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John Freeman

(1880-1929 / England)

Beechwood


Hear me, O beeches! You
That have with ageless anguish slowly risen
From earth's still secret prison
Into the ampler prison of aery blue.
Your voice I hear, flowing the valleys through
After the wind that tramples from the west.
After the wind your boughs in new unrest
Shake, and your voice-one voice uniting voices
A thousand or a thousand thousand-flows
Like the wind's moody; glad when he rejoices
In swift-succeeding and diminishing blows,
And drooping when declines death's ardour in his breast;
Then over him exhausted weaving the soft fan-like noises
Of gentlest creaking stems and soothing leaves
Until he rest,
And silent too your easied bosom heaves.

That high and noble wind is rootless nor
From stable earth sucks nurture, but roams on
Childless as fatherless, wild, unconfined,
So that men say, 'As homeless as the wind!'
Rising and falling and rising evermore
With years like ticks, aeons as centuries gone;
Only within impalpable ether bound
And blindly with the green globe spinning round.
He, noble wind,
Most ancient creature of imprisoned Time,
From high to low may fall, and low to high may climb,
Andean peak to deep-caved southern sea,
With lifted hand and voice of gathered sound,
And echoes in his tossing quiver bound
And loosed from height into immensity;
Yet of his freedom tires, remaining free.
-Moulding and remoulding imponderable cloud,
Uplifting skiey archipelagian isles
Sunnier than ocean's, blue seas and white isles
Aflush with blossom where late sunlight glowed;-
Still of his freedom tiring yet still free,
Homelessly roaming between sky, earth and sea.

But you, O beeches, even as men, have root
Deep in apparent and substantial things-
Earth, sun, air, water, and the chemic fruit
Wise Time of these has made. What laughing Springs
Your branches sprinkle young leaf-shadows o'er
That wanting the leaf-shadows were no Springs
Of seasonable sweet and freshness! nor
If Summer of your murmur gathered not
Increase of music as your leaves grow dense,
Might even kine and birds and general noise of wings
Of summer make full Summer, but the hot
Slow moons would pass and leave unsatisfied the sense.
Nor Autumn's waste were dear if your gold snow
Of leaves whirled not upon the gold below;
Nor Winter's snow were loveliness complete
Wanting the white drifts round your breasts and feet.
To hills how many has your tossed green given
Likeness of an inverted cloudy heaven;
How many English hills enlarge their pride
Of shape and solitude
By beechwoods darkening the steepest side!
I know a Mount-let there my longing brood
Again, as oft my eyes-a Mount I know
Where beeches stand arrested in the throe
Of that last onslaught when the gods swept low
Against the gods inhabiting the wood.
Gods into trees did pass and disappear,
Then closing, body and huge members heaved
With energy and agony and fear.
See how the thighs were strained, how tortured here.
See, limb from limb sprung, pain too sore to bear.
Eyes once looked from those sockets that no eyes
Have worn since-oh, with what desperate surprise!
These arms, uplifted still, were raised in vain
Against alien triumph and the inward pain.
Unlock your arms, and be no more distressed,
Let the wind glide over you easily again.
It is a dream you fight, a memory
Of battle lost. And how should dreaming be
Still a renewed agony?
But O, when that wind comes up out of the west
New-winged with Autumn from the distant sea
And springs upon you, how should not dreaming be
A remembered and renewing agony?
Then are your breasts, O unleaved beeches, again
Torn, and your thighs and arms with the old strain
Stretched past endurance; and your groans I hear
Low bent beneath the hoofs by that fierce charioteer
Driven clashing over; till even dreaming is
Less of a present agony than this.

Fall gentler sleep upon you now, while soft
Airs circle swallow-like from hedge to croft
Below your lowest naked-rooted troop.
Let evening slowly droop
Into the middle of your boughs and stoop
Quiet breathing down to your scarce-quivering side
And rest there satisfied.

Yet sleep herself may wake
And through your heavy unlit dome, O Mount of beeches, shake.
Then shall your massy columns yield
Again the company all day concealed….
Is it their shapes that sweep
Serene within the ambit of the Moon
Sentinel'd by shades slow-marching with moss-footed hours that creep
From dusk of night to dusk of day-slow-marching, yet too soon
Approaching morn? Are these their grave
Remembering ghosts?
… Already your full-foliaged branches wave,
And the thin failing hosts
Into your secrecies are swift withdrawn
Before the certain footsteps of the dawn.

But you, O beeches, even as men have root
Deep in apparent and substantial things.
Birds on your branches leap and shake their wings,
Long ere night falls the soft owl loosens her slow hoot
From the unfathomed fountains of your gloom.
Late western sunbeams on your broad trunks bloom,
Levelled from the low opposing hill, and fold
Your inmost conclave with a burning gold.
… Than those night-ghosts awhile more solid, men
Pass within your sharp shade that makes an arctic night
Of common light,
And pause, swift measuring tree by tree; and then
Paint their vivid mark,
Ciphering fatality on each unwrinkled bark
Across the sunken stain
That every season's gathered streaming rain
Has deepened to a darker grain.
You of this fatal sign unconscious lift
Your branches still, each tree her lofty tent;
Still light and twilight drift
Between, and lie in wan pools silver sprent.
But comes a day, a step, a voice, and now
The repeated stroke, the noosed and tethered bough,
The sundered trunk upon the enormous wain
Bound kinglike with chain over chain,
New wounded and exposed with each old stain.
And here small pools of doubtful light are lakes
Shadowless and no more that rude bough-music wakes.

So on men too the indifferent woodman, Time,
Servant of unseen Master, nearing sets
His unread symbol-or who reads forgets;
And suns and seasons fall and climb,
Leaves fall, snows fall, Spring flutters after Spring,
A generation a generation begets.
But comes a day-though dearly the tough roots cling
To common earth, branches with branches sing-
And that obscure sign's read, or swift misread,
By the indifferent woodman or his slave
Disease, night-wandered from a fever-dripping cave.
No chain's then needed for no fearful king,
But light earth-fall on foot and hand and head.

Now thick as stars leaves shake within the dome
Of faintly-glinting dusking monochrome;
And stars thick hung as leaves shake unseen in the round
Of darkening blue: the heavenly branches wave without a sound,
Only betrayed by fine vibration of thin air.
Gleam now the nearer stars and ghosts of farther stars that bare,
Trembling and gradual, brightness everywhere….
When leaves fall wildly and your beechen dome is thinned,
Showered glittering down under the sudden wind;
And when you, crowded stars, are shaken from your tree
In time's late season stripped, and each bough nakedly
Rocks in those gleamless shallows of infinity;
When star-fall follows leaf-fall, will long Winter pass away
And new stars as new leaves dance through their hasty May?
-But as a leaf falls so falls weightless thought
Eddying, and with a myriad dead leaves lies
Bewildered, or in a little air awhile is caught
Idly, then drops and dies.

Look at the stars, the stars! But in this wood
All I can understand is understood.
Gentler than stars your beeches speak; I hear
Syllables more simple and intimately clear
To earth-taught sense, than the heaven-singing word
Of that intemperate wisdom which the sky
Shakes down upon each unregarding century,
There lying like snow unstirred,
Unmelting, on the loftiest peak
Above our human and green valley ways.
Lowlier and friendlier your beechen branches speak
To men of mortal days
With hearts too fond, too weak
For solitude or converse with that starry race.
Their shaken lights,
Their lonely splendours and uncomprehended
Dream-distance and long circlings 'mid the heights
And deeps remotely neighboured and attended
By spheres that spill their fire through these estranging nights:-
Ah, were they less dismaying, or less splendid!
But as one deaf and mute sees the lips shape
And quiver as men talk, or marks the throat
Of rising song that he can never hear,
Though in the singer's eyes her joy may dimly peer,
And song and word his hopeless sense escape-
Sweet common word and lifted heavenly note-
So, beneath that bright rain,
While stars rise, soar and stoop,
Dazzled and dismayed I look and droop
And, blinded, look again.

'Return, return!' O beeches sing you then.
I like a tree wave all my thoughts with you,
As your boughs wave to other tossed boughs when
First in the windy east the dawn looks through
Night's soon-dissolving bars.
Return, return? But I have never strayed:
Hush, thoughts, that for a moment played
In that enchanted forest of the stars
Where the mind grows numb.
Return, return?
Back, thoughts, from heights that freeze and deeps that burn,
Where sight fails and song's dumb.
And as, after long absence, a child stands
In each familiar room
And with fond hands
Touches the table, casement, bed,
Anon each sleeping, half-forgotten toy;
So I to your sharp light and friendly gloom
Returning, with first pale leaves round me shed,
Recover the old joy
Since here the long-acquainted hill-path lies,
Steeps I have clambered up, and spaces where
The Mount opens her bosom to the air
And all around gigantic beeches rise.

Submitted: Friday, September 24, 2010

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