Bexhill, 1866

Now, when the catkins of the hazel swing
Wither'd above the leafy nook wherein
The chaffinch breasts her five blue speckled eggs,
All round the thorn grows fragrant, white with may,
And underneath the fresh wild hyacinthbed
Shimmers like water in the whispering wind;
Now, on this sweet still gloaming of the spring,
Within my cottage by the sea, I sit,
Thinking of yonder city where I dwelt,
Wherein I sicken'd, and whereof I learn'
So much that dwells like music on my brain,
A melancholy happiness is mine!
My thoughts, like blossoms of the muschatel,
Smell sweetest in the gloaming; and I feel
Visions and vanishings of other years, —
Faint as the scent of distant clover meadows —
Sweet, sweet, though they awaken serious cares —
Beautiful, beautiful, though they make me weep.

The good days dead, the well-beloved gone
Before me, lonely I abode amid
The buying, and the selling, and the strife
Of little natures; ye there still remain'd
Something to thank the Lord for, — I could live!
On winter nights, when wind and snow were out,
Afford a pleasant fire to keep me warm;
And while I sat, with homeward-looking eyes,
And while I heard the humming of the town,
I fancied 'twas the sound I used to hear
In Scotland, when I dwelt beside the sea.
I knew not how it was, or why it was,
I only heard a sea-sound, and was sad.
It haunted me and pain'd me, and it made
That little life of penmanship a dream!
And yet it served my soul for company,
When the dark city gather'd on my brain,
And from the solitude came never a voice
To bring the good days back, and show my heart
It was not quite a solitary thing.

The purifying trouble grew and grew,
Till silentness was more than I could bear.
Brought by the ocean murmur from afar,
Came silent phantoms of the misty hills
Which I had known and loved in other days;
And, ah! from time to time, the hum of life
Around me, the strange faces of the streets,
Mingling with those thin phantoms of the hills,
And with that ocean-murmur, made a cloud
That changed around my life with shades and sounds,
And, melting often in the light of day,
Left on my brow dews of aspiring dream.
And then I sang of Scottish dales and dells,
And human shapes that lived and moved therein,
Made solemn in the shadow of the hills.
Thereto, not seldom, did I seek to make
The busy life of London musical,
And phrase in modern song the troubled lives
Of dwellers in the sunless lanes and streets.
Yet ever I was haunted from afar,
While singing; and the presence of the mountains
Was on me; and the murmur of the sea
Deepen'd my mood; while everywhere I saw,
Flowing beneath the blackness of the streets,
The current of sublimer, sweeter life,
Which is the source of human smiles and tears,
And, melodised, becomes the strength of song.

Darkling, I long'd for utterance, whereby
Poor people might be holpen, gladden'd, cheer'd;
Bright'ning at times, I sang for singing's sake.
The wild wind of ambition grew subdued,
And left the changeful current of my soul
Crystal and pure and clear, to glass like water
The sad and beautiful of human life;
And, even in the unsung city's streets,
Seem'd quiet wonders meet for serious song,
Truth hard to phrase and render musical,
For ah! the weariness and weight of tears,
The crying out to God, the wish for slumber,
They lay so deep, so deep! God heard them all;
He set them unto music of His own;
But easier far the task to sing of kings,
Or weave weird ballads where the moon-dew glistens,
Than body forth this life in beauteous sound.
The crowd had voices, but each living man
Within the crowd seem'd silence-smit and hard:
They only heard the murmur of the town,
They only felt the dimness in their eyes,
And now and then turn'd startled, when they saw
Some weary one fling up his arms and drop,
Clay-cold, among them, — and they scarcely grieved,
But hush'd their hearts a time, and hurried on.

'Twas comfort deep as tears to sit alone,
Haunted by shadows from afar away,
And try to utter forth, in tuneful speech,
What lay so musically on my heart.
But, though it sweeten'd life, it seem'd in vain.
For while I sang, much that was clear before —
The souls of men and women in the streets,
The sounding sea, the presence of the hills,
And all the weariness, and all the fret,
And all the dim, strange pain for what had fled —
Turn'd into mist, mingled before mine eyes,
Roll'd up like wreaths of smoke to heaven, and died;
The pen dropt from my hand, mine eyes grew dim,
And the great roar was in mine ears again,
And I was all alone in London streets.

Hither to pastoral solitude I came,
Happy to breathe again serener air
And feel a purer sunshine; and the woods
And meadow; were to me an ecstasy,
The singing birds a glory, and the trees
A green perpetual feast to fill the eye
And shimmer in upon the soul; but chief,
There came the murmur of the waters, sounds
Of sunny tides that wash on silver sands,
Or cries of waves that anguish'd and went white
Under the eyes of lightnings. 'Twas a bliss
Beyond the bliss of dreaming, yet in time
It grew familiar as my mother's face;
And when the wonder and the ecstasy
Had mingled with the beatings of my heart,
The terrible City loom'd from far away
And gather'd on me cloudily, dropping dews,
Even as those phantoms of departed days
Had haunted me in London streets and lanes.
Wherefore in brighter mood I sought again
To make the life of London musical,
And sought the mirror of my soul for shapes
That linger'd, faces bright or agonised,
Yet ever taking something beautiful
From glamour of green branches, and of clouds
That glided piloted by golden airs.

And if I list to sing of sad things oft,
It is that sad things in this life of breath
Are truest, sweetest, deepest. Tears bring forth
The richness of our natures, as the rain
Sweetens the smelling brier; and I, thank God,
Have anguish'd here in no ignoble tears —
Tears for the pale friend with the singing lips,
Tears for the father with the gentle eyes
(My dearest up in heaven next to God)
Who loved me like a woman. I have wrought
No garland of the rose and passion-flower,
Grown in a careful garden in the sun;
But I have gather'd samphire dizzily,
Close to the hollow roaring of a Sea.
Far away in the dark
Breaketh that living Sea,
Wave upon wave; and hark!
These voices are blown to me;
For a great wind rises and blows,
Wafting the sea-sound near,
But it fitfully comes and goes,
And I cannot always hear;
Green boughs are flashing around,
And the flowers at my feet are fair,
And the wind that bringeth the ocean-sound
Grows sweet with the country air.
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