The Dead Quire


Beside the Mead of Memories,
Where Church-way mounts to Moaning Hill,
The sad man sighed his phantasies:
He seems to sigh them still.


“‘Twas the Birth-tide Eve, and the hamleteers
Made merry with ancient Mellstock zest,
But the Mellstock quire of former years
Had entered into rest.


“Old Dewy lay by the gaunt yew tree,
And Reuben and Michael a pace behind,
And Bowman with his family
By the wall that the ivies bind.


“The singers had followed one by one,
Treble, and tenor, and thorough-bass;
And the worm that wasteth had begun
To mine their mouldering place.


“For two-score years, ere Christ-day light,
Mellstock had throbbed to strains from these;
But now there echoed on the night
No Christmas harmonies.


“Three meadows off, at a dormered inn,
The youth had gathered in high carouse,
And, ranged on settles, some therein
Had drunk them to a drowse.


“Loud, lively, reckless, some had grown,
Each dandling on his jigging knee
Eliza, Dolly, Nance, or Joan —
Livers in levity.


“The taper flames and hearthfire shine
Grew smoke-hazed to a lurid light,
And songs on subjects not divine
Were warbled forth that night.


“Yet many were sons and grandsons here
Of those who, on such eves gone by,
At that still hour had throated clear
Their anthems to the sky.


“The clock belled midnight; and ere long
One shouted, ‘Now ’tis Christmas morn;
Here’s to our women old and young,
And to John Barleycorn!’


“They drink the toast and shout again:
The pewter-ware rings back the boom,
And for a breath-while follows then
A silence in the room.


“When nigh without, as in old days,
The ancient quire of voice and string
Seemed singing words of prayer and praise
As they had used to sing:


“‘While shepherds watch’d their flocks by night,’ —
Thus swells the long familiar sound
In many a quaint symphonic flight —
To, ‘Glory shone around.’


“The sons defined their fathers’ tones,
The widow his whom she had wed,
And others in the minor moans
The viols of the dead.


“Something supernal has the sound
As verse by verse the strain proceeds,
And stilly staring on the ground
Each roysterer holds and heeds.


“Towards its chorded closing bar
Plaintively, thinly, waned the hymn,
Yet lingered, like the notes afar
Of banded seraphim.


“With brows abashed, and reverent tread,
The hearkeners sought the tavern door:
But nothing, save wan moonlight, spread
The empty highway o’er.


“While on their hearing fixed and tense
The aerial music seemed to sink,
As it were gently moving thence
Along the river brink.


“Then did the Quick pursue the Dead
By crystal Froom that crinkles there;
And still the viewless quire ahead
Voiced the old holy air.


“By Bank-walk wicket, brightly bleached,
It passed, and ‘twixt the hedges twain,
Dogged by the living; till it reached
The bottom of Church Lane.

“There, at the turning, it was heard
Drawing to where the churchyard lay:
But when they followed thitherward
It smalled, and died away.

“Each headstone of the quire, each mound,
Confronted them beneath the moon;
But no more floated therearound
That ancient Birth-night tune.


“There Dewy lay by the gaunt yew tree,
There Reuben and Michael, a pace behind,
And Bowman with his family
By the wall that the ivies bind . . .


“As from a dream each sobered son
Awoke, and musing reached his door:
‘Twas said that of them all, not one
Sat in a tavern more.”


— The sad man ceased; and ceased to heed
His listener, and crossed the leaze
From Moaning Hill towards the mead —
The Mead of Memories.

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