Home  »  English Poetry II  »  370. Ruth: Or the Influences of Nature

English Poetry II: From Collins to Fitzgerald.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

William Wordsworth

370. Ruth: Or the Influences of Nature

WHEN Ruth was left half desolate

Her father took another mate;

And Ruth, not seven years old,

A slighted child, at her own will

Went wandering over dale and hill,

In thoughtless freedom bold.

And she had made a pipe of straw,

And music from that pipe could draw

Like sounds of wind and floods;

Had built a bower upon the green,

As if she from her birth had been

An infant of the woods.

Beneath her father’s roof, alone

She seem’d to live; her thoughts her own;

Herself her own delight:

Pleased with herself, nor sad nor gay,

She passed her time; and in this way

Grew up to woman’s height.

There came a youth from Georgia’s shore—

A military casque he wore

With splendid feathers drest;

He brought them from the Cherokees;

The feathers nodded in the breeze

And made a gallant crest.

From Indian blood you deem him sprung:

But no! he spake the English tongue

And bore a soldier’s name;

And, when America was free

From battle and from jeopardy,

He ’cross the ocean came.

With hues of genius on his cheek,

In finest tones the youth could speak:

—While he was yet a boy

The moon, the glory of the sun,

And streams that murmur as they run

Had been his dearest joy.

He was a lovely youth! I guess

The panther in the wilderness

Was not so fair as he;

And when he chose to sport and play,

No dolphin ever was so gay

Upon the tropic sea.

Among the Indians he had fought;

And with him many tales he brought

Of pleasure and of fear;

Such tales as, told to any maid

By such a youth, in the green shade,

Were perilous to hear.

He told of girls, a happy rout!

Who quit their fold with dance and shout,

Their pleasant Indian town,

To gather strawberries all day long;

Returning with a choral song

When daylight is gone down.

He spake of plants that hourly change

Their blossoms, through a boundless range

Of intermingling hues;

With budding, fading, faded flowers,

They stand the wonder of the bowers

From morn to evening dews.

He told of the magnolia, spread

High as a cloud, high over head!

The cypress and her spire;

—Of flowers that with one scarlet gleam

Cover a hundred leagues, and seem

To set the hills on fire.

The youth of green savannahs spake,

And many an endless, endless lake

With all its fairy crowds

Of islands, that together lie

As quietly as spots of sky

Among the evening clouds.

‘And,’ then he said, ‘how sweet it were

A fisher or a hunter there,

In sunshine or in shade

To wander with an easy mind,

And build a household fire, and find

A home in every glade!

‘What days and what bright years! Ah me!

Our life were life indeed, with thee

So pass’d in quiet bliss;

And all the while,’ said he, ‘to know

That we were in a world of woe,

On such an earth as this!’

And then he sometimes interwove

Fond thoughts about a father’s love,

‘For there,’ said he, ‘are spun

Around the heart such tender ties,

That our own children to our eyes

Are dearer than the sun.

‘Sweet Ruth! and could you go with me

My helpmate in the woods to be,

Our shed at night to rear;

Or run, my own adopted bride,

A sylvan huntress at my side,

And drive the flying deer!

‘Beloved Ruth!’—No more he said.

The wakeful Ruth at midnight shed

A solitary tear:

She thought again—and did agree

With him to sail across the sea,

And drive the flying deer.

‘And now, as fitting is and right,

We in the church our faith will plight,

A husband and a wife.’

Even so they did; and I may say

That to sweet Ruth that happy day

Was more than human life.

Through dream and vision did she sink,

Delighted all the while to think

That, on those lonesome floods

And green savannahs, she should share

His board with lawful joy, and bear

His name in the wild woods.

But, as you have before been told,

This stripling, sportive, gay, and bold,

And with his dancing crest

So beautiful, through savage lands

Had roam’d about, with vagrant bands

Of Indians in the West.

The wind, the tempest roaring high,

The tumult of a tropic sky

Might well be dangerous food

For him, a youth to whom was given

So much of earth—so much of heaven,

And such impetuous blood.

Whatever in those climes he found

Irregular in sight or sound

Did to his mind impart

A kindred impulse, seem’d allied

To his own powers, and justified

The workings of his heart.

Nor less, to feed voluptuous thought,

The beauteous forms of Nature wrought,—

Fair trees and gorgeous flowers;

The breezes their own languor lent;

The stars had feelings, which they sent

Into those favour’d bowers.

Yet, in his worst pursuits, I ween

That sometimes there did intervene

Pure hopes of high intent:

For passions link’d to forms so fair

And stately, needs must have their share

Of noble sentiment.

But ill he lived, much evil saw,

With men to whom no better law

Nor better life was known;

Deliberately and undeceived

Those wild men’s vices he received,

And gave them back his own.

His genius and his moral frame

Were thus impair’d, and he became

The slave of low desires;

A man who without self-control

Would seek what the degraded soul

Unworthily admires.

And yet he with no feign’d delight

Had woo’d the maiden, day and night

Had loved her, night and morn:

What could he less than love a maid

Whose heart with so much nature play’d—

So kind and so forlorn?

Sometimes most earnestly he said,

‘O Ruth! I have been worse than dead;

False thoughts, thoughts bold and vain

Encompass’d me on every side

When I, in confidence and pride,

Had cross’d the Atlantic main.

‘Before me shone a glorious world

Fresh as a banner bright, unfurl’d

To music suddenly:

I look’d upon those hills and plains,

And seem’d as if let loose from chains

To live at liberty!

‘No more of this—for now, by thee,

Dear Ruth! more happily set free,

With nobler zeal I burn;

My soul from darkness is released

Like the whole sky when to the east

The morning doth return.’

Full soon that better mind was gone;

No hope, no wish remain’d, not one,—

They stirr’d him now no more;

New objects did new pleasure give,

And once again he wish’d to live

As lawless as before.

Meanwhile, as thus with him it fared,

They for the voyage were prepared,

And went to the sea-shore:

But, when they thither came, the youth

Deserted his poor bride, and Ruth

Could never find him more.

God help thee, Ruth!—Such pains she had

That she in half a year was mad

And in a prison housed;

And there, exulting in her wrongs

Among the music of her songs

She fearfully caroused.

Yet sometimes milder hours she knew,

Nor wanted sun, nor rain, nor dew,

Nor pastimes of the May,

—They all were with her in her cell;

And a clear brook with cheerful knell

Did o’er the pebbles play.

When Ruth three seasons thus had lain,

There came a respite to her pain;

She from her prison fled;

But of the vagrant none took thought;

And where it liked her best she sought

Her shelter and her bread.

Among the fields she breathed again:

The master-current of her brain

Ran permanent and free;

And, coming to the banks of Tone,

There did she rest; and dwell alone

Under the greenwood tree.

The engines of her pain, the tools

That shaped her sorrow, rocks and pools,

And airs that gently stir

The vernal leaves—she loved them still,

Nor ever tax’d them with the ill

Which had been done to her.

A barn her winter bed supplies;

But, till the warmth of summer skies

And summer days is gone,

(And all do in this tale agree)

She sleeps beneath the greenwood tree,

And other home hath none.

An innocent life, yet far astray!

And Ruth will, long before her day,

Be broken down and old.

Sore aches she needs must have! but less

Of mind, than body’s wretchedness,

From damp, and rain, and cold.

If she is prest by want of food

She from her dwelling in the wood

Repairs to a road-side;

And there she begs at one steep place,

Where up and down with easy pace

The horsemen-travellers ride.

That oaten pipe of hers is mute

Or thrown away: but with a flute

Her loneliness she cheers;

This flute, made of a hemlock stalk,

At evening in his homeward walk

The Quantock woodman hears.

I, too, have pass’d her on the hills

Setting her little water-mills

By spouts and fountains wild—

Such small machinery as she turn’d

Ere she had wept, ere she had mourn’d,

A young and happy child!

Farewell! and when thy days are told,

Ill-fated Ruth! in hallow’d mould

Thy corpse shall buried be;

For thee a funeral bell shall ring,

And all the congregation sing

A Christian psalm for thee.