Sketches among the Poor, No. 1

Elizabeth Gaskell

First published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, January 1837.

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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

Sketches Among the Poor, No. I

In childhood’s days, I do remember me

Of one dark house behind an old elm-tree,

By gloomy streets surrounded, where the flower

Brought from the fresher air, scarce for an hour

Retained its fragrant scent; yet men lived there,

Yea, and in happiness; the mind doth clear

In most dense airs its own bright atmosphere.

But in the house of which I spake there dwelt

One by whom all the weight of smoke was felt.

She had o’erstepped the bound ‘twixt youth and age

A single, not a lonely, woman, sage

And thoughtful ever, yet most truly kind:

Without the natural ties, she sought to bind

Hearts unto hers, with gentle, useful love,

Prompt at each change in sympathy to move.

And so she gained the affection, which she prized

From every living thing, howe’er despised —

A call upon her tenderness whene’er

The friends around her had a grief to share;

And, if in joy the kind one they forgot,

She still rejoiced, and more was wanted not.

Said I not truly, she was not alone,

Though none at evening shared her clean hearth-stone?

To some she might prosaic seem, but me

She always charmed with daily poesy,

Felt in her every action, never heard,

E’en as the mate of some sweet singing-bird,

That mute and still broods on her treasure-nest,

Her heart’s fond hope hid deep within her breast.

In all her quiet duties, one dear thought

Kept ever true and constant sway, not brought

Before the world, but garnered all the more

For being to herself a secret store.

Whene’er she heard of country homes, a smile

Came brightening o’er her serious face the while;

She knew not that it came, yet in her heart

A hope leaped up, of which that smile was part.

She thought the time might come, ere yet the bowl

Were broken at the fountain, when her soul

Might listen to its yearnings, unreproved

By thought of failure to the cause she loved;

When she might leave the close and noisy street,

And once again her childhood’s home might greet.

It was a pleasant place, that early home!

The brook went singing by, leaving its foam

Among the flags and blue forget-me-not;

And in a nook, above that shelter’d spot,

For ages stood a gnarled hawthorn-tree;

And if you pass’d in spring-time, you might see

The knotted trunk all coronal’d with flowers,

That every breeze shook down in fragrant showers;

The earnest bees in odorous cells did lie,

Hymning their thanks with murmuring melody;

The evening sun shone brightly on the green,

And seem’d to linger on the lonely scene.

And, if to others Mary’s early nest

Show’d poor and homely, to her loving breast

A charm lay hidden in the very stains

Which time and weather left; the old dim panes,

The grey rough moss, the house-leek, you might see

Were chronicled in childhood s memory;

And in her dreams she wander’d far and wide

Among the hills, her sister at her side —

That sister slept beneath a grassy tomb

Ere time had robbed her of her first sweet bloom.

0 Sleep! thou bringest back our childhood’s heart,

Ere yet the dew exhale, the hope depart;

Thou callest up the lost ones, sorrow’d o’er

Till sorrow’s self hath lost her tearful power;

Thine is the fairy-land, where shadows dwell,

Evoked in dreams by some strange hidden spell.

But Day and Waking have their dreams, 0 Sleep,

When Hope and Memory their fond watches keep;

And such o’er Mary held supremest sway,

When kindly labours task’d her hands all day.

Employ’d her hands, her thoughts roam’d far and free,

Till sense call’d down to calm reality.

A few short weeks, and then, unbound the chains

Which held her to another’s woes or pains,

Farewell to dusky streets and shrouded skies,

Her treasur’d home should bless her yearning eyes,

And fair as in the days of childish glee

Each grassy nook and wooded haunt should be.

Yet ever, as one sorrow pass’d away,

Another call’d the tender one to stay,

And, where so late she shared the bright glad mirth,

The phantom Grief sat cowering at the hearth.

So days and weeks pass’d on, and grew to years,

Unwept by Mary, save for others’ tears.

As a fond nurse, that from the mother’s breast

Lulls the tired infant to its quiet rest,

First stills each sound, then lets the curtain fall

To cast a dim and sleepy light o’er all,

So age drew gently o’er each wearied sense

A deepening shade to smooth the parting hence.

Each cherish’d accent, each familiar tone

Fell from her daily music, one by one;

Still her attentive looks could rightly guess

What moving lips by sound could not express.

O’er each loved face next came a filmy veil,

And shine and shadow from her sight did fail.

And, last of all, the solemn change they saw

Depriving Death of half his regal awe;

The mind sank down to childishness, and they,

Relying on her counsel day by day

( As some lone wanderer, from his home afar,

Takes for his guide some fix’d and well known star,

Till clouds come wafting o’er its trembling light,

And leave him wilder’d in the pathless night),

Sought her changed face with strange uncertain gaze,

Still praying her to lead them through the maze.

They pitied her lone fate, and deemed it sad;

Yet as in early childhood was she glad;

No sense had she of change, or loss of thought,

With those around her no communion sought;

Scarce knew she of her being. Fancy wild

Had placed her in her father’s house a child;

It was her mother sang her to her rest;

The lark awoke her, springing from his nest;

The bees sang cheerily the live long day,

Lurking ‘mid flowers wherever she did play;

The Sabbath bells rang as in years gone by,

Swelling and falling on the soft wind’s sigh;

Her little sisters knelt with her in prayer,

And nightly did her father’s blessing share;

So, wrapt in glad imaginings, her life

Stole on with all her sweet young memories rife.

I often think (if by this mortal light

We e’er can read another’s lot aright),

That for her loving heart a blessing came,

Unseen by many, clouded by a name;

And all the outward fading from the world

Was like the flower at night, when it has furled

Its golden leaves, and lapped them round its heart,

To nestle closer in its sweetest part.

Yes! angel voices called her childhood back,

Blotting out life with its dim sorrowy track;

Her secret wish was ever known in heaven,

And so in mystery was the answer given.

In sadness many mourned her latter years,

But blessing shone behind that mist of tears,

And, as the child she deemed herself, she lies

In gentle slumber, till the dead shall rise.

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005