Dried Marjoram

A poem

Over the moor the wind blew chill,
And cold it blew on the rounded hill
With a gibbet starting up from its crest,
The great arm pointing into the West
   Where something hung
   And clanked and swung.

Churchyard carrion, caged four-square
To every wind that furrows the air;
A poor, unburied, unquiet thing,
The weighted end of a constant swing.
   It clanged and jangled,
   But always dangled.

Lonely travelers riding by
Would check their horses suddenly,
As out of the wind arose a cry
Hoarse as a horn in the weather-eye
   Of sleet at sea
   Blown desperately.

It would rise and fall, and the dissonance
As it struck the shrill of the wind would lance
The cold of ice-drops down the spine
And turn the blood to a clotted brine.
   Then only the hum
   Of the wind would come.

Never a sound but rasping heather
For minute after minute together.
Till once again a wail, long-drawn,
Would slice the night as though it were sawn,
   Cleaving through
   The mist and dew.

* * *

Rotted and blackened in its cage,
Anchored in permanent harborage,
Breeding its worms, with no decent clod
To weave it an apron of grassy sod.
   But this is no grief:
   The man was a thief.

* * *

‘To be hanged by the neck until you are dead.’
That was the verdict, the judge had said.
A sheep had died, so why not a man?
The sheep had an owner, but no one can
   Claim to own
   A man full-grown.

Nobody’s property, no one to care,
But someone is sobbing over there.
‘Most distressing, I declare,’
Says the judge, ‘take the woman out on the stair,
   And give her a crown
   To buy a new gown.’

A gown for a son, such a simple exchange!
But the clerk of the court finds it hard to arrange
This matter of sobbing, the fact is the sheep
Was stolen for her, and the woman will weep.
   It is most unreasonable,
   Indeed, well-nigh treasonable.

Slowly, slowly, his hands tied with rope,
The cart winds up the market slope.
Slowly, slowly, the knot is adjusted.
The tackle-pulleys whine, they are rusted,
   But free at a kick—
   Run—and hold with a click.

* * *

Nothing more but a jolting ride.
An ox-cart with a corpse inside,
Creaking through the shiny sheen
Of heather-stalks melted and bathed in green
   From a high-set moon.
   The heather-bells croon.

Heather below, and moon overhead,
And iron bars clasping a man who is dead.
Shadows of gorse-bushes under him bite
The shimmering moor like a spotted blight.
   The low wind chirrs
   Over the furze.

Slowly, slowly, panting and weak,
Someone wanders and seems to seek,
Bursting her eyes in the green, vague glare,
For an object she does not know quite where.
   Ah, what is that?
   A wild moor-cat?

It scratches and cries above her head;
But here is no tree, and overspread
With clouds and moon the waste recedes,
And the heather flows like bent sea-weeds
   Pushed by an ebb
   To an arching web.

Black and uncertain, it rises before
Her dim old eyes, and the glossy floor
At its feet is undulant and specked
With a rhythmic wavering, and flecked
   By a reddish smudge
   Which does not budge.

Woman, that bundle is your son;
This is the goal your steps have won.
Over the length of the jeweled moor
You have traveled at last to the high-hung door
   Of his airy grave,
   Which does nothing but wave.

Iron-shrouded, flapping the air,
Sepulchred without a prayer,
Denied the comfort of bell and book,
Her tortured eyes do nothing but look.
   And from flower to flower
   The moon sinks lower.

Silver-gray, lavender, lilac-blue,
East of the moor the sun breaks through;
Cracking a bank of orange mist,
It shoulders up with a ruddy twist,
   And spears the spires
   Of health with its fires.

Then a lark shoots up like a popgun ball,
And turns to a spark and a song, and all
The thrushes and sparrows twitter and fly,
And the dew on the heather and gorse is dry.
   But brutal and clear
   The gibbet is here.

Slowly, slowly, worn and flagging,
With the grasshoppers jumping in front of her dragging
Feet, the old woman returns to the town.
But the seed of a thought has been deeply sown
   In her aching mind,
   Where she holds it enshrined.

Nights of moon and nights of dark,
Over the moor-path footsteps. Hark!
It is the old woman whose son is rotting
Above, on the gallows. That shadow blotting
   The Western sky
   Will be hers by-and-by.

Morning, and evening, and sun, and snow,
Months of weather come and go.
The flesh falls away from the withering bones,
The bones grow loose and scatter like stones.
   For the gallow-tree
   Shakes wildly.

* * *

Bit by bit, on the ferns and furze,
Drop the bones which now are hers.
Bit by bit, she gathers them up
And carries them home in an old cracked cup.
   But the head remains
   Although its brains

Nourish the harebells and mullein-stalks.
Blow the wind high, the head still balks;
It rolls like an ivory billiard-ball,
But the bars are too close to let it fall.
   Still, God is just,
   And iron may rust.

November comes, this one after ten,
And the stiff bush-branches grate on the fen,
The gibbet jars to the sharp wind-strokes,
And the frazzled iron snarls and croaks.
   It blows a gale,
   With snow and hail.

Two days, three nights, the storm goes on,
And the cage is tossed like a gonfalon
Above a castle, crumpled and slit,
And the frail joints are shattered apart and split.
   The fissure gapes,
   And the skull escapes.

An ostrich-egg on a bed of fern,
Restlessly rolled by the streams which churn
The leaves, thrust under and forced into
The roots and the mud which oozes through
   The empty pockets
   Of wide eye-sockets.

* * *

Hers at last, all, all of hers
And past her tears the red sun blurs,
Bursting out of the sleeve of the storm.
She brushes a busy, wriggling worm
   Away from the head
   Of her dearest dead.

The uprooted gibbet, all awry,
Crooks behind her against the sky.
Startled rabbits flee from her feet;
The stems of the bracken smell ripe and sweet.
   She pays no heed,
   But quickens her speed.

In the quiet evening, the church-bell tolls;
Fishermen wind up their fishing-poles;
Sheep-bells clink in farmstead closes;
A cat in a kitchen window dozes;
   And doors are white
   With candlelight.

In the old woman’s house there is much to do.
Her windows are shuttered, no gleam comes through,
But inside, the lamp-shine strikes on a tub;
She washes, it seems, and her old hands rub
   And polish with care
   The thing that is there.

Gently, gently, sorting and sifting,
With a little psalm-tune shakily drifting
Across her lips, she works and watches,
Stealing moments in sundry snatches
   To note the tick-tock
   Of the hanging clock.

Decently, reverently, all displayed
Upon a cloth, the bones are laid.
Oh, the loving, lingering touch
Tenderly pausing on such and such!
   A cuckoo flings
   From the clock, and sings.

‘Cuckoo! Cuckoo!’ Eight times over.
Wrap them up in a linen cover.
Take the spade and snuff the lamp.
Put on a cloak for the night is damp.
   The door creaks wide,
   She steps outside.

All tottering, solemn, eager, slow,
She crawls along. The moon is low
And creeps beside her through the hedge,
Rising at last to peer over the edge
   Of the churchyard wall
   And brighten her shawl.

* * *

Blind in the moon the windows shine,
Colorless, glinting, line and line,
The leaded panes are facets and squares
Of dazzle, arched in carven pairs.
   Ivy rustles.
   A yew tree justles.

The corner last on the farthest side
Where the church, foreshortened, is heavy-eyed,
For only the chancel lancets pierce
The lichened mullions, designed in tierce,
   Whence the sun comes through
   Ruby and blue.

This corner is strangled in overgrowth:
Dock-leaves waver like elephants loath
To move but willing to flap their ears,
And huge stone blocks like unshaped biers
   Are sprawled among
   Clumps of adder’s-tongue.

A bat swoops down and flitters away;
An owl whimpers like a child astray;
The slanting gravestones, all askew,
Cock themselves obscenely, two and two.
   She stoops and pushes
   Between the bushes.

She lays her bundle on a stone.
Her bleeding hands are cut to the bone
And torn by the spines of thorn and brier.
Her shoulders ache. Her spead in the mire
   Sucks and slimes
   These many times.

Slowly she clears an open space,
Screened behind hollies, where wild vines lace
Their tendrils in angles and fractured turns.
But water is flooding the stems of the ferns.
   Alas for the dead
   Who lie in this bed!

But hanged men have no business where
The ground has been hallowed by chant and prayer.
Even to lie in the putrid seeping
Of consecrate mud is to be in God’s keeping,
   And He will forget
   His judgment debt.

Poor lone soul, all palsied and dim,
As she lifts the bones, she quavers a hymn.
Then, as for years she laid him to sleep
In his crib, she sets the bundle deep
   In the watery hole,
   And prays for his soul.

* * *

They found her dead on a sunny noon,
Clasping the ground, and overstrewn
With decent leaves which had dropped a shroud
All about her. The parson allowed
   Custom to waive
   In making her grave.

Even the sexton said no word
When something under his shovel stirred;
And the parson read the burial prayer.
He seemed rather husky, but then the air
   Was bitter cold.
   There was frost on the mould.