James Grahame Poems >>
British Georgics. February

The long-piled mountain-snows at last dissolve,
Bursting the roaring river's brittle bonds.
Ponderous the fragments down the cataract shoot,
And, buried in the boiling gulph below,
Emerging, re-appear, then roll along,
Tracing their height upon the half-sunk trees.
But slower, by degrees, the obstructed wave
Accumulated, crashing, scarcely seems
To move, pausing at times, until, upheaved
In masses huge, the lower sheet gives way.

  Bleak still, and winterly, o'er hill and dale
Is nature's aspect : yet some pleasing signs,
Some heart-reviving preludes, faint and few,
Of Spring's sweet season, meet the eye or ear.
When calm the eve, I've heard the partridge call,
And seen the pairing couple as they tripped
Athwart the wreaths that in the furrows lurk:
And even the rere-mouse, when the twilight sleeps,
Unbreathing, spreads her torpid wings, and round
From stack to house or barn, and round again,
With many a sudden turn, flits and eludes
The eye. Than these no surer signs presage
An early seed-time, and an early braird.

  And now, when sun and wind have dried the fields,
'Tis time to clear your ploughshare in the glebe.
If deep you wish to go, or if the soil
Be stiff and hard, or not yet cleared of stones,
The Scottish plough, drawn by a team four strong,
Your purpose best will suit; quick it divides
The tumbling mould, while, whistling as he drives,
The merry plough-boy cheers the cold bleak day.
But if from nature, or from art, the soil
Be soft and friable, the smaller plough,
Drawn by one pair, obedient to the voice,
And double rein held by the ploughman's hand,
Moves right along, or winds as he directs.

  But small degree of skill needs he, whose soil
Already by the plough has been subdued.
It is the old uncultivated waste,
Where yet the moor hen, 'mid the bushy heath,
Her nest conceals; where hardy grass alone
Of coarsest kind, with ling or furze, afford
A scanty sustenance to flock or herd, --
'Tis chiefly there that judgement is required;
For there experience is as yet confined,
While wide the range of objects that demand
Discernment, in the choice of various means,
To make the desart blossom as the rose.

  Some fail to cultivate their upland wilds,
Fearing the cold and bleakness of the clime
May baffle all attempts the soil to mend.
Fear not or cold or wet, if, lurking low,
The daisy's leaf is seen; or if the briar
Erect its prickly stems; or bramble stretch
Its shoots athwart your path, or clover blades,
Though small and close, around the sheep-fold spring.

  Begin where fewest obstacles oppose:
Choose patches here and there, though small, nor mind
The squaring of your fields. The sunny side
Of gentle slope is first to be preferred;
For there, if wet the soil, (unless a spring
Oozing, deep-seated, rear a plashy sward,)
'Tis easily laid dry; and there the Sun,
Great fertilizer! on the fallow mould
Strikes powerfully, when at his summer height,
With perpendicular ray. On such a spot
First draw a single furrow up and down,
Then, turning to the right two furrow breadths,
Lay up the mould to meet the former cut.
Proceeding thus, though only half the space
Hath felt the share, the glebe lies all exposed;
And thus on each side the inverted tilth,
A channel, smooth and firm at bottom, runs,
Bearing all surface water down the slope.
To dry and pulverize at once the soil,
No mode of tillage is more useful found,
Than this so simple. But the full effect
Is not obtained, unless the circling year
Upon your fallow ground its influence shed,--
The moody spring time's fitful heat and cold,
The summer's steady warmth, the autumn's winds
And drenching rains, with winter's frost and thaw.
These changes break the most obdurate soil,
And make it crumble to receive the air,
Breathing the breath of vegetable life.
Then with the plough again, and yet again,
Subdue it well, nor doubt a green crop, strong
And plentiful, your labours will reward.
When so prepared, profusely spread it o'er
With limestone crumbling into snowy dust.

  But if, as oft befalls, a tilly soil
Derive but slight improvement from the plough,
And lime, though dealt with an unsparing hand,--
The river bed, where join the stream and pool,
Presents a cheap manure: or, if at hand
No current bickers o'er its pebbly bar,
Explore where with a gentle slope declines
The hill into the plain; there often lies
A gravelly layer, precious though little prized.
Sometimes a spring will point the place where lurks
A magazine immense: if sand appear
Around the source, be sure that underneath
A stratum more or less is to be found.
Or, if your soil be light, still to the brook
Or oozing springs resort. 'Tis there are found
Variety of earths; for every stream,
Whether it flow, broad gleaming in the sun,
A river fair; or, hidden from the view,
Mine its meandering course beneath the ground,
A little fount; each visits various soils,
Which to the bottom fall, or side are thrown.
Where haunts the woodcock, now about to wing
His way to colder climes, I've seen a spot
Of vivid green, beneath whose spongy sward
A store of richest mud lay broad and deep.
Bear then this truth in mind, -- Where'er a spring
Or water runnel flows, there lies a mine,
If right applied, of meliorating earth,
Though cheap, not to be scorned; if pebbly sand,
To clay applied, it opens and resolves;
If clay or mud, compacts the gravelly soil.

  But trust not wholly to manures bestowed
By nature's boon; for, though you thus may throw
A vivid verdure o'er the sterile waste,
The meliorated field, without manure
Supplied by herd or flock, relapses soon,
And heathy sprigs, with herbage coarse, and shoots
Of broom, or gorse, its former state betray.
Attempt not, then, on recent land to boast
Wide fields of waving grain; by slow degrees
Proceed; the broad-leaved plants at once reward
Your husbandry, and some improve the soil.
Nor long the time till, thoroughly reclaimed,
The new-gained crofts uninjured will sustain
Whate'er the oldest cultured lands produce.

  By such resources so applied, I've seen,
As if it were, a new creation smile;
Have seen the clover, red and white, supplant
The purple heath-bell; rustling ears succeed
The dreary stillness of the lurid moor;
The glutted heifer lowing for the pail,
Where starving sheep picked up their scanty fare;
The sheltering hawthorn blossom, where the furze
Its rugged aspect reared; and I have heard,
Where melancholy plovers hovering screamed,
The partridge-call, at gloamin's lovely hour,
Far o'er the ridges break the tranquil hush;
And morning larks ascend with songs of joy,
Where erst the whinchat chirped from stone to stone.

  What unalloyed delight to him whose hands
Performed the change, to wander o'er his mead
At setting sun, and think, This work is mine!
Or, looking down upon his hedge-row trees,
Anticipate the pleasure of their shade!
Not to himself, or scarcely to himself,
But to the sweet interrogating wight
Whom by the hand he leads! O happy lot!
Compared to his, who, pent in city lane,
Broods o'er his cyphered columns, casting up,
From time to time, the total of his pelf,
And grudging sore, that, in a few short years,
He and his treasure must for ever part.

  The compost pile examine now and turn,
And, if 'tis not completely decomposed
Into one mass of vegetable mould,
With an unsparing hand throw in more lime.
When unremitting cold retards the stage
Of fermentation, heat, then, genial heat
Must be applied; nor hesitate to use
A little casement sloping to the sun
Like garden hot-bed: covering but a part,
The process, once begun, pervades the whole.

  If frost returning interrupt the plough,
Then is the time, along the hardened ridge,
To drive manure, and toss around the heaps,
O'er all the surface equally dispread,
Not scattered carelessly.

       If still the soil,
The larger harrow, called by some the brake,
Will much avail: across, and yet across,
Drag it with team four strong, and raise a cloud
Of dust; then with the lesser barrow close,
Braying your soil till scarce a clod remain,
On which preluding lark may sit and sing.

  How sweet, when winter's roughest mood is o'er,
The first note of the lark! How beautiful
The crocus shooting leafless through the ground
Its simple floweret, prized because it blows
The harbinger of Spring! To me more sweet
The first song of the lark, though briefly trilled,
Than all the summer music of the groves;
More beautiful to me the vernal bud,
Than all the odour-breathing flowers of May.

  Sometimes, deceived by promise premature
Of Spring's approach, or pinched by empty combs,
Forth from the hive some straggling bees will peep,
And, buzzing on the outside of their porch,
Will try their wings, but not attempt to fly:
Here profit prompts, if pity ask in vain,
To save the falling state: Nor large the boon
They crave ;-- the refuse of the summer spoil,
Or syrup of the cane in bourtree trough,
Pushed softly in, will help them till the down
Hang on the willow tree, than which no flower
Yields fruit more grateful to the frugal tribes.
Nor is there found a crop that yields increase
More sure, abundant, and at smaller charge,
Than does the willow grove; and now is come
The fittest time the limber slips to plant.
Choose well the spot: it is not every marsh,
Or boggy nook, will suit. Wherever springs,
Not deep, nor difficult to trace, ooze out,
Drenching the ground; and where, at little cost,
A large extent of field may be laid dry,
'Tis fitting there to draw the slanting drain,
And change the swamp into a grassy mead:
But where a head-spring long eludes the search,
And, though detected, as you ween, and led
In stony fetters, still breaks out, and spreads
A deep green patch amid your waving corn,
It will not draw the water off, but change
The water into gold: it needs nor plough, manure,
Nor weeding hand: fair seasons, drowth, or rain,
Or cold, -- to it all weather is alike.
A broad and open ditch drawn round the whole,
With here and there a trench transverse, will serve
At once for fence, and give a surface crust:
This all the culture that the willow seeks.

  The bending willow loves itself to see
Reflected in the stream; there osier slips
Will thrive, and with reticulated roots
Will fortify your bank; let them not grow
To trees, but close and thick, that in the tangled wreck
Of winter-floods, the water-ouzel's nest
May find concealment from the schoolboy's eye.
A bank so shielded needs no other fence,
No stony bulwark, nor the wattled sod.
Compared to this, the alder's warping roots
Afford ambiguous aid; for on the stem,
Unyielding to the current, wintry floods
Impetuous bear, till, loosened by degrees,
The tree falls prone, and tears an open breach.
While harmlessly along the osiered bank
The swollen stream glides through the bending twigs,
Which feebly foil, and pliantly resist.

  To name the uses of the willow tribes
Were endless task. The basket's various forms
For various purposes of household thrift;
The wicker chair of size and shape antique;
The rocking couch of sleeping infancy;
These, with unnumbered other forms and kinds,
Give bread to hands unfit for other work.
The man bowed down with age, the sickly youth,
The widowed mother with her little child,
That lends its aid and loves to be employed,
Find, from this easy toil, a help in need.
The blind man's blessing lights on him who plants
An osier bed: O I have seen a smile
Of mild content upon the assembled groupe
Of piteous visages, whose dexterous hands,
Taught by the public care, plied the light task;
And I have heard, their hour of labour done,
That simple, sacred strain, By Babel's streams,
Rise from the sightless band, with such a power
Of heart-dissolving melody, -- move such a host
Of strong o'erwhelming feelings in the breast,
As wrung a tear from most obdurate eyes.

  Once I beheld a captive, whom these wars
Had made an inmate of the prison-house,
Cheering with wicker-work, (that almost seemed
To him a sort of play,) his dreary hours.
I asked his story: in my native tongue,
(Long use had made it easy as his own,)
He answered thus :-- Before these wars began,
I dwelt upon the willowy banks of Loire:
I married one who, from my boyish days,
Had been my playmate. One morn, -- I'll ne'er forget!--
While busy chusing out the prettiest twigs,
To warp a cradle for our child unborn,
We heard the tidings, that the conscript-lot
Had fallen on me; it came like a death-knell.
The mother perished, but the babe survived;
And ere my parting day, his rocking couch
I made complete, and saw him sleeping smile,--
The smile that played upon the cheek of her
Who lay clay-cold. Alas! the hour soon came
That forced my fettered arms to quit my child;
And whether now he lives to deck with flowers
The sod upon his mother's grave, or lies
Beneath it by her side, I ne'er could learn:
I think he's gone, and now I only wish
For liberty and home, that I may see,
And stretch myself and die upon that grave.