the fish i didn’t catch.
john greenleaf whittier.
(published originally in the little pilgrim, philadelphia, 1843.)
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our old homestead (the house was very old for a new country, having been built about the time that the prince of orange drove out james the second) nestled under a long range of hills which stretched off to the west. it was surrounded by woods in all dir ections save to the southeast, where a break in the leafy wall revealed a vista of low green meadows, picturesque with wooded islands and jutting capes of upland. through these, a small brook, noisy enough as it foamed, rippled, and laughed down its rock y falls by our gardenside, wound, silently and scarcely visible, to a still larger stream, known as the country brook. this brook in its turn, after doing duty at two or three saw and grist mills, the clack of which we could hear in still days across the intervening woodlands, found its way to the great river, and the river took it up and bore it down to the great sea.
i have not much reason for speaking well of these meadows, or rather bogs, for they were wet most of the year; but in the early days they were highly prized by the settlers, as they furnished natural mowing before the uplands could be cleared of wood and stones and laid down to grass. there is a tradition that the hay–harvesters of two adjoin-ing towns quarrelled about a boundary question and fought a hard battle one summer morning in that old time, not altogether bloodless, but by no means as fatal as the fight between the land clans, described by scott in “the fair maid of perth.” i used to wonder at their folly, when i was stumbling over the rough hassocks, and sinking knee–deep in the black mire, raking the sharp sickle–edged grass which we used to feed out to the young cattle in midwinter when the bitter cold gave them appetite for even such fodder. i had an almost irish hatred of snakes, and these meadows were full of them, –striped, green, dingy water–snakes, and now and then an ugly spott ed adder by no means pleasant to touch with bare feet. there were great black snakes, too, in the ledges of the neighboring knolls; and on one oocasion in early spring i found myself in the midst of a score at least of them, — holding their wicked meeti ng of a sabbath morning on the margin of a deep spring in the meadows. one glimpse at their fierce shining heads in the they roused themselves at my approach, was sufficient to send me at full speed towards the upland. the snakes, equally scared, fled in the same direction; and, looklng.back, i saw the monsters following close at my heels, terrible as the black horse rebel regiment at bull run. i had, happily, sense enough left to step aside and let the ugly troop glide into the bushes.
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nevertheless, the meadows had their redeeming points. in spring mornings the blackbirds and bobolinks made them musical with songs; and in the evenings great hullfrogs croaked and clamored; and on summer nights we loved to watch the white of fog rising a nd drifting in the moonlight like troops of ghosts, with the fireflies throwing up ever and anon signals of their coming. but the brook was far more attractive, for it had sheltered bathing–places, clear and white sanded, and weedy stretches, where the shy pickerel loved to linger, and deep pools, where the stupid sucker stirred the black mud with his fins. i had followed it all the way from its birthplace among the pleasant new hampshire hills, through the sunshine of broad, open meadows, and under th e shadow of thick woods. it was, for the most part, a sober, quiet little river; but at intervals it broke into a low, rippling laugh over rocks and trunks of fallen trees. there had, so tradition said, once been a witch–meeting on its banks, of six lit tle old women in short, sky-blue cloaks; and if a drunken teamster could be credited, a ghost was once seen bobbing for eels under country bridge. it ground our corn and rye for us, at its two grist-mills; and we drove our sheep to it for their spring wa shing, an anniversary which was looked forward to with intense delight, for it was always rare fun for the youngsters. macaulay has sung,
"that year young lads in umbro shall plunge the struggling sheep;"
and his picture of the roman sheep-washing recalled, when we read it, similar scenes in the country brook. on its banks we could always find the earliest and the latest wild flowers, from the pale blue, three–lobed hepatica, and small, deli-cate wood–a nemone, to the yellow bloomof the witch-hazel burning in the leafless october woods.
yet, after all, i think the chief attraction of the brook to my brother and myself was the fine fish-ing it afforded us. our bachelor uncle who lived with us (there has always been one of that unfortunate class in every generation of our family) was a qu iet, genial man, much given to hunting and fishing; and it was one of the great pleasures of our young life to accompany him on his expeditions to great hill, brandy–brow woods, the pond, and, best of all, to the country brook. we were quite willing to work hard in the cornfield, or the haying–lot to finish the necessary day’s labor in season for an afternoon stroll through the woods and along the brookside. i remember my first fishing excursion as if it were but yesterday. i have been happy many time s in my life, but never more intensely so than when i received that first fishing-pole from my uncle’s hand, and trudged off with him through the woods and meadows. it was a still sweet day of early summer; the long afternoon shadows of the trees lay coo l across our path; the leaves seemed greener, the flowers brighter, the birds merrier, than ever before. my uncle, who knew by long experience where were the best haunts of pickerel, considerately placed me at the most favorable point. i threw out my lin e as i had so often seen others, and waited anxiously for a bite, moving the bait in rapid jerks on the surface of the water in imitation of the leap of a frog. nothing came of it. “try again,” said my uncle. suddenly the bait sank out o sight. “now for it,” thought i; “here is a fish at last.”i made .a strong pull, and brought up a tangle of weeds. again and again i cast out my line with aching arms, and drew it back empty. i looked to my uncle appealingly. “try once more,” he said. “we fishermen must have patience.”
suddenly something tugged at my line and swept off with it into deep water. jerking it up, i saw a fine pickerel wriggling in the sun. “uncle!” i cried, looking back in uncontrollable excitement, “i’ve got a fish!” “not yet,” said my uncle. as he spoke t here was a splash in the water; i caught the arrowy gleam of a scared fish shooting into the middle of the stream; my hook hung empty from the line. i had lost my prize.
we are apt to speak of the sorrows of childhood as trifles in comparison with those of grown-up people; but we may depend upon it the young folks don’t agree with us. our griefs, modified and restrained by reason, experience, and self-respect, keep the p roprieties, and, if possible, avoid a scene; but the sorrow of childhood, unreasoning and all–absorbing, is a complete abandonmend to. the passion. the doll’s nose is broken, and the world breaks up with it; the marble rolls out of sight, and the solid
world rolls off with the marble.
so, overcome by my great and bitter disappointment, i sat down on the nearest hassock, and for a time refusod to be comforted, even by my uncle’s assurance that there were more fish in the brook. he refitted my bait, and, putting the pole again in my han ds, told me to try my luck once more.
“but remember, boy,” he said, with his shrewd smile, “never brag of catching a fish until he is on dry ground. i’ve seen older folks doing that in more ways than one, and so making fools of themselves. it’s no use to boast of anything until it’s done, nor then either, for it speaks for itself.”
how often since i have been reminded of the fish that i did not catch! when i hear people boasting of a work as yet undone, and trying to anticipate the credit which belongs only to actual achievement, i call to mind that scene by the brookside, and the wise caution of my uncle in that particular instance takes the form of a proverb universal application: “never brag of your fish before you catch him.”