Birchbrook Mill: 1750

A NOTELESS stream the Birchbrook runs
Beneath its leaning trees :
That low, soft ripple is its own,
That dull roar is the sea’s.
Of human signs it sees alone
The distant church-spire’s tip,
And, ghost-like, on a blank of gray,
The white sail of a ship.
No more a toiler at the wheel,
It wanders at its will ;
Nor dam nor pond is left to tell
Where once was Birchbrook Mill.
The timbers of that mill have fed
Long since a farmer’s fires :
His doorsteps are the stones that ground
The harvest of his sires.
Man trespassed here ; but Nature lost
No right of her domain ;
She waited, and she brought the old
Wild beauty back again.
By day the sunlight through the leaves
Falls on its moist, green sod,
And wakes the violet bloom of spring
And autumn’s golden-rod.
Its birches whisper to the wind,
The swallow dips her wings
In the cool spray, and on its banks
The gray song-sparrow sings.
But from it, when the dark night falls,
The school-girl shrinks with dread ;
The farmer, home-bound from his fields,
Goes by with quickened tread.
They dare not pause to hear the grind
Of shadowy stone on stone,
The plashing of a water-wheel
Where wheel there now is none.
Has not a woman’s cry been heard
Above the clattering mill ?
The pawing of an unseen horse
Who waits his mistress still ?
Yet never to the listener’s eye
Has sight confirmed the sound ;
A wavering birch line marks alone
The vacant pasture-ground.
No maiden’s arms fling up to Heaven
The agony of prayer ;
No spectral steed, impatient, shakes
His white mane on the air !
The meaning of that common dread
No tongue has fitly told,
The secret of the dark surmise
The brook and birches hold.
What nameless horror of the past
Broods here forever more ?
What ghost his unforgiven sin
Is grinding o’er and o’er ?
Does then immortal memory play
The actor’s tragic part,
Rehearsals of a mortal life
And unveiled human heart?
God’s pity spare the guilty soul
That drama of its ill,
And let the scenic curtain fall
On Birchbrook’s haunted mill !
John Greenleaf Whittier.