One yearning look on things left far behind?
Unenvied be his lot, though he shall find
A level causeway and a cloudless day,
And travel safe, unskaith'd by Fortune's wind,
While we, forlorn, with loitering footstep stray,
In vain, to seek the forms which shar'd our earlier way!

Ask those who touch the autumn of their year,
The mellow side of their maturity,
Why they do halt so oft in their career,
Turning their glances tow'rds their eastern sky,
Neglectful of the hour which hastens by?
Oh! they will tell you, how, that long ago
This world, which now seems fading on their eye,
Had skies all glittering bright in golden glow,
Then sunshine blaz'd above, and verdure smiled below!

There was a freshness in the ambient gale;
There was a sparkle on the river's tide;
The emerald's hue o'erspread each dewy vale;
Then Flora laugh'd in all her gaudy pride,
Her lovely train ten thousand colours dyed!
What fragrant hawthorn deck'd the May-bush then!
The very milkmaids, as they homeward hied,
In those fair evenings, pour'd a blither strain
Than e'er comes wafted now along the village lane!

They wonder why so tuneless comes the chime
From yon grey spire, to cheer the rustic feast,
For they can well recall the distant time,
When those old bells, of some strange charm possest,
With mirth and joy o'erfill'd the youthful breast!
'Tis pleasant yet, to think how merrily
They echoed in the heart, ere manhood's guest,
Grim care, such irksome music did supply,
As dull'd all other sounds, the deep, slow-heaved sigh!

Tornasti Primavera! But in vain
Returnest thou, since they return no more,
The little loves which frolick'd in thy train,
Youth, and the hopes, which sprang thy steps before,
Gay heralds of the jocund spring of yore!
The gaudy swarm of bright-wing'd promises,
Which erst upon thy flatt'ring breeze did soar,
Time brush'd them down, and lent, instead of these,
His tarnish'd, way-worn troop, to grace thy pageantries!

Erst when thou camest, how our steps have press'd
To snatch the first sweet gem thou didst awake!
The violet, lurking in its mossy nest,
Or primrose, sprinkling o'er the dewy brake!
We spare them now, for sad remembrance' sake,
And they shall live their little lives, and stay
Till frost, or blight, or worm, their bloom o'ertake;
Or, till their fair heads droop in slow decay,
They shall not lure us now to linger on our way!

Oh ye, who of the present make your boast!
Yours is a trembling bliss! Ye hold a prize,
Which, even as ye look on it, is lost,
A shade, which even as ye grasp it, flies!
Yea, ere the frail ephemeron, it dies!
Ye see it, touch it, speak to it! And lo!
Where is it? Gone! Forgotten! For your eyes
Pursue the painted phantoms as they go,
Swift following o'er the scenes of life's still varying show!

But that which we are fond to call our own,
Is ours, secured by Fate's eternal seal!
What chance could do to harm it, chance has done;
And time has stol'n, whatever time could steal!
The blows which disappointment loves to deal
We fear not! We the heavy cost have paid;
Our hearts have felt what hearts bereaved feel,
When long-nurs'd hopes in sad succession fade;
Now, neither time nor chance our treasure may invade!

We ask no tidings of the passing hour,
No longer tempted with its motley ware!
Its cup of mingled beverage, sweet and sour,
Its little freight of pleasure and of care,
Nor wake our fancy, nor our hearts ensnare!
Our traffic o'er, the chiding of the blast
Threats not our bark, and, tho' the wind be fair,
Its swells no sail of ours! Its anchors cast,
Our vessel rides at peace, life's shoals and quicksands past!

The bitter drop is drain'd. The hour has come
Which was to come to us! The sable thread
Has cross'd our web! Yea, we have seen the tomb
Close o'er the forms to which our souls were wed!
Our sighs are silent now, our tears are shed,
Shed in the dust! Our bosom's secret core
Affliction's dart has search'd; and it has bled,
As once the heart can bleed, and bleed no more!
That is which was to be! And now the strife is o'er!

Shall apathy's dull twilight overcast
Our sky, and dim the remnant of our day?
Withering, and overthrown in sorrow's blast,
Shall cold indifference on our spirits prey,
Till our minds moulder as our frames decay?
No! e'en while on the precious wreck we gaze
Of blessings Heaven bestowed, and took away,
A voice within us vindicates the ways
Of GOD to man, and fills the bruised heart with praise!

Why, what are we, who would our doom evade?
If all of Adam born, are born to weep!
If every form which of the dust was made,
Return, its task fulfill'd, in dust to sleep,
Why, what are we, that would our idols keep?
Alas! blind children of the earth are we!
Our blessings oft in bitter tears we steep;
Our evil we pursue, our good we flee;
Eternal Wisdom judge, and question GOD's decree!

The fickle and forgetful may bemoan
That time has robb'd them, for the ductile mind
Soon closes o'er the past, and all is gone;
As travels through the skies the summer wind,
Or keel across the wave, and leaves behind
A moment's trace, but on the billows glide
And the trace fades for ever, none can find
What path the vessel took, though deep and wide
She cleft the briny waste, as onward she did ride!

And thus it should be! Some are born to hold,
Deep written in their heart, and on their brain,
The story of the past, so lively told,
That time has journey'd o'er their heads vain,
For they do act life's drama o'er again!
The present is a shadowy sketch, a dream
And all which to the present doth pertain,
A form but half defin'd, a cloud, a gleam!
The real is, for them, as though it did but seem!

They wander in the same green spots, where erst
Their happier fancy led; the common eye
Might deem them all alone; but they, who first
Did make those paths so pleasant, still are nigh,
Arm kindly link'd in arm, for Memory
She reeks not of the grave; again she brings
The rescued pledges of her victory,
E'en from the gulf where cease all mortal things,
E'en from the grasp of Fate, the precious prey she wrings!

She leads again, where bold St. Vincent rears,
O'er Avon's dusky wave, his forehead grey;
The sunshine evenings of long-lapsed years
Glow at her bidding, and, as on they stray,
The liquid, trembling, melancholy lay
Still warbles from the copse. The virgin-bow'r
Spreads o'er the rock its slender tassel'd spray,
Its matted foliage, and its feathery flow'r,
Even as once it did, in life's benignest hour!

Leaving the murm'ring crowd afar behind,
Now blythe across the broomy down they hie,
Mingling sweet converse with the healthful wind;
Or silent, musing, with enthusiast eye,
O'er that wide scene of beauty, till a sigh
From each surcharged bosom softly says
Why they were silent. 'Tis the heart's reply,
Its little meed of unadulterate praise
To Him who wrought the pomp, on which they fondly gaze

Thus once it was; and thus by memory's aid
Re-living life, thus still it seems to be,
Still, as when erst the Sabbath warning bade,
Together bending low the duteous knee,
Two mingled voices in one pray'r agree!
Is this illusion too? Or may the pray'r
A mourning mortal utters, heav'nward flee?
May they, whose earth still clings about them, dare
Aspire the holy song an Angel sings to share?

A Harp there was, — 'tis mute and stringless now,
And cold the hand which smote its tuneful chord!
Sweet flow'd the strain, which never more shall flow,
And sweeter, sweeter still, a voice which pour'd
Full many a note divine and treasur'd word,
The heart's own music! Must it speak no more?
Oh yet! by faithful memory restored,
There are who hear it, — in whose bosom's core
It speaks, and still shall speak, till life and sense be o'er!

Earth has no sound so pleasant as that still,
Soft, mournful, cherish'd voice of other years!
It comes o'er the cold breast with kindly thrill,
And opes the fountain of assuaging tears!
And who, such sad and solemn sound that hears
Has ear for aught beside? "Awake," it cries,
The laden spirit it uplifts and cheers—
"Awake! and think how brief the pathway lies,
Time's journey to fulfil, between ye and the skies!"

A little while, — and they who fondly muse
On things which were, and are not, even they
Shall be like that their wayward thought pursues,
A thing which was, and is not! Yesterday
They wept, they smil'd, they felt the heart-pulse play;
They shrank and shudder'd in the chilling blast,
Or bask'd exulting in the genial ray,
Unconscious they, how they were tending fast
There, whence no foot returns, the region of the Past!

And be it so! For, them who went before,
The weary soul is panting to o'ertake;
Fain would it spread its wings, and heav'nward soar,
And fain to earth each earthy burthen shake;
For the world's cumbrous fetter sorrow brake,—
That magic fetter, that entangling tie,
Which makes man deem it bitter to forsake
The varying light of time's capricious sky
For that unclouded day which fills Eternity!

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