The Elm Tree by Thomas Hood


“And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees.”–As You Like It.

‘Twas in a shady Avenue,
Where lofty Elms abound–
And from a Tree
There came to me
A sad and solemn sound,
That sometimes murmur’d overhead,
And sometimes underground.

Amongst the leaves it seem’d to sigh,
Amid the boughs to moan;
It mutter’d in the stem, and then
The roots took up the tone;
As if beneath the dewy grass
The dead began to groan.

No breeze there was to stir the leaves;
No bolts that tempests launch,
To rend the trunk or rugged bark;
No gale to bend the branch;
No quake of earth to heave the roots,
That stood so stiff and staunch.

No bird was preening up aloft,
To rustle with its wing;
No squirrel, in its sport or fear.
From bough to bough to spring.
The solid bole
Had ne’er a hole
To hide a living thing!

No scooping hollow cell to lodge
A furtive beast or fowl,
The martin, bat,
Or forest cat
That nightly loves to prowl,
Nor ivy nooks so apt to shroud
The moping, snoring owl.

But still the sound was in my ear,
A sad and solemn sound,
That sometimes murmur’d overhead,
And sometimes underground–
‘Twas in a shady Avenue
Where lofty Elms abound.

Oh hath the Dryad still a tongue
In this ungenial clime?
Have Sylvan Spirits still a voice
As in the classic prime–
To make the forest voluble,
As in the olden time?

The olden time is dead and gone;
Its years have fill’d their sum–
And e’en in Greece–her native Greece–
The Sylvan Nymph is dumb–
From ash, and beech, and aged oak,
No classic whispers come,

From Poplar, Pine, and drooping Birch,
And fragrant Linden Trees;
No living sound
E’er hovers round,
Unless the vagrant breeze,
The music of the merry bird,
Or hum of busy bees.

But busy bees forsake the Elm
That bears no bloom aloft–
The Finch was in the hawthorn-bush,
The Blackbird in the croft;
And among the firs the brooding Dove,
That else might murmur soft.

Yet still I heard that solemn sound,
And sad it was to boot,
From ev’ry overhanging bough,
And each minuter shoot;
From rugged trunk and mossy rind,
And from the twisted root.

From these,–a melancholy moan;
From those,–a dreary sigh;
As if the boughs were wintry bare,
And wild winds sweeping by–
Whereas the smallest fleecy cloud
Was steadfast in the sky.

No sign or touch of stirring air
Could either sense observe–
The zephyr had not breath enough
The thistle-down to swerve,
Or force the filmy gossamers
To take another curve.

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In still and silent slumber hush’d
All Nature seem’d to be:
From heaven above, or earth beneath,
No whisper came to me–
Except the solemn sound and sad

A hollow, hollow, hollow, sound,
As is that dreamy roar
When distant billows boil and bound
Along a shingly shore–
But the ocean brim was far aloof,
A hundred miles or more.

No murmur of the gusty sea,
No tumult of the beach,
However they may foam and fret,
The bounded sense could reach–
Methought the trees in mystic tongue
Were talking each to each!–

Mayhap, rehearsing ancient tales
Of greenwood love or guilt,
Of whisper’d vows
Beneath their boughs;
Or blood obscurely spilt,
Or of that near-hand Mansion House
A royal Tudor built.

Perchance, of booty won or shared
Beneath the starry cope–
Or where the suicidal wretch
Hung up the fatal rope;
Or Beauty kept an evil tryste,
Insnared by Love and Hope.

Of graves, perchance, untimely scoop’d
At midnight dark and dank–
And what is underneath the sod
Whereon the grass is rank–
Of old intrigues,
And privy leagues,
Tradition leaves in blank.

Of traitor lips that mutter’d plots–
Of Kin who fought and fell–
God knows the undiscovered schemes,
The arts and acts of Hell,
Perform’d long generations since,
If trees had tongues to tell!

With wary eyes, and ears alert,
As one who walks afraid,
I wander’d down the dappled path
Of mingled light and shade–
How sweetly gleam’d that arch of blue
Beyond the green arcade!

How cheerily shone the glimpse of Heav’n
Beyond that verdant aisle!
All overarch’d with lofty elms,
That quench’d the light, the while,
As dim and chill
As serves to fill
Some old Cathedral pile!

And many a gnarled trunk was there,
That ages long had stood,
Till Time had wrought them into shapes
Like Pan’s fantastic brood;
Or still more foul and hideous forms
That Pagans carve in wood!

A crouching Satyr lurking here–
And there a Goblin grim–
As staring full of demon life
As Gothic sculptor’s whim–
A marvel it had scarcely been
To hear a voice from him!

Some whisper from that horrid mouth
Of strange, unearthly tone;
Or wild infernal laugh, to chill
One’s marrow in the bone.
But no–it grins like rigid Death,
And silent as a stone!

As silent as its fellows be,
For all is mute with them–
The branch that climbs the leafy roof–
The rough and mossy stem–
The crooked root,
And tender shoot,
Where hangs the dewy gem.

One mystic Tree alone there is,
Of sad and solemn sound–
That sometimes murmurs overhead,
And sometimes underground–
In all that shady Avenue,
Where lofty Elms abound.

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The Scene is changed! No green Arcade,
No Trees all ranged a-row–
But scatter’d like a beaten host,
Dispersing to and fro;
With here and there a sylvan corse,
That fell before the foe.

The Foe that down in yonder dell
Pursues his daily toil;
As witness many a prostrate trunk,
Bereft of leafy spoil,
Hard by its wooden stump, whereon
The adder loves to coil.

Alone he works–his ringing blows
Have banish’d bird and beast;
The Hind and Fawn have canter’d off
A hundred yards at least;
And on the maple’s lofty top
The linnet’s song has ceased.

No eye his labor overlooks,
Or when he takes his rest,
Except the timid thrush that peeps
Above her secret nest,
Forbid by love to leave the young
Beneath her speckled breast.

The Woodman’s heart is in his work,
His axe is sharp and good:
With sturdy arm and steady aim
He smites the gaping wood;
From distant rocks
His lusty knocks
Re-echo many a rood.

His axe is keen, his arm is strong;
The muscles serve him well;
His years have reach’d an extra span,
The number none can tell;
But still his lifelong task has been
The Timber Tree to fell.

Through Summer’s parching sultriness,
And Winter’s freezing cold,
From sapling youth
To virile growth.
And Age’s rigid mould,
His energetic axe hath rung
Within that Forest old.

Aloft, upon his poising steel
The vivid sunbeams glance–
About his head and round his feet
The forest shadows dance;
And bounding from his russet coat
The acorn drops askance.

His face is like a Druid’s face,
With wrinkles furrow’d deep,
And tann’d by scorching suns as brown
As corn that’s ripe to reap;
But the hair on brow, and cheek, and chin,
Is white as wool of sheep.

His frame is like a giant’s frame;
His legs are long and stark;
His arms like limbs of knotted yew;
His hands like rugged bark;
So he felleth still
With right good will,
As if to build an Ark!

Oh! well within His fatal path
The fearful Tree might quake
Through every fibre, twig, and leaf,
With aspen tremor shake;
Through trunk and root,
And branch and shoot,
A low complaining make!

Oh! well to Him the Tree might breathe
A sad and solemn sound,
A sigh that murmur’d overhead,
And groans from underground;
As in that shady Avenue
Where lofty Elms abound!

But calm and mute the Maple stands,
The Plane, the Ash, the Fir,
The Elm, the Beech, the drooping Birch,
Without the least demur;
And e’en the Aspen’s hoary leaf
Makes no unusual stir.

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The Pines–those old gigantic Pines,
That writhe–recalling soon
The famous Human Group that writhes
With Snakes in wild festoon–
In ramous wrestlings interlaced
A Forest Laocoon–

Like Titans of primeval girth
By tortures overcome,
Their brown enormous limbs they twine,
Bedew’d with tears of gum–
Fierce agonies that ought to yell,
But, like the marble, dumb.

Nay, yonder blasted Elm that stands
So like a man of sin,
Who, frantic, flings his arms abroad
To feel the Worm within–
For all that gesture, so intense,
It makes no sort of din!

An universal silence reigns
In rugged bark or peel,
Except that very trunk which rings
Beneath the biting steel–
Meanwhile the Woodman plies his axe
With unrelenting zeal!

No rustic song is on his tongue,
No whistle on his lips;
But with a quiet thoughtfulness
His trusty tool he grips,
And, stroke on stroke, keeps hacking out
The bright and flying chips.

Stroke after stroke, with frequent dint
He spreads the fatal gash;
Till, lo! the remnant fibres rend,
With harsh and sudden crash,
And on the dull resounding turf
The jarring branches lash!

Oh! now the Forest Trees may sigh,
The Ash, the Poplar tall,
The Elm, the Beech, the drooping Birch,
The Aspens–one and all,
With solemn groan
And hollow moan
Lament a comrade’s fall!

A goodly Elm, of noble girth,
That, thrice the human span–
While on their variegated course
The constant Seasons ran–
Through gale, and hail, and fiery bolt,
Had stood erect as Man.

But now, like mortal Man himself,
Struck down by hand of God,
Or heathen Idol tumbled prone
Beneath th’ Eternal’s nod,
In all its giant bulk and length
It lies along the sod!

Ay, now the Forest Trees may grieve
And make a common moan
Around that patriarchal trunk
So newly overthrown;
And with a murmur recognize
A doom to be their own!

The Echo sleeps: the idle axe,
A disregarded tool,
Lies crushing with its passive weight
The toad’s reputed stool–
The Woodman wipes his dewy brow
Within the shadows cool.

No Zephyr stirs: the ear may catch
The smallest insect-hum;
But on the disappointed sense
No mystic whispers come;
No tone of sylvan sympathy,
The Forest Trees are dumb.

No leafy noise, nor inward voice,
No sad and solemn sound,
That sometimes murmurs overhead,
And sometimes underground;
As in that shady Avenue,
Where lofty Elms abound!


The deed is done: the Tree is low
That stood so long and firm;
The Woodman and his axe are gone,
His toil has found its term;
And where he wrought the speckled Thrush
Securely hunts the worm.

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The Cony from the sandy bank
Has run a rapid race,
Through thistle, bent, and tangled fern,
To seek the open space;
And on its haunches sits erect
To clean its furry face.

The dappled Fawn is close at hand,
The Hind is browsing near,–
And on the Larch’s lowest bough
The Ousel whistles clear;
But checks the note
Within its throat,
As choked with sudden fear!

With sudden fear her wormy quest
The Thrush abruptly quits–
Through thistle, bent, and tangled fern
The startled Cony flits;
And on the Larch’s lowest bough
No more the Ousel sits.

With sudden fear
The dappled Deer
Effect a swift escape;
But well might bolder creatures start,
And fly, or stand agape,
With rising hair, and curdled blood,
To see so grim a Shape!

The very sky turns pale above;
The earth grows dark beneath;
The human Terror thrills with cold
And draws a shorter breath–
An universal panic owns
The dread approach of DEATH!

With silent pace, as shadows come,
And dark as shadows be,
The grisly Phantom takes his stand
Beside the fallen Tree,
And scans it with his gloomy eyes,
And laughs with horrid glee–

A dreary laugh and desolate,
Where mirth is void and null,
As hollow as its echo sounds
Within the hollow skull–
“Whoever laid this tree along,
His hatchet was not dull!

“The human arm and human tool
Have done their duty well!
But after sound of ringing axe
Must sound the ringing knell;
When Elm or Oak
Have felt the stroke,
My turn it is to fell!

“No passive unregarded tree,
A senseless thing of wood,
Wherein the sluggish sap ascends
To swell the vernal bud–
But conscious, moving, breathing trunks
That throb with living blood!

“No forest Monarch yearly clad
In mantle green or brown;
That unrecorded lives, and falls
By hand of rustic clown–
But Kings who don the purple robe,
And wear the jewell’d crown.

“Ah! little recks the Royal mind,
Within his Banquet Hall,
While tapers shine and Music breathes
And Beauty leads the Ball,–
He little recks the oaken plank
Shall be his palace wall!

“Ah, little dreams the haughty Peer,
The while his Falcon flies–
Or on the blood-bedabbled turf
The antler’d quarry dies–
That in his own ancestral Park
The narrow dwelling lies!

“But haughty Peer and mighty King
One doom shall overwhelm!
The oaken cell
Shall lodge him well
Whose sceptre ruled a realm–
While he, who never knew a home,
Shall find it in the Elm!

“The tatter’d, lean, dejected wretch,
Who begs from door to door,
And dies within the cressy ditch,
Or on the barren moor,
The friendly Elm shall lodge and clothe
That houseless man and poor!

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“Yea, this recumbent rugged trunk,
That lies so long and prone,
With many a fallen acorn-cup,
And mast, and furry cone–
This rugged trunk shall hold its share
Of mortal flesh and bone!

“A Miser hoarding heaps of gold,
But pale with ague-fears–
A Wife lamenting love’s decay,
With secret cruel tears,
Distilling bitter, bitter drops
From sweets of former years–

“A Man within whose gloomy mind
Offence had deeply sunk,
Who out of fierce Revenge’s cup
Hath madly, darkly drunk–
Grief, Avarice, and Hate shall sleep
Within this very trunk!

“This massy trunk that lies along,
And many more must fall–
For the very knave
Who digs the grave,
The man who spreads the pall,
And he who tolls the funeral bell,
The Elm shall have them all!

“The tall abounding Elm that grows
In hedgerows up and down;
In field and forest, copse and park,
And in the peopled town,
With colonies of noisy rooks
That nestle on its crown.

“And well th’ abounding Elm may grow
In field and hedge so rife,
In forest, copse, and wooded park,
And ‘mid the city’s strife,
For, every hour that passes by
Shall end a human life!”

The Phantom ends: the shade is gone;
The sky is clear and bright;
On turf, and moss, and fallen Tree,
There glows a ruddy light;
And bounding through the golden fern
The Rabbit comes to bite.

The Thrush’s mate beside her sits
And pipes a merry lay;
The Dove is in the evergreen;
And on the Larch’s spray
The Fly-bird flutters up and down,
To catch its tiny prey.

The gentle Hind and dappled Fawn
Are coming up the glade;
Each harmless furr’d and feather’d thing
Is glad, and not afraid–
But on my sadden’d spirit still
The Shadow leaves a shade.

A secret, vague, prophetic gloom,
As though by certain mark
I knew the fore-appointed Tree,
Within whose rugged bark
This warm and living frame shall find
Its narrow house and dark.

That mystic Tree which breathed to me
A sad and solemn sound,
That sometimes murmur’d overhead,
And sometimes underground;
Within that shady Avenue
Where lofty Elms abound.

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