The Countess - To E. W.

A poem by John Greenleaf Whittier

I know not, Time and Space so intervene,
Whether, still waiting with a trust serene,
Thou bearest up thy fourscore years and ten,
Or, called at last, art now Heaven’s citizen;
But, here or there, a pleasant thought of thee,
Like an old friend, all day has been with me.
The shy, still boy, for whom thy kindly hand
Smoothed his hard pathway to the wonder-land
Of thought and fancy, in gray manhood yet
Keeps green the memory of his early debt.
To-day, when truth and falsehood speak their words
Through hot-lipped cannon and the teeth of swords,
Listening with quickened heart and ear intent
To each sharp clause of that stern argument,
I still can hear at times a softer note
Of the old pastoral music round me float,
While through the hot gleam of our civil strife
Looms the green mirage of a simpler life.
As, at his alien post, the sentinel
Drops the old bucket in the homestead well,
And hears old voices in the winds that toss
Above his head the live-oak’s beard of moss,
So, in our trial-time, and under skies
Shadowed by swords like Islam’s paradise,
I wait and watch, and let my fancy stray
To milder scenes and youth’s Arcadian day;
And howsoe’er the pencil dipped in dreams
Shades the brown woods or tints the sunset streams,
The country doctor in the foreground seems,
Whose ancient sulky down the village lanes
Dragged, like a war-car, captive ills and pains.
I could not paint the scenery of my song,
Mindless of one who looked thereon so long;
Who, night and day, on duty’s lonely round,
Made friends o’ the woods and rocks, and knew the sound
Of each small brook, and what the hillside trees
Said to the winds that touched their leafy keys;
Who saw so keenly and so well could paint
The village-folk, with all their humors quaint,
The parson ambling on his wall-eyed roan.
Grave and erect, with white hair backward blown;
The tough old boatman, half amphibious grown;
The muttering witch-wife of the gossip’s tale,
And the loud straggler levying his blackmail,
Old customs, habits, superstitions, fears,
All that lies buried under fifty years.
To thee, as is most fit, I bring my lay,
And, grateful, own the debt I cannot pay.
. . . . .
Over the wooded northern ridge,
Between its houses brown,
To the dark tunnel of the bridge
The street comes straggling down.

You catch a glimpse, through birch and pine,
Of gable, roof, and porch,
The tavern with its swinging sign,
The sharp horn of the church.

The river’s steel-blue crescent curves
To meet, in ebb and flow,
The single broken wharf that serves
For sloop and gundelow.

With salt sea-scents along its shores
The heavy hay-boats crawl,
The long antennae of their oars
In lazy rise and fall.

Along the gray abutment’s wall
The idle shad-net dries;
The toll-man in his cobbler’s stall
Sits smoking with closed eyes.

You hear the pier’s low undertone
Of waves that chafe and gnaw;
You start, a skipper’s horn is blown
To raise the creaking draw.

At times a blacksmith’s anvil sounds
With slow and sluggard beat,
Or stage-coach on its dusty rounds
Wakes up the staring street.

A place for idle eyes and ears,
A cobwebbed nook of dreams;
Left by the stream whose waves are years
The stranded village seems.

And there, like other moss and rust,
The native dweller clings,
And keeps, in uninquiring trust,
The old, dull round of things.

The fisher drops his patient lines,
The farmer sows his grain,
Content to hear the murmuring pines
Instead of railroad-train.

Go where, along the tangled steep
That slopes against the west,
The hamlet’s buried idlers sleep
In still profounder rest.

Throw back the locust’s flowery plume,
The birch’s pale-green scarf,
And break the web of brier and bloom
From name and epitaph.

A simple muster-roll of death,
Of pomp and romance shorn,
The dry, old names that common breath
Has cheapened and outworn.

Yet pause by one low mound, and part
The wild vines o’er it laced,
And read the words by rustic art
Upon its headstone traced.

Haply yon white-haired villager
Of fourscore years can say
What means the noble name of her
Who sleeps with common clay.

An exile from the Gascon land
Found refuge here and rest,
And loved, of all the village band,
Its fairest and its best.

He knelt with her on Sabbath morns,
He worshipped through her eyes,
And on the pride that doubts and scorns
Stole in her faith’s surprise.

Her simple daily life he saw
By homeliest duties tried,
In all things by an untaught law
Of fitness justified.

For her his rank aside he laid;
He took the hue and tone
Of lowly life and toil, and made
Her simple ways his own.

Yet still, in gay and careless ease,
To harvest-field or dance
He brought the gentle courtesies,
The nameless grace of France.

And she who taught him love not less
From him she loved in turn
Caught in her sweet unconsciousness
What love is quick to learn.

Each grew to each in pleased accord,
Nor knew the gazing town
If she looked upward to her lord
Or he to her looked down.

How sweet, when summer’s day was o’er,
His violin’s mirth and wail,
The walk on pleasant Newbury’s shore,
The river’s moonlit sail!

Ah! life is brief, though love be long;
The altar and the bier,
The burial hymn and bridal song,
Were both in one short year!

Her rest is quiet on the hill,
Beneath the locust’s bloom:
Far off her lover sleeps as still
Within his scutcheoned tomb.

The Gascon lord, the village maid,
In death still clasp their hands;
The love that levels rank and grade
Unites their severed lands.

What matter whose the hillside grave,
Or whose the blazoned stone?
Forever to her western wave
Shall whisper blue Garonne!

O Love! so hallowing every soil
That gives thy sweet flower room,
Wherever, nursed by ease or toil,
The human heart takes bloom!

Plant of lost Eden, from the sod
Of sinful earth unriven,
White blossom of the trees of God
Dropped down to us from heaven!

This tangled waste of mound and stone
Is holy for thy sake;
A sweetness which is all thy own
Breathes out from fern and brake.

And while ancestral pride shall twine
The Gascon’s tomb with flowers,
Fall sweetly here, O song of mine,
With summer’s bloom and showers!

And let the lines that severed seem
Unite again in thee,
As western wave and Gallic stream
Are mingled in one sea!

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