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

VII. The Three Taverns

23. Rahel to Varnhagen

NOTE.—Rahel Robert and Varnhagen von Ense were married, after many protestations on her part, in 1814. The marriage—so far as he was concerned at any rate—appears to have been satisfactory.

NOW you have read them all; or if not all,

As many as in all conscience I should fancy

To be enough. There are no more of them—

Or none to burn your sleep, or to bring dreams

Of devils. If these are not sufficient, surely

You are a strange young man. I might live on

Alone, and for another forty years,

Or not quite forty,—are you happier now?—

Always to ask if there prevailed elsewhere

Another like yourself that would have held

These aged hands as long as you have held them,

Not once observing, for all I can see,

How they are like your mother’s. Well, you have read

His letters now, and you have heard me say

That in them are the cinders of a passion

That was my life; and you have not yet broken

Your way out of my house, out of my sight,—

Into the street. You are a strange young man.

I know as much as that of you, for certain;

And I’m already praying, for your sake,

That you be not too strange. Too much of that

May lead you bye and bye through gloomy lanes

To a sad wilderness, where one may grope

Alone, and always, or until he feels

Ferocious and invisible animals

That wait for men and eat them in the dark.

Why do you sit there on the floor so long,

Smiling at me while I try to be solemn?

Do you not hear it said for your salvation,

When I say truth? Are you, at four and twenty,

So little deceived in us that you interpret

The humor of a woman to be noticed

As her choice between you and Acheron?

Are you so unscathed yet as to infer

That if a woman worries when a man,

Or a man-child, has wet shoes on his feet

She may as well commemorate with ashes

The last eclipse of her tranquillity?

If you look up at me and blink again,

I shall not have to make you tell me lies

To know the letters you have not been reading

I see now that I may have had for nothing

A most unpleasant shivering in my conscience

When I laid open for your contemplation

The wealth of my worn casket. If I did,

The fault was not yours wholly. Search again

This wreckage we may call for sport a face,

And you may chance upon the price of havoc

That I have paid for a few sorry stones

That shine and have no light—yet once were stars,

And sparkled on a crown. Little and weak

They seem; and they are cold, I fear, for you.

But they that once were fire for me may not

Be cold again for me until I die;

And only God knows if they may be then.

There is a love that ceases to be love

In being ourselves. How, then, are we to lose it?

You that are sure that you know everything

There is to know of love, answer me that.

Well?… You are not even interested.

Once on a far off time when I was young,

I felt with your assurance, and all through me,

That I had undergone the last and worst

Of love’s inventions. There was a boy who brought

The sun with him and woke me up with it,

And that was every morning; every night

I tried to dream of him, but never could,

More than I might have seen in Adam’s eyes

Their fond uncertainty when Eve began

The play that all her tireless progeny

Are not yet weary of. One scene of it

Was brief, but was eternal while it lasted;

And that was while I was the happiest

Of an imaginary six or seven,

Somewhere in history but not on earth,

For whom the sky had shaken and let stars

Rain down like diamonds. Then there were clouds,

And a sad end of diamonds; whereupon

Despair came, like a blast that would have brought

Tears to the eyes of all the bears in Finland,

And love was done. That was how much I knew.

Poor little wretch! I wonder where he is

This afternoon. Out of this rain, I hope.

At last, when I had seen so many days

Dressed all alike, and in their marching order,

Go by me that I would not always count them,

One stopped—shattering the whole file of Time,

Or so it seemed; and when I looked again,

There was a man. He struck once with his eyes,

And then there was a woman. I, who had come

To wisdom, or to vision, or what you like,

By the old hidden road that has no name,—

I, who was used to seeing without flying

So much that others fly from without seeing,

Still looked, and was afraid, and looked again.

And after that, when I had read the story

Told in his eyes, and felt within my heart

The bleeding wound of their necessity,

I knew the fear was his. If I had failed him

And flown away from him, I should have lost

Ingloriously my wings in scrambling back,

And found them arms again. If he had struck me

Not only with his eyes but with his hands,

I might have pitied him and hated love,

And then gone mad. I, who have been so strong—

Why don’t you laugh?—might even have done all that.

I, who have learned so much, and said so much,

And had the commendations of the great

For one who rules herself—why don’t you cry?—

And own a certain small authority

Among the blind, who see no more than ever,

But like my voice,—I would have tossed it all

To Tophet for one man; and he was jealous.

I would have wound a snake around my neck

And then have let it bite me till I died,

If my so doing would have made me sure

That one man might have lived; and he was jealous.

I would have driven these hands into a cage

That held a thousand scorpions, and crushed them,

If only by so poisonous a trial

I could have crushed his doubt. I would have wrung

My living blood with mediaeval engines

Out of my screaming flesh, if only that

Would have made one man sure. I would have paid

For him the tiresome price of body and soul,

And let the lash of a tongue-weary town

Fall as it might upon my blistered name;

And while it fell I could have laughed at it,

Knowing that he had found out finally

Where the wrong was. But there was evil in him

That would have made no more of his possession

Than confirmation of another fault;

And there was honor—if you call it honor

That hoods itself with doubt and wears a crown

Of lead that might as well be gold and fire.

Give it as heavy or as light a name

As any there is that fits. I see myself

Without the power to swear to this or that

That I might be if he had been without it.

Whatever I might have been that I was not,

It only happened that it wasn’t so.

Meanwhile, you might seem to be listening:

If you forget yourself and go to sleep,

My treasure, I shall not say this again.

Look up once more into my poor old face,

Where you see beauty, or the Lord knows what,

And say to me aloud what else there is

Than ruins in it that you most admire.

No, there was never anything like that;

Nature has never fastened such a mask

Of radiant and impenetrable merit

On any woman as you say there is

On this one. Not a mask? I thank you, sir,

But you see more with your determination,

I fear, than with your prudence or your conscience;

And you have never met me with my eyes

In all the mirrors I’ve made faces at.

No, I shall never call you strange again:

You are the young and inconvincible

Epitome of all blind men since Adam.

May the blind lead the blind, if that be so?

And we shall need no mirrors? You are saying

What most I feared you might. But if the blind,

Or one of them, be not so fortunate

As to put out the eyes of recollection,

She might at last, without her meaning it,

Lead on the other, without his knowing it,

Until the two of them should lose themselves

Among dead craters in a lava-field

As empty as a desert on the moon.

I am not speaking in a theatre,

But in a room so real and so familiar

That sometimes I would wreck it. Then I pause,

Remembering there is a King in Weimar—

A monarch, and a poet, and a shepherd

Of all who are astray and are outside

The realm where they should rule. I think of him,

And save the furniture; I think of you,

And am forlorn, finding in you the one

To lavish aspirations and illusions

Upon a faded and forsaken house

Where love, being locked alone, was nigh to burning

House and himself together. Yes, you are strange,

To see in such an injured architecture

Room for new love to live in. Are you laughing?

No? Well, you are not crying, as you should be.

Tears, even if they told only gratitude

For your escape, and had no other story,

Were surely more becoming than a smile

For my unwomanly straightforwardness

In seeing for you, through my close gate of years

Your forty ways to freedom. Why do you smile?

And while I’m trembling at my faith in you

In giving you to read this book of danger

That only one man living might have written—

These letters, which have been a part of me

So long that you may read them all again

As often as you look into my face,

And hear them when I speak to you, and feel them

Whenever you have to touch me with your hand,—

Why are you so unwilling to be spared?

Why do you still believe in me? But no,

I’ll find another way to ask you that.

I wonder if there is another way

That says it better, and means anything.

There is no other way that could be worse?

I was not asking you; it was myself

Alone that I was asking. Why do I dip

For lies, when there is nothing in my well

But shining truth, you say? How do you know?

Truth has a lonely life down where she lives;

And many a time, when she comes up to breathe,

She sinks before we seize her, and makes ripples.

Possibly you may know no more of me

Than a few ripples; and they may soon be gone,

Leaving you then with all my shining truth

Drowned in a shining water; and when you look

You may not see me there, but something else

That never was a woman—being yourself.

You say to me my truth is past all drowning,

And safe with you for ever? You know all that?

How do you know all that, and who has told you?

You know so much that I’m an atom frightened

Because you know so little. And what is this?

You know the luxury there is in haunting

The blasted thoroughfares of disillusion—

If that’s your name for them—with only ghosts

For company? You know that when a woman

Is blessed, or cursed, with a divine impatience

(Another name of yours for a bad temper)

She must have one at hand on whom to wreak it

(That’s what you mean, whatever the turn you give it),

Sure of a kindred sympathy, and thereby

Effect a mutual calm? You know that wisdom,

Given in vain to make a food for those

Who are without it, will be seen at last,

And even at last only by those who gave it,

As one or more of the forgotten crumbs

That others leave? You know that men’s applause

And women’s envy savor so much of dust

That I go hungry, having at home no fare

But the same changeless bread that I may swallow

Only with tears and prayers? Who told you that?

You know that if I read, and read alone,

Too many books that no men yet have written,

I may go blind, or worse? You know yourself,

Of all insistent and insidious creatures,

To be the one to save me, and to guard

For me their flaming language? And you know

That if I give much headway to the whim

That’s in me never to be quite sure that even

Through all those years of storm and fire I waited

For this one rainy day, I may go on,

And on, and on alone, through smoke and ashes,

To a cold end? You know so dismal much

As that about me?… Well, I believe you do.