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

VII. The Three Taverns

2. The Wandering Jew

I SAW by looking in his eyes

That they remembered everything;

And this was how I came to know

That he was here, still wandering.

For though the figure and the scene

Were never to be reconciled,

I knew the man as I had known

His image when I was a child.

With evidence at every turn,

I should have held it safe to guess

That all the newness of New York

Had nothing new in loneliness;

Yet here was one who might be Noah,

Or Nathan, or Abimelech,

Or Lamech, out of ages lost,—

Or, more than all, Melchizedek.

Assured that he was none of these,

I gave them back their names again,

To scan once more those endless eyes

Where all my questions ended then.

I found in them what they revealed

That I shall not live to forget,

And wondered if they found in mine

Compassion that I might regret.

Pity, I learned, was not the least

Of time’s offending benefits

That had now for so long impugned

The conservation of his wits:

Rather it was that I should yield,

Alone, the fealty that presents

The tribute of a tempered ear

To an untempered eloquence.

Before I pondered long enough

On whence he came and who he was,

I trembled at his ringing wealth

Of manifold anathemas;

I wondered, while he seared the world,

What new defection ailed the race,

And if it mattered how remote

Our fathers were from such a place.

Before there was an hour for me

To contemplate with less concern

The crumbling realm awaiting us

Than his that was beyond return,

A dawning on the dust of years

Had shaped with an elusive light

Mirages of remembered scenes

That were no longer for the sight.

For now the gloom that hid the man

Became a daylight on his wrath,

And one wherein my fancy viewed

New lions ramping in his path.

The old were dead and had no fangs,

Wherefore he loved them—seeing not

They were the same that in their time

Had eaten everything they caught.

The world around him was a gift

Of anguish to his eyes and ears,

And one that he had long reviled

As fit for devils, not for seers.

Where, then, was there a place for him

That on this other side of death

Saw nothing good, as he had seen

No good come out of Nazareth?

Yet here there was a reticence,

And I believe his only one,

That hushed him as if he beheld

A Presence that would not be gone.

In such a silence he confessed

How much there was to be denied;

And he would look at me and live,

As others might have looked and died.

As if at last he knew again

That he had always known, his eyes

Were like to those of one who gazed

On those of One who never dies.

For such a moment he revealed

What life has in it to be lost;

And I could ask if what I saw,

Before me there, was man or ghost.

He may have died so many times

That all there was of him to see

Was pride, that kept itself alive

As too rebellious to be free;

He may have told, when more than once

Humility seemed imminent,

How many a lonely time in vain

The Second Coming came and went.

Whether he still defies or not

The failure of an angry task

That relegates him out of time

To chaos, I can only ask.

But as I knew him, so he was;

And somewhere among men to-day

Those old, unyielding eyes may flash,

And flinch—and look the other way.