The Flying Tailor

Further Extract from ‘The Recluse,’ a Poem.

James Hogg

IF ever chance or choice thy footsteps lead
Into that green and flowery burial-ground
That compasseth with sweet and mournful smiles
The church of Grasmere,—by the eastern gate
Enter—and underneath a stunted yew,
Some three yards distant from the gravel-walk,
On the left-hand side, thou wilt espy a grave,
With unelaborate headstone beautified,
Conspicuous ’mid the other stoneless heaps
’Neath which the children of the valley lie.
There pause—and with no common feelings read
This short inscription—‘Here lies buried
The Flying Tailor, aged twenty-nine!’

Him from his birth unto his death I knew,
And many years before he had attain’d
The fulness of his fame, I prophesied
The triumphs of that youth’s agility,
And crown’d him with that name which afterwards
He nobly justified—and dying left
To fame’s eternal blazon.—read it here—
‘The Flying Tailor!’

It is somewhat strange
That his mother was a cripple, and his father
Long way declined into the vale of years
When their son Hugh was born. At first the babe
Was sickly, and a smile was seen to pass
Across the midwife’s cheek, when, holding up
The sickly wretch, she to the father said,
‘A fine man-child!’ What else could they expect?
The mother being, as I said before,
A cripple, and the father of the child
Long way declined into the vale of years.

But mark the wondrous change—ere he was put
By his mother into breeches, Nature strung
The muscular part of his economy
To an unusual strength, and he could leap,
All unimpeded by his petticoats,
Over the stool on which his mother sat
When carding wool, or cleansing vegetables,
Or meek performing other household tasks.
Cunning he watch’d his opportunity,
And oft, as house-affairs did call her thence,
Overleapt Hugh, a perfect whirligig,
More than six inches o’er th’ astonish’d stool.
What boots it to narrate, how at leap-frog
Over the breech’d and unbreech’d villagers
He shone conspicuous? Leap-frog do I say?
Vainly so named. What though in attitude
The Flying Tailor aped the croaking race
When issuing from the weed-entangled pool,
Tadpoles no more, they seek the new-mown fields,
A jocund people, bouncing to and fro
Amid the odorous clover—while amazed
The grasshopper sits idle on the stalk
With folded pinions and forgets to sing.
Frog-like, no doubt, in attitude he was;
But sure his bounds across the village green
Seem’d to my soul—(my soul for ever bright
With purest beams of sacred poesy)—
Like bounds of red-deer on the Highland hill,
When, close-environed by the tinchel’s chain,
He lifts his branchy forehead to the sky,
Then o’er the many-headed multitude
Springs belling half in terror, half in rage,
And fleeter than the sunbeam or the wind
Speeds to his cloud-lair on the mountain-top.

No more of this—suffice it to narrate,
In his tenth year he was apprenticed
Unto a Master Tailor by a strong
And regular indenture of seven years,
Commencing from the date the parchment bore,
And ending on a certain day, that made
The term complete of seven solar years.
Oft have I heard him say, that at this time
Of life he was most wretched; for, constrain’d
To sit all day cross-legg’d upon a board,
The natural circulation of the blood
Thereby was oft impeded, and he felt
So numb’d at times, that when he strove to rise
Up from his work he could not, but fell back
Among the shreds and patches that bestrew’d
With various colours, brightening gorgeously,
The board all round him—patch of warlike red
With which he patched the regimental-suits
Of a recruiting military troop,
At that time stationed in a market town
At no great distance—eke of solemn black
Shreds of no little magnitude, with which
The parson’s Sunday-coat was then repairing,
That in the new-roof’d church he might appear
With fitting dignity—and gravely fill
The sacred seat of pulpit eloquence,
Cheering with doctrinal point and words of faith
The poor man’s heart, and from the shallow wit
Of atheist drying up each argument,
Or sharpening his own weapons only to turn
Their point against himself, and overthrow
His idols with the very enginery
Reared ’gainst the structure of our English Church.

Oft too, when striving all he could to finish
The stated daily task, the needle’s point,
Slanting insidious from th’ eluded stitch,
Hath pinched his finger, by the thimble’s mail
In vain defended, and the crimson blood
Distain’d the lining of some wedding-suit;
A dismal omen! that to mind like his,
Apt to perceive in slightest circumstance
Mysterious meaning, yielded sore distress
And feverish perturbation, so that oft
He scarce could eat his dinner—nay, one night
He swore to run from his apprenticeship,
And go on board a first-rate man-of-war,
From Plymouth lately come to Liverpool,
Where, in the stir and tumult of a crew
Composed of many nations, ’mid the roar
Of wave and tempest, and the deadlier voice
Of battle, he might strive to mitigate
The fever that consumed his mighty heart.

But other doom was his. That very night
A troop of tumblers came into the village,
Tumbler, equestrian, mountebank,—on wire,
On rope, on horse, with cup and balls, intent
To please the gaping multitude, and win
The coin from labour’s pocket—small perhaps
Each separate piece of money, but when join’d
Making a good round sum, destined ere long
All to be melted, (so these lawless folk
Name spending coin in loose debauchery)
Melted into ale—or haply stouter cheer,
Gin diuretic, or the liquid flame
Of baneful brandy, by the smuggler brought
From the French coast in shallop many-oar’d,
Skulking by night round headland and through bay,
Afraid of the King’s cutter, or the barge
Of cruising frigate, arm’d with chosen men,
And with her sweeps across the foamy waves
Moving most beautiful with measured strokes.

It chanced that as he threw a somerset
Over three horses (each of larger size
Than our small mountain-breed) one of the troop
Put out his shoulder, and was otherwise
Considerably bruised, especially
About the loins and back. So he became
Useless unto that wandering company,
And likely to be felt a sore expense
To men just on the eve of bankruptcy,
So the master of the troop determined
To leave him in the workhouse, and proclaim’d
That if there was a man among the crowd
Willing to fill his place and able too,
Now was the time to show himself. Hugh Thwaites
Heard the proposal, as he stood apart
Striving with his own soul—and with a bound
He leapt into the circle, and agreed
To supply the place of him who had been hurt.
A shout of admiration and surprise
Then tore heaven’s concave, and completely fill’d
The little field, where near a hundred people
Were standing in a circle round and fair.
Oft have I striven by meditative power,
And reason working ’mid the various forms
Of various occupations and professions,
To explain the cause of one phenomenon,
That, since the birth of science, hath remain’d
A bare enunciation, unexplain’d
By any theory, or mental light
Stream’d on it by the imaginative will,
Or spirit musing in the cloudy shrine,
The Penetralia of the immortal soul.
I now allude to that most curious fact,
That ’mid a given number, say threescore,
Of tailors, more men of agility
Will issue out, than from an equal show
From any other occupation—say
Smiths, barbers, bakers, butchers, or the like.
Let me not seem presumptuous, if I strive
This subject to illustrate; nor, while I give
My meditations to the world, will I
Conceal from it, that much I have to say
I learnt from one who knows the subject well
In theory and practice—need I name him?
The light-heel’d author of the Isle of Palms,
Illustrious more for leaping than for song.

First, then, I would lay down this principle,
That all excessive action by the law
Of nature tends unto repose. This granted,
All action not excessive must partake
The nature of excessive action—so
That in all human beings who keep moving,
Unconscious cultivation of repose
Is going on in silence. Be it so.
Apply to men of sedentary lives
This leading principle, and we behold
That, active in their inactivity,
And unreposing in their long repose,
They are, in fact, the sole depositaries
Of all the energies by others wasted,
And come at last to teem with impulses
Of muscular motion, not to be withstood,
And either giving vent unto themselves
In numerous feats of wild agility,
Or terminating in despair and death.

Now, of all sedentary lives, none seems
So much so as the tailor’s.—Weavers use
Both arms and legs, and, we may safely add,
Their bodies too, for arms and legs can’t move
Without the body—as the waving branch
Of the green oak disturbs his glossy trunk.
Not so the Tailor—for he sits cross-legg’d,
Cross-legg’d for ever! save at time of meals,
In bed, or when he takes his little walk
From shop to alehouse, picking, as he goes,
Stray patch of fustian, cloth, or cassimere,
Which, as by natural instinct, he discerns,
Though soil’d with mud, and by the passing wheel
Bruised to attenuation ’gainst the stones.

Here then we pause—and need no farther go,
We have reach’d the sea-mark of our utmost sail.
Now let me trace the effect upon his mind
Of this despised profession. Deem not thou,
O rashly deem not, that his boyish days
Past at the shop-board, when the stripling bore
With bashful feeling of apprenticeship
The name of Tailor, deem not that his soul
Derived no genial influence from a life,
Which, although haply adverse in the main
To the growth of intellect, and the excursive power,
Yet in its ordinary forms possessed
A constant influence o’er his passing thoughts,
Moulded his appetences and his will,
And wrought out, by the work of sympathy,
Between his bodily and mental form,
Rare correspondence, wond’rous unity!
Perfect—complete—and fading not away.
While on his board cross-legg’d he used to sit,
Shaping of various garments, to his mind
An image rose of every character
For whom each special article was framed,
Coat, waistcoat, breeches. So at last his soul
Was like a storehouse, filled with images,
By musing hours of solitude supplied.
Nor did his ready fingers shape the cut
Of villager’s uncouth habiliments
With greater readiness, than did his mind
Frame corresponding images of those
Whose corporal measurement the neat-mark’d paper
In many a mystic notch for ay retain’d.
Hence, more than any man I ever knew,
Did he possess the power intuitive
Of diving into character. A pair
Of breeches to his philosophic eye
Were not what unto other folks they seem,
Mere simple breeches, but in them he saw
The symbol of the soul—mysterious, high
Hieroglyphics! such as Egypt’s Priest
Adored upon the holy Pyramid,
Vainly imagined tomb of monarchs old,
But raised by wise philosophy, that sought
By darkness to illumine, and to spread
Knowledge by dim concealment—process high
Of man’s imaginative, deathless soul.
Nor, haply, in th’ abasement of the life
Which stern necessity had made his own,
Did he not recognise a genial power
Of soul-ennobling fortitude. He heard
Unmoved the witling’s shallow contumely,
And thus, in spite of nature, by degrees
He saw a beauty and a majesty
In this despised trade, which warrior’s brow
Hath rarely circled—so that when he sat
Beneath his sky-light window, he hath cast
A gaze of triumph on the godlike sun,
And felt that orb, in all his annual round,
Beheld no happier nobler character
Than him, Hugh Thwaites, a little tailor-boy.

Thus I, with no unprofitable song,
Have, in the silence of th’ umbrageous wood,
Chaunted the heroic youthful attributes
Of him the Flying Tailor. Much remains
Of highest argument, to lute or lyre
Fit to be murmur’d with impassion’d voice;
And when, by timely supper and by sleep
Refresh’d, I turn me to the welcome task,
With lofty hopes,—Reader, do thou expect
The final termination of my lay.
For, mark my words,—eternally my name
Shall last on earth, conspicuous like a star
’Mid that bright galaxy of favour’d spirits,
Who, laugh’d at constantly whene’er they publish’d,
Survived the impotent scorn of base Reviews,
Monthly or Quarterly, or that accursed
Journal, the Edinburgh Review, that lives
On tears, and sighs, and groans, and brains, and blood.