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The Sons of the Soil: a Poem. Ellis, Sarah Stickney, 1812–1872.
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AUTHOR OF “THE WOMEN OF ENGLAND,” ETC. ETC. “Long ere that hour had William Herbert found One lowly spot of consecrated ground, To him most sacred”—



POETRY has ever been a transcript of those impressions made upon the human mind by scenes and circumstances, sentiments and emotions; which, while they are common to human nature in general, familiarity cannot vulgarize, nor critical examination deprive of intensity and interest. This transcript, when made with simplicity and faithfulness, has invariably found an answer in the human heart; for as the ear naturally delights in music, and, when deprived of the enjoyment which music affords, feels an indescribable longing for the refreshment of melodious sounds; so naturally do the feelings of the heart expand and exult in that higher and more page: vi exquisite music of the mind, conveyed at once to the understanding and the affections, through the medium of poetry.

Such being the case, it seems impossible, so long as human beings think and feel, observe and experience, that poetry should vanish from the earth. There are, however, states of society, and stages of civilization, in which it appears to be less acceptable than in others; and popular opinion has pronounced upon the present time as being peceuliarly unpropitious to the gratification of poetic taste; nor would the apparent presumption of sending forth a poem at such a time, and from such a pen as mine, be sufficiently justified, but for the peculiar views I have been led to entertain on the subject of poetry as it exists at the present day.

It appears to me, that public taste has not yet recovered from a series of over-excitements, produced in rapid succession, by the legends of Scott, the lyrics of Moore, and the deep and more impassioned strains of Byron. All, or nearly all, the poets who have followed these, have attempted to follow in the same course; until the flowers—and they were many—which grew beside their path, have been trodden page: vii down by the pressure of numerous feet; and from the very frequency and familiarity with which such subjects have been presented to our view, chivalry has lost its romance, love and beauty have almost ceased to charm, and passion has raved itself to death.

Does it then follow, that poetry must die also? Let us not admit the thought of such a stigma falling upon our country, or our age. One thing, however, is necessary; and it has been overlooked by almost all who have lately attempted to write poetry.

After the over-excitement which created so false and unnatural a taste has entirely subsided, we must return to nature, and simplicity. It is more than probable that many will return in vain, beeause the ear long accustomed to the higher symphonies of genius, will scarcely condescend, for some time at least, to listen to the humbler melody of simple bards. But nature must prevail at last; and whatever the event of the experiment I have made may be, its failure or success will in no way affect my conviction, that by returning to simplicity—by making simplicity without weakness or puerility the constant companion of his studies, the poet who is true to nature may page: viii yet find acceptance with intelligent and feeling minds.

In the “Poetry of Life,” I have endeavoured to prove that four qualifications are necessary for an able and successful poet—power, imagination, impression, and taste. To only one of these—a capability for receiving lively and lasting impressions, do I make any pretension: yet such is my confidence in the power of simplicity and truth, that I commit my poem to the public, not doubting but there will be found amongst that public some whose experience will testify to its faithfulness, and more whose hear will respond to its truth. It contains no exaggerated statements. I know that such things are, as I have here described.

It has suited my purpose, amongst other illustrations, to have actual representations made of the home of my childhood, as well as of my father's present residence; but in making this confession, I should wish to have it clearly understood, that the representation of real scenes extends no farther. The description of the habits of the farmer's family, as well the conduct of his landlord, has arisen entirely out the imagination of the writer; and, in the latter case page: ix especially, would be very unjustly regarded as a specimen of the conduct of landed proprietors in general.

I cannot, in the usual manner, explain my reasons for selecting the subject which occupies the following pages; because, instead of saying that I have chosen it, I must say that it is almost ever present to my mind. The story is adventitious, and has arisen out of the popular evils of the day; but some of the scenes I have attempted to describe are such as are well calculated to force themselves into verse; and if they fail to present to others the same vivid colouring which distinguishes them amongst my early associations, the fault is in the writer, as a poet—not in the rural scenes of England, as a subject for poetry. Indeed, it has been chiefly when contemplating such scenes, and the habits and feelings of those who are connected with them, that I have renewed my confidence in the conviction, that poetry never can become extinct.

It is the fashion of the day to overlook, as unworthy of attention, much that is connected with the happiness and misery of social life; and to bring every effort of industry and mental application to page: x bear upon the machinery of mere animal existence. In conformity with the same mode of thinking, we hear perpetually of our national prosperity being calculated in exact proportion with our commerce, and with the competition England is enabled to maintain with the markets abroad. Thus we are too much disposed to forget, that the real prosperity of a nation ought to be calculated by its elevation in the scale of moral feeling, rather than by its facility in supplying the bodily wants of the community at large.

That much of this true elevation of feeling belong to the agricultural classes, no one can deny who has become familiarized with their social and domestic habits; and it ought to be esteemed as highest amongst the many privileges of rural life, that the circumstances in which the farmer is placed have a natural tendency to induce a tone of feeling, the value of which can never be computed by the greatest physical advantages this world is able to supply.

In his association with the more laborious classes, the agriculturist is placed on a footing very different from that of the manufacturer. The simple fact, that in one case the workiing people are called “men,” and in the other “hands,” implies of itself a wide dif- difference page: xi ference. To the manufacturer, they are, for the most part, but instruments of labour—mere hands; and they are taken into his employment when trade is said to be brisk, and dismissed when he needs them no more, just as so many tools are taken up, or laid aside, to suit the service of the day.

But the farmer dwells, as it wrere, amongst his own people. He has most probably grown up from infancy beside them. His children may have been playmates with theirs. He knows all the internal economy of the cottages around him. His people come to him for advice in their domestic and social transactions; and he feels, too sensibly for his peace of mind, that when his own altered circumstances render it necessary for him to dismiss any of them from his service, that distress, which he is well able to picture, will cast a gloom over the humble abodes, and darken the cheerful hearths, whose evening glow has so often imparted gladness to his heart. He does not hear of this distress as of the visitation of some public calamity diffused amonost an unknown multitude; but he is acquainted with its every feature, and in a manner compelled to trace it home; to picture to his mind the well-known countenances of page: xii those who sutfer, and to hear the individual voices that have so often responded to his own, deepened into the tones of bitterest complaint.

It is almost impossible but that this kind of intimate association should produce a degree of mutual interest and fellow-feeling, highly advantageous to both parties in their intercourse with each other; and it seems equally reasonable to conclude, that circumstances of a similar nature should attach the same people to their native country in a more than ordinary manner. The mechanic, or the worker in manufactories, dwells, for the most part, in towns, where nothing but the house he inhabits—sometimes the single chamber he occupies—can be called his own; and that only for a week, a month, a year, or a short term of years, as the fluctuations of trade may render necessary, or desirable. He leaves his lodgings as a traveller leaves his inn, if not quite as often, at any rate with as little regret, except so far as the inconveniences of a removal may affect his comfort. But the agricultural labourer has a feeling of property, not only in his own cottage and garden, but in his master's farm—in the scenes of his boyish rambles, in the fields he has been accustomed to page: xiii cultivate, the trees he has planted, and, above all, the animals he has watched and fed for his master's use. His children, himself, and his parents have, in many cases, been born in the same parish. He feels an interest in the very soil on which they have grown and flourished. And if this be the case with the poor labourer, how powerful must be the same feeling in the mind of his employer, whose attachment to the soil may reasonably be supposed to bear a relative proportion to the property he holds.

Modes of thinking peculiar to the present day have rendered somewhat obsolete the old-fashioned virtue of patriotism; and I am quite willing to admit, that the widest expansion of enlightened benevolence must carry out the views of the philanthropist to the utmost range of human existence; but until the mind is thus enlightened, it is certainly better that the benevolent affections should extend to a village, a district, or a whole country, than that they should never be awakened at all. And if we admit patriotism to be a virtue, I feel little hesitation in saying, that it exists in all its genuine simplicity and force amongst those whose local interests have taken deepest root in their native soil.

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It is not my desire so far to oveistretch the point of merit, as to attempt to prove that the agricultural classes, in any thing that relates to their religious advancement, are at all superior to the rest of the community. I am even prepared to admit, that there is less fervency of religious zeal, and certainly less religious kuowledge diffused amongst them as a body; but, in admitting this, I must not forget how much less has been done for them than for others, through the agency of Christian benevolence. Compared with the inhabitants of towns, they may be said, except in particular districts, to be almost entirely left to themselves. The consequence is, that the vices into which they fall are more of a personal and individuital character; and that, while they are exempt from some of the popular evils which prevail amongst congregated masses of mankind, they are equally exempt from the benign influence of combined effort, as it flows through the channels of Christian instruction, and public beneficence.

There is something in their circumstances, however, which, if they could be more effectually reached by this influence, might tend very much to forward the views of Christian benevolence on their behalf. page: xv It is the constant reference they are almost compelled to make to the superintendence of Divine power.

The mechanic has little inducement, from the circumstances by which he is surrounded, to refer the success or the failure of his efforts, to anything beyond mere physical causes. The rate of wages, the employment of other hands, the patent inventions of the day, or the nature of the material in which he works, are, with him and his fellow-labourers, the chief topics of calculation and thought. But the farmer, even when he does limit his views to what is merely physical, has a far wider field of observation, as regards the phenomena of nature; and when he is sufficiently enlightened to look beyond this, he must be insensible indeed not to be reminded every day, and every hour, by the changes in the atmosphere, the aspect of the heavens, the chemical processes going forward in the earth, the instinct of animals, and the economy of vegetation, that a supreme and superintending power is above and around him—pervading and governing the world—the secret spring of all movement—the source of all life—the giver of all good.

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It would be idle to assert that all who are employed in cultivating the soil are addicted to trains of thought in unison with such subjects. But the occupations of the agricultural classes, and the scenes and circumstances with which they are necessarily associated, are unquestionably conducive to an elevated tone of mental exercise, and moral feeling; and there is much in their simple lives, and in their recent and present experience, calculated to excite the deepest interest in the minds of their countrymen.

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