William Cowper

(26 November 1731 – 25 April 1800 / Hertfordshire)

The Salad. By Virgil - Poem by William Cowper

The winter night now well nigh worn away,
The wakeful cock proclaimed approaching day,
When Simulus, poor tenant of a farm
Of narrowest limits, heard the shrill alarm,
Yawned, stretched his limbs, and anxious to provide
Against the pangs of hunger unsupplied,
By slow degrees his tattered bed forsook,
And poking in the dark, explored the nook
Where embers slept with ashes heaped around,
And with burnt fingers'-ends the treasure found.
It chanced that from a brand beneath his nose
Sure proof of latent fire, some smoke arose;
When trimming with a pin the incrusted tow,
And stooping it towards the coals below,
He toils, with cheeks distended, to excite
The lingering flame, and gains at length a light.
With prudent heed he spreads his hand before
The quivering lamp, and opes his granary door.
Small was his stock, but taking for the day,
A measured stint of twice eight pounds away,
With these his mill he seeks. A shelf at hand,
Fixt in the wall, affords his lamp a stand:
Then baring both his arms, a sleeveless coat
He girds, the rough exuviae of a goat;
And with a rubber, for that use designed
Cleansing his mill within, begins to grind;
Each hand has its employ; labouring amain,
This turns the winch, while that supplies the grain.
The stone revolving rapidly, now glows,
And the bruised corn a mealy current flows;
While he, to make his heavy labour light,
Tasks oft his left hand to relieve his right;
And chants with rudest accent, to beguile
His ceaseless toil, as rude a strain the while.
And now, 'Dame Cybale, come forth!' he cries;
But Cybale, still slumbering, nought replies.
From Afric she, the swain's sole serving maid,
Whose face and form alike her birth betrayed;
With woolly locks, lips tumid, sable skin,
Wide bosom, udders flaccid, belly thin,
Legs slender, broad and most misshapen feet,
Chapped into chinks, and parched with solar heat,
Such, summoned oft, she came; at his command
Fresh fuel heaped, the sleeping embers fanned,
And made in haste her simmering skillet steam,
Replenished newly from the neighbouring stream.
The labours of the mill performed, a sieve
The mingled flour and bran must next receive,
Which shaken oft, shoots Ceres through refined,
And better dressed, her husks all left behind.
This done, at once, his future plain repast,
Unleavened, on a shaven board he cast,
The tepid lymph, first largely soaked it all,
Then gathered it with both hands to a ball,
And spreading it again with both hands wide,
With sprinkled salt the stiffened mass supplied;
At length, the stubborn substance, duly wrought,
Takes from his palms impressed the shape it ought,
Becomes an orb, and quartered into shares,
The faithful mark of just division bears.
Last, on his hearth it finds convenient space,
For Cybale before had swept the place,
And there, with tiles and embers overspread,
She leaves it -- reeking in its sultry bed.
Nor Similus, while Vulcan thus, alone,
His part performed, proves heedless of his own,
But sedulous, not merely to subdue
His hunger, but to please his palate too,
Prepares more savoury food. His chimney-side
Could boast no gammon, salted well, and dried,
And hooked behind him; but sufficient store
Of bundled anise, and a cheese it bore;
A broad round cheese, which, through its centre strung
With a tough broom-twig, in the corner hung;
The prudent hero therefore with address,
And quick despatch, now seeks another mess.
Close to his cottage lay a garden-ground,
With reeds and osiers sparely girt around;
Small was the spot, but liberal to produce,
Nor wanted aught that serves a peasant's use;
And sometimes even the rich would borrow thence,
Although its tillage was his sole expense.
For oft, as from his toils abroad he ceased,
Home-bound by weather or some stated feast,
His debt of culture here he duly paid,
And only left the plough to wield the spade.
He knew to give each plant the soil it needs,
To drill the ground, and cover close the seeds;
And could with ease compel the wanton rill
To turn, and wind, obedient to his will.
There flourished star-wort, and the branching beet,
The sorrel acid, and the mallow sweet,
The skirret, and the leek's aspiring kind,
The noxious poppy -- quencher of the mind!
Salubrious sequel of a sumptuous board,
The lettuce, and the long huge-bellied gourd;
But these (for none his appetite controlled
With stricter sway) the thrifty rustic sold;
With broom-twigs neatly bound, each kind apart,
He bore them ever to the public mart;
Whence, laden still, but with a lighter load,
Of each well earned, he took his homeward road,
Expending seldom, ere he quitted Rome,
His gains, in flesh-meat for a feast at home.
There, at no cost, on onions, rank and red,
Or the curled endive's bitter leaf, he fed;
On scallions sliced, or with a sensual gust
On rockets -- foul provocatives of lust;
Nor even shunned, with smarting gums, to press
Nasturtium, pungent face-distorting mess!
Some such regale now also in his thought,
With hasty steps his garden-ground he sought;
There delving with his hands, he first displaced
Four plants of garlick, large, and rooted fast;
The tender tops of parsley next he culls,
Then the old rue-bush shudders as he pulls,
And Coriander last to these succeeds,
That hands on slightest threads her trembling seeds.
Placed near his sprightly fire, he now demands
The mortar at his sable servant's hands;
When stripping all his garlick first, he tore
The exterior coats, and cast them on the floor,
Then cast away with like contempt the skin,
Flimsier concealment of the cloves within.
These searched, and perfect found, he one by one
Rinsed and disposed within the hollow stone;
Salt added, and a lump of salted cheese,
With his injected herbs he covered these,
And tucking with his left his tunic tight,
The garlick bruising first he soon expressed,
And mixed the various juices of the rest.
He grinds, and by degrees his herbs below
Lost in each other their own powers forego,
Nor wholly green appear, nor wholly white.
His nostrils oft the forceful fume resent;
He cursed full oft his dinner for its scent,
Or with wry faces, wiping as he spoke
The trickling tears, cried -- 'Vengeance on the smoke!'
The work proceeds: not roughly turns he now
The pestle, but in circles smoothe and slow;
With cautious hand that grudges what it spills,
Some drops of olive-oil he next instils;
Then vinegar with caution scarcely less;
And gathering to a ball the medley mess,
Last, with two fingers frugally applied,
Sweeps the small remnant from the mortar's side:
And thus complete in figure and in kind,
Obtains at length the Salad he designed.
And now black Cybale before him stands,
The cake drawn newly glowing in her hands;
He glad receives it, chasing far away
All fears of famine for the passing day;
His legs enclosed in buskins, and his head
In its tough casque of leather, forth he led,
And yoked his steers, a dull obedient pair,
Then drove afield, and plunged the pointed share.


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Poem Submitted: Tuesday, April 13, 2010



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