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To show a heart grief-rent,
To starve thy sin,
Ash WEDNESDAY, the first day of Lent, puts an end for a time to these wild doings, substituting a fast, in imitation of our Saviour's miraculous abstinence for forty days. Originally the fast commenced on that which is now the first Sunday in Lent, and ended on Easter Day, but as this left only thirty-six days when the Sundays were deducted (upon the principle that no Sunday can ever be a fast-day,) Pope Gregory added four days from the previous week, beginning with Ash Wednesday. The name of Ash Wednesday was derived from the ancient ceremony of blessing ashes at this season, with which the priest signed the people on the forehead in the form of a cross, affording them withal this wholesome admonition, “ Memento, homo, quòd pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris," —Remember, Oman, that thou art dust, and to dust shalt return.—The ashes thus used were made of the palms consecrated the Sunday twelvemonth before, and this ceremony, though in a modified form, survived the first shock of the Reformation, not being abandoned till about the year 1547-8, when, as Stow tells us, “the Wednesday following, commonly called AshWednesday, the use of giving ashes in the church was also left throughout the whole citie of London.” Prior to that time it had formed one of the ordinances of the Reformed Church.
The great operations of Nature during this month seems to be, to dry up the superabundant moisture of February, thereby preventing the roots and seeds from rotting in the earth; and gradually to bring forward the process of evolution in the swelling buds, whilst, at the same time, by the wholesome severity of chilling blasts, they are kept from a premature disclosure, which would expose their tender contents to injury from the yet unsettled season. This effect is beautifully touched upon in a simile of Shakspeare
This seeming tyranny, however, is to be regarded as productive of very important advantages; and those years generally prove most fruitful, in which the pleasing appearances of spring are the latest ; for the more advanced the season, the less probability is there of blights and insects, which are the most formidable of all enemies to springing vegetables.
The sun has now acquired so much power, that on a clear day we often feel all the genial influence of spring, though the naked shrubs and trees give the landscape the comfortless appearance of winter. But soft pleasant weather in March is not often of long duration.
As soon as a few dry days have made the land fit for working, the farmer goes to the plough ; and if the fair weather continues, proceeds to sow barley and oats, though this business is seldom finished till the next month. The importance of a dry season for getting the seed early and favourably into the ground is expressed in the old proverb
A bushel of March dust is worth a king's ransom. The mellow note of the throstle, who sits perched on the naked bough of some lofty tree, is heard from the beginning of the month, and at the same time the ringdove coos in the woods ; pheasants crow ; hens sit; ducks and geese lay; and the rookery is now all in motion with the pleasing labour of building and repairing nests. It is highly amusing to observe the tricks and artifices of this thievish tribe in defending or plundering the materials of their new habitations. A society with such a licence of theft one would imagine could not possibly subsist; and that they are sometimes obliged to interpose the public will, to control the private dispositions of individuals, is shown in the following story. There was once in a rookery a pair of birds, who, in the building time, instead of going out in search of materials, kept at home, and, watching the opportunity, plundered every unguarded nest; thus building their own habitation by contributions levied upon the industry of their neighbours. This had continued some time, and the robbers had hitherto escaped with impunity; their nest was just finished, when the rest of the society, by common consent, made an attack on the depredators, beat them soundly, demolished their nest, and expelled them ignominiously from the rookery.
These birds are accused by the farmer of doing much injury by plucking up the young corn, and other springing vegetables, though of late it seems to have become a general opinion that this mischief is fully repaid by their diligence