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The Sons of the Soil: a Poem. Ellis, Sarah Stickney, 1812–1872.
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page: 22
page: 23

BOOK II.

  • NOW autumn's sun, late rising o'er the hills,
  • Sends down his liquid light in shining rills,
  • And like a radiant joy, just dimmed by tears,
  • His golden glory through the mist appears;
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  • Tinging the forest trees with molten fire,
  • Gilding the woodland cot and village spire,
  • Making the dews an ocean, pure, and white,
  • Till bursts a world of beauty on the sight.
  • 'Tis spring no more, bright summer's bloom is gone,
  • And the world wears a deeper, graver tone;
  • Grave, but yet gorgeous—deep, but, oh! how fair
  • The mingled hues that seem to tinge the air,
  • As if the breeze brought colour where it blew,
  • And flakes of gold, and green, and purple, threw
  • O'er feathery woods, and richer fields of grain,
  • And heathy hills, and orchard-sprinkled plain.
  • There is a fresh crisp sound, beneath the tread,
  • Of withering herbs, and leaves already dead;
  • Yet brighter bloom the flowers that still remain,
  • As if they knew they ne'er should bloom again.
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  • And still we hail a sky without a cloud
  • For winter slumbers in his icy shroud;
  • Still glows the sunshine, and still wave the trees
  • Their leafy boughs, fanned by the gentle breeze,
  • That like a whispering voice steals o'er the plain,
  • Then sinks to rest, and all is still again—
  • So still, we hear the distant reaper's call,
  • And silvery sound of woodland waterfall,
  • And hum of wandering bee, going forth once more
  • To add new treasures to her winter's store,
  • And solemn caw of venerable rook,
  • Flapping his wings from out the sheltered nook,
  • Where silent sit a conclave of his kind,
  • Unlike to wiser conclaves, of one mind.
  • Unlike themselves, when portioned out in pairs,
  • The bustling stir of spring's new life was theirs,
  • And ceaseless din of nestlings' greedy cry,
  • And fluttering wings that scarce found time to fly,
  • Though on the blissful embassy of love,
  • Through the wide realms of nature free to rove.
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  • How different seems their very nature now,
  • Single their cry, their movements grave and slow.
  • The curse of idleness has reft away,
  • Each bustling joy that crowned their happier day,
  • And far away through distant skies they roam,
  • Seeking the silent forest for their home.
  • Who has not heard their autumn voice, and found
  • The melody of nature in that sound!
  • Harsh in itself—discordant, were it near;
  • But oh! what music to the tuneful ear.
  • Hath it not language for the heart as well,
  • Of more than man's familiar tongue can tell?
  • Of blighted flowers, and scattered leaves, and sighs,
  • And clouds that overcast the sunny skies?
  • Of withered wreaths o'er faded brows that stray,
  • Of time, and death, and sorrow, and decay?
  • In one sad voice, disconsolate, and drear,
  • Hymning a dirge for the departing year.
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  • Away, ye idle dreams! why linger here
  • Like aimless bark, this fruitless course to steer?
  • What boots the cry of wandering rook to me?
  • Behold the harvest field! and hear the glee
  • Of merry reapers as they bind the sheaves,
  • The maiden laughing as the band she weaves,
  • The jocund wagoner with creaking load
  • Driving his team along the dusty road,
  • The welcome shout that hails his quick return,
  • The clattering hoofs that seem their task to spurn,
  • So light their burden, as they hasten back,
  • To wind along the headland's dubious track.
  • But who shall paint the farmer's secret joy,
  • While by the hand he leads his rosy boy,
  • And talks of fruitful fields, with such a smile
  • As tells of many a deeper thought the while.
  • For now there stirred within his manly breast
  • The silent movements of a stranger guest,
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  • Wakening fair visions yet but half defined,
  • And half acknowledged to the dreamer's mind.
  • That guest had been ambition in a heart
  • More formed to emulate the hero's part;
  • But he was wary, prudent, fond of peace,
  • And only sought his substance to increase
  • By building barns, and adding field to field,
  • That wider produce richer gains might yield.
  • Not simply to possess, he spurned the thought
  • Of hoarded gold by ceaseless labour bought;
  • But men had lived to make themselves a name,
  • Though strange, as he was, to their country's fame;
  • And might not one who wisely held the plough
  • Purchase the fields he only rented now?
  • He had one son, and lovely daughters three,
  • Might they not live a different race to be?
  • Less worn with toil, less ignorant, and rude,
  • And if more polished, why not then more good?
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  • Thus mused the farmer, as he paced along,
  • Or stooped, the reapers' sturdy band among;
  • For his firm hand, more able than the rest,
  • Was seldom folded in his homely vest;
  • And noontide shadows stealing o'er the plain
  • Warned them that nightfall soon must come again,
  • With the last gathering-in of that year's grain.
  • It was the harvest-home, and evening came
  • With such a burning sunset! Words were tame
  • To tell the golden glories of that sky,
  • Where every tint of beauty seemed to lie
  • Sleeping in splendour, bathed in floods of light,
  • That far away receded from the sight,
  • Till the blue heavens grew colder, and there rose
  • The vesper star, sweet herald of repose.
  • And now the evening dews begin to fall,
  • And chilly airs sigh through the poplar tall.
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  • Why gleam its shivering leaves so white and clear?
  • What makes the shadowy lane so dark and drear?
  • As moves the creaking team its turf along,
  • While tunes the wagoner his rustic song?
  • It is the moon, from out the eastern sea
  • Rising in all her pomp of majesty—
  • The harvest moon, above the distant hill,
  • Whence gleams her silvery light, so soft and still,
  • Glancing through leafy bough, and hedge-row green,
  • Stealing the venerable elms between,
  • Till falls the light upon the reapers' toil,
  • While pleased they turn to greet her gentle smile,
  • Then stooping to their cheerful task again
  • Gather the yellow sheaves that still remain,
  • For the last team returns—a welcome sight,
  • Hailed by the jovial band with fresh delight.
  • It was the harvest-home, and shouts of glee
  • Were bursting forth, in echoes wild and free,
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  • From distant headland, and from nearer dell,
  • Till far across the vale they rose and fell
  • And one was listening, with attentive ear
  • Well tuned to such familiar sounds of cheer,
  • Whose task of household toil had all been done
  • With the sweet fall of that day's setting sun;
  • Save that her bustling handmaids counsel claimed,
  • And her wild babes, like a young flock untamed,
  • Demanding freedom for this happy day,
  • Sported, and laughed their merry thoughts away.
  • She heard the shouts, and listening, heard again,
  • It warmed her heart to hear them yet more plain;
  • That nought might want her care, she looked around
  • O'er the wide board with rural plenty crowned,
  • Then turned from out her lowly door, to see
  • How slept the moonlight on the verdant lea,
  • How the soft dews were falling, and the star
  • Of eve kept watch, from its blue throne afar.
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  • She stood beneath a chesnut-tree, and leaned
  • Against a bough, that oft her cheek had screened
  • From noontide radiance when the sun was high,
  • And not a cloud sailed through the summer sky,
  • While overhead, among those leaves, had sate
  • The soft wood-pigeon cooing to his mate.
  • And now she stands beneath that chesnut-tree,
  • And the white mists float round her, like a sea
  • Without a wave, so silvery, and so calm,
  • That in their very silence there is balm.
  • Yes, there is something in the earth, the air,
  • And the blue heavens, that stirs her soul to prayer,
  • While thoughts of deep-felt gratitude arise,
  • For the rich harvest, and the favouring skies.
  • The reapers tarry long. The infant band
  • Come forth to watch, and near their mother stand.
  • They tarry long; but, hark! their shouts of joy,
  • Mixed with the laughter of her own loved boy,
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  • Who, proudly mounted on the foremost horse,
  • Blends his wild song with sounds more rude and coarse.
  • Urging to swifter pace the sober steed,
  • With gaudy ribbons fluttering round its head,
  • Nor dreams he now of prouder hopes to come,
  • Of days more glorious than the harvest-home.
  • The matron listened with a mother's love,
  • She heard that childish voice all sounds above.
  • Through her whole frame there ran a trembling thrill,
  • Like the soul's movement when the lips are still
  • Was it the depth of her unuttered joy,
  • Her heart's warm welcome to her happy boy?
  • Or had the dews of evening chilled her blood,
  • As all too late beneath the shade she stood?
  • For now there whispered through the leafy trees
  • Mysterious murmurs of the awakening breeze,
  • That stirred the shadow of the chesnut bough,
  • And waved the silken hair around her brow.
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  • They tarry long; but now at length they come,
  • Their honoured master first she welcomes home,
  • “What ails thee, Mary? Why that cheek so pale?
  • Thy lips are trembling. 'Tis this autumn gale.
  • Thou art too venturesome to stand so long
  • At this late hour, listening the reaper's song.
  • Come to the fire—I'll chafe thy gentle hand.”
  • And soon before the blazing hearth they stand.
  • Some men would scarce have marked in such a scene
  • If pale, or flushed, their helpmeet's cheek had been;
  • For not the joy of harvest-home alone
  • Enlivened every rustic look and tone,
  • But the rich produce of each well-tilled field
  • Was more than double what they once did yield,
  • And prices rising with the wars abroad
  • Enhanced the value of each groaning load.
  • But had the wealth of India been his own,
  • And he himself a monarch on his throne,
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  • Not the first sight of thousands at his feet
  • Had lured his eye to forms less fair and sweet
  • 'Mid the full burst of acclamations loud
  • He would have heard, and known, amongst the crowd,
  • That gentle voice, to his familiar ear,
  • In all its tones, so musical and clear.
  • And now, with heart almost too full of bliss,
  • He sees, and feels that something strange there is
  • In the dim shadow of that sunken eye,
  • Where mingled light and beauty used to lie.
  • She strove to smile; but, oh! to those who love
  • There is a fond faint smile, all words above
  • In its strong power to warn, and to subdue,
  • With a sad tale—unspoken, yet how true!
  • “What ails thee, Mary?”—He could ask no more,
  • Her drooping form to their own couch he bore,
  • He smoothed the pillow, and he laid to rest
  • The head that oft found peace upon his breast.
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  • She said she felt less chill, yet spoke of thirst,
  • And bade him go, but bring her water first.
  • With eager hand she seized the sparkling draught,
  • And deep and long the cool clear liquid quaffed.
  • At length unwillingly he left her side,
  • For she began his lingering stay to chide;
  • Yet, when he joined the revellers below,
  • No sign of boding fear he chose to show.
  • He touched no food, spoke no superfluous word,
  • But bade them welcome to the social board.
  • So well his sturdy frame was schooled and nerved,
  • He looked around to see that all were served,
  • Maintaining still the master's manly part,
  • Without betraying what was next his heart,
  • Save when he stooped to kiss the prattling child,
  • That in its mother's mimic beauty smiled,
  • Then, and then only, had there gushed a tear,
  • But that a quick-eyed maiden stood too near.
  • That evening closed without the wonted glee,
  • The wonted songs, or sounds of revelry.
  • For all knew well that one familiar face
  • Was wanting there, their plenteous meal to grace;
  • Yet none would tax their master's silent mood,
  • With question that might seem ill-timed, or rude,
  • Why she was wanting from that social scene,
  • Where oft her step the most alert had been.
  • So they departed early, one by one,
  • And soon of all that band the last was gone.
  • And midnight came, and hushed was every sound,
  • Save in one chamber, silence reigned around.
  • In that one chamber, who shall paint the scene—
  • The thoughts that fluctuate, hope and fear between—
  • Hope, that would build upon a feverish smile,
  • And fear, that dreads delirium all the while.
  • There have been nights like this. Let memory tell
  • Her tale of woe, already known too well;
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  • Then pass we on; for there are things more deep
  • Than words can utter, or than tears can keep.
  • And nine such heavy nights passed o'er his head,
  • Nor knew the sufferer how those hours had sped;
  • Till the tenth morning, when across her brow
  • The tide of reason seemed to ebb and flow
  • With more of natural impulse, and she spoke
  • In feeble accents, words that almost broke
  • The manly heart they had been meant to bless,
  • For, oh! they were too full of tenderness—
  • Of thoughts, and things, none else might understand,
  • Save he who felt the pressure of that hand,
  • And saw it lifted, as the words of prayer
  • Passed through her lips, yet scarcely stirred the air;
  • So gentle was the parting spirit's flight
  • Away from this sad world, to realms of light.
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  • Nine days had passed, and now the tenth had come
  • Since the bright morning of that harvest-home;
  • And he who then led forth the reaper's band,
  • With look and voice to cheer or to command,
  • Seemed as if years, instead of days, had been
  • Rolled o'er his head, this world and him between.
  • Well, had it been so—had the calm which spread
  • Around the chamber of the silent dead
  • Reached his strong heart, and filled its vacant room
  • With brighter visions of the life to come.
  • But there were thoughts of darkness and of gloom
  • That would not stretch themselves beyond the tomb,
  • Bold questioning of heaven's eternal laws,
  • Why man should suffer thus, nor learn the cause,
  • Why tears should dim the newly-opened eye,
  • Why all the loveliest things of earth should die,
  • And why to hearts so faithful, fond, and true,
  • Time breaks the bonds he never can renew.
  • Such were the thoughts that thronged his aching breast,
  • And marred his peace whene'er he sought for rest;
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  • Not the meek sufferance of the wounded mind,
  • That oft as keenly feels, when more resigned.
  • His outward bearing looked like patience too,
  • His brow was calm, his lamentations few,
  • But the deep grief within his soul that raged,
  • A fearful strife with every virtue waged.
  • There is a season of the waning year,
  • When, if the heavens are blue, and bright, and clear,
  • If cloudless sunshine sleeps along the plain,
  • We half believe that summer smiles again,
  • And deem the lingering flowers more bright and fair,
  • Fanned by the freshness of autumnal air.
  • But if the rains descend—the winds arise—
  • If clouds or tempest overcast the skies,
  • Or if a dull cold mist hangs on the day,
  • Too light to fall, too dense to float away,
  • Then winter reigns at once, with gloomy power,
  • And mournful looks each little opening flower,
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  • As if misplaced, upon the sterile bed,
  • By faded leaves, and withering herbs o'erspread.
  • 'Twas on such wintry morn of autumn day,
  • That William Herbert rose, but not to pray,
  • Not to look out upon his garden green,
  • That once his chosen paradise had been,
  • Not to look up to heaven with thankful heart,
  • He could not yet feel gratitude, apart
  • From her who taught him what was earthly bliss,
  • Who ne'er again would blend her smiles with his.
  • He rose the earliest, for he could not sleep,
  • And walked into his fields, and tried to weep;
  • But though he put away his manly pride,
  • Tears were a luxury to him denied.
  • So he returned, with restless wandering feet—
  • Where was the welcome his return to greet?
  • His home was silent, his domestics sad,
  • His children, in their first deep mourning clad,
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  • Looked half abashed, the younger ones half pleased;
  • Their girlish airs his goaded spirit teased,
  • To think the sable trappings of the tomb
  • Should yield them other thoughts than grief and gloom.
  • It was that day—the heaviest day of all,
  • When pent-up tears again begin to fall;
  • When that lone thing, its chamber shared by none,
  • The very dearest now begin to shun;
  • When distant friends arrive, and neighbours come
  • In solemn vestments to the mourner's home;
  • When business ceases, and all things give way,
  • To mark with more distinctness that one day.
  • It is not parting when the loved one dies,
  • For still the same sweet image meets our eyes;
  • And while the heart-wrung mourner stands and weeps,
  • Fond fancy whispers that the loved one sleeps.
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  • For there we see the same unclouded brow
  • That looked in hours of quiet, calm as now,
  • The meekly folded hands, the braided hair,
  • All—all the same, except more cold and fair.
  • But the true parting comes, with hearse and plume,
  • And strange rude sounds in that late silent room,
  • Breaking the sanctity we loved to keep,
  • Wakening, we almost fear, the dead from sleep,
  • Touching with hired hands—oh! name it not!
  • How can they violate that sacred spot!
  • Yet this true parting must be—the deep grave
  • Must have its own—no human power can save;
  • And we must look our very last, and know
  • The real depth—the bitterness of woe.
  • With wintry aspect had that day begun,
  • There was no wind—no rain—but yet no sun;
  • A dreamy silence slumbered all around,
  • And damp and chill the dews lay on the ground,
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  • No movement stirred the air, save, now and then,
  • A leaf came flickering down upon the plain,
  • Or lonely robin from the leafless spray,
  • Tuned a sad song, then winged his flight away.
  • Such was the day, when forth the mourners came,
  • Some real mourners, others but in name,
  • Swelling the train with aspect sad and slow,
  • While half they mimicked, half partook the woe.
  • And now they reach the little churchyard green,
  • Where solemn priest in sacred stole is seen,
  • And place their burden down, and weep again,
  • All unabashed, before the eyes of men.
  • But he wept not, who mourned the most of all,
  • His shrouded eye no natural tears let fall.
  • Lonely, and wrapt in his deep anguish, there
  • He stood apart; he had no grief to share
  • With friend or neighbour. It was all his own.
  • He was a miser in this wealth alone.
  • He stood apart, no marble form more still;
  • Nor watchful eye could mark the withering thrill
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  • That ran through all his frame, at that deep sound
  • Of “dust to dust” within the hollow ground.
  • And when the silent mourners turned away,
  • He also turned. Why should he longer stay?
  • 'Twas well for him, or for his outward mien,
  • His sister had arrived to grace the scene,
  • To deck his children in their costly black,
  • And now to lead him from the churchyard back,
  • To bid his neighbours to the plenteous board,
  • And smile as if all comfort was restored.
  • And William Herbert sate among the rest,
  • His silent thoughts deep locked within his breast.
  • He knew no single heart in all that throng
  • Could understand his grief. Then why prolong
  • The fruitless sympathy that touched him not,
  • But fell like rain upon some desert spot.
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  • He sate among them, not a silent host,
  • Though few the words his quivering lip that crossed.
  • He bore their presence with a patient brow,
  • And seemed to hear, and understand, and know
  • All their small converse, and the smaller balm
  • They kindly offered him, to soothe and calm.
  • At last the day declines, and evening comes,
  • And they depart to seek their different homes,
  • While he retires to that familiar room
  • Where darkly falls the night, in tenfold gloom.
  • Again the couch is spread, the curtains drawn,
  • The unpressed pillow with its snow-white lawn,
  • Cold—cold as winter, and the silence there—
  • No voice to answer, and no ear to hear.
  • Lowly he falls upon his bended knee,
  • “It is too much!—kind Heaven, I come to thee.
  • Bear with me, gracious Father, yet awhile,
  • For I have been too happy in thy smile,
  • Unschooled in all the chastenings of thy rod,
  • Teach me to see thy hand even here, O God!”
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