The Voice in the Wild Oak [poem by Henry Kendall]

[Editor: This poem by Henry Kendall was published in Songs from the Mountains (1880).]

The Voice in the Wild Oak.

(Written in the Shadow of 1872.)

Twelve years ago, when I could face
High heaven’s dome with different eyes —
In days full flowered with hours of grace,
And nights not sad with sighs —
I wrote a song in which I strove
To shadow forth thy strain of woe,
Dark widowed sister of the grove —
Twelve wasted years ago.

But youth was then too young to find
Those high authentic syllables
Whose voice is like the wintering wind
By sunless mountain fells;
Nor had I sinned and suffered then
To that superlative degree
That I would rather seek than men
Wild fellowship with thee

But he who hears this autumn day
Thy more than deep autumnal rhyme,
Is one whose hair was shot with gray
By Grief instead of Time.
He has no need, like many a bard,
To sing imaginary pain,
Because he bears, and finds it hard,
The punishment of Cain.

No more he sees the affluence
Which makes the heart of Nature glad;
For he has lost the fine, first sense
Of Beauty that he had.
The old delight God’s happy breeze
Was wont to give, to grief has grown;
And therefore, Niobe of trees,
His song is like thine own.

But I who am that perished soul
Have wasted so these powers of mine,
That I can never write that whole
Pure, perfect speech of thine.
Some lord of words august, supreme,
The grave, grand melody demands:
The dark translation of thy theme
I leave to other hands.

Yet here, where plovers nightly call
Across dim melancholy leas —
Where comes by whistling fen and fall
The moan of far off seas —
A gray old Fancy often sits
Beneath thy shade with tired wings,
And fills thy strong, strange rhyme by fits
With awful utterings.

Then times there are when all the words
Are like the sentences of one
Shut in by fate from wind and birds
And light of stars and sun!
No dazzling dryad but a dark
Dream-haunted spirit, doomed to be
Imprisoned, crampt in bands of bark,
For all eternity.

Yea, like the speech of one aghast
At Immortality in chains,
What time the lordly storm rides past
With flames and arrowy rains!
Some wan Tithonus of the wood
White with immeasurable years —
An awful ghost in solitude
With moaning moors and meres!

And when high thunder smites the hill
And hunts the wild dog to his den,
Thy cries, like maledictions, shrill
And shriek from glen to glen!
As if a frightful memory whipped
Thy soul for some infernal crime
That left it blasted, blind, and stript —
A dread to Death and Time!

But when the fair-haired August dies,
And flowers wax strong and beautiful,
Thy songs are stately harmonies
By wood-lights green and cool.
Most like the voice of one who shows
Through sufferings fierce, in fine relief,
A noble patience and repose —
A dignity in grief.

But, ah! conceptions fade away,
And still the life that lives in thee —
The soul of thy majestic lay —
Remains a mystery!
And he must speak the speech divine —
The language of the high-throned lords,
Who’d give that grand old theme of thine
Its sense in faultless words.

By hollow lands and sea-tracts harsh
With ruin of the fourfold gale,
Where sighs the sedge and sobs the marsh,
Still wail thy lonely wail.
And, year by year, one step will break
The sleep of far hill-folded streams;
And seek, if only for thy sake,
Thy home of many dreams.

Henry Kendall, Songs from the Mountains, Sydney: William Maddock, 1880, pages 73-79

Editor’s notes:
dread = (archaic) someone or something which causes awe or fear

dryad = in Greek mythology, a dryad was a tree nymph

fell = a high barren field, upland moor, hill, or mountain (may also mean: to fall or bring down; hide, pelt or skin; bad, cruel, destructive, fierce or sinister, as in “one fell swoop”)

fen = low-lying flat swampy land, which has been drained of water (usually for agricultural purposes); a marsh

lay = song, tune; ballad (may also refer to ballads or narrative poems, as sung by medieval minstrels or bards)

lea = field, grassland, meadow, pasture

punishment of Cain = from Genesis 4:11-12 in the Bible, where God condemns Cain (who murdered his brother, Abel) to a life of being a fugitive, wandering from place to place, and never being able to settle down and farm (“And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand; When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.”)

sedge = a grass-like plant with a solid three-sided stem, which grows in tufts, typically found in wet ground or near water, such as marshes; any of the grass-like plants of the family Cyperaceae (especially those of the of the genus Carex)

smite = strike, hit hard; attack; hurt; injure; kill

wan = having a sickly or pale appearance; a poorly appearance suggestive of unhappiness or grief; a lack of energy or feeling (e.g. a smile or laugh, displaying little effort, energy, or enthusiasm); lacking good health or vitality (may also refer to something which is dim or faint, e.g. light, stars, sun)

wont = custom, habit, practice; accustomed; apt, inclined

yea = yes; indeed; truly; an affirmation (especially an affirmative vote), an indication of assent

Old spelling in the original text:
crampt (cramped)
stript (stripped)
thee (you)
thine (your; yours)
thy (your)

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