I've heard of one, a gentle soul,
Though given to sadness and to gloom,
And for the fact will vouch, one night
It chanc'd that by a taper's light
This man was reading in his room;

Reading, as you or I might read
At night in any pious book,
When sudden blackness overspread
The snow-white page on which he read,
And made the good man round him look.

The chamber walls were dark all round,—
And to his book he turn'd again;
—The light had left the good man's taper,
And form'd itself upon the paper,
Into large letters—bright and plain!

The godly book was in his hand—
And, on the page more black than coal,
Appeared, set forth in strange array,
A word—which to his dying day
Perplex'd the good man's gentle soul.

The ghostly word, which thus was fram'd,
Did never from his lips depart;
But he hath said, poor gentle wight!
It brought full many a sin to light
Out of the bottom of his heart.

Dread Spirits! to torment the good
Why wander from your course so far,
Disordering colour form and stature!
—Let good men feel the soul of Nature,
And see things as they are.

I know you, potent Spirits! well,
How with the feeling and the sense
Playing, ye govern foes or friends,
Yok'd to your will, for fearful ends—
And this I speak in reverence!

But might I give advice to you,
Whom in my fear I love so well,
From men of pensive virtue go,
Dread Beings! and your empire show
On hearts like that of Peter Bell.

Your presence I have often felt
In darkness and the stormy night;
And well I know, if need there be,
Ye can put forth your agency
When earth is calm, and heaven is bright.

Then, coming from the wayward world,
That powerful world in which ye dwell,
Come, Spirits of the Mind! and try
To-night, beneath the moonlight sky,
What may be done with Peter Bell!

—O, would that some more skilful voice,
My further labour might prevent!
Kind listeners, that around me sit,
I feel that I am all unfit
For such high argument.

I've play'd and danc'd with my narration—
I loiter'd long ere I began;
Ye waited then on my good pleasure,—
Pour out indulgence still, in measure
As liberal as ye can!

Our travellers, ye remember well,
Are thridding a sequester'd lane;
And Peter many tricks is trying,
And many anodynes applying,
To ease his conscience of its pain.

By this his heart is lighter far;
And, finding that he can account
So clearly for that crimson stain,
His evil spirit up again
Does like an empty bucket mount.

And Peter is a deep logician
Who hath no lack of wit mercurial;
"Blood drops—leaves rustle—yet," quoth he,
"This poor man never, but for me,
"Could have had Christian burial.

"And, say the best you can, 'tis plain
"That here hath been some wicked dealing:
"No doubt the devil in me wrought;—
"I'm not the man who could have thought
"An Ass like this was worth the stealing!"

So from his pocket Peter takes
His shining horn tobacco-box,
And, in a light and careless way
As men who with their purpose play,
Upon the lid he knocks.

Let them whose voice can stop the clouds—
Whose cunning eye can see the wind—
Tell to a curious world the cause
Why, making here a sudden pause,
The Ass turn'd round his head—and grinn'd.

Appalling process!—I have mark'd
The like on heath—in lonely wood,
And, verily, have seldom met
A spectacle more hideous—yet
It suited Peter's present mood.

And, grinning in his turn, his teeth
He in jocose defiance show'd—
When, to confound his spiteful mirth,
A murmur, pent within the earth,
In the dead earth beneath the road,

Roll'd audibly!—it swept along—
A muffled noise—a rumbling sound!
'Twas by a troop of miners made,
Plying with gunpowder their trade,
Some twenty fathoms under ground.

Small cause of dire effect!—for, surely,
If ever mortal, King or Cotter,
Believed that earth was charg'd to quake
And yawn for his unworthy sake,
'Twas Peter Bell the Potter!

But, as an oak in breathless air
Will stand though to the centre hewn,
Or as the weakest things, if frost
Have stiffen'd them, maintain their post,
So he, beneath the gazing moon!—

But now the pair have reach'd a spot
Where, sheltered by a rocky cove,
A little chapel stands alone,
With greenest ivy overgrown,
And tufted with an ivy grove.

Dying insensibly away
From human thoughts and purposes,
The building seems, wall, roof, and tower,
To bow to some transforming power,
And blend with the surrounding trees.

Deep sighing as he pass'd along,
Quoth Peter, "In the shire of Fife,
"'Mid such a ruin, following still
"From land to land a lawless will,
"I married my sixth wife!"

The unheeding Ass moves slowly on
And now is passing by an inn
Brim-full of a carousing crew,
Making, with curses not a few,
An uproar and a drunken din.

I cannot well express the thoughts
Which Peter in those noises found;—
A stifling power compressed his frame,
As if confusing darkness came
Over that dull and dreary sound.

For well did Peter know the sounds
The language of those drunken joys
To him, a jovial soul I ween,
But a few hours ago had been
A gladsome and a welcome noise.

Now, turn'd adrift into the past,
He finds no solace in his course;—
Like planet-stricken men of yore
He trembles, smitten to the core
By strong compunction and remorse.

But more than all, his heart is stung
To think of one, almost a child;
A sweet and playful Highland girl,
As light and beauteous as a squirrel,
As beauteous and as wild!

A lonely house her dwelling was,
A cottage in a heathy dell;
And she put on her gown of green,
And left her mother at sixteen,
And followed Peter Bell.

But many good and pious thoughts
Had she; and, in the kirk to pray,
Two long Scotch miles, through rain or snow,
To kirk she had been used to go,
Twice every sabbath-day.

And, when she follow'd Peter Bell,
It was to lead an honest life;
For he, with tongue not used to falter,
Had pledg'd his troth before the altar
To love her as his wedded wife.

A mother's hope is her's;—but soon
She droop'd and pin'd like one forlorn;—
From Scripture she a name did borrow;
Benoni, or the child of sorrow,
She call'd her babe unborn.

For she had learn'd how Peter liv'd,
And took it in most grievous part;
She to the very bone was worn,
And, ere that little child was born,
Died of a broken heart.

And now the Spirits of the Mind
Are busy with poor Peter Bell;
Distraction reigns in soul and sense,
And reason drops in impotence
From her deserted pinnacle!

Close by a brake of flowering furze
(Above it shivering aspins play)
He sees an unsubstantial creature,
His very self in form and feature,
Not four yards from the broad highway;

And stretch'd beneath the furze he sees
The Highland girl—it is no other;
And hears her crying, as she cried
The very moment that she died,
"My mother! oh my mother!"

The sweat pours down from Peter's face,
So grievous is his heart's contrition;
With agony his eye-balls ache
While he beholds by the furze-brake
This miserable vision!

Calm is the well-deserving brute,
His peace, hath no offence betray'd;—
But now, while down that slope he wends,
A voice to Peter's ears ascends,
Resounding from the woody glade:

Though clamorous as a hunter's horn
Re-echoed from a naked rock,
'Tis from that tabernacle—List!
Within, a fervent Methodist
Is preaching to no heedless flock.

"Repent! repent!" he cries aloud,
"While yet ye may find mercy;—strive
"To love the Lord with all your might;
"Turn to him, seek him day and night,
"And save your souls alive!

"Repent! repent! though ye have gone
"Through paths of wickedness and woe
"After the Babylonian harlot,
"And though your sins be red as scarlet
"They shall be white as snow!"

Even as he pass'd the door, these words
Did plainly come to Peter's ears;
And they such joyful tidings were
The joy was more than he could bear—
He melted into tears.

Sweet tears of hope and tenderness!
And fast they fell, a plenteous shower;
His nerves, his sinews seem'd to melt;
Through all his iron frame was felt
A gentle, a relaxing power!

Each fibre of his frame was weak,
Weak all the animal within,
But in its helplessness grew mild
And gentle as an infant child,
An infant that has known no sin.

'Tis said, that through prevailing grace
He not unmov'd did notice now
The cross[1] upon thy shoulders scored
Meek beast! in memory of the Lord
To whom all human-kind shall bow;

In memory of that solemn day
When Jesus humbly deign'd to ride
Entering the proud Jerusalem,
By an immeasurable stream
Of shouting people deified!

Meanwhile the persevering Ass,
Towards a gate in open view
Turns up a narrow lane; his chest
Against the yielding gate he press'd,
And quietly pass'd through.

And up the stony lane he goes;
No ghost more softly ever trod;
Among the stones and pebbles, he
Sets down his hoofs inaudibly,
As if with felt his hoofs were shod.

Along the lane the trusty Ass
Had gone two hundred yards, not more;
When to a lonely house he came;
He turn'd aside towards the same
And stopp'd before the door.

Thought Peter, 'tis the poor man's home!
He listens—not a sound is heard
Save from the trickling household rill;
But, stepping o'er the cottage-sill,
Forthwith a little girl appear'd.

She to the meeting-house was bound
In hope some tidings there to gather—
No glimpse it is—no doubtful gleam—
She saw—and utter'd with a scream,
"My father! here's my father!"

The very word was plainly heard,
Heard plainly by the wretched Mother—
Her joy was like a deep affright;
And forth she rush'd into the light,
And saw it was another!

And instantly, upon the earth
Beneath the full-moon shining bright,
Close at the Ass's feet she fell;
At the same moment Peter Bell
Dismounts in most unhappy plight.

What could he do?—The Woman lay
Breathless and motionless;—the mind
Of Peter sadly was confus'd;
But, though to such demands unus'd,
And helpless almost as the blind,

He rais'd her up; and, while he held
Her body propp'd against his knee,
The Woman wak'd—and when she spied
The poor Ass standing by her side,
She moaned most bitterly.

"Oh! God be prais'd!—my heart's at ease—
"For he is dead—I know it well!"
—At this she wept a bitter flood;
And, in the best way that he could,
His tale did Peter tell.

He trembles—he is pale as death—
His voice is weak with perturbation—
He turns aside his head—he pauses;
Poor Peter from a thousand causes
Is crippled sore in his narration.

At length she learn'd how he espied
The Ass in that small meadow ground;
And that her husband now lay dead,
Beside that luckless river's bed
In which he had been drown'd.

A piercing look the sufferer cast
Upon the beast that near her stands;
She sees 'tis he, that 'tis the same;
She calls the poor Ass by his name,
And wrings, and wrings her hands.

"O wretched loss!—untimely stroke!
"If he had died upon his bed!
"—He knew not one forewarning pain—
"He never will come home again—
"Is dead—for ever dead!"

Beside the Woman Peter stands;
His heart is opening more and more;
A holy sense pervades his mind;
He feels what he for human kind
Had never felt before.

At length, by Peter's arm sustain'd,
The Woman rises from the ground—
"Oh, mercy! something must be done,—
"My little Rachael, you must run,
"Some willing neighbour must be found.

"Make haste—my little Rachael—do!
"The first you meet with bid him come,—
"Ask him to lend his horse to-night,—
"And this good man, whom Heaven requite,
"Will help to bring the body home."

Away goes Rachael weeping loud;—
An infant, waked by her distress,
Makes in the house a piteous cry,—
And Peter hears the Mother sigh,
"Seven are they, and all fatherless!"

And now is Peter taught to feel
That man's heart is a holy thing;
And Nature, through a world of death,
Breathes into him a second breath,
More searching than the breath of spring.

Upon a stone the Woman sits
In agony of silent grief—
From his own thoughts did Peter start;
He longs to press her to his heart,
From love that cannot find relief.

But rous'd, as if through every limb
Had pass'd a sudden shock of dread,
The Mother o'er the threshold flies,
And up the cottage stairs she hies,
And to the pillow gives her burning head.

And Peter turns his steps aside
Into a shade of darksome trees,
Where he sits down, he knows not how,
With his hands press'd against his brow,
And resting on his tremulous knees.

There, self-involv'd, does Peter sit
Until no sign of life he makes,
As if his mind were sinking deep
Through years that have been long asleep!
The trance is past away—he wakes,—

He turns his head—and sees the Ass
Yet standing in the clear moonshine,
"When shall I be as good as thou?
"Oh! would, poor beast, that I had now
"A heart but half as good as thine!"

—But He—who deviously hath sought
His father through the lonesome woods,
Hath sought, proclaiming to the ear
Of night, his inward grief and fear—
He comes—escaped from fields and floods;—

With weary pace is drawing nigh—
He sees the Ass—and nothing living
Had ever such a fit of joy
As had this little orphan Boy,
For he has no misgiving!

Towards the gentle Ass he springs,
And up about his neck he climbs;
In loving words he talks to him,
He kisses, kisses face and limb,—
He kisses him a thousand times!

This Peter sees, while in the shade
He stood beside the cottage door:
And Peter Bell, the ruffian wild,
Sobs loud, he sobs even like a child,
"Oh! God, I can endure no more!"

—Here ends my Tale:—for in a trice
Arrived a neighbour with his horse;
Peter went forth with him straightway;
And, with due care, ere break of day
Together they brought back the Corse.

And many years did this poor Ass,
Whom once it was my luck to see
Cropping the shrubs of Leming-Lane,
Help by his labour to maintain
The Widow, and her family.

And Peter Bell, who, till that night,
Had been the wildest of his clan,
Forsook his crimes, repressed his folly,
And, after ten months' melancholy,
Became a good and honest man.

  1. The notion is very general, that the Cross on the back and shoulders of this Animal has the origin here alluded to.