The River – a poem by George MacDonald

I have taken the liberty to name this passage from George MacDonald’s book At the Back of the North Wind and to call it a poem and to break it into lines.  It seems to me to be a beautiful free verse poem.  It occurs in chapter 15 as if it comes from a children’s nursery rhyme book.  The mother cannot understand a word of it and calls it nonsense, but the boy thinks he has heard it before in the river’s song at the back of the North Wind.  I think George was giving us a clue.   [EW]

I know a river
whose waters run asleep
run
run ever singing
in the shallows
dumb in the hollows
sleeping so deep
and all the swallows
that dip their feathers in the hollows
or in the shallows
are the merriest swallows of all
for the nests they bake
with the clay they cake
with the water they shake
from their wings that rake
the water out of the shallows
or the hollows
will hold together in any weather
and so the swallows are the merriest fellows
and have the merriest children
and are built so narrow like the head of an arrow
to cut the air and go just where
the nicest water is flowing
and the nicest dust is blowing
for each so narrow like head of an arrow
is only a barrow
to carry the mud he makes
from the nicest water flowing
and the nicest dust that is blowing
to build his nest for her he loves best
with the nicest cakes which the sunshine bakes
all for their merry children
all so callow with beaks that follow
gaping and hollow
wider and wider
after their father or after their mother the food-provider
who brings them a spider or a worm
the poor hider down in the earth
so there’s no dearth
for their beaks as yellow as the buttercups
growing beside the flowing of the singing river
always and ever growing and blowing
for fast as the sheep
awake or asleep
crop them and crop them
they cannot stop them
but up they creep
and on they go blowing
and so with the daisies the little white praises
they grow and they blow
and they spread out their crown
and they praise the sun
and when he goes down
their praising is done
and they fold up their crown
and they sleep every one
till over the plain
he’s shining amain
and they’re at it again
praising and praising
such low songs raising
that no one hears them
but the sun who rears them
and the sheep that bite them
are the quietest sheep
awake or asleep
with the merriest bleat
and the little lambs are the merriest lambs
they forget to eat
for the frolic in their feet
and the lambs
and their dams
are the whitest sheep
with the woolliest wool
and the longest wool
and the trailingest tails
and they shine like snow
in the grasses that grow
by the singing river
that sings for ever
and the sheep and the lambs are merry for ever
because the river sings and they drink it
and the lambs and their dams are quiet
and white
because of their diet
for what they bite
is buttercups yellow and daisies white
and grass as green as the river can make it
with wind as mellow to kiss it and shake it
as never was seen
but here in the hollows
beside the river
where all the swallows
are merriest of fellows
for the nests they make
with the clay they cake
in the sunshine bake
till they are like bone
as dry in the wind as a marble stone
so firm they bind the grass in the clay that dries in the wind
the sweetest wind that blows by the river
flowing for ever
but never
you find whence comes the wind
that blows on the hollows
and over the shallows
where dip the swallows
alive it blows
the life as it goes
awake or asleep into the river
that sings as it flows
and the life it blows
into the sheep
awake or asleep
with the woolliest wool
and the trailingest tails
and it never fails
gentle and cool
to wave the wool
and to toss the grass
as the lambs and the sheep over it pass
and tug and bite
with their teeth so white
and then with the sweep of their trailing tails
smooth it again
and it grows amain
and amain it grows
and the wind as it blows
tosses the swallows
over the hollows
and down on the shallows
till every feather
doth shake and quiver
and all their feathers
go all together
blowing the life
and the joy so rife
into the swallows
that skim the shallows
and have the yellowest children
for the wind that blows
is the life of the river
flowing for ever
that washes the grasses
still as it passes
and feeds the daisies
the little white praises
and buttercups bonny
so golden and sunny
with butter and honey
that whiten the sheep
awake or asleep
that nibble and bite
and grow whiter than white
and merry and quiet
on the sweet diet
fed by the river
and tossed for ever
by the wind that tosses the swallow
that crosses over the shallows
dipping his wings to gather the water
and bake the cake that the wind shall make
as hard as a bone
as dry as a stone
it’s all in the wind that blows
from behind
and all in the river
that flows
for ever
and all in the grasses
and the white daisies
and the merry sheep
awake or asleep
and the happy swallows
skimming the shallows
and it’s all in the wind that blows from behind.

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