The Burden of the Willows.

O willows, willows, watchers by the stream ;1
Unhappy sisters ! standing, one in tears,2
One in cold desolate scorn, whose branches seem3
Denied the pleasure of their woodland peers,4
Freely to spread, or, when green summer nears,5
To stretch broad leaves to meet the dew, the glow,6
Or rock them on the winds that round about you blow.7
Why are you sorrowful ?  About your roots8
There is long grass with lady-smocks of May ;9
You hear the lark ; past you the swallow shoots10
And comes again ; through the long sunny day11
You drink the coolness ; waters in their play12
Toss waves of rippling sunshine on your breasts ;13
And under you in sleep the great round lily rests.14
Why are you sorrowful, for ever grieving ?15
Your homes are in deep meadows through the days16
When all green things chant praises ; yours the weaving17
Of the long sedges of the water-ways.18
Why, while their lauds the happy woodlands raise,19
While God’s good greenery is full of glee,20
Alone among the trees should you unhappy be ?21
Then of the willows, she that seemed in scorn22
To stand, with upraised branches, nothing said ;23
But that unhappy one, and most forlorn,24
Who in a rain of tears hung down her head,25
From all her leayes a sighing murmur shed ;26
The weary burden of the willow-trees,27
She sang me as I lay, my head upon her knees.28
I grew beside my sister long ago29
Fast by a stream, that past a church-yard wound ;30
Oh, but ’twas good, a happy thing to grow31
Where we might feel our roots in hallowed ground,32
And daily wave our branches to the sound33
Of holy chants and lauds and litanies34
We being planted there were favoured above trees !35
And I reached forth my boughs, for freely then36
Our boughs abroad, as other trees, we flung37
And through the window watched the Christian men,38
And watched the priest that by the altar sung.39
I bowed my head when the shrill bell was rung,40
And had my part in blessing and in prayer41
A favour above trees, I thought it to be there.42
But no delight like mine my sister felt,43
She tossed her wanton boughs, and loved the jests44
Of flippant daws that in the belfry dwelt,45
Courted their fellowship, and for their nests46
Gave them her twigs ; their tales of thievish quests47
Were more to her than primes or evensong,48
Or the full anthem’s peal that rolled the aisles along.49
And once it fell ; ’twas in the latter spring,50
Alas, the bitter, long-remembered day !51
When all the church was void of living thing,52
And through the open window, a long ray53
Of glory on the carven credence lay,54
And made the great bright chalice brighter shine,55
And sparkle where it stood, still charged with holy wine ;56
A daw, most vile of that vile fellowship,57
Saw where it stood ; in sacrilegious freak58
He went, and took the chalice by its lip,59
And, from the chancel, bore it in his beak ;60
But, as he flew, for such a weight too weak,61
Scattered the precious wine along his flight,62
That lay upon the grass, and would not sink from sight.63
He bore it to my sister, whom he bade64
Close in her bosom, under branch and leaf,65
To hide it. She—she took it, and was glad,66
Covered it close, and jested with the thief,67
Praising his daring. I, in speechless grief,68
Trembling through every leaflet, stood aghast,69
Waiting the doom of guilt—the doom that followed fast.70
For soon the priest, returning, knew the theft ;71
He saw the wine, a long accusing trail,72
Like spots of blood upon the greensward left,73
Even to my sister. Of the sacred grail74
He questioned her, and asked her all the tale75
Of that ill deed, and who had dared profane76
By theft of holy thing the consecrated fane.77
But, lifting up her boughs towards heaven, she swore78
Nothing she knew, the cup she had not seen ;79
Most solemnly she vowed it ; but, before80
From swearing she let sink her branches green,81
Down shaken by their moving, from between82
The chalice fell, and lying at his feet83
Told to the priest her crimes, her blasphemy, and deceit.84
And thus he spake, with sorrow in his eyes,85
And in his tone, but with stern words and slow,—86
O tree, for this thy sacrilege, thy lies,87
The common blessedness of trees forego,88
Henceforth thy ever-lifted branches show,89
That all who see thee thus may learn from thee90
To shun such deeds as thine, accursed willow tree !”91
But I hung down my boughs in shame and grief,92
Weeping for her, and all that she had done ;93
And hang them still, and shall while any leaf94
Of mine is green, or buds beneath the sun95
As we so sorrowful of trees are none !96
Her straight cold branches she must ever raise,97
And I must weep for her, even to the last of days !’98
This was the burden of the willow-tree ;99
This was the song she sang me, as I lay,100
What time the woods were loudest in their glee101
Holding high feast, the festival of May :102
And listening I forgot the flowers were gay,103
And I forget the swallow where he flew,104
And I forgot the lark, hung in the highest blue.105