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(23 September 1783 – 13 April 1824 / Colchester, England)

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Experience

--A COSTLY good ; that none e'er bought or sold
For gem, or pearl, or miser's store, twice told :
Save certain watery pearls, possessed by all,
Which, one by one, may buy it as they fall.
Of these, though precious, few will not suffice,
So slow the traffic, and so large the price !

It is for wrinkled brows, grey locks, and sighs,
Not for bright blooming cheeks and sparkling eyes ;
When those have faded, these as dimly shine--
Then, in their stead, Experience may be thine.
Books will assert, and sires and pulpits teach,
And youth may listen to their sober speech,
And smiling lips pronounce a careless 'yes,'
While neither eye nor heart can acquiesce.
But grief extorts conviction ; brings to view
Those slightest words, and answers--'very true.'
Surprised, reluctant, yet at last compelled
To own, what long in doubtful scale was held,
That life, whate'er the course our own has led,
Is much the same as what our fathers said.

A tattered cottage, to the view of taste,
In beauty glows, at needful distance placed :
Its broken panes, its richly ruined thatch,
Its gable graced with many a mossy patch,
The sunset lighting up its varied dyes,
Form quite a picture to poetic eyes ;
And yield delight that modern brick and board,
Square, sound, and well arranged, would not afford.
But, cross the mead to take a nearer ken,--
Where all the magic of the vision then ?
The picturesque is vanished, and the eye,
Averted, turns from loathsome poverty ;
And while it lingers, e'en the sun's pure ray
Seems almost sullied by its transient stay.
The broken walls, with slight repairs embossed,
Are but cold comforts in a winter's frost :
No smiling, peaceful peasant, half refined,
There tunes his reed on rustic seat reclined ;
But there the bended form and haggard face,
Worn with the lines that vice and misery trace.
Thus fades the charm, by vernal hope supplied
To every object it has never tried ;
--To fairy visions, and elysian meads,
Thus vulgar, cold reality succeeds.

When sanguine youth the plain of life surveys,
It does not calculate on rainy days.
Some, as they enter on the unknown way,
Expect large troubles at a distant day ;
--The loss of wealth, or friends they fondly prize ;
But reckon not on ills of smaller size,
Those nameless, trifling ills, that intervene,
And people life, infesting every scene ;
And there with silent, unavowed success,
Wear off the keener edge of happiness :
Those teazing swarms, that buzz about our joys,
More potent than the whirlwind that destroys ;
--Potent, with heavenly teaching, to attest
Life is a pilgrimage, and not a rest.

That lesson, learned aright, is valued more
Than all experience ever taught before ;
For this her choicest secret, timely given,
Is wisdom, virtue, happiness, and heaven.
Long is religion viewed, by many an eye,
As wanted more for safety by and by,
--A thing for times of danger and distress,
Than needful for our present happiness.
But after fruitless, wearisome assays
To find repose and peace in other ways,
The sickened soul--when Heaven imparts its grace,
Returns to seek its only resting place ;
And sweet Experience proves, as years increase,
That wisdom ways are pleasantness and peace.
Yes, and the late conviction, fraught with pain,
On many a callous conscience strikes in vain.
Blind to ourselves--to others not less blind,
We slowly learn to understand mankind.
Sanguine and ardent, indisposed to hold
The cautious maxims that our fathers told,
We place new objects in the fairest light,
And offer generous friendship at first sight ;--
Expect (though not the first-rate mental powers)
A mind, at least, in unison with ours ;
Free from those meaner faults, that most conspire
To damp our love, if not put out its fire.
Cold o'er the heart the slight expression steals,
That first some trait of character reveals ;
A fault, perhaps, less prominent alone,
But causing painful friction with our own.
Long is the harsh, reluctant thought supprest,
We drive the cold suspicion from our breast ;
But when confirmed, our generous love condemn,
Turn off disgusted with the world and them--
Resolve no more at Friendship's fane to serve,
And call her names she does not quite deserve.
But this is rash--Experience would confess
That friendship's very frailties chill us less
(Sincere and well-intentioned all the while)
Than the world's complaisant and polished smile.
With other chattels, nameless in my verse,
Friends must be held 'for better and for worse ;'
And that alone true friendship we should call,
Which undertakes to love us faults and all ;
And, she who guides this humble line could prove
There is, there is, such candid, generous love :
And from the life, her faithful hand could paint
Glowing exceptions to her own complaint.

But that, of all discoveries life can boast,
Which disappoints us and surprises most,
Is, when the pleasing veil that serves to hide
Self from itself, by chance is drawn aside.
As when, perhaps, some kindred mind is shown,
In which we trace a portrait of our own :
Dissolved at once, as by the morning ray,
The mists of self-delusion pass away,
As that bright moment's unexpected glare
Shows us the best and worst of what we are.
--Or some chance word, in hasty converse dropt,
By which the wheel-work of the mind is stopt,
--That movement which in daily course goes round,
And leaves us just precisely where it found :
This casual word creates a wholesome pause ;
The startled mind its quick conclusion draws,
Perceives the form it wears to other eyes,
The proper level where its talents rise,
And ere returning to a different theme,
Sinks a degree or two in self-esteem ;
Then off it goes again, with little cost,
Save that the multiplying wheel is lost.

But if such sudden shock abate its force,
Experience aids it by a slower course :
Time, spite of fools and flattery, lets us see
Just what we are, not what we thought to be.
Midway in life we pause, compare with shame
Our present progress with our early aim ;
Look back on years with purpose high begun,
In which the task intended was not done,
And see beyond us a declining sun ;
--Fair opportunities for ever fled ;
The vigorous impulse dying, if not dead ;
And we, in knowledge, habit, temper, state,
Nothing superior to the common rate.

How false is found, as on in life we go,
Our early estimate of bliss and woe !
--Some sparkling joy attracts us, that we fain
Would sell a precious birth-right to obtain.
There all our hopes of happiness are placed ;
Life looks without it like a joyless waste ;
No good is prized, no comfort sought beside ;
Prayers, tears implore, and will not be denied.
Heaven pitying hears the intemperate, rude appeal,
And suits its answer to our truest weal.
The self-sought idol, if at last bestowed,
Proves, what our wilfulness required--a goad ;
Ne'er but as needful chastisement is given
The wish thus forced, and torn, and stormed from Heaven :
But if withheld, in pity, from our prayer,
We rave, awhile, of torment and despair,
Refuse each proffered comfort with disdain,
And slight the thousand blessings that remain ;
Meantime, Heaven bears the grievous wrong, and waits
In patient pity till the storm abates ;
Applies with gentlest hand the healing balm,
Or speaks the ruffled mind into a calm ;
Deigning, perhaps, to show the mourner soon,
'Twas special mercy that denied the boon.

Our blasted hopes, our aims and wishes crost,
Are worth the tears and agonies they cost,
When the poor mind, by fruitless efforts spent,
With food and raiment learns to be content.
Bounding with youthful hope, the restless mind
Leaves that divine monition far behind,
But tamed at length by suffering, comprehends
The tranquil happiness to which it tends ;
Perceives the high-wrought bliss it aimed to share,
Demands a richer soil, a purer air ;
That 'tis not fitted, and would strangely grace
The mean condition of our mortal race ;
And all we need in this terrestrial spot,
Is calm contentment with 'the common lot.'
Oh, who that takes a retrospective view
Of years, now fading in the distant blue,
The snares to which impetuous we had flown,
Restrained by God's resistless arm alone.
How, ever yielding to our own self--will,
We would refuse the good, and choose the ill,
He interposing still on our behalf,
Still safely guiding by His rod and staff ;
But with subdued, submissive heart would cry,
'Choose Thou my portion, guide me with thine eye ;
One sole condition would I dare suggest--
That thou wouldst save me from mine own request !'

In many streams may trouble wind its course ;
But to ourselves we still must trace its source,
And 'tis a thing impossible, we find,
Go where we will, to leave ourselves behind.
Feeling that burden wearisome to bear,
We seek to shift the scene and change the air ;
From homespun cares commence our sanguine flight,
And on some verdant, peaceful vale alight.
Sweet is the scene, and sweet the tranquil hour ;
The harassed mind perceives its soothing power ;
For that short moment novelty can please,
Imagines health and joy in every breeze ;
That moment past, the quick returning mood
Spreads its own tinge on wood, and vale, and flood ;
The pearly heaven is tinctured with our pain,
And casts its faint reflection on the main ;
The hills' bare outline seems to represent
The very features of our discontent ;
The rock's fantastic fragments range as though
Fresh shivered to the pattern of our woe.
In vain we argue with ourselves, and prove
The scene delightful, just the kind we love ;
In vain we urge and strain the languid sense,
To wring a drop of happiness from thence :
Yet, charge not rocks and hills with thy complaint,
The scene is lovely, but the heart is faint :
Invite sweet peace and charity to flow,
And nature brightens to her purest glow.

When hope her seat to memory has resigned,
And our chief solace is to look behind,
Then shall we learn, perhaps too late, to know
That sin weighs heavier on the mind than woe.
Grief, genuine grief, that comes at God's command,
In which our own misconduct has no hand,
Though, for the present, not a joyous thing,
Yet, when it passes over, leaves no sting.
The pains we feared, the ills we dreaded most,
Departed--seem a weak and harmless host ;
We suffered, wept, but now can smile serene,
And wonder that our anguish was so keen :
Or if some blow that struck the tenderest part,
Has left its deep impression and its smart ;
Still years allay it, and at length diffuse
A pleasing sadness that we would not lose.
But when by conscience, memory's eye is cast,
Pained and reluctant, on the guilty past,
And sees life's path bestrewed on every side
With sins and follies, thick and multiplied,
Follies for which our shame arrives too late,
Sins that Heaven only can obliterate,
And what slight efforts had restrained their powers--
How bitter the remembrance to this hour !

--Once in a town remote in Britain's isle,
A female stranger lodged in humble style :
The village gossip, roused when first she came,
At last discovered little but her name ;
And scandal, weary with its fruitless quest,
Conjectured and invented all the rest.
Her quiet habits, and abstracted cast,
Repelled inquiry, and it dropt at last.
Her years were waning, and her whole array
Bespoke neglect, indifference, and decay ;
Yet no wild look betrayed a wandering brain,
--It was not 'crazy Kate,' nor 'crazy Jane ;'
Nor high expression marked some sudden fall,
--A common care-worn person--that was all.

Year after year she wandered up and down,
Mid the dull out-skirts of that little town :
She loved a lonely turn, but 'twas her way
To put it off till towards the close of day ;
And there, all winter long, she might be met
Taking her walk as soon as sun was set.
When the dark sky foretold a stormy night,
And all the parlour fires were blazing bright,
Just as their social parties came to meet,
They used to see her pacing down the street.
'Twas said she used a wishful eye to cast
On such a lively circle as she passed,
As though the smiling group and cheerful blaze
Waked some remembrance of her early days ;
But still her lonely wanderings would prefer,
For she was strange to them, and they to her.

Beyond the town some low, damp meadows lay,
Through which a sluggish stream pursued its way ;
Tall reeds in that slow, silent water stood,
And curling vapours rested on its flood :
This walk she chose, and though it seemed so dull,
It pleased her much, because her heart was full ;
And there, unheeded by the passing breeze,
She used to vent it in such words as these.

'There's something suits the temper of my mind
In the deep howlings of this wintry wind :
How the sky lowers ! all darkly overspread,
Save one horizon streak of awful red :
So lowers my sky, and that bright line appears,
Like the last glimmer of departed years.
If those who loved me then, could see this sight,--
--Me, wandering here on such a cheerless night,
A poor, lone stranger in this friendless wild,
How they would mourn for their deserted child !
But they are gone, and now these storms may blow,
And I, unheeded, wander to and fro,
And not in all this peopled world, find one
To screen and cherish me as they had done.
I thought the world was kinder, and would prove
Some compensation for my parents' love :
I thought of friends--that once united band
With whom I used to journey hand in hand ;
But some are gone whence traveller ne'er returns,
The rest are eager in their own concerns ;
They might not spurn me, but I would not go
To tax them with the burden of my woe.
This rugged world affords, at last, no rest
Like the safe covert of a parent's breast.
Oh, they had pity for my slightest pain,
I never sought their sympathy in vain !
--My dear indulgent father, how he strove
To train and win me by his patient love ;
Endured my froward temper, and displayed
A kind forbearance that was ill repaid ;
To thwart my little pleasures ever loth,
They yielded much, he and my mother both.
I was a sicky one, and all her skill,
And all her pity came when I was ill :
I can remember how she was distrest,
And took more thought for me than all the rest ;
And what a sweet relief it seemed to be
To lay my aching head upon her knee :
Then she would moan, and stroke my sickly cheek,
And I was better while I heard her speak.
Thus I was fostered, thus my early days
She would enliven in a thousand ways,
My slightest pleasure to her own prefer--
Yet, I grew up, and was not kind to her.
I grew up selfish, full of thoughts and cares
For my own good, but unconcerned for theirs ;
I had my tastes and pleasures, but despised
The homespun comforts that my parents prized ;
Warm friendships cherished, but I felt above
The common claims of duteous filial love :
I gave cold service, but the smile that cheers,
The softer tone that soothes declining years,
These I withheld--they felt it--and the dart
That wounded them, now rankles in my heart.
--They had their failings--ah, dear parents ! how
Those few infirmities are vanished now !
Would that I now could bear them, now too late,
Sustain and soothe instead of aggravate !
Would they could hear these wailings !--but they died--
There, there they sweetly slumber, side by side !
And would not lift a hand, nor raise an eye,
To bid me cease this unavailing cry.'

'Twas thus, in those dull evenings, all alone,
She used, from time to time, to make her moan ;
And long frequented she the meadow's side,
In that desponding way :--at last she died.

Far having wandered, let the muse rehearse,
And gather up the fragments of her verse.
--It seems, at last, Experience does but show
What sense and conscience witnessed long ago ;
Decides the whole dispute 'twixt Heaven and Earth,
Proving her promise to be nothing worth ;
And that He knew our hearts and wants, who spoke
Of a light burden and an easy yoke.
Could we but credit Heaven's unerring pen,
We need not wait till three-score years and ten.
--He says His ways are pleasant--not alone
To pure, bright spirits bending round the throne,
But pleasant, peaceful, suited to the powers
Of such poor sordid, earthly souls as ours ;
We doubt--and all Experience claims to do,
Is simply this--to prove the statement true.

Submitted: Thursday, April 08, 2010


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