Death at The Purple Rim (1941)
This beast I killed lived under a stone wall,
And every day he came to sun himself
On the warm rocks, in the pleasant afternoon,
I worked in the garden and the earth was rich,
Clinging to hoe and heel, as gold, alas,
Clung not to hand. And pausing, I looked
At the motionless elm and the hawk winging afar
In the sunlit air, and the butterfly's trembling wing,
This was a little valley all to myself
In Connecticut's northern hills: Cornwall was there;
Warren to westward: Waramaug Lake to the south;
And the great Gehenna sufficient six-score leagues—
As the sensible crow flies not—with its million men,
Grasping for food without tilling, or planting, or reaping:
For meat without killing—but killing lawfully, subtly,
On counter and desk and in ledger, each one his neighbor;
And the prisons shrugging arrogant shoulders skyward,
Prouder and taller than trees, and with lesser right—
Their naked forms to sunlight flaunting, and starlight,
Or luckless angel whose glance might be low and earthy.
And I in my garden the hub of a spinning planet.
I saw the motionless elm and the stately hawkflight,
And the green grass, and through it the greener pathway
Where the sweet brook hid (for so it must be forever,
Though felons scour the earth with head held proudly).
I saw the butterfly poised on a pebble; the fence
Encased in its friendly bushes; the break in the woods
Where the spring brought death to the fawn that was careless of step;
The circle of forested hills with the patch of hayfield
Tilted to me. And I in the garden at peace.
And my hands gripped tight at the hoe, for safety was here
From the beckoning pen and the anguish of heart it pampered.
My shoulders were bare to the sun; the sweat, glorious,
Cooled on my forehead and challenged vindictive Fate
To snub my temerity fitly with woe and with aching:
Presumed I to make a blessing of Adam's curse?
What substitute travails would rack me on some tomorrow?
But the present was good and I saw the butterfly's flight,
The flutter of fragile wings on eternal earth;
The sun-dried rock like the honest face of a neighbor;
The toad in lovable ugliness, musing there
On age-old queries perhaps: the riddles the Sphinx
Propounded to Oedipus once on a Grecian morning,
Or the song that the sirens sang: or questions nearer
This earth our batrachian thinker so calmly possessed:
Why crosses a chicken the road; what saw old bruin
Panting with fevered nose on the mountain's summit,
Or how much wood a woodchuck might chuck if inclined to;
Or better, the weather—for well might we speak forever:
I and a lovable toad and all the neighbors—
On this, our question. The men of caprice die out here.
Ours the solid men, the real and the hard,
The sane, the sober of mirth, of passion the steady.
And the land is hard to receive them, stony but just.
To the laggard, penury; the toiler, bread but no riches.
O confounded truth! our rocks renew themselves yearly.
Uproot them and falter: tomorrow they lie in your fields
To mock at your plow and your mower, to scowl at your toe.
Of three hundred years the hands suffice not for dreaming,
And three hundred more will win no sweet softness for loobies.
But see the caprice in shape of the hills; and see
The twisting of road and of stream, the humor of sky.
The clouds are wayward in flight over stubborn rock.
The wind takes its intricate path in tortuous valley.
Our earth is sturdy as man; our sky is a woman,
Beclouded with sorrow, and now with a smile of the sunlight;
Cold in her season, brutal and bitter in anger;
Tearful with fancied wrong, sweet in forgiveness;
Tempestuous now with malice, scathing to dullard;
Yielding in yearning at last when the dusk is purple;
Grave in the knowledge of bearing, proud in her knowing;
Sad in remembrance in autumn of Maytime gentle ...
What man would talk of his wife where men are met
That sits on a three-legged stool in a shapeless smock,
With legs set wide and sturdy, and nose bent downward,
And hair that barely fails of Medusa's texture
Bound up in a yellow snip of forgotten nightgown,
And puts forth her workworn hands with officious vigor
To pull at the udder of meek brown cow at twilight?
Or is that unjust? for many are buxom and sweet—
Though I try not to covet my neighbor's wife or his chattels—
Still would he prefer to talk of our general hussy,
To the friend he hailed on the shaded road; to the postman;
To the spinster who sits alone in her hillside farm
And chews tobacco to signal her last defiance;
To the stranger whose car he met on the narrow way,
And turning his team aside on the hazardous shoulder,
Gave passage and pointer and words of a friendly moment.
The day is pleasant: it looks like tears for the morrow ...
And if I laughed in my work, who will upbraid me?
For I stood in the open air on an earth that was mine—
(By quitclaim and seal another's, true, but deeper,
Mine by the heart's possession, though never a judge
In any court since the Judges ruled in Israel
But with steely eyes would have bid me begone); I looked
At the sweet hills green in the sun, and my brain was full
Of the hills I knew with the knowledge of foot and staff
Here in this land; and the streams not sullen and vast
Or dragging the dregs of a continent seaward, but small—
That might cavil and fume at a single intruding rock,
Or a man might cross in a stride or two and after
Watch with a smile as one might look at a child;
You know those streams—which flow under little bridges
(That shake to the hoof of a horse or a grinding wheel)
And pass into green-floored rooms where weary willies,
Such as you and I, whom dignity still holds tightly,
Can in shoeless and stockingless freedom wade in cool water,
And think, with a twinge, of boyhood, and look in amazement
At a tiny fish that scampers to shadow and there
With gills a-tremble munches a mote for his dinner.
And I cannot forget a dusk in a plain in Durham.
The sky was a metal salver pricked by a star —
A bowl of translucent water where flashed in suspense
The scale of a golden fish no bigger than this
That lies in the shadow. Behind me the highway roared,
And iron screamed as it carried its masters, a-fret
With important business no doubt, to the ends that they wished—
Who, passing, looked hard at the figure whose cigarette burned
Not far from the road on the edge of a little pond,
And who did not turn but kept his face to himself...
Have you walked on a silent road where cattle were grazing,
And seen how they lifted their heads in cowish wonder
To stare at a stranger from outside their bovine world
Till he passed from their sight? So stare these new mortals
(Who would have it that Man is four-wheeled and not a biped)
At a walker of roads and a sitter by ponds in the dusk.
I forgot them. The cigarette dwindled away. The smoke
Traced up no longer a path in the air, but vanished
At once in the dark. The wind blew chill from the hills.
I saw the waters ruffled with cold, and rising,
Sent one last spume of smoke out into heaven,
And trod the bright butt under heel and turned up my coat.
And only the stars gave fire-but many! so many!
Advancing in brightness to take their predestined places —
And shine wherever in all the worlds there are eyes.
Star-cluster and nebula emerging in light—the Hair
Of Berenice, glowing, alive, the substance of dream
And remembrance. What madness, I thought, and what fear unholy,
If the stars of tomorrow night were new and unknown,
Arranged in strange constellations! Where Orion stood,
The form of a mammoth! where the Pleiades ever shone,
Two flickering yellow suns circling each other,
Nameless. There to the south were the hills I had crossed
From the Guilford shore: Grown dim as their substance itself,
The exertion of afternoon hours was lost in their purple.
I looked at the waters before me and saw them shining
With inner brightness like that of the star-crazed sky.
No landmarks were here, and I, a parcel of dark,
Was limned between shining worlds. Northward I faced.
The roar came back to my ears. And probing the night,
Interlacing, the headlights swept by that men relied on
To mark them the way through the dark
Not a hundred paces
Was the path that led from where I stood to this highway.
And as I returned I saw a signpost beside me,
Disregarded before. By the gust-flickered match I read
That this was Saul's Path. But ask me not who was Saul,
Or why he had given his name to a path that went
To a little pond but a hundred paces, and nowhere.
Saul's Path—I read—and under the words a date
Of two hundred fifty years ago—and nothing:
A burnt-out match, a surmise, a hand-made sign
Turned to the dark. And then I recalled at the right
The grass-grown foundations of what may have been a house.
And there by the water, was that the wreck of a mill?
0 dream over Saul whose works are clothed in cobwebs! ...
But the stars were ours again: the Chaldeans neighbors;
And the hills as real as the sweat dispensed in their climbing;
And the shady roads fond thoughts stored away in the mind
For moments of anguish; and the waters a girl's clear laughter,
And the smoke of a farmhouse the honest smoke of a pipe
That had been one's friend years-long and shared one's thoughts.
Here surely was earth much fairer by far than that—
The old and the bitter land that my father knew,
And the pitiless Russian plain, and the river he crossed
By sledge in winter, my grandfather's hands on the reins,
The sky a stolid grayness, the bells a-tinkle
With wan and imprisoned joy, while the wooden runners
Sang on the glittering ice a sad Asian tune.
And if I laughed in my garden, who will upbraid me?
For I was young then, and youth (so the wise men tell us)
Is the very season for laughter. But now I am old.
Five years have passed since I laughed at work in the garden;
Of days two thousand, and time has taken its wage.
And nothing remains but to sit by the fire, and nightly,
Like old Grangousier, warm my ballocks, and tell
Old tales to what guests may come, and write with a stick
Quaint curlicues on the rug; and in the sunshine
Read Roman De Senectute in consolation,
Or gray Taliesin's lament to nothing: his years.. .
You will dare to smile? You will say of my eight-and-twenty
That these are some years too few to prattle of age?
That you who read are sixty, seventy, eighty,
And feel yourselves young, and walk with a hearty step,
And eat sweet tidbits uncensored, and drink long draughts
Of wine and whiskey, and race with the neighbors' children,
And think young thoughts and plan great works and deplore
These rash and unfounded words, this stripling attempt
To unfurl my decrepitude so in the people's noses
And set false standards of judgment? So let it be.
But if you are young it is only that Fortune kissed you
Back in those youthful days. But shiver and chill,
The gift of the years of those damp and tempesty nights
Of vain serenading before the cold window-ledge
Of our sweet señorita, are my wage.
And the neighbors' dogs have left their autograph
Here on my legs; and on my head has fallen
A barrel-stave her father exercised—
Old Lawkamercy of the bilious face—
Who says to go away: where, he cares not,
Or how: eat grass with Neb, or bay at the moon
With Cassius, but here I am not welcome.
And if I stay, he says, I may receive
A kiss as savory as Absolon's,
The poet speaks of. Nothing else.
I see you entering life in a jaunty youth:
No Ben who chewed an undignified loaf on High Street
And tugged at his suitcase and heard a merciless wench
Laugh with white teeth from a doorway—a personage rather
The world bowed deeply to greet: whose resplendent doorman
Ushered you in with deference, called for a page
To relieve you of bag and bundle, and to the room clerk
Whispered that this was no passing fool—indeed
Was a noble and affluent scion of Venezuela,
Incognito, Don Antonio Pez y Mafiana y Mosca,
Arrived to savor the sights: was a friend of the owner's;
Was to loll at the owner's expense in a spacious room
That faced the ocean, and have his drinks on the house.
And as you moved forward, the bellboys cleared you a path
With worshiping, callow eyes; and people whispered;
And a girl who sat there alone with long legs crossed,
And naked arms, and tresses of laughing yellow
Gave you that ancient look that only the young
Can thoroughly understand—nor was she aloof
When encountered later at leisure. So dreamt you away
The tedious early years, the wind in your face,
Blushlessly sipping the famed and the blushful claret,
The cool and strength-giving Collins, the sweet Manhattan;
Throwing a coin on the spinning wheel nor caring
Of win or loss; drawing on paper vain squares
And aimless configurations, nor thinking of time
Wasted or looming; fondling the yellow locks,
Nor thinking of old and lantern-jawed letters suggesting
Celestial disapprobation. And meanwhile a wretch,
Unshaven, with toes that blinked through his shoetops, and nose
As peakit as three o'clock of a winter's morning,
Stood at a side door, meekly asking his handout,
Bleakly, whistling a tune to keep himself happy ...
Do you ask what I learned in these years to render me aged?
Of cosmic affairs this horrid and shocking course:
That the wicked wax rich in their naughty works, while the good
(Such as I myself) do nothing but dwindle: that the vile
Are pampered by heaven, while the lovable (I, of course)
Take heaven's boot on their bottom; that the impious flourish
While the pious (myself included) diminish cruelly;
That the ignorant rule, while the wise (I mean myself here)
Play second fiddle; that the haughty inherit the earth,
While the meek (and I among them) are waiting, still waiting;
That the infamous live them the life of Reilly, while we
(I speak of the noble) a dog's life and in his dwelling;
That the hooters at heaven gather them manna for breakfast,
While those who pray hard (as I do) are pelted with hailstones.
Moreover, a dove-eyed girl has blasted me wholly,
Not so long ago but at time my breath is still short,
And I find myself sighing sometimes and calling a name.
Besides which, here on the northeast arc of my skull
The hair is gravely departing, and though I comb it
To right or left, the naked truth will soon flourish.
Heigh-ho! Heigh-ho! Is further dilation needed?
And as for my dreams, each passing day sees them smaller.
(I have read that with age the wine grows sweeter in taste.
Well, I have not found it so; but in dying of dreams
I have seen a test of age more deeply authentic.
I have thought of dreams as perhaps like the rings of a tree
But thus: while the ring of each year is larger than last,
The dream of each year is smaller; and at the end,
When the desperate final dream has tightened about you,
And encloses a space no bigger than you yourself,
It circles your neck and strangles you and you perish ...)
So if I laughed in my garden, who will upbraid me?
Dig with your mattock, worker, dig with your mattock!
Dig in your living as others shall dig in your dying!
Turn up the rich red earth, O do not falter!
For under your skull a devil sits to undo you!
Dig for the seeding! Dig for the bread of salvation!
Dig with your mattock, worker, dig with your mattock!
This beast I killed rose up to the light of the sun
From the dark of his hollow house under the stones.
His eyes were piglike, his paws a hellish blackness;
His fell as sparse as the withering grass of autumn;
His snout a pig's snout, his form as ugly as evil.
I worked in the garden, in the day's warmth and the shining,
Whistling a tune to the earthworm, caring for nothing —
And raising my eyes I saw the butterfly balanced
On a brown clod, and I saw the hoptoad drowsing.
And I wiped the sweat from my forehead, and in my nostrils
There came a wind that had strayed from its home among pines
On the sloping hill, and I was a god triumphant.
Yet was I a man, for the earth was better than heaven:
I looked at the ruts on the grassy road, and beyond
Saw the stone wall stretched like an old dog asleep,
Heavy, content in affection, secure in its place.
The rocks had turned there gray in the summer suns;
Frosts and cold rains had seamed them, and scurrying ants
Who with stalwart pace had measured their length and width
And plumbed their nethermost corners, had sifted soft sand
On the small shelves between and the jutting angles.
This I knew, as I knew the irregular contours they made:
These gray rocks, on the tall green grass they fronted —
How each one couched in its place. Now as I turned
To continue my work, with the hoe gripped in my hand,
I thought one rock of darker gray than the others,
And strange to that spot. Amused at the fancy I stared.
And then with a startled tumultuous heart I saw him:
Crouched on the sun-warmed rock, the gray-brown monster
(This beast that like Pharaoh rises to meet his shadow,
To return—you have heard the story—if nowhere he find it,
To the earth for a dream or two): With his snout raised skyward,
All silent and rigid, forgetful he drank the sunlight.
And the sweat was hot on my palms and the hoe fell earthward,
And the death-lust shook me, and ever with eyes upon him
I cursed the clods and grass under my feet
That crackled with twigs and crunched with alarums as loud
As my pounding heart as I crept half bent to the house
Where I knew that the rifle leaned in a kitchen corner,
Waiting. And still in the sun like a sphinx he sat,
Drinking the fire, his snout raised up to the sky.
I reached the corner, obscuring me from his sight;
And as my shaking hand pulled open the door,
Again I cursed, myself for my heedless fault
In failure to keep the gun at my side as I worked
And him for the vileness I set there upon his being.
Now softly I let the door spring close behind me.
I did not see through the screen the new-mown grass,
Or the yellow bird in the apple tree, or the hillside.
But a doom drew me on and I deeply yearned for anger,
And hate to defend me, to armor stoutly the spirit.
Was this not the beast who would ravage the garden I planted?
Grow fat on my work? with black paws tear up the sprouts
And nibble them in the shade with his thieving mouth?
Who presumed to establish his home a stone's throw from this?
And would never appear when a bullet awaited his coming
But obscure as a wolf, a quick blur in the dusk?
Well, now the bullet and he would have their encounter,
Which I should arrange. But the moments were trooping by me,
Rushing, arousing foreboding, shaking my heart
With their thoughts that he might escape. Again I cursed him,
And the barrel was in my palm, and the rifle snatched
From its quiet nook, and I stood again at the door.
As ice was the iron to the flesh, but I felt its strength
Draw into my body, to crowd out all indecision
And the residue of poor half-thoughts that remained
After the shock of the imminent doom and the anger.
I took the gun under arm; pushed open the door.
In this power of death we know that command of the world
As embracing a woman and governing life, one senses;
The same reassurance of right, that good is triumphant:
The careless unshakable knowledge of purposive nature.
I crept on the porch to the edge; and over the railing—
One hand on the roughened wall of the house for support,
The other cradling the weapon—I peered with pent breath.
And there for an agonized moment I did not see him:
Deserted the gray stones lay, and time was dammed up.
And a weakness took hold of my limbs and a hollow despair
Under my breastbone betrayed me. But the desperate eyes
At last marked his humped-up shape on the rocks as before,
The snout raised sunward, the brutish muzzle to heaven.
Raising the rifle, I nestled its stock on my shoulder,
And adjusted the sight, so along the glittering barrel
I saw his chest framed large in the iron circle;
And the trigger was pressed and an empty click gave answer.
Then I lowered the gun and twisted around in frenzy,
And panting leaned on the wall where he could not see me
And mouthed the anger once prayed for and now arisen.
With three long strides I stood again at the door.
Would he dare to escape me thus? Would he sit so smug
And possess the sun at his leisure? Presume to ignore
His fault in being alive? the challenge to me,
To my honor and pride, his continued existence embodied?
At the door in three strides I stood and wrenched at the knob,
Nor thought of the noise I made and entered the room
And strode to the mantel and reached to the cartridge box
And one by one dropped the pellets of lead in their place.
And I hurried out, nor saw I the new-mown grass,
Nor the yellow bird in the apple tree nor the hillside,
Nor smelt I the breath of the pines. But ever the doom
Seized on my legs and hurried me to the corner,
And forced me to crouch and peer at the gray-brown shape
That pointed its snout at the sky: to raise up the weapon
And aim and kill. Yet my own volition assented:
I was not passive, for hate and yearning spurred me
Though deep in my brain a thought half-strangled cried out,
As it had before when I stood at the cartridge box:
Enough! Enough! You have had your game and lost.
Your innings are past; you are quit with one press of the trigger.
He has won his niche in the sunlight; the garden is waiting.
Share then the day together—you at your hoe
And he on his crumbling wall at what dream he wishes.
But the mutter of anger irrupted with louder meaning;
Shouldered aside the doubts; reasserted its power.
To the clashing strains the shouting of hate joined chorus.
And assertion of self demanded its due. And the doom
Gave strength and support to my body and raised up my arms.
Would he squat thus forever mocking myself and heaven?
Would he sit like a stolid rock while my soul sweated blood?
Would his thieving paws grub up the sprouts I had planted?
I sighted along the barrel. The gray-brown chest
Again was framed in the fatal circle of iron.
Yet still he sat, as my finger turned round the trigger,
With snout raised up to the sky, to the bright sunlight
This brother-dweller in night, to the bright sunlight.
O drinker of sunlight! Drink, O rink of your liquid!
For this passing moment shall see you drink deep of darkness,
That I and all men must drink, but when we know not
O drinker of sunlight, drink of your golden liquid!)