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Poem by Thomas Aird


At times a bird slides through the glossy air,
O'er the enamelled woodlands; but no chirp
Of song is heard: all's dumb and panting heat.
How waste and idle are yon river sands,
Far-stretching white! The stream is almost shrunk
Down to the green gleet of its slippery stones;
And in it stand the cows, switching their tails,
With circling drops, and ruminating slow.
A hermit glutton on a sodded root,
Fish-gorged, his head and bill sunk to his breast,
The lean blue heron stands, and there will stand
Motionless all the long dull afternoon.

But the old woods are near, with grateful glooms,
Dells, silent grottoes, and cold sunken wells;
There rest on mossy seats, and be refreshed:
Thankful you toil not, at this blazing hour,
Beneath the Dog-star in some sandy lane
Of the strait sea-coast town, pent closely in
With walls of fiery brick, their tops stuck o'er
With broken pointed glass, and danders hot
Fencing their feet, with sparse ears of wild barley
Parched, dun, and dead amongst them; o'er your head
The smoke of potteries, and the foundry-vent
Sending its quivering exhalation up
Heat more than smoke; to aggravate the whole,
The sweltering, smothering, suffocating whole,
The oppressive sense upon your heart of man's
Torn dingy shirts, half washed, flea-spotted still,
Hung out on bending strings at broken windows;
Hunger, and fear, and pale disordered faces,
Lies, drunken strife, strokes, cries, and new-coined oaths,
All hot and rough from the red mint of Hell.

Lo! with her screwed tail cocked aloft in air,
The cottar's cow comes scampering clumsily.
Her, sorely cupped and leeched, the clegs have stung
From her propriety; and hoisting high
Her standard of distress, this way she comes
Cantering unwieldily, her heavy udder,
Dropping out milk, swinging from side to side.
Pathetic sight! so long have we been used
To see the solemn tenor of her life,
From calfhood to her present reverend age
Of wrinkled front, scored horns, and hollow back,
Tenor unbroken, save when once or twice
A pool of frothy blood before the smithy
Has made her snuff, snort, paw, and toss her head,
Wheel round and round, and slavering bellow mad:
That blood the cadger's horse, seized with the bots,
When he on cobwebbed clover, raw and cold,
Had supped, gave spouting, spinning from his neck,
Beneath the blacksmith's mallet and his fleam.
Is this the cow, at home so patient o'er
The cool sobriety of cabbage-leaves,
Hoarse cropped for her at morn, when the night-drops
Lie like big diamonds in the freshened stock,
Drops broken, running, scattered, but again
Conglobed like quicksilver, until they fall
Shaken to earth? Is this the milky mother,
That long has given to thankful squeezing hands,
With such an air of steady usefulness,
The children's streaming foodtwelve pints a-day;
And with her butter, and her cheese, and cans
Of white-green whey, has bought the grocery goods,
Snuff and tobacco? O the affecting sight!
Help, help, ye shades, the venerable brute!
But gradually subsiding to a trot,
She takes the river for her cooling stand.
Ah, Crummie! you have stolen this scampering march
Upon the little cowherd. Far are heard
The opening roarings of his wondering fear,
Loading the noontide air. Three other friends
Had he to feed, besides the family cow.
Twin cushats young, the yellow hair now sparse
In their thick gathering plumage, nestling lie
Within his bonnet; they can snap, and strike
With the raised wing; grown vigorous thus, they need
A larger dinner of provided peas.
Nor less his hawk, shrill-screaming as it shakes
Its wings for food, must have the knotted worms
From moist cold beds below the unwholesome stone,
Which never has been raisedif he be quick
To raise it, and can seize them ere they slink
Into their holes, or, when half in, can draw them,
With a long, steady, gentle, equal pull,
Tenacious though they be, and tender stretched
Till every rib seems ready to give way,
Unbroken out in all their slippery length.
These now he wandered seeking, for the ground
Was parched, and they the surface all had left:
And many a stone he raised, but nothing saw,
Save insect eggs, and shells of beetles' wings,
Slaters, cocoons, and yellow centipedes.
Thus was he drawn away. When he came back,
His cow was gone. Dismayed, he looked all round.
At last he saw, far-off on the horizon,
Her hoisted tail. He seized his birds and ran,
Following the tail, and as he ran he roared.
Lo! yonder comes he, roaring, red-hot-faced.

The world is flooded with the dazzling day.
We take the woods. Couched in their checkered skirts,
Below an elm we lie. A sylvan stream
Is sleeping by us in a cold still pool,
Within whose glassy depth the little fishes
Hang, as in crystal air. Freckled with gleams,
'Neath yonder hazelly bank which roofs it o'er
With roots and moss, it slides and slips away.
Here a rayed spot of light, intensely clear,
Strikes our eye through the leaves; a sunbeam there
Comes slanting in between the mossy trunks
Of the green trees, and misty shimmering falls
With a long slope down on the glossy ferns:
Light filmy flies athwart it brightening shoot,
Or dance and hover in the motty ray.

We love the umbrageous Elm. Its well-crimped leaf,
Serrated, fresh, and rough as a cow's tongue,
Is healthy, natural, and cooling, far
Beyond the famous bay, glazed, glittering hard,
As liquored o'er with some metallic wash.
Thus pleased, laid back, up through the elm we look:
What life the little Creeper of the Tree
To leafdom lends! See how the antic bird,
Her bosom to the bark, goes round away
Behind the trunk, but quaintly reappears
Through a rough cleft above, with busy bill
Picking her lunch; and now among the leaves
Our birdie goes, bright glimmering in the green
And yellow light that fills the tender tree.

Low o'er the burnie bends the drooping Birch.
Fair tree! though tattered be its vest of white,
No fairer twinkles in the dewy glade.
Sweet is its scented breath, the wild deer loves
To snuff and browse about the budding spray.
Wandering the woods, the truant schoolboy spies
The thick excrescence of its matted sprigs,
And hopes the cushat's nest: soft steals he near.
Ah, what a cheat! But if the tree be old,
He finds the fungous corkwood in its clefts,
And with his knife he fashions him a ball.
Next peels he off a bit of bark, and splits
With his thumb-nail the many-coated rind
To the last outer thinness; then he holds
The silky shivering film between his lips,
And pipes and whistles, mimicking the thrush.
Nor less the Beauty of our natural woods
Is useful too. What time the housewife's pirn
(O cheerless change that stopped the birring wheel!)
Whirled glimmering round before the evening fire,
'Twas birchen aye. And when our tough-heeled shoes
Have stood the tear and wear of stony hills
Beyond our hope, we bless the birchen pegs.
In Norway o'er the foam, their crackling fires
Are fed with bark of birch, and there they thatch
Their simple houses with its pliant twigs.
At home, the virtues of our civic besoms
Confess the birch. The Master of the School
Is now abroad: oh may he never miss,
Wander where'er he will, the birchen glen;
But cut the immemorial ferula,
To lay in pickle for rebellious imps,
And whip to worth the boyhood of the land!

The Queen can make a Duke, but cannot make
One of the forest's old Aristocrats.
Behold yon Oak! what glory in his bole,
His boughs, his branches, his broad frondent head!
The ancient Nobleman! Not She who rules
The kingdoms, many-isled, on which the sun
Never goes down, with all the investiture
Of garters, coronets, scutcheons, swords, and stars,
Could make him there at once. Patrician! Nay,
King of the Woods, his independent realm!
Whate'er his titled name, there let him stand,
Fit emblem of our British Constitution,
Full constituted in the rooted Past,
With powers, and forces, and accommodations,
The growth of ages, not an act or work!
Beyond this emblem of old dignity,
And far beyond the associated thought
Of Hearts of Oak, that mightiest incarnation
Of human power that earth has ever seen
As when we launched our Nelson, and he went
Thundering around the world, driving the foe,
With all their banded hosts, from hemisphere
To hemisphere, before him by the terror
Of his tremendous name, but overtook,
And thunder-smote them down, swept from the seas
Beyond all this, the reverend Oak takes back
The heart to elder days of holy awe.
Such oaks are they, the hoariest of their race,
Round Lochwood Tower, the Johnstone's ancient seat.
Bowed down with very age, and rough all o'er
With scurfy moss, and parasitic hair,
They look as if no lively little bird
Durst hop upon their spirit-awing heads.
But solemn visions swarm on every bough,
Of Druid doings in the dusk of old.

When lours the thunder-cloud, and all the trees
Stand black and still, with what a trump profound
The wild bee wanders by! But here he is,
Hoarse murmuring in the foxglove's weighed-down bell.
How summer-glad! but when the frost-edged days
Of later autumn come, they'll find him hang
In torpid stupor on the purple knot.
Man robs him too. The boys have found his door,
And delve him out: he issues: ragweed they
Ply, fearing him, but yet on honey bent,
And beat him down, and follow to his bike.
They seize the yellower and the cleaner comb,
But drop it quick, when squeezing it they find
Nought there but milky maggots; then they pick
And suck the darker bits, soiled of the earth,
Wild-bitter-flavoured in their luscious strength.
The mower in the meadow ruffles up
The foggie's nest, a ball of soft dry fog:
With what an acrid, angry, pent-up buzz
Swarming it stirs! but when the yellow bees
Are all dislodged, and spin their airy rings
Away, away, the bright clean honey's his.

Ah! there's Miss Kitty Wren, with her cocked tail,
Cocked like a cooper's thumb. Miss Kitty goes
In 'neath the bank, and then comes out again
By some queer hole. Thus all the day she plies
Her quest from hedge to bank, scarce ever seen
Flying above your head in open air.
Unsmitten by the heat where now she is,
She strikes into her song: how bold of birr
It starts, and to the last articulate tip
Tingles with life! Thus all the year she sings,
Except in frost, the spunky little lass.
On mossy stump of thorn her curious nest
Is often built, a twig drawn over it,
To bind it firm; but more she loves the roof
Of sylvan cave o'erarched, where the green twilight
Glimmers with golden light, and foxgloves stand,
Tall, purple-faced, her goodly Beef-eaters,
To guard and dignify her entrance-gate.
But how, Miss Wren, in your small crowded house
(Your pardon! we must call you Mrs now)
Do you contrive to feed your dozen young,
And give them all fair play? Come, tell us, too,
What means the Bachelor's Nest? Bold goes her pipe,
And Kit the clever cocks her saucier tail.

But here comes Robin. In our boyish days,
We thought him Kitty's husband. He, like her,
Sings all the year; but she is not his wife.
Look how the knowing fellow turns the head
This way and that, peeping from out the leaves
With curious art, and still comes hopping near.

Strong in his individual character,
His full black eye, short neck, and waistcoat red,
His pipe mellifluous, and pugnacious pride,
Darting to strike intruders from his beat,
His love of man is still his leading type.
The starved hedge-sparrow haunts the moistened sink,
On gurly winter days, the bitter wind
Ruffling her back, showing the bluer down
Beneath her feathers freckled brown above,
But ne'er she ventures nearer where man dwells;
With sidelong look, bold Robin takes our floor.
And when, as now, we rest us in the depth
Of leafy woods, he's with us in a trice.
Such is the genius of red-breasted Robin.

What makes the Owl abroad at such an hour?
'Tis not canonical for one whose walk
And conversation is on Wisdom's shoulder
Staid, in the meditations of the night.
Look at him! Sunny motes are in his eyes;
And yet he makes his dazed and doubtful way
Out of the wood, full into glaring noon.
Worse wildered there, what can he do but wheel
In blind, short, aimless, awkward circlings round,
Lest he should bump his head against a tree?
Puck, to your spiriting here! yonder's a sheaf
Of sunbeams piercing through the thinner leaves;
Pluck thee the sharpest of the cluster, get
Behind Sir Oracle, and prick him back
Home to his ivied cell, admonished thence
To budge not, till the little mouse of night
Creeps from her hole, and fissles through the grass.

Along the shingly shallows of the burn,
The smallest bird that walks, and does not hop,
How fast yon Wagtail runs; its little feet
Quick as a mouse's! Thus its shaking tail
Is kept in even balance, poised and straight.
With hopping movements 'twould not harmonise,
But wagging inconveniently more,
Mar way when off the wing: How well contrived
Such congruous motions of the feet and tail!
Aloft in air, each chirrup keeping time
With each successive undulation long,
The wagtail flies, a pleasant summer bird.

With all the thick short rowing of her wings,
The Magpie makes slow way. But her glib tongue
Goes chattering fast enough: in yonder fir,
The summer solstice cannot keep her mute.
Ominous pie! the peasant sees it tear
With mad extravagant bill his cottage thatch,
And fears for death within; the schoolboy, forth
On morning errand, counts with eager awe
The sidelong pies high hopping o'er his road,
And learns the fortunes of the coming time.

Sweet lore was yours, O Bewick, with that eye
So keen, yet quiet, for the Beautiful,
And for the Drollthat eye so loving large!
The fame of Wilson in the wilderness
Shall still be green, while the white Dove of Day
Flies through the heavens, chased by the Raven, Night.
How joys the enthusiast Audubon to catch
And fix the creatures of the solitudes
In pictured play, the play of tameless life,
Wanton and freakish free, their sallies tart,
Their secret gestures, and the wild escapes
From out their eyes; watching how Nature works
Her fine frugalities of means, even there
Where all is lavish freedom, finer still,
The compensations of her processes,
Throughout their whole economy of life.
Sweet study! Oh for one long summer day
With Audubon in the far Western woods!

We leave the shade, and take the open fields,
Winding our way by immemorial paths,
So soft and green, the poor man's privilege:
May jealous freedom ever keep them free!
Such is the sultry dimness of the day,
The eye sees nothing clear. But now it rests
On yonder sable patchah, yes! a band
Of mourners gathered in the churchyard ground.
The black solemnity in such a day
Of light and life, oh how unnatural!
But who goes dust to dust? A matron ripe
In years and grace at once for death and Heaven.
Wed, widowed, and a mother, in one year,
She dwelt in peace, love-nourishing her child.
Mild and sedate, upgrew the old-fashioned boy;
And went to church with her, a little man
In garb and gravity: you would have smiled
To see him coming in. She lifted him
Up to his seat beside her, drew him near,
And took his hand in hers. There as he sate,
Oft looked she down to see if he was sleeping;
And drowsy half, half in the languor soft
Of innocent trust and aimless piety,
The child looked up into his mother's face.
And she looked down into his eyes, and saw
The neighbouring window in their pupil balls,
With all its panes, reflected small but clear;
And gave his hand soft pressure with her hand,
Still shifting, trying still to be more soft.
God took him from her. Holy still of heart,
She dwelt alone, and changed not. Trouble ne'er
To neighbours gave she, but she helped them all.
And when she died, her grave-clothes, there they were,
Made by her own preparing heart and hand,
And neatly folded in an antique chest:
Not even a pin was wanting, where, to dress
Her body with due care, a pin should be;
And every pin was stuck in its own place.
Nor was all this from any hard mistrust
Of human love, for she the charities
Took with glad heart; but from a strength of mind
Which stood equipped in every point for death,
And loving order, loved it to the end.

The mourners all are gone: How lonely still
The churchyard now! Here in their simple graves
The generations of the hamlet sleep;
All grassy simple, save that, here and there,
Love-planted flowerets deck the lowly sod.
Fond love, we scorn thee not: to bring the bud
Of living beauty from the ashes dear,
Be still thine artless emblematic war
Against the dull dishonours of the grave.
Bloom then, ye little flowers, and sweetly smell;
Draw up the heart's dust in your flushing hues
And odorous breath, and give it to the bee,
And give it to the air, circling to go
From life to life, through all that living flux
Of interchange which makes this wondrous world.
Go where it will, the dear dust is not lost;
Found it will be in its own place and form,
On that great day, the Resurrection Day.

Thomas Aird

Thomas Aird's other poems:
  1. The Lyre
  2. Song the Second
  3. Song the Fourth
  4. The Devil's Dream on Mount Aksbeck
  5. Song the Seventh

Poems of the other poets with the same name:

  • Ella Wilcox Noon ("As some contented bird doth coo")

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