'AND when came I to this town?' did he say!
by Augusta Davies Webster
A question asked for the asking's sake,
Answered merely an answer to make,
As stranger to stranger may;
Answered enough with ''Twas yesterday,'
And a talk of the journey travelled so fast.
Had I said, 'Since I dwelt here first have passed
Hundreds of years away'!
Aye, and there be who, if they knew,
Would envy me, as a cripple must long,
Looking on limbs erect and strong,
To have his freedom given him too
And rise and reach to whither he would:
'What!' they would think, 'Is the gift not good
Beyond all gifts for earth or for time?
Life, and no shadow of death o'ercast,
Life, and the joy of manhood's prime,
Life, and the lore of a boundless past,
Life, and still life to come and to last! '
And I even, even now,
I know not what that spirit might be,
Whether of love or of hate to me,
That stood in the dusk on the mountain's brow,
Alone with the stars I had climbed to see nigh,
And smiled, and gave, and was no more there.
There was no trace broke the sky,
There was no breath stirred the air,
Nought from the heaven or the earth to tell
If it were well:
And how much surer to-day know I
Whether he meant me a boon or a curse,
Whether to wait or to die be worse?
Ah, how I joyed for so many years!
Death under my heel with his hindering fears,
And I the lord of my life for ever!
Leisure and labour limitless,
And always the joy of the earned success
Crowned with the joy of the new endeavour!
And I thought 'I will make all wisdoms mine;'
And I thought 'The world shall be glad of me.'
Ah, how I joyed! for could I divine
What the fruit of immortal days must be?
But alas for the numbness of wont on all,
For the heart that has loved too often to prize,
For the eyes that have wept too often for tears,
For the listless feet and the careless ears,
For the brain that has learned that to learn is vain,
For forgotten joy and forgotten pain,
For the life too frequent for memories!
And I taste no joy because it will pall,
And I watch no grace because it will wane,
And I seek no good for it will not remain,
And I knit no tie because it will sever.
If I were not alone: if the gift were shared
With but some one soul in the world beside,
Some one for whom I might have cared,
Who would not so soon have grown old and died.
But ever and ever to build all anew,
And ever and ever to see all decay;
To fashion my life as the others do
And have my place among fellow-men,
To sit content in my home—and then
To have lived, and the rest has faded away:
There are the graves, and I part of the past,
Forgotten with them whom I outlast.
Let it be; 'tis a foolish game,
The game that children play on the beach,
With its ending always the same,
Building amain till the tide-waves reach
And the sands will be bare to build on to-morrow.
Let it be; for what is the worth?
Long since I wearied of saying good-bye:
And what or whom should I cherish on earth
Where I go as might one from some world on high
Unmeet for the short-lived pleasure or sorrow?
Only the men who look to die
Can have or hope in a world where death reigns:
Do I pity that slight ephemerous fly,
Whirling and resting there in the sun,
Because his day will be so soon done?
All remains while his day remains;
He will not have known that a rosebud wanes.
How if he lived for ever, as I?
Truly 'tis even so,
To die betimes is scarcely to know
How death is around us everywhere.
But ever for me the birth and blow
Are but a part of decay that is there,
And the living come but to go:
Till at length I am one who, drawing aside,
Where the crowd sweeps by in one jostling race,
Stands unstirred in his lonely place
And leaves off noting face after face;
I am one who wait stranded, alone, by the tide
Of Life, which has also Death for name
Because for the world the two are the same,
The tide that goes winding back whence it came,
Bearing all thither save me;
And I dream and I scarcely seem to be,
And I know no count of time as it flies,
And the river passes, passes, passes,
Smooth and for ever, and changelessly glasses
Summers and winters and changing skies,
Passes, and passes, and passes,
And nothing abides and nothing is strange;
And oh for rest to my languid eyes
Weary of change that is never change!
Ah! men might marvel to hear me say
The world of my youth is the world of to-day;
Here, in this very home of my birth,
How they would answer from some old book,
'Thus and thus was the past; now look,
Are we as they of the older earth,
We and our ways, and the fields we plough?'
And the first-met gossip who knows but Now
Counts chances a score in half a year,
Tells me this was that, and there was here,
A hall is burnt, a new market is made,
A railway runs where the school-boys played,
He is married, and he is dead,
And he so rich goes begging his bread;
''Tis a world of change,' he will soberly sigh
For point to his tales: why, and so say I;
Chances and changes enough, I deem,
In a world that goes on like a shifting dream;
But, oh, the long sameness! Ebb and flow:
Billows that come, and billows that go!
Nothing is but will drift away,
Nothing was but will come:
Future finds Past, old becomes new;
What men have done that they will do.
'Tis but the counting coins of to-day
To measure the former sum,
But the naming laterwise
Things and thoughts of an ancient guise:
And what change for me who see life as some star,
The expanses of earth in one from afar?
Hill grows valley and valley grows hills
'Tis a world of hills and valleys still.
Did I dream I could have been wearied thus,
With truth and with wisdoms left to seek?
Alas, my learners who heard me speak
'Is not to learn enough for us?
Is not to strive a strength for the soul,
Though she never gained one foot to the goal?'
If you could waken now where you lie,
You and your graves forgotten as I
In our town that would tell our names for its praise;
If you could hear, and your pitying gaze
Could know the teacher who made you bold!
Nay, sleep on unconscious there in the mould:
You died with a joy as of something gained,
Something given to the world you left;
I laboured on to be ever bereft
Of the skill achieved, of the science attained.
For, lo, the end of all learning is this,
Only to know one has learned amiss,
Only to know that the art or the lore
With its rules and its axioms was nothing more
Than a working guess that did for the while;
Only to know that sage after sage
Has passed on a dream from age to age,
Till the world awakes, and the children smile
At the thoughts of the foolish grown-men of old.
Aye, sleep, ye who counted your lives well spent,
Sleep, ye who dreamed; ye are content
Thou who hadst gained the secret of gold,
Save that one last fusion left me to find;
Thou who hadst tracked the sun's path through the air;
Thou with thy skill of the stars; thou there
In the chapel vault, with thy name still shown
To sauntering strangers, cut on the stone,
With thy chronicle of the world left behind;
Thou who hadst learned and hadst lighted on cures
For every ill man's body endures,
And leftst me thy leechcrafts for legacy;
Thou; and thou; and thou; oh, poor fools,
Who dreamed ye had found the thing ye sought,
Sleep, sleep and know not. All goes by,
Lores, and crafts, and beliefs, and schools;
Wrought is unravelled; thought is new-thought;
Till meseems that truth's very self must die,
And be born again unto younger rules.
Whereto is life for me? And I would
I had now departed and knew the end.
Death—'tis a way even I might wend—
But were it evil or good?
Oh, had it been but a word to speak,
But a blow at once, or a venomous draught,
Long since I had said, or struck, or quaffed:
But all a seven days' week!
Each dawn and each dusk of a seven days' week,
To will it unwavering: all a week!
Vain, vain, o'er and o'er,
A thousand times and a thousand yet:
Lo, life with some one poor hope once more,
Some one poor grace worth a while for regret;
Lo, death grown awful with dread and doubt.
And oh, feeble will, and oh, sluggish heart,
Almost too weary to long to depart!
Yet, dusk is at hand, see, the sunset fades out:
And here where was home life is loneliest to bear,
'Twere a goodly time to renew the test;
And I will it—Nay, is it worth the care?
'Tis but beginning a strife and unrest.
Seven days for life to lure back her thrall.
Oh, if I knew the end! knew all!
But, what if even life were the best?
What, if death were a new despair?