Will Carleton’s “The First Settler’s Story”

July 24, 2013

Several days ago I had a long phone conversation with a dear cousin of mine, Steve Hamilton. Especially dear because when we were young, we were perpetually getting into mischief together. What one of us didn’t think of to perpetrate, the other one did. Back in those “spare the rod and spoil the child” days, given that our fathers were in the prime of their manhood, Steve and I got spanked together with alarming regularity. Not that it was considered alarming to us, for we merely considered it part of the rhythm of life—except we didn’t believe for an instant that old line, “Son, this hurt me more than it hurt you!”

Well, it so chanced that this time our conversation veered into the subject of words, and their impact on relationships. How, in spite of our best resolutions, wrong words seem to have a fiendish propensity to slip out at the most inopportune moments, and leave heartbreak in their wake.

Which led to this old poem bequeathed to me by my minister-father. The only such case I can ever remember, because it was my elocutionist mother who filled my memory banks with unforgettable poetry. After I quoted some of the most memorable lines to Steve, I promised to send him a photocopy of the complete poem. In doing so, I was impressed to make it the subject of this week’s blog.

Will Carleton (1845-1912), was born in Hudson, Michigan; became an editor and prolific writer of poetry, long and short. This particular poem was included in Carleton’s collection, Farm Festivals (Harper & Brothers, 1881).


I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a life-long battle with my tongue. In the process, I’ve learned that what I’ve said, no matter how sincere my penitence may be, cannot be apologized away. In such cases, prayer doesn’t help much either because God cannot save us from the consequences of our own mistakes and ill-chosen speech.

So, just in case any of our readers suffer from the same malady I do, I’m sharing the essence of this story-poem with you. The essence, because it is a very long story-poem. Too long for a blog.

It is chronicled as though it was a true story, and so I consider it to be. It is told in the first-person by the so-called “First Settler.” An intrepid soul who moved west, into unsettled territory, bringing his lovely girl-bride with him.

But it was such a lonely life!

“Well, neighborhoods meant counties, in those days;
The roads didn’t have accommodating ways;
And maybe weeks would pass before she’d see—
And much less talk with—any one but me. . . .”

And finally I thought that I could trace
A half heart-hunger peering from her face.
Then she would drive it back, and shut the door;
Of course that only made me see it more.
‘Twas hard to see her give her life to mine,
Making a steady effort not to pine;
Twas hard to hear that laugh bloom out each minute,
And recognize the seeds of sorrow in it.”

Time passed, and the stresses resulting from isolation, bad weather, failed crops, poverty, and inadequate most everything, one day precipitated the following:

“One night, I came from work unusual late,
Too hungry and too tired to feel first-rate—
Her supper struck me wrong (though I’ll allow
She hadn’t much to work with, anyhow);
And when I went to milk the cows, and found
They’d wandered from their usual feeding ground,
And maybe left a few long miles behind ‘em,
Which I must copy, if I meant to find ‘em;
Flash-quick the stay-chains of my temper broke,
And in a trice these hot words I had spoke:
‘You ought to’ve kept the animals in view,
And drove ‘em in; you’d nothing else to do.
The heft of all our life on me must fall;
You just lie round, and let me do it all.’

That speech—it hadn’t been gone a half a minute,
Before I saw the cold black poison in it.
And I’d have given all I had, and more,
To’ve only got it back in-door. . . .

She handed back no words, as I could hear;
She didn’t frown—she didn’t shed a tear;
Half proud, half crushed, she stood and looked me o’er,
Like someone she’d never seen before.”

That night, too proud to apologize, he went to bed with the issue unresolved. Next morning,

“So, with a short ‘Good-bye,’ I shut the door,
And left her as I never had before.”

That afternoon, sensing an oncoming storm, he left work early and hurried home.

“Half out of breath, the cabin door I swung,
With tender heart-words trembling on my tongue;
But all looked desolate and bare;
My house had lost its soul—she was not there!
A pencilled note was on the table spread,
And these are something like the words it said:
‘The cows have strayed away again, I fear;
I watched them pretty close; don’t scold me, dear
And where they are, I think I nearly know:
I heard the bell not very long ago
I’ve hunted them all the afternoon;
I’ll try once more—I think I’ll find them soon.
Dear, if a burden I have been to you,
And haven’t helped as I ought to do,
Let old-time memories my forgiveness plead;
I’ve tried to do my best—I have, indeed.
Darling, piece out with love the strength I lack,
and have kind words for me when I get back.’”

Just as he finished reading her note, he heard thunder—and the storm swept in.

“As if the ocean waves had lost its way;
Scarcely a pause the thunder-battle made,
In the bold clamor of its cannonade.
And she, while I was sheltered, dry and warm,
Was somewhere in the clutches of this storm!
She who, when storm-frights found her at her best,
Had always hid her white face on my breast!”

He rushed out, with his dog, frantically searching for her.

All night we dragged the woods without avail;
The ground got drenched—we could not keep the trail.
Three times again my cabin home I found,
Half hoping she might be there, safe and sound;
But each time ‘twas an unavailing care:
My house had lost its soul; she was not there!


When, climbing the wet trees, next morning sun
Laughed at the ruin that the night had done,
Bleeding and drenched—by toil and sorrow bent—
Back to what used to be my home I went.
But, as I neared our little clearing-ground—
Listen!—I heard the cow-bell’s tinkling sound;
The cabin door was just a bit ajar;
It gleamed upon my glad eyes like a star!
‘Brave heart,’ I said, for such a fragile form!
She made them guide her homeward through the storm!’
Such pangs of joy I never felt before.
‘You’ve come!’ I shouted, and rushed through the door.

Yes, she had come—and gone again. She lay
With all her young life crushed and wrenched away—
Lay—the heart-ruins of our home among—
Not far from where I killed her with my tongue.
The rain drops glittered mid her hairs’ long strands,
The forest thorns had torn her feet and hands,
And midst the tears—brave tears—that one could trace
Upon the pale but sweetly resolute face,
I once again the mournful words could read—
‘I’ve tried to do my best—I have indeed!’”

But Will Carleton wasn’t yet quite through with his story-poem. He added six more lines. Six lines that grant him immortality—for untold thousands of readers have written them down, posted them on walls, and learned them by heart. Repeated them over and over until they made them part of their very souls.

Here they are – italicized:

Boys flying kites haul in their white-winged birds;
You can’t do that when you’re flying words.
‘Careful with fire,’ is good advice, we know:
‘Careful with words,’ is ten times doubly so.
Thoughts unexpressed may sometimes fall back dead;
But God himself can‘t kill them once they’re said.