Field Sports

by William Somervile

William Somervile


Once more, great Prince! permit an humble bard
Prostrate to pay his homage at your feet,
Then, like the morning lark from the low ground
Towering aloft, sublime, to soar and sing,
Sing the heart-cheering pleasure of the fields,
The choice delight of heroes and of kings.
In earlier times monarchs of Eastern race,
In their full blaze of pride, as story tells,
Train'd up the' imperial eagle, sacred bird!
Hooded, with jingling bells she perch'd on high;
Not as when erst on golden wings she led
The Roman legions o'er the conquer'd globe,
Mankind her quarry; but a docile slave,
Tam'd to the lure, and careful to attend
Her master's voice. Behold the man renown'd,
Abbas the Great, (whom all his fawning slaves
Deem'd king of kings, vain fools! they sure forgot
Greater Leonidas, and those fatal strarts
Blood-stain'd, where slaughter'd Persians fell on heaps,
A dreadful carnage!) see his numerous host
Spread wide the plains, and in their front upborne
Each on her perch, that bends beneath her weight,
Two sister eagles, stately pondrous birds!
The air's a desert, and the feather'd race
Fly to the neighbouring covert's dark retreats.
The royal pair on wing, this whirls around
In circles wide, or like the swallow skims
The russet plain, and mimics as she flies
(By many a sleepless night instructed well)
The hound's loud openings, or the spaniel's quest.
What cannot wakerful industry subdue!
Meanwhile that mounts on high, and seems to view
A black ascending cloud, when pierc'd the gloom
Of vapours dank condens'd, the sun's bright beams
Pain not her sight: she with expanded sails
Works through the ethereal fluid, then perhaps
Sees through a break of clouds this self-pois'd orb
Hard by her handmaid moon. She looks beneath
Contemptuous, and beholds from far this earth,
This molehill earth, and all its busy arts
Labouring for life, which lasts so short a day,
Just blazing and extinct. So thou, my soul!
That breath of life which all men must perceive,
But none distinctly know, when once escap'd
From this poor helpless corse, and when on high
Borne on angelic wings, look down with scorn
On this mean lessening world, and knaves grown rich
By chance, or fraud, or insolence of power.
Now from her highest pitch, by quick degrees,
With less ambition, nearer earth she tends,
As yet scarce visible, and high in air,
Pois'd on extended wings, with sharper ken
Attentive marks whate'er is done below.
Thus some wise general, from a rising ground,
Observes the embattled foe, where serried ranks
Forbid access, or where their order loose
Invites the attack, and points the way to fate.
All now is tumult; each heart swells with joy:
The falconers shout, and the wide concave rings hills,
Tremble the forests round; the joyous cries
Float through the vales; and rocks, and woods, and
Return the varied sounds. Forth bursis the stag,
Nor trusts the mazes of his deep recess,
Fear hid him close, strange inconsistent guide!
Now hurries him aghast, with busy feet,
Far o'er the spacious plain: he pants to reach
The mountain's brow, or with unsteady step
To climb the craggy cliff; the greyhounds strain
Behind to pinch his haunch, who scarce evades
Their gaping jaws. One eagle, wheeling, flies
In airy labyrinths, or with easier wing
Skims by his side, and stuns his patient ear
With hideous cries, then peals his forehead broad,
Or at his eyes her fatal malice aims:
The other, like the bolt of angry Heav'n,
Darts down at once, and fixes on his back
Her griping talons, ploughing with her beak
His pamper'd chine: the blood and sweat distill'd,
From many a dripping furrow, stains the soil.
Who pities not this fury-hunted wretch,
Embarrass'd thus, on every side distress'd?
Death will relieve him; for the greyhounds fierce,
Seizing their prey, soon drag him to the ground:
Groaning he falls; with eyes that swim in tears
He looks on man, chief author of his woe,
And weeps, and dies! the grandees press around,
To dip their sabres in his boiling blood:
Unseemly joy! 'tis barbarous to insult
A fallen foe. The dogs, and birds of prey,
Insatrate, on his reeking bowels feast,
But the stern Falconer claims the lion's share.
Such are the sports of kings; and better far
Than royal robbery, and the bloody jaws
Of all-devouring war! Each animal,
By natural instinct taught, spares his own kind:
But man, the tyrant man! revels at large,
Free-booter unrestrain'd, destroys at will
The whole creation, men and beasts his prey
These for his pleasure, for his glory those.
Next will I sing the valiant falcon's fame,
Airial fights, where no confederate brute
Joins in the bloody fray, but bird with bird
Justs in mid air. Lo! at his siege, the hern,
Upon the bank of some small purling brook,
Observant stands to take his scaly prize,
Himself another's game; for mark, behind
The wily falconer creeps; his grazing horse
Conceals the treacherous foe, and on his fist
The' unhooded falcon sits: with eager eyes
She meditates her prey, and in her wild
Conceit already plumes the dying bird.
Up springs the hern, redoubling every stroke,
Conscious of danger, stretches far away,
With busy pennons and projected beak,
Piercing the' opponent clouds: the falcon swift
Follows at speed, mounts as he mounts, for hope
Gives vigour to her wings: another soon
Strains after to support the bold attack,
Perhaps a third. As in some winding creek
On proud Iberia's shore, the corsairs sly
Lurk waiting to surprise a British sail,
Full-freighted from Hetruria's friendly ports,
Or rich Byzantium; after her they scud,
Dashing the spumy waves with equal oars,
And spreading all their shrouds; she makes the main,
Inviting every gale, nor yet forgets
To clear her deck, and tell the' insulting foe,
In peals of thunder, Britons cannot fear.
So flies the hern pursued, but fighting flies.
Warm grows the conflict; every nerve's employ'd:
Now through the yielding element they soar,
Aspiring high, then sink at once, and rove
In trackless mazes through the troubled sky.
No rest; no peace. The falcon hovering flies
Balanc'd in air, and confidently bold
Hangs o'er him like a cloud, then aims her blow
Full at his destin'd head. The watchful hern
Shoots from her like a blazing meteor swift
That gilds the night, eludes her talons keen
And pointed beak, and gains a length of way.
Observe the' attentive crowd; all hearts are fix'd
On this important war, and pleasing hope
Glows in each breast. The vulgar and the great
Equally happy now, with freedom share
The common joy; the shepherd-boy forgets
His bleating care; the labouring hind lets fall
His grain unsown; in transport lost, he robs
The expecting furrow, and in wild amaze
The gazing village point their eyes to Heav'n.
Where is the tongue can speak the falconer's cares,
'Twixt hopes and fears, as in a tempest toss'd?
His fluttering heart, his varying cheeks confess
His inward woe. Now, like a wearied stag,
That stands at bay, the hern provokes their rage;
Close by his languid wing, in downy plumes,
Covers his fatal beak, and cautious hides
The well-dissembled fraud. The falcon darts
Like lightning from above, and in her breast
Receives the latent death; down plumb she falls
Bounding from earth, and with her trickling gore
Defiles her gaudy plumage. See, alas!
The falconer in despair; his favourite bird
Dead at this feet, as of his dearest friend
He weeps her fate; he meditates revenge,
He storms, he foams, he gives a loose to rage;
Nor wants he long the means: the hern fatigued,
Borne down by numbers, yields, and prone on earth
He drops: his cruel foes wheeling around,
Insult at will. The vengeful falconer flies
Swift as an arrow shooting to their aid,
Then muttering inward curses, breaks his wings,
And fixes in the ground his hated beak;
Sees with malignant joy, the victors proud
Smear'd with his blood, and on his marrow feast
Unhappy bird! our fathers' prime delight!
Who fenc'd thine eyry round with sacred laws;
Nor mighty princes now disdain to wear
Thy waving crest, the mark of high command,
With gold, and pearl, and brilliant gems adorn'd
Now if the crystal stream delight thee more,
Sportsman! lead on, where through the reedy bank
The' insinuating waters, filter'd, stray
In many a winding maze. The wild-duck there
Gluts on the fattening ooze, or steals the spawn
Of teeming shoals, her more delicious feast.
How do the sunbeams on the glassy plain
Sport wanton, and amuse our wandering eyes
With variously-reflected changing rays!
The murmuring stream salutes the flowery mead
That glows with fragrance; Nature all around
Consents to bless. What sluggard now would sink
In beds of down? What miser would not leave
His bags untold for this transporting scene? —
Falconer, take care, oppose thy well-train'd steed,
And slily stalk; unhood thy falcon bold,
Observe at feed the unsuspecting team
Paddling with oary feet: he's seen; they fly.
Now at full speed the falconer spurs away
To' assist his favourite hawk; she from the rest
Has singled out the mallard young and gay,
Whose green and azure brightens in the sun.
Swift as the wind that sweeps the desert plain,
With feet, wings, beak, he cuts the liquid sky:
Behoves him now both oar and sail; for see
The' unequal foe gains on him as he flies.
Long holds the' airial course; they rise, they fall,
Now skim in circling rings, then stretch away
With all their force, till at one fatal stroke
The vigorous hawk, exerting every nerve,
Truss'd in mid air bears down her captive prey.
'Tis well on earth they fall; for oft the duck
Mistrusts her coward wings, and seeks again
The kind protecting flood: if haply then
The falcon rash aim a decisive blow,
And spring to gripe her floating prey, at once
She dives beneath, and near some osier's root
Pops up her head secure; then views her foe
Just in the grasping of her fond desires,
And in full pride of trumph whelm'd beneath
The gliding stream. Ah! where are now, proud bird!
Thy stately trappings, and thy silver bells,
Thy glossy plumage, and thy silken crest?
Say, tyrant of the skies! wouldst thou not now
Exchange with thy but late desponding foe
Thy dreadful talons, and thy polish'd beak,
For her web-feet despis'd? How happy they
Who, when gay Pleasure courts, and Fortune smiles,
Fear the reverse, with caution tread those paths
Where roses grow, but wily vipers creep!
These are expensive joys, fit for the great,
Of large domains possess'd: enough for me
To boast the gentle spar-hawk on my fist,
Or fly the partridge from the bristly field,
Retrieve the covey with my busy train,
Or with my soaring hobby dare the lark.
But if the shady woods my cares employ
In quest of feather'd game, my spaniels beat
Puzzling the' entangled copse, and from the brake
Push forth the whirring pheasant; high in air
He waves his varied plumes, stretching away
With hasty wing. Soon from the' uplifted tube
The mimic thunder bursts, the leaden death
O'ertakes him, and with many a giddy whirl
To earth he falls, and at my feet expires.
When Autumn smiles, all beauteous in decay,
And paints each chequer'd grove with various hues,
My setter ranges in the new-shorn fields,
His nose in air erect; from ridge to ridge
Panting he bounds, his quarter'd ground divides
In equal intervals, nor careless leaves
One inch untried. At length the tainted gales
His nostrils wide inhale; quick joy elates
His beating heart, which, awed by discipline
Severe, he dares not own, but cautions creeps
Low-cowering, step by step; at last attains
His proper distance: there he stops at once,
And points with his instructive nose upon
The trembling prey. On wings of wind upborne
The floating net unfolded flies, then drops,
And the poor fluttering captives rise in vain.
Or haply on some river's cooling bank,
Patiently musing, all intent I stand
To hook the scaly glutton. See! down sinks
My cork, that faithful monitor; his weight
My taper angle bends; surpriz'd, amaz'd,
He glitters in the sun, and struggling, pants
For liberty, till in the purer air
He breathes no more. Such are our pleasing cares
And sweet amusements, such each busy drudge
Envious must wish, and all the wise enjoy.
Thus, most illustrious Prince! have I presum'd,
In my obscure sojourn, to sing at ease
Rural delights, the joy and sweet repast
Of every noble mind; and now perchance
Untimely sing, since from yon neighbouring shore
The grumbling thunder rolls, calm Peace alarm'd
Starts from her couch, and the rude din of war
Sounds harsh in every ear. But, righteous Heav'n!
Britain deserted, friendless and alone,
Will not as yet despair: shine but in arms,
O Prince! belov'd by all; patron profess'd
Of liberty; with every virtue crown'd;
Millions shall crowd her strand, and her white cliffs,
As Teneriffe or Atlas firm, defy
The break of seas, and malice of her foes,
Nor the proud Gaul prevail where Caesar fail'd.

Last updated October 28, 2017