This phrase is often used to describe missed opportunities and most people who quote this are not aware that they are from a poem of the early nineteenth century describing a typical rural broken romance. I was enlightened by my late elder cousin, a Professor of English about this when I had gone visiting him as he lay in a hospital bed suffering from a brain tumour. Even in that condition, he made me promise that I will look this up when I had quoted this phrase and on being queried replied my ignorance about its source.
I was reminded of this episode when I came across Ekoshapu mentioning it in one of his “Thought Of The Day” posts.
I did not know that Ekoshapu was a poetry buff too and so left these comments on his post. “It is interesting that you are a poetry buff too! Maud Muller is one of the most poignant and beautiful poems ever written. That is, in my opinion.”
Here is the original Maud Muller poem in full.
by: John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)
AUD MULLER, on a summer’s day,
Raked the meadows sweet with hay.
Beneath her torn hat glowed the wealth
Of simple beauty and rustic health.
Singing, she wrought, and her merry glee
The mock-bird echoed from his tree.
But, when she glanced to the far-off town,
White from its hill-slope looking down,
The sweet song died, and a vague unrest
And a nameless longing filled her breast–
A wish, that she hardly dared to own,
For something better than she had known.
The Judge rode slowly down the lane,
Smoothing his horse’s chestnut mane.
He drew his bridle in the shade
Of the apple-trees, to greet the maid,
And ask a draught from the spring that flowed
Through the meadow across the road.
She stooped where the cool spring bubbled up,
And filled for him her small tin cup,
And blushed as she gave it, looking down
On her feet so bare, and her tattered gown.
“Thanks!” said the Judge, “a sweeter draught
From a fairer hand was never quaffed.”
He spoke of the grass and flowers and trees,
Of the singing birds and the humming bees;
Then talked of the haying, and wondered whether
The cloud in the west would bring foul weather.
And Maud forgot her briar-torn gown,
And her graceful ankles bare and brown;
And listened, while a pleasant surprise
Looked from her long-lashed hazel eyes.
At last, like one who for delay
Seeks a vain excuse, he rode away,
Maud Muller looked and sighed: “Ah, me!
That I the Judge’s bride might be!
“He would dress me up in silks so fine,
And praise and toast me at his wine.
“My father should wear a broadcloth coat;
My brother should sail a painted boat.
“I’d dress my mother so grand and gay,
And the baby should have a new toy each day.
“And I’d feed the hungry and clothe the poor,
And all should bless me who left our door.”
The Judge looked back as he climbed the hill,
And saw Maud Muller standing still.
“A form more fair, a face more sweet,
Ne’er hath it been my lot to meet.
“And her modest answer and graceful air
Show her wise and good as she is fair.
“Would she were mine, and I to-day,
Like her, a harvester of hay:
“No doubtful balance of rights and wrongs,
Nor weary lawyers with endless tongues,
“But low of cattle, and song of birds,
And health, and quiet, and loving words.”
But he thought of his sisters, proud and cold,
And his mother, vain of her rank and gold.
So, closing his heart, the Judge rode on,
And Maud was left in the field alone.
But the lawyers smiled that afternoon,
When he hummed in court an old love-tune;
And the young girl mused beside the well,
Till the rain on the unraked clover fell.
He wedded a wife of richest dower,
Who lived for fashion, as he for power.
Yet oft, in his marble hearth’s bright glow,
He watched a picture come and go:
And sweet Maud Muller’s hazel eyes
Looked out in their innocent surprise.
Oft when the wine in his glass was red,
He longed for the wayside well instead;
And closed his eyes on his garnished rooms,
To dream of meadows and clover-blooms.
And the proud man sighed, with a secret pain,
“Ah, that I were free again!
“Free as when I rode that day,
Where the barefoot maiden raked her hay.”
She wedded a man unlearned and poor,
And many children played round her door.
But care and sorrow, and child-birth pain,
Left their traces on heart and brain.
And oft, when the summer sun shone hot
On the new-mown hay in the meadow lot,
And she heard the little spring brook fall
Over the roadside, through the wall,
In the shade of the apple-tree again
She saw a rider draw his rein,
And, gazing down with timid grace,
She felt his pleased eyes read her face.
Sometimes her narrow kitchen walls
Stretched away into stately halls;
The weary wheel to a spinnet turned,
The tallow candle an astral burned;
And for him who sat by the chimney lug,
Dozing and grumbling o’er pipe and mug,
A manly form at her side she saw,
And joy was duty and love was law.
Then she took up her burden of life again,
Saying only, “It might have been.”
Alas for maiden, alas for Judge,
For rich repiner and household drudge!
God pity them both! and pity us all,
Who vainly the dreams of youth recall;
For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”
Ah, well! for us all some sweet hope lies
Deeply buried from human eyes;
And, in the hereafter, angels may
Roll the stone from its grave away!