Alfred Tennyson

Walking to the Mail

Poem by Alfred Tennyson

'John'.  I'm glad I walk'd.
         How fresh the meadows look
         Above the river, and, but a month ago,
         The whole hill-side was redder than a fox.
         Is yon plantation where this byway joins
         The turnpike? [1]

'James'. Yes.

'John'.  And when does this come by?

'James'. The mail? At one o'clock.

'John'.  What is it now?

James'.  A quarter to.

'John'.  Whose house is that I see? [2]
         No, not the County Member's with the vane:
         Up higher with the yewtree by it, and half
         A score of gables.

'James'. That? Sir Edward Head's:
         But he's abroad: the place is to be sold.

'John'.  Oh, his. He was not broken?

'James'. No, sir, he,
         Vex'd with a morbid devil in his blood
         That veil'd the world with jaundice, hid his face
         From all men, and commercing with himself,
         He lost the sense that handles daily life--
         That keeps us all in order more or less--
         And sick of home went overseas for change.

'John'.  And whither?

'James'. Nay, who knows? he's here and there.
         But let him go; his devil goes with him,
         As well as with his tenant, Jockey Dawes.

'John'.  What's that?

'James-. You saw the man--on Monday, was it?--[3]
         There by the hump-back'd willow; half stands up
         And bristles; half has fall'n and made a bridge;
         And there he caught the younker tickling trout--
         Caught in 'flagrante'--what's the Latin word?--
         'Delicto'; but his house, for so they say,
         Was haunted with a jolly ghost, that shook
         The curtains, whined in lobbies, tapt at doors,
         And rummaged like a rat: no servant stay'd:
         The farmer vext packs up his beds and chairs,
         And all his household stuff; and with his boy
         Betwixt his knees, his wife upon the tilt,
         Sets out, [4] and meets a friend who hails him,
         "What! You're flitting!" "Yes, we're flitting," says the ghost
         (For they had pack'd the thing among the beds).
         "Oh, well," says he, "you flitting with us too--
         Jack, turn the horses' heads and home again". [5]

'John'.  He left 'his' wife behind; for so I heard.

'James'. He left her, yes. I met my lady once:
         A woman like a butt, and harsh as crabs.

'John'.  Oh, yet, but I remember, ten years back--
         'Tis now at least ten years--and then she was--
         You could not light upon a sweeter thing:
         A body slight and round and like a pear
         In growing, modest eyes, a hand a foot
         Lessening in perfect cadence, and a skin
         As clean and white as privet when it flowers.

'James'. Ay, ay, the blossom fades and they that loved
         At first like dove and dove were cat and dog.
         She was the daughter of a cottager,
         Out of her sphere. What betwixt shame and pride,
         New things and old, himself and her, she sour'd
         To what she is: a nature never kind!
         Like men, like manners: like breeds like, they say.
         Kind nature is the best: those manners next
         That fit us like a nature second-hand;
         Which are indeed the manners of the great.

'John'.  But I had heard it was this bill that past,
         And fear of change at home, that drove him hence.

'James'. That was the last drop in the cup of gall.
         I once was near him, when his bailiff brought
         A Chartist pike. You should have seen him wince
         As from a venomous thing: he thought himself
         A mark for all, and shudder'd, lest a cry
         Should break his sleep by night, and his nice eyes
         Should see the raw mechanic's bloody thumbs
         Sweat on his blazon'd chairs; but, sir, you know
         That these two parties still divide the world--
         Of those that want, and those that have: and still
         The same old sore breaks out from age to age
         With much the same result. Now I myself, [6]
         A Tory to the quick, was as a boy
         Destructive, when I had not what I would.
         I was at school--a college in the South:
         There lived a flayflint near; we stole his fruit,
         His hens, his eggs; but there was law for 'us';
         We paid in person. He had a sow, sir. She,
         With meditative grunts of much content, [7]
         Lay great with pig, wallowing in sun and mud.
         By night we dragg'd her to the college tower
         From her warm bed, and up the corkscrew stair
         With hand and rope we haled the groaning sow,
         And on the leads we kept her till she pigg'd.
         Large range of prospect had the mother sow,
         And but for daily loss of one she loved,
         As one by one we took them--but for this--
         As never sow was higher in this world--
         Might have been happy: but what lot is pure!
         We took them all, till she was left alone
         Upon her tower, the Niobe of swine,
         And so return'd unfarrowed to her sty.

'John.'  They found you out?

'James.' Not they.

'John.'  Well--after all--What know we of the secret of a man?
         His nerves were wrong. What ails us, who are sound,
         That we should mimic this raw fool the world,
         Which charts us all in its coarse blacks or whites,
         As ruthless as a baby with a worm,
         As cruel as a schoolboy ere he grows
         To Pity--more from ignorance than will,
         But put your best foot forward, or I fear
         That we shall miss the mail: and here it comes
         With five at top: as quaint a four-in-hand
         As you shall see--three pyebalds and a roan.

[Footnote 1: 1842.

'John'.  I'm glad I walk'd. How fresh the country looks!
         Is yonder planting where this byway joins
         The turnpike?]

[Footnote 2: Thus 1843 to 1850:--

'John'.  Whose house is that I see
         Beyond the watermills?

'James'. Sir Edward Head's: But he's abroad, etc.]

[Footnote 3: Thus 1842 to 1851:--

'James'. You saw the man but yesterday:
         He pick'd the pebble from your horse's foot.
         His house was haunted by a jolly ghost
         That rummaged like a rat.]

[Footnote 4: 1842. Sets forth. Added in 1853.]

[Footnote 5: This is a folk-lore story which has its variants, Mr. Alfred Nutt tells me, in almost every country in Europe. The Lincolnshire version of it is given in Miss Peacock's MS. collection of Lincolnshire folk-lore, of which she has most kindly sent me a copy, and it runs thus:--"There is a house in East Halton which is haunted by a hob-thrush.... Some years ago, it is said, a family who had lived in the house for more than a hundred years were much annoyed by it, and determined to quit the dwelling. They had placed their goods on a waggon, and were just on the point of starting when a neighbour asked the farmer whether he was leaving. On this the hobthrush put his head out of the splash-churn, which was amongst the household stuff, and said, 'Ay, we're flitting'. Whereupon the farmer decided to give up the attempt to escape from it and remain where he was." The same story is told of a Cluricaune in Croker's 'Fairy Legends and Traditions' in the South of Ireland. See 'The Haunted Cellar' in p. 81 of the edition of 1862, and as Tennyson has elsewhere in 'Guinevere' borrowed a passage from the same story (see 'Illustrations of Tennyson', p. 152) it is probable that that was the source of the story here, though there the Cluricaune uses the expression, "Here we go altogether".]

[Footnote 6: 1842 and 1843. I that am. Now, I that am.]

[Footnote 7: 1842.

         scored upon the part
         Which cherubs want.]