The Whistling Jack [poem by John Shaw Neilson]

[Editor: This poem by John Shaw Neilson was published in Collected Poems of John Shaw Neilson (1934).]

The Whistling Jack

Not far above me in the boughs he sat, a solemn thing;
On the grey limb in grey he sat, he did not move to sing:
He was so dumb, he seemed to see no glamour in the Spring.

Near by me did the chickens run beneath their mother’s eye:
’Twas but a little noise I heard, and I looked up to the sky —
The Whistling Jack and a white chicken! I did not see it die.

He ate so greedily, and then — as if he did no wrong —
He poured into the morning air the beauty of his song:
And I stared at him, I scowled at him: I kept not silence long.

“This is,” I said, “no little thing. How can you live and dare
To sing this song that is a song, and sometimes is a prayer?
And the blood is still upon your beak, and tells of murder there.

“When the mother at the even-fall will, with the mother wing,
Give love unto her brood, and they in eager love will cling:
What of the blood upon your beak? Is it a little thing?”

The Whistling Jack hopped lower down, and he looked me in the eye.
He said, “I kill to eat; but you pray long into the sky
For the help of God in all you do, to make your fellows die.

“I know not God. How could I? But I am not always dumb;
With many flags you march: you make strange noises on a drum;
And you praise God for murders old, and murders yet to come.

“Your hymn you found with mating birds; and you have stolen prayer:
All earth you claim and all the sea, and even the sweet air;
You, without pity, cry to God for all His love and care.

“Your Heaven is but a theft; you saw the white walls in the sky;
And the mystery of the wings you took to make your angels fly:
For all your bravery as a thief — you have not loved to die.

“You own the earth and all therein, and all you hear and see:
You cut the flower into the heart, your axe is at the tree;
You burn the body beautiful that was a friend to me.

“If this you say to me is true, that slaughter is a sin,
What of the hat upon your head? the shoes you saunter in?
The fur you found by cruelty, by cruelty the skin?

“You have not ceased one day to rob, since ever you were born;
There was a theft to give you milk, and all that you have worn
Is only yours by plunder foul that fills me with a scorn.

“If you can preach of murder, I can preach of murder too.
You have defiled the sweet, green earth, and prayed into the blue
For strength unto your God that you may other murders do.

“I am a little thief; but you with evil caution strive
For the white wool and the glistening silk, and the honey of the hive!
But for a million cruelties you would not be alive.

“Of valour do you boast, and yet your whole life is a whine.
Where is your pity for the sheep? Your mercy for the kine?
You who would dare to preach to me at this little meal of mine!”

This bird had almost stilled my heart, and both my eyes were dim,
There was no mercy in his speech, as I saw him on the limb.
I said, “Perchance he is of God. Who knows the heart of him?”

Oh, the bird he was on fire: he spoke so long and bitterly:
I heard him till at last he flew. I did not wish to see
The heavens blue: for he had put such weakness into me.

John Shaw Neilson (editor: R. H. Croll), Collected Poems of John Shaw Neilson, Melbourne: Lothian Publishing Company, 1934 [May 1949 reprint], pages 151-155

Editor’s notes:
kine = cattle

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