Verse > Siegfried Sassoon > The Old Huntsman and Other Poems

Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967).  The Old Huntsman and Other Poems.  1918.

1. The Old Huntsman

I’VE never ceased to curse the day I signed 
A seven years’ bargain for the Golden Fleece. 
’Twas a bad deal all round; and dear enough 
It cost me, what with my daft management, 
And the mean folk as owed and never paid me,         5
And backing losers; and the local bucks 
Egging me on with whiskys while I bragged 
The man I was when huntsman to the Squire. 
I’d have been prosperous if I’d took a farm 
Of fifty acres, drove my gig and haggled  10
At Monday markets; now I’ve squandered all 
My savings; nigh three hundred pound I got 
As testimonial when I’d grown too stiff 
And slow to press a beaten fox.

                                The Fleece!
’Twas the damned Fleece that wore my Emily out,  15
The wife of thirty years who served me well; 
(Not like this beldam clattering in the kitchen, 
That never trims a lamp nor sweeps the floor, 
And brings me greasy soup in a foul crock.) 
Blast the old harridan! What’s fetched her now,  20
Leaving me in the dark, and short of fire? 
And where’s my pipe? ’Tis lucky I’ve a turn 
For thinking, and remembering all that’s past. 
And now’s my hour, before I hobble to bed, 
To set the works a-wheezing, wind the clock  25
That keeps the time of life with feeble tick 
Behind my bleared old face that stares and wonders.
    .    .    .    .
It’s queer how, in the dark, comes back to mind 
Some morning of September. We’ve been digging 
In a steep sandy warren, riddled with holes,  30
And I’ve just pulled the terrier out and left 
A sharp-nosed cub-face blinking there and snapping, 
Then in a moment seen him mobbed and torn 
To strips in the baying hurly of the pack. 
I picture it so clear: the dusty sunshine  35
On bracken, and the men with spades, that wipe 
Red faces: one tilts up a mug of ale. 
And, having stopped to clean my gory hands, 
I whistle the jostling beauties out of the wood. 
I’m but a daft old fool! I often wish  40
The Squire were back again—ah! he was a man! 
They don’t breed men like him these days; he’d come 
For sure, and sit and talk and suck his briar 
Till the old wife brings up a dish of tea. 
Ay, those were days, when I was serving Squire!  45
I never knowed such sport as ’85, 
The winter afore the one that snowed us silly.
    .    .    .    .
Once in a way the parson will drop in 
And read a bit o’ the Bible, if I’m bad, 
And pray the Lord to make my spirit whole  50
In faith: he leaves some ’baccy on the shelf, 
And wonders I don’t keep a dog to cheer me 
Because he knows I’m mortal fond of dogs! 
I ask you, what’s a gent like that to me 
As wouldn’t know Elijah if I saw him,  55
Nor have the wit to keep him on the talk? 
’Tis kind of parson to be troubling still 
With such as me; but he’s a town-bred chap, 
Full of his college notions and Christmas hymns. 
Religion beats me. I’m amazed at folk  60
Drinking the gospels in and never scratching 
Their heads for questions. When I was a lad 
I learned a bit from mother, and never thought 
To educate myself for prayers and psalms. 
But now I’m old and bald and serious-minded,  65
With days to sit and ponder. I’d no chance 
When young and gay to get the hang of all 
This Hell and Heaven: and when the clergy hoick 
And holloa from their pulpits, I’m asleep, 
However hard I listen; and when they pray  70
It seems we’re all like children sucking sweets 
In school, and wondering whether master sees. 
I used to dream of Hell when I was first 
Promoted to a huntsman’s job, and scent 
Was rotten, and all the foxes disappeared,  75
And hounds were short of blood; and officers 
From barracks over-rode ’em all day long 
On weedy, whistling nags that knocked a hole 
In every fence; good sportsmen to a man 
And brigadiers by now, but dreadful hard  80
On a young huntsman keen to show some sport. 
Ay, Hell was thick with captains, and I rode 
The lumbering brute that’s beat in half a mile, 
And blunders into every blind old ditch. 
Hell was the coldest scenting land I’ve known,  85
And both my whips were always lost, and hounds 
Would never get their heads down; and a man 
On a great yawing chestnut trying to cast ’em 
While I was in a corner pounded by 
The ugliest hog-backed stile you’ve clapped your eyes on.  90
There was an iron-spiked fence round all the coverts, 
And civil-spoken keepers I couldn’t trust, 
And the main earth unstopp’d. The fox I found 
Was always a three-legged ’un from a bag, 
Who reeked of aniseed and wouldn’t run.  95
The farmers were all ploughing their old pasture 
And bellowing at me when I rode their beans 
To cast for beaten fox, or galloped on 
With hounds to a lucky view. I’d lost my voice 
Although I shouted fit to burst my guts, 100
And couldn’t blow my horn.

                            And when I woke,
Emily snored, and barn-cocks started crowing, 
And morn was at the window; and I was glad 
To be alive because I heard the cry 
Of hounds like church-bells chiming on a Sunday. 105
Ay, that’s the song I’d wish to hear in Heaven! 
The cry of hounds was Heaven for me: I know 
Parson would call me crazed and wrong to say it, 
But where’s the use of life and being glad 
If God’s not in your gladness?

                                I’ve no brains
For book-learned studies; but I’ve heard men say 
There’s much in print that clergy have to wink at: 
Though many I’ve met were jolly chaps, and rode 
To hounds, and walked me puppies; and could pick 
Good legs and loins and necks and shoulders, ay, 115
And feet—’twas necks and feet I looked at first. 
Some hounds I’ve known were wise as half your saints, 
And better hunters. That old dog of the Duke’s, 
Harlequin; what a dog he was to draw! 
And what a note he had, and what a nose 120
When foxes ran down wind and scent was catchy! 
And that light lemon bitch of the Squire’s, old Dorcas— 
She were a marvellous hunter, were old Dorcas! 
Ay, oft I’ve thought, ‘If there were hounds in Heaven, 
With God as master, taking no subscription; 125
And all His blessèd country farmed by tenants, 
And a straight-necked old fox in every gorse!’ 
But when I came to work it out, I found 
There’d be too many huntsmen wanting places, 
Though some I’ve known might get a job with Nick!
    .    .    .    .
I’ve come to think of God as something like 
The figure of a man the old Duke was 
When I was turning hounds to Nimrod King, 
Before his Grace was took so bad with gout 
And had to quit the saddle. Tall and spare, 135
Clean-shaved and grey, with shrewd, kind eyes, that twinkled, 
And easy walk; who, when he gave good words, 
Gave them whole-hearted; and would never blame 
Without just cause. Lord God might be like that, 
Sitting alone in a great room of books 140
Some evening after hunting.

                            Now I’m tired
With hearkening to the tick-tack on the shelf; 
And pondering makes me doubtful.

                                  Riding home
On a moonless night of cloud that feels like frost 
Though stars are hidden (hold your feet up, horse!) 145
And thinking what a task I had to draw 
A pack with all those lame ’uns, and the lot 
Wanting a rest from all this open weather; 
That’s what I’m doing now.

                            And likely, too,
The frost’ll be a long ’un, and the night 150
One sleep. The parsons say we’ll wake to find 
A country blinding-white with dazzle of snow. 
The naked stars make men feel lonely, wheeling 
And glinting on the puddles in the road. 
And then you listen to the wind, and wonder 155
If folk are quite such bucks as they appear 
When dressed by London tailors, looking down 
Their boots at covert side, and thinking big.
    .    .    .    .
This world’s a funny place to live in. Soon 
I’ll need to change my country; but I know 160
’Tis little enough I’ve understood my life, 
And a power of sights I’ve missed, and foreign marvels. 
I used to feel it, riding on spring days 
In meadows pied with sun and chasing clouds, 
And half forget how I was there to catch 165
The foxes; lose the angry, eager feeling 
A huntsman ought to have, that’s out for blood, 
And means his hounds to get it!

                                Now I know
It’s God that speaks to us when we’re bewitched, 
Smelling the hay in June and smiling quiet; 170
Or when there’s been a spell of summer drought, 
Lying awake and listening to the rain.
    .    .    .    .
I’d like to be the simpleton I was 
In the old days when I was whipping-in 
To a little harrier-pack in Worcestershire, 175
And loved a dairymaid, but never knew it 
Until she’d wed another. So I’ve loved 
My life; and when the good years are gone down, 
Discover what I’ve lost.

                          I never broke
Out of my blundering self into the world, 180
But let it all go past me, like a man 
Half asleep in a land that’s full of wars. 
What a grand thing ’twould be if I could go 
Back to the kennels now and take my hounds 
For summer exercise; be riding out 185
With forty couple when the quiet skies 
Are streaked with sunrise, and the silly birds 
Grown hoarse with singing; cobwebs on the furze 
Up on the hill, and all the country strange, 
With no one stirring; and the horses fresh, 190
Sniffing the air I’ll never breathe again.
    .    .    .    .
You’ve brought the lamp, then, Martha? I’ve no mind 
For newspaper to-night, nor bread and cheese. 
Give me the candle, and I’ll get to bed. 



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