Rich Man, Poor Man

A poem by Josephine Preston Peabody

'Rich man, Poor man, Beggar man, Thief, Doctor, Lawyer, Merchant, Chief.'


I

Highway, stretched along the sun,
Highway, thronged till day is done;
Where the drifting Face replaces
Wave on wave on wave of faces,
And you count them, one by one:
'Rich man--Poor man--Beggar man--Thief:
Doctor--Lawyer--Merchant--Chief.'
Is it soothsay?--Is it fun?

Young ones, like as wave and wave;
Old ones, like as grave and grave;
Tide on tide of human faces
With what human undertow!
Rich man, poor man, beggar-man, thief!--
Tell me of the eddying spaces,
Show me where the lost ones go;
Like and lost, as leaf and leaf.
What's your secret grim refrain
Back and forth and back again,
Once, and now, and always so?
Three days since, and who was Thief?
Three days more, and who'll be Chief?
Oh, is that beyond belief,
Doctor, Lawyer--Merchant-Chief?

(Down, like grass before the mowing;
On, like wind in its mad going:--
Wind and dust forever blowing.)

Highway, shrill with murderous pride,
Highway, of the swarming tide!
Why should my way lead me deeper?
I am not my Brother's keeper.


II

Byway, ambushed with the dark,
Byway, where the ears may hark;
Live and fierce when day is done,
You, that do without the Sun:--
What's this game you bring to nought?--
Muttering like a thing distraught,
Reckoning like a simpleton?
(Since the hearing must be brief,--
Living or a dying thief!)
Cobbled with the anguished stones
That the thoroughfare disowns;
Stones they gave you for your bread
Of the disinherited!
Where the Towers of Hunger loom,
Crowding in the dregs of doom;
Where the lost sky peering through
Sees no more the grudging grass,--
Only this mud-mirrored blue,
Like some shattered looking-glass.

(Under, with the sorry reaping!
Underneath the stones of weeping,
For the Dark to have in keeping.)

Byway, you, so foully marred;
You, whose sodden walls and scarred,
See no light, but only where
Fevered lamps are set to stare
In the eyes of such despair!
Tell me--as a Byway can--
Was this Beggar once a Man?
'Rich man--Poor man--Beggar man--Thief!'
Like and lost as leaf and leaf.
Stammering out your wrongs and shames,
Must you cry their very names?
Must you sob your shame, your grief?
--'Poor man--Poor man!--Beggar--Thief.'


III

Highway, where the Sun is wide;
Byway, where the lost ones hide,
Byway, where the Soul must hark,
Byway, dreadful with the Dark:
Can you nothing do with Man?
Doctor, Lawyer, Merchant, Chief,
Learns he nothing, even of grief?
Must it still be all his wonder
Some men soar, while some go under?
He has heard, and he has seen:
Make him know the thing you mean.
He has prayed since time began,--
He's so curious of the Plan!
He will pray you till he die,
For the Whence and for the Why;
Mad for wisdom--when 'tis cheaper!
'Why should my way lead me deeper?
Am I, then, my Brother's keeper?'

Show him, Byway, if you can;
Lest he end as he began,
Rich and poor,--this beggar, Man.



But we did walk in Eden,
Eden, the garden of God;--
There, where no beckoning wonder
Of all the paths we trod,
No choiring sun-filled vineyard,
No voice of stream or bird,
But was some radiant oracle
And flaming with the Word!

Mine ears are dim with voices;
Mine eyes yet strive to see
The black things here to wonder at,
The mirth,--the misery.
Beloved, who wert with me there,
How came these shames to be?--
On what lost star are we?

Men say: The paths of gladness
By men were never trod!--
But we have walked in Eden,
Eden, the garden of God.

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