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

VII. The Three Taverns

10. On the Way


NOTE.—The following imaginary dialogue between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, which is not based upon any specific incident in American history, may be supposed to have occurred a few months previous to Hamilton’s retirement from Washington’s Cabinet in 1795 and a few years before the political ingenuities of Burr—who has been characterized, without much exaggeration, as the inventor of American politics—began to be conspicuously formidable to the Federalists. These activities on the part of Burr resulted, as the reader will remember, in the Burr-Jefferson tie for the Presidency in 1800, and finally in the Burr-Hamilton duel at Weehawken in 1804.


HAMILTON, if he rides you down, remember

That I was here to speak, and so to save

Your fabric from catastrophe. That’s good;

For I perceive that you observe him also.

A President, a-riding of his horse,

May dust a General and be forgiven;

But why be dusted—when we’re all alike,

All equal, and all happy? Here he comes—

And there he goes. And we, by your new patent,

Would seem to be two kings here by the wayside,

With our two hats off to his Excellency.

Why not his Majesty, and done with it?

Forgive me if I shook your meditation,

But you that weld our credit should have eyes

To see what’s coming. Bury me first if I do.


There’s always in some pocket of your brain

A care for me; wherefore my gratitude

For your attention is commensurate

With your concern. Yes, Burr, we are two kings;

We are as royal as two ditch-diggers;

But owe me not your sceptre. These are the days

When first a few seem all; but if we live

We may again be seen to be the few

That we have always been. These are the days

When men forget the stars, and are forgotten.


But why forget them? They’re the same that winked

Upon the world when Alcibiades

Cut off his dog’s tail to induce distinction.

There are dogs yet, and Alcibiades

Is not forgotten.


Yes, there are dogs enough,

God knows; and I can hear them in my dreams.


Never a doubt. But what you hear the most

Is your new music, something out of tune

With your intention. How in the name of Cain,

I seem to hear you ask, are men to dance,

When all men are musicians. Tell me that,

I hear you saying, and I’ll tell you the name

Of Samson’s mother. But why shroud yourself

Before the coffin comes? For all you know,

The tree that is to fall for your last house

Is now a sapling. You may have to wait

So long as to be sorry; though I doubt it,

For you are not at home in your new Eden

Where chilly whispers of a likely frost

Accumulate already in the air.

I think a touch of ermine, Hamilton,

Would be for you in your autumnal mood

A pleasant sort of warmth along the shoulders.


If so it is you think, you may as well

Give over thinking. We are done with ermine.

What I fear most is not the multitude,

But those who are to loop it with a string

That has one end in France and one end here.

I’m not so fortified with observation

That I could swear that more than half a score

Among us who see lightning see that ruin

Is not the work of thunder. Since the world

Was ordered, there was never a long pause

For caution between doing and undoing.


Go on, sir; my attention is a trap

Set for the catching of all compliments

To Monticello, and all else abroad

That has a name or an identity.


I leave to you the names—there are too many;

Yet one there is to sift and hold apart,

As now I see. There comes at last a glimmer

That is not always clouded, or too late.

But I was near and young, and had the reins

To play with while he manned a team so raw

That only God knows where the end had been

Of all that riding without Washington.

There was a nation in the man who passed us,

If there was not a world. I may have driven

Since then some restive horses, and alone,

And through a splashing of abundant mud;

But he who made the dust that sets you on

To coughing, made the road. Now it seems dry,

And in a measure safe.


Here’s a new tune

From Hamilton. Has your caution all at once,

And over night, grown till it wrecks the cradle?

I have forgotten what my father said

When I was born, but there’s a rustling of it

Among my memories, and it makes a noise

About as loud as all that I have held

And fondled heretofore of your same caution.

But that’s affairs, not feelings. If our friends

Guessed half we say of them, our enemies

Would itch in our friends’ jackets. Howsoever,

The world is of a sudden on its head,

And all are spilled—unless you cling alone

With Washington. Ask Adams about that.


We’ll not ask Adams about anything.

We fish for lizards when we choose to ask

For what we know already is not coming,

And we must eat the answer. Where’s the use

Of asking when this man says everything,

With all his tongues of silence?


I dare say.

I dare say, but I won’t. One of those tongues

I’ll borrow for the nonce. He’ll never miss it.

We mean his Western Majesty, King George.


I mean the man who rode by on his horse.

I’ll beg of you the meed of your indulgence

If I should say this planet may have done

A deal of weary whirling when at last,

If ever, Time shall aggregate again

A majesty like his that has no name.


Then you concede his Majesty? That’s good,

And what of yours? Here are two majesties.

Favor the Left a little, Hamilton,

Or you’ll be floundering in the ditch that waits

For riders who forget where they are riding.

If we and France, as you anticipate,

Must eat each other, what Cæsar, if not yourself,

Do you see for the master of the feast?

There may be a place waiting on your head

For laurel thick as Nero’s. You don’t know.

I have not crossed your glory, though I might

If I saw thrones at auction.


Yes, you might.

If war is on the way, I shall be—here;

And I’ve no vision of your distant heels.


I see that I shall take an inference

To bed with me to-night to keep me warm.

I thank you, Hamilton, and I approve

Your fealty to the aggregated greatness

Of him you lean on while he leans on you.


This easy phrasing is a game of yours

That you may win to lose. I beg your pardon,

But you that have the sight will not employ

The will to see with it. If you did so,

There might be fewer ditches dug for others

In your perspective; and there might be fewer

Contemporary motes of prejudice

Between you and the man who made the dust.

Call him a genius or a gentleman,

A prophet or a builder, or what not,

But hold your disposition off the balance,

And weigh him in the light. Once (I believe

I tell you nothing new to your surmise,

Or to the tongues of towns and villages)

I nourished with an adolescent fancy—

Surely forgivable to you, my friend—

An innocent and amiable conviction

That I was, by the grace of honest fortune,

A savior at his elbow through the war,

Where I might have observed, more than I did,

Patience and wholesome passion. I was there,

And for such honor I gave nothing worse

Than some advice at which he may have smiled.

I must have given a modicum besides,

Or the rough interval between those days

And these would never have made for me my friends,

Or enemies. I should be something somewhere—

I say not what—but I should not be here

If he had not been there. Possibly, too,

You might not—or that Quaker with his cane.


Possibly, too, I should. When the Almighty

Rides a white horse, I fancy we shall know it.


It was a man, Burr, that was in my mind;

No god, or ghost, or demon—only a man:

A man whose occupation is the need

Of those who would not feel it if it bit them;

And one who shapes an age while he endures

The pin pricks of inferiorities;

A cautious man, because he is but one;

A lonely man, because he is a thousand.

No marvel you are slow to find in him

The genius that is one spark or is nothing:

His genius is a flame that he must hold

So far above the common heads of men

That they may view him only through the mist

Of their defect, and wonder what he is.

It seems to me the mystery that is in him

That makes him only more to me a man

Than any other I have ever known.


I grant you that his worship is a man.

I’m not so much at home with mysteries,

May be, as you—so leave him with his fire:

God knows that I shall never put it out.

He has not made a cripple of himself

In his pursuit of me, though I have heard

His condescension honors me with parts.

Parts make a whole, if we’ve enough of them;

And once I figured a sufficiency

To be at least an atom in the annals

Of your republic. But I must have erred.


You smile as if your spirit lived at ease

With error. I should not have named it so,

Failing assent from you; nor, if I did,

Should I be so complacent in my skill

To comb the tangled language of the people

As to be sure of anything in these days.

Put that much in account with modesty.


What in the name of Ahab, Hamilton,

Have you, in the last region of your dreaming,

To do with “people”? You may be the devil

In your dead-reckoning of what reefs and shoals

Are waiting on the progress of our ship

Unless you steer it, but you’ll find it irksome

Alone there in the stern; and some warm day

There’ll be an inland music in the rigging,

And afterwards on deck. I’m not affined

Or favored overmuch at Monticello,

But there’s a mighty swarming of new bees

About the premises, and all have wings.

If you hear something buzzing before long,

Be thoughtful how you strike, remembering also

There was a fellow Naboth had a vineyard,

And Ahab cut his hair off and went softly.


I don’t remember that he cut his hair off.


Somehow I rather fancy that he did.

If so, it’s in the Book; and if not so,

He did the rest, and did it handsomely.


Commend yourself to Ahab and his ways

If they inveigle you to emulation;

But where, if I may ask it, are you tending

With your invidious wielding of the Scriptures?

You call to mind an eminent archangel

Who fell to make him famous. Would you fall

So far as he, to be so far remembered?


Before I fall or rise, or am an angel,

I shall acquaint myself a little further

With our new land’s new language, which is not—

Peace to your dreams—an idiom to your liking.

I’m wondering if a man may always know

How old a man may be at thirty-seven;

I wonder likewise if a prettier time

Could be decreed for a good man to vanish

Than about now for you, before you fade,

And even your friends are seeing that you have had

Your cup too full for longer mortal triumph.

Well, you have had enough, and had it young;

And the old wine is nearer to the lees

Than you are to the work that you are doing.


When does this philological excursion

Into new lands and languages begin?


Anon—that is, already. Only Fortune

Gave me this afternoon the benefaction

Of your blue back, which I for love pursued,

And in pursuing may have saved your life—

Also the world a pounding piece of news:

Hamilton bites the dust of Washington,

Or rather of his horse. For you alone,

Or for your fame, I’d wish it might have been so.


Not every man among us has a friend

So jealous for the other’s fame. How long

Are you to diagnose the doubtful case

Of Demos—and what for? Have you a sword

For some new Damocles? If it’s for me,

I have lost all official appetite,

And shall have faded, after January,

Into the law. I’m going to New York.


No matter where you are, one of these days

I shall come back to you and tell you something.

This Demos, I have heard, has in his wrist

A pulse that no two doctors have as yet

Counted and found the same, and in his mouth

A tongue that has the like alacrity

For saying or not for saying what most it is

That pullulates in his ignoble mind.

One of these days I shall appear again,

To tell you more of him and his opinions;

I shall not be so long out of your sight,

Or take myself so far, that I may not,

Like Alcibiades, come back again.

He went away to Phrygia, and fared ill.


There’s an example in Themistocles:

He went away to Persia, and fared well.


So? Must I go so far? And if so, why so?

I had not planned it so. Is this the road

I take? If so, farewell.


Quite so. Farewell.