When melted snow leaves bare the black-green rings,
And grass begins in freshening hues to shoot,
When thawing dirt to shoes of ploughmen clings,
And silk-haired moles get liberty to root,
An ancient man goes plodding round the fields
Which solitude seems claiming as her own,
Wrapt in greatcoat that from a tempest shields,
Patched thick with every colour but its own.
With spuds and traps and horsehair string supplied,
He potters out to seek each fresh-made hill;
Pricking the greensward where they love to hide,
He sets his treacherous snares, resolved to kill;
And on the willow sticks bent to the grass,
That such as touched jerk up in bouncing springs,
Soon the little hermit tries to pass,
His carcass on the gibbet hings.
And as a triumph to his matchless skill,
On some grey willow where a road runs by,
That passers may behold his power to kill,
On the bough's twigs he'll many a felon tie;
On every common dozens may be met,
Dangling on bent twigs bleaching to the sun,
Whose melancholy faces meet no regret,
Though dreamless of the snare they could not shun.
On moors and commons and the pasture green,
He leaves them undisturbed to root and run,
Enlarging hills that have for ages been
Basking in mossy swellings to the sun;
The pismires too their tip-tops yearly climb
To lay their eggs and hunt the shepherd's crumbs,
Never disturbed save when for summer thyme
The trampling sheep upon their dwelling comes.
He leans on nature's offerings for supply,
Like a sick child upon a mother's breast;
He feebly watches her unheeding eye,
And takes her givings with no vain request
To urge them better; he with aught is blest;
For the to-morrow he ne'er feels a fear,
His hopes upon to-day have all their rest;
When labour fails, the workhouse fare is near;
And thus on misery's edge he potters round the year.
Spring yearly meets him with his shouldered rake
To drag the crowding cresses from the brook,
And soon as May's first mornings are awake,
He threads the pasture, pewit's eggs to look;
And when these fail, the moor-pond's flaggy nook
Is beat for leeches; then the mushrooms start
In black-green fairy ring; thus nature's book
Is turned till he earth's lesson knows by heart,
In life's rude patchwork play to act the allotted part.
And in the meadows when the grass is mown,
He haunts the holes torn up by many a flood,
With swordy flag and reed and rush o'ergrown,
Progging the bladed greave about the mud,
Scaring full oft the moor-hen's summer brood,
Trying to catch the slipping eels in vain;
While, watching by the hedge's crowding wood
Of reeds, starts up the solitary crane,
Like hermit pilgrim on some lonely plain.
And while his snuff-box offers its supply,
Complaint can never o'er his heart prevail;
Pulled out and pinched by every passer-by,
It always doth his weary walks regale,
And adds a tiresome length to every tale;
But in its need he mopes o'er field and town,
His strength sinks in him and his spirits fail;
In silent pace he potters up and down,
And scarcely says good-morn to passing maid or clown.
Want often makes him on the folded land
Stoop down a turnip from the sheep to steal,
Borrowing the shepherd's knife with palsied hand
To clean and peel it for a morning meal.
Pride's unconcern that hath no heart to feel
Full often in his pottering pace appears,
From whom his turnip-thefts he will conceal,
Who as a tyrant wakes his humble fears,
Whose proud and threatening taunts will fill his eyes with tears.
For ever in his creeping path appears
A waffling cur, in colour sandy grey,
With curling tail and sharp fox-pointed ears,
Who shows his teeth and threatens sore dismay;
But if a stranger sets his rage at bay,
Or stoops adown a threatening stone to throw,
Will drop his tail and whine and sneak away,
And linger for a while in motions slow
Behind the old man's heels till past the dreaded foe.
Then quickly he resumes his cheering pace,
And 'gins in jealous threats his ears to prick,
And barks and looks his master in the face,
Who in his leisure learns him many a trick,
To carry in his mouth his walking-stick,
Or watch and run to fetch a pelted stone,
Or from the pond whatever's thrown to pick,
And on his legs to rear himself alone
To beg at dinner hour for proffered crust and bone.