The Needless Alarm. A Tale.

A poem by William Cowper

There is a field, through which I often pass,
Thick overspread with moss and silky grass,
Adjoining close to Kilwick’s echoing wood,
Where oft the bitch-fox hides her hapless brood,
Reserved to solace many a neighbouring squire,
That he may follow them through brake and brier,
Contusion hazarding of neck, or spine,
Which rural gentlemen call sport divine.
A narrow brook, by rushy banks conceal’d,
Runs in a bottom, and divides the field;
Oaks intersperse it, that had once a head,
But now wear crests of oven-wood instead;
And where the land slopes to its watery bourn
Wide yawns a gulf beside a ragged thorn;
Bricks line the sides, but shiver’d long ago,
And horrid brambles intertwine below;
A hollow scoop’d, I judge, in ancient time,
For baking earth, or burning rock to lime.
Not yet the hawthorn bore her berries red,
With which the fieldfare, wintry guest, if fed;
Nor Autumn yet had brush’d from every spray,
With her chill hand, the mellow leaves away;
But corn was housed, and beans were in the stack,
Now therefore issued forth the spotted pack,
With tails high mounted, ears hung low, and throats
With a whole gamut fill’d of heavenly notes,
For which, alas! my destiny severe,
Though ears she gave me two, gave me no ear.
The sun, accomplishing his early march,
His lamp now planted on heaven’s topmost arch,
When exercise and air my only aim,
And heedless whither, to that field I came,
Ere yet with ruthless joy the happy hound
Told hill and dale that Reynard’s track was found,
Or with the high-raised horn’s melodious clang
All Kilwick and all Dinglederry[1] rang.
Sheep grazed the field; some with soft bosom press’d
The herb as soft, while nibbling stray’d the rest;
Nor noise was heard but of the hasty brook,
Struggling, detain’d in many a petty nook.
All seem’d so peaceful, that, from them convey’d,
To me their peace by kind contagion spread.
But when the huntsman, with distended cheek,
‘Gan make his instrument of music speak,
And from within the wood that crash was heard,
Though not a hound from whom it burst appear’d,
The sheep recumbent and the sheep that grazed,
All huddling into phalanx, stood and gazed,
Admiring, terrified, the novel strain,
Then coursed the field around, and coursed it round again;
But recollecting, with a sudden thought,
That flight in circles urged advanced them nought,
They gather’d close around the old pit’s brink,
And thought again—but knew not what to think.
The man to solitude accustom’d long,
Perceives in every thing that lives a tongue;
Not animals alone, but shrubs and trees
Have speech for him, and understood with ease;
After long drought, when rains abundant fall,
He hears the herbs and flowers rejoicing all;
Knows what the freshness of their hue implies,
How glad they catch the largess of the skies;
But, with precision nicer still, the mind
He scans of every locomotive kind;
Birds of all feather, beasts of every name;
That serve mankind, or shun them, wild or tame;
The looks and gestures of their griefs and fears
Have all articulation in his ears;
He spells them true by intuition’s light,
And needs no glossary to set him right.
This truth premised was needful as a text,
To win due credence to what follows next.
Awhile they mused; surveying every face,
Thou hadst supposed them of superior race;
Their periwigs of wool and fears combined,
Stamp’d on each countenance such marks of mind,
That sage they seem’d, as lawyers o’er a doubt,
Which, puzzling long, at last they puzzle out;
Or academic tutors, teaching youths,
Sure ne’er to want them, mathematic truths;
When thus a mutton statelier than the rest,
A ram, the ewes and wethers sad address’d.
Friends! we have lived too long. I never heard
Sounds such as these, so worthy to be fear’d.
Could I believe, that winds for ages pent
In earth’s dark womb have found at last a vent,
And from their prison-house below arise,
With all these hideous howlings to the skies,

I could be much composed, nor should appear,
For such a cause to feel the slightest fear.
Yourselves have seen, what time the thunders roll’d
All night, me resting quiet in the fold.
Or heard we that tremendous bray alone,
I could expound the melancholy tone;
Should deem it by our old companion made,
The ass; for he, we know, has lately stray’d,
And, being lost, perhaps, and wandering wide,
Might be supposed to clamour for a guide.
But ah! those dreadful yells what soul can hear,
That owns a carcass, and not quake for fear?
Demons produce them doubtless, brazen-claw’d
And fang’d with brass the demons are abroad;
I hold it therefore wisest and most fit
That, life to save, we leap into the pit.
Him answer’d then his loving mate and true,
But more discreet than he, a Cambrian ewe.
How! leap into the pit our life to save?
To save our life leap all into the grave?
For can we find it less? Contemplate first
The depth how awful! falling there, we burst:
Or should the brambles, interposed, our fall
In part abate, that happiness were small;
For with a race like theirs no chance I see
Of peace or ease to creatures clad as we.
Meantime, noise kills not. Be it Dapple’s bray,
Or be it not, or be it whose it may,
And rush those other sounds, that seem by tongues
Of demons utter’d, from whatever lungs,
Sounds are but sounds, and, till the cause appear,
We have at least commodious standing here.
Come fiend, come fury, giant, monster, blast
From earth or hell, we can but plunge at last.
While thus she spake, I fainter heard the peals,
For Reynard, close attended at his heels
By panting dog, tired man, and spatter’d horse,
Through mere good fortune, took a different course.
The flock grew calm again, and I, the road
Following, that led me to my own abode,
Much wonder’d that the silly sheep had found
Such cause of terror in an empty sound,
So sweet to huntsman, gentleman, and hound.
moral.
Beware of desperate steps. The darkest day,
Live till to-morrow, will have pass’d away.

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