The Birds And St. Valentine

A poem by John Clare

Sorrow came with downcast eyes,
And stole the lyre of love away.

[From ACKERMANN'S "Juvenile Forget-me-not"]

Some two or three weeks before Valentine's day,
Sir Winter grew kind, and, minded to play,
Shook hands with Miss Flora, and woo'd her to spare
A few pretty snowdrops to stick in his hair,
Intending for truth, as he said, to resign
His throne to Miss Spring and her priest Valentine;
Which trifle he asked for before he set forth,
To remind him of all when he got in the North;
And this is the reason that snowdrops appear
'Mid the cold of the Winter, so soon in the year.

Flora complied, and, the instant she heard,
Flew away with the news to each bachelor bird,
Who in raptures half moved on Love's errand to start,
Their songs muttered over to get them by heart:
Nay, the Mavis at once sung aloud in his glee,
And looked for a spot where love's dwelling should be;
And ever since then, both in garden and grove,
The Mavis tunes first a short ditty to love,
While all the young gentlemen birds that were near
Fell to trimming their jackets anew for the year:
One and all they determined to seek for a mate,
And thought it a folly for seasons to wait,
So even agreed, before Valentine's day,
To join hearts in love; but the ladies said, Nay!
Yet each one consented at once to resign
Her heart unto Hymen on St. Valentine;
While Winter, who only pretended to go,
Lapt himself out of sight in some hillocks of snow,
That behind all the rest 'neath the wood hedges lay
So close that the sun could not drive them away:
Yet the gentlemen birds on their love errands flew,
Thinking all Flora told them was nothing but true,
Till out Winter came, and his frowns in a trice
Turned the lady birds' hearts all as hardened as ice.

In vain might the gentles in love sue and plead--
They heard, but not once did they notice or heed:
From Winter they crept, who, in tyranny proud,
Yoked his horses of storms to his coach of a cloud;
For on Valentine's morn he was raving so high,
Lady Spring for the life of her durst not come nigh;
While Flora's gay feet were so numbed with the snow
That she could not put on her best slippers to go.

Then the Spring she fell ill, and, her health to regain,
On a sunbeam rode back to her South once again;
And, as both were the bridesmaids, their teasing delay
Made the lady birds put off their weddings till May.
Some sighed their excuses, and feared to catch cold;
And the Redcap, in mantle all bordered with gold,
Sore feared that the weather would spoil her fine clothes,
And nought but complaints through the forest arose.

So St. Valentine came on his journey alone
In the coach of the Morn, for he'd none of his own,
And put on his cassock and band, and went in
To the temple of Hymen, the rites to begin,
Where the Mavis Thrush waited along with his bride,
Nor in the whole place was a lady beside.
The gentlemen they came alone to the saint,
And instead of being married, each made a complaint
Of Sir Winter, whose folly had caused the delay,
And forced Love to put off the wedding till May;
So the priest shook his head, and unrobed to be gone,
As he had no day for his leisure but one.

And when the May came with Miss Flora and Spring,
They had nought but old cares and new sorrows to sing;
For some of the lady birds ceased to be kind
To their old loves, and changed for new-comers their mind;
And some had resolved to keep single that year,
Until St. Valentine with the next should appear.

The birds sung their sorrows the whole Summer long,
And the Robin first mixed up his ills with his song:
He sung of his griefs--how in love he'd been crossed,
And gave up his heart as eternally lost;
'T was burnt to a coal, as sly Cupid let fall
A spark that scorched through both the feathers and all.
To cure it Time tried, but ne'er found out the way,
So the mark on his bosom he wears to this day:
And when birds are all silent, and not a leaf seen
On the trees, but the ivy and holly so green,
In frost and in snow little Robin will sing,
To put off the sorrow that ruffles his wing.
And that is the cause in our gardens we hear
The Robin's sweet note at the close of the year.

The Wagtail, too, mourned in his doublet of grey,
As if powdered with rime on a dull winter's day;
He twittered of love--how he courted a fair,
Who altered her mind, and so made him despair.
In a stone-pit he chose her a place for a nest,
But she, like a wanton, but made it a jest.
Though he dabbled in brooks to convince her how kind
He would feed her with worms which he laboured to find,
Till he e'en got the ague, still nought could prevail,
So ever since then he's been wagging his tail.

In the whitethorn the Linnet bides lonely to sing
How his lady-love shunned his embraces in Spring,
Though he found out a bush that the sun had half drest
With leaves quite sufficient to shelter their nest;
And yet she forsook him, no more to be seen,
So that is the reason he dresses in green.

Then aloud in his grief sings the gay speckled Thrush,
That changes his music on every bush--
"My love she has left me to sorrow and mourn,
Yet I hope in my heart she'll repent and return;"
So he tries at all notes her approval to meet,
And that is the reason he singeth so sweet.

And as sweet sang the Bullfinch, although he confest
That the anguish he felt was more deep than the rest,
And they all marvelled much how he'd spirits to sing,
When to show them his anguish he held up his wing;
From his throat to his tail not a feather was found
But what had been stained red with blood from the wound.

And sad chirped the Sparrow of joys fled and gone,
Of his love being lost he so doted upon;
So he vowed constant silence for that very thing,
And this is the reason why Sparrows don't sing.

Then next came the Rook and the sorrowful Crow,
To tell birds the cause why in mourning they go,
Ever since their old loves their embraces forsook;
And all seemed to pity the Crow and the Rook.

The Jay he affected to hide his despair,
And rather than mourn he had spirits to wear
A coat of all colours, but in it some blue
Denoted his passion; though crossed, 't was true;
So now in lone woods he will hide him all day,
And aloud he scolds all that intrude in his way.

The Magpie declared it should never be said
That he mourned for a lover, though fifty had fled;
Yet his heart all the while was so burnt and distrest,
That it turned all the feathers coal-black on his breast.
The birds they all marvelled, but still he denied,
And wore a black cap his deep blushes to hide;
So that is the reason himself and his kin
Wear hoods with the lappets quite under the chin.

Then last came the Owl, grieving loud as he flew,
Saying how his false lover had bade him adieu;
And though he knew not where to find her or follow,
Yet round their old haunts he would still whoop and halloo,
For no sleep could he get in his sorrowful plight.
So that is the reason Owls halloo at night.

And here ends the song of each woe-stricken bird.
Now was a more pitiful story e'er heard?
The rest were all coupled, and happy, and they
Sung the old merry songs which they sing at this day:
And good little boys, when this tale they read o'er,
Will ne'er have the heart to hurt birds any more,
And add to the griefs they already have sung
By robbing their nests of their eggs and their young;
But feel for their sufferings, and pity their pain,
Nor give them new cause of their lot to complain.

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