Verse > Anthologies > Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. > Poems of Places > England
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed.  Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
England: Vols. I–IV.  1876–79.
The Yardley Oak
William Cowper (1731–1800)
SURVIVOR sole, and hardly such, of all
That once lived here, thy brethren, at my birth,
(Since which I number threescore winters past,)
A shattered veteran, hollow-trunked perhaps,
As now, and with excoriate forks deform,        5
Relics of ages! Could a mind, imbued
With truth from Heaven, created thing adore,
I might with reverence kneel, and worship thee.
  It seems idolatry with some excuse,
When our forefather Druids in their oaks        10
Imagined sanctity. The conscience, yet
Unpurified by an authentic act
Of amnesty, the meed of blood divine,
Loved not the light, but, gloomy, into gloom
Of thickest shades, like Adam after taste        15
Of fruit proscribed, as to a refuge, fled.
  Thou wast a bawble once; a cup and ball,
Which babes might play with; and the thievish jay
Seeking her food, with ease might have purloined
The auburn nut that held thee, swallowing down        20
Thy yet close-folded latitude of boughs
And all thine embryo vastness at a gulp.
But Fate thy growth decreed; autumnal rains
Beneath thy parent tree mellowed the soil
Designed thy cradle; and a skipping deer,        25
With pointed hoof dibbling the glebe, prepared
The soft receptacle, in which, secure,
Thy rudiments should sleep the winter through.
  So Fancy dreams. Disprove it, if ye can,
Ye reasoners broad awake, whose busy search        30
Of argument, employed too oft amiss,
Sifts half the pleasures of short life away!
  Thou fell’st mature; and in the loamy clod
Swelling with vegetative force instinct
Didst burst thine egg, as theirs the fabled Twins,        35
Now stars; two lobes, protruding, paired exact;
A leaf succeeded, and another leaf,
And, all the elements thy puny growth
Fostering propitious, thou becam’st a twig.
  Who lived, when thou wast such? O, couldst thou speak,        40
As in Dodona once thy kindred trees
Oracular, I would not curious ask
The future, best unknown, but at thy month
Inquisitive, the less ambiguous past.
  By thee I might correct, erroneous oft,        45
The clock of history, facts and events
Timing more punctual, unrecorded facts
Recovering, and misstated setting right,—
Desperate attempt, till trees shall speak again!
  Time made thee what thou wast, king of the wood;        50
And Time hath made thee what thou art, a cave
For owls to roost in. Once thy spreading boughs
O’erhung the champaign; and the numerous flocks
That grazed it stood beneath that ample cope
Uncrowded, yet safe-sheltered from the storm.        55
No flock frequents thee now. Thou hast outlived
Thy popularity, and art become
(Unless verse rescue thee awhile) a thing
Forgotten, as the foliage of thy youth.
  While thus through all the stages thou hast pushed        60
Of treeship,—first a seedling, hid in grass;
Then twig; then sapling; and, as century rolled
Slow after century, a giant bulk
Of girth enormous, with moss-cushioned root
Upheaved above the soil, and sides embossed        65
With prominent wens globose,—till at the last
The rottenness which time is charged to inflict
On other mighty ones found also thee.
*        *        *        *        *
  Thought cannot spend itself, comparing still
The great and little of thy lot, thy growth        70
From almost nullity into a state
Of matchless grandeur, and declension thence,
Slow, into such magnificent decay.
Time was, when, settling on thy leaf, a fly
Could shake thee to the root,—and time has been        75
When tempests could not. At thy firmest age
Thou hadst within thy bole solid contents,
That might have ribbed the sides and planked the deck
Of some flagged admiral; and tortuous arms,
The shipwright’s darling treasure, didst present        80
To the four-quartered winds, robust and bold,
Warped into tough knee-timber, many a load!
But the axe spared thee. In those thriftier days
Oaks fell not, hewn by thousands, to supply
The bottomless demands of contest, waged        85
For senatorial honors. Thus to Time
The task was left to whittle thee away
With his sly scythe, whose ever-nibbling edge,
Noiseless, an atom, and an atom more,
Disjoining from the rest, has, unobserved,        90
Achieved a labor which had far and wide,
By man performed, made all the forest ring.
  Embowelled now, and of thy ancient self
Possessing naught but the scooped rind, that seems
An huge throat, calling to the clouds for drink,        95
Which it would give in rivulets to thy root,
Thou temptest none, but rather much forbidd’st
The feller’s toil, which thou couldst ill requite.
Yet is thy root sincere, sound as the rock,
A quarry of stout spurs and knotted fangs,        100
Which, crooked into a thousand whimsies, clasp
The stubborn soil, and hold thee still erect.
  So stands a kingdom, whose foundation yet
Fails not, in virtue and in wisdom laid,
Though all the superstructure, by the tooth        105
Pulverized of venality, a shell
Stands now, and semblance only of itself!
  Thine arms have left thee. Winds have rent them off
Long since, and rovers of the forest wild,
With bow and shaft, have burnt them. Some have left        110
A splintered stump, bleached to a snowy white;
And some, memorial none where once they grew.
Yet life still lingers in thee, and puts forth
Proof not contemptible of what she can,
Even where death predominates. The spring        115
Finds thee not less alive to her sweet force,
Than yonder upstarts of the neighboring wood,
So much thy juniors, who their birth received
Half a millennium since the date of thine.
  But since, although well qualified by age        120
To teach, no spirit dwells in thee, nor voice
May be expected from thee, seated here
On thy distorted root, with hearers none,
Or prompter, save the scene, I will perform,
Myself the oracle, and will discourse        125
In my own ear such matter as I may.
  One man alone, the father of us all,
Drew not his life from woman; never gazed,
With mute unconsciousness of what he saw,
On all around him; learned not by degrees,        130
Nor owed articulation to his ear;
But, moulded by his Maker into man
At once, upstood intelligent, surveyed
All creatures, with precision understood
Their purport, uses, properties, assigned        135
To each his name significant, and, filled
With love and wisdom, rendered back to Heaven
In praise harmonious the first air he drew.
He was excused the penalties of dull
Minority. No tutor charged his hand        140
With the thought-tracing quill, or tasked his mind
With problems. History, not wanted yet,
Leaned on her elbow, watching Time, whose course,
Eventful, should supply her with a theme.

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