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John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892). The Poetical Works in Four Volumes. 1892.

Narrative and Legendary Poems

Birchbrook Mill

A NOTELESS stream, the Birchbrook runs

Beneath its leaning trees;

That low, soft ripple is its own,

That dull roar is the sea’s.

Of human signs it sees alone

The distant church spire’s tip,

And, ghost-like, on a blank of gray,

The white sail of a ship.

No more a toiler at the wheel,

It wanders at its will;

Nor dam nor pond is left to tell

Where once was Birchbrook mill.

The timbers of that mill have fed

Long since a farmer’s fires;

His doorsteps are the stones that ground

The harvest of his sires.

Man trespassed here; but Nature lost

No right of her domain;

She waited, and she brought the old

Wild beauty back again.

By day the sunlight through the leaves

Falls on its moist, green sod,

And wakes the violet bloom of spring

And autumn’s golden-rod.

Its birches whisper to the wind,

The swallow dips her wings

In the cool spray, and on its banks

The gray song-sparrow sings.

But from it, when the dark night falls,

The school-girl shrinks with dread;

The farmer, home-bound from his fields,

Goes by with quickened tread.

They dare not pause to hear the grind

Of shadowy stone on stone;

The plashing of a water-wheel

Where wheel there now is none.

Has not a cry of pain been heard

Above the clattering mill?

The pawing of an unseen horse,

Who waits his mistress still?

Yet never to the listener’s eye

Has sight confirmed the sound;

A wavering birch line marks alone

The vacant pasture ground.

No ghostly arms fling up to heaven

The agony of prayer;

No spectral steed impatient shakes

His white mane on the air.

The meaning of that common dread

No tongue has fitly told;

The secret of the dark surmise

The brook and birches hold.

What nameless horror of the past

Broods here forevermore?

What ghost his unforgiven sin

Is grinding o’er and o’er?

Does, then, immortal memory play

The actor’s tragic part,

Rehearsals of a mortal life

And unveiled human heart?

God’s pity spare a guilty soul

That drama of its ill,

And let the scenic curtain fall

On Birchbrook’s haunted mill!