Home  »  English Poetry II  »  323. On the Receipt of My Mother’s Picture out of Norfolk

English Poetry II: From Collins to Fitzgerald.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

William Cowper

323. On the Receipt of My Mother’s Picture out of Norfolk

OH that those lips had language! Life has passed

With me but roughly since I heard thee last.

Those lips are thine—thy own sweet smile I see,

The same that oft in childhood solaced me;

Voice only fails, else how distinct they say,

‘Grieve not, my child, chase all thy fears away!’

The meek intelligence of those dear eyes

(Blessed be the art that can immortalize,

The art that baffles Time’s tyrannic claim

To quench it) here shines on me still the same.

Faithful remembrancer of one so dear,

O welcome guest, though unexpected here!

Who bidst me honour with an artless song,

Affectionate, a mother lost so long,

I will obey, not willingly alone,

But gladly, as the precept were her own:

And, while that face renews my filial grief,

Fancy shall weave a charm for my relief,

Shall steep me in Elysian reverie,

A momentary dream that thou art she.

My mother! when I learnt that thou wast dead,

Say, wast thou conscious of the tears I shed?

Hovered thy spirit o’er thy sorrowing son,

Wretch even then, life’s journey just begun?

Perhaps thou gavest me, though unfelt, a kiss:

Perhaps a tear, if souls can weep in bliss—

Ah, that maternal smile! It answers—Yes.

I heard the bell toll on thy burial day,

I saw the hearse that bore thee slow away,

And, turning from my nursery window, drew

A long, long sigh, and wept a last adieu!

But was it such?—It was.—Where thou art gone

Adieus and farewells are a sound unknown.

May I but meet thee on that peaceful shore,

The parting word shall pass my lips no more!

Thy maidens, grieved themselves at my concern,

Oft gave me promise of thy quick return.

What ardently I wished I long believed,

And, disappointed still, was still deceived.

By expectation every day beguiled,

Dupe of to-morrow even from a child.

Thus many a sad to-morrow came and went,

Till, all my stock of infant sorrow spent,

I learnt at last submission to my lot;

But, though I less deplored thee, ne’er forgot.

Where once we dwelt our name is heard no more,

Children not thine have trod my nursery floor;

And where the gardener Robin, day by day,

Drew me to school along the public way,

Delighted with my bauble coach, and wrapped

In scarlet mantle warm, and velvet capped,

’Tis now become a history little known,

That once we called the pastoral house our own.

Short-lived possession! but the record fair

That memory keeps, of all thy kindness there,

Still outlives many a storm that has effaced

A thousand other themes less deeply traced.

The nightly visits to my chamber made,

That thou mightst know me safe and warmly laid;

Thy morning bounties ere I left my home,

The biscuit, or confectionary plum;

The fragrant waters on my cheeks bestowed

By thy own hand, till fresh they shone and glowed;

All this, and more endearing still than all,

Thy constant flow of love, that knew no fall,

Ne’er roughened by those cataracts and brakes

That humour interposed too often makes;

All this still legible in memory’s page,

And still to be so to my latest age,

Adds joy to duty, makes me glad to pay

Such honours to thee as my numbers may;

Perhaps a frail memorial, but sincere,

Not scorned in heaven, though little noticed here.

Could Time, his flight reversed, restore the hours,

When, playing with thy vesture’s tissued flowers,

The violet, the pink, and jessamine,

I pricked them into paper with a pin

(And thou wast happier than myself the while,

Wouldst softly speak, and stroke my head and smile),

Could these few pleasant days again appear,

Might one wish bring them, would I wish them here?

I would not trust my heart—the dear delight

Seems so to be desired, perhaps I might.—

But no—what here we call our life is such

So little to be loved, and thou so much,

That I should ill requite thee to constrain

Thy unbound spirit into bonds again.

Thou, as a gallant bark from Albion’s coast

(The storms all weathered and the ocean crossed)

Shoots into port at some well-havened isle,

Where spices breathe, and brighter seasons smile,

There sits quiescent on the floods that show

Her beauteous form reflected clear below,

While airs impregnated with incense play

Around her, fanning light her streamers gay;

So thou, with sails how swift! hast reached the shore,

‘Where tempests never beat nor billows roar,’

And thy loved consort on the dangerous tide

Of life long since has anchored by thy side.

But me, scarce hoping to attain that rest,

Always from port withheld, always distressed—

Me howling blasts drive devious, tempest tost,

Sails ripped, seams opening wide, and compass lost,

And day by day some current’s thwarting force

Sets me more distant from a prosperous course.

Yet, oh, the thought that thou art safe, and he!

That thought is joy, arrive what may to me.

My boast is not, that I deduce my birth

From loins enthroned and rulers of the earth;

But higher far my proud pretensions rise—

The son of parents passed into the skies!

And now, farewell!—Time unrevoked has run

His wonted course, yet what I wished is done.

By contemplation’s help, not sought in vain,

I seemed to have lived my childhood o’er again;

To have renewed the joys that once were mine,

Without the sin of violating thine:

And, while the wings of Fancy still are free,

And I can view this mimic show of thee,

Time has but half succeeded in his theft—

Thyself removed, thy power to soothe me left.