‘i can but offer thee a verse…’

For the moment, I offer the following literary treasure without much comment, except to say that it and its theme have been preoccupying me lately to what is probably an unhealthy extent.

“The Pensioner in Gray” was first published in the children’s magazine St. Nicholas in 1908 (Vol. 36, No. 1, Nov. 1908, p. 11) and later reprinted in Our Dumb Animals (Vol. 45, No. 9, Feb. 1913, p. 142), the magazine of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “Dumb” here meaning voiceless, of course. Its author was Marian Longfellow, cousin of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

If you have ever been approached by an importunate urban squirrel, you should recognize the situation, though I suspect the thoughts that ran through your head were not exactly those of the poem’s speaker.


The Pensioner in Gray

Thou little pensioner in gray,
Who, dauntless, now dost bar my way,
With tiny paws upon thy breast
And eyes that challenge and arrest,

Prithee what wouldst thou have of me,
Thou denizen of forest free?
Who all day long in sun or shade
Thy home in wildwood ways hast made.

Yet in the city’s busy mart,
‘Neath college spires of lore and art,
Here on the path dost sit and wait
Under the elm trees at the gate.

Had I a dole to give thee, dear,
Who are so wild, yet without fear,
Gladly would I that proffer make,
For thy sheer courage! thy bright sake!

But, little pensioner, my hands
Are empty spite of thy demands.
I can but offer thee a verse
That shall thy pretty ways rehearse.

Then, little pensioner in gray,
Meet me, I pray, another day,
And I will strive thy grace to find
Where Cambridge streets ‘neath elm trees wind.

— Marian Longfellow

Author: Etienne

Historian of science, technology, animals, and the environment.