James Grahame Poems >>
British Georgics. December

Loud raves the blast, and, smell, the sleety showers
Drive over hill and dale with hurrying sweep.
The leafless boughs all to one point are bent,
And the lithe beech-tops horizontal stream,
Like shivered pennon from some dipping mast.
Dismal the wind howls through yon thatchless roof,
The cottage skeleton, from whence exiled,
The inmates pine in some dark city lane,
Thinking of that dear desolated home,
Where many a summer sun they saw go down;
Where many a winter night, around the fire,
They heard the storm rave o'er the lowly roof.
Forlorn it stands. Ah, who is he that views
The ruin drear, still wandering round and round,
With doubting aspect, yet with watery eye!
Fain would he disbelieve it is the place
Where he, in innocence and humble peace,
His infancy and youth had happy spent,
Till, lured away, he left his parents sad,
And sought the sea, anticipating oft
His glad return to aid their downward years:
And now returned, with expectation full,
To greet each kinsman's gladdened face, and share
His hard-won treasure with the friends he loved,
And visit all his boyish haunts, he finds, instead,
All desolate: in speechless gaze, awhile
He stands, then turns in agony and weeps,
In bitterness of soul, -- as when a bird,
A roaming gone for food to feed her young,
Returning to the well-known bush, beholds
A mossy tuft, where once had hung her nest,--
Drooping, she perches on her wonted spray,
Then, in a plaintive strain, repeated oft,
Monotonous, laments her piteous lot.

  On brier and thorn, some straggling hips and haws
Still linger, while, behind the leafless hedge
Cowring, the sheep stand fixed in rueful gaze.
Oft now, a whirlwind, eddying down the vale,
Uncovers stacks, or on the cottage roof
Scizing amain, sweeps many a wisp aloft,
High vanishing amid the hurrying clouds.
At such a time, oft to your stackyard look,
And smooth the slightest ruffling of the thatch,
Binding it firmly down with added coils.
To guard your roof against the furrowing gust,
The harrows, till a calmer hour arrive,
Fencing the weaker parts, will save the whole.

  When broadened hovering flakes begin to wheel,
And whiten hill and vale, the fowler lays
His treacherous lure, and watches till he see
The scattered snow raised by some fluttering wing,
Then forward darts to seize his captive prey.
Strew rather thou the food without the snare!
A little sprinkling saves, from Famine's power,
Full many a beauteous songster, whose sweet pipe,
In early spring, repays the trifling boon.
But songs are not the sole return they make:
Foes of the insect race through every change,--
The embryotic egg, in bark or leaf
Deposited; the maggot, chrysalis,
And winged bane, they ceaselessly destroy.

  Of all the feathered tribes, that flock around
The house of barn for shelter and for food,
The redbreast chiefly, -- sweetest trustful bird,--
Demands protection from the coming storm.
Your open window then with crumbs bestrew,
Inviting entrance ;-- soon he'll venture in
And hop around, nor fear at last to perch
Upon the distaff of the humming wheel,
Cheering with summer songs the winter day.

  At times the fall abates, and low, through clouds,
The struggling sun his dim and shapeless disk
Faintly displays, wan as a watery moon,
And almost tempts the labourer to his task.
But, when he sees the transcient beam withdrawn,
He shuts again his door, and turns his hand
To home employment,-- mending now a hive,
With bark of brier darned pliant through the seams;
Or, looking forward through the wintry gloom
To summer days, and meadows newly mown,
Repairs his toothless rake; or feeds his bees;
Or drives a nail into his studded shoon;
Or twists a wisp, and winds the spiral steps
Around the henroost ladder; deeply fixed,
Meanwhile, his children quit their play, and stand
With look enquiring, and enquiring tongue,
Admiring much his skill. Thus glides the day;
Thus glide the evening hours, when laid to rest
His imps are stilled, and with its deep-toned hum
The wool-wheel joins the excluded tempest's howl.
Perhaps some neighbour braves the blast, and cheers
The fire-side ring; then blaze the added peats,
Or moss-dug faggot, brightening roof and wall,
And rows of glancing plates that grace the shelves.
The jest meanwhile, or story of old times,
Goes cheery round; or, from some well-soiled page,
Are read the deeds of heroes, by the light
Mayhap of brands, whereon, when greenwood trees
Were all their canopy, their armour hung.

  Alas! in many a cottage no bright blaze
Cheers the low roof; but cowring, shivering, round
The semblance of a fire, a single peat,
Or bunch of gathered sticks, that scarce return
A feeble glimmer to the fanning breath,
The inmates, poor, pine the long eve away.
Perhaps around the couch of pain they wait,
And minister in darkness to the sick;
Or sad, upon a deathbed watching, lean,
And only know the parting moment past
By the cold lip, the cold and stiffening hand.

  Ah me! the rural vale deserted lies,
By those who hold the power to mitigate
The hardships of the peasant's humble lot.
To cities fled, they listless haunt the rounds
Of dissipation, falsely pleasure called.
The crowded route blazes with dazzling glare
Of multitudinous lights, a senseless shew,
Of insipidity the very shrine.
From groupe to groupe behold the trifler range;
Now listening to the nothings of the fair;
Now telling, o'er and o'er, to each new audience,
Some new intelligence which all have heard,
Or meagre jest, picked from the very crumbs
And scraps he gathered at some witling's board:
Or mark his counterpart, the languid maid,
Affecting apathy beyond that share
Which Nature, with no stinted hand, bestowed.
Another, sensitive all o'er, would shrink,
Or seem to shrink, from view, yet is attired,--
Like flower in hoar-frost veiled, whose every leaf,
And every tiny fold, and bosom fair,
Is obvious to the eye, though hid its hue.

  See some o'erlook the hushed divan, who stake
A village on the turning of a card.

  Or does the crowded theatre precede
These midnight orgies? there, too, Folly rules,
And crowns her votaries with ephemeral bays,--
While far apart, the Tragic Muse, inspired
By Shakespeare's spirit, speaking from a cloud
Of thunder, meditates her lofty theme,
And awes, or melts, by turns, a listening world.

  Perhaps the feast of music draws the crowd,
Who, glutted even to surfeit, still with praise,
With yawning admiration, daub the man,
That, with bold fingers, gloriously ascends
Three straw-breadths higher, on the tortured string,
Than his compeers, and thence extracts
A squeak, a little squeak, that much delights,--
Because less grating than most other squeaks.

  Such are the scenes which rob the wintry mouths
Of those, whom duty, interest, pleasure, call
A country life to lead. How far surpass
The pleasures which the few, who still observe
The good old customs of the Christmas tide;
Who see their halls with happy faces thronged,
The rich, the poor, the old and young, all joined
In social harmony,-- how far surpass
Their pleasures, those extracted from the round
Of city life, from various sameness, dull
Laborious merriment, and all the salves,
The antidotes against the bane of Time!

  Of all the festive nights which customs old,
And waning fast, have made the poor man's own,
The merriest of them all is Hoggmanay.
Then from each cottage window, 'mid the gloom,
A brighter ray shoots through the falling flakes,--
And glimmering lanterns gleam, like Will-a-Wisp
Athwart the fields, or, mounting over stiles,
Evanish suddenly: no dread is now
Of walking wraith, or witch, or cantrip fell;
For Superstition's self this night assumes
A smiling aspect, and a fearless mien,
And tardy Prudence slips the leash from Joy.
To meeting lovers now no hill is steep,
No river fordless, and no forest dark;
And when they meet, unheeded sweeps the blast,
Unfelt the snow, as erst from summer thorn,
Around them fell a shower of fading flowers,
Shook by the sighing of the evening breeze.

  With smutted visages, from house to house,
In country and in town, the guisarts range,
And sing their madrigals, though coarse and rude,
With willing glee that penetrates the heart.
O! it delights my heart, that unstained joy
Of thoughtless boyhood. Spurn you from my door!--
No, no, rush freely in, and share my fire,
And sing through all your roll of jovial lilts.

  But older folks their chairs and stools draw in
Around the fire, and form a circle blythe.
With riddles quaint, and tricks, and ancient tales,
They pass the time, while oft the reaming horn,
From hand to hand passed round, arrests midway
The story-teller in his long-spurn tale,--
Which, not thus baulked, he soon again resumes,
And interweaves full many an episode.

  The temperate banquet done, their several homes
Timely they seek, resolved, ere morning dawn,
With smoking pints, to greet friends, lovers, kin.

  Some blyther bevies, till the midnight hour,
Around the cheerful board their mirth protract,
To drink a welcome to the good new year;
Then crossing arms, with hands enlinked all around,
All voices join in some old song, and full
The tide of friendly harmony o'erflows!

  December, all thy aspects have their charm;
The sky o'ercast, the sweeping rack, the calm
And cloudless day, when reeling midges warp
In sunny nook ; yea, even the raving storm.

  I love the music of the midnight storm,
When wild, careering, drive the winds and rains,
And loud and louder, through the sounding grove,
The Spirit of the Tempest seems to howl,
And loud and louder beats the furious blast,
As if some giant hand, with doubling strokes,
Struck the strong wall, and shook it to its base.
Awful the mustering pause, when all is hushed
Save the fierce river's roar! How cheering now
And heartening, sounds the crow of Morning's bird!
How deep the darkness! save when sudden gleams
Dazzle the eye, that ventures to explore
The awful secrets of the solemn hour.

  Gradual the storm abates, and welcome peeps
The long-expected dawn, gloomy at first,
But tinging by degrees, with copper hue,
The slowly flying clouds. Most pleasant hour
Of daybreak! at all seasons fraught with gladness,
Whether the sun in summer splendour rise,
Hailed by a thousand choristers on wing
Suspended high, or perched on dewy bough;
Or whether, through the wintry lowring sky,
He shoots his watery beam far from the south,--
Thou makest the heart of all that lives expand,
Man, bird, and beast, with joy; but chiefly man,
As looking with complacent eye around,
On this grand frame of things slowly illumed,
He worships, not in words, but heavenward thoughts,
Submiss and lowly, that vast power which launched,
Impels this mighty mass, and guides it round,--
True to its annual and diurnal course;--
Stupendous miracle!-- this mighty mass
Hurled loose, through realms immense of trackless space,
With speed, compared to which the viewless ball,
Projected from the cannon's mouth, but creeps
At a snail's pace, yet without shock or pause,
Or deviation infinitely small,
Rolling along, with motion unperceived,
As if it moveless lay on Ether's tide.