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Jim Dixon Lyr Add: Silbury Hill (Will Meade) (24) Lyr Add: A LEGEND OF SILBURY HILL (1870) 21 May 20


I found this in Harper's Bazar [sic], Feb. 5, 1870, page 92. It's a poem, not a song, but it might make a good recitation. I have arbitrarily divided it into stanzas for ease of reading and to emphasize the meter and rhyme, which is quite irregular.


SILBURY HILL

[Close to the London road, about midway between Devizes and Marlborough, stands Silbury Hill, well known to antiquaries as the largest tumulus, or barrow, in the United Kingdom. It is nearly one-third of a mile round at its base, and its perpendicular height is upward of a hundred feet. Its origin, of course, is shrouded in mystery. Modern archaeology assigns it to the Druidical or Stone Age, and by some professors it is believed to be the tomb of an ancient British king. When, however, it was excavated a few years since, nothing was found to justify such an assumption. It therefore only remains to fall back on tradition, which supplies the following authentic story—at least so far authentic that no one can contradict it.]

A LEGEND OF SILBURY HILL.

In the county of Wilts there's a town called Devizes;
When you've once heard the name you will know it again,
Because 'tis the town where they hold the assizes,
And stands near the borders of Salisbury Plain.

        How old it might be,
        I really can't see
How one is to find out, since accounts disagree.

Some savants pronounce it as old as Methusalem;
Others say it was built the same year as Jerusalem,
But, howe'er they may differ, they all are agreed
That Devizes must be very ancient indeed.

        It therefore is clear,
        That whatever the year
In which the events of my story befell,
'Twas a long time ago, though how long I can't tell.

It's very well known that the town of Devizes,
Long before good King Alfred made sessions and 'sizes,
Was a stout little borough, well able to play
A prominent game in the wars of the day.

The people of Marlborough—sixteen miles off—
At Devizes had rashly adventured to scoff:
'Twas a very rash act, because every one knows
        That more often than not,
        When people get hot,
High language is speedily followed by blows.

It needs scarcely be told, being patent to all,
That Marlborough, the weakest, soon went to the wall.

Having suffered defeat, but on mischief intent,
A messenger promptly to Hades was sent
To seek help from a person best known as Old Nick,
Who asked, "What's the row?" bade the man cut his stick.

        Tell his friends he'd be there:
        Took flight through the air:
And so fast through the ether his slapping wings bore him,
When the man got to Marlborough he found Nick before him.

        The men of the place
        Having stated their case,
Nick laughed till his highness got black in the face;
Said he'd do their job, and before they could ask
How he meant to proceed, set to work at his task.

He picked up a hill, clapped it up on his shoulders
(To the wonder and terror of all the beholders),
Stalked out of the town, quick as thought, with his load,
And set out for Devizes, along the high-road;
Meaning, when he got there, to demolish the town
With the hill that he carried, by clapping it down.

The hill was the size, as he judged, to a shade,
        And before set of sun
        The job would be done,
Ere a man of Devizes could halloo for aid.

The town had been smothered for ever and aye,
If Saint John had not chanced to be passing that day.
        When he heard what was doing,
        What mischief was brewing,
He set out for Devizes, and ran the whole way
As saints only can run; that is, devils can go
Pretty fast as a rule, though when loaded they're slow,
The moment he got there, he shouted, "Quick! quick!
For your lives, get a sack! You'll be smashed by Old Nick.
Bring all your old boots; fetch a suit of old clothes;
Call the oldest inhabitant—some one who knows
How to tell a good fib. In so holy a cause
As to save a whole town from the enemy's claws
'Tis perfectly legal; indeed, I would do it,
But Nick knows me too well, he'd be sure to see through it."

        Like good children, they did
        Just what they were bid.
The saint filled the bag to the mouth with old boots,
While the old man looked out for the worst of the suits
That they brought, put it on, and was off in a trice,
While the saint in his ear gave this parting, advice:
"Now then, my old friend, look alive; take this pack
Of old boots and shoes; put it up on your back;
Walk six miles an hour on the Marlborough road
Till you meet a black man with no end of a load.
Stop and ask him the time, and be sure you are civil,
'Tis better to keep on good terms with the Devil.
If you find him disposed to be friendly, then say
What I told you just now, in a casual way;
        You must do it with ease,
        For there'll be, if Nick sees
That you're trying to come it, the devil to pay."

The old man was a 'cute one, and knew what was what,
Though he didn't much relish the job he had got;
        But he'd plenty of pluck,
        And he thought, "If I've luck,
I may sell the old gentleman, rescue the town,
And, when all's said and done, if they do not come down
With something that's handsome, I'm vastly mistaken;
They ought to reward me for saving their bacon."

So now the old man on his mission is gone,
Let us leave him, and see how the Devil got on.

Before he had traveled six miles on the road,
Nick found that the hill was so awful a load,
That he wished it—it really is hard to say where—
At the Devil perhaps, if it hadn't been there
Already, of which he was fully aware.

        For what with his corns
        And the weight on his horns,
If he traveled by road, or took flight through the air,
'Twas equally awkward; and had it not been
For the promise he made, he'd have fled from the scene;
        But he wouldn't for shame:
        So, though awfully lame
From a very hard corn on the point of his toe,
Yet thinking he hasn't much farther to go,
He limps along gamely, as quick as he can,
Till close to Beckhampton he meets the old man.

The Devil, despairing of reaching the town
Before night, by the road-side has sat himself down
To rest his sore hoofs, for his boots hurt his feet.
(That he mightn't alarm any one he should meet,
He'd thought it but right to preserve his incog.,
To wear boots and a hat, though he felt them a clog;
While as to his tail, lest the world it should shock, it
Was tied in a bow and tucked into his pocket.)

        Not long has he sat
        When he sees, pit-a-pat,
Coming by an old man in a shocking bad hat,
And a suit not adapted for winterly weather.
        For 'twas just the same sort
        That some Irishmen sport,
I. e., made of nothing but holes sewed together.

Nick looked at the man, and the man looked at him,
Put his hand to his head, touching just where the rim
Of the hat would have been, were it still in its prime,
And said, "Please, your reverence, to tell me the time!"

The Devil was sulky, and didn't reply
For a second or two, till the man had got by,
When it suddenly struck him, "I’m going the way
That he came, and 'tis getting quite late in the day;
Perhaps he might tell me—he's certain to know—
How far I have come, and how far I've to go."

So he shouted, "I say! Here, old fellow, come back!"
The old man turned round, and was there in a crack.

        Said Nick, "I beg pardon,
        The job is a hard one
That I've taken in hand, and it bothered me so
I forgot my good-manners. I'd have you to know
        I'm a plain-spoken man;
        But I like, when I can,
To be civil to those who are civil to me;
That's just how it is, my old friend, don't you see?
The question you asked me before you went past,
Was to tell you the time; well, my watch is too fast
By three hours and a quarter: by me it's just nine.
I've answered your question, now you answer mine.
You come from Devizes, I'll venture to say:
If I'm quick, do you think I might walk there to-day?"

The old man looked at him with well-feigned surprise,
He opened his mouth and he turned up his eyes;
At length he found words: "My dear Sir, are you mad?
I set out from Devizes when I was a lad—
At least a young man—and a nice walk I’ve had.
You wouldn't believe it, but yet it is true,
These clothes that I wear when I started were new;
While, as to shoe-leather, I've bought, I should say,
A couple of hundred new pairs on my way.
If you like, you can count 'em.; I've got 'em all here
To be mended, or soon I shall have none to wear."

While thus he was talking he set down his load,
And shot out his pile of old shoes in the road.

To say that the Devil was taken aback
Would be very mild language; he looked quite as black
As he's painted. He shouted, "You rogue, it’s a lie!"
"It's true," said the man; "you're quite welcome to try.
I've come along well, for my load is but small,
        But it's doubtful to me,
        With the weight that I see
On your shoulders, if ever you get there at all."

Nick couldn't stand that: he was slow at believing;
But the old man was such an adept at deceiving,
And stuck to his story through thick and through thin
        With so truthful an air,
        That, strange to declare,
For once in his lifetime Old Scratch was "sucked in."

        Said he, "If that's so,
        No farther I'll go!
I've been here too long, and they'll want me below.
Get out of the way! Now, old fellow, stand clear,
Or I'll send you away with a flea in your ear."

So saying, he threw down the hill on the ground
By the side of the road, and so loud was the sound
        It made when it fell
        (As the chroniclers tell)
That it very near sent the old man into fits:
Indeed the concussion so muddled his wits
That he set off like lightning the way that he came,
While the Devil went off in a burst of blue flame:
And before he had fairly got over his fright
The hill and the Devil were both out of sight.


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