46 Spenserians: sobering thoughts about the Christmas season: "Bear with me, gentle reader, if my vein | Appear too serious: — sober, but not sad | The thoughts and feelings which inspire my strain; | Could they with mirthful words be fitly clad?"
Monthly Repository: "Although we cannot, in our critical conscience, assign Bernard Barton any very distinguished place among the bards of Britain, yet we can say of him, what we should not venture to affirm of many bards, that his productions may be perused with pleasant, congenial, and improved feelings, by the rational and devout Christian, at those seasons which most dispose him to serious reflection. There are times when the good sense, good principle, and good feeling, which we are sure of finding in his verses, make ample amends for their lack of poetry, or rather for the inferiority of the kind of poetry to which they belong. And such a time is New-Year's Eve, when, if we look at all into any book, save one, it should be just such a book as this, whose spirit is in perfect harmony with the sentiments we desire and ought to cherish. He has chosen his subject well; and ministers like a faithful, gentle, and pious friend, at the bedside of the departing year. He breathes on its last moments a Christian benediction; and, turning from the past to futurity, he 'engarlands the sepulchre of time' with the wreath of immortality" NS 3 (January 1820) 1.
Bernard Barton to Mr. Clemisha: "I have put forth some half dozen volumes of verse; to say nothing of scores and scores of odd bits of verse contributed to Annuals, Periodicals, Albums, and what not; and a correspondence implying a hundred times the writing of all these put together: where is the wonder that on the verge of sixty I am somewhat of a prematurely old man, with odds and ends of infirmities and ailments about me, which at times are a trial to the spirits and a weariness to the flesh? But all the grumbling in the world would not mend the matter, or help me, so I rub and drive on as well as I can" 16 November 1843; in Barton, Memoir, Letters, and Poems (1850) 104.
A NEW-YEAR'S EVE! Methinks 'tis good to sit
At such an hour, in silence and alone,
Tracing that record, by the pen unwrit,
Which every human heart has of its own,
Of joys and griefs, of hopes and fears unknown
To all beside; to let the spirit feel,
In all its force, the deep and solemn tone
Of Time's unflattering, eloquent appeal,
Which Truth to every breast would inwardly reveal.
A New-year's Eve! Though all who live on earth,
Or rich, or poor, or vulgar, or refined,
Have each a day from whence they date their birth,
In their domestic chronicles enshrined—
To-morrow is a birth-day for mankind!
One of those epochs to which all refer
Their measure of existence; in each mind
Be hope or fear its mute interpreter,
Of pleasure or of pain the silent chronicler.
It was no flight of fancy, then, in him,
Of proudest living bards the gifted peer,
Whose mental vision, purged from vapours dim,
Beheld "the skirts of the departing year!"
All who have eyes to see, or ears to hear,
Objects which every grosser sense defy,
Its parting footsteps catch with wakeful ear,
Its fading form behold with wistful eye,
'Till lost in that dark cloud which veils eternity.
Is this the preacher's cant? the poet's dream?
But few in silent solitude would dare,
Unless deceived by ignorance extreme,
As such to brand it. Age's silver hair,
Youth's blooming cheek, and manhood's brow of care,
What are they all but things that speak of time?
Nor lives there one, whatever form he wear,
Or rank he fill, who hears that midnight chime,
In whom it should not wake thoughts solemn and sublime.
Nature herself seems, in her wintry dress,
To own the closing year's solemnity:
Spring's blooming flowers, and summer's leafiness,
And autumn's richer charms are all thrown by;
I look abroad upon a starless sky!
Even the plaintive breeze sounds like the surge
On ocean's shore among those pine trees high;
Or, sweeping o'er that dark wall's ivied verge,
It rings unto my thought the old year's mournful dirge.
Bear with me, gentle reader, if my vein
Appear too serious: — sober, but not sad
The thoughts and feelings which inspire my strain;
Could they with mirthful words be fitly clad?
The thoughtless call the melancholy mad,
And deem joy dwells where laughter lights the brow:
But are the gay indeed the truly glad,
Because they seem so? O, be wiser thou!
Winter which strips the vine, harms not the cypress' bough.
There is a joy in deep thought's pensive mood,
Far, far beyond the worldling's noisiest mirth;
It draws from purer elements its food,
Higher and holier is its heavenly birth:
It soars above the fleeting things of earth,
Through faith that elevates, and hope that cheers;
And estimates by their enduring worth,
The cares and trials, sorrows, toils, and fears,
Whose varied shadows pass across this vale of tears.
Think not the sunny track, which lies thro' flowers,
The sweetest or the safest course may be,
Though Fancy there may build her fairy bowers,
And Pleasure's jocund train there wander free:
If heaven assign a thornier path to thee,
By clouds o'ershadow'd, start not at its gloom;
Wait patiently its onward course to see—
Those seeming thorns may bear unfading bloom,
And more than sun-set's light rest on the opening tomb.
E'en flowers are sweetest after summer's rain;
The sun shines brightest bursting from the cloud;
Pleasure is purest when it follows pain;
The moon smiles loveliest when, in beauty proud,
She breaks forth from her fleecy, silvery shroud;
Calm is the eve of many a stormy day;
The heart has joys it knows not in a crowd;
And those alone are happy, if not gay,
Who tread in patient hope life's smooth or rugged way.
Then marvel not, at such an hour as this,
If, musing thus in silence and alone,
I feel a mournful, yet a soothing bliss,
In yielding up my spirit to the tone
Of sober thought and feeling round it thrown.
To render life a boon most justly dear,
Enough of sunlight on my path has shone;
More than enough of shadows dark and drear,
To bid in brightest moods my heart rejoice with fear.
If such be life, oh! who of its strange book
Shall turn, unmoved, a yet unopen'd page?
What eye with dull indifference coldly look
On what may be its changeful heritage?
The lone way-farer on his pilgrimage,
On each hill-top looks round with wistful eyes,
To see what warfare he must onward wage,
Or ponder well the lore the past supplies:
Are we not pilgrims all, whose home is in the skies?
And when we find another stage is won
On life's important journey, when we gain
An eminence whence we may look upon
The path already trodden, not in vain
Should we review its pleasure or its pain;
He who refuses to retrace the past,
Must meet the future! wherefore then refrain,
Because life's onward course seem overcast,
To look with steadfast eye on what may come at last?
To me the yet untrodden road presents
More clouds than sunshine, less to hope than dread;
And yet among its unforeseen events,
Some there may be to lift in hope the head,
O'er which thick mists of darkness now are spread:
If e'en the little hoped may prove untrue,
Bringing but disappointment in its stead,
Fear's dark forebodings may deceive the view,
And life's declining hours may wear a happier hue.
That he who lives the longest may out-live
Much that gave life its highest, purest zest,
Is true, though mournful; one by one we give,
In childhood, youth, or age, to earth's cold breast,
The friends we've loved the fondest and the best:—
The very bells that now "ring out the year,"
Since morn arose, this painful truth imprest;
And sadly those who loved Thee paused to hear
Thy slow and solemn knell fall on the startled ear.
But can we mourn thee, gentlest friend, with grief
That knows no soothing hope? Oh! name it not;
All that can yield to anguish sweet relief,
Brightens the tear that mourns thy early lot;
A blameless life with no dark shade to blot
Its tranquil splendour, save its early end,
Was thine; unmourned, unhonoured, or forgot,
Thou didst not to the silent grave descend;
What most embalms the dead must with thy memory blend.
In one bereaved, in many a pensive heart,
Thy loved remembrance not e'en death can chill;
Strengthening that humble faith whose only chart
Is meek submission to the Almighty's will:
For "tribulation worketh patience" still,
"Patience experience, and experience hope!"
And thus is power afforded to fulfil
Each duty, 'till the thorns with which we cope
Burst forth in grateful flowers, and resignation slope
Our passage to the tomb! Grief is a sad
Yet salutary teacher; not so stern
As many deem, although his brow be clad
With the cold flowers that wreathe the funeral urn!
And wise are they who stoop of him to learn;
If these are taught wherein their weakness lies,
Not less are they instructed to discern,
And praise His goodness who their strength supplies,
'Till "crosses from His hand are blessings in disguise!"
When He, the pure and sinless One, came down
To sinful earth, our load of guilt to bear,
And teach us how to win a heavenly crown
By patient suffering, 'twas not His to wear
Joy's smiling mien or mirth's enlivening air;
By human folly, human crime untainted,
Of human woes he bore his ample share,
And in his mortal aspect still is painted
A man of sorrows deep, with darkest grief acquainted.
Rare at the banquet board, but often found
Where want, disease, and sorrow heaved their groan;
Whether he trod Gethsemane's sad ground,
Or on the Mount of Olives prayed alone,
For us was grief's dark vesture round him thrown;
Why? but to teach us how to kiss the rod,
And, "perfected through suffering," to make known
That sorrow's thorny path, if meekly trod,
Must guide his followers still to glory and to God.
Here then we reach the panacea, sought
In vain of old by proud philosophy,
Whereby e'en seeming ill with good is fraught,
And grateful tears gush from the mourner's eye;
For holy faith's all potent alchymy
Can do far more than language can express:
Beauty for ashes it can still supply,
Give joy for mourning, and the spirit dress
In the glad garb of praise for that of heaviness.
Has not the Christian cause then to exclaim,
Beyond the Greek philosopher of yore,
"EUREKA!" Shall a heathen's transports shame
The meek disciple of a holier lore?
Thanks be to God, and praise for evermore!
There are whose spirits have been humbly taught
For darkest days his goodness to adore,
And own the mercy which has safely brought
Their feet thro' rugged paths with thorns of anguish fraught.
For these have found, e'en in the seven-fold heat
Of trial's fiery furnace, that His power
Can make the bitterest cup seem truly sweet,
And cheer with hope when clouds most seemed to lower:
His holy name hath been their fortress tower;
And faith in his dear Son who reigns above,
Has made them in temptation's fearful hour,
Wise as the serpent, harmless as the dove,
And more than conquerors still thro' their Redeemer's love!
No more of sorrow. Think not I would fling
O'er brighter hearts than mine a sadd'ning shade,
Or have them, by the sober truths I sing,
Be causelessly dejected or dismayed.
My task has been to show how heavenly aid
May lighten earthly grief; how flowers may cheer
Even pale Sorrow's seeming thorny braid;
And how, amid December's tempests drear,
Some solemn thoughts are due unto the parting year.
My brighter task remains. "A NEW-YEAR'S EVE!
'Tis not an hour to sink in cheerless gloom,
To take of every hope a mournful leave,
As if the earth were but a yawning tomb,
And sighs and tears mortality's sole doom;
The Christian knows "to enjoy is to obey;"
All he most hopes or fears is in the womb
Of vast eternity, and there alway
His thoughts and feelings tend; yet in his transient stay
On this fair earth, he truly can enjoy,
And he alone, its transitory good;
The bliss of worldlings soon or late must cloy,
For sensual is its element and food;
The Christian's is of higher, nobler mood,
It brings no riot, leaves no dark unrest,
Its source is seen, its end is understood,
Its light is that calm "sunshine of the breast,"
Sanctioned by Reason's law, and by Religion blest.
To him the season, though it may recall
Solemn and touching thoughts, has yet a ray
Of brightness o'er it thrown, which sheds on all
His fellow-pilgrims in life's rugged way,
Far more than sunshine; and his heart is gay!
Were all like his, how beautiful were mirth!
Then human feelings might keep holiday
In blameless joy, beside the social hearth,
And honour Heaven's first law by happiness on earth.
Is not the hour just past when midnight laud
Sang peace on earth, proclaim'd good-will to man?
And would not e'en the coldest hearts be thawed,
Melted to feeling, did they rightly scan
Redemption's merciful and gracious plan?
Oh! who the memory of that hour shall scorn,
Unless indeed misanthropy's dark ban
Hath made the heart of every hope forlorn,
When the glad shepherds heard the glorious Child was born?
Then heap the blazing hearth, and spread the board,
Enlarge the circle, open wide the door,
Ye who are rich; and from your ample hoard
Clothe ye the naked, feed the hungry poor;
Impart to those who mourn their scanty store:
The measure that ye mete shall be your own;
Full measure, heaped, and pressed, and running o'er,
May here on earth requite the kindness shown,
And Heaven a richer boon hereafter shall make known.
Confine not to your equals, friends, or kin,
The charities this wintry hour demands;
'Tis wise to cherish, good to gather in,
As to the heart's own garner, all that stands
Linked to us by our nature's strongest bands;
To greet the present, and to think of those,
As fondly loved, who roam in foreign lands,
In whose warm hearts perchance at distance glows
That yearning love of home the exile only knows.
All this is wise and good, and tends to keep
Nature's best feelings actively alive;
To cherish sympathies which else might sleep
The sleep of death, and never more revive;
But not for these alone so hoard and hive
What Heaven has given you, as to limit there
Your hospitable rites; but rather strive
To let the wretched in your bounty share,
Remembering these were once your Lord's peculiar care.
Give unto those who cannot give again,
Who have no claim upon you but distress;
Imagine not the boon bestowed in vain,
The blessing of the poor your wealth may bless,
And their prayers prove you worthy to possess
Your earthly substance: — e'en what you partake
Shall be enjoyed with truer happiness
For every grateful feeling you awake;—
Since God hath given to you, give others for His sake.
But banish from your hour of festive joy
The revel's rude excess, the jest obscene;—
The orgies of the wicked ever cloy,
And harpy feasts, unholy and unclean,
But ill befit a Christian's sober mien:
His mirth is cheerfulness that leaves no sting;
Nor would he change the happiness serene
Of hours that bear no stain upon their wing,
For all the boisterous joys which prouder banquets bring.
He who of such delights can judge, yet spare
To interpose them oft, is not unwise.
Thus Milton sang; the warbled Tuscan air,
The neat repast and light, his taste implies:—
Pure and refined that taste in Reason's eyes,
And worthy of Religion's high applause,
Which taught our noble poet how to prize
"The mirth that after no repenting draws,"
But can God's gifts enjoy, yet keep His holy laws.
A New-year's Eve! My fancy, wing thy flight,
Nor doubt that in thy native country dear,
There are who honour with appropriate rite
The closing hours of the departing year;
Who mingle with their hospitable cheer
Feelings and thoughts to man in mercy given,
Brightening in Sorrow's eye the pensive tear,
And healing hearts by disappointment riven,
Their's who o'er rougher seas have tempest-tost been driven.
And these are they who on this social eve
Its old observances with joy fulfil;
Their simple hearts the loss of such would grieve,
For childhood's early memory keeps them still,
Like lovely wild-flowers by a chrystal rill,
Fresh and unfading; they may be antique,
In towns disused; but rural vale and hill,
And those who live and die there, love to seek
The blameless bliss they yield, for unto them they speak
A language dear as the remembered tone
Of murmuring streamlet in his native land
Is to the wanderer's ear, who treads alone
O'er India's or Arabia's wastes of sand:
Their memory too is mixed with pleasures plann'd
In the bright happy hours of blooming youth;
When Fancy scattered flowers with open hand
Across Hope's path, whose visions passed for sooth,
Yet linger in such hearts their ancient worth and truth.
And therefore do they deck their walls with green;
There shines the holly-bough with berries red;
There too the yule-log's cheerful blaze is seen
Around its genial warmth and light to shed;
Round it are happy faces, smiles that spread
A feeling of enjoyment calm and pure,
A sense of happiness, home-born, home-bred,
Whose influence shall unchangeably endure
While home for English hearts has pleasures to allure.
And far remote be the degenerate day
Which dooms our thoughts in quest of joy to roam!
From the thatched, white-washed cot, tho' built of clay,
To Wealth's most costly, Grandeur's proudest dome,
A Briton's breast should love and prize his home:
Changeful our clime, and round our spot of earth,
Roused by the wintry winds, the white waves foam;
But here all household ties have had their birth,
And sires and sons been found to feel and own their worth.
Here the Penates have been worshipped long,
Not merely by the wood-fire blazing bright
By childhood's pastime, and by poet's song,
Though these have gladdened many a winter night,
And made their longest, darkest hours seem light;
But their's has been the homage of the heart,
That far surpasses each external rite,
In which more quiet feelings have their part—
Smiles that uncalled for come, tears that unbidden start.
And though the world more worldly may have grown,
And modes and manners to our fathers dear
Be now by most unpractised and unknown,
Not less their spirit we may still revere;
Honoured the smile, and hallowed be the tear,
Given to these reliques of the olden time,
For those there be that prize them; as the ear
May love the ancient poet's simple rhyme,
Or feel the secret charm of minster's distant chime.
Thus it should be! their memory is entwined
With things long buried in Time's whelming wave;
Objects the heart has ever fondly shrined,
And fain from dull forgetfulness would save;
The wise, the good, the gentle and the brave,
Whose names o'er History's page have glory shed;
The patriot's birth-place, and the poet's grave,
Old manners and old customs, long since fled,
Yet to the living dear, linked with the honoured dead!
Once more, "A NEW-YEAR'S EVE!" My strain began
With sober thoughts, with such it well may end;
For when, oh! when, should these come home to man,
With such a season if they may not blend?
My gentle reader, let an unknown friend
Remind thee of the ceaseless lapse of time!
Nor will his serious tone thy ear offend
If love may plead his pardon for the crime
Of blending solemn truth with minstrel's simple rhyme.
"I would not trifle merely, though the world
Be loudest in their praise who do no more;"
A standard is uplifted and unfurl'd;
The summons hath gone forth from shore to shore;
In thought's still pause, in passion's loud uproar,
Thine ear has heard that gentle voice serene,
Deep, but not loud, behind thee and before;
Thine inward eye that banner too hath seen;—
Hast thou obeyed the call? or still a loiterer been?
Canst thou forget who first on Calv'ry's height
Lifted that glorious banner up on high,
While heaven above was wrapped in starless night,
And earth, convulsed with horror, heard the cry,
ELI, ELI, LAMA SABACTHANI?
Look back upon that hour of grief and pain;
For thee He came to suffer, and to die!
The blood He shed must be thy boon, or bane,
Let conscience answer which! He hath not died in vain.
Christ died for ALL. But in that general debt
He bled to cancel-dost not thou partake?
Is thine, too, blotted out? Oh! do not set
Upon a doubtful issue such a stake!
Each faculty of soul and sense awake;
Trust not a general truth which may be vain
To thee; but rather, for thy Saviour's sake,
And for thy own, some evidence attain
For thee indeed he died, for thee hath risen again.
Are thy locks white with many long-past years?
One more is dawning which thy last may be;
Art thou in middle age, by worldly fears
And hopes surrounded? set thy spirit free,
More awful fears, more glorious hopes to see.
Art thou in blooming youth? thyself engage
To serve and honour HIM, who unto thee
Would be a guide and guard through life's first stage,
Wisdom in manhood's strength, and greenness in old age!