THE DEATH OF COLUMBA.
Saxon stranger, thou did’st wisely,
Sunder’d for a little space
From that motley stream of people
Drifting by this holy place;
With the furnace and the funnel
Through the long sea’s glancing arm,
Let them hurry back to Oban,
Where the tourist loves to swarm.
Here, upon this hump of granite,
Sit with me a quiet while,
And I’ll tell thee how Columba
Died upon this old grey isle.
‘Twas in May, a breezy morning,
When the sky was fresh and bright,
And the broad blue ocean shimmer’d
With a thousand gems of light.
On the green and grassy Machar,
Where the fields are spredden wide,
And the crags in quaint confusion
Jut into the Western tide:
Here his troop of godly people,
In stout labour’s garb array’d,
Blithe their fruitful task were plying
With the hoe and with the spade.
“I will go and bless my people,”
Quoth the father, “ere I die,
But the strength is slow to follow
Where the wish is swift to fly;
I am old and feeble, Diarmid,
Yoke the oxen, be not slow,
I will go and bless my people,
Ere from earth my spirit go.”
On his ox-drawn wain he mounted,
Faithful Diarmid by his side;
Soon they reach’d the grassy Machar,
Soft and smooth, Iona’s pride:
“I am come to bless my people,
Faithful fraters, ere I die;
I had wish’d to die at Easter,
But I would not mar your joy,
Now the Master plainly calls me,
Gladly I obey his call;
I am ripe, I feel the sickle,
Take my blessing ere I fall.”
But they heard his words with weeping,
And their tears fell on the dew,
And their eyes were dimmed with sorrow,
For they knew his words were true.
Then he stood up on the waggon,
And his prayerful hands he hove,
And he spake and bless’d the people
With the blessing of his love:
“God be with you, faithful fraters,
With you now, and evermore;
Keep you from the touch of evil,
On your souls his Spirit pour;
God be with you, fellow-workmen,
And from loved Iona’s shore
Keep the blighting breath of demons,
Keep the viper’s venom’d store!”
Thus he spake, and turn’d the oxen
Townwards; sad they went, and slow,
And the people, fix’d in sorrow,
Stood, and saw the father go.
List me further, Saxon stranger,
Note it nicely, by the causeway
On the left hand, where thou came
With the motley tourist people,
Stands a cross of figured fame.
Even now thine eye may see it,
Near the nunnery, slim and grey;—
From the waggon there Columba
Lighted on that tearful day,
And he sat beneath the shadow
Of that cross, upon a stone,
Brooding on his speedy passage
To the land where grief is none;
When, behold, the mare, the white one
That was wont the milk to bear
From the dairy to the cloister,
Stood before him meekly there,
Stood, and softly came up to him,
And with move of gentlest grace
O’er the shoulder of Columba
Thrust her piteous-pleading face,
Look’d upon him as a friend looks
On a friend that goes away,
Sunder’d from the land that loves him
By wide seas of briny spray.
“Fie upon thee for thy manners!”
Diarmid cried with lifted rod,
“Wilt thou with untimely fondness
Vex the prayerful man of God?”
“Not so, Diarmid,” cried Columba;
“Dost thou see the speechful eyne
Of the fond and faithful creature
Sorrow’d with the swelling brine?
God hath taught the mute unreasoning
What thou fail’st to understand,
That this day I pass for ever
From Iona’s shelly strand.
Have my blessing, gentle creature,
God doth bless both man and beast;
From hard yoke, when I shall leave thee,
Be thy faithful neck released.”
Thus he spoke, and quickly rising
With what feeble strength remain’d,
Leaning on stout Diarmid’s shoulder,
A green hillock’s top he gained.
There, or here where we are sitting,
Whence his eye might measure well
Both the cloister and the chapel,
And his pure and prayerful cell.
There he stood, and high uplifting
Hands whence flowed a healing grace,
Breathed his latest voice of blessing
To protect the sacred place,—
Spake such words as prophets utter
When the veil of flesh is rent,
And the present fades from vision,
On the germing future bent:
“God thee bless, thou loved Iona,
Though thou art a little spot,
Though thy rocks are grey and treeless,
Thine shalt be a boastful lot;
Thou shalt be a sign for nations;
Nurtured on thy sacred breast,
Thou shalt send on holy mission
Men to teach both East and West;
Peers and potentates shall own thee,
Monarchs of wide-sceptre’d sway
Dying shall beseech the honour
To be tomb’d beneath thy clay;
God’s dear saints shall love to name thee,
And from many a storied land
Men of clerkly fame shall pilgrim
To Iona’s little strand.”
Thus the old man spake his blessing;
Then, where most he loved to dwell,
Through the well-known porch he enter’d
To his pure and prayerful cell;
And then took the holy psalter—
‘Twas his wont when he would pray—
Bound with three stout clasps of silver,
From the casket where it lay;
There he read with fixed devoutness,
And with craft full fair and fine,
On the smooth and polish’d vellum
Copied forth the sacred line,
Till he came to where the kingly
Singer sings in faithful mood,
How the younglings of the lion
Oft may roam in vain for food,
But who fear the Lord shall never
Live and lack their proper good.
Here he stopped, and said, “My latest
Now is written; what remains
I bequeath to faithful Beathan
To complete with pious pains.”
Then he rose, and in the chapel
Conned the pious vesper song
Inly to himself, for feeble
Now the voice that once was strong;
Hence with silent step returning
To his pure and prayerful cell,
On the round smooth stone he laid him
Which for pallet served him well.
Here some while he lay; then rising,
To a trusty brother said:
“Brother, take my parting message,
Be my last words wisely weigh’d.
‘Tis an age of brawl and battle;
Men who seek not God to please,
With wild sweep of lawless passion
Waste the land and scourge the seas.
Not like them be ye; be loving,
Peaceful, patient, truthful, bold,
But in service of your Master
Use no steel and seek no gold.”
Thus he spake; but now there sounded
Through the night the holy bell
That to Lord’s-day matins gather’d
Every monk from every cell.
Eager at the sound, Columba
In the way foresped the rest,
And before the altar kneeling,
Pray’d with hands on holy breast.
Diarmid followed; but a marvel Flow’d
upon his wondering eyne,—
All the windows shone with glorious
Light of angels in the shrine.
Diarmid enter’d; all was darkness.
“Father!” But no answer came.
“Father! art thou here, Columba ?”
Nothing answer’d to the name.
Soon the troop of monks came hurrying,
Each man with a wandering light,
For great fear had come upon them,
And a sense of strange affright.
“Diarmid! Diarmid! is the father
With thee? Art thou here alone ?”
And they turn’d their lights and found him
On the pavement lying prone.
And with gentle hands they raised him,
And he mildly look’d around,
And he raised his arm to bless them,
But it dropped upon the ground;
And his breathless body rested
On the arms that held him dear,
And his dead face look’d upon them
With a light serene and clear;
And they said that holy angels
Surely hover’d round his head,
For alive no loveliest ever
Look’d so lovely as this dead.
Stranger, thou hast heard my story,
Thank thee for thy patient ear;
We are pleased to stir the sleeping
Memory of old greatness here.
I have used no gloss, no varnish,
To make fair things fairer look;
As the record stands, I give it,
In the old monks’ Latin book.
Keep it in thy heart, and love it,
Where a good thing loves to dwell;
It may help thee in thy dying,
If thou care to use it well.
— John Stuart Blackie, Lays of the Highlands and Islands (1872).