Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry—
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there’s a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods’ excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone’s road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.
First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny’s
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.
He halted in the wind, and—what was that
Far in the maples, pale, but not a ghost?
He stood there bringing March against his thought,
And yet too ready to believe the most.
“Oh, that’s the Paradise-in-bloom,” I said;
And truly it was fair enough for flowers
had we but in us to assume in march
Such white luxuriance of May for ours.
We stood a moment so in a strange world,
Myself as one his own pretense deceives;
And then I said the truth (and we moved on).
A young beech clinging to its last year’s leaves.
There sandy seems the golden sky
And golden seems the sandy plain.
No habitation meets the eye
Unless in the horizon rim,
Some halfway up the limestone wall,
That spot of black is not a stain
Or shadow, but a cavern hole,
Where someone used to climb and crawl
To rest from his besetting fears.
I see the callus on his soul
The disappearing last of him
And of his race starvation slim,
Oh years ago—ten thousand years.
Not only sands and gravels
Were once more on their travels,
But gulping muddy gallons
Great boulders off their balance
Bumped heads together dully
And started down the gully.
Whole capes caked off in slices.
I felt my standpoint shaken
In the universal crisis.
But with one step backward taken
I saved myself from going.
A world torn loose went by me.
Then the rain stopped and the blowing,
And the sun came out to dry me.
He would declare and could himself believe
That the birds there in all the garden round
From having heard the daylong voice of Eve
Had added to their own an oversound,
Her tone of meaning but without the words.
Admittedly an eloquence so soft
Could only have had an influence on birds
When call or laughter carried it aloft.
Be that as may be, she was in their song.
Moreover her voice upon their voices crossed
Had now persisted in the woods so long
That probably it never would be lost.
Never again would birds’ song be the same.
And to do that to birds was why she came.
He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled,
That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust,
But still lies pointed as it ploughed the dust.
If we who sight along it round the world,
See nothing worthy to have been its mark,
It is because like men we look too near,
Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere,
Our missiles always make too short an arc.
They fall, they rip the grass, they intersect
The curve of earth, and striking, break their own;
They make us cringe for metal-point on stone.
But this we know, the obstacle that checked
And tripped the body, shot the spirit on
Further than target ever showed or shone.
From where I lingered in a lull in march
outside the sugar-house one night for choice,
I called the fireman with a careful voice
And bade him leave the pan and stoke the arch:
‘O fireman, give the fire another stoke,
And send more sparks up chimney with the smoke.’
I thought a few might tangle, as they did,
Among bare maple boughs, and in the rare
Hill atmosphere not cease to glow,
And so be added to the moon up there.
The moon, though slight, was moon enough to show
On every tree a bucket with a lid,
And on black ground a bear-skin rug of snow.
The sparks made no attempt to be the moon.
They were content to figure in the trees
As Leo, Orion, and the Pleiades.
And that was what the boughs were full of soon.
The living come with grassy tread
To read the gravestones on the hill;
The graveyard draws the living still,
But never anymore the dead.
The verses in it say and say:
“The ones who living come today
To read the stones and go away
Tomorrow dead will come to stay.”
So sure of death the marbles rhyme,
Yet can’t help marking all the time
How no one dead will seem to come.
What is it men are shrinking from?
It would be easy to be clever
And tell the stones: Men hate to die
And have stopped dying now forever.
I think they would believe the lie.
Something inspires the only cow of late
To make no more of a wall than an open gate,
And think no more of wall-builders than fools.
Her face is flecked with pomace and she drools
A cider syrup. Having tasted fruit,
She scorns a pasture withering to the root.
She runs from tree to tree where lie and sweeten.
The windfalls spiked with stubble and worm-eaten.
She leaves them bitten when she has to fly.
She bellows on a knoll against the sky.
Her udder shrivels and the milk goes dry.
We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone find us really out.
’Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.
But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.
I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.
The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the levelled scene.
I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.
But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,—alone,
‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’
But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a bewildered butterfly,
Seeking with memories grown dim over night
Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.
And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.
And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.
I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;
But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,
A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.
I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly-weed when I came.
The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,
Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him,
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.
The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,
That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,
And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;
But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;
And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.
‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-by;
And further still at an unearthly height
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
The three stood listening to a fresh access
Of wind that caught against the house a moment,
Gulped snow, and then blew free again—the Coles
Dressed, but dishevelled from some hours of sleep,
Meserve belittled in the great skin coat he wore.
Meserve was first to speak. He pointed backward
Over his shoulder with his pipe-stem, saying,
“You can just see it glancing off the roof
Making a great scroll upward toward the sky,
Long enough for recording all our names on.—
I think I’ll just call up my wife and tell her
I’m here—so far—and starting on again.
I’ll call her softly so that if she’s wise
And gone to sleep, she needn’t wake to answer.”
Three times he barely stirred the bell, then listened.
“Why, Lett, still up? Lett, I’m at Cole’s. I’m late.
I called you up to say Good-night from here
Before I went to say Good-morning there.—
I thought I would.— I know, but, Lett—I know—
I could, but what’s the sense? The rest won’t be
So bad.— Give me an hour for it.— Ho, ho,
Three hours to here! But that was all up hill;
The rest is down.— Why no, no, not a wallow:
They kept their heads and took their time to it
Like darlings, both of them. They’re in the barn.—
My dear, I’m coming just the same. I didn’t
Call you to ask you to invite me home.—”
He lingered for some word she wouldn’t say,
Said it at last himself, “Good-night,” and then,
Getting no answer, closed the telephone.
The three stood in the lamplight round the table
With lowered eyes a moment till he said,
“I’ll just see how the horses are.”
Both the Coles said together. Mrs. Cole
Added: “You can judge better after seeing.—
I want you here with me, Fred. Leave him here,
Brother Meserve. You know to find your way
Out through the shed.”
“I guess I know my way,
I guess I know where I can find my name
Carved in the shed to tell me who I am
If it don’t tell me where I am. I used
“You tend your horses and come back.
Fred Cole, you’re going to let him!”
“Well, aren’t you?
How can you help yourself?”
“I called him Brother.
Why did I call him that?”
“It’s right enough.
That’s all you ever heard him called round here.
He seems to have lost off his Christian name.”
“Christian enough I should call that myself.
He took no notice, did he? Well, at least
I didn’t use it out of love of him,
The dear knows. I detest the thought of him
With his ten children under ten years old.
I hate his wretched little Racker Sect,
All’s ever I heard of it, which isn’t much.
But that’s not saying—Look, Fred Cole, it’s twelve,
Isn’t it, now? He’s been here half an hour.
He says he left the village store at nine.
Three hours to do four miles—a mile an hour
Or not much better. Why, it doesn’t seem
As if a man could move that slow and move.
Try to think what he did with all that time.
And three miles more to go!”
“Don’t let him go.
Stick to him, Helen. Make him answer you.
That sort of man talks straight on all his life
From the last thing he said himself, stone deaf
To anything anyone else may say.
I should have thought, though, you could make him hear you.”
“What is he doing out a night like this?
Why can’t he stay at home?”
“He had to preach.”
“It’s no night to be out.”
“He may be small,
He may be good, but one thing’s sure, he’s tough.”
“And strong of stale tobacco.”
“He’ll pull through.’
“You only say so. Not another house
Or shelter to put into from this place
To theirs. I’m going to call his wife again.”
“Wait and he may. Let’s see what he will do.
Let’s see if he will think of her again.
But then I doubt he’s thinking of himself
He doesn’t look on it as anything.”
“He shan’t go—there!”
“It is a night, my dear.”
“One thing: he didn’t drag God into it.”
“He don’t consider it a case for God.”
“You think so, do you? You don’t know the kind.
He’s getting up a miracle this minute.
Privately—to himself, right now, he’s thinking
He’ll make a case of it if he succeeds,
But keep still if he fails.”
“Keep still all over.
He’ll be dead—dead and buried.”
“Such a trouble!
Not but I’ve every reason not to care
What happens to him if it only takes
Some of the sanctimonious conceit
Out of one of those pious scalawags.”
“Nonsense to that! You want to see him safe.”
“You like the runt.”
“Don’t you a little?”
I don’t like what he’s doing, which is what
You like, and like him for.”
“Oh, yes you do.
You like your fun as well as anyone;
Only you women have to put these airs on
To impress men. You’ve got us so ashamed
Of being men we can’t look at a good fight
Between two boys and not feel bound to stop it.
Let the man freeze an ear or two, I say.—
He’s here. I leave him all to you. Go in
And save his life.— All right, come in, Meserve.
Sit down, sit down. How did you find the horses?”
“And ready for some more? My wife here
Says it won’t do. You’ve got to give it up.”
“Won’t you to please me? Please! If I say please?
Mr. Meserve, I’ll leave it to your wife.
What did your wife say on the telephone?”
Meserve seemed to heed nothing but the lamp
Or something not far from it on the table.
By straightening out and lifting a forefinger,
He pointed with his hand from where it lay
Like a white crumpled spider on his knee:
“That leaf there in your open book! It moved
Just then, I thought. It’s stood erect like that,
There on the table, ever since I came,
Trying to turn itself backward or forward,
I’ve had my eye on it to make out which;
If forward, then it’s with a friend’s impatience—
You see I know—to get you on to things
It wants to see how you will take, if backward
It’s from regret for something you have passed
And failed to see the good of. Never mind,
Things must expect to come in front of us
A many times—I don’t say just how many—
That varies with the things—before we see them.
One of the lies would make it out that nothing
Ever presents itself before us twice.
Where would we be at last if that were so?
Our very life depends on everything’s
Recurring till we answer from within.
The thousandth time may prove the charm.— That leaf!
It can’t turn either way. It needs the wind’s help.
But the wind didn’t move it if it moved.
It moved itself. The wind’s at naught in here.
It couldn’t stir so sensitively poised
A thing as that. It couldn’t reach the lamp
To get a puff of black smoke from the flame,
Or blow a rumple in the collie’s coat.
You make a little foursquare block of air,
Quiet and light and warm, in spite of all
The illimitable dark and cold and storm,
And by so doing give these three, lamp, dog,
And book-leaf, that keep near you, their repose;
Though for all anyone can tell, repose
May be the thing you haven’t, yet you give it.
So false it is that what we haven’t we can’t give;
So false, that what we always say is true.
I’ll have to turn the leaf if no one else will.
It won’t lie down. Then let it stand. Who cares?”
“I shouldn’t want to hurry you, Meserve,
But if you’re going— Say you’ll stay, you know?
But let me raise this curtain on a scene,
And show you how it’s piling up against you.
You see the snow-white through the white of frost?
Ask Helen how far up the sash it’s climbed
Since last we read the gage.”
“It looks as if
Some pallid thing had squashed its features flat
And its eyes shut with overeagerness
To see what people found so interesting
In one another, and had gone to sleep
Of its own stupid lack of understanding,
Or broken its white neck of mushroom stuff
Short off, and died against the window-pane.”
“Brother Meserve, take care, you’ll scare yourself
More than you will us with such nightmare talk.
It’s you it matters to, because it’s you
Who have to go out into it alone.”
“Let him talk, Helen, and perhaps he’ll stay.”
“Before you drop the curtain—I’m reminded:
You recollect the boy who came out here
To breathe the air one winter—had a room
Down at the Averys’? Well, one sunny morning
After a downy storm, he passed our place
And found me banking up the house with snow.
And I was burrowing in deep for warmth,
Piling it well above the window-sills.
The snow against the window caught his eye.
‘Hey, that’s a pretty thought’—those were his words.
‘So you can think it’s six feet deep outside,
While you sit warm and read up balanced rations.
You can’t get too much winter in the winter.’
Those were his words. And he went home and all
But banked the daylight out of Avery’s windows.
Now you and I would go to no such length.
At the same time you can’t deny it makes
It not a mite worse, sitting here, we three,
Playing our fancy, to have the snowline run
So high across the pane outside. There where
There is a sort of tunnel in the frost
More like a tunnel than a hole—way down
At the far end of it you see a stir
And quiver like the frayed edge of the drift
Blown in the wind. I like that—I like that.
Well, now I leave you, people.”
We thought you were deciding not to go—
The ways you found to say the praise of comfort
And being where you are. You want to stay.”
“I’ll own it’s cold for such a fall of snow.
This house is frozen brittle, all except
This room you sit in. If you think the wind
Sounds further off, it’s not because it’s dying;
You’re further under in the snow—that’s all—
And feel it less. Hear the soft bombs of dust
It bursts against us at the chimney mouth,
And at the eaves. I like it from inside
More than I shall out in it. But the horses
Are rested and it’s time to say good-night,
And let you get to bed again. Good-night,
Sorry I had to break in on your sleep.”
“Lucky for you you did. Lucky for you
You had us for a half-way station
To stop at. If you were the kind of man
Paid heed to women, you’d take my advice
And for your family’s sake stay where you are.
But what good is my saying it over and over?
You’ve done more than you had a right to think
You could do—now. You know the risk you take
In going on.”
“Our snow-storms as a rule
Aren’t looked on as man-killers, and although
I’d rather be the beast that sleeps the sleep
Under it all, his door sealed up and lost,
Than the man fighting it to keep above it,
Yet think of the small birds at roost and not
In nests. Shall I be counted less than they are?
Their bulk in water would be frozen rock
In no time out to-night. And yet to-morrow
They will come budding boughs from tree to tree
Flirting their wings and saying Chickadee,
As if not knowing what you meant by the word storm.”
“But why when no one wants you to go on?
Your wife—she doesn’t want you to. We don’t,
And you yourself don’t want to. Who else is there?”
“Save us from being cornered by a woman.
Well, there’s”—She told Fred afterward that in
The pause right there, she thought the dreaded word
Was coming, “God.” But no, he only said
“Well, there’s—the storm. That says I must go on.
That wants me as a war might if it came.
Ask any man.”
He threw her that as something
To last her till he got outside the door.
He had Cole with him to the barn to see him off.
When Cole returned he found his wife still standing
Beside the table near the open book,
Not reading it.
“Well, what kind of a man
Do you call that?” she said.
“He had the gift
Of words, or is it tongues, I ought to say?”
“Was ever such a man for seeing likeness?”
“Or disregarding people’s civil questions—
What? We’ve found out in one hour more about him
Than we had seeing him pass by in the road
A thousand times. If that’s the way he preaches!
You didn’t think you’d keep him after all.
Oh, I’m not blaming you. He didn’t leave you
Much say in the matter, and I’m just as glad
We’re not in for a night of him. No sleep
If he had stayed. The least thing set him going.
It’s quiet as an empty church without him.”
“But how much better off are we as it is?
We’ll have to sit here till we know he’s safe.”
“Yes, I suppose you’ll want to, but I shouldn’t.
He knows what he can do, or he wouldn’t try.
Get into bed I say, and get some rest.
He won’t come back, and if he telephones,
It won’t be for an hour or two.”
We can’t be any help by sitting here
And living his fight through with him, I suppose.”
Cole had been telephoning in the dark.
Mrs. Cole’s voice came from an inner room:
“Did she call you or you call her?”
You’d better dress: you won’t go back to bed.
We must have been asleep: it’s three and after.”
“Had she been ringing long? I’ll get my wrapper.
I want to speak to her.”
“All she said was,
He hadn’t come and had he really started.”
“She knew he had, poor thing, two hours ago.”
“He had the shovel. He’ll have made a fight.”
“Why did I ever let him leave this house!”
“Don’t begin that. You did the best you could
To keep him—though perhaps you didn’t quite
Conceal a wish to see him show the spunk
To disobey you. Much his wife’ll thank you.”
“Fred, after all I said! You shan’t make out
That it was any way but what it was.
Did she let on by any word she said
She didn’t thank me?”
“When I told her ‘Gone,’
‘Well then,’ she said, and ‘Well then’—like a threat.
And then her voice came scraping slow: ‘Oh, you,
Why did you let him go’?”
“Asked why we let him?
You let me there. I’ll ask her why she let him.
She didn’t dare to speak when he was here.
Their number’s—twenty-one? The thing won’t work.
Someone’s receiver’s down. The handle stumbles.
The stubborn thing, the way it jars your arm!
It’s theirs. She’s dropped it from her hand and gone.”
“Try speaking. Say ‘Hello’!”
“What do you hear?”
“I hear an empty room—
You know—it sounds that way. And yes, I hear—
I think I hear a clock—and windows rattling.
No step though. If she’s there she’s sitting down.”
“Shout, she may hear you.”
“Shouting is no good.”
“Keep speaking then.”
“Hello. Hello. Hello.
You don’t suppose—? She wouldn’t go out doors?”
“I’m half afraid that’s just what she might do.”
“And leave the children?”
“Wait and call again.
You can’t hear whether she has left the door
Wide open and the wind’s blown out the lamp
And the fire’s died and the room’s dark and cold?”
“One of two things, either she’s gone to bed
Or gone out doors.”
“In which case both are lost.
Do you know what she’s like? Have you ever met her?
It’s strange she doesn’t want to speak to us.”
“Fred, see if you can hear what I hear. Come.”
“A clock maybe.”
“Don’t you hear something else?”
“Why, yes, I hear—what is it?”
“What do you say it is?”
“A baby’s crying!
Frantic it sounds, though muffled and far off.”
“Its mother wouldn’t let it cry like that,
Not if she’s there.”
“What do you make of it?”
“There’s only one thing possible to make,
That is, assuming—that she has gone out.
Of course she hasn’t though.” They both sat down
Helpless. “There’s nothing we can do till morning.”
“Fred, I shan’t let you think of going out.”
“Hold on.” The double bell began to chirp.
They started up. Fred took the telephone.
“Hello, Meserve. You’re there, then!—And your wife?
Good! Why I asked—she didn’t seem to answer.
He says she went to let him in the barn.—
We’re glad. Oh, say no more about it, man.
Drop in and see us when you’re passing.”
She has him then, though what she wants him for
I don’t see.”
“Possibly not for herself.
Maybe she only wants him for the children.”
“The whole to-do seems to have been for nothing.
What spoiled our night was to him just his fun.
What did he come in for?—To talk and visit?
Thought he’d just call to tell us it was snowing.
If he thinks he is going to make our house
A halfway coffee house ‘twixt town and nowhere——”
“I thought you’d feel you’d been too much concerned.”
“You think you haven’t been concerned yourself.”
“If you mean he was inconsiderate
To rout us out to think for him at midnight
And then take our advice no more than nothing,
Why, I agree with you. But let’s forgive him.
We’ve had a share in one night of his life.
What’ll you bet he ever calls again?”
Where had I heard this wind before
Change like this to a deeper roar?
What would it take my standing there for,
Holding open a restive door,
Looking down hill to a frothy shore?
Summer was past and the day was past.
Sombre clouds in the west were massed.
Out on the porch’s sagging floor,
Leaves got up in a coil and hissed,
Blindly striking at my knee and missed.
Something sinister in the tone
Told me my secret my be known:
Word I was in the house alone
Somehow must have gotten abroad,
Word I was in my life alone,
Word I had no one left but God.
If tires of trees I seek again mankind,
Well I know where to hie me—in the dawn,
To a slope where the cattle keep the lawn.
There amid loggin juniper reclined,
Myself unseen, I see in white defined
Far off the homes of men, and farther still,
The graves of men on an opposing hill,
Living or dead, whichever are to mind.
And if by noon I have too much of these,
I have but to turn on my arm, and lo,
The sun-burned hillside sets my face aglow,
My breathing shakes the bluet like a breeze,
I smell the earth, I smell the bruisèd plant,
I look into the crater of the ant.
You were forever finding some new play.
So when I saw you down on hands and knees
I the meadow, busy with the new-cut hay,
Trying, I thought, to set it up on end,
I went to show you how to make it stay,
If that was your idea, against the breeze,
And, if you asked me, even help pretend
To make it root again and grow afresh.
But ’twas no make-believe with you today,
Nor was the grass itself your real concern,
Though I found your hand full of wilted fern,
Steel-bright June-grass, and blackening heads of clovers.
’Twas a nest full of young birds on the ground
The cutter-bar had just gone champing over
(Miraculously without tasking flesh)
And left defenseless to the heat and light.
You wanted to restore them to their right
Of something interposed between their sight
And too much world at once—could means be found.
The way the nest-full every time we stirred
Stood up to us as to a mother-bird
Whose coming home has been too long deferred,
Made me ask would the mother-bird return
And care for them in such a change of scene
And might out meddling make her more afraid.
That was a thing we could not wait to learn.
We saw the risk we took in doing good,
But dared not spare to do the best we could
Though harm should come of it; so built the screen
You had begun, and gave them back their shade.
All this to prove we cared. Why is there then
No more to tell? We turned to other things.
I haven’t any memory—have you?—
Of ever coming to the place again
To see if the birds lived the first night through,
And so at last to learn to use their wings.
“You ought to have seen what I saw on my way
To the village, through Mortenson’s pasture to-day:
Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb,
Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum
In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!
And all ripe together, not some of them green
And some of them ripe! You ought to have seen!”
“I don’t know what part of the pasture you mean.”
“You know where they cut off the woods—let me see—
It was two years ago—or no!—can it be
No longer than that?—and the following fall
The fire ran and burned it all up but the wall.”
“Why, there hasn’t been time for the bushes to grow.
That’s always the way with the blueberries, though:
There may not have been the ghost of a sign
Of them anywhere under the shade of the pine,
But get the pine out of the way, you may burn
The pasture all over until not a fern
Or grass-blade is left, not to mention a stick,
And presto, they’re up all around you as thick
And hard to explain as a conjuror’s trick.”
“It must be on charcoal they fatten their fruit.
I taste in them sometimes the flavour of soot.
And after all really they’re ebony skinned:
The blue’s but a mist from the breath of the wind,
A tarnish that goes at a touch of the hand,
And less than the tan with which pickers are tanned.”
“Does Mortenson know what he has, do you think?”
“He may and not care and so leave the chewink
To gather them for him—you know what he is.
He won’t make the fact that they’re rightfully his
An excuse for keeping us other folk out.”
“I wonder you didn’t see Loren about.”
“The best of it was that I did. Do you know,
I was just getting through what the field had to show
And over the wall and into the road,
When who should come by, with a democrat-load
Of all the young chattering Lorens alive,
But Loren, the fatherly, out for a drive.”
“He saw you, then? What did he do? Did he frown?”
“He just kept nodding his head up and down.
You know how politely he always goes by.
But he thought a big thought—I could tell by his eye—
Which being expressed, might be this in effect:
‘I have left those there berries, I shrewdly suspect,
To ripen too long. I am greatly to blame.’”
“He’s a thriftier person than some I could name.”
“He seems to be thrifty; and hasn’t he need,
With the mouths of all those young Lorens to feed?
He has brought them all up on wild berries, they say,
Like birds. They store a great many away.
They eat them the year round, and those they don’t eat
They sell in the store and buy shoes for their feet.”
“Who cares what they say? It’s a nice way to live,
Just taking what Nature is willing to give,
Not forcing her hand with harrow and plow.”
“I wish you had seen his perpetual bow—
And the air of the youngsters! Not one of them turned,
And they looked so solemn-absurdly concerned.”
“I wish I knew half what the flock of them know
Of where all the berries and other things grow,
Cranberries in bogs and raspberries on top
Of the boulder-strewn mountain, and when they will crop.
I met them one day and each had a flower
Stuck into his berries as fresh as a shower;
Some strange kind—they told me it hadn’t a name.”
“I’ve told you how once not long after we came,
I almost provoked poor Loren to mirth
By going to him of all people on earth
To ask if he knew any fruit to be had
For the picking. The rascal, he said he’d be glad
To tell if he knew. But the year had been bad.
There had been some berries—but those were all gone.
He didn’t say where they had been. He went on:
‘I’m sure—I’m sure’—as polite as could be.
He spoke to his wife in the door, ‘Let me see,
Mame, we don’t know any good berrying place?’
It was all he could do to keep a straight face.
“If he thinks all the fruit that grows wild is for him,
He’ll find he’s mistaken. See here, for a whim,
We’ll pick in the Mortensons’ pasture this year.
We’ll go in the morning, that is, if it’s clear,
And the sun shines out warm: the vines must be wet.
It’s so long since I picked I almost forget
How we used to pick berries: we took one look round,
Then sank out of sight like trolls underground,
And saw nothing more of each other, or heard,
Unless when you said I was keeping a bird
Away from its nest, and I said it was you.
‘Well, one of us is.’ For complaining it flew
Around and around us. And then for a while
We picked, till I feared you had wandered a mile,
And I thought I had lost you. I lifted a shout
Too loud for the distance you were, it turned out,
For when you made answer, your voice was as low
As talking—you stood up beside me, you know.”
“We sha’n't have the place to ourselves to enjoy—
Not likely, when all the young Lorens deploy.
They’ll be there to-morrow, or even to-night.
They won’t be too friendly—they may be polite—
To people they look on as having no right
To pick where they’re picking. But we won’t complain.
You ought to have seen how it looked in the rain,
The fruit mixed with water in layers of leaves,
Like two kinds of jewels, a vision for thieves.”
When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.
The fisherman’s swapping a yarn for a yarn
Under the hand of the village barber,
And her in the angle of house and barn
His deep-sea dory has found a harbor.
At anchor she rides the sunny sod
As full to the gunnel of flowers growing
As ever she turned her home with cod
From George’s bank when winds were blowing.
And I judge from that elysian freight
That all they ask is rougher weather,
And dory and master will sail by fate
To seek the Happy Isles together.
Even the bravest that are slain
Shall not dissemble their surprise
On waking to find valor reign,
Even as on earth, in paradise;
And where they sought without the sword
Wide fields of asphodel fore’er,
To find that the utmost reward
Of daring should be still to dare.
The light of heaven falls whole and white
And is not shattered into dyes,
The light forever is morning light;
The hills are verdured pasture-wise;
The angle hosts with freshness go,
And seek with laughter what to brave;—
And binding all is the hushed snow
Of the far-distant breaking wave.
And from a cliff-top is proclaimed
The gathering of the souls for birth,
The trial by existence named,
The obscuration upon earth.
And the slant spirits trooping by
In streams and cross- and counter-streams
Can but give ear to that sweet cry
For its suggestion of what dreams!
And the more loitering are turned
To view once more the sacrifice
Of those who for some good discerned
Will gladly give up paradise.
And a white shimmering concourse rolls
Toward the throne to witness there
The speeding of devoted souls
Which God makes his especial care.
And none are taken but who will,
Having first heard the life read out
That opens earthward, good and ill,
Beyond the shadow of a doubt;
And very beautifully God limns,
And tenderly, life’s little dream,
But naught extenuates or dims,
Setting the thing that is supreme.
Nor is there wanting in the press
Some spirit to stand simply forth,
Heroic in it nakedness,
Against the uttermost of earth.
The tale of earth’s unhonored things
Sounds nobler there than ’neath the sun;
And the mind whirls and the heart sings,
And a shout greets the daring one.
But always God speaks at the end:
‘One thought in agony of strife
The bravest would have by for friend,
The memory that he chose the life;
But the pure fate to which you go
Admits no memory of choice,
Or the woe were not earthly woe
To which you give the assenting voice.’
And so the choice must be again,
But the last choice is still the same;
And the awe passes wonder then,
And a hush falls for all acclaim.
And God has taken a flower of gold
And broken it, and used therefrom
The mystic link to bind and hold
Spirit to matter till death come.
’Tis of the essence of life here,
Though we choose greatly, still to lack
The lasting memory at all clear,
That life has for us on the wrack
Nothing but what we somehow chose;
Thus are we wholly stipped of pride
In the pain that has but one close,
Bearing it crushed and mystified.
We chanced in passing by that afternoon
To catch it in a sort of special picture
Among tar-banded ancient cherry trees,
Set well back from the road in rank lodged grass,
The little cottage we were speaking of,
A front with just a door between two windows,
Fresh painted by the shower a velvet black.
We paused, the minister and I, to look.
He made as if to hold it at arm’s length
Or put the leaves aside that framed it in.
“Pretty,” he said. “Come in. No one will care.”
The path was a vague parting in the grass
That led us to a weathered window-sill.
We pressed our faces to the pane. “You see,” he said,
“Everything’s as she left it when she died.
Her sons won’t sell the house or the things in it.
They say they mean to come and summer here
Where they were boys. They haven’t come this year.
They live so far away—one is out west—
It will be hard for them to keep their word.
Anyway they won’t have the place disturbed.”
A buttoned hair-cloth lounge spread scrolling arms
Under a crayon portrait on the wall
Done sadly from an old daguerreotype.
“That was the father as he went to war.
She always, when she talked about war,
Sooner or later came and leaned, half knelt
Against the lounge beside it, though I doubt
If such unlifelike lines kept power to stir
Anything in her after all the years.
He fell at Gettysburg or Fredericksburg,
I ought to know—it makes a difference which:
Fredericksburg wasn’t Gettysburg, of course.
But what I’m getting to is how forsaken
A little cottage this has always seemed;
Since she went more than ever, but before—
I don’t mean altogether by the lives
That had gone out of it, the father first,
Then the two sons, till she was left alone.
(Nothing could draw her after those two sons.
She valued the considerate neglect
She had at some cost taught them after years.)
I mean by the world’s having passed it by—
As we almost got by this afternoon.
It always seems to me a sort of mark
To measure how far fifty years have brought us.
Why not sit down if you are in no haste?
These doorsteps seldom have a visitor.
The warping boards pull out their own old nails
With none to tread and put them in their place.
She had her own idea of things, the old lady.
And she liked talk. She had seen Garrison
And Whittier, and had her story of them.
One wasn’t long in learning that she thought
Whatever else the Civil War was for
It wasn’t just to keep the States together,
Nor just to free the slaves, though it did both.
She wouldn’t have believed those ends enough
To have given outright for them all she gave.
Her giving somehow touched the principle
That all men are created free and equal.
And to hear her quaint phrases—so removed
From the world’s view to-day of all those things.
That’s a hard mystery of Jefferson’s.
What did he mean? Of course the easy way
Is to decide it simply isn’t true.
It may not be. I heard a fellow say so.
But never mind, the Welshman got it planted
Where it will trouble us a thousand years.
Each age will have to reconsider it.
You couldn’t tell her what the West was saying,
And what the South to her serene belief.
She had some art of hearing and yet not
Hearing the latter wisdom of the world.
White was the only race she ever knew.
Black she had scarcely seen, and yellow never.
But how could they be made so very unlike
By the same hand working in the same stuff?
She had supposed the war decided that.
What are you going to do with such a person?
Strange how such innocence gets its own way.
I shouldn’t be surprised if in this world
It were the force that would at last prevail.
Do you know but for her there was a time
When to please younger members of the church,
Or rather say non-members in the church,
Whom we all have to think of nowadays,
I would have changed the Creed a very little?
Not that she ever had to ask me not to;
It never got so far as that; but the bare thought
Of her old tremulous bonnet in the pew,
And of her half asleep was too much for me.
Why, I might wake her up and startle her.
It was the words ‘descended into Hades’
That seemed too pagan to our liberal youth.
You know they suffered from a general onslaught.
And well, if they weren’t true why keep right on
Saying them like the heathen? We could drop them.
Only—there was the bonnet in the pew.
Such a phrase couldn’t have meant much to her.
But suppose she had missed it from the Creed
As a child misses the unsaid Good-night,
And falls asleep with heartache—how should I feel?
I’m just as glad she made me keep hands off,
For, dear me, why abandon a belief
Merely because it ceases to be true.
Cling to it long enough, and not a doubt
It will turn true again, for so it goes.
Most of the change we think we see in life
Is due to truths being in and out of favour.
As I sit here, and oftentimes, I wish
I could be monarch of a desert land
I could devote and dedicate forever
To the truths we keep coming back and back to.
So desert it would have to be, so walled
By mountain ranges half in summer snow,
No one would covet it or think it worth
The pains of conquering to force change on.
Scattered oases where men dwelt, but mostly
Sand dunes held loosely in tamarisk
Blown over and over themselves in idleness.
Sand grains should sugar in the natal dew
The babe born to the desert, the sand storm
Retard mid-waste my cowering caravans—
“There are bees in this wall.” He struck the clapboards,
Fierce heads looked out; small bodies pivoted.
We rose to go. Sunset blazed on the windows.
All out of doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him—at a loss.
And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping there, he scared it once again
In clomping off;—and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.
He consigned to the moon, such as she was,
So late-arising, to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.
One aged man—one man—can’t keep a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.
A neighbor of mine in the village
Likes to tell how one spring
When she was a girl on the farm, she did
A childlike thing.
One day she asked her father
To give her a garden plot
To plant and tend and reap herself,
And he said, “Why not?”
In casting about for a corner
Of walled-off ground where a shop had stood,
And he said, “Just it.”
And he said, “That ought to make you
An ideal one-girl farm,
And give you a chance to put some strength
On your slim-jim arm.”
It was not enough of a garden,
Her father said, to plough;
So she had to work it all by hand,
She wheeled the dung in the wheelbarrow
Along a stretch of road;
But she always ran away and left
Her not-nice load.
And hid from anyone passing.
And then she begged the seed.
She says she thinks she planted one
Of all things but weed.
A hill each of potatoes,
Tomatoes, beets, beans, pumpkins, corn,
And even fruit trees
And yes, she has long mistrusted
That a cider apple tree
In bearing there to-day is hers,
Or at least may be.
Her crop was a miscellany
When all was said and done,
A little bit of everything,
Now when she sees in the village
How village things go,
Just when it seems to come in right,
She says, “I know!
It’s as when I was a farmer——”
Oh, never by way of advice!
And she never sins by telling the tale
To the same person twice.
I walked down alone Sunday after church
To the place where John has been cutting trees
To see for myself about the birch
He said I could have to bush my peas.
The sun in the new-cut narrow gap
Was hot enough for the first of May,
And stifling hot with the odor of sap
From stumps still bleeding their life away.
The frogs that were peeping a thousand shrill
The minute they heard my step went still
To watch me and see what I came to get.
Birch boughs enough piled everywhere!—
All fresh and sound from the recent axe.
Time someone came with cart and pair
And got them off the wild flower’s backs.
They might be good for garden things
To curl a little finger round,
The same as you seize cat’s-cradle strings,
Small good to anything growing wild,
They were crooking many a trillium
That had budded before the boughs were piled
And since it was coming up had to come.
There overtook me and drew me in
To his down-hill, early-morning stride,
And set me five miles on my road
Better than if he had had me ride,
A man with a swinging bag for load
And half the bag wound round his hand.
We talked like barking above the din
Of water we walked along beside.
And for my telling him where I’d been
And where I lived in mountain land
To be coming home the way I was,
He told me a little about himself.
He came from higher up in the pass
Where the grist of the new-beginning brooks
Is blocks split off the mountain mass—
And hop. eless grist enough it looks
Ever to grind to soil for grass.
(The way it is will do for moss.)
There he had built his stolen shack.
It had to be a stolen shack
Because of the fears of fire and logs
That trouble the sleep of lumber folk:
Visions of half the world burned black
And the sun shrunken yellow in smoke.
We know who when they come to town
Bring berries under the wagon seat,
Or a basket of eggs between their feet;
What this man brought in a cotton sack
Was gum, the gum of the mountain spruce.
He showed me lumps of the scented stuff
Like uncut jewels, dull and rough
It comes to market golden brown;
But turns to pink between the teeth.
I told him this is a pleasant life
To set your breast to the bark of trees
That all your days are dim beneath,
And reaching up with a little knife,
To loose the resin and take it down
And bring it to market when you please
For every parcel I stoop down to seize
I lose some other off my arms and knees,
And the whole pile is slipping, bottles, buns—
Extremes too hard to comprehend at once,
Yet nothing I should care to leave behind.
With all I have to hold with hand and mind
And heart, if need be, I will do my best
To keep their building balanced at my breast.
I crouch down to prevent them as they fall;
Then sit down in the middle of them all.
I had to drop the armful in the road
And try to stack them in a better load.
I dwell in a lonely house I know
That vanished many a summer ago,
And left no trace but the cellar walls,
And a cellar in which the daylight falls,
And the purple-stemmed wild raspberries grow.
O’er ruined fences the grape-vines shield
The woods come back to the mowing field;
The orchard tree has grown one copse
Of new wood and old where the woodpecker chops;
The footpath down to the well is healed.
I dwell with a strangely aching heart
In that vanished abode there far apart
On that disused and forgotten road
That has no dust-bath now for the toad.
Night comes; the black bats tumble and dart;
The whippoorwill is coming to shout
And hush and cluck and flutter about:
I hear him begin far enough away
Full many a time to say his say
Before he arrives to say it out.
It is under the small, dim, summer star.
I know not who these mute folk are
Who share the unlit place with me—
Those stones out under the low-limbed tree
Doubtless bear names that the mosses mar.
They are tireless folk, but slow and sad,
Though two, close-keeping, are lass and lad,—
With none among them that ever sings,
And yet, in view of how many things,
As sweet companions as might be had.
She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To everything on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.
Before man came to blow it right
The wind once blew itself untaught,
And did its loudest day and night
In any rough place where it caught.
Man came to tell it what was wrong:
It hadn’t found the place to blow;
It blew too hard—the aim was song.
And listen—how it ought to go!
He took a little in his mouth,
And held it long enough for north
To be converted into south,
And then by measure blew it forth.
By measure. It was word and note,
The wind the wind had meant to be—
A little through the lips and throat.
The aim was song—the wind could see.
Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.
The woods around it have it—it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.
And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less—
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
Love has earth to which she clings
With hills and circling arms about—
Wall within wall to shut fear out.
But Thought has need of no such things,
For Thought has a pair of dauntless wings.
On snow and sand and turn, I see
Where Love has left a printed trace
With straining in the world’s embrace.
And such is Love and glad to be
But Thought has shaken his ankles free.
Thought cleaves the interstellar gloom
And sits in Sirius’ disc all night,
Till day makes him retrace his flight
With smell of burning on every plume,
Back past the sun to an earthly room.
His gains in heaven are what they are.
Yet some say Love by being thrall
And simply staying possesses all
In several beauty that Thought fares far
To find fused in another star.
‘You know Orion always comes up sideways.
Throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains,
And rising on his hands, he looks in on me
Busy outdoors by lantern-light with something
I should have done by daylight, and indeed,
After the ground is frozen, I should have done
Before it froze, and a gust flings a handful
Of waste leaves at my smoky lantern chimney
To make fun of my way of doing things,
Or else fun of Orion’s having caught me.
Has a man, I should like to ask, no rights
These forces are obliged to pay respect to?’
So Brad McLaughlin mingled reckless talk
Of heavenly stars with hugger-mugger farming,
Till having failed at hugger-mugger farming
He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And spent the proceeds on a telescope
To satisfy a lifelong curiosity
About our place among the infinities.
‘What do you want with one of those blame things?’
I asked him well beforehand. ‘Don’t you get one!’
‘Don’t call it blamed; there isn’t anything
More blameless in the sense of being less
A weapon in our human fight,’ he said.
‘I’ll have one if I sell my farm to buy it.’
There where he moved the rocks to plow the ground
And plowed between the rocks he couldn’t move,
Few farms changed hands; so rather than spend years
Trying to sell his farm and then not selling,
He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And bought the telescope with what it came to.
He had been heard to say by several:
‘The best thing that we’re put here for’s to see;
The strongest thing that’s given us to see with’s
A telescope. Someone in every town
Seems to me owes it to the town to keep one.
In Littleton it might as well be me.’
After such loose talk it was no surprise
When he did what he did and burned his house down.
Mean laughter went about the town that day
To let him know we weren’t the least imposed on,
And he could wait—we’d see to him tomorrow.
But the first thing next morning we reflected
If one by one we counted people out
For the least sin, it wouldn’t take us long
To get so we had no one left to live with.
For to be social is to be forgiving.
Our thief, the one who does our stealing from us,
We don’t cut off from coming to church suppers,
But what we miss we go to him and ask for.
He promptly gives it back, that is if still
Uneaten, unworn out, or undisposed of.
It wouldn’t do to be too hard on Brad
About his telescope. Beyond the age
Of being given one for Christmas gift,
He had to take the best way he knew how
To find himself in one. Well, all we said was
He took a strange thing to be roguish over.
Some sympathy was wasted on the house,
A good old-timer dating back along;
But a house isn’t sentient; the house
Didn’t feel anything. And if it did,
Why not regard it as a sacrifice,
And an old-fashioned sacrifice by fire,
Instead of a new-fashioned one at auction?
Out of a house and so out of a farm
At one stroke (of a match), Brad had to turn
To earn a living on the Concord railroad,
As under-ticket-agent at a station
Where his job, when he wasn’t selling tickets,
Was setting out, up track and down, not plants
As on a farm, but planets, evening stars
That varied in their hue from red to green.
He got a good glass for six hundred dollars.
His new job gave him leisure for stargazing.
Often he bid me come and have a look
Up the brass barrel, velvet black inside,
At a star quaking in the other end.
I recollect a night of broken clouds
And underfoot snow melted down to ice,
And melting further in the wind to mud.
Bradford and I had out the telescope.
We spread our two legs as we spread its three,
Pointed our thoughts the way we pointed it,
And standing at our leisure till the day broke,
Said some of the best things we ever said.
That telescope was christened the Star-Splitter,
Because it didn’t do a thing but split
A star in two or three, the way you split
A globule of quicksilver in your hand
With one stroke of your finger in the middle.
It’s a star-splitter if there ever was one,
And ought to do some good if splitting stars
‘Sa thing to be compared with splitting wood.
We’ve looked and looked, but after all where are we?
Do we know any better where we are,
And how it stands between the night tonight
And a man with a smoky lantern chimney?
How different from the way it ever stood?
“Oh, let’s go up the hill and scare ourselves,
As reckless as the best of them to-night,
By setting fire to all the brush we piled
With pitchy hands to wait for rain or snow.
Oh, let’s not wait for rain to make it safe.
The pile is ours: we dragged it bough on bough
Down dark converging paths between the pines.
Let’s not care what we do with it to-night.
Divide it? No! But burn it as one pile
The way we piled it. And let’s be the talk
Of people brought to windows by a light
Thrown from somewhere against their wall-paper.
Rouse them all, both the free and not so free
With saying what they’d like to do to us
For what they’d better wait till we have done.
Let’s all but bring to life this old volcano,
If that is what the mountain ever was—
And scare ourselves. Let wild fire loose we will…”
“And scare you too?” the children said together.
“Why wouldn’t it scare me to have a fire
Begin in smudge with ropy smoke and know
That still, if I repent, I may recall it,
But in a moment not: a little spurt
Of burning fatness, and then nothing but
The fire itself can put it out, and that
By burning out, and before it burns out
It will have roared first and mixed sparks with stars,
And sweeping round it with a flaming sword,
Made the dim trees stand back in wider circle—
Done so much and I know not how much more
I mean it shall not do if I can bind it.
Well if it doesn’t with its draft bring on
A wind to blow in earnest from some quarter,
As once it did with me upon an April.
The breezes were so spent with winter blowing
They seemed to fail the bluebirds under them
Short of the perch their languid flight was toward;
And my flame made a pinnacle to heaven
As I walked once round it in possession.
But the wind out of doors—you know the saying.
There came a gust. You used to think the trees
Made wind by fanning since you never knew
It blow but that you saw the trees in motion.
Something or someone watching made that gust.
It put the flame tip-down and dabbed the grass
Of over-winter with the least tip-touch
Your tongue gives salt or sugar in your hand.
The place it reached to blackened instantly.
The black was all there was by day-light,
That and the merest curl of cigarette smoke—
And a flame slender as the hepaticas,
Blood-root, and violets so soon to be now.
But the black spread like black death on the ground,
And I think the sky darkened with a cloud
Like winter and evening coming on together.
There were enough things to be thought of then.
Where the field stretches toward the north
And setting sun to Hyla brook, I gave it
To flames without twice thinking, where it verges
Upon the road, to flames too, though in fear
They might find fuel there, in withered brake,
Grass its full length, old silver golden-rod,
And alder and grape vine entanglement,
To leap the dusty deadline. For my own
I took what front there was beside. I knelt
And thrust hands in and held my face away.
Fight such a fire by rubbing not by beating.
A board is the best weapon if you have it.
I had my coat. And oh, I knew, I knew,
And said out loud, I couldn’t bide the smother
And heat so close in; but the thought of all
The woods and town on fire by me, and all
The town turned out to fight for me—that held me.
I trusted the brook barrier, but feared
The road would fail; and on that side the fire
Died not without a noise of crackling wood—
Of something more than tinder-grass and weed—
That brought me to my feet to hold it back
By leaning back myself, as if the reins
Were round my neck and I was at the plough.
I won! But I’m sure no one ever spread
Another color over a tenth the space
That I spread coal-black over in the time
It took me. Neighbors coming home from town
Couldn’t believe that so much black had come there
While they had backs turned, that it hadn’t been there
When they had passed an hour or so before
Going the other way and they not seen it.
They looked about for someone to have done it.
But there was no one. I was somewhere wondering
Where all my weariness had gone and why
I walked so light on air in heavy shoes
In spite of a scorched Fourth-of-July feeling.
Why wouldn’t I be scared remembering that?”
“If it scares you, what will it do to us?”
“Scare you. But if you shrink from being scared,
What would you say to war if it should come?
That’s what for reasons I should like to know—
If you can comfort me by any answer.”
“Oh, but war’s not for children—it’s for men.”
“Now we are digging almost down to China.
My dears, my dears, you thought that—we all thought it.
So your mistake was ours. Haven’t you heard, though,
About the ships where war has found them out
At sea, about the towns where war has come
Through opening clouds at night with droning speed
Further o’erhead than all but stars and angels,—
And children in the ships and in the towns?
Haven’t you heard what we have lived to learn?
Nothing so new—something we had forgotten:
War is for everyone, for children too.
I wasn’t going to tell you and I mustn’t.
The best way is to come up hill with me
And have our fire and laugh and be afraid.”
I didn’t make you know how glad I was
To have you come and camp here on our land.
I promised myself to get down some day
And see the way you lived, but I don’t know!
With a houseful of hungry men to feed
I guess you’d find…. It seems to me
I can’t express my feelings any more
Than I can raise my voice or want to lift
My hand (oh, I can lift it when I have to).
Did ever you feel so? I hope you never.
It’s got so I don’t even know for sure
Whether I am glad, sorry, or anything.
There’s nothing but a voice-like left inside
That seems to tell me how I ought to feel,
And would feel if I wasn’t all gone wrong.
You take the lake. I look and look at it.
I see it’s a fair, pretty sheet of water.
I stand and make myself repeat out loud
The advantages it has, so long and narrow,
Like a deep piece of some old running river
Cut short off at both ends. It lies five miles
Straight away through the mountain notch
From the sink window where I wash the plates,
And all our storms come up toward the house,
Drawing the slow waves whiter and whiter and whiter.
It took my mind off doughnuts and soda biscuit
To step outdoors and take the water dazzle
A sunny morning, or take the rising wind
About my face and body and through my wrapper,
When a storm threatened from the Dragon’s Den,
And a cold chill shivered across the lake.
I see it’s a fair, pretty sheet of water,
Our Willoughby! How did you hear of it?
I expect, though, everyone’s heard of it.
In a book about ferns? Listen to that!
You let things more like feathers regulate
Your going and coming. And you like it here?
I can see how you might. But I don’t know!
It would be different if more people came,
For then there would be business. As it is,
The cottages Len built, sometimes we rent them,
Sometimes we don’t. We’ve a good piece of shore
That ought to be worth something, and may yet.
But I don’t count on it as much as Len.
He looks on the bright side of everything,
Including me. He thinks I’ll be all right
With doctoring. But it’s not medicine—
Lowe is the only doctor’s dared to say so—
It’s rest I want—there, I have said it out—
From cooking meals for hungry hired men
And washing dishes after them—from doing
Things over and over that just won’t stay done.
By good rights I ought not to have so much
Put on me, but there seems no other way.
Len says one steady pull more ought to do it.
He says the best way out is always through.
And I agree to that, or in so far
As that I can see no way out but through—
Leastways for me—and then they’ll be convinced.
It’s not that Len don’t want the best for me.
It was his plan our moving over in
Beside the lake from where that day I showed you
We used to live—ten miles from anywhere.
We didn’t change without some sacrifice,
But Len went at it to make up the loss.
His work’s a man’s, of course, from sun to sun,
But he works when he works as hard as I do—
Though there’s small profit in comparisons.
(Women and men will make them all the same.)
But work ain’t all. Len undertakes too much.
He’s into everything in town. This year
It’s highways, and he’s got too many men
Around him to look after that make waste.
They take advantage of him shamefully,
And proud, too, of themselves for doing so.
We have four here to board, great good-for-nothings,
Sprawling about the kitchen with their talk
While I fry their bacon. Much they care!
No more put out in what they do or say
Than if I wasn’t in the room at all.
Coming and going all the time, they are:
I don’t learn what their names are, let alone
Their characters, or whether they are safe
To have inside the house with doors unlocked.
I’m not afraid of them, though, if they’re not
Afraid of me. There’s two can play at that.
I have my fancies: it runs in the family.
My father’s brother wasn’t right. They kept him
Locked up for years back there at the old farm.
I’ve been away once—yes, I’ve been away.
The State Asylum. I was prejudiced;
I wouldn’t have sent anyone of mine there;
You know the old idea—the only asylum
Was the poorhouse, and those who could afford,
Rather than send their folks to such a place,
Kept them at home; and it does seem more human.
But it’s not so: the place is the asylum.
There they have every means proper to do with,
And you aren’t darkening other people’s lives—
Worse than no good to them, and they no good
To you in your condition; you can’t know
Affection or the want of it in that state.
I’ve heard too much of the old-fashioned way.
My father’s brother, he went mad quite young.
Some thought he had been bitten by a dog,
Because his violence took on the form
Of carrying his pillow in his teeth;
But it’s more likely he was crossed in love,
Or so the story goes. It was some girl.
Anyway all he talked about was love.
They soon saw he would do someone a mischief
If he wa’n't kept strict watch of, and it ended
In father’s building him a sort of cage,
Or room within a room, of hickory poles,
Like stanchions in the barn, from floor to ceiling,—
A narrow passage all the way around.
Anything they put in for furniture
He’d tear to pieces, even a bed to lie on.
So they made the place comfortable with straw,
Like a beast’s stall, to ease their consciences.
Of course they had to feed him without dishes.
They tried to keep him clothed, but he paraded
With his clothes on his arm—all of his clothes.
Cruel—it sounds. I ’spose they did the best
They knew. And just when he was at the height,
Father and mother married, and mother came,
A bride, to help take care of such a creature,
And accommodate her young life to his.
That was what marrying father meant to her.
She had to lie and hear love things made dreadful
By his shouts in the night. He’d shout and shout
Until the strength was shouted out of him,
And his voice died down slowly from exhaustion.
He’d pull his bars apart like bow and bow-string,
And let them go and make them twang until
His hands had worn them smooth as any ox-bow.
And then he’d crow as if he thought that child’s play—
The only fun he had. I’ve heard them say, though,
They found a way to put a stop to it.
He was before my time—I never saw him;
But the pen stayed exactly as it was
There in the upper chamber in the ell,
A sort of catch-all full of attic clutter.
I often think of the smooth hickory bars.
It got so I would say—you know, half fooling—
“It’s time I took my turn upstairs in jail”—
Just as you will till it becomes a habit.
No wonder I was glad to get away.
Mind you, I waited till Len said the word.
I didn’t want the blame if things went wrong.
I was glad though, no end, when we moved out,
And I looked to be happy, and I was,
As I said, for a while—but I don’t know!
Somehow the change wore out like a prescription.
And there’s more to it than just window-views
And living by a lake. I’m past such help—
Unless Len took the notion, which he won’t,
And I won’t ask him—it’s not sure enough.
I ’spose I’ve got to go the road I’m going:
Other folks have to, and why shouldn’t I?
I almost think if I could do like you,
Drop everything and live out on the ground—
But it might be, come night, I shouldn’t like it,
Or a long rain. I should soon get enough,
And be glad of a good roof overhead.
I’ve lain awake thinking of you, I’ll warrant,
More than you have yourself, some of these nights.
The wonder was the tents weren’t snatched away
From over you as you lay in your beds.
I haven’t courage for a risk like that.
Bless you, of course, you’re keeping me from work,
But the thing of it is, I need to be kept.
There’s work enough to do—there’s always that;
But behind’s behind. The worst that you can do
Is set me back a little more behind.
I sha’n't catch up in this world, anyway.
I’d rather you’d not go unless you must.
The battle rent a cobweb diamond-strung
And cut a flower beside a ground bird’s nest
Before it stained a single human breast.
The stricken flower bent double and so hung.
And still the bird revisited her young.
A butterfly its fall had dispossessed
A moment sought in air his flower of rest,
Then lightly stooped to it and fluttering clung.
On the bare upland pasture there had spread
O’ernight ‘twixt mullein stalks a wheel of thread
And straining cables wet with silver dew.
A sudden passing bullet shook it dry.
The indwelling spider ran to greet the fly,
But finding nothing, sullenly withdrew.
Lancaster bore him—such a little town,
Such a great man. It doesn’t see him often
Of late years, though he keeps the old homestead
And sends the children down there with their mother
To run wild in the summer—a little wild.
Sometimes he joins them for a day or two
And sees old friends he somehow can’t get near.
They meet him in the general store at night,
Pre-occupied with formidable mail,
Rifling a printed letter as he talks.
They seem afraid. He wouldn’t have it so:
Though a great scholar, he’s a democrat,
If not at heart, at least on principle.
Lately when coming up to Lancaster
His train being late he missed another train
And had four hours to wait at Woodsville Junction
After eleven o’clock at night. Too tired
To think of sitting such an ordeal out,
He turned to the hotel to find a bed.
“No room,” the night clerk said. “Unless——”
Woodsville’s a place of shrieks and wandering lamps
And cars that shook and rattle—and one hotel.
“You say ‘unless.’”
“Unless you wouldn’t mind
Sharing a room with someone else.”
“Who is it?”
“So I should hope. What kind of man?”
“I know him: he’s all right. A man’s a man.
Separate beds of course you understand.”
The night clerk blinked his eyes and dared him on.
“Who’s that man sleeping in the office chair?
Has he had the refusal of my chance?”
“He was afraid of being robbed or murdered.
What do you say?”
“I’ll have to have a bed.”
The night clerk led him up three flights of stairs
And down a narrow passage full of doors,
At the last one of which he knocked and entered.
“Lafe, here’s a fellow wants to share your room.”
“Show him this way. I’m not afraid of him.
I’m not so drunk I can’t take care of myself.”
The night clerk clapped a bedstead on the foot.
“This will be yours. Good-night,” he said, and went.
“Lafe was the name, I think?”
You got it the first time. And yours?”
“Well, a teacher.”
Hold on, there’s something I don’t think of now
That I had on my mind to ask the first
Man that knew anything I happened in with.
I’ll ask you later—don’t let me forget it.”
The Doctor looked at Lafe and looked away.
A man? A brute. Naked above the waist,
He sat there creased and shining in the light,
Fumbling the buttons in a well-starched shirt.
“I’m moving into a size-larger shirt.
I’ve felt mean lately; mean’s no name for it.
I just found what the matter was to-night:
I’ve been a-choking like a nursery tree
When it outgrows the wire band of its name tag.
I blamed it on the hot spell we’ve been having.
’Twas nothing but my foolish hanging back,
Not liking to own up I’d grown a size.
Number eighteen this is. What size do you wear?”
The Doctor caught his throat convulsively.
“Fourteen! You say so!
I can remember when I wore fourteen.
And come to think I must have back at home
More than a hundred collars, size fourteen.
Too bad to waste them all. You ought to have them.
They’re yours and welcome; let me send them to you.
What makes you stand there on one leg like that?
You’re not much furtherer than where Kike left you.
You act as if you wished you hadn’t come.
Sit down or lie down, friend; you make me nervous.”
The Doctor made a subdued dash for it,
And propped himself at bay against a pillow.
“Not that way, with your shoes on Kike’s white bed.
You can’t rest that way. Let me pull your shoes off.”
“Don’t touch me, please—I say, don’t touch me, please.
I’ll not be put to bed by you, my man.”
“Just as you say. Have it your own way then.
‘My man’ is it? You talk like a professor.
Speaking of who’s afraid of who, however,
I’m thinking I have more to lose than you
If anything should happen to be wrong.
Who wants to cut your number fourteen throat!
Let’s have a show down as an evidence
Of good faith. There is ninety dollars.
Come, if you’re not afraid.”
“I‘m not afraid.
There’s five: that’s all I carry.”
“I can search you?
Where are you moving over to? Stay still.
You’d better tuck your money under you
And sleep on it the way I always do
When I’m with people I don’t trust at night.”
“Will you believe me if I put it there
Right on the counterpane—that I do trust you?”
“You’d say so, Mister Man.—I’m a collector.
My ninety isn’t mine—you won’t think that.
I pick it up a dollar at a time
All round the country for the Weekly News,
Published in Bow. You know the Weekly News?”
“Known it since I was young.”
“Then you know me.
Now we are getting on together—talking.
I’m sort of Something for it at the front.
My business is to find what people want:
They pay for it, and so they ought to have it.
Fairbanks, he says to me—he’s editor—
Feel out the public sentiment—he says.
A good deal comes on me when all is said.
The only trouble is we disagree
In politics: I’m Vermont Democrat—
You know what that is, sort of double-dyed;
The News has always been Republican.
Fairbanks, he says to me, ‘Help us this year,’
Meaning by us their ticket. ‘No,’ I says,
‘I can’t and won’t. You’ve been in long enough:
It’s time you turned around and boosted us.
You’ll have to pay me more than ten a week
If I’m expected to elect Bill Taft.
I doubt if I could do it anyway.’”
“You seem to shape the paper’s policy.”
“You see I’m in with everybody, know ’em all.
I almost know their farms as well as they do.”
“You drive around? It must be pleasant work.”
“It’s business, but I can’t say it’s not fun.
What I like best’s the lay of different farms,
Coming out on them from a stretch of woods,
Or over a hill or round a sudden corner.
I like to find folks getting out in spring,
Raking the dooryard, working near the house.
Later they get out further in the fields.
Everything’s shut sometimes except the barn;
The family’s all away in some back meadow.
There’s a hay load a-coming—when it comes.
And later still they all get driven in:
The fields are stripped to lawn, the garden patches
Stripped to bare ground, the apple trees
To whips and poles. There’s nobody about.
The chimney, though, keeps up a good brisk smoking.
And I lie back and ride. I take the reins
Only when someone’s coming, and the mare
Stops when she likes: I tell her when to go.
I’ve spoiled Jemima in more ways than one.
She’s got so she turns in at every house
As if she had some sort of curvature,
No matter if I have no errand there.
She thinks I’m sociable. I maybe am.
It’s seldom I get down except for meals, though.
Folks entertain me from the kitchen doorstep,
All in a family row down to the youngest.”
“One would suppose they might not be as glad
To see you as you are to see them.”
Because I want their dollar. I don’t want
Anything they’ve not got. I never dun.
I’m there, and they can pay me if they like.
I go nowhere on purpose: I happen by.
Sorry there is no cup to give you a drink.
I drink out of the bottle—not your style.
Mayn’t I offer you——?”
“No, no, no, thank you.”
“Just as you say. Here’s looking at you then.—
And now I’m leaving you a little while.
You’ll rest easier when I’m gone, perhaps—
Lie down—let yourself go and get some sleep.
But first—let’s see—what was I going to ask you?
Those collars—who shall I address them to,
Suppose you aren’t awake when I come back?”
“Really, friend, I can’t let you. You—may need them.”
“Not till I shrink, when they’ll be out of style.”
“But really I—I have so many collars.”
“I don’t know who I rather would have have them.
They’re only turning yellow where they are.
But you’re the doctor as the saying is.
I’ll put the light out. Don’t you wait for me:
I’ve just begun the night. You get some sleep.
I’ll knock so-fashion and peep round the door
When I come back so you’ll know who it is.
There’s nothing I’m afraid of like scared people.
I don’t want you should shoot me in the head.
What am I doing carrying off this bottle?
There now, you get some sleep.”
He shut the door.
The Doctor slid a little down the pillow.
Two fairies it was
On a still summer day
Came forth in the woods
With the flowers to play.
The flowers they plucked
They cast on the ground
For others, and those
For still others they found.
Flower-guided it was
That they came as they ran
On something that lay
In the shape of a man.
The snow must have made
The feathery bed
When this one fell
On the sleep of the dead.
But the snow was gone
A long time ago,
And the body he wore
Nigh gone with the snow.
The fairies drew near
And keenly espied
A ring on his hand
And a chain at his side.
They knelt in the leaves
And eerily played
With the glittering things,
And were not afraid.
And when they went home
To hide in their burrow,
They took them along
To play with to-morrow.
When you came on death,
Did you not come flower-guided
Like the elves in the wood?
I remember that I did.
But I recognised death
With sorrow and dread,
And I hated and hate
The spoils of the dead.