Home  »  Poems of Places An Anthology in 31 Volumes  »  The Yardley Oak

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
England: Vols. I–IV. 1876–79.


The Yardley Oak

By 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,

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

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

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

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,

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

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,

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,

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,

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;

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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,

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,

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,

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

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

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

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

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

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,

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

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

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.