Augusta Davies Webster

(30 January 1837 - 5 September 1894 / Dorset, England)

In An Almshouse - Poem by Augusta Davies Webster

Oh the dear summer evening! How the air
is mellow with the delicate breath of flowers
and wafts of hay scent from the sunburnt swathes:
how the glad song of life comes everywhence,
from thousand harmless voices, from blithe birds
that twitter on incessant sweet good-nights,
from homeward bees that, through the clover tufts,
stray booming, pilfering treasures to the last,
from sleepless crickets clamouring in the grass.
to tell the world they're happy day and night,
from the persistent rooks in their high town,
from sheep in far off meadows: life, life, life,
it is the song they sing, and to my mind
the song is very happy, very good.
My God, I thank thee I have known this life,
although, I doubt not, dying I shall learn
how greater and how happier is death.

Oh beautiful and various earth of ours,
how good God made thee. Ah, I have lost much,
mine is a very grey and dim earth now,
but I can feel and hear and take in so
the joy of present beauty to my soul,
and then I see it there. O strange blurred mists,
that mean the sky to me, my twilight eyes
discern no more than you, but I see more;
I see this gold and glowing sunset spread,
and break the pale blue sky with flashing clouds,
I see the shadows soften on the hills,
and the green summits brighten one by one
and purple in the nightfall one by one.
Oh, seeing can be done without the eyes.

Are those St Mary's church-bells in the town?
How far sound spreads to-night! St Mary's bells,
chiming for evensong. I would the way
were not so over long for feeble limbs,
and that the pathway and the still canal
had not so like a glimmer in the dusk;
for I could gladly feel the peace of prayer
among the others in the quiet church,
with silent graves seen through the open door,
and rustling heard of slowly stirring leaves.
And then 'tis pleasant too to hear the rhythm
of scholars' English and of words in books:
'tis like the voice of some rare foreign tongue
familiar once and loved, that, howso heard,
takes the glad ear with sweetness of old wont.
Oh, there's no sermon now so trite and crude
but makes for me a sort of literature:
'tis my one echo now from that far world
where books are read and written, my world once;
I listen as one listens, note by note,
to some great symphony one knows by heart,
played powerlessly, uncertainly, with change
and thinner chords to suit a learner's hand,
listening with pleasure part for what there is
and more for what there should be and what was
when long ago one used to hear the strain:
I seem to love words now because they are words.

Not that I'll call our Vicar's sermon words:
no, no; he loves his God and loves his poor;
he makes his life one task of doing good;
can such a man speak idly? What he does
is proof to what he urges, his week's life
soul to his Sunday preachings, his shown faith
the key to his expoundings; one may learn
from such a man more things than he can teach:

Alas, the busy patience of his life,
eager and resolute for little things,
strenuous on petty labours, which no voice
shall ever herald past the parish bounds,
which maybe those who see them do not see,
and those whose gain they are know not for gain,
does it not twit me with my languid years
drifted along expectant of a day
when all my world should thank me I had waked?
My world--ah, after all, a lesser one
than I discerned when I was of it still,
my world of men who learn and teach and learn,
and then have only learned and taught and learned--
my world that has forgotten me, a waif
floated away from it on too rough tides,
left spoiled and stranded to drop piece by piece.

Ah me, the difference: I have not known
what envy means unless I know it now
when, in my helplessness, sick, blind, and poor,
past all fulfilling now, with nought fulfilled,
I see our Vicar, with his cheery look,
hurried and overladen with small cares,
glad in his work because it is his work.
And he'll not envy me my garnered lore,
stored up for moth and mildew; what to him
is any wisdom but to work and pray?
the denizens of our rustic market town,
which ignorant strangers take, and break our hearts,
or just a village, know no Tübingen,
have never heard of varying codices,
love, or love not, the Christ of Luke and John,
and have no guess of Renan's; to their minds
belief and unbelief are simplest things,
mere Yes and No, and God must side with Yes,
as kings must with the loyal. But the love
that comes of faith and faith that comes of love;
they can learn those of him and he can teach,
that plain man, ignorant of philosophies
but wise enough to do good all the day.
Ah, why was I too weak for such a life,
which once I might have chosen? A high life,
full of most blessed service.

But I thought
it was not my life meant for me by God:
and now I know not what I should have done,
only I mourn that I have lived in vain,
still daily dreaming some completed task
that never was begun, still waiting force
of impulse more than mine to waken mine,
still dimly pondering "Shall I? Can I? How?"
and waiting to be ready to begin.

Ah tardy useless labourer in the fields,
who waits to think what weed he shall rout first;
ah laggard sailor, who will not put out
till the direct fair wind sets for his port.
And time will never linger, and the world
can wait for no man, must have its wants fed
at the want's birth-cry--soldiers to the gap
on the hot instant, else no need of you,
no space for you to stand in. Long long since
I thought to have been somewhat, to perhaps
set some regardful honour round my name,
but surely to receive a destined place,
a part among the workers: for it seemed
to have so far uptrodden, half alone,
from peasant lowliness should prelude me
a future as of one of whom they say
"so low he was" to show how high he is.
Dreams, dreams! I never had the pith, the sap,
the strong aspiring pulses; I was one
to think, and shiver, by the study fire
"outside is the cold boisterous sea of life
where I will plunge to-morrow and snatch pearls,"
to wait like a late sleeper in the morn,
that with a drowsy logic lulls himself,
and chides his tardiness on their delay
who will not come to tell him it is time.

And yet I did not sleep; no, to my thought
I always was at school for work to come:
but these days leave us little schooling time.
Long since, and when the wisdom of the wise
was to accept to live one with to learn,
and men might find their work for half a life
in thinking silent, and the other half
in thinking out aloud, those were my days
I should have lived in: I came out of date:
like a reprinted tome of theories
made reasonably ere the science shaped,
which, all uncut, stands on the library shelf
amid new essays on the daily art
born long since of the science, and men say
"'Tis learned, curious, looks well on the shelf"
and take its slighter useful neighbour down,
so I showed wise and useless to the world.

Wise with the oldworld wisdom grown unapt
to this changed morrow, for the lesson now
is to accept to live one with to do--
the wisest wisdom plainly in this stir,
this over crowding, this hot hurrying on,
that make a tempest of our modern days.
This anxious age is driven half mad with work,
it bids us all work, world no need, no room,
for contemplating sages counting life
a time allowed for solving problems in
and its own self a problem to be solved;
on in the rush, or be swept out of sight,
on in the rush, and find your place, and work.

'Tis right, 'tis very right; not only ours
to fit what state God gives us but what times;
and he who is thrown out in a fierce race
can hardly chide, "the others ran too fast."
And, as for me, if I grow old alone,
hid out of memory of springtime peers,
and have my roof and food by dead men's alms,
it is that I have been an alien son,
a dronish servant careful of his ease,
to the master-Present, the strong century
that gave our lives and will have use of them.
I knew it always, but still while I thought.
"To-morrow I go forth," the sudden Now
had gone before I judged it had been there:
I knew it always, but the stealthy years
slid on while I was busy at my books,
and when I, startled, waked and saw it time,
lo the "Too late" which God has spoken me
in blindness and in sickness.

A strange life;
fair bud, fair blossom, never perfect fruit;
the river that seemed destined to push on
long eager miles among its busy mills,
among its teeming meadows and its towns,
hemmed stagnant by some little feeble dykes,
some trivial sand-mounds barred against its way,
and rounding to an issueless dull pool.

And yet, but for that wondering vague remorse
not to have been one stronger than myself,
I look back very kindly on my life
so changeful yet so still, not sorrowless
and yet not sad; I love to think of it
and tell it to myself like an old tale
dear for its homely long-familiar turns.
Oh, often I, the grey-haired palsied man,
am yet again the child beneath the hedge,
the village urchin, truant to his task,
of scaring crows, to con a dog's-eared book,
stealing his indolent scholar's luxury
by naughty half-hours through the lonely day.
Oh happy child, I never saw my guilt
nor dreamed of trust betrayed and pence ill-earned,
and it was such a joy to learn and pore
and read great words and wonder what they meant,
and sometimes see, as if a faint new star
dawned on one through a dusky gap at night,
a sudden meaning breaking on the doubt:
poor as I was, ill cared for, with no kin
but the sharp stepmother who, good at heart,
for widow's duty called me hers, not love,
and little Grace, the toddling sister thing
she'd not let love me and not let me touch,
who learned to scold me in her sweet babe's lisp
and would not kiss me even when we played,
no friends, no playmates, every way alone,
yet 'twas a happy boyhood; not forlorn
with the thumbed book for gossip, not forlorn
with all the outdoor world for company.
Oh, many and many a balmy eve like this,
beside my pollard willows by the brook,
I sat and watched the greyness creeping on,
thinking 'twas pity days must end in nights
and one must sleep away so many hours,
losing such sweetness of the summer time.

Dulled wistful eyes, you cannot show me now
the brown-ribbed hill behind whose rounded slope
my village stands among its fields of flax;
last year I still could find it, where to me
it seemed a smooth dusk cloud against the sky,
could say "there lies my home," and fancy out
the well known landmarks, and go step by step
mind-pilgrimage among the dear old haunts;
but now the hill and sky are both one haze,
the dusk cloud's place is lost in larger dusk.
Well, well, 'tis present to me none the less,
and I am glad to feel it near in sight
with its white winding road that, from the top,
looks on my home, and sudden slants to it.

My home! and now 'tis twenty years and odd
since I have journeyed down the slanting road
and seen our envied boasts, the bridge and spire;
yes, twenty years and odd since the last time,
and then they called me stranger; yet I feel
my true home there. Not in my happy town,
my placid scholar's town of colleges,
where the smooth river, lagging by its elms,
bears on its painted breast oriels and towers
and grey monastic courts made reverend
with elder learning and historic lives;
not in my Cornish schoolhouse near the rocks,
where from the granite headland, with its crown
of glossy sward and wee white heather bloom
and rare and southern wildflowers of the moors,
one looked on the illimitable plain,
the vague mysterious ocean stretching forth
into the space and silence of the sky;
not in the city of the million homes,
the throbbing heart of England--No, not there,
how could I find home there? those pent black streets,
that skyless prison room, where day by day
my heart and head grew number, day by day
I and my schoolboys seemed to grow less apt,
that whirr and whirl of traffic, ceaseless change
of unknown faces thronging to and fro!
my life went shrivelling there as if one brought
some thirsty field plant maimed of half its root
amid a ball-night glare of flashing lamps.
And if I, even in this haven nook,
sheltered out of the cold winds of the world,
if here on the free hill-side, with the sounds
of woodland quiet soothing in my ears,
here where the dear home breezes blow to me
over the well known meadows, yet have longed,
like a sick schoolboy for his mother's face,
to look on my remembered trees and fields,
to touch them, to feel kin with them again,
how else could it be with me in the din
the blackness and the crowding?

Oh my heart,
how faint it grew long ere I grew all faint;
long ere there came this swift decrepitude
of too usurping age forestalling time;
how desolate I felt, like a man wrecked
on some far island in a burning clime
where every voice clangs strangely, and all thoughts
come to him yet more foreign than the words,
and very kindness wears unhomeliness;
how in my weariness I grew to loathe
those prison bars of roofs across the sky.
Well, when He pleased, God gave me the release,
gave His good way not mine, I thank Him for it.
Yes, it is well with me: life grows mere rest--
I sit apart and am done with the world,
no hopes, no fears, no changes; I have lost
all part in aims and duties, like a tool
blunted with little use I am laid by
never to serve again; I sit apart
useless, forgotten, a lone purblind man
hid in an almshouse--but the rest is good,
is very peaceful, and I feel God near,
near as I never knew Him in old days
when yet I thought I loved Him.

Did I not?
Was it because I did not love Him then
I could not choose His service? It seems strange:
they all said I was fit, they urged me to it:
and there on one hand was my worldly ease
and (if I were fit) service to my God,
on the other, chance and my poor single strength
to wrest a pittance from the world's clenched hand:
yes one might say it had been granted me
to choose both God and Mammon virtuously:
and yet I could not--never might my lips
have spoken the great answers "Christ has called,"
"The Holy Ghost has moved me." Day by day
I urged myself, I prayed to hear the call,
and the call came not. Was it want of love?
and would my warmer heart have been more brave,
and known a summons where I did not know?

Ah no, there was no need for such as I,
who have no ministering gift, no rule on minds.
Oh, the poor souls had perished which must lean
on such a pastor; I, who never found
the teacher's common secret how to write
the accurate human lore on willing minds,
how could I teach God's mysteries of love?
how could I force rebellious hearts to know?
I, who must reason with myself an hour
to cross a room and give a friend good-day,
where were my ready words to greet the poor,
my instant tact, my sympathy, command?
Oh, rather was I one to be content,
to be most happy, cloistered in the peace
of some grey convent where the even hours
go measured out by prayers and each still day
melts stealthily to night and has but seen
change between chapel and the studious cell.
Had such a life been granted by my creed
I could have snatched at it ...... yes, even then
before the silent too delusive hope
died at her careless bidding.

Susan Lee,
you never guessed, I but half knew myself,
how close a part you had of all my life
from the first time my schoolboy heart grew proud
to feel itself beat quicker at a smile.
I loved you patiently, content to dream
what happy fireside future should be ours
if you should ever love me; afterwards
I sorrowed patiently; and in both whiles
lived in my peace as if you had not been:
but yet you always have been part of me,
I cannot think upon my earlier self
and not remember you. It was but chance
that you were near me, following up the brook
for water-cresses, on that birthday morn
of my new life, when, as I basked and read,
the young squire's tutor came and saw my book,
and sat with me beneath my willow tree;
it was but chance that, for your good-girl treat,
you went a twelve miles' journey to your aunt's
and saw the prize-day splendours of our school
where I stood in my class-boy eminence
(a shamefaced hero, conscious of renown,
and bearing such a greatness bashfully),
and that your face, set in a window frame,
was still the one I saw when I looked up;
it was but chance that made your merry voice
the one to greet me first when, all elate
with budding freshman honours of first term,
I came back to our village ... where, good lack,
I found small reverence for my dignities,
and no one turned to watch me as I walked;
it was but chance that I could see you lead
a romping battle, armed with pelts of hay,
against my Gracie and her rival band
the time I got the germ and ringingest lines
of the Greek ode which gained my earliest prize;
it was but chance made Grace's letter come,
talking of only you, the selfsame day
I heard my name sound in the topmost list,
the very roll of fame as I thought then--
maybe I thought it too long afterwards,
poor lad, who fancied I had won a race
because I gained a vantage post to start;
yes, chance and only chance so mingles you
with the young promise halos, but you stand
always a star behind them, shining through,
and, though I once was sad because of you,
I have my happy memories of you now.

They said you were not pretty, owed your charm
to choice of ribbons from your father's shop,
but, as for me, I saw not if you wore
too many ribbons or too few, nor sought
what charms you had beyond that one I knew,
the kind and honest look in your grey eyes.

Well, you chose fitlier; and you prosper well,
and I can fancy you in your content,
a busy prudent farmwife all the week
and wearing silk on Sundays when you go
to church among your children, proud to take
your husband's arm ... a man who holds his own
and rents a few more acres every year.

And Grace chose wisely too, the wilful girl
I would have made a lady of--not she,
she would not stay at school, she would not learn
your monkey French, she would not chirp words small
like twittering birds, she would not crotchet lace;
and she would marry sturdy William Ford;
so found some rainy days at first, 'tis true,
but they both took them with a cheery heart,
and now she writes from their far western home
that all goes well with them, and, as for her,
she's happier than a queen the whole day through,
and all the bairns as fresh as buttercups.

'Tis far away, my Gracie, far from me:
I'd like to feel your hand in mine at last,
for I have only you, and, as I think,
you bear a kind heart to me; but that's vain,
there'll be no meeting for us in this world.
But bye and bye, my Gracie, bye and bye.

Aye, there's the answer to one's every want,
one's every doubt, that promise bye and bye;
it gives this life a beauty, as the glimpse
between near hills of the great open sea
gives to some inland nook among the woods;
it is the full completed melody
the shifting prelude hints at. Life is good,
but most because, in its best perfectness,
it comes like memory of that other life
we have not known, but shall.

What, little one,
my truant playmate, "Mother gives you leave
to come and say good night for half an hour":
well; on my knee--so. Stories must it be?
"The story about Jesus"? Yes, my child,
that is the best one ...... story of our peace;
you'll know that someday, maybe. Now begins...


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Poem Submitted: Friday, January 3, 2003



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