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A Scottish Dozen: Uncollected Poems by Marion Bernstein

Linda Fleming and Edward Cohen



Published in the People’s Journal for Glasgow and Edinburgh, 3 February 1883, p. 3.
While others will tell of thy triumphs,
    Thy genius, and thy fame,
I can only think of thy sorrows
    Whene’er I hear thy name.

I think of the heart of a poet
    Always unfit to bear
Sad poverty’s heavy burden
    Of sordid, ceaseless care.

Poor Burns! how thy sensitive nature
    Fretted beneath the strain
Of want and debt and dependence,
    A threefold, galling chain.

It crushed the strength of thy spirit
    With more than Arctic cold,
It froze thy heart into stillness
    Ere forty winters old.

Ah! the price of thy meanest statue
    Might then have changed thy fate;
Dost thou see the wealth that is lavished
    Over thy grave, too late?

Dost thou witness how oft the poet
    Is deemed of little worth
Till the voice of the minstrel is silent,
    And the spirit passed from earth?

Nay, methinks thou hast brighter visions
    Than the passing shades of Time;
Thou seest the things eternal
    The realities sublime.

Where thou art they think not of sorrow,
    Such thoughts have passed away,
As the shadows of morning twilight
    Flee at the day of day!
In “Mirren’s Autobiography”—a poem in published in 1880 in the first volume of a celebrated series of Modern Scottish Poets—Marion Bernstein presents her personal history more evasively than effusively.@ The particulars that she reveals have to do with her childhood illness, with her consequent lameness and confinement, and with the Christian faith that sustained her as the years passed. But little emerges of her adult life. What is known is that a missionary who visited Glasgow in 1879 had found Bernstein and her mother “in circumstances of distress.”@ As her health deteriorated and she was no longer able to teach, she was reduced to subsisting on paltry pensions from Colquhoun’s Bequest for Incurables and the Indigent Gentlewoman’s Fund. It is not surprising, then, that she came to regard Robert Burns as a kindred spirit. Neither a peasant nor a rustic, Bernstein nevertheless shared Burns’s egalitarianism and his affection for the working classes. In “Robert Burns” she expresses both sympathy and empathy for his “threefold galling chain” of “want and dependence and care.” And, writing ostensibly about him, she strikes a distinctively self-reflexive chord: “I think of the heart of a poet / Always unfit to bear / Sad poverty’s heavy burden / Of sordid, ceaseless care.”