To An English Nightingale

Maurice Thompson

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Oh, will you hear?
Reed-notes clear,
(Fluted in flowery, May-drowsed solitudes,
Filtered through sun-steeped woods)
A challenge hurled
To all the singing world!

I, the mocking bird,
Am stirred
With song's wild rapture; and the prophet's mood
Grows stronger in me with each freer breath
Of balm-buds sweet as meth;
I am no singer rude;
Here, drink my melody, spiced with things as good
As made the bragget that old Chaucer brewed.

Or if Villon
You dote upon,
I have his note and more,
And Ronsard's best in store,
Caught from a gay garçon
Who sang them clear and strong,
On Bayou Teche,
With a Creole dash
In his voice and the brim of the hat he wore!

What cheer!
What cheer!
That is the cardinal grosbeak's way,
With his sooty face and his coat so red;
Too shrill, too red, too loud and gay
(Top-knotted like a jay),
Too crude for the critical eye and ear!
In a wild plum-thicket of Tennessee
He flung a challenge out to me,
And, as Marsyas, easily
Beaten and flayed alive was he.

Cheer! Cheer!
What cheer!
Oh, all the world shall be glad to hear!
And the nightingale
Shall fail
When I burst forth with my freedom-song
So rich and strong!

That 's a brown thrush
In the underbrush.
Conceited, self-conscious, inclined to gush,
His is a voice that will not wear;
Faulty timbre and volume weak,
He wrings from his beak
A spiral squeak
That bores like a gimlet through the air!
And the catbird, too,
With its feline mew,
Is only fit for the springe and the snare!

I like
The shrike,
Because, with a thorn for a guillotine,
He does his work so well and clean,
A critic keen--
A practical bird,
Whose common sense
Must be immense,
For, tell me, who has ever heard
Of such a thing
As a loggerhead shrike that tried to sing?
Hear! See! Oh, see!
What do you think of me?
Do I sing by rote,
Or by note?
Have I a parrot's echo-throat?
Oh no! I caught my strains
From Nature's freshest veins.

Where blows
The Cherokee rose
Amidst Floridian hills, a slave I heard
Halloo across a green tobacco field,
And sing as gleeful as a brook or bird,
The whiles a heavy hoe his hand did wield;
I mixed his tune
With the heat of June,
And sang it
And rang it
By the slow Aucilla
And the deep Sattilla
In groves of palm and pine by tropic breezes stirred,
And all the world has heard.

Mine is the voice of Spring,
My home is the land of the new,
And every note I sing
Is fresh as the morning dew;
For I am Freedom's bird
Whom the Pilgrim Fathers heard,
In their dreams of liberty,
Calling them to the dark wild woods across the
Western sea!

Not a mere mimic I,
That is a courtly lie
To give precedence to the nightingale
Bred in a classic vale,
Shadowed by ruins old and dim.
Give me a tilt at him!
Prestige of fame?
Romance of ages in his name?

What care I!
That bird shall die
And lie
My countless list of slain among,
On the flowery field of song!
A match for me!
No more than a wren or a chickadee!
Mine is the voice of the young and strong,
Mine the soul of the brave and the free!

But I can pipe the oldest runes
And trill the rarest tunes
Of every tongue in which song's perfume is.
Each swell I know,
Each quaver low,
The precious rhymes and rhythmic ecstasies
Dreamed of by master-bards long dead
And buried;
And in my treasure
The lightest measure,
Rondeau, ballade, or virelay,
To music set,
Can match the vagabond troubadour's mandore fret for fret,
And in a key more gay
My triolet!

And when night's vast and shadowy urn
Overbrims with dreams
I stir the vales of sleep with my nocturne;
Slowly, tenderly
Outflow its rippling streams
To blend with Night's still sea of mystery;
The pungent savor of the dewy buds,
The coolness and the languor of old woods,
And the slow murmur of the darkling rills
My art distills
Into a subtle philter, wild, intense,
Of tenuous melody
And slumbrous harmony,
Blown round the dusky hills,
Through fragrant fruity tropic thickets dense,
Lingering and lapsing on,
And lost before the dawn!

I aspire
To Freedom's fullest note;
The vigor of waxing birdhood thrills my throat;
Morn's wide horizon, rimmed with fervid fire,
Broadens my hope
And sets far limitations to the scope
Of my desire!
Cage me not!
Enrage me not!
Confine me to no purfled garden-plot:
My song must grow, as grows the plant or tree,
Out of the sun, and earth, and winds of Liberty!

Upon no vast
Dead past
I turn my eyes;
But every budding moment's blossom I forecast,
And take each day's new melodies by surprise.
I leap to meet fresh weather,
And feel through every feather
The first delicious foretaste of a change;
I test the range
Of Nature's every franchise, every tether!

Dream on, O nightingale!
Old things shall fade and fail,
And the glory of the past shall not avail
Against the Future, all-encompassing,
Whose prophet and whose poet I would be,
Whose promise and whose meaning I shall see,
Whose fires shall flame in every note I sing!

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