Past Issue




Walking with Elihu

Taylor Graham on Elihu Burritt

Born in Connecticut in 1810, Elihu Burritt, the Learned Blacksmith, taught himself mathematics, astronomy, geography, and 50 languages while working at a forge. He then turned to humanitarian causes, traveling to Europe, where he organized a series of international peace congresses. In the summer of 1863, he walked from London to the northern tip of Scotland to see how the common people fared in the Industrial Revolution. He arrived at John O'Groats in Scotland more than ten weeks and 700 miles after setting out. His journal of the trip is published as A Walk from London to John O'Groats (1864).

Trying to Reach Melrose

Lost the footpath, and for two hours clambered up and down.

- Elihu Burritt, A Walk from London to John O'Groats

The cliffs precipitous; a zigzag trail
cut into rock that overhangs the Tweed -
a man could lose his nerve, his courage fail.
By God's grace, you've lost nothing but your way.
And so, by pitch and prayer, you still proceed
through these dark fastnesses. A doubtful gray
from sky or river fills the gorge, the path
cut into rock that overhangs the Tweed -
some spirit of the pagan wilds, its wrath
unmitigated in this lonely place -
as you climb hand in hand with God, clasped tight
against the wall's unwelcoming, rough face.
At last you reach an open range, a height
with vista over panoramic space,
the world below you: hills and shadowed dale,
the cliffs precipitous, the zigzag trail.

Abbotsford House

The armoury is a miniature arsenal of all arms
ever wielded since the time of the Druids.

- Elihu Burritt, A Walk from London to John O'Groats

Wasn't it Mark Twain who blamed Sir Walter
for the American Civil War? But still you come
here, Elihu, to Abbotsford on the Tweed,

a pilgrimage shrine. Scott's home, built of a poet's
gleanings from history - the Crusades, siege
of Torquilstone; the Jacobite rebellion. The author

adorned his walls with Border chieftains' coats
of arms, cuirasses and greaves, halberds, Rob
Roy's pistol. And in the visitors' register you find

how bloody history goes on and on. Signatures
of your birth-land brothers - Americans all -
pledging allegiance "U.S.A." on one hand, "C.S.A."

on the other. Union or Confederate. The war
you wrote so many pages to avert: America, your
home in ruins, hung with swords.

And here you are now, half a world away.
Can you ever leave that loss behind, however
farther north you walk?

Sleeping Arrangements

Highlands or Lowlands, they came from Bible-lighted homes.

- Elihu Burritt, A Walk from London to John O'Groats

You've walked for miles through a treeless
waste, too barren even for heather, and come at last

to a village with no inn. Ten miles of wilderness
to the next town. Night has fallen. Where

will you sleep tonight? Here's a cottage that might
feed a hungry traveler in a low-ceilinged

sitting room encumbered with two beds.
One bed is not yet spoken for. How fortunate!

You retire early. But before you're quite asleep,
the two regulars who occupy the other bed

arrive - young men, no doubt strangers
thrown together by railroad work. They speak

so softly you can barely hear. Isn't it human
nature to try to parse their words?
In full Scots accent, a "hard-rhymed
psalm" followed by a chapter from the Bible.

Then silence, as if prayer to bind this hostel
to their distant homes and families.

This three-part family in the midst of moor.
For one night, it soothes you into sleep.

In the morning, you'll go separate ways.
No need to speak out loud the God-be-with-ye's.

Storm off the North Sea

All day, wind and muddy roads. You shelter
from rain in wayside cottages or under fir-trees.
Heavy walking in the gale. Four miles short

of Inverness, evening coming on; cold wet feet
in leaky boots - you find an inn; settle
by the fire; pull off wet stockings. Outside,

the storm blows wilder. But hot tea never comes.
No oatcake or Scotch scones. No reason
given. There's nothing at all

for a traveler, except four more miles
of storm. So dark you can hardly see the road.
Head-wind, drenching rain. At last

you reach Inverness. And here's
a temperance inn to welcome pilgrims,
refugees, whoever's washed up by a storm.

Journey's End

Pilgrims to the shrine of this famous domicile
are liable to much disappointment at finding
so little remaining.

- Elihu Burritt, A Walk from London to John O'Groats

They say leaving is better than arriving,
arriving never as good as anticipation.
I felt it again, Elihu, turning your last few pages.
The Orkneys glowed across the Firth as if
to call you, but you weren't going that far.
John O'Groats was enough,
even if its eight-sided legendary hall -
eight doors and octagonal table
designed for family peace - were gone,
its stones salvaged for a granary.

Still, you stuffed your pockets with sea-shells
and rejoiced. Elihu, who could be happy
with a few wave-worn shells?
If I listen to the conch of a childhood summer,
its message is nothing but the song
in my own ear. But you'd walked
700 miles to find a barren shore
with a mythic tale of Peace. You were glad
to arrive. Happiness must be a state
of mind and faith.

Taylor Graham is a volunteer search-and-rescue dog handler in the Sierra Nevada. She's included in the anthology California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present (Santa Clara University, 2004). Her book The Downstairs Dance Floor was awarded the Robert Philips Poetry Chapbook Prize, and she's a finalist in Poets & Writers' California Writers Exchange. Her newest book, Walking with Elihu: Poems on Elihu Burritt, the Learned Blacksmith (Hot Pepper Press, 2010), is available on Amazon. "Trying to Reach Melrose," "Abbotsford House," and "Journey's End" are included the book; "Storm off the North Sea" first appeared on Medusa's Kitchen.