James Brunton Stephens

(17 June 1835 – 29 June 1902 / Borrowstounness, on the Firth of Forth, Scotland;)

Born Before his Time


Brown was weeping; likewise cursing; and with amplitude of reason;
For a letter had been handed him that very afternoon
Which proved he had been cruelly begotten out of season,
That, in fact, he had been born a hundred centuries too soon.

From the day a friendly hint had told of coal on his selection,
In the house, the street, the office Brown had revelled in a dream,
Wherein himself and family and all the Brown connection
Figured floating in a golden barge adown a silver stream.

Now he wept; and little wonder; all his gorgeous hopes had faded
With the letter of the expert, lying crumpled at his feet,
Which reported, with a wealth of scientific terms paraded,
That the “coal” was hardly lignite, though a little more than peat.

“But some day,” so ran the missive, “it is bound to prove a treasure.”
(Here a moment's re-awakened hope had cheered the reader's soul)
“What with gas elimination and accumulated pressure,
“In ten thousand years or so it will be marketable coal.”

Such the wherefore of the change from exultation to lamenting—
And he lifted up his voice and cursed the author of his birth,
Through whose rash precipitation, unconsulted, unconsenting,
He had thus been dumped ten thousand years too soon upon the earth.

Not alone his sire and mother he denounced and execrated,
On their parents and fore-parents his anathemas he hurled,
As one and all, in series, or in concert, implicated
In his premature appearance on this carboniferous world.

For a change he cursed himself, as the untimely culmination
Of the whole precocious family that bore the name of Brown;
Till, exhausted of ferocity, the rage of imprecation
Into unavailing optatives broke impotently down.

“Oh that things,” he raved, “had always been as in the early ages,
“Before the human race had lost the art of going slow,
“When the life of man proceeded at such very easy stages
That the proper age for wedlock was a hundred years or so!
“Would that each of my forefathers, like Methusalem, had waited,
“Who till nigh upon two hundred shirked the matrimonial rôle!
“Then I had not been ten thousand years unduly antedated,
“But would doubtless in the future be co-eval with my coal.

“Now not for me shall this potential wealth be resurrected;
“This bottled sunshine immature shall mellow not for me!

“Now another hand shall reap where I have—where I have selected,
“And another lap receive the fruit that ripens on my tree!

“Oh that I had been consulted ere the world was set in movement,
“When Providence was mapping out the future course of time,
“I had certainly suggested as a manifest improvement
“That a coal-seam and its owner should together reach their prime.

“I shall be a blessèd fossil when the land shall yield its treasure,
“I who registered the area and paid the money down—
“Paid the money, little recking of another's gain and pleasure—
“Oh that I could sleep ten thousand years and wake again John Brown!”

PART II.
And the gods whom he had railed at in his petulant misprision
Heard the prayer and sent such answer as appeared to meet the case:
Heavy slumber fell upon him, and 'twas given him in a vision
At the date himself had named to re-awake to time and space.

On his treasure-ground he stood; for though his data were deficient,
The old land-marks being down, and every feature new and strange,
Yet, as dreamers are at moments unaccountably omniscient,
He was 'ware of his selection in despite of time and change.

And, behold, a crowd of workers, working leisurely and coolly,
Who with marvellous machinery were scooping up his coal,
Which an aeronautic vehicle received, and, freighted fully,
Soared away with at the touch of some invisible control.

Then within the soul of Brown did grievous sense of wrong awaken,
And on one who made to pass him he imposed a sudden hand—
“Tell me, tell me,” he demanded, “where my coal is being taken.
“At whose order has this trespass been committed on my land?”

To whom in turn, the other, when a moment he had pondered,
As if dubious how to grapple with an ignorance so great,
“From what planet in formation have you innocently wandered?
“‘My coal.’ ‘My land.’ . . . Poor waif, you've come ten thousand years too late.

“In this world where every man an altruistic democrat is,
“We avoid as much as possible the use of my's and thy's:
“Up in Saturn or in Neptune or where'er your habitat is
“I presume you still are wallowing in the stage of merchandise.

“You should have timed your visit for that earlier dispensation
“When the individual flourished, reaping where he did not sow,
“When he was counted wisest in his day and generation
“Who made the largest profit with the smallest quid pro quo.

“Now a man reaps what he sows, and when his measure overfloweth
“He who lacks may freely take, as each for each and all doth live,
“Here are neither rich nor poor, no man exacteth, no man oweth,
“And the zest of labour groweth with the vital need to give.

“And as touching this same mineral, whose multifarious uses
“By our prodigal progenitors were only half divined,
“Wheresoever to man's comfort or his pleasure it conduces,
“There—his want his only title—there the owner you will find.”

* * * * *
Brown awoke another man, the situation now surveying
In the light of such new knowledge as prophetic vision brings;
'Twas a chastened Brown who mopped his forehead, tremulously saying,
“By the Lord, I must anticipate that frightful state of things!”

So he went and squared the expert, who indited a voluminous
Report upon the merits of the hypothetic coal,
While relays of goodly samples most seductively bituminous,
Judiciously distributed, beguiled the public soul.

Then a Company was floated and . . . the rest needs no relating,
Brown, of course, sold out in time, nor have his riches taken wings.
Brown is happy and respected; and he doesn't mind narrating
How he managed to anticipate “that frightful state of things.”

Submitted: Wednesday, March 03, 2010

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