Shepherd's Calendar, The - January

Withering and keen the Winter comes,
While Comfort flies to close-shut rooms,
And sees the snow in feathers pass
Winnowing by the window-glass;
Whilst unfelt tempests howl and beat
Above his head in chimney-seat.
Now, musing o'er the changing scene,
Farmers behind the tavern-screen
Collect; — with elbow idly press'd
On hob, reclines the corner's guest,
Reading the news, to mark again
The bankrupt lists, or price of grain;
Or old Moore's annual prophecies
Of flooded fields and clouded skies;
Whose Almanac's thumb'd pages swarm
With frost and snow, and many a storm,
And wisdom, gossip'd from the stars,
Of politics and bloody wars.
He shakes his head, and still proceeds,
Nor doubts the truth of what he reads:
All wonders are with faith supplied, —
Bible, at once, or weather-guide.
Puffing the while his red-tipt pipe,
He dreams o'er troubles nearly ripe;
Yet, not quite lost in profit's way,
He'll turn to next year's harvest-day,
And, Winter's leisure to regale,
Hope better times, and — sip his ale.

The schoolboy still, with dithering joys,
In pastime leisure hours employs,
And, be the weather as it may,
Is never at a loss for play:

Making rude forms of various names,
Snow-men, or aught his fancy frames;
Till, numb'd and shivering, he resorts
To brisker games and warmer sports —
Kicking, with many a flying bound,
The football o'er the frozen ground;
Or seeking bright glib ice, to play
And slide the wintry hours away,
As quick and smooth as shadows run,
When clouds in autumn pass the sun.
Some, hurrying rambles eager take
To skait upon the meadow lake,
Scaring the snipe from her retreat,
From shelving banks in frozen seat;
Or running brook, where icy spars,
Which the pale sun-light specks with stars,
Shoot crizzling o'er the restless tide,
To many a likeness petrified.

The moor-hen, too, with fear opprest,
Starts from her reedy shelter'd rest,

As skaiting by, with curving springs,
And arms outspread like heron's wings,
They race away, for pleasure's sake,
With hunter's speed along the lake.

Blackening through the evening sky,
In clouds the starlings daily fly
To Whittlesea's reed-wooded mere,
And osier holts by rivers near;
Whilst many a mingled swarthy crowd, —
Rook, crow, and jackdaw, — noising loud,
Fly to and fro to dreary fen,
Dull Winter's weary flight again;
They flop on heavy wings away
As soon as morning wakens grey,
And, when the sun sets round and red,
Return to naked woods to bed.

The sun is creeping out of sight
Behind the woods — whilst running Night
Hastens to shut the Day's dull eye,
And grizzle o'er the chilly sky.

Now maidens, fresh as summer roses,
Journeying from the distant closes,
Haste home with yokes and swinging pail:
The thresher, too, sets by his flail,
And leaves the mice at peace again
To fill their holes with stolen grain;
Whilst owlets, glad his toils are o'er,
Swoop by him as he shuts the door.
Bearing his hook beneath his arm,
The shepherd seeks the cottage warm;
And, weary in the cold to roam,
Scenting the track that leads him home,
His dog goes swifter o'er the mead,
Barking to urge his master's speed;
Then turns, and looks him in the face,
And trots before with mending pace,
Till, out of whistle from the swain,
He sits him down and barks again,
Anxious to greet the open'd door,
And meet the cottage-fire once more.

1827

The shutter closed, the lamp alight,
The faggot chopt and blazing bright —
The shepherd now, from labour free,
Dances his children on his knee;

While, underneath his master's seat,
The tired dog lies in slumbers sweet,
Starting and whimpering in his sleep,
Chasing still the straying sheep.
The cat's roll'd round in vacant chair,
Or leaping children's knees to lair —
Or purring on the warmer hearth,
Sweet chorus to the cricket's mirth. —
The redcap, hanging over head,
In cage of wire is perch'd a-bed;
Slumbering in his painted feathers,
Unconscious of the out-door weathers:
Ev'n things without the cottage walls
Meet comfort as the evening falls, —
As happy in the Winter's dearth
As those around the blazing hearth. —
The ass, (frost-driven from the moor,
Where storms through naked bushes roar,
And not a leaf or sprig of green,
On ground or quaking bush, is seen,
Save grey-vein'd ivy's hardy pride,
Round old trees by the common side)
Litter'd with straw, now dozes warm,
Beneath his shed, from snow and storm:
The swine are fed and in the stye;
And fowls snug perch'd in hovel nigh,
With head in feathers safe asleep,
Where foxes cannot hope to creep;
And geese are gabbling in their dreams
Of litter'd corn and thawing streams. —
The sparrow, too, a daily guest,
Is in the cottage eaves at rest:
And robin small, and smaller wren,
Are in their warm holes safe again
From falling snows, that winnow by
The hovels where they nightly lie,
And ague winds, that shake the tree
Where other birds are forc'd to be. —
The housewife, busy night and day,
Clears the supper-things away;
The jumping cat starts from her seat;
And stretching up on weary feet
The dog wakes at the welcome tones
That call him up to pick the bones.
On corner walls, a glittering row,
Hang fire-irons — less for use than show;

With horse-shoe brighten'd, as a spell,
Witchcraft's evil powers to quell;
And warming-pan, reflecting bright
The crackling blazes' flickering light,
That hangs the corner wall to grace,
Nor oft is taken from its place:

There in its mirror, bright as gold,
The children peep, and straight behold
Their laughing faces, whilst they pass,
Gleam on the lid as plain as glass. —
Supper removed, the mother sits,
And tells her tales by starts and fits.
Not willing to lose time or toil,
She knits or sews, and talks the while
Something, that may be warnings found
To the young listeners gaping round —
Of boys who in her early day
Stroll'd to the meadow-lake to play,

Where willows, o'er the bank inclined,
Shelter'd the water from the wind,
And left it scarcely crizzled o'er —
When one sank in, to rise no more!
And how, upon a market-night,
When not a star bestow'd its light,
A farmer's shepherd, o'er his glass,
Forgot that he had woods to pass:
And having sold his master's sheep,
Was overta'en by darkness deep.
How, coming with his startled horse,
To where two roads a hollow cross;
Where, lone guide when a stranger strays,
A white post points four different ways,
Beside the woodride's lonely gate
A murdering robber lay in wait.
The frighten'd horse, with broken rein
Stood at the stable-door again;
But none came home to fill his rack,
Or take the saddle from his back:
The saddle — it was all he bore —
The man was seen alive no more! —
In her young days, beside the wood,
The gibbet in its terror stood:
Though now decay'd, 'tis not forgot,
But dreaded as a haunted spot. —
She from her memory oft repeats
Witches' dread powers and fairy feats:
How one has oft been known to prance
In cowcribs, like a coach, to France,
And ride on sheep-trays from the fold
A race-horse speed to Burton-hold;
To join the midnight mystery's rout,
Where witches meet the yews about:
And how, when met with unawares,
They turn at once to cats or hares,
And race along with hellish flight,
Now here, now there, now out of sight! —
And how the other tiny things
Will leave their moonlight meadow-rings,
And, unperceiv'd, through key-holes creep,
When all around have sunk to sleep,

To feast on what the cotter leaves, —
Mice are not reckon'd greater thieves.
They take away, as well as eat,
And still the housewife's eye they cheat,

In spite of all the folks that swarm
In cottage small and larger farm;
They through each key-hole pop and pop,
Like wasps into a grocer's shop,
With all the things that they can win
From chance to put their plunder in; —
As shells of walnuts, split in two
By crows, who with the kernels flew;
Or acorn-cups, by stock-doves pluck'd,
Or egg-shells by a cuckoo suck'd;

With broad leaves of the sycamore
They clothe their stolen dainties o'er:
And when in cellar they regale,
Bring hazel-nuts to hold their ale;
With bung-holes bor'd by squirrels well,
To get the kernel from the shell;
Or maggots a way out to win,
When all is gone that grew within:
And be the key-holes e'er so high,
Rush poles a ladder's help supply,
Where soft the climbers fearless tread,
On spindles made of spiders' thread.
And foul, or fair, or dark the night,
Their wild-fire lamps are burning bright:
For which full many a daring crime
Is acted in the summer time; —
When glow-worm found in lanes remote
Is murder'd for its shining coat,
And put in flowers, that Nature weaves
With hollow shapes and silken leaves,
Such as the Canterbury bell,
Serving for lamp or lantern well;
Or, following with unwearied watch
The flight of one they cannot match,
As silence sliveth upon sleep,
Or thieves by dozing watch-dogs creep,
They steal from Jack-a-Lantern's tails
A light, whose guidance never fails
To aid them in the darkest night
And guide their plundering steps aright.
Rattling away in printless tracks,
Some, housed on beetles' glossy backs,
Go whisking on — and others hie
As fast as loaded moths can fly:
Some urge, the morning cock to shun,
The hardest gallop mice can run,
In chariots, lolling at their ease,
Made of whate'er their fancies please; —
Things that in childhood's memory dwell —
Scoop'd crow-pot-stone, or cockle-shell,
With wheels at hand of mallow seeds,
Where childish sport was stringing beads;
And thus equipp'd, they softly pass
Like shadows on the summer-grass,
And glide away in troops together
Just as the Spring-wind drives a feather.

As light as happy dreams they creep,
Nor break the feeblest link of sleep:
A midge, if in their road a-bed,
Feels not the wheels run o'er his head,
But sleeps till sunrise calls him up,
Unconscious of the passing troop. —
Thus dame the winter-night regales
With wonder's never-ceasing tales;
While in a corner, ill at ease,
Or crushing 'tween their father's knees,
The children — silent all the while —
And e'en repressed the laugh or smile —
Quake with the ague chills of fear,
And tremble though they love to hear;
Starting, while they the tales recall,
At their own shadows on the wall:
Till the old clock, that strikes unseen
Behind the picture-pasted screen
Where Eve and Adam still agree
To rob Life's fatal apple-tree,
Counts over bed-time's hour of rest,
And bids each be Sleep's fearful guest.
She then her half-told tales will leave
To finish on to-morrow's eve. —
The children steal away to-bed,
And up the ladder softly tread;
Scarce daring — from their fearful joys —
To look behind or make a noise;
Nor speak a word! but still as sleep
They secret to their pillows creep,
And whisper o'er, in terror's way,
The prayers they dare no louder say;
Then hide their heads behind the clothes,
And try in vain to seek repose:
While yet, to fancy's sleepless eye,
Witches on sheep-trays gallop by,
And fairies, like a rising spark,
Swarm twittering round them in the dark;
Till sleep creeps nigh to ease their cares,
And drops upon them unawares.
Oh! spirit of the days gone by —
Sweet childhood's fearful ecstasy!
The witching spells of winter nights,
Where are they fled with their delights?
When list'ning on the corner seat,
The winter evening's length to cheat,
I heard my mother's memory tell
Tales Superstition loves so well: —
Things said or sung a thousand times,
In simple prose or simpler rhymes!
Ah! where is page of poesy
So sweet as this was wont to be?
The magic wonders that deceived,
When fictions were as truths believed;
The fairy feats that once prevail'd,
Told to delight, and never fail'd:
Where are they now, their fears and sighs,
And tears from founts of happy eyes?

I read in books, but find them not,
For Poesy hath its youth forgot:
I hear them told to children still,
But fear numbs not my spirits chill:
I still see faces pale with dread,
While mine could laugh at what is said;
See tears imagined woes supply,
While mine with real cares are dry.
Where are they gone? — the joys and fears,
The links, the life of other years?
I thought they twined around my heart
So close, that we could never part;
But Reason, like a winter's day,
Nipp'd childhood's visions all away,
Nor left behind one withering flower
To cherish in a lonely hour.
Memory may yet the themes repeat,
But Childhood's heart hath ceased to beat
At tales, which Reason's sterner lore
Turns like weak gossips from her door:
The Magic Fountain, where the head
Rose up, just as the startled maid
Was stooping from the weedy brink
To dip her pitcher in to drink,
That did its half-hid mystery tell
To smooth its hair, and use it well;
Which, doing as it bade her do,
Turn'd to a king and lover too.
The tale of Cinderella, told
The winter through, and never old:

The pumpkin that, at her approach,
Was turn'd into a golden coach;
The rats that fairies' magic knew,
And instantly to horses grew;
The coachmen ready at her call,
To drive her to the Prince's ball,
With fur-changed jackets silver lined,
And tails hung 'neath their hats behind;

The golden glove, with fingers small,
She lost while dancing in the hall,
That was on every finger tried,
And fitted hers, and none beside,
When Cinderella, soon as seen,
Was woo'd and won, and made a Queen.
The Boy that did the Giant slay,
And gave his mother's cows away
For magic mask, that day or night,
When on, would keep him out of sight.
The running bean, — not such as weaves
Round poles the height of cottage eaves,
But magic one, — that travell'd high
Some steeple's journey up the sky,
And reach'd a giant's dwelling there,
A cloud-built castle in the air:
Where, venturing up the fearful height,
That served him climbing half the night,
He search'd the giant's coffers o'er,
And never wanted riches more;
While, like a lion scenting food,
The giant roar'd, in hungry mood,
A storm of threats that might suffice
To freeze the hottest blood to ice.

I hear it now, nor dream of woes;
The storm is settled to repose.
Those fears are dead! — What will not die
In fading Life's mortality?
Those truths have fled, and left behind
A real world and doubting mind.
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