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Poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes
THROUGH my north window, in the wintry weather,— My airy oriel on the river shore,— I watch the sea-fowl as they flock together Where late the boatman flashed his dripping oar. The gull, high floating, like a sloop unladen, Lets the loose water waft him as it will; The duck, round-breasted as a rustic maiden, Paddles and plunges, busy, busy still. I see the solemn gulls in council sitting On some broad ice-floe pondering long and late, While overhead the home-bound ducks are flitting, And leave the tardy conclave in debate, Those weighty questions in their breasts revolving Whose deeper meaning science never learns, Till at some reverend elder's look dissolving, The speechless senate silently adjourns. But when along the waves the shrill north-easter Shrieks through the laboring coaster's shrouds "Beware!" The pale bird, kindling like a Christmas feaster When some wild chorus shakes the vinous air, Flaps from the leaden wave in fierce rejoicing, Feels heaven's dumb lightning thrill his torpid nerves, Now on the blast his whistling plumage poising, Now wheeling, whirling in fantastic curves. Such is our gull; a gentleman of leisure, Less fleshed than feathered; bagged you'll find him such; His virtue silence; his employment pleasure; Not bad to look at, and not good for much. What of our duck? He has some high-bred cousins,— His Grace the Canvas-back, My Lord the Brant,— Anas and Anser,— both served up by dozens, At Boston's Rocher, half-way to Nahant. As for himself, he seems alert and thriving,— Grubs up a living somehow— what, who knows? Crabs? mussels? weeds? Look quick! there's one just diving! Flop! Splash! his white breast glistens— down he goes! And while he's under— just about a minute— I take advantage of the fact to say His fishy carcase has no virtue in it The gunning idiot's worthless hire to pay. He knows you! "sportsmen" from suburban alleys, Stretched under seaweed in the treacherous punt; Knows every lazy, shiftless lout that sallies Forth to waste powder— as he says, to "hunt." I watch you with a patient satisfaction, Well pleased to discount your predestined luck; The float that figures in your sly transaction Will carry back a goose, but not a duck. Shrewd is our bird; not easy to outwit him! Sharp is the outlook of those pin-head eyes; Still, he is mortal and a shot may hit him, One cannot always miss him if he tries. Look! there's a young one, dreaming not of danger Sees a flat log come floating down the stream; Stares undismayed upon the harmless stranger; Ah! were all strangers harmless as they seem! Habet! a leaden shower his breast has shattered; Vainly he flutters, not again to rise; His soft white plumes along the waves are scattered; Helpless the wing that braved the tempest lies. He sees his comrades high above him flying To seek their nests among the island reeds; Strong is their flight; all lonely he is lying Washed by the crimsoned water as he bleeds. O Thou who carest for the falling sparrow, Canst Thou the sinless sufferer's pang forget? Or is thy dread account-book's page so narrow Its one long column scores thy creatures' debt? Poor gentle guest, by nature kindly cherished, A world grows dark with thee in blinding death; One little gasp— thy universe has perished, Wrecked by the idle thief who stole thy breath! Is this the whole sad story of creation, Lived by its breathing myriads o'er and o'er,— One glimpse of day, then black annhilation, A sunlit passage to a sunless shore? Give back our faith, ye mystery-solving lynxes! Robe us once more in heaven-aspiring creeds! Happier was dreaming Egypt with her sphinxes, The stony convent with its cross and beads! How often gazing where a bird reposes, Rocked on the wavelets, drifting with the tide, I lose myself in strange metempsychosis And float a sea-fowl at a sea-fowl's side; From rain, hail, snow in feathery mantle muffled, Clear-eyed, strong-limbed, with keenest sense to hear My mate soft murmuring, who, with plumes unruffled, Where'er I wander still is nestling near; The great blue hollow like a garment o'er me; Space all unmeasured, unrecorded time; While seen with inward eye moves on before me Thought's pictured train in wordless pantomime. A voice recalls me.— From my window turning I find myself a plumeless biped still; No beak, no claws, no sign of wings discerning,— In fact with nothing bird-like but my quill.
Oliver Wendell Holmes
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