Alfred Austin (30 May 1835 – 2 June 1913 / Headingley)
A Farmhouse Dirge
Will you walk with me to the brow of the hill, to visit the farmer's wife,
Whose daughter lies in the churchyard now, eased of the ache of life?
Half a mile by the winding lane, another half to the top:
There you may lean o'er the gate and rest; she will want me awhile to stop,
Stop and talk of her girl that is gone and no more will wake or weep,
Or to listen rather, for sorrow loves to babble its pain to sleep.
How thick with acorns the ground is strewn, rent from their cups and brown!
How the golden leaves of the windless elms come singly fluttering down!
The briony hangs in the thinning hedge, as russet as harvest corn,
The straggling blackberries glisten jet, the haws are red on the thorn;
The clematis smells no more but lifts its gossamer weight on high;-
If you only gazed on the year, you would think how beautiful 'tis to die.
The stream scarce flows underneath the bridge; they have dropped the sluice of the mill;
The roach bask deep in the pool above, and the water-wheel is still.
The meal lies quiet on bin and floor; and here where the deep banks wind,
The water-mosses nor sway nor bend, so nothing seems left behind.
If the wheels of life would but sometimes stop, and the grinding awhile would cease,
'Twere so sweet to have, without dying quite, just a spell of autumn peace.
Cottages four, two new, two old, each with its clambering rose:
Lath and plaster and weather tiles these, brick faced with stone are those.
Two crouch low from the wind and the rain, and tell of the humbler days,
Whilst the other pair stand up and stare with a self-asserting gaze;
But I warrant you'd find the old as snug as the new did you lift the latch,
For the human heart keeps no whit more warm under slate than beneath the thatch.
Tenants of two of them work for me, punctual, sober, true;
I often wish that I did as well the work I have got to do.
Think not to pity their lowly lot, nor wish that their thoughts soared higher;
The canker comes on the garden rose, and not on the wilding brier.
Doubt and gloom are not theirs and so they but work and love, they live
Rich in the only valid boons that life can withhold or give.
Here is the railway bridge, and see how straight do the bright lines keep,
With pheasant copses on either side, or pastures of quiet sheep.
The big loud city lies far away, far too is the cliffbound shore,
But the trains that travel betwixt them seem as if burdened with their roar.
Yet, quickly they pass, and leave no trace, not the echo e'en of their noise:
Don't you think that silence and stillness are the sweetest of all our joys?
Lo! yonder the Farm, and these the ruts that the broad-wheeled wains have worn,
As they bore up the hill the faggots sere, or the mellow shocks of corn.
The hops are gathered, the twisted bines now brown on the brown clods lie,
And nothing of all man sowed to reap is seen betwixt earth and sky.
Year after year doth the harvest come, though at summer's and beauty's cost:
One can only hope, when our lives grow bare, some reap what our hearts have lost.
And this is the orchard, small and rude, and uncaredfor, but oh! in spring,
How white is the slope with cherry bloom, and the nightingales sit and sing!
You would think that the world had grown young once more, had forgotten death and fear,
That the nearest thing unto woe on earth was the smile of an April tear;
That goodness and gladness were twin, were one:- The robin is chorister now:
The russet fruit on the ground is piled, and the lichen cleaves to the bough.
Will you lean o'er the gate, whilst I go on? You can watch the farmyard life,
The beeves, the farmer's hope, and the poults, that gladden his thrifty wife;
Or, turning, look on the hazy weald,-you will not be seen from here,-
Till your thoughts, like it, grow blurred and vague, and mingle the far and near.
Grief is a flood, and not a spring, whatever in grief we say;
And perhaps her woe, should she see me alone, will run more quickly away.
`I thought you would come this morning, ma'am. Yes, Edith at last has gone;
To-morrow's a week, ay, just as the sun right into her window shone;
Went with the night, the vicar says, where endeth never the day;
But she's left a darkness behind her here I wish she had taken away.
She is no longer with us, but we seem to be always with her,
In the lonely bed where we laid her last, and can't get her to speak or stir.
``Yes, I'm at work; 'tis time I was. I should have begun before;
But this is the room where she lay so still, ere they carried her past the door.
I thought I never could let her go where it seems so lonely of nights;
But now I am scrubbing and dusting down, and seting the place to rights.
All I have kept are the flowers there, the last that stood by her bed.
I suppose I must throw them away. She looked much fairer when she was dead.
``Thank you, for thinking of her so much. Kind thought is the truest friend.
I wish you had seen how pleased she was with the peaches you used to send.
She tired of them too ere the end, so she did with all we tried;
But she liked to look at them all the same, so we set them down by her side.
Their bloom and the flush upon her cheek were alike, I used to say;
Both were so smooth, and soft, and round, and both have faded away.
``I never could tell you how kind too were the ladies up at the hall;
Every noon, or fair or wet, one of them used to call.
Worry and work seems ours, but yours pleasant and easy days,
And when all goes smooth, the rich and poor have different lives and ways.
Sorrow and death bring men more close, 'tis joy that puts us apart;
'Tis a comfort to think, though we're severed so, we're all of us one at heart.
``She never wished to be smart and rich, as so many in these days do,
Nor cared to go in on market days to stare at the gay and new.
She liked to remain at home and pluck the white violets down in the wood;
She said to her sisters before she died, `'Tis so easy to be good.'
She must have found it so, I think, and that was the reason why
God deemed it needless to leave her here, so took her up to the sky.
``The vicar says that he knows she is there, and surely she ought to be;
But though I repeat the words, 'tis hard to believe what one does not see.
They did not want me to go to the grave, but I could not have kept away,
And whatever I do I can only see a coffin and church-yard clay.
Yes, I know it's wrong to keep lingering there, and wicked and weak to fret;
And that's why I'm hard at work again, for it helps one to forget.
``The young ones don't seem to take to work as their mothers and fathers did.
We never were asked if we liked or no, but had to obey when bid.
There's Bessie won't swill the dairy now, nor Richard call home the cows,
And all of them cry, `How can you, mother?' when I carry the wash to the sows.
Edith would drudge, for Death one's hearth of the helpful one always robs.
But she was so pretty I could not bear to set her on dirty jobs.
``I don't know how it'll be with them when sorrow and loss are theirs,
For it isn't likely that they'll escape their pack of worrits and cares.
They say it's an age of progress this, and a sight of things improves,
But sickness, and age, and bereavement seem to work in the same old grooves.
Fine they may grow, and that, but Death as lief takes the moth as the grub.
When their dear ones die, I suspect they'll wish they'd a floor of their own to scrub.
``Some day they'll have a home of their own, much grander than this, no doubt,
But polish the porch as you will you can't keep doctors and coffins out.
I've done very well with my fowls this year, but what are pullets and eggs,
When the heart in vain at the door of the grave the return of the lost one begs?
The rich have leisure to wail and weep, the poor haven't time to be sad:
If the cream hadn't been so contrairy this week, I think grief would have driven me mad.
``How does my husband bear up, you ask? Well, thank you, ma'am, fairly well;
For he too is busy just now, you see, with the wheat and the hops to sell:
It's when the work of the day is done, and he comes indoors at night,
While the twilight hangs round the window-panes before I bring in the light,
And takes down his pipe, and says not a word, but watches the faggots roar-
And then I know he is thinking of her who will sit on his knee no more.
``Must you be going? It seems so short. But thank you for thinking to come;
It does me good to talk of it all, and grief feels doubled when dumb.
An the butter's not quite so good this week, if you please, ma'am, you must not mind,
And I'll not forget to send the ducks and all the eggs we can find;
I've scarcely had time to look round me yet, work gets into such arrears,
With only one pair of hands, and those fast wiping away one's tears.
``You've got some flowers, yet, haven't you, ma'am? though they now must be going fast;
We never have any to speak of here, and I placed on her coffin the last.
Could you spare me a few for Sunday next? I should like to go all alone,
And lay them down on the little mound where there isn't as yet a stone.
Thank you kindly, I'm sure they'll do, and I promise to heed what you say;
I'll only just go and lay them there, and then I will come away.''
Come, let us go. Yes, down the hill, and home by the winding lane.
The low-lying fields are suffused with haze, as life is suffused with pain.
The noon mists gain on the morning sun, so despondency gains on youth;
We grope, and wrangle, and boast, but Death is the only certain truth.
O love of life! what a foolish love! we should weary of life did it last.
While it lingers, it is but a little thing; 'tis nothing at all when past.
The acorns thicker and thicker lie, the briony limper grows,
There are mildewing beads on the leafless brier where once smiled the sweet dog-rose.
You may see the leaves of the primrose push through the litter of sodden ground;
Their pale stars dream in the wintry womb, and the pimpernel sleepeth sound.
They will awake; shall we awake? Are we more than imprisoned breath?
When the heart grows weak, then hope grows strong, but stronger than hope is Death.
Comments about this poem (A Farmhouse Dirge by Alfred Austin )
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