The Wail in the Native Oak

A poem by Henry Kendall

Where the lone creek, chafing nightly in the cold and sad moonshine,
Beats beneath the twisted fern-roots and the drenched and dripping vine;
Where the gum trees, ringed and ragged, from the mazy margins rise,
Staring out against the heavens with their languid gaping eyes;
There I listened there I heard it! Oh, that melancholy sound,
Wandering like a ghostly whisper, through the dreaming darkness round!
Wandering, like a fearful warning, where the withered twilight broke
Through a mass of mournful tresses, drooping down the Native Oak.

And I caught a glimpse of sunset fading from a far-off wild,
As I sat me down to fancy, like a thoughtful, wistful child
Sat me down to fancy what might mean those hollow, hopeless tones,
Sooming round the swooning silence, dying out in smothered moans!
What might mean that muffled sobbing? Did a lonely phantom wail,
Pent amongst those tangled branches barring out the moonlight pale?
Wept it for that gleam of glory wasting from the forest aisles;
For that fainting gleam of glory sad with flickering, sickly smiles?

In these woodlands I was restless! I had seen a light depart,
And an ache for something vanished filled and chilled my longing heart,
And I linked my thoughts together “All seemed still and dull to-day,
But a painful symbol groweth from the shine that pales away!
This may not be idle dreaming; if the spirit roams,” I said,
“This is surely one, a wanderer from the ages which have fled!
Who can look beyond the darkness; who can see so he may tell
Where the sunsets all have gone to; where the souls that leave us dwell?

“This might be a loving exile, full with faded thoughts returned,
Seeking for familiar faces, friends for whom he long had yearned.
Here his fathers must have sojourned here his people may have died,
Or, perchance, to distant forests all were scattered far and wide.
So he moans and so he lingers! weeping o’er the wasted wild;
Weeping o’er the desolation, like a lost, benighted child!
So he moans, and so he lingers! Hence these fitful, fretful sighs,
Deep within the oak tree solemn! Hence these weary, weary cries!

“Or who knows but that some secret lies beneath yon dismal mound?
Ha! a dreary, dreadful secret must be buried underground!
Not a ragged blade of verdure not one root of moss is there;
Who hath torn the grasses from it wherefore is that barrow bare?
Darkness shuts the forest round me. Here I stand and, O my God!
This may be some injured spirit raving round and round the sod.
Hush! the tempest, how it travels! Blood hath here been surely shed
Hush! the thunder, how it mutters! Oh, the unrequited Dead!”

Came a footfall past the water came a wild man through the gloom,
Down he stooped and faced the current, silent as the silent tomb;
Down he stooped and lapped the ripples: not a single word he spoke,
But I whispered, “He can tell me of the Secret in the Oak?
Very thoughtful seems that forehead; many legends he may know;
Many tales and old traditions linked to what is here below!
I must ask him rest I cannot though my life upon it hung
Though these wails are waxing louder, I must give my thoughts a tongue.

“Shake that silence from you, wild man! I have looked into your face,
Hoping I should learn the story there about this fearful place.
Slake your thirst, but stay and tell me: did your heart with terror beat,
When you stepped across the bare and blasted hillock at your feet?
Hearken to these croons so wretched deep within the dusk boughs pent!
Hold you not some strange tradition coupled with this strange lament?
When your tribe about their camp-fires hear that hollow, broken cry,
Do they hint of deeds mysterious, hidden in the days gone by?”

But he rose like one bewildered, shook his head and glided past;
Huddling whispers hurried after, hissing in the howling blast!
Now a sheet of lurid splendour swept athwart the mountain spire,
And a midnight squall came trumping down on zigzag paths of fire!
Through the tumult dashed a torrent flanking out in foaming streams,
Whilst the woodlands groaned and muttered like a monster vexed with dreams.
Then I swooned away in horror. Oh! that shriek which rent the air,
Like the voice of some fell demon harrowed by a mad despair.

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