Home  »  Collected Poems by Robinson, Edwin Arlington  »  1. Captain Craig

Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935). Collected Poems. 1921.

III. Captain Craig, Etc.

1. Captain Craig


I DOUBT if ten men in all Tilbury Town

Had ever shaken hands with Captain Craig,

Or called him by his name, or looked at him

So curiously, or so concernedly,

As they had looked at ashes; but a few—

Say five or six of us—had found somehow

The spark in him, and we had fanned it there,

Choked under, like a jest in Holy Writ,

By Tilbury prudence. He had lived his life

And in his way had shared, with all mankind,

Inveterate leave to fashion of himself,

By some resplendent metamorphosis,

Whatever he was not. And after time,

When it had come sufficiently to pass

That he was going patch-clad through the streets,

Weak, dizzy, chilled, and half starved, he had laid

Some nerveless fingers on a prudent sleeve,

And told the sleeve, in furtive confidence,

Just how it was: “My name is Captain Craig,”

He said, “and I must eat.” The sleeve moved on,

And after it moved others—one or two;

For Captain Craig, before the day was done,

Got back to the scant refuge of his bed

And shivered into it without a curse—

Without a murmur even. He was cold,

And old, and hungry; but the worst of it

Was a forlorn familiar consciousness

That he had failed again. There was a time

When he had fancied, if worst came to worst,

And he could do no more, that he might ask

Of whom he would. But once had been enough,

And soon there would be nothing more to ask.

He was himself, and he had lost the speed

He started with, and he was left behind.

There was no mystery, no tragedy;

And if they found him lying on his back

Stone dead there some sharp morning, as they might,—

Well, once upon a time there was a man—

Es war einmal ein König, if it pleased him.

And he was right: there were no men to blame:

There was just a false note in the Tilbury tune—

A note that able-bodied men might sound

Hosannas on while Captain Craig lay quiet.

They might have made him sing by feeding him

Till he should march again, but probably

Such yielding would have jeopardized the rhythm;

They found it more melodious to shout

Right on, with unmolested adoration,

To keep the tune as it had always been,

To trust in God, and let the Captain starve.

He must have understood that afterwards—

When we had laid some fuel to the spark

Of him, and oxidized it—for he laughed

Out loud and long at us to feel it burn,

And then, for gratitude, made game of us:

“You are the resurrection and the life,”

He said, “and I the hymn the Brahmin sings;

O Fuscus! and we’ll go no more a-roving.”

We were not quite accoutred for a blast

Of any lettered nonchalance like that,

And some of us—the five or six of us

Who found him out—were singularly struck.

But soon there came assurance of his lips,

Like phrases out of some sweet instrument

Man’s hand had never fitted, that he felt

“No penitential shame for what had come,

No virtuous regret for what had been,—

But rather a joy to find it in his life

To be an outcast usher of the soul

For such as had good courage of the Sun

To pattern Love.” The Captain had one chair;

And on the bottom of it, like a king,

For longer time than I dare chronicle,

Sat with an ancient ease and eulogized

His opportunity. My friends got out,

Like brokers out of Arcady; but I—

May be for fascination of the thing,

Or may be for the larger humor of it—

Stayed listening, unwearied and unstung.

When they were gone the Captain’s tuneful ooze

Of rhetoric took on a change; he smiled

At me and then continued, earnestly:

“Your friends have had enough of it; but you,

For a motive hardly vindicated yet

By prudence or by conscience, have remained;

And that is very good, for I have things

To tell you: things that are not words alone—

Which are the ghosts of things—but something firmer.

“First, would I have you know, for every gift

Or sacrifice, there are—or there may be—

Two kinds of gratitude: the sudden kind

We feel for what we take, the larger kind

We feel for what we give. Once we have learned

As much as this, we know the truth has been

Told over to the world a thousand times;—

But we have had no ears to listen yet

For more than fragments of it: we have heard

A murmur now and then, and echo here

And there, and we have made great music of it;

And we have made innumerable books

To please the Unknown God. Time throws away

Dead thousands of them, but the God that knows

No death denies not one: the books all count,

The songs all count; and yet God’s music has

No modes, his language has no adjectives.”

“You may be right, you may be wrong,” said I;

“But what has this that you are saying now—

This nineteenth-century Nirvana-talk—

To do with you and me?” The Captain raised

His hand and held it westward, where a patched

And unwashed attic-window filtered in

What barren light could reach us, and then said,

With a suave, complacent resonance: “There shines

The sun. Behold it. We go round and round,

And wisdom comes to us with every whirl

We count throughout the circuit. We may say

The child is born, the boy becomes a man,

The man does this and that, and the man goes,—

But having said it we have not said much,

Not very much. Do I fancy, or you think,

That it will be the end of anything

When I am gone? There was a soldier once

Who fought one fight and in that fight fell dead.

Sad friends went after, and they brought him home

And had a brass band at his funeral,

As you should have at mine; and after that

A few remembered him. But he was dead,

They said, and they should have their friend no more.—

However, there was once a starveling child—

A ragged-vested little incubus,

Born to be cuffed and frighted out of all

Capacity for childhood’s happiness—

Who started out one day, quite suddenly,

To drown himself. He ran away from home,

Across the clover-fields and through the woods,

And waited on a rock above a stream,

Just like a kingfisher. He might have dived,

Or jumped, or he might not; but anyhow,

There came along a man who looked at him

With such an unexpected friendliness,

And talked with him in such a common way,

That life grew marvelously different:

What he had lately known for sullen trunks

And branches, and a world of tedious leaves,

Was all transmuted; a faint forest wind

That once had made the loneliest of all

Sad sounds on earth, made now the rarest music;

And water that had called him once to death

Now seemed a flowing glory. And that man,

Born to go down a soldier, did this thing.

Not much to do? Not very much, I grant you:

Good occupation for a sonneteer,

Or for a clown, or for a clergyman,

But small work for a soldier. By the way,

When you are weary sometimes of your own

Utility, I wonder if you find

Occasional great comfort pondering

What power a man has in him to put forth?

‘Of all the many marvelous things that are,

Nothing is there more marvelous than man,’

Said Sophocles; and he lived long ago;

‘And earth, unending ancient of the gods

He furrows; and the ploughs go back and forth,

Turning the broken mould, year after year.’…

“I turned a little furrow of my own

Once on a time, and everybody laughed—

As I laughed afterwards; and I doubt not

The First Intelligence, which we have drawn

In our competitive humility

As if it went forever on two legs,

Had some diversion of it: I believe

God’s humor is the music of the spheres—

But even as we draft omnipotence

Itself to our own image, we pervert

The courage of an infinite ideal

To finite resignation. You have made

The cement of your churches out of tears

And ashes, and the fabric will not stand:

The shifted walls that you have coaxed and shored

So long with unavailing compromise

Will crumble down to dust and blow away,

And younger dust will follow after them;

Though not the faintest or the farthest whirled

First atom of the least that ever flew

Shall be by man defrauded of the touch

God thrilled it with to make a dream for man

When Science was unborn. And after time,

When we have earned our spiritual ears,

And art’s commiseration of the truth

No longer glorifies the singing beast,

Or venerates the clinquant charlatan,—

Then shall at last come ringing through the sun,

Through time, through flesh, a music that is true.

For wisdom is that music, and all joy

That wisdom:—you may counterfeit, you think,

The burden of it in a thousand ways;

But as the bitterness that loads your tears

Makes Dead Sea swimming easy, so the gloom,

The penance, and the woeful pride you keep,

Make bitterness your buoyance of the world.

And at the fairest and the frenziedest

Alike of your God-fearing festivals,

You so compound the truth to pamper fear

That in the doubtful surfeit of your faith

You clamor for the food that shadows eat.

You call it rapture or deliverance,—

Passion or exaltation, or what most

The moment needs, but your faint-heartedness

Lives in it yet: you quiver and you clutch

For something larger, something unfulfilled,

Some wiser kind of joy that you shall have

Never, until you learn to laugh with God.”

And with a calm Socratic patronage,

At once half sombre and half humorous,

The Captain reverently twirled his thumbs

And fixed his eyes on something far away;

Then, with a gradual gaze, conclusive, shrewd,

And at the moment unendurable

For sheer beneficence, he looked at me.

“But the brass band?” I said, not quite at ease

With altruism yet.—He made a sort

Of reminiscent little inward noise,

Midway between a chuckle and a laugh,

And that was all his answer: not a word

Of explanation or suggestion came

From those tight-smiling lips. And when I left,

I wondered, as I trod the creaking snow

And had the world-wide air to breathe again,—

Though I had seen the tremor of his mouth

And honored the endurance of his hand—

Whether or not, securely closeted

Up there in the stived haven of his den,

The man sat laughing at me; and I felt

My teeth grind hard together with a quaint

Revulsion—as I recognize it now—

Not only for my Captain, but as well

For every smug-faced failure on God’s earth;

Albeit I could swear, at the same time,

That there were tears in the old fellow’s eyes.

I question if in tremors or in tears

There be more guidance to man’s worthiness

Than—well, say in his prayers. But oftentimes

It humors us to think that we possess

By some divine adjustment of our own

Particular shrewd cells, or something else,

What others, for untutored sympathy,

Go spirit-fishing more than half their lives

To catch—like cheerful sinners to catch faith;

And I have not a doubt but I assumed

Some egotistic attribute like this

When, cautiously, next morning I reduced

The fretful qualms of my novitiate,

For most part, to an undigested pride.

Only, I live convinced that I regret

This enterprise no more than I regret

My life; and I am glad that I was born.

That evening, at “The Chrysalis,” I found

The faces of my comrades all suffused

With what I chose then to denominate

Superfluous good feeling. In return,

They loaded me with titles of odd form

And unexemplified significance,

Like “Bellows-mender to Prince Æolus,”

“Pipe-filler to the Hoboscholiast,”

“Bread-fruit for the Non-Doing,” with one more

That I remember, and a dozen more

That I forget. I may have been disturbed,

I do not say that I was not annoyed,

But something of the same serenity

That fortified me later made me feel

For their skin-pricking arrows not so much

Of pain as of a vigorous defect

In this world’s archery. I might have tried,

With a flat facetiousness, to demonstrate

What they had only snapped at and thereby

Made out of my best evidence no more

Than comfortable food for their conceit;

But patient wisdom frowned on argument,

With a side nod for silence, and I smoked

A series of incurable dry pipes

While Morgan fiddled, with obnoxious care,

Things that I wished he wouldn’t. Killigrew,

Drowsed with a fond abstraction, like an ass,

Lay blinking at me while he grinned and made

Remarks. The learned Plunket made remarks.

It may have been for smoke that I cursed cats

That night, but I have rather to believe

As I lay turning, twisting, listening,

And wondering, between great sleepless yawns,

What possible satisfaction those dead leaves

Could find in sending shadows to my room

And swinging them like black rags on a line,

That I, with a forlorn clear-headedness

Was ekeing out probation. I had sinned

In fearing to believe what I believed,

And I was paying for it.—Whimsical,

You think,—factitious; but “there is no luck,

No fate, no fortune for us, but the old

Unswerving and inviolable price

Gets paid: God sells himself eternally,

But never gives a crust,” my friend had said;

And while I watched those leaves, and heard those cats,

And with half mad minuteness analyzed

The Captain’s attitude and then my own,

I felt at length as one who throws himself

Down restless on a couch when clouds are dark,

And shuts his eyes to find, when he wakes up

And opens them again, what seems at first

An unfamiliar sunlight in his room

And in his life—as if the child in him

Had laughed and let him see; and then I knew

Some prowling superfluity of child

In me had found the child in Captain Craig

And let the sunlight reach him. While I slept,

My thought reshaped itself to friendly dreams,

And in the morning it was with me still.

Through March and shifting April to the time

When winter first becomes a memory

My friend the Captain—to my other friend’s

Incredulous regret that such as he

Should ever get the talons of his talk

So fixed in my unfledged credulity—

Kept up the peroration of his life,

Not yielding at a threshold, nor, I think,

Too often on the stairs. He made me laugh

Sometimes, and then again he made me weep

Almost; for I had insufficiency

Enough in me to make me know the truth

Within the jest, and I could feel it there

As well as if it were the folded note

I felt between my fingers. I had said

Before that I should have to go away

And leave him for the season; and his eyes

Had shone with well-becoming interest

At that intelligence. There was no mist

In them that I remember; but I marked

An unmistakable self-questioning

And a reticence of unassumed regret.

The two together made anxiety—

Not selfishness, I ventured. I should see

No more of him for six or seven months,

And I was there to tell him as I might

What humorous provision we had made

For keeping him locked up in Tilbury Town.

That finished—with a few more commonplace

Prosaics on the certified event

Of my return to find him young again—

I left him neither vexed, I thought, with us,

Nor over much at odds with destiny.

At any rate, save always for a look

That I had seen too often to mistake

Or to forget, he gave no other sign.

That train began to move; and as it moved,

I felt a comfortable sudden change

All over and inside. Partly it seemed

As if the strings of me had all at once

Gone down a tone or two; and even though

It made me scowl to think so trivial

A touch had owned the strength to tighten them,

It made me laugh to think that I was free.

But free from what—when I began to turn

The question round—was more than I could say:

I was no longer vexed with Killigrew,

Nor more was I possessed with Captain Craig;

But I was eased of some restraint, I thought,

Not qualified by those amenities,

And I should have to search the matter down;

For I was young, and I was very keen.

So I began to smoke a bad cigar

That Plunket, in his love, had given me

The night before; and as I smoked I watched

The flying mirrors for a mile or so,

Till to the changing glimpse, now sharp, now faint,

They gave me of the woodland over west,

A gleam of long-forgotten strenuous years

Came back, when we were Red Men on the trail,

With Morgan for the big chief Wocky-Bocky;

And yawning out of that I set myself

To face again the loud monotonous ride

That lay before me like a vista drawn

Of bag-racks to the fabled end of things.