October 28, 2004

Marsh hay poems of John F. Herbin.

Viennau. Acadian salt marsh haying.John Frederic Herbin (1860-1923).

John Frederic Herbin (1860-1923).
“The Dyke”

John Frederic Herbin (1860-1923).
“The Night-mower”

John Frederic Herbin (1860-1923).
“The Sea Harvest”

John Frederic Herbin (1860-1923).

John Frederic Herbin (1860-1923).
“In the Rain”

John Frederic Herbin (1860-1923).
“Aftermath” [sonnet]

John Frederic Herbin (1860-1923).
“Aftermath” ["August is hot in the flood of an ardent sun"]

Cutler. Beached gundalow. 19th cent.Nova Scotian Herbin was a contemporary of two more famous artists (the painter Heade and the photographer Emerson) who spent much of their careers capturing the life and landscape of other marshes. Herbin romanticized the Acadian way of life, in which the gathering of salt hay was an intrinsic part, and his description of the work now seems melodramatic, but the lines that end the “Sea Harvest” sonnet (Soon high and dark above the marsh and tides,/ Stand the great hay-towers; as they loom and lean,/ Like turrets grim to mark the solitude) are a fine literary equivalent to Heade’s “Great Swamp” which I have put beside them.

Grigorescu. Oxen Pulling Hay-cart.John Frederic Herbin (1860-1923).
from The Marshlands (1893).

From the soft dyke-road, crooked and waggon-worn,
Comes the great load of rustling scented hay,
Slow-drawn with heavy swing and creaky sway,
Through the cool freshness of the windless morn.
The oxen, yoked and sturdy, horn to horn,
Sharing the rest and toil of night and day,
Bend head and neck to the long hilly way,
By many a season's labor marked and torn.
On the broad sea of dyke, the gathering heat
Waves upward from the grass, where road on road
Is swept before the tramping of the teams.
And while the oxen rest beside the sweet
New hay, the loft receives the early load,
With hissing stir, among the dusty beams.

Moran. Mowing. 1887.John Frederic Herbin (1860-1923).
“The Dyke”
from The Marshlands (1893).

From dyke to hillside, sways the level sweep
Of all the ripened hay, in mid-July;
A tideless sea of rustling melody,
Beside the river-channels of the deep.
Astray and straggling, or in broken heap,
Where birdlings flutter, dark the fences lie.
Far off, the tortuous rush-grown creek is dry.
Where looms the leaning barn like ancient keep.
A Neptune cuts across the sea of green
With chariot-music trembling to the hills;
And as the horses swim the grass divides,
Showing to heaven where his way has been.
The sounding wheel that bares what Natures hides
Drowns the low nestling-cry, and ruthless kills.

Bastien-LePage. Mower Sharpening Scythe. 1878.John Frederic Herbin (1860-1923).
“The Night-mower”
from The Marshlands (1893).

In the soft dew-fall of an autumn night,
A solitary mower marks his way
With hissing scythe in the brine-savored hay,
Long ere the dawn is flooding into light.
While coward fear and doubting dim my sight,
I shame to hear the certain swing and play
Of the strong toiler's arm, or night or day,
Treading the hours through in faithful might.
Ever he glides with form invisible;
His ringing scythe oft filling the dark plain.
The moving murmur of the coming tide
Stirs the broad night, now full and palpable;
For wholesome pride and faith are mine again
Near the night-mower by the river-side.

Heade. Great Swamp. 1868.John Frederic Herbin (1860-1923).
“The Sea Harvest”
from The Marshlands (1893).

On the great sea-marsh where the eddies stray,
The mower strikes ere yet the dew is fled.
The salt-hay falls before his heavy tread,
Filling with odorous breath the whole green way.
On the tide's back, now with the broadened day,
Like a mild beast of burden slowly led,
The floating grass is meshed and gathered;
A great tide-harvest of salt-smelling hay.
Where herons stalk, and the shy mallard hides
In stillest haunts, is the man-worker seen---
Even the sea must garner for his good.
Soon high and dark above the marsh and tides,
Stand the great hay-towers; as they loom and lean,
Like turrets grim to mark the solitude.

Turner. Gundalow. 1889.John Frederic Herbin (1860-1923).
from The Marshlands (1893).

From the marsh hay-fields, owned of sea and sky,
Come the wet scow-loads, drifting with the tide;
While fragmentary breezes curl and glide
Over the silver surface lazily.
With each dark burden builded broad and high,
The laden scows lean clumsy, side by side.
No ripples mark their passage; yet they ride
In to the creek's soft landing red and dry.
The tide-deserted creek glows in the sun;
And the wet scows now stranded on the shore
Gape dark and empty, near a loaded cart
Drawn by two sturdy oxen, white and dun,
Which, as the evening reddens more and more,
Bend to the driver's word, ready to start.

Heade. Marshfield Meadows. c1866.John Frederic Herbin (1860-1923).
“In the Rain”
from The Marshlands (1893).

With the new hay, a dripping, scented load,
Comes the slow ox-team with a noiseless tread
Through the thick rain with bent, unswerving head,
Toiling along the soft and silent road.
Across the marsh the ripened hay windrowed
Lies all deserted, where the toilers sped.
The dyke-road winding to the learning shed
Has but a solitary, hobbling toad.
Adown the wide and grass-grown village street,
The last dark phantom pair of steaming steeds
Leap headlong toward the open barn, with chains
That rattle louder than their rapid feet.
Until the tide has left the swaying reeds
High on the marsh, the morning through, it rains.

Joseph Smith. Mowed Field. 1994.John Frederic Herbin (1860-1923).
“Aftermath” [sonnet]
from The Marshlands (1893).

But late I saw the mower's marching sweep
Lay bare and dry from upland to the tide
The whole green dyke. Even the bright hill-side
In scattered rose and golden-rod lay deep.
Swift wheel the busy birds of prey, and leap
Through the bright sunlight nowhere now denied;
Where thick and close the shielding grasses dyed:
And the full barns the sweet hay-odors keep.
Then night shed tears on the uncovered fields,
Lying in barrenness, a stubbly waste;
Where, like a raging fire, the scythe has been.
To-day the aftermath renews and shields
All the denuded dykes with kindly haste;
And everywhere again the plains are green.

Turner.  Farmers Stacking Marsh Hay. 19th cent.John Frederic Herbin (1860-1923).
“Aftermath” ["August is hot in the flood of an ardent sun"]
from The Marshlands Second Edition (1899).

August is hot from the touch of an ardent sun,
Lolling and still in fields and windless places;
Idle all day like a woman with hair undone,
Her feet unshod, her bosom bare of laces.

All her passionate beauty and strength are here,
Complete, and grown to power beyond disguising.
Her flying days are short as the last draw near
And wane, September anear on wings uprising.

Hotter glow her burning eyes and harsh
Where the scythe has bared the grassy slopes and meadows;
On the breathless sea, and the stifled miles of marsh
Where spruce and willow lose the cool of shadows.

[Page 21 ]
Yet the dewy nights are sweet; and the lagging dawn
Awakes to the ringing scythe, like a heavy sleeper;
And the dyke-ward drift of the tide with the marsh-hay mown,
Drives off the cranes from the hidden creeks grown deeper.

As a tired troop of horses march in sleep
When the weary riders hear not the sounding sabres;
So comes the tide with the flooding march of the deep,
Across the marshes to the winding rivers.

And a ship like a gull swings off the anchoring clay,
And drifts with the fisher-craft from the nearer offing;
While the inshore flight of the gulls on the edge of day
Startles the silent flats with joyless laughing.

As the sea drifts in the toilers deep in the tide
Gather the grass, as fishermen drag the meshes---
Hunters surrounding the game on every side,
Till the spoil is captive in the binding leashes.

Trumpet-like the call of the herds long-blown
Wafts mellow and far to the drowse of the sense's hearing;
[Page 22 ]
The perfumes fresh from the marshy meadows flown
Bring taste of the tide whose overflow is nearing.

Still the meadows are the mower has shorn,
Where thistles stood, and perfumes fled from the flowers
And the stubble stark where the summer's yield was borne
Now seemeth dead to the sun and the touch of showers.

From the empty barns have the hollow echoes fled;
The lofts are loaded deep with the grassy sweetness.
The grain ungarnered and ripe swings lazy head,
And all the corn is bursting with its greatness.

Leaning hay-ricks dark rise everywhere
Across the meadows and the waters looming.
The higher tides flood the marshes unaware,
Among strange ways and newer channels roaming.

September comes to the bare burnt places, and cools
With gentle touch and breath, a glad new-comer;
Refreshing the languorous lakes and the dying pools
Before the advent of the Indian summer.

[Page 23 ]
Fragrant are the orchards ripe of fruit,
And fairest the flowers of September-bringing.
Songsters seem to be wording a second suit,
So eager and so joyful in their singing.

Primroses yet are blown, and the thistle abloom,
The August-flower bright from the bud its month gone over;
Asters smile near the rushes' damp and gloom;
A sweetness lingers near the thrifty clover.

The season will not die though all the dykes
Seemed to the roots destroyed by the ruthless mower:
Where now the cattle graze, and the marsh-hawk strikes,
Are the fields of aftermath of the secret sower.

Posted by Alan Ritch at October 28, 2004 01:15 PM