The Greenwood Shrift

Robert Southey

The royal minister was George the Third. The anecdote is related on the authority of the Rev. George Crabbe, the well-known poet of humble life.


OUTSTRETCHED beneath the leafy shade

Of Windsor Forest’s deepest glade,

  A dying woman lay;

Three little children round her stood,

And there went up from the greenwood

  A woful wail that day.


“O mother!” was the mingled cry,

“O mother, mother! do not die,

  And leave us all alone.”

“My blessed babes!” she tried to say,

But the faint accents died away

  In a low sobbing moan.


And then life struggled hard with death,

And fast and strong she drew her breath,

  And up she raised her head;        15

And, peeping through the deep-wood maze

With a long, sharp, unearthly gaze,

  “Will he not come?” she said.


Just then the parting boughs between,

A little maid’s light form was seen,

  All breathless with her speed;

And, following close, a man came on

(A portly man to look upon),

  Who led a panting steed.


“Mother!” the little maiden cried,

Or e’er she reached the woman’s side,

  And kissed her clay-cold cheek,—

“I have not idled in the town,

But long went wandering up and down,

  The minister to seek.        30


“They told me here, they told me there,

I think they mocked me everywhere;

  And when I found his home,

And begged him on my bended knee,

To bring his book and come with me,

  Mother! he would not come.


“I told him how you dying lay,

And would not go in peace away

  Without the minister;

I begged him, for dear Christ, his sake,

But oh! my heart was fit to break—

  Mother! he would not stir.


“So, though my tears were blinding me,

I ran back, fast as fast could be,

  To come again to you;        45

And here, close by, this squire I met,

Who asked (so mild) what made me fret;

  And when I told him true,


“‘I will go with you, child,’ he said,

‘God sends me to this dying bed.’

  Mother, he ’s here, hard by.”

While thus the little maiden spoke,

The man, his back against an oak,

  Looked on with glistening eye.


The bridle on his neck flung free,

With quivering flank and bended knee,

  Pressed close his bonny bay;

A statelier man, a statelier steed,

Never on greensward paced, I rede,

  Than those stood there that day.


So, while the little maiden spoke,

The man, his back against an oak,

  Looked on with glistening eye

And folded arms; and in his look

Something that like a sermon book

  Preached, “All is vanity.”


But when the dying woman’s face

Turned toward him with a wishful gaze,

  He stepped to where she lay;

And, kneeling down, bent over her,

Saying, “I am a minister,—

  My sister! let us pray.”


And well, withouten book or stole

(God’s words were printed on his soul),

  Into the dying ear        75

He breathed, as ’t were, an angel’s strain,

The things that unto life pertain,

  And death’s dark shadows clear.


He spoke of sinners’ lost estate,

In Christ renewed, regenerate,

  Of God’s most blest decree

That not a single soul should die

Who turns repentant, with the cry

  “Be merciful to me!”


He spoke of trouble, pain, and toil,

Endured but for a little while

  In patience, faith, and love,

Sure, in God’s own time, to be

Exchanged for an eternity

  Of happiness above.


Then, as the spirit ebbed away,

He raised his hands and eyes, to pray

  That peaceful it might pass;

And then the orphans’ sobs alone

Were heard, as they knelt every one

  Close round on the green grass.


Such was the sight their wondering eyes

Beheld, in heart-struck, mute surprise,

  Who reined their coursers back,

Just as they found the long astray,

Who, in the heat of chase that day,

  Had wandered from their track.


But each man reined his pawing steed,

And lighted down, as if agreed,

  In silence at his side;

And there, uncovered all, they stood—

It was a wholesome sight and good—

  That day for mortal pride.


For of the noblest of the land

Was that deep-hushed, bare-headed band;

  And central in the ring,

By that dead pauper on the ground,

Her ragged orphans clinging round,

  Knelt their anointed king.