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

V. The Town Down the River

3. An Island


TAKE it away, and swallow it yourself.

Ha! Look you, there’s a rat.

Last night there were a dozen on that shelf,

And two of them were living in my hat.

Look! Now he goes, but he’ll come back—

Ha? But he will, I say …

Il reviendra-z-à Pâques,

Ou à la Trinité

Be very sure that he’ll return again;

For said the Lord: Imprimis, we have rats,

And having rats, we have rain.—

So on the seventh day

He rested, and made Pain.

—Man, if you love the Lord, and if the Lord

Love liars, I will have you at your word

And swallow it. Voilà. Bah!

Where do I say it is

That I have lain so long?

Where do I count myself among the dead,

As once above the living and the strong?

And what is this that comes and goes,

Fades and swells and overflows,

Like music underneath and overhead?

What is it in me now that rings and roars

Like fever-laden wine?

What ruinous tavern-shine

Is this that lights me far from worlds and wars

And women that were mine?

Where do I say it is

That Time has made my bed?

What lowering outland hostelry is this

For one the stars have disinherited?

An island, I have said:

A peak, where fiery dreams and far desires

Are rained on, like old fires:

A vermin region by the stars abhorred,

Where falls the flaming word

By which I consecrate with unsuccess

An acreage of God’s forgetfulness,

Left here above the foam and long ago

Made right for my duress;

Where soon the sea,

My foaming and long-clamoring enemy,

Will have within the cryptic, old embrace

Of her triumphant arms—a memory.

Why then, the place?

What forage of the sky or of the shore

Will make it any more,

To me, than my award of what was left

Of number, time, and space?

And what is on me now that I should heed

The durance or the silence or the scorn?

I was the gardener who had the seed

Which holds within its heart the food and fire

That gives to man a glimpse of his desire;

And I have tilled, indeed,

Much land, where men may say that I have planted

Unsparingly my corn—

For a world harvest-haunted

And for a world unborn.

Meanwhile, am I to view, as at a play,

Through smoke the funeral flames of yesterday

And think them far away?

Am I to doubt and yet be given to know

That where my demon guides me, there I go?

An island? Be it so.

For islands, after all is said and done,

Tell but a wilder game that was begun,

When Fate, the mistress of iniquities,

The mad Queen-spinner of all discrepancies,

Beguiled the dyers of the dawn that day,

And even in such a curst and sodden way

Made my three colors one.

—So be it, and the way be as of old:

So be the weary truth again retold

Of great kings overthrown

Because they would be kings, and lastly kings alone.

Fling to each dog his bone.

Flags that are vanished, flags that are soiled and furled,

Say what will be the word when I am gone:

What learned little acrid archive men

Will burrow to find me out and burrow again,—

But all for naught, unless

To find there was another Island.… Yes,

There are too many islands in this world,

There are too many rats, and there is too much rain.

So three things are made plain

Between the sea and sky:

Three separate parts of one thing, which is Pain …

Bah, what a way to die!—

To leave my Queen still spinning there on high,

Still wondering, I dare say,

To see me in this way …

Madame à sa tour monte

Si haut qu’elle peut monter—

Like one of our Commissioners… ai! ai!

Prometheus and the women have to cry,

But no, not I …

Faugh, what a way to die!

But who are these that come and go

Before me, shaking laurel as they pass?

Laurel, to make me know

For certain what they mean:

That now my Fate, my Queen,

Having found that she, by way of right reward,

Will after madness go remembering,

And laurel be as grass,—

Remembers the one thing

That she has left to bring.

The floor about me now is like a sward

Grown royally. Now it is like a sea

That heaves with laurel heavily,

Surrendering an outworn enmity

For what has come to be.

But not for you, returning with your curled

And haggish lips. And why are you alone?

Why do you stay when all the rest are gone?

Why do you bring those treacherous eyes that reek

With venom and hate the while you seek

To make me understand?—

Laurel from every land,

Laurel, but not the world?

Fury, or perjured Fate, or whatsoever,

Tell me the bloodshot word that is your name

And I will pledge remembrance of the same

That shall be crossed out never;

Whereby posterity

May know, being told, that you have come to me,

You and your tongueless train without a sound,

With covetous hands and eyes and laurel all around,

Foreshowing your endeavor

To mirror me the demon of my days,

To make me doubt him, loathe him, face to face.

Bowed with unwilling glory from the quest

That was ordained and manifest,

You shake it off and wish me joy of it?

Laurel from every place,

Laurel, but not the rest?

Such are the words in you that I divine,

Such are the words of men.

So be it, and what then?

Poor, tottering counterfeit,

Are you a thing to tell me what is mine?

Grant we the demon sees

An inch beyond the line,

What comes of mine and thine?

A thousand here and there may shriek and freeze,

Or they may starve in fine.

The Old Physician has a crimson cure

For such as these,

And ages after ages will endure

The minims of it that are victories.

The wreath may go from brow to brow,

The state may flourish, flame, and cease;

But through the fury and the flood somehow

The demons are acquainted and at ease,

And somewhat hard to please.

Mine, I believe, is laughing at me now

In his primordial way,

Quite as he laughed of old at Hannibal,

Or rather at Alexander, let us say.

Therefore, be what you may,

Time has no further need

Of you, or of your breed.

My demon, irretrievably astray,

Has ruined the last chorus of a play

That will, so he avers, be played again some day;

And you, poor glowering ghost,

Have staggered under laurel here to boast

Above me, dying, while you lean

In triumph awkward and unclean,

About some words of his that you have read?

Thing, do I not know them all?

He tells me how the storied leaves that fall

Are tramped on, being dead?

They are sometimes: with a storm foul enough

They are seized alive and they are blown far off

To mould on islands.—What else have you read?

He tells me that great kings look very small

When they are put to bed;

And this being said,

He tells me that the battles I have won

Are not my own,

But his—howbeit fame will yet atone

For all defect, and sheave the mystery:

The follies and the slaughters I have done

Are mine alone,

And so far History.

So be the tale again retold

And leaf by clinging leaf unrolled

Where I have written in the dawn,

With ink that fades anon,

Like Cæsar’s, and the way be as of old.

Ho, is it you? I thought you were a ghost.

Is it time for you to poison me again?

Well, here’s our friend the rain,—

Mironton, mironton, mirontaine

Man, I could murder you almost,

You with your pills and toast.

Take it away and eat it, and shoot rats.

Ha! there he comes. Your rat will never fail,

My punctual assassin, to prevail—

While he has power to crawl,

Or teeth to gnaw withal—

Where kings are caged. Why has a king no cats?

You say that I’ll achieve it if I try?

Swallow it?—No, not I …

God, what a way to die!