The Birds of Killingworth
It was the season when through all the land
The merle and mavis build, and building sing
Those lovely lyrics written by His hand
Whom Saxon Caedmon calls the Blithe-Heart King, —
When on the boughs the purple buds expand,
The banners of the vanguard of the Spring,
And rivulets, rejoicing, rush and leap,
And wave their fluttering signals from the steep.
The robin and the bluebird, piping loud,
Filled all the blossoming orchards with their glee;
The sparrows chirped as if they still were proud
Their race in Holy Writ should mentioned be;
And hungry crows, assembled in a crowd,
Clamored their piteous prayer incessantly,
Knowing who hears the ravens cry, and said,
“Give us, O Lord, this day our daily bread!”
Across the Sound the birds of passage sailed,
Speaking some unknown language strange and sweet
Of tropic isle remote, and passing hailed
The village with the cheers of all their fleet, —
Or, quarrelling together, laughed and railed
Like foreign sailors landed in the street
Of seaport town, and with outlandish noise
Of oaths and gibberish frightening girls and boys.
Thus came the jocund Spring in Killingworth,
In fabulous days, some hundred years ago;
And thrifty farmers, as they tilled the earth,
Heard with alarm the cawing of the crow,
That mingled with the universal mirth,
Cassandra-like, prognosticating woe:
They shook their heads, and doomed with dreadful words
To swift destruction the whole race of birds.
And a town-meeting was convened straightway
To set a price upon the guilty heads
Of these marauders, who, in lieu of pay,
Levied black-mail upon the garden-beds
And cornfields, and beheld without dismay
The awful scarecrow with his fluttering shreds, —
The skeleton that waited at their feast,
Whereby their sinful pleasure was increased.
Then from his house, a temple painted white,
With fluted columns, and a roof of red,
The squire came forth, — august and splendid sight! —
Slowly descending, with majestic tread,
Three flights of steps, nor looking left nor right;
Down the long street as he walked, as one who said,
“A town that boasts inhabitants like me
Can have no lack of good society!”
The Parson, too, appeared, a man austere
The instinct of whose nature was to kill;
The wrath of God he preached from year to year,
And read with fervor Edwards on the Will;
In Summer on some Adirondack hill;
E’en now, while walking down the rural lane,
He lopped the way-side lilies with his cane.
From the Academy, whose belfry crowned
The hill of Science with its vane of brass,
Came the Preceptor, gazing idly round,
Now at the clouds, and now at the green grass,
And all absorbed in reveries profound
Of fair Almira in the upper class,
Who was, as in a sonnet he had said,
As pure as water, and as good as bread.
And next the Deacon issued from his door,
In his voluminous neck-cloth, white as snow;
A suit of sable bombazine he wore;
His form was ponderous, and his step was slow;
There never was so wise a man before;
He seemed the incarnate “Well, I told you so!”
And to perpetuate his great renown,
There was a street named after him in town.
These came together in the new town-hall,
With sundry farmers from the region round;
The Squire presided, dignified and tall,
His air impressive and his reasoning sound.
Ill fared it with the birds, both great and small;
Hardly a friend in all the crowd they found,
But enemies enough, who every one
Charged them with all the crimes beneath the sun.
When they had ended, from his place apart,
Rose the Preceptor, to redress the wrong,
And, trembling like a steed before the start,
Looked round bewildered on the expectant throng;
Then thought of fair Almira, and took heart
To speak out what was in him, clear and strong,
Alike regardless of their smile or frown,
And quite determined not to be laughed down.
“Plato, anticipating the Reviewers,
From his Republic banished without pity
The Poets; in this little town of yours,
You put to death, by means of a Committee,
The ballad-singers and the Troubadours,
The street-musicians of the heavenly city,
The birds, who make sweet music for us all
In our dark hours, as David did for Saul.
“The thrush, that carols at the dawn of day
From the green steeples of the piny wood;
The oriole in the elm; the noisy jay,
Jargoning like a foreigner at his food;
The bluebird balanced on some topmost spray,
Flooding with melody the neighborhood;
Linnet and meadow-lark, and all the throng
That dwell in nests, and have the gift of song.
“You slay them all! and wherefore? For the gain
Of a scant handful more or less of wheat,
Or rye, or barley, or some other grain,
Scratched up at random by industrious feet
Searching for worm or weevil after rain,
Or a few cherries, that are not so sweet
As are the songs these uninvited guests
Sing at their feast with comfortable breasts.
“Do you ne’er think what wondrous beings these?
Do you ne’er think who made them, and who taught
The dialect they speak, where melodies
Alone are the interpreters of thought?
Whose household words are songs in many keys,
Sweeter than instrument of man e’er caught!
Whose habitations in the tree-tops even
Are half-way houses on the road to heaven!
“Think, every morning when the sun peeps through
The dim, leaf-latticed windows of the grove,
How jubilant the happy birds renew
Their old melodious madrigals of love!
And when you think of this, remember, too,
‘T is always morning somewhere, and above The awakening continents, from shore to shore,
Somewhere the birds are singing evermore.
“Think of your woods and orchards without birds!
Of empty nests that cling to boughs and beams,
As in an idiot’s brain remembered words
Hang empty ‘mid the cobwebs of his dreams!
Will bleat of flocks or bellowing of herds
Make up for the lost music, when your teams
Drag home the stingy harvest, and no more
The feathered gleaners follow to your door?
“What! would you rather see the incessant stir
Of insects in the windrows of the hay,
And hear the locust and the grasshopper
Their melancholy hurdy-gurdies play?
Of meadow-lark, and its sweet roundelay,
Of twitter of little fieldfares, as you take
Your nooning in the shade of brush and brake?
“You call them thieves and pillagers; but know
They are the winged wardens of your farms,
Who from the cornfields drive the insidious foe,
And from your harvests keep a hundred harms;
Even the blackest of them all, the crow,
Renders good service as your man-at-arms,
Crushing the beetle in his coat of mail,
And crying havoc on the slug and snail.
“How can I teach your children gentleness,
And mercy to the weak, and reverence
For Life, which, in its weakness or excess,
Is still a gleam of God’s omnipotence,
Or Death, which, seeming darkness, is no less
The self-same light, although averted hence,
When by your laws, your actions, and your speech,
You contradict the very things I teach?”
With this he closed; and through the audience went
A murmur, like the rustle of dead leaves;
The farmers laughed and nodded, and some bent
Their yellow heads together like their sheaves:
Men have no faith in fine-spun sentiment
Who put their trust in bullocks and in beeves.
The birds were doomed; and, as the record shows,
A bounty offered for the heads of crows.
There was another audience out of reach,
Who had no voice nor vote in making laws,
But in the papers read his little speech,
And crowned his modest temples with applause;
They made him conscious, each one more than each,
He still was victor, vanquished in their cause:
Sweetest of all the applause he won from thee,
O fair Almira at the Academy!
And so the dreadful massacre began;
O’er fields and orchards, and o’er woodland crests,
The ceaseless fusillade of terror ran.
Dead fell the birds, with blood-stains on their breasts,
Or wounded crept away from sight of man,
While the young died of famine in their nests:
A slaughter to be told in groans, not words,
The very St. Bartholomew of Birds!
The Summer came, and all the birds were dead;
The days were like hot coals; the very ground
Was burned to ashes; in the orchards fed
Myriads of caterpillars, and around
The cultivated fields and garden-beds
Hosts of devouring insects crawled, and found
No foe to check their march, till they had made
The land a desert without leaf or shade.
Devoured by worms, like Herod, was the town,
Because, like Herod, it had ruthlessly
Slaughtered the Innocents. From the trees spun down
The canker-worms upon the passers-by, —
Upon each woman’s bonnet, shawl, and gown,
Who shook them off with just a little cry;
They were the terror of each favorite walk,
The endless theme of all the village talk.
The farmers grew impatient, but a few
Confessed their error, and would not complain;
For, after all, the best thing one can do,
When it is raining, is to let it rain.
Then they repealed the law, although they knew
It would not call the dead to life again;
As school-boys, finding their mistake too late,
Draw a wet sponge across the accusing slate.
That year in Killingworth the Autumn came
Without the light of his majestic look,
The wonder of the falling tongues of flame,
The illuminated pages of his Doom’s-Day Book.
A few lost leaves blushed crimson with their shame,
And drowned themselves despairing in the brook,
While the wild wind went moaning everywhere,
Lamenting the dead children of the air.
But the next Spring a stranger sight was seen,
A sight that never yet by bard was sung, —
As great a wonder as it would have been,
If some dumb animal had found a tongue:
A wagon, overarched with evergreen,
Upon whose boughs were wicker cages hung,
All full of singing-birds, came down the street,
Filling the air with music wild and street.
From all the country round these birds were brought,
By order of the town, with anxious quest,
And, loosened from their wicker prisons, sought
In woods and fields the places they loved best,
Singing loud canticles, which many thought
Were satires to the authorities addressed,
While others, listening in green lanes, averred
Such lovely music never had been heard.
But blither still and louder carolled they
Upon the morrow, for they seemed to know
It was the fair Almira’s wedding-day,
And everywhere, around, above, below,
When the Preceptor bore his bride away,
Their songs burst forth in joyous overflow,
And a new heaven bent over a new earth
Amid the sunny farms of Killingworth.