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THE WELL-SWEEP OF A SONG

THAT the wise Shakespeare spoke the truth when he observed that "one touch of nature makes the whole world kin" has never been better exemplified than in the affectionate tenderness with which all sorts and conditions of men join in singing a song like "The Old Oaken Bucket." As one hears this ballad in a crowded room, or even as so often given in a New England play like "The Old Homestead," one does not stop to analyse one's sensations; one forgets the homely phrase; one simply feels and knows oneself the better for the memories of happy and innocent childhood which the simple song invokes.

Dear, delightful Goldsmith has wonderfully expressed in "The Deserted Village" the inextinguishable yearning for the spot we call "home": 

"In all my wanderings round this world of care,

In all my griefs and God has given my share

I still had hopes, my long vexations past,

Here to return and die at home at last,"

 and it is this same lyric cry that has been crystallised for all time, so far as the American people are concerned, in "The Old Oaken Bucket."

The day will not improbably come when the allusions in this poem will demand as careful an explanation as some of Shakespeare's archaic references now call for. But even when this time does come, and an elaborate description of the strange old custom of drawing water from a hole in the ground by means of a long pole and a rude pail will be necessary to an understanding of the poem, men's voices will grow husky and their eyes will dim at the music of "The Old Oaken Bucket."

It is to the town of Scituate, Massachusetts, one of the most ancient settlements of the old colony, that we trace back the local colour which pervades the poem. The history of the place is memorable and interesting. The people come of a hardy and determined ancestry, who fought for every inch of ground that their descendants now hold. To this fact may perhaps be attributed the strength of those associations, clinging like ivy around some of the most notable of the ancient homesteads.

The scene so vividly described in the charming ballad we are considering is a little valley through which Herring Brook pursues its devious way to meet the tidal waters of North River. "The view of it from Coleman Heights, with its neat cottages, its maple graves, and apple orchards, is remarkably beautiful," writes one appreciative author. The wide-spreading "pond," the "mill," the, "dairy-house," the "rock where the cataract fell," and even the "old well," if not the, original "mosscovered bucket" itself, may still be seen just as the poet described them.

In quaint, homely Scituate, Samuel Woodworth, the people's poet, was indeed barn and reared. Although the original house is no longer there, a pretty place called "The Old Oaken Bucket House" still stands, a modern successor to the poet's home and at another bucket oaken if not old, the pilgrim of to-day may stop to slake his thirst from the very waters, the recollection of which gave the poet such exquisite pleasure in after years. One would fain have the surroundings unchanged the cot where Woodworth dwelt, the ponderous well-sweep, creaking with age, at which his youthful hands were wont to tug strongly; and finally the mossy bucket, overflowing with crystal nectar fresh from the coal depths below. Yet in spite of the changes, one gets fairly well the illusion of the ancient spot, and comes away well content to have quaffed a draught of such excellent water to the memory of this Scituate poet.

The circumstances under which the popular ballad was composed and written are said to be as follows: Samuel Woodworth was a printer who had served his apprenticeship under the veteran Major Russell of the Columbian Centinel, a journal which was in its day the leading Federalist organ of New England. He had inherited the wandering propensity of his craft, and yielding to the desire for change he was successively in Hartford and New York, doing what he could in a journalistic way. In the latter city he became associated, after an unsuccessful career as a publisher, in the editorship of the Mirror. And it was while living in New York in the Bohemian fashion of his class, that, in company with some brother printers, he one day dropped in at a well-known establishment then kept by one Mallory to take a social glass of wine.

The cognac was pronounced excellent. After drinking it, Woodworth set his glass down on the table, and, smacking his lips, declared emphatically that Mallory's eau de vie was superior to anything that he had ever tasted.

"There you are mistaken," said one of his comrades, quietly; then added, "there certainly was one thing that far surpassed this in the way of drinking, as you, too, will readily acknowledge."

"Indeed; and, pray, what was that?" Woodworth asked, with apparent incredulity that anything could surpass the liquor then before him.

"The draught of pure and sparkling spring water that we used to get from the old oaken bucket that hung in the well, after our return from the labours of the field on a sultry summer's day."

No one spoke; all were busy with their own thoughts.

Woodworth's eyes became dimmed. "True, true," he exclaimed; and soon after quitted the place. With his heart overflowing with the recollections that this chance allusion in a barroom had inspired, the scene of his happier childhood life rushed upon him in a flood of feeling. He hastened back to the office in which he then  worked, seized a pen, and in half an hour had written his popular ballad: 

"How dear to this heart are the scenes of my childhood,

When fond recollection presents them to view!

The orchard, the meadow, the deep-tangled wildwood,

And every loved spot which my infancy knew,

The wide-spreading pond and the mill which stood by it,

The bridge and the rock where the cataract fell;

The cot of my father, the dairy-house nigh it,

And when the rude bucket that hung in the well,

The old oaken bucket, the iron-bound bucket,

The moss-covered bucket which hung in the well.

 

"The moss-covered vessel I hail as a treasure;

For often at noon when returned from the field,

I found it the source of an exquisite pleasure,

The purest and sweetest that nature can yield.

How ardent I seized it with hands that were glowing!

And quick to the white-pebbled bottom it fell;

Then soon with the emblem of truth overflowing,

And dripping with coolness it rose from the well,

The old oaken bucket, the iron-bound bucket,

The moss-covered bucket, arose from the well.

 

"How sweet from the green mossy brim to receive it,

As, poised from the curb, it inclined to my lips!

Not a full blushing goblet could tempt me to leave it,

Though filled with the nectar that Jupiter sips.

And now, far removed from the loved situation,

The tear of regret will intrusively swell,

As fancy reverts to my father's plantation,

And sighs for the bucket which hangs in the well,

The old oaken bucket, the iron-bound bucket,

The moss-covered bucket which hangs in the well."

 Woodworth's reputation rests upon this one stroke of genius. He died in 1842 at the age of fifty-seven. But after almost fifty years his memory is still green, and we still delight to pay tender homage to the spot which inspired one of the most beautiful sangs America has yet produced.

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