‘Transcripts from Memory: Transcript First’ by James Easson (11 February, 1860)

The following is the first of James Easson’s series ‘Transcripts from Memory’, published in the ‘People’s Journal’ in 1860. Easson—or ‘the people’s poet’ as he was posthumously dubbed by a reader—wrote many short stories, sketches, essays and poems from 1858 until his death in 1865. In many ways Easson was the sort of contributor that the ‘Journal’ was founded for. He was a painter decorator from Dundee who found an audience in the paper and was loved by its readers. He died in the Royal Lunatic Asylum in Dundee after three weeks of paralysis aged just 31, his only living relative being his Grandmother Betty Easson. Readers donated money to pay for his burial and the support of Betty when his death was announced. His stone can still be visited in Dundee’s Eastern Necropolis and the inscription reads; ‘Erected by the Proprietors of “The People’s Journal” in Memory of a Working Man who had Rare Literary Gifts and Whose Writings are his Best Memorial’.  For a full collection of his work and a short biography, see ‘The Life and Works of James Easson; The Dundee People’s Poet’ by Anthony Faulks (Dundee, 2016).

In a corner of the most of houses there is a pile of old dusty volumes, into which few ever think it worth while to look; they repose there from year in to year out, and, except to be dusted, and put back for a while into their old place, they may truly be said to have been “laid on the shelf.” Nevertheless, they are dear familiar friends; they have done their work in their day; for, upon inspection, we find among their number our first Bible, and our first “Course of Reading.” Dog-eared and greasy are the leaves of the latter book, with blotches of ink on the outside, whilst on the fly-leaves and margins there are all sorts of caricatures, figures, and names, every one of which, to a stranger, would be as unintelligible as the hieroglyphics on the Egyptian pyramids.

But in the twilight of a calm afternoon, what object more suggestive of pensive, pleasing thought than this same discarded “Collection,” and the queer-looking illustrations therein contained? It assists in plunging us back into the shadowy past, and thus delights us with emotions very sweet and very wholesome. We gaze upon its faded covers and time-worn binding until, by a species of mental magic, we are launched upon the stream of fancy, and glide smoothly back again to the bright shores of early youth. At such times we behold faces and forms we once knew and loved—images long lost to use in the mist of years. Every figure, every name, every shape serves to waken up some tender and happy remembrance, beautiful with the rosy effulgence of life’s morning! The name upon which our eye first falls, may be that of one who, in those peaceful times, was our bosom-friend;—where is he now! He sleeps, it may be, in the narrow house, and the long, rank grass, perhaps, conceals his honoured resting place. The next name belongs to one who prosecuted his studies with a worthy ardour, was made an assistant-teacher in the school where he began to learn, and was at length rewarded with a Queen’s scholarship. The third is the name of a youth who unwisely forsook his honest trade to become a lazy publican; and a fourth, alas! went off to sea, a lively and comely youth, and was drowned in the wild, remorseless waters while on his first voyage! All those well-known forms pass before our mind, and to each and all of them we give the tribute of a tear!

Turning to another page, we see the name of some whose ideal fills the mind with different thoughts—memories of a somewhat light and humorous complexion.

Accompanied with a portrait drawn in “strokes,” we have the name of one who was the simpleton of the school; his lank frame standing, by way of punishment, upon a couple of forms—a sight, to our memory, as vividly seen as though so many years had not attempted to fling their veil between us and the time it was first beheld. On the same page, too, and by means of the aforesaid “strokes”—strokes of art most artless—we have trees, houses, steam-boats, hills, and streams—all the objects and scenes then possessing our favour and attention, preserved to us on those familiar pages. In one corner we have a soldier, his head round as a bullet, with two dots for his eyes, an upright stroke for his nose, a cross stoke or his mouth, a triangular figure for his body, and two thick strokes for his legs! His hair is long, stiff, and straight, like a bunch of ramrods; his sword, and the arm that supports it, resembles a crank-handle; whilst, by the fact, that he is no near to the edge of the leaf, he is like what our brave Volunteer Riflemen will require to be in the hour of danger—barely hidden in ambush, always to be found when looked for, and “armed” for the battle!

Fun, however, by the bye. The good old books teach a graver lesson than would at first appear. One thought they suggest above many others—it is, how careful should a schoolmaster be on every occasion, little knowing, as he does, what damage may very thoughtlessly be effected, both to his own fair fame, and to the minds of his pupils; and, on the one hand, what blessed results may flow from, and be enjoyed by each, through a guarded and a worthy system of training! Some teachers teach by force of fear; but the rule of love is best, both at the time when it is in operation, and also after the teaching has become a thing of the past. To prove this by the recital of a little of bygone experience, is our intention, and was so when we wrote at the head of our sketch—Fresh lessons from our old “Collection.”

Our first schoolmaster, a good enough, and much respected person in the main, had a great liking for the “taws,” a feeling in which we had with him no sympathy whatever. We were then very young; and when the master frowned we trembled; when he said “advance” we responded by shrinking back, fearful of the fire-hardened strap with its six “taes,” so long and so galling. Truth to speak—the master was rather severe. Cool, erect, and unmoved, he would say to an offending juvenile, “Come up here, sir!” Then, the poor little fellow would slowly, with halting gait, draw near to the seat of the awful man, whose stern face and resolute tone of voice might have made a stouter heart than his to quake. One curt question as to why he had dared to do such and such,—to which generally no answer was returned—then the terrific order—”Hold up your hand, sir!” The little bit of pantomime that followed this mandate was half serious, half laughable; now thrusting out his little palm, previously wetted with spittle, then quickly drawing it in again; this time catching the entire weight of the strap upon the very tips of his poor red fingers. Those were incentives very questionable as a general rule; they served but to chill, with slavish fear and dread, the hearts of the scholars. It was like a bondage, from which every one of us felt glad to escape as soon as possible; and the oppressive prospect of pains and penalties ever looming in the distance, were as dark and frowning to us then, as disgrace and criminal confinement would be now, were we in hourly fear of their approach. Good reader, there certainly is a true poetry and a sweet purity that ever linger about the days of boyhood, but very little of it attaches to the interior of a week-day school, wherein the master teaches by force of fear, and works the “taws” with a will.

We cannot better illustrate this idea than just by describing another school, ruled over by a very different system of discipline—we mean the sweet Sabbath evening school, pregnant with so many sacred recollections, so many stirring and happy associations. To us this never-to-be-forgotten school was like a quiet, verdant retreat in the midst of a hard and sterile wilderness, with its genial air, its sweet psalm-lessons, and its little Bible verses to be learned by heart! There were its teachers, too, with their kinder, gentler tone and looks. No “taws” there; no dread, no harshness; only calm, generous emulation! All was, to the scholars true happiness, and towards the teachers true respect, true love! Yes; well do we remember how highly we preferred that happy Sabbath school—it and the other formed such a contrast! No imperious mandates there, such as “Come up here, sir!” At a smiling indication of the master’s eye we bounded off to obey, well aware that a pleasant pat on the head, and an encouraging word were certain to reward our pains. How all of us loved those mild, good men—their faces and forms are now the most cherished ones upon the canvas of our memory!

We will close this sketch (one of a series) with a scene taken from those bright times; and briefly transcribe some of our thoughts and feelings as they shine even yet through the dimness of eighteen long years.

The time was a bright, peaceful Sabbath evening in the bloom of the summer; and the scene was the playground of that school wherein the forces of fear and love were severally brought into play. The school was dismissed, the children were all gone, save the writer of this sketch, then a boy. Solitary silence reigned now, where gleeful noises so lately abounded. The darkness was fast closing in, and the sun, shrouding himself in his mantle of burning crimson, was sinking slowly into his bed of the western hills, a couch draped with faint, hazy blue. How sweet, quiet, and refreshing was that sacred hour, since embalmed in our heart, and now pourtrayed [sic] for the first time! We felt, then, oppressed by a strange thought—a thought that had often oppressed our mind—it was,—what a pity that every day is not like the sweet Sabbath day, and every schoolmaster kind and encouraging like our Sabbath school teacher. Reader, of the sympathetic soul, we own this was a child’s thought; but it was natural and earnest, and it gushed forth from the heart as warmly as did the wishful tear from the eye of him who then thought it! Strange that the same Bible should be a harsh task book, when by a little kindly treatment every one of our most melting memories might be made to hover around it!

Reluctantly, at the call of duty, we have to lay down those dear old books, and with a deep sigh coming from the bottom of our heart, wish that we had those happy days to live over again! In the words of the song, we fondly ask—“Will they no come back again?” Echo answers—never! Well, well; we can at least keep that good old volume, pray the prayer of the holly tree—“Lord, keep thou my memory green,” and ever and anon be taking—A fresh lesson from our old “Collection.”

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