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.


Part Three
May 1, 2013

So what do these three blogs mean? Is there a solution?

Before dealing with those two questions, let’s look at what we’ve discussed in the earlier two blogs:

We’ve learned that Internet social networks such as Facebook, are seeking to take control of every aspect of our lives and by constantly intruding, rip apart the fabric of our lives. For starters, let’s look at the issue of productivity, beginning with the current issue of Success:


          There’s a good reason to hang a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on your door when you need to concentrate. Researchers for Michigan State University and the Navy have determined that people make double, sometimes even triple, the errors immediately after they are interrupted, even when the diversions last only a few seconds. It doesn’t take much to get off track, which occurs whenever people have to shift attention. Three-second distractions doubled errors in the study; 4.5 – second interruptions tripled errors.

          Scientists call the delay in finding your place in the original task ‘resumption lag.’ . . . .It’s agreed that multitasking—essentially a cycle of interruption and resumption of work—acts like a brake to momentum. The takeaways: Turn off the phone, shut down email and close the door to avoid mistakes and work efficiently.
Success, May 2013

In the same vein, it has been aptly stated that today Americans tend to “Major in minors and minor in majors.” Most of what we read, see, discuss, and internalize is meaningless trivia. Contestants on Jeopardy who know all the actors and roles even in third-rate movies routinely miss the simplest questions from the Bible. Across America, there is an abysmal ignorance of even our own history. We have seemingly lost the importance of differentiating between significant and the meaningless and trite.

We have also discussed the alarming trend towards spending more and more of one’s life energy dwelling in a vicarious world rather than dealing with the day-to-day realities of the real world.

And even when we do dwell in the real world we often choose to accept a distorted view of it. In that same May issue of Success, its publisher, Darren Hardy, postulates that “News media has become a competitive blood sport for our attention. Their focus is finding the half-dozen most violent, tragic, scandalous and ugly things that happened in a day and parade them morning and night. Their goal is to trigger our fear, worry, threat and distress responses so we keep tuning in.”

Hardy wraps up his column with these sobering words:

          This barrage of negative input devastates our productive potential and creative capacity. What we see and hear is what we think about. Our thoughts become our expectations. Expectation leads to manifestations. It’s a dangerous and damaging downward spiral.

We’ve also discussed the significance of who each of us is, in terms of whether we are other-directed or inner-directed. If we are other-directed, inescapably we are bundled into the paralysis of the American mind.

And we’ve tackled, at least superficially, the issue of pleasure: Are we permitting the pleasure-principle to dominate our own life journeys? Furthermore, if sexuality becomes more significant than its God-given reason for being: cementing the life-long relationship of a man and a woman (the bastion of family life and security with our children), then of what value are our lives?

We’ve discussed too the increasing separation between us and our fellow-travelers-to-the-grave in this journey we label “life.” Are we willing to permit technology to replace day-to-day human relationships?

Nor should we forget that reading is at the very core of our creativity. If we are settling for the simplistic and narcissistic media world rather than studying books, magazines, and newspapers, then we are ourselves to blame for the myopic blinders we create for ourselves.

Ever since Gutenberg, reading has anchored civilization and made possible the Renaissance and the subsequent explosion of knowledge. If we desert reading in favor of sound-bytes, we thereby contribute to the decline of America. For if we forget God, forget our Founding Fathers, forget the principles our nation stood for during our first two centuries, our end can only be categorized as tragic.

* * * * *

But let me conclude with this sobering thought: In His earthly ministry, Christ hammered home no injunction more than time-management. In parable after parable, He reinforces His expectations that each of us would prioritize life thus: Each day should result in growth/achievement and in selfless service to God’s sheep. Everything else is secondary.

With this in mind, how can so many millions of us dare to fritter away the bullion of the universe—our time—on things that neither contribute to our daily growth and achievement nor make a positive difference in the lives of others less fortunate than us? Every moment of His earthly life, Christ considered precious.

So should we re-prioritize each remaining day left to us.