Fragments Of An Unfinished Poem

A poem by James Russell Lowell

I am a man of forty, sirs, a native of East Haddam,
And have some reason to surmise that I descend from Adam;
But what's my pedigree to you? That I will soon unravel;
I've sucked my Haddam-Eden dry, therefore desire to travel,
And, as a natural consequence, presume I needn't say,
I wish to write some letters home and have those letters p----
[I spare the word suggestive of those grim Next Morns that mount
Clump, Clump, the stairways of the brain with--'Sir, my small account,'
And, after every good we gain--Love, Fame, Wealth, Wisdom--still,
As punctual as a cuckoo clock, hold up their little bill,
The garçons in our Café of Life, by dreaming us forgot--
Sitting, like Homer's heroes, full and musing God knows what,--
Till they say, bowing, S'il vous plait, voila, Messieurs, la note!]
I would not hint at this so soon, but in our callous day,
The Tollman Debt, who drops his bar across the world's highway,
Great Cæsar in mid-march would stop, if Cæsar could not pay;
Pilgriming's dearer than it was: men cannot travel now
Scot-free from Dan to Beersheba upon a simple vow;
Nay, as long back as Bess's time,--when Walsingham went over
Ambassador to Cousin France, at Canterbury and Dover
He was so fleeced by innkeepers that, ere he quitted land,
He wrote to the Prime Minister to take the knaves in hand.
If I with staff and scallop-shell should try my way to win,
Would Bonifaces quarrel as to who should take me in?
Or would my pilgrim's progress end where Bunyan started his on,
And my grand tour be round and round the backyard of a prison?
I give you here a saying deep and therefore, haply true;
'Tis out of Merlin's prophecies, but quite as good as new:
The question boath for men and meates longe voyages yt beginne
Lyes in a notshell, rather saye lyes in a case of tinne.
But, though men may not travel now, as in the Middle Ages,
With self-sustaining retinues of little gilt-edged pages,
Yet one may manage pleasantly, where'er he likes to roam,
By sending his small pages (at so much per small page) home;
And if a staff and scallop-shell won't serve so well as then,
Our outlay is about as small--just paper, ink, and pen.
Be thankful! Humbugs never die, more than the wandering Jew;
Bankrupt, they publish their own deaths, slink for a while from view,
Then take an alias, change the sign, and the old trade renew;
Indeed, 'tis wondrous how each Age, though laughing at the Past,
Insists on having its tight shoe made on the same old last;
How it is sure its system would break up at once without
The bunion which it will believe hereditary gout;
How it takes all its swans for geese, nay, stranger yet and sadder,
Sees in its treadmill's fruitless jog a heavenward Jacob's-ladder,
Shouts, Lo, the Shining Heights are reached! One moment, more aspire!
Trots into cramps its poor, dear legs, gets never an inch the higher,
And like the others, ends with pipe and mug beside the fire.
There, 'tween each doze, it whiffs and sips and watches with a sneer
The green recruits that trudge and sweat where it had swinked whilere,
And sighs to think this soon spent zeal should be in simple truth,
The only interval between old Fogyhood and Youth:
'Well,' thus it muses, 'well, what odds? 'Tis not for us to warn;
'Twill be the same when we are dead, and was ere we were born;
Without the Treadmill, too, how grind our store of winter's corn?
Had we no stock, nor twelve per cent received from Treadmill shares,
We might ... but these poor devils at last will get our easy chairs.
High aims and hopes have great rewards, they, too, serene and snug,
Shall one day have their soothing pipe and their enlivening mug;
From Adam, empty-handed Youth hath always heard the hum
Of Good Times Coming, and will hear until the last day come;
Young ears Hear forward, old ones back, and, while the earth rolls on,
Full-handed Eld shall hear recede the steps of Good Times Gone;
Ah what a cackle we set up whene'er an egg was laid!
Cack-cack-cack-cackle! rang around, the scratch for worms was stayed,
Cut-cut-ca-dah-cut! from this egg the coming cock shall stalk!
The great New Era dawns, the age of Deeds and not of Talk!
And every stupid hen of us hugged close his egg of chalk,
Thought,--sure, I feel life stir within, each day with greater strength,
When lo, the chick! from former chicks he differed not a jot,
But grew and crew and scratched and went, like those before, to pot!'
So muse the dim Emeriti, and, mournful though it be,
I must confess a kindred thought hath sometimes come to me,
Who, though but just of forty turned, have heard the rumorous fame
Of nine and ninety Coming Men, all--coming till they came.
Pure Mephistopheles all this? the vulgar nature jeers?
Good friend, while I was writing it, my eyes were dim with tears;
Thrice happy he who cannot see, or who his eyes can shut,
Life's deepest sorrow is contained in that small word there--But!

We're pretty nearly crazy here with change and go ahead,
With flinging our caught bird away for two i' th' bush instead,
With butting 'gainst the wall which we declare shall be a portal,
And questioning Deeps that never yet have oped their lips to mortal;
We're growing pale and hollow-eyed, and out of all condition,
With mediums and prophetic chairs, and crickets with a mission,
(The most astounding oracles since Balaam's donkey spoke,--
'Twould seem our furniture was all of Dodonean oak.)
Make but the public laugh, be sure 'twill take you to be somebody;
'Twill wrench its button from your clutch, my densely earnest glum body;
'Tis good, this noble earnestness, good in its place, but why
Make great Achilles' shield the pan to bake a penny pie?
Why, when we have a kitchen-range, insist that we shall stop,
And bore clear down to central fires to broil our daily chop?
Excalibur and Durandart are swords of price, but then
Why draw them sternly when you wish to trim your nails or pen?
Small gulf between the ape and man; you bridge it with your staff;
But it will be impassable until the ape can laugh;--
No, no, be common now and then, be sensible, be funny,
And, as Siberians bait their traps for bears with pots of honey,
From which ere they'll withdraw their snouts, they'll suffer many a club-lick,
So bait your moral figure-of-fours to catch the Orson public.
Look how the dead leaves melt their way down through deep-drifted snow;
They take the sun-warmth down with them--pearls could not conquer so;
There is a moral here, you see: if you would preach, you must
Steep all your truths in sunshine would you have them pierce the crust;
Brave Jeremiah, you are grand and terrible, a sign
And wonder, but were never quite a popular divine;
Fancy the figure you would cut among the nuts and wine!
I, on occasion, too, could preach, but hold it wiser far
To give the public sermons it will take with its cigar,
And morals fugitive, and vague as are these smoke-wreaths light
In which ... I trace ... a ... let me see--bless me! 'tis out of sight.

There are some goodish things at sea; for instance, one can feel
A grandeur in the silent man forever at the wheel,
That bit of two-legged intellect, that particle of drill,
Who the huge floundering hulk inspires with reason, brain, and will,
And makes the ship, though skies are black and headwinds whistle loud,
Obey her conscience there which feels the loadstar through the cloud;
And when by lusty western gales the full-sailed barque is hurled,
Towards the great moon which, setting on, the silent underworld,
Rounds luridly up to look on ours, and shoots a broadening line,
Of palpitant light from crest to crest across the ridgy brine,
Then from the bows look back and feel a thrill that never stales,
In that full-bosomed, swan-white pomp of onward-yearning sails;
Ah, when dear cousin Bull laments that you can't make a poem,
Take him aboard a clipper-ship, young Jonathan, and show him
A work of art that in its grace and grandeur may compare
With any thing that any race has fashioned any where;
'Tis not a statue, grumbles John; nay, if you come to that,
We think of Hyde Park Corner, and concede you beat us flat
With your equestrian statue to a Nose and a Cocked hat;
But 'tis not a cathedral; well, e'en that we will allow,
Both statues and cathedrals are anachronistic now;
Your minsters, coz, the monuments of men who conquered you,
You'd sell a bargain, if we'd take the deans and chapters too;
No; mortal men build nowadays, as always heretofore,
Good temples to the gods which they in very truth adore;
The shepherds of this Broker Age, with all their willing flocks,
Although they bow to stones no more, do bend the knee to stocks,
And churches can't be beautiful though crowded, floor and gallery,
If people worship preacher, and if preacher worship salary;
'Tis well to look things in the face, the god o' the modern universe,
Hermes, cares naught for halls of art and libraries of puny verse,
If they don't sell, he notes them thus upon his ledger--say, per
Contra to a loss of so much stone, best Russia duck and paper;
And, after all, about this Art men talk a deal of fudge,
Each nation has its path marked out, from which it must not budge;
The Romans had as little art as Noah in his ark,
Yet somehow on this globe contrived to make an epic mark;
Religion, painting, sculpture, song--for these they ran up jolly ticks
With Greece and Egypt, but they were great artists in their politics,
And if we make no minsters, John, nor epics, yet the Fates
Are not entirely deaf to men who can build ships and states;
The arts are never pioneers, but men have strength and health
Who, called on suddenly, can improvise a commonwealth,
Nay, can more easily go on and frame them by the dozen,
Than you can make a dinner-speech, dear sympathizing cousin;
And, though our restless Jonathan have not your graver bent, sure he
Does represent this hand-to-mouth, pert, rapid nineteenth century;
This is the Age of Scramble; men move faster than they did
When they pried up the imperial Past's deep-dusted coffin-lid,
Searching for scrolls of precedent; the wire-leashed lightning now
Replaces Delphos--men don't leave the steamer for the scow;
What public, were they new to-day, would ever stop to read
The Iliad, the Shanàmeh, or the Nibelungenlied?
Their public's gone, the artist Greek, the lettered Shah, the hairy Graf--
Folio and plesiosaur sleep well; we weary o'er a paragraph;
The mind moves planet-like no more, it fizzes, cracks, and bustles;
From end to end with journals dry the land o'ershadowed rustles,
As with dead leaves a winter-beech, and, with their breath-roused jars
Amused, we care not if they hide the eternal skies and stars;
Down to the general level of the Board of Brokers sinking,
The Age takes in the newspapers, or, to say sooth unshrinking,
The newspapers take in the Age, and stocks do all the thinking.

Reader Comments

Tell us what you think of 'Fragments Of An Unfinished Poem' by James Russell Lowell

comments powered by Disqus

Home | Search | About this website | Contact | Privacy Policy