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The Birds of Cirencester


Did I ever tell you, my dears, the way
That the birds of Cisseter--"Cisseter!" eh?
Well "Ciren-cester"--one OUGHT to say,
From "Castra," or "Caster,"
As your Latin master
Will further explain to you some day;
Though even the wisest err,
And Shakespeare writes "Ci-cester,"
While every visitor
Who doesn't say "Cissiter"
Is in "Ciren-cester" considered astray.

A hundred miles from London town--
Where the river goes curving and broadening down
From tree-top to spire, and spire to mast,
Till it tumbles outright in the Channel at last--
A hundred miles from that flat foreshore
That the Danes and the Northmen haunt no more--
There's a little cup in the Cotswold hills
Which a spring in a meadow bubbles and fills,
Spanned by a heron's wing--crossed by a stride--
Calm and untroubled by dreams of pride,
Guiltless of Fame or ambition's aims,
That is the source of the lordly Thames!
Remark here again that custom contemns
Both "Tames" and Thames--you must SAY "Tems!"
But WHY? no matter!--from them you can see
Cirencester's tall spires loom up o'er the lea.

A. D. Five Hundred and Fifty-two,
The Saxon invaders--a terrible crew--
Had forced the lines of the Britons through;
And Cirencester, half mud and thatch,
Dry and crisp as a tinder match,
Was fiercely beleaguered by foes, who'd catch
At any device that could harry and rout
The folk that so boldly were holding out.

For the streets of the town--as you'll see to-day--
Were twisted and curved in a curious way
That kept the invaders still at bay;
And the longest bolt that a Saxon drew
Was stopped ere a dozen of yards it flew,
By a turn in the street, and a law so true
That even these robbers--of all laws scorners!--
Knew you couldn't shoot arrows AROUND street corners.

So they sat them down on a little knoll,
And each man scratched his Saxon poll,
And stared at the sky, where, clear and high,
The birds of that summer went singing by,
As if, in his glee, each motley jester
Were mocking the foes of Cirencester,
Till the jeering crow and the saucy linnet
Seemed all to be saying: "Ah! you're not in it!"

High o'er their heads the mavis flew,
And the "ouzel-cock so black of hue;"
And the "throstle," with his "note so true"
(You remember what Shakespeare says--HE knew);
And the soaring lark, that kept dropping through
Like a bucket spilling in wells of blue;
And the merlin--seen on heraldic panes--
With legs as vague as the Queen of Spain's;

And the dashing swift that would ricochet
From the tufts of grasses before them, yet--
Like bold Antaeus--would each time bring
New life from the earth, barely touched by his wing;
And the swallow and martlet that always knew
The straightest way home. Here a Saxon churl drew
His breath--tapped his forehead--an idea had got through!

So they brought them some nets, which straightway they filled
With the swallows and martlets--the sweet birds who build
In the houses of man--all that innocent guild
Who sing at their labor on eaves and in thatch--
And they stuck on their feathers a rude lighted match
Made of resin and tow. Then they let them all go
To be free! As a child-like diversion? Ah, no!
To work Cirencester's red ruin and woe.

For straight to each nest they flew, in wild quest
Of their homes and their fledgelings--that they loved the best;
And straighter than arrow of Saxon e'er sped
They shot o'er the curving streets, high overhead,
Bringing fire and terror to roof tree and bed,
Till the town broke in flame, wherever they came,
To the Briton's red ruin--the Saxon's red shame!

Yet they're all gone together! To-day you'll dig up
From "mound" or from "barrow" some arrow or cup.
Their fame is forgotten--their story is ended--
'Neath the feet of the race they have mixed with and blended.
But the birds are unchanged--the ouzel-cock sings,
Still gold on his crest and still black on his wings;
And the lark chants on high, as he mounts to the sky,
Still brown in his coat and still dim in his eye;
While the swallow or martlet is still a free nester
In the eaves and the roofs of thrice-built Cirencester.


Bret Harte

I: National

II: Spanish Idyls and Legends

III: In Dialect

IV: Miscellaneous

V: Parodies

VI: Songs Without Sense

VII: Little Posterity

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