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

I. The Man Against the Sky

11. Old Trails


I MET him, as one meets a ghost or two,

Between the gray Arch and the old Hotel.

“King Solomon was right, there’s nothing new,”

Said he. “Behold a ruin who meant well.”

He led me down familiar steps again,

Appealingly, and set me in a chair.

“My dreams have all come true to other men,”

Said he; “God lives, however, and why care?

“An hour among the ghosts will do no harm.”

He laughed, and something glad within me sank.

I may have eyed him with a faint alarm,

For now his laugh was lost in what he drank.

“They chill things here with ice from hell,” he said;

“I might have known it.” And he made a face

That showed again how much of him was dead,

And how much was alive and out of place.

And out of reach. He knew as well as I

That all the words of wise men who are skilled

In using them are not much to defy

What comes when memory meets the unfulfilled.

What evil and infirm perversity

Had been at work with him to bring him back?

Never among the ghosts, assuredly,

Would he originate a new attack;

Never among the ghosts, or anywhere,

Till what was dead of him was put away,

Would he attain to his offended share

Of honor among others of his day.

“You ponder like an owl,” he said at last;

“You always did, and here you have a cause.

For I’m a confirmation of the past,

A vengeance, and a flowering of what was.

“Sorry? Of course you are, though you compress,

With even your most impenetrable fears,

A placid and a proper consciousness

Of anxious angels over my arrears.

“I see them there against me in a book

As large as hope, in ink that shines by night

Surely I see; but now I’d rather look

At you, and you are not a pleasant sight.

“Forbear, forgive. Ten years are on my soul,

And on my conscience. I’ve an incubus:

My one distinction, and a parlous toll

To glory; but hope lives on clamorous.

“’Twas hope, though heaven I grant you knows of what—

The kind that blinks and rises when it falls,

Whether it sees a reason why or not—

That heard Broadway’s hard-throated siren-calls;

“’Twas hope that brought me through December storms,

To shores again where I’ll not have to be

A lonely man with only foreign worms

To cheer him in his last obscurity.

“But what it was that hurried me down here

To be among the ghosts, I leave to you.

My thanks are yours, no less, for one thing clear:

Though you are silent, what you say is true.

“There may have been the devil in my feet,

For down I blundered, like a fugitive,

To find the old room in Eleventh Street.

God save us!—I came here again to live.”

We rose at that, and all the ghosts rose then,

And followed us unseen to his old room.

No longer a good place for living men

We found it, and we shivered in the gloom.

The goods he took away from there were few,

And soon we found ourselves outside once more,

Where now the lamps along the Avenue

Bloomed white for miles above an iron floor.

“Now lead me to the newest of hotels,”

He said, “and let your spleen be undeceived:

This ruin is not myself, but some one else;

I haven’t failed; I’ve merely not achieved.”

Whether he knew or not, he laughed and dined

With more of an immune regardlessness

Of pits before him and of sands behind

Than many a child at forty would confess;

And after, when the bells in Boris rang

Their tumult at the Metropolitan,

He rocked himself, and I believe he sang.

“God lives,” he crooned aloud, “and I’m the man!”

He was. And even though the creature spoiled

All prophecies, I cherish his acclaim.

Three weeks he fattened; and five years he toiled

In Yonkers,—and then sauntered into fame.

And he may go now to what streets he will—

Eleventh, or the last, and little care;

But he would find the old room very still

Of evenings, and the ghosts would all be there.

I doubt if he goes after them; I doubt

If many of them ever come to him.

His memories are like lamps, and they go out;

Or if they burn, they flicker and are dim.

A light of other gleams he has to-day

And adulations of applauding hosts;

A famous danger, but a safer way

Than growing old alone among the ghosts.

But we may still be glad that we were wrong:

He fooled us, and we’d shrivel to deny it;

Though sometimes when old echoes ring too long,

I wish the bells in Boris would be quiet.