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The Children's Dance - Poem by John Wilson

How calm and beautiful the frosty night
Has stolen unnoticed like the hush of sleep
O'er Grassmere-vale! Beneath the mellowing light
How sinks in softness every rugged steep!
The old church-tower a solemn watch doth keep
O'er the sweet village she adorns so well;
Faintly the freezing stream is heard to weep,
Wild-murmuring far within its icy cell,
And hark! across the lake, clear chimes the chapelbell.
Soon will the moon and all her stars be here:
A stealing light proclaims her o'er yon hill.
Slowly she raiseth up her radiant sphere,
And stillness, at her smile, becomes more still.
My heart forgets all thoughts of human ill,
And man seems happy as his place of birth:
All things that yield him joy my spirit fill
With kindred joy; and even his humblest mirth
Seems at this peaceful hour to beautify the earth.
Beyond this vale my fancy may not fly,
Held by its circle in a magic chain;
Of merry-making, and festivity
Even 'mid this moonlight-scene shall be my strain.
Nor, gracious Nature! when I wake again
A hymn of loftier temper in thy praise,
Wilt thou the Poet's homage-song disdain,
For thou hast never listened to his lays,
Who loved not lowly life and all its simple ways.
Through many a vale how rang each snow-roofed cot,
This livelong day with rapture blithe and wild!
All thoughts but of the lingering eve forgot
Both by grave parent, and light-hearted child.
Hail to the night! whose image oft beguiled
Youth's transient sadness with a startling cheer!
The Ball-night this by younkers proudly styled!
The joy at distance bright burns brighter near—
Now smiles the happiest hour of all their happy year!
All day the earthen floors have felt their feet
Twinkling quick measures to the liquid sound
Of their own small-piped voices shrilly sweet,
As hand in hand they wheeled their giddy round.
Ne'er fairy-revels on the greensward mound
To dreaming bard a lovelier show displayed,
Titania's self did ne'er with lighter bound
Dance o'er the diamonds of the dewy glade,
Than danced, at peep of morn, mine own dear mountain-maid.
Oft in her own small mirror had the gleam,
The softened gleam of her rich golden hair,
That o'er her white neck floated in a stream,
Kindled to smiles that infant's visage fair,
Half-conscious she that beauty glistened there!
Oft had she glanced her restless eyes aside
On silken sash so bright and debonnair,
Then to her mother flown with leaf-like glide,
Who kissed her cherub-head with tears of silent pride.
But all these glad rehearsals now are o'er,
And young and old in many a glittering throng
By tinkling copsewood and hill-pathway pour,
Cheering the air with laughter and with song,
Those first arrived think others tarrying long,
And chide them smiling with a friendly jeer,
'To let the music waste itself was wrong,
So stirringly it strikes upon the ear,
The lame might dance,' they cry, 'the aged-deaf might hear.'
And lo! the crowded ball-room is alive
With restless motion, and a humming noise,
Like on a warm spring-morn a sunny hive,
When round their queen the waking bees rejoice.
Sweet blends with graver tones the silvery voice
Of children rushing eager to their seats;
The Master proud of his fair flock employs
His guiding beck that due attention meets,—
List! through the silent room each anxious bosom beats!
Most beautiful and touching is the scene!
More blissful far to me than Fancy's bower!
Arched are the walls with wreaths of holly green,
Whose dark red-berries blush beside the flower
That kindly comes to charm the wintry hour,
The Christmas rose! the glory white as snow!
The dusky roof seems brightened by the power
Of bloom and verdure mingling thus below,
Whence many a taper-light sends forth a cheerful glow.
There sit together tranquilly arrayed
The friends and parents of the infant-band;
A mother nodding to her timid maid
With cheering smiles—or beckoning with her hand,
A sign of love the child doth understand.
There, deeper thoughts the father's heart employ,
His features grave with fondness melting-bland,
He asks his silent heart, with gushing joy,
If all the vale can match his own exulting boy.
See! where in blooming rows the children sit!
All loving partners by the idle floor
As yet divided—save where boy doth flit,
Lightly as small wave running 'long the shore,
To whisper something, haply said before,
Unto the soft cheek of his laughing May!
The whiles the master eyes the opening door,
And, fearing longer than one smile to stay,
Turns on his noiseless heel, and jocund wheels away.
O band of living flowers! O taintless wreath!
By nature nourished 'mid her mountain air!
O sweet unfolding buds that blush and breathe
Of innocence and love! I scarce may dare
To gaze upon you!—What soft gleams of hair!
What peaceful foreheads! and what heavenly eyes!
Bosoms so sweet will never harbour care;
Such spiritual breath was never made for sighs!
For you still breathe on earth the gales of paradise.
But I will call you by your human name,—
Children of earth, of frailty, and distress!
Alternate objects ye of praise and blame!
The spell is broken—do I love you less?
Ah! no!—a deepening, mournful tenderness
Yearns at my heart, e'en now when I behold
What trivial joys the human soul can bless!
I feel a pathos that can ne'er be told
Breathed from yon mortal locks of pure ethereal gold.
Where now that angel face—that fairy frame—
The joyful beauty of that burnished head
That shining forth o'er all—a starlike flame—
Once through this room admiring rapture shed?
Can that fair breast so full of life be dead?
All mute those ruddy lips whose dewy balm
As if through breathing flowers sweet music shed?
Those bounding limbs chained now in endless calm—
—For her last Sabbath-day was sung the funeral psalm!
One reverend head I miss amid the throng—
'Tis bowed in sorrow o'er his cottage hearth!
The tread of dancing feet—the voice of song—
The gladsome viol—and the laugh of mirth
To him seem mockery on this lonesome earth.
Rich in one child—he felt as if his store
Of bliss might never yield to mortal dearth;
But dry the cup of joy that once ran o'er!
—Now that grey-headed man is poorest of the poor.
That was a stirring sound—my heart feels light
Once more, and happy as a lamb at play.
At music such as this pale thought takes flight;
It speaks of Scotland too, a dear strathspey!
No vulgar skill the Master doth display,
The living bow leaps dancing o'er the strings,
The wrinkled face of Age is bright as day,
While each glad child in fancied measure springs,
And feels as if through air he skimmed on flying wings.
A hush of admiration chains the breath,
And calms the laughing features of us all;
The room, erewhile so loud, is still as death—
For lo! the Infant-monarchs of the ball
Rise from their seats, rejoicing at the call,
And move soft-gliding to their proper place!
He in his triumph rising straight and tall;
She light of air, and delicate of face,
More bright through fear's faint shade her wild unconscious grace.
Towards each other their delighted eyes
They smiling turn, and all at once may tell
From their subdued and sinless ecstasies
That these fair children love each other well.
They sport and play in the same native dell;
There, each lives happy in a sheltered nest;
And though the children of our vales excel
In touching beauty—far above the rest
Shine forth this starlike pair—the loveliest and the best.
Like a faint shadow falls the pride of youth
O'er faces sparkling yet with childhood's light—
Joy, friendship, fondness, innocence, and truth,
That blushing maiden to her boy unite,
More than a brother dear! Ay—this glad night
Across their quiet souls will often move,
A spot of vernal sunshine ever bright!
When through youth's fairy-land no more they rove,
And feel that Grief oft sits beside her sister Love.
But lo! their graceful salutations lend
A mutual boldness to each beating heart;
Up strikes the tune—suspense is at an end—
Like fearless forest-fawns away they start!
How wildly nature now combines with art!
The motions of the infant mountaineer
Wont o'er the streams and up the hills to dart, Subdued by precept and by music here
Enthral the admiring soul at once through eye and ear.
Like sunbeams glancing o'er a meadow-field,
From side to side the airy spirits swim.
What keen and kindling rapture shines revealed
Around their eyes, and moves in every limb!
See! how they twine their flexile arms so slim,
In graceful arches o'er their hanging hair,
Whose ringlets for a while their eyes bedim.
The music stops—they stand like statues there—
Then parting glide away on noiseless steps of air.
And now a ready hand hath round them thrown
A flowing garland, for their beauteous Queen
Wreathed by her playmates—roses newly blown
White-clustering 'mid the ivy's vivid green.
Enfolded thus in innocence, they lean
Their silky heads in inclination dear,
Their blent locks fluttering thro' the space between;
And do they not, advancing thus, appear
Like angels sent by Spring to usher in the year?
Their movements every instant lighter grow.
Motion to them more easy seems than rest:
Their cheeks are tinged with a diviner glow—
Their gleaming looks a perfect bliss attest.
Now is the triumph of their art confest
By rising murmurs, and soft-rustling feet
All round the admiring room—they cease—opprest
With a pride-mingled shame—and to their seat
Fly off, 'mid thundering praise, with bosoms fluttering sweet.
Around their Queen her loving playmates press,
Proud of her dancing, as it were their own;
With voices trembling through their tenderness,
Like to the flute's low tones when sweetly blown!
Envy to their pure breasts is yet unknown;
Too young and happy for a moment's guile!
There Innocence still sacred keeps her throne,
Well-pleased, in that calm hold, to see the while
Lingering on human lips an unpolluted smile.
Ah me! that Bards in many a lovely lay,
Forgetting all their own delightful years,
Should sing that life is but one little day,
And this most blessèd world the vale of tears!
Even in such songs mysterious truth appears:
We weep—forget—or muse resigned on death—
But oh! that those inevitable years
The soul should sully with bedimming breath,
And prove how vain a dream is all our childhood's faith!
Go to thy mother's arms, thou blessèd thing!
And in her yearning bosom hide thy head:
Behold! how bliss resembleth sorrowing!
When smiles are glistening—why should tears be shed?
Nor, grey-haired man! art thou dishonourèd
By those big drops that force at last their way
Down thy grave wrinkled face! When thou art dead,
That child thou knowest will weep upon thy clay—
Thus fathers oft are sad when those they love are gay.
But why should merriment thus feel alloy,
Sanctioned by Nature though such sadness be?
—Look on yon Figure! how he swells with joy!
With head-erecting pride and formal glee!
And may a Poet dare to picture thee,
As stiff thou walk'st thy pupils sly among;
While roguish elf doth ape thy pedantry?
Loudly, I trow, would bark the critic throng,
If vulgar name like thine should slip into my song.
And yet thou shalt not go without the meed
Of well-earned praise—one tributary line:
And haply as I tune my simple reed,
Such theme the pastoral muse may not decline.
Nor vain nor useless is a task like thine—
That, ere the gleams of life's glad morning fly,
Bids native grace with fresh attractions shine,
Taming the wild—emboldening the shy—
And still its end the same—the bliss of infancy!
Nor think the coldest spirit could withstand
The genial influence breathed, like balm from heaven,
From rosy childhood, in a vernal band
Dancing before him every happy Even.
When through the gloom their gliding forms are driven,
Like soft stars hurrying through the airy mist,
Unto his heart paternal dreams are given,
And in the bliss of innocent beauty blest
Oft hath that simple man their burnished ringlets kissed.
No idle, worthless, wandering man is he,
But in this vale of honest parents bred:
Trained to a life of patient industry,
He with the lark in summer leaves his bed
Through the sweet calm by morning twilight shed,
Walking to labour by that cheerful song;
And, making now pure pleasure of a trade,
When winter comes with nights so dark and long,
'Tis his to train to grace the smiling infant throng.
And he, I ween, is aye a welcome guest
In every cottage-home on hill and vale;
And oft by matron grave is warmly prest
To honour with his praise her home-brewed ale.
Smiles the grown maid her master to regale,
Mindful of all his kindness when a child;
Invited thus, the master may not fail
To laud with fitting phrase the liquor mild,
And prays that heaven may bless the cottage on the wild.
O fair the mazy dance that breaks my dream!
Heaven dawns upon me as I starting wake!
A flight of fancy this—a frolic whim—
A mirthful tumult in which all partake.
So dance the sunny atoms o'er a lake;
So small clouds blend together in the sky;
So when the evening gales the grove forsake,
The radiant lime-leaves twinkle yet on high,
So flutter new-fledged birds to their own melody.
Through bright confusion order holds her reign,
And not one infant there but well doth know
By cunning rules her station to regain,
And fearless of mistakes to come and go.
Yet did the master no small pains bestow
On these small elves so docile, and so true
To tune and figure. Nature willed it so,
Who framed to grace their stature as it grew,
And trained their fairy feet among the morning dew.
True that, in polished life, refinement sheds
A fragile elegance o'er childhood's frame,—
And in a trembling lustre steeps their heads,
A finer charm, a grace without a name.
There culture kindly breathes on nature's flame;
And angel beauty owns her genial sway.
But oh! too oft doth dove-eyed Pity claim
The unconscious victims dancing light and gay,
For sickness lends that bloom, the symbol of decay.
Here Health, descending from her mountain-throne
Surveys with rapture yon delighted train
Of rosy sprites, by day and night her own,
Though mortal creatures, strangers yet to pain!
For she hath taught them up the hills to strain,
Following her foot-prints o'er the dewy flowers,
Light as the shadows flitting o'er the plain,
Soon as the earth salutes the dawning hours
With song and fragrance poured from all her glittering bowers.
Nor deem to gilded roofs alone confined
The magic charm of manners mild and free;
Attendant mostly they on peace of mind,
Best cherished by the breath of purity.
Yea! oft in scenes like this of rustic glee,
Where youth, and joy, and innocence resort,
The Manners gladly rule the revelry,
Unseen, they mingle in the quickening sport, Well pleased 'mid village-hinds to hold their homely court.
See! with what tenderness of mien, voice, eye,
Yon little stripling, scarce twelve summers old,
Detains his favourite partner gliding by,
Becoming, as she smiles, more gaily bold!
'Tis thus the pleasures of our youth unfold
The fairest feelings of the human heart;
Nor, o'er our heads when silvering years are rolled,
Will the fond image from our fancy part,
But clings tenacious there 'mid passion, pride, and art.
Ay! nights like this are felt o'er many a vale!
Their sweet remembrance mocks the drifted snow
That chokes the cottage up,—it bids the hail
With cheerful pattering 'gainst the panes to blow.
Hence, if the town-bred traveller chance to go
Into the mountain-dwellings of our poor,
The peasants greet with unembarrassed brow
The splendid stranger honouring thus their door,
And lead his steps with grace along the rushy floor.
But now the lights are waxing dim and pale,
And shed a fitful gleaming o'er the room;
'Mid the dim hollies one by one they fail,
Another hour, and all is wrapt in gloom.
And lo! without, the cold bright stars illume
The cloudless air, so beautiful and still,
While proudly placed in her meridian dome
Night's peerless Queen the realms of heaven doth fill
With peace and joy, and smiles on each vast slumbering hill.
The dance and music cease their blended glee,
And many a wearied infant hangs her head,
Dropping asleep upon her mother's knee,
Worn out with joy, and longing for her bed.
Yet some lament the bliss too quickly fled,
And fain the dying revels would prolong—
Loth that the parting “Farewell” should be said,
They round the Master in a circle throng—
Unmoved, alas! he stands their useless prayers among.
And now an old man asks him, ere they go,
If willing he a parting tune to play—
One of those Scottish tunes so sweet and slow!
And proud is he such wishes to obey.
Then 'Auld lang syne,' the wild and mournful lay
Ne'er breathed through human hearts unmoved by tears,
Wails o'er the strings, and wailing dies away!
While tremblingly his mellow voice he rears,
Ah me! the aged weep to think of former years!
Now rising to depart, each parent pays
Some compliment well-suited to his ear—
Couched, through their warmth of heart, in florid phrase,
Yet, by a parent's honest hopes, sincere!
They trust to meet him all another year,
If gracious heaven to them preserves the boon
Of life and health—and now with tranquil cheer
Their hearts still touched with that delightful tune,
Homeward they wend along beneath the silent moon.
O'er Loughrig-cliffs I see one party climb,
Whose empty dwellings through the hushed midnight
Sleep in the shade of Langdale-pikes sublime—
Up Dummail-Raise, unmindful of the height,
His daughter in his arms, with footsteps light
The father walks, afraid lest she should wake!
Through lonely Easdale past yon cots so white
On Helm-crag side, their journey others take;
And some to those sweet homes that smile by Rydal lake.
He too, the Poet of this humble show,
Silent walks homeward through the hour of rest—
While quiet as the depth of spotless snow,
A pensive calm contentment fills his breast!
O wayward man! were he not truly blest!
That lake so still below—that sky above!
Unto his heart a sinless infant prest,
Whose ringlets like the glittering dew-wire move,
Floating and sinking soft amid the breath of love!

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  1. 1. The Children's Dance , John Wilson
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