JAMES MACFARLAN’S FATHER was bred a weaver in Glasgow but long before the poet’s birth he had given up that calling to become a pedlar. The boy travelled with his father throughout the length and breadth of Scotland and, having no settled domicile for any length of time, got smitted with very little formal education. The muse, fortunately, can sustain itself quite adequately, and is often the healthier, out of reach of schools and schoolmasters. A surer stimulus was his mother whose songs and stories from deep in Scottish history and legend fired her son’s creative fancy and gave him a hunger for poetry. By his early twenties there was scarce a poet writing in English whom he had not mastered. In 1854 he trekked all the way to London on foot to find a publisher but the book did not sell. His second volume, ‘City Songs’, met with a similar fate. For a time he was employed by the Glasgow Bulletin, writing legendary and other tales. He was a frequent contributor to Charles Dickens’ periodical, ‘Household Words’. This brought in too little, alas, to keep body and soul together. Half-starved, and alone, he died of TB in 1862 at the age of thirty, leaving us only some few sheaves of the great poetic harvest he might have won.
I stood at the rich man’s door,
Mid a tempest of musical din,
But the vagabond name that I bore
Could find me no footing within.
In a tremulous accent I spoke,
And craved him a pitiful boon,
But the voice of the suppliant broke
Like a jar on the reveler’s tune.
O to be stab’d with scorn,
To bleed at a rich man’s gate
A rose-leaf cut by a thorn
And strewed by the breezes of hate.
With a word that can cruelly kill,
And the side-long sneer of an eye,
And the blood that has leapt like a rill,
Struck to ice by a freezing reply.
But a voice rose up from the stones,
From the heartless stones at my feet,
And I heard its long-echoing tones
Like an angel-flight over the street.
And it struck on the strings of my soul
As it bade me be fearless and free,
And I heard its wild cadences roll,
While it cried, “Thou are greater than he!”
I was mean as a weed on a moor.
Of wealth I had near a plack,
With the shadow of sadness before,
And want, like a wolf, at my back.
But storehouses bursting with gain,
And weltering vessels had he,
Wide acres of pastoral plain,
And isles that are hugged by the sea.
And still as I journey’d along,
The daisy looked up with a smile,
And the lark arose with a song
That haunted me many a mile.
And I walked in a rapture of soul
With the music that stirred in the tree,
For the burden that ended the whole,
Was still, “Thou are greater than he!”