Madison Julius Cawein



The Old Water-Mill

by Madison Julius Cawein

Wild ridge on ridge the wooded hills arise,
Between whose breezy vistas gulfs of skies
Pilot great clouds like towering argosies,
And hawk and buzzard breast the azure breeze.
With many a foaming fall and glimmering reach
Of placid murmur, under elm and beech,
The creek goes twinkling through long glows and glooms
Of woodland quiet, poppied with perfumes:
The creek, in whose clear shallows minnow-schools
Glitter or dart; and by whose deeper pools
The blue kingfishers and the herons haunt;
That, often startled from the freckled flaunt
Of blackberry-lilies -- where they feed and hide --
Trail a lank flight along the forestside
With eery clangor. Here a sycamore,
Smooth, wave-uprooted, builds from shore to shore
A headlong bridge; and there, a storm-hurled oak
Lays a long dam, where sand and gravel choke
The water's lazy way. Here mistflower blurs
Its bit of heaven; there the oxeye stirs
Its gloaming hues of bronze and gold; and here,
A gray cool stain, like dawn's own atmosphere,
The dim wild-carrot lifts its crumpled crest
And over all, at slender flight or rest,
The dragon-flies, like coruscating rays
Of lapis-lazuli and chrysoprase,
Drowsily sparkle through the summer days;
And, dewlap-deep, here from the noontide heat
The bell-hung cattle find a cool retreat:
And through the willows girdling the hill,
Now far, now near, borne as the soft winds will,
Comes the low rushing of the water-mill.

Ah, lovely to me from a little child,
How changed the place! wherein once, undefiled,
The glad communion of the sky and stream
Went with me like a presence and a dream.
Where once the brambled meads and orchardlands
Poured ripe abundance down with mellow hands
Of summer; and the birds of field and wood
Called to me in a tongue I understood;
And in the tangles of the old rail-fence
Even the insect tumult had some sense,
And every sound a happy eloquence;
And more to me than wisest books can teach,
The wind and water said; whose words did reach
My soul, addressing their magnificent speech,
Raucous and rushing, from the old mill-wheel,
That made the rolling mill-cogs snore and reel,
Like some old ogre in a fairy-tale
Nodding above his meat and mug of ale.

How memory takes me back the ways that lead --
As when a boy -- through woodland and through mead!
To orchards fruited; or to fields in bloom
Or briary fallows, like a mighty room,
Through which the winds swing censers of perfume,
And where deep blackberries spread miles of fruit; --
A splendid feast, that stayed the ploughboy's foot
When to the tasseling acres of the corn
He drove his team, fresh in the primrose morn;
And from the liberal banquet, nature lent,
Took dewy handfuls as he whistling went. --
A boy once more I stand with sunburnt feet
And watch the harvester sweep down the wheat;
Or laze with warm limbs in the unstacked straw
Nearby the thresher, whose insatiate maw
Devours the sheaves, hot drawling out its hum --
Like some great sleepy bee, above a bloom,
Made drunk with honey -- while, grown big with grain,
The bulging sacks receive the golden rain.
Again I tread the valley, sweet with hay,
And hear the bob-white calling far away,
Or wood-dove cooing in the elder-brake
Or see the sassafras bushes madly shake
As swift, a rufous instant, in the glen
The red-fox leaps and gallops to his den
Or, standing in the violet-colored gloam,
Hear roadways sound with holiday riding home
From church, or fair, or bounteous barbecue,
Which the whole country to some village drew.

How spilled with berries were its summer hills,
And strewn with walnuts were its autumn rills --
And chestnut burs! fruit of the spring's long flowers,
When from their tops the trees seemed streaming showers
Of slender silver, cool, crepuscular,
And like a nebulous radiance shone afar.
And maples! how their sappy hearts would gush
Broad troughs of syrup, when the winter bush
Steamed with the sugar-kettle, day and night,
And all the snow was streaked with firelight.
Then it was glorious! the mill-dam's edge,
One slant of frosty crystal, laid a ledge
Of pearl across; above which, sleeted trees
Tossed arms of ice, that, clashing in the breeze,
Tinkled the ringing creek with icicles,
Thin as the peal of Elfland's Sabbath bells:
A sound that in my city dreams I hear,
That brings before me, under skies that clear,
The old mill in its winter garb of snow,
Its frozen wheel, a great hoar beard below,
And its West windows, two deep eyes aglow.

Ah, ancient mill, still do I picture o'er
Thy cobwebbed stairs and loft and grain-strewn floor;
Thy door, -- like some brown, honest hand of toil,
And honorable with labor of the soil, --
Forever open; through which, on his back
The prosperous farmer bears his bursting sack.
And while the miller measures out his toll,
Again I hear, above the cogs' loud roll, --
That makes stout joist and rafter groan and sway, --
The harmless gossip of the passing day:
Good country talk, that tells how so-and-so
Has died or married; how curculio
And codling-moth have ruined half the fruit,
And blight plays mischief with the grapes to boot;
Or what the news from town; next county fair;
How well the crops are looking everywhere:
Now this, now that, on which their interests fix,
Prospects for rain or frost, and politics.
While, all around, the sweet smell of the meal
Filters, warm-pouring from the grinding wheel
Into the bin; beside which, mealy white,
The miller looms, dim in the dusty light.

Again I see the miller's home, between
The crinkling creek and hills of beechen green:
Again the miller greets me, gaunt and brown,
Who oft o'erawed me with his gray-browed frown
And rugged mien: again he tries to reach
My youthful mind with fervid scriptural speech. --
For he, of all the country-side confessed,
The most religious was and happiest;
A Methodist, and one whom faith still led,
No books except the Bible had he read --
At least so seemed it to my younger head. --
All things in earth and heav'n he'd prove by this,
Be it a fact or mere hypothesis;
For to his simple wisdom, reverent,
The Bible says was all of argument. --
God keep his soul! his bones were long since laid
Among the sunken gravestones in the shade
Of those black-lichened rocks, that wall around
The family burying-ground with cedars crowned;
Where bristling teasel and the brier combine
With clambering wood-rose and the wild-grape vine
To hide the stone whereon his name and dates
Neglect, with mossy hand, obliterates.


Myth And Romance
Copyright 1899
G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York and London