Nonfiction > Verse > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works > Poems
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. IX. Poems
II. May-Day and Other Pieces
The Titmouse
YOU 1 shall not be overbold
When you deal with arctic cold,
As late I found my lukewarm blood
Chilled wading in the snow-choked wood.
How should I fight? my foeman fine        5
Has million arms to one of mine:
East, west, for aid I looked in vain,
East, west, north, south, are his domain.
Miles off, three dangerous miles, is home;
Must borrow his winds who there would come.        10
Up and away for life! be fleet!—
The frost-king ties my fumbling feet,
Sings in my ears, my hands are stones,
Curdles the blood to the marble bones,
Tugs at the heart-strings, numbs the sense,        15
And hems in life with narrowing fence.
Well, in this broad bed lie and sleep,—
The punctual stars will vigil keep,—
Embalmed by purifying cold;
The winds shall sing their dead-march old,        20
The snow is no ignoble shroud,
The moon thy mourner, and the cloud.
  Softly,—but this way fate was pointing,
’T was coming fast to such anointing,
When piped a tiny voice hard by,        25
Gay and polite, a cheerful cry,
Chic-chic-a-dee-dee! saucy note
Out of sound heart and merry throat,
As if it said, ‘Good day, good sir!
Fine afternoon, old passenger!        30
Happy to meet you in these places,
Where January brings few faces.’
  This poet, though he live apart,
Moved by his hospitable heart,
Sped, when I passed his sylvan fort,        35
To do the honors of his court,
As fits a feathered lord of land;
Flew near, with soft wing grazed my hand,
Hopped on the bough, then, darting low,
Prints his small impress on the snow,        40
Shows feats of his gymnastic play,
Head downward, clinging to the spray.
  Here was this atom in full breath,
Hurling defiance at vast death;
This scrap of valor just for play        45
Fronts the north-wind in waistcoat gray,
As if to shame my weak behavior;
I greeted loud my little savior,
‘You pet! what dost here? and what for?
In these woods, thy small Labrador,        50
At this pinch, wee San Salvador!
What fire burns in that little chest
So frolic, stout and self-possest?
Henceforth I wear no stripe but thine;
Ashes and jet all hues outshine.        55
Why are not diamonds black and gray,
To ape thy dare-devil array?
And I affirm, the spacious North
Exists to draw thy virtue forth.
I think no virtue goes with size;        60
The reason of all cowardice
Is, that men are overgrown,
And, to be valiant, must come down
To the titmouse dimension.’
  ’T is good will makes intelligence,        65
And I began to catch the sense
Of my bird’s song: ‘Live out of doors
In the great woods, on prairie floors.
I dine in the sun; when he sinks in the sea,
I too have a hole in a hollow tree;        70
And I like less when Summer beats
With stifling beams on these retreats,
Than noontide twilights which snow makes
With tempest of the blinding flakes.
For well the soul, if stout within,        75
Can arm impregnably the skin;
And polar frost my frame defied,
Made of the air that blows outside.’
  With glad remembrance of my debt,
I homeward turn; farewell, my pet!        80
When here again thy pilgrim comes,
He shall bring store of seeds and crumbs.
Doubt not, so long as earth has bread,
Thou first and foremost shalt be fed;
The Providence that is most large        85
Takes hearts like thine in special charge,
Helps who for their own need are strong,
And the sky doats on cheerful song.
Henceforth I prize thy wiry chant
O’er all that mass and minster vaunt;        90
For men mis-hear thy call in Spring,
As ’t would accost some frivolous wing,
Crying out of the hazel copse, Phe-be!
And, in winter, Chic-a-dee-dee!
I think old Cæsar must have heard        95
In northern Gaul my dauntless bird,
And, echoed in some frosty wold,
Borrowed thy battle-numbers bold.
And I will write our annals new,
And thank thee for a better clew,        100
I, who dreamed not when I came here
To find the antidote of fear,
Now hear thee say in Roman key,
Pæan! Veni, vidi, vici.
Note 1. The chronicle of the poet’s adventure with the titmouse was written in verse while it was still fresh in his mind.
  The poem appeared in the Atlantic Monthly for May, 1862, and here is the story in the journal:—
  March 3, 1862. “The snow still lies even with the tops of the walls across the Walden road, and, this afternoon, I waded through the woods to my grove. A chickadee came out to greet me, flew about within reach of my hands, perched on the nearest bough, flew down into the snow, rested there two seconds, then up again just over my head, and busied himself on the dead bark. I whistled to him through my teeth, and (I think, in response) he began at once to whistle. I promised him crumbs, and must not go again to these woods without them. I suppose the best food to carry would be the meat of shagbarks or Castile nuts. Thoreau tells me that they are very sociable with wood-choppers, and will take crumbs from their hands.”
  On the dangers of the situation, if such there were, Mr. Emerson is silent in the journal, as would be natural with him, and perhaps for Art’s sake he magnifies them in the poem, but it is to be remembered how like a lion March often comes in in Massachusetts, that the snow was deep, the woods really remote and the walker approaching his sixtieth year. The American reader will hardly find the poem so obscure as did Matthew Arnold, who said that, after all, one does n’t quite get at what the titmouse really did for Emerson.
  The titmouse was an old friend. Here is a passage from the journal of 1856:—
  “The horse taught me something, the titmouse whispered a secret in my ear, and the lespedeza looked at me, as I passed. Will the academicians, in their Annual Report, please tell me what they said?” [back]

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