Winter Words: poetry of Thomas Hardy (1840-1928); set by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
1. At day-close in November
The ten hours’ light is abating,
And a late bird wings across,
Where the pines, like waltzers waiting,
Give their black heads a toss.
Beech leaves, that yellow the noon-time,
Float past like specks in the eye;
I set every tree in my June time,
And now they obscure the sky.
And the children who ramble through here
Conceive that there never has been
A time when no tall trees grew here,
That none will in time be seen.
2. Midnight on the Great Western
In the third-class seat sat the journeying boy,
And the roof-lamp’s oily flame
Played down on his listless form and face,
Bewrapt past knowing to what he was going,
Or whence he came.
In the band of his hat the journeying boy
Had a ticket stuck; and a string
Around his neck bore the key of his box,
That twinkled gleams of the lamp’s sad beams
Like a living thing.
What past can be yours, O journeying boy
Towards a world unknown,
Who calmly, as if incurious quite
On all at stake, can undertake
This plunge alone?
Knows your soul a sphere, O journeying boy,
Our rude realms far above,
Whence with spacious vision you mark and mete
This region of sin that you find you in,
But are not of?
3. Wagtail and Baby
A baby watched a ford, whereto
A wagtail came for drinking;
A blaring bull went wading through,
The wagtail showed no shrinking.
A stallion splashed his way across,
The birdie nearly sinking;
He gave his plumes a twitch and toss,
And held his own unblinking.
Next saw the baby round the spot
A mongrel slowly slinking;
The wagtail gazed, but faltered not
In dip and sip and prinking.
A perfect gentleman then neared;
The wagtail, in a winking,
With terror rose and disappeared;
The baby fell a-thinking.
4. The little old table
Creak, little wood thing, creak,
When I touch you with elbow or knee;
That is the way you speak
Of one who gave you to me!
You, little table, she brought –
Brought me with her own hand,
As she looked at me with a thought
That I did not understand.
– Whoever owns it anon,
And hears it, will never know
What a history hangs upon
This creak from long ago.
5. The choirmaster’s burial
He often would ask us
That, when he died,
After playing so many
To their last rest,
If out of us any
Should here abide,
And it would not task us,
We would with our lutes
Play over him
By his grave-brim
The psalm he liked best –
The one whose sense suits
“Mount Ephraim” –
And perhaps we should seem
To him, in Death’s dream,
Like the seraphim.
As soon as I knew
That his spirit was gone
I thoguht this his due,
And spoke thereupon.
“I think,” said the vicar,
“A read service quicker
Than viols out-of-doors
In these frosts and hoars.
That old-fashioned way
Requires a fine day,
And it seems to me
It had better not be.”
Hence, that afternoon,
Though never knew he
That his wish could not be,
To get through it faster
They buried the master
Without any tune.
But ’twas said that, when
At the dead of next night
The vicar looked out,
There struck on his ken
Where the frost was graying
The headstoned grass,
A band all in white
Like the saints in church-glass,
Singing and playing
The ancient stave
By the choirmaster’s grave.
Such the tenor man told
When he had grown old.
6. Proud songsters
The thrushes sing as the sun is going,
And the finches whistle in ones and pairs,
And as it gets dark loud nightingales
Pipe, as they can when April wears,
As if all Time were theirs.
These are brand-new birds of twelve-months’ growing,
Which a year ago, or less than twain,
No finches were, nor nightingales,
But only particles of grain,
And earth, and air, and rain.
7. At the railway station, Upway
“There is not much that I can do,
For I’ve no money that’s quite my own!”
Spoke up the pitying child –
A little boy with a violin
At the station before the train came in, –
“But I can play my fiddle to you,
And a nice one ’tis, and good in tone!”
The man in the handcuffs smiled;
The constable looked, and he smiled, too,
As the fiddle began to twang;
And the man in the handcuffs suddenly sang
With grimful glee:
“This life so free
Is the thing for me!”
And the constable smiled, and said no word,
As if unconscious of what he heard;
And so they went on till the train came in –
The convict, and boy with the violin.
8. Before life and after
A time there was – as one may guess
And as, indeed, earth’s testimonies tell –
Before the birth of consciousness,
When all went well.
None suffered sickness, love, or loss,
None knew regret, starved hope, or heart-burnings;
None cared whatever crash or cross
Brought wrack to things.
If something ceased, no tongue bewailed,
If something winced and waned, no heart was wrung;
If brightness dimmed, and dark prevailed,
No sense was stung.
But the disease of feeling germed,
And primal rightness took the tinct of wrong;
Ere nescience shall be reaffirmed
How long, how long?