The Fallen Elm

by Alfred Austin

Alfred Austin

The popinjay screamed from tree to tree,
Then was lost in the burnished leaves;
The sky was as blue as a southern sea,
And the swallow came back to the eaves.
So I followed the sound of pipe and bleat
To the glade where my dear old Elm,
With head majestic and massive feet,
Rules over a grassy realm.
When lo! where it once rose, robed and crowned,
Was naught but the leafless air:
Its limbs were low on the dinted ground,
And its body lay stripped and bare.
Then I sate on the prostrate trunk, and thought
Of the times that I there had strayed
From the clamour and strife of tongues, and sought
The peace of its silent shade;
And, with none anear save the browsing beeves,
Had lain and refreshed my soul
With the maiden grace of its waving leaves,
And the strength of its manly bole.
And I said, `Never more will the truant wind
Sit and swing in your lissom boughs;
Never more in your branches the ringdove find
A nook for its nuptial vows.
`Ne'er again will the thrifty squirrel store
In your hollows its wintry food,
And, unseen, in your rotted gnarls no more
Will the woodpecker hatch its brood.
`When the cuckoo and nightingale voice in parts
May's madrigal loud and clear,
And the kingfisher dives and the dragonfly darts,
You will neither feel nor hear.
`Nor will swain and his sweet, when the wain's in the shed,
And the shadows stretch long and dark,
Make tender tryst at your foot, and wed
Their names on your fluted bark.
`The seasons laugh at the seasons dead,
But never, when new Springs bleat,
Will you feel the sunshine around your head,
Or the moisture about your feet.
`And when Autumn's flail on the granary floor
Falls muffled by mellow sheaves,
Old elm, you will mirror yourself no more
In the lake of your littered leaves.'
Then in silence sadder than speech I sat,
When a tremor began to shake
The ribs of the elm as it lay there flat,
And a voice in the branches spake:
`Nay, pity me not, I am living still,
Though prone on the ploughed-up earth,
Though the woodreeve will lop me with hook and bill,
And the shroudmaker take my girth.
`'Twas pleasant, when sap began to stir,
And branch, spray, and bud to shoot,
To hearken the newly-paired partridge whirr,
And the croak of the pairing coot;
`When the broodmare suckled her long-limbed foal,
To watch lovers meet and part,
And to feel, as they nestled against my bole,
The beat of each trusting heart.
`But full as oft as on loving kiss
I gazed upon lonely tear;
And when drenched kine huddle and slant winds hiss,
Then living seemed long and drear.
`Now, when jackdaws starve and the blizzard bites,
And the furrows are flecked with sleet,
And the owl keeps snug in the thatch o'nights,
And the waggoner chafes his feet;
`When the empty nest in the leafless hedge
Sits sad where the sweet birds sang,
And the mallard croaks in the frozen sedge,
And the wings of the wildgeese twang;
`When the lean hare nibbles the birch-tree bark,
And the stoat grows lank and thin,
And the cubs of the vixen prowl the dark,
And the gossips sit and spin;
`They will carry me in from the well-walled garth,
Where the logs are split and stored,
And lay me down where the blazing hearth
Glints warm on the beakered board.
`I shall roar my stave through the chimney's throat,
When the husky hindmen troll,
And flicker low when to children's note
The graybeard nods his poll:
`Watch the ploughboy duck for the crab and miss,
While the bedesmen munch their dole,
And the buxom wench leaves a lickerish kiss
On the rim of the rounding bowl:
`See the children troop, ere they dint their beds,
And, hushing their pagan glee,
Raise dimpled hands, bow flaxen heads,
And pray at their mother's knee.
`Or, perched perchance at the windmill top,
I shall gaze upon gray-roofed farms,
When the clouds are still and the hurricanes drop;
Or up in my brawny arms
`Catch the idle winds as they lag at play,
That in toil they may take their share,
And round and round dip my foamless way
Through the sea of the shoreless air.
`I shall listen, hushed, to the stars at night,
Shall abide betwixt earth and sky:
While one lives and works at a lofty height,
One may change, but one does not die.
`In the stream you love, I may find a home,
Where the quince by the miller's door
Floats flowers as white as his unsluiced foam,
Or the meal on his powdered floor.
`And there I shall live in the mill-wheel's chase,
And sweat in the mid-day heat;
But the spray of my making will cool my face,
And the water-drip bathe my feet.
`I shall whirl till the wheat be ground and fanned
To meal for the cottager's pan:
O, 'tis merry and wise to go hand-in-hand
With Nature, to profit Man.
`Or my boughs may be curved to the river-boat's keel,
And I, as the currents swing
And ripple about my ribs, shall feel
As if stirred with the sap of Spring.
`My crew will be only Youth and Grace,
She lissom, he steel, of limb;
His bronzed brow bent on her wildrose face,
And her wildrose face on him.
`His voice will repeat some poet's song
To the stroke of the rhythmic oar,
Till her maiden pulses quicken and long
For the gleam of the syren shore.
`And when banks grow shady and oars at rest,
And we rudderless float and glide,
I shall feel their love-throbs within my breast,
And the grayling against my side.
`O, I am not dead, though my head droops low,
That used in the Spring to soar
To the sky half-way, and the friendless crow
Will nest in my fork no more.
`'Twas a cheery and wild-wood life I led,
But as pagan as bird or beast;
For I never was christened, or churched, or wed,
Or tithed by the village priest.
`Now I should not wonder if they who fell
My timber and lop my bark,
Were to want a beam for the sexton's bell,
Or a desk for the limping clerk.
`I shall hear the chorister voices soar,
And the organ rise and roll;
And I, who had only sense before,
Shall awaken and find my soul.
`And when limbs, that oft through the driving sleet
Have staggered to stye and shed,
Are seen no more on the rustic seat,
But are stark on the hempen bed,
`My planks will make them both wall and roof,
As snug as the ling-thatched fold,
Where they never will hear a harsh reproof,
Nor ever feel cramp or cold.
`So sorrow you not if I cease to soar,
And am sundered by saw and bill:
Rather hope that, like me, when you're green no more,
You may comfort your kindred still.'
Then the woodcutters came from their mid-day meal,
And I wandered, and felt no pang,
Though riving beetle and splintering steel
All day through the copses rang.

Last updated January 14, 2019