by kind permission of “The Society of Authors”
Cherries and bread, for Man’s delight and need,
His pleasure and his very life, the two,
Fostered by sun and rain, and soil and seed,
And by the sweat of Man, the season through.
Bases of all that mortals are and do;
Sweet juice and corn, that never did men harm.
So my thought runs at Harwell Middle Farm.
In April woods, the white wild-cherry flowers
Toss in their glory before leaves appear,
Banners and vanguard of the jolly hours,
The blackbird hatched, cuckoo and swallow near.
And though the blossom bring but fruit austere
That only birds enjoy, this April white
Is Spring, her very self, and Man’s delight.
Once, far away, past Troy, the rich-in-gold,
Before the ship-wright’s axe the forests felled,
Great, sweet, transparent cherries grew of old,
There, where the Amazonian hunters dwelled,
Exquisite, healing cherries, precious held,
So that when Asia fell to conquering Rome,
Captain Lucullus carried cuttings home.
Two thousand years have gone, since those two stocks
(Crossed with how many others?) have been tried
Among the bees at each Spring Equinox,
By countless testers, ever watchful-eyed.
From many a climate, many a country-side,
The variants come, too many for my tale,
Sweet, bitter, bitter-sweet, black, scarlet, pale.
Though the unknown may ever seem more fair
Than the dull known of every day’s event,
Though many wonders may be, or once were,
One little island is our continent;
England’s our life, of joy or discontent,
And we, who sail so far, had better turn
To English fields, the cherry-lore to learn.
There is a grey stretch of the Berkshire chalk
Horn Down, and Harwell Field, and Hagbourne Hill,
Where pale blue flowers crown the chicory stalk
In late Julys whenever corn-ears fill;
Below, where the springs burst and the brooks trill,
Long centuries since, man found that cherries throve
For Harwell Man’s perpetual treasure-trove.
Thus it is still, in all this quiet scene,
In old-time fields, in farms that Doomsday knew,
The cherry governs as the Harvest Queen
And world-wide crossings stock the fields anew.
The sun, the earth, the bees, the rain, the dew,
These five remain, and Man’s inspired skill
Beguiles the five to bring the cherry still.
For, though there be an element, to feed,
Or ferment, as a guard that may avail,
In any soil, a special stock or seed,
(And such there is for Cherries, in the Vale),
Yet, it is manly efforts that prevail
Against the odds, hard work, unceasing care,
Insight and skill, that brings the Cherries there.
For when the dead year’s leaves go lingering past
In dense November drizzel, to the soil,
And tired nature goes to rest at last,
Her last red apples hoarded-up as spoil,
Then men, just done with harvest, begin toil,
Begin again the old work everywhere
Another summer’s cherries to prepare.
They clean the fields and burn: the bonfires smoke:
They plough, manure and prune: they plant young trees:
They hack the tangles where the ditches choke:
They spray the orchards against all disease.
And March, with lengthening light, brings lesser ease…
Battles with Codlin-Moth, the planters’ grief,
Sawfly, Red Spider, Scab and Silver-leaf.
Then April comes, with blossom and suspense,
Lest frost should blast, or tempest sweep away,
And hourly the warfare grows more tense
As sunshine hatches-out the pests of May.
The summer comes with watching and with spray,
Laburnum-time, syringa-time, and June,
When Jack of Dover goes to bed at noon.
Then (after dog-rose time) the English rose,
High summer, and red cherry, and full joy,
The nightless summer when the cuckoo goes,
When every bird is as a little boy,
A winged imp, to threaten and annoy,
To peck the ripening cherries, and to thieve
The sweet-fleshed fruit from dewy dawn to eve.
Then, when all seems assured, the fight begins,
From before summer dawn till cats are grey,
Rattles and pebbles within shaken tins,
Clackage and scarecrows to keep birds away;
And men with shotguns all the summer day,
Shot after shot; much battle, but few dead,
Wherever birds are swift or cherries red.
And as the battle bangs, the picking starts,
Into the field the sunburnt pickers fare,
With ladders, baskets and collecting carts
And tree by tree is mounted and stripped bare.
And in the barn the marketers prepare:
The Barn whose builders ceased to work or sing
Ere Wesley preached, or George the Third was King.
All know the English barn; the simple nave;
The transepts, with their doors; the timbered roof
So lovely with the grace the builders gave,
Yet centuries-strong (and English-weather-proof);
With darkness where the great owls keep aloof,
And jackdaws nest, cats kitten, swallows dive;
The harvest home that keeps mankind alive,
There, in the Barn, the white chip-baskets spread,
Rank upon rank, with all the various kinds,
The pale, the red and gold, the black and red,
Each, the bright fruit of many thinking minds,
The sunlight gives the colour of the rinds
Lustre, like jewels, till the barn-floor seems
Treasure beyond an Eastern Prince’s dreams.
There now the hungry cherry-lovers come,
To taste and choose, to buy and bear away,
The motors hoot, the lorry-engines hum
Twixt gate and barn the well-known narrow way,
And through the dusty, sweet, hot summer’s day,
More and more baskets come in from the field
Where sunburned men secure the season’s yield,
Something of summer’s beauty crowns the place;
Much of the summer bounty blesses there
All of these cherry-folk with quiet grace,
Welcome and peace, that cherry-buyers share.
Harvest brings Nature’s kindness everywhere,
The sweetness of reward on Summer’s crest
That men wring from the earth that gives them rest.
It is great peace to watch the quiet scene
Of Nature’s bounty, won by toil and skill.
May Middle Farm’s fair orchards flourish green
And happy harvests many baskets fill,
As long as chicory on Hagbourne Hill
At cherry-harvest opens blossoms blue,
And reddening cherries glisten in the dew.
The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of John Masefield have given permission for us to put the poem on our website for a period limited to 3 years from first display (1 March 2008).