Monday, 13 October 2014

The Irish Cottier's Death and Burial

(One of my favourite poems by Orr. I am especially fond of the fifth verse)

 A Highland Funeral, Sir James Guthrie, 1882

By James Orr
The blameless Cottier, wha his youth had pass'd
Erin! my country! preciously adorn'd
With every beauty, and with every worth,
Thy grievances through time shall not be scorn'd,
For powerful friends to plead thy cause step forth:
But more unblest, oppression, want, and dearth,
Did during life, distressfully attend
The poor neglected native of thy North,
Whose fall I sing. He found no powerful friend,
'Till Death was sent to Heaven to bid his soul ascend.
In temperance, an' felt few pains when auld,
The prey o' pleurisy, lies low at last,
And aft his thoughts are by delirium thrall'd:
Yet while he raves, he prays in words weel wal'd,
An' mutters through his sleep o' truth an' right;
An' after pondering deep, the weans are tald
The readiest way he thinks they justly might
Support themsels thro' life, when he shall sink in night.
Wi' patient watchfu'ness, lasses an' lads,
Careful' an' kin', surroun' his clean caff bed,
Ane to his lips the coolin' cordial ha'ds,
An' ane behin' supports his achin' head;
Some bin' the arm that lately has been bled,
An' some burn bricks his feet mair warm to mak;
If e'er he doze, how noiselessly they tread!
An' stap the lights to mak the bield be black,
An' aft the bedside lea, an' aft slip saftly back.
Rang'd roun' the hearth, where he presides nae mair,
Th' inquirin' nybers mourn their sufferin' frien';
An' now an' then divert awa their care,
By tellin' tales to please some glaiket wean,
Wha's e'e soon fills whan told about the pain
Its sire endures, an' what his loss wad be;
An' much they say, but a', alas! in vain,
To soothe the mither, wha ha'f pleas'd could see
Her partner eas'd by death, though for his life she'd die.
And while they're provin' that his end is sure
By strange ill omens - to assuage his smart
The minister comes in, wha' to the poor,
Without a fee performs the doctor's part:
An' while wi' hope he soothes the suff'rer's heart,
An' gies a cheap, safe recipe, they try
To quat braid Scotch, a task that foils their art;
For while they join his converse, vain though shy,
They monie a lang learn'd word misca' an' misapply.
An' lo! the sick man's dyin' words to 'tend,
Th' alarm'd auld circle gather roun', an' weep;
Deceiv'd by hope, they thought till now he'd mend,
But he thought lang in death's embrace to sleep.
"Let ithers will," he says, "a golden heap,
I can but lea my blessin' an' advice ----
Shield your poor mither, an' her counsel keep;
An' you, my senior sons, that ay were wise,
Do for my late born babes, an' train them for the skies.
"Be honest an' obligin'; if ye thrive
Be meek; an' firm whan crosses come your road;
Should rude men wrang ye, to forgie them strive;
An' gratefu' be for benefits bestow'd:
Scorn nae poor man wha bears oppression's load,
Nor meanly cringe for favours frae the proud;
In ae short sentence - serve baith man an' God.
Sae, whan your clay lies mould'rin' in a shroud,
Your saul shall soar to Heaven, an' care nae mair becloud."
His strength here fail'd, but still affection's e'e
Spak on; a moment motionless he lay;
Bade "Peace be wi' them!" turn'd his head awee,
And pass'd through death's dark vale without dismay.
The speechless widow watch'd the stiff'ning clay,
And shed some "nat'ral tears" - rack'd, yet resign'd;
To loud laments the orphan groupe gied way,
An' mourn'd, unfelt, the wants an' wrangs they'd find,
Flung friendless on the warl, that's seldom unco kind.
Come hither, sons of Plenty! an' relieve
The bonny bairns, for labour yet owre wee,
An' that mild matron, left in life's late eve,
Without a stay the ills o' age to dree:
Had I your walth, I hame wad tak' wi' me
The lamb that's lookin' in my tear-wat face;
An' that dejected dame should sit rent free
In some snug cot, that I wad hae the grace
To visit frequently, and bid her hardships cease.
Cou'd he whose limbs they decently hae stretch'd,
The followers o' freets awake an' mark,
What wad he think o' them, he oft beseeched
To be mair wise than mind sic notions dark?
To bare the shelves o' plates they fa' to wark;
Before the looking-glass a claith they cast;
An' if a clock were here, nae ear might hark
Her still'd han's tell how hours an' moments pass'd;
Ignorance bred sic pranks, an' custom gars them last.

But see what crowds to wauk the Cottier come!
Maist frae respect, but some to gape-seed saw:
Douce men an' wives step forward to the room,
The youths on forms sit rang'd roun' ilka wa';
Some at a plate light pipes as white as snaw;
Some hark in neuks wi' lasses whom they prize;
Some banter simple nymphs, their parts to shaw;
But though a laugh be sometimes like to rise,
They dinna either death or the deceas'd despise.
Belyve an auld man lifts the Word o' God,
Gies out a line, an' sings o' grief an' pain;
Reads o'er a chapter, chosen as it should,
That maks them sure the dead shall rise again;
An' prays, that he, wha's hand has gie'n and ta'en,
May be the orphan's guide, the widow's stay;
An' that, rememb'rin' death ere health be gane,
They a' may walk in wisdom's Heaven-ward way,
Like him, the man o' worth, that's now a clod o' clay.
An' now a striplin', wi' becomin' grace,
Han's the wauk-supper, in a riddle, roun';
Hard bread, an' cheese, might nicest palates please,
Bought frae a huxter in the nyb'rin' town;
An' gi'es them gills a piece o' rum sae brown,
By polished sots wi' feign'd reluctance pried;
Though here an' there may sit a menseless loun,
The thoughtfu' class consider poor folks need,
An' only "kiss the cup," an' hardly ance break bread.

While thus they sit, the widow lifts the sheet,
To kiss the corps that worms will shortly gnaw;
Some argue Scripture - some play tricks - some greet;
Here they're asleep - an' there they slip awa'.
Folk wha lay list'ning 'till the cock wad craw,
Now rise frae rest, an' come to sit a while;
Salute their frien's, and speer for their folk a',
An' to the fire step ben, frae which a file
O' warmer rustics rise, polite in simplest stile.
Syne wi' anither glass they hail day-light,
An' crack mair cruse o' bargains, farms, an' beasts;
Or han' tradition down, an' ither fright,
Wi' dreadfu' tales o' witches, elves, an' ghaists.
The soger lad, wha on his pension rests,
Tells how he fought, an' proudly bares his scaur;
While unfledg'd gulls, just looking owre their nests,
Brag how they lately did their rivals daur,
Before their first sweethearts, an' dashed them i' the glaur.

An' while some lass, though on their cracks intent,
Turns to the light and sleely seems to read,
The village sires, wha kent him lang, lament
The dear deceas'd, an' praise his life an' creed;
For if they crav'd his help in time o' need,
Or gied him trust, they prov'd him true an' kin';
"But he," they cry, "wha blames his word or deed,
Might say the sun, that now begins to shine,
Is rising i' the wast, whare he'll at e'en decline."

Warn'd to the Cottier's burial, rich an' poor
Cam' at the hour, tho' win' an' rain beat sair;
An' monie met it at the distant moor,
An' duly, time-about, bore up the bier,
That four men shouther'd through the church-yard drear.
Twa youths knelt down, and humbly in the grave
Laid their blest father. Numbers shed a tear,
Hop'd for an end like his, and saftly strave
To calm his female frien's, wha dolefully did rave.

An' while the sexton earth'd his poor remains,
The circling crowd contemplatively stood,
An' mark'd the empty sculls, an' jointless banes,
That, cast at random, lay like cloven wood:
Some stept outbye, an' read the gravestanes rude,
That only tald the inmates' years an' names;
An' ithers, kneeling, stream'd a saut, saut flood,
On the dear dust that held their kinsfolks' frames ----
Then, through the gate they a' pass'd to their diff'rent hames.

Erin! my country! while thy green sward gilds
The good man's grave, whose fall I strove to sing,
Ten thousand Cottiers, toiling on thy wilds,
Prize truth and right 'bove ev'ry earthly thing:
Full many a just man makes thy work-shops ring;
Full many a bright man strips thy meads to mow;
Closer in thy distress to thee they cling;
And though their fields scarce daily bread bestow,
Feel thrice more peace of mind, than those who crush them low.