The Cress-Gatherer.

A poem by John Clare

Soon as the spring its earliest visit pays,
And buds with March and April's lengthen'd days
Of mingled suns and shades, and snow, and rain,
Forcing the crackling frost to melt again;
Oft sprinkling from their bosoms, as they come,
A dwindling daisy here and there to bloom;
I mark the widow, and her orphan boy,
In preparation for their old employ.
The cloak and hat that had for seasons past
Repell'd the rain and buffeted the blast,
Though worn to shreddings, still are occupied
In make-shift way their nakedness to hide;
For since her husband died her hopes are few,
When time's worn out the old, to purchase new.
Upon the green they're seen by rising sun,
To sharp winds croodling they would vainly shun,
With baskets on their arm and hazel crooks
Dragging the sprouting cresses from the brooks;
A savoury sallad sought for Luxury's whim,
Though small reward her labours meet from him,
When, parcel'd out, she humbly takes for sale
The simple produce of the water'd vale
In yearly visits to some market town,
Meeting by turns a penny and a frown.
Of all the masks deception ever weaves,
Life, thine's the visage that the most deceives;
One hour of thine an emperor's gory greets,
Another turns him begging in the streets:
E'en this poor wretch, thy meanest link, who lives
On scantiest sustenance that labour gives,
Has known her better days, whom thou, times gone,
E'en condescended to look kindly on.
Things went not thus, when abler hands supplied
Life's vain existence ere her husband died,
Who various ways a living did pursue,
Clerk of the parish, and schoolmaster too.
He punctual always rang the evening bell,
And sang " Amen" on Sundays loud and well;
And though not nice in this and that respect,
Was rarely found his duty to neglect.
His worldly ways religions ne'er perplext,
He never fail'd to recollect the text,
Or quote the sermon's passages by heart
In warm devotion o'er an honest quart;
And, as a brother of those subtle tools
That make such figuring in our country schools,
He lov'd his skill to flourish, and to show
As well as godly he was learned too;
Though, with the boast most common to his kin,
The use of figures he knew little in,--
By far too puzzling for his head were they,
He sought fame's purchase by an easier way;
And, like his scholars, with his A, B, C,
Was found more ready, than with "rule of three."
He'd many things to crack on with his ale,
For clowns less learn'd to wonder at the tale;
And o'er his pot he'd take the news and preach,
And observations make from speech to speech,
Till those around him swore each wise remark
Show'd him more fit for parson than for clerk.
To minutes he would tell when moons were new,
And of eclipses talk the seasons through,
Run o'er as ready as he'd read his prayers
All the saint-days the calendar declares;
Mystic conclusions draw from many a sign
Which made him judge of weather foul or fine;
And dripping moons, or suns in crimson set,
To him sure tokens were of fair or wet.
Of wonders he knew all the yearly store
That fill the learned almanacks of Moore;
Earthquakes, and plagues, and floods, when they befel,
From second father Noah's day, could tell;
Till most gave out, had he divulg'd his trade,
The best of almanacks he would have made;
And much they wonder'd, when he died, to find
He left no fragment of his art behind.
And as he always, for the sake of fame,
Conceal'd the sources whence his learning came,
His artless list'ners, who of books none knew
'Sides the large Bible in the parson's pew,
Thought he more things than lawful understood,
And knowledge got from helpers not too good.

When he was living she had food on shelf,
And knew no trials to support herself,
Though industry would oft from leisure steal
Odd hours to knit, or turn the spinning-wheel:
Choice is not misery; she had neighbour's fare,
Got hand to mouth, and decent clothes to wear.
Though joys fall sparing in this checqer'd life,
Wide difference parts the widow from the wife:
Encroaching want show'd not such frightful form,
Nor drove her dithering in the 'numbing storm,
Picking half naked round the brooks for bread,
To earn her penny ere she can be fed;
In grief pursuing every chance to live,
That timely toils in seasons please to give;
Through hot and cold, come weather as it will,
Striving with pain, and disappointed still;
Just keeping from expiring life's last fire,
That pining lingers ready to expire:
The winter through, near barefoot, left to pull
From bramble twigs her little mites of wool;
A hard-earn'd sixpence when her mops are spun,
By many a walk and aching finger won;
And seeking, hirpling round from time to time,
Her harmless sticks from hedges hung with rime,
The daily needings want's worst shifts require,
To hunt her fuel ere she makes her fire;
Where she, while grinning to the hissing blast,
With buds or berries often breaks her fast.
All summer, too, the little rest of care
Is every morning cheated of its share,
And ere one sunbeam glistens in the dew
The long wet pasture grass she dabbles through,
Where sprout the mushrooms in the fairy-ring,
Which night's black mystery to perfection brings;
And these she seeks, ere 'gin her early toils,
As extra gains to labour's scanty spoils:
By every means thus ling'ring life along,
Continual struggling 'gainst a stream too strong.

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