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A Poet of the Poor: Mary Pyper

by William Andrews

SCOTLAND is a land of song. It has been the birthplace of many poets who have added glory to our literary annals. Its list of authors includes the names of a large number of men and women in the humbler walks of life, who took up literature under difficulties, and won honourable places in the world of letters. Burns at the plough, Hogg tending his sheep on the hillside, Hugh Miller in the quarry, Allan Cunningham with chisel in hand, William Thom and Robert Tannahill at the shuttle, and Janet Hamilton in her humble home are familiar figures to every reader of Scottish biography.

Amongst the lesser known names is that of Mary Pyper, who, under severe trials, read a great deal and produced poems of considerable merit for a self-taught writer. She was born at Greenock, on the 27th of May, 1795. Her father was a clockmaker, named Alexander Pyper, who had married a worthy woman, Isabella Andrews, both of whom were natives of Edinburgh. Failing[Pg 168] to obtain regular employment in their native city, the parents of our heroine moved westwards in search of work. Mary Pyper, in an autobiographical letter, addressed to the Rev. Charles Rogers, ll.d., states that “her father enlisted in the 42nd Highlanders on account of failing to find employment.” Says Mr. D. H. Edwards, in his Modern Scottish Poets, “it was a time of war when recruits were often made in an unscrupulous manner, and one day Alexander Pyper found a shilling in his pocket, and was told to his astonishment that he had enlisted in His Majesty’s service.” His regiment, shortly after he joined it, received orders to march from Perth across the Sheriffmuir, a distance of sixteen miles. Poor Mrs. Pyper walked, carrying her infant in her arms, the rain coming down in torrents. After a weary tramp the poor mother sat down nearly broken-hearted, fearing that her baby had perished. On the arrival of the baggage carts, warm clothing and other necessaries were procured, and happily the child began to revive.

The regiment subsequently proceeded to Ireland. Pyper, on leaving Dublin for England, stumbled and fractured his leg. The accident rendered him unfit for active service, and he was discharged.[Pg 169] He did not long survive, and at the age of six months, Mary Pyper was left fatherless.

Her mother then returned to her native city. Here she had to struggle for bread, gaining a scanty living as a boot-binder. She devoted much time to the education of her child, who proved an apt scholar. Mother and daughter delighted in the study of history, but Mary’s chief pleasure was derived from the works of the poets. She was familiar with the poetry of Shakespeare, Milton, Scott, Cowper, and other celebrated authors. As a child she was puny; she was always little, and might be called a dwarf. In her early years she suffered much from ill-health. She was troubled with jaundice, and on three occasions had severe attacks of fever, each lasting from six to eight weeks. Her mother, too, was often sick, and when other children of her age were enjoying childish games Mary Pyper was busy with her needle helping to add to the slender income of her mother.

After being confined to her bed for six years, Mrs. Pyper died on the 27th of March, 1827. It was during the attendance on her mother that Mary first thought of composing verses. The poor woman had been obliged to run into debt to[Pg 170] the extent of £9. This amount was paid by her daughter out of her wages of six shillings per week, obtained from a shop-keeper who employed her to make buttons and fringes. Hoping to earn more, she left her situation, and obtained a small basket containing fancy goods, which she hawked for sale, but this did not prove a satisfactory means of making a living. It was uncertain, and the walking fatiguing. In later years she had a continual struggle, and met with numerous misfortunes. Writing to Dr. Rogers, in 1860, she said: “As I was working in our church-school, I fell and broke my arm, some ten years since. Eight months after this, I was painting my house and, over-reaching myself, ricked my back, and the year before I fell on the frost and severely hurt my head.” Kind friends helped to lighten her troubles, which she bore with Christian fortitude.

A small volume of her poems was published in 1860, mainly through the assistance of Mr. T. Constable. The work met with a favourable reception, and a couple of the hymns were reproduced in the pages of Lyra Britannica. Mr. Henry Wright, the compiler of the work entitled Lays of Pious Minstrels, includes in it examples[Pg 171] of Mary Pyper’s poetry. In the preface to his volume he wrote: “The attention of my readers is especially directed to the pieces ‘Let me go,’ ‘Servant of God,’ and ‘We shall see Him as He is,’ the composition of Miss Mary Pyper, a resident in one of the closes or alleys in the Old Town of Edinburgh, who is in extreme old age, quite alone in the world, totally blind, and in deep poverty. Since the notice of Miss Pyper appeared in the last edition of this work, many benevolent persons have sent me donations for her in postage stamps, and otherwise. I shall be glad to be the medium of alleviating in any degree the very painful circumstances in which she is placed.” It will be seen from the foregoing that in addition to other afflictions she lost her eyesight in her old age.

We give a few specimens of her verses, which are chiefly of a religious and devotional character. The first poem is entitled “The Christian’s View of Death”:

“Let me go! the Day is breaking
Morning bursts upon mine eye,
Death this mortal frame is shaking,
But the soul can never die!

Let me go! the Day-Star, beaming,
[Pg 172]Gilds the radiant realms above;
Its full glory on me streaming,
Lights me to the Land of Love.”

The last stanzas of her “Servant of God” are as follow:—

“There Flowers immortal bloom
To charm the ravished sight;
And palms and harps await for those
Who walk with Him in white.

For they shall sing the song
Of Moses, long foretold,
When they have passed those pearly gates
And streets of burnished gold.

The glories of the Lamb
Their rapturous strains shall raise—
Eternal ages shall record
His love, His power, His praise.”

The following are the concluding lines of “We shall see Him as He is”:—

“When we pass o’er death’s dark river
We shall see Him as He is—
Resting in His love and favour
Owning all the glory His;
There to cast our crowns before Him—
Oh! what bliss the thought affords!
There for ever to adore Him—
King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”

One of her best hymns is entitled “What has Jesus done?” The little gem we next reproduce is perhaps her best known production. It has been widely quoted and much admired:—

[Pg 173]Epitaph: A Life.

“I came at morn—’twas Spring, I smiled,
The fields with green were clad;
I walked abroad at noon, and lo!
’Twas summer—I was glad.
I sate me down—’twas autumn eve,
And I with sadness wept;
I laid me down at night—and then
’Twas winter—and I slept.”

The following poem is a fair specimen of her poetic power:—

On seeing two little girls present
a flower to a dying person.

“Come, sit beside my couch of death,
With that fair summer flower,
That I may taste its balmy breath
Before my final hour.
The lily’s virgin purity,
The rose’s rich perfume,
Speak with a thrilling voice to me,
Preparing for the tomb.

“Each calls to mind sweet Sharon’s rose,
The lily of the vale—
The white and stainless robes of those
Who conquer and prevail.
For as it droops its modest head,
Methinks it seems to say:
‘All flesh, like me, must quickly fade,
Must wither and decay!’

“And yet it tells of fairer skies,
[Pg 174]And happier lands than this,
Where beauteous flowers immortal vie,
And plants of Paradise:
A land where blooms eternal spring—
Where every storm is past;
Fain would my weary spirit wing
Its way—and be at rest.—

“But hark, I hear a choral strain—
It comes from worlds above,
It speaks of my release from pain,
Of rest—in Jesus’ love!
Jesus, my hope, my help, my stay,
My all in earth or heaven,
Let thy blest mandate only say,
‘Thy sins are all forgiven!’

“Then will I plume my joyful wing
To those blest realms of peace,
Where saints and angels ever sing,
And sorrows ever cease.
Dear mother, dry thy tearful eye,
And weep no more for me,
The orphan’s God that reigns on high
The widow’s God shall be.

“Pull me a sprig of that white flower,
And place it on my breast,
The last effect of friendship’s power
Shall charm my heart to rest.
Then, Lord, let me depart from pain
To realms where glories dwell,
Where I may meet those friends again,
And say no more ‘farewell!’”

Her first book did not yield much pecuniary profit. In 1865 a larger volume of her poetry was[Pg 175] published by Mr. Andrew Elliot, of Edinburgh. Her valued friend, Miss Moncrieff, prefaced it with a biographical sketch, and Dean Ramsay wrote an introduction. He described her poems as being of “no common excellence, both in diction and sentiment.” The book also contains a portrait of the author. Through the kindly interest of the publisher the work proved extremely successful, and the proceeds of the sale became her chief support in her old age, when unable to work through feeble health and blindness. She enjoyed many comforts, thanks to the help of Miss M. A. Scott Moncrieff, Mr. Andrew Elliot, and other warm-hearted friends.

She died in 1870, having reached more than the allotted three score years and ten, and was interred in the historic burial ground of Greyfriars’ Church, Edinburgh. Her last resting-place was for some years without any monumental stone, but mainly through the exertions of Dr. Rogers, in May, 1885, a handsome cross was erected over her remains, simply bearing her name, “Mary Pyper.”