Awake in the 21st Century,
Awake in America,
Awake in my body,
Paying close attention to myself,
Observing well my thoughts,
Hearing the sound of my voice when I speak,
Curious to know what it feels like
when I touch another.
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honored of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch where through
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the scepter and the isle,—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill
This labor, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centered in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Messenger: Occasions drew me early to this City,
And as the gates I entered with Sun-rise,
The morning Trumpets Festival proclaimed
Through each high street: little I had dispatched
When all abroad was rumored that this day
Samson should be brought forth to shew the people
Proof of his mighty strength in feats and games;
I sorrowed at his captive state, but minded
Not to be absent at that spectacle.
The building was a spacious Theater
Half round on two main Pillars vaulted high,
With seats where all the Lords and each degree
Of sort, might sit in order to behold,
The other side was open, where the throng
On banks and scaffolds under Sky might stand;
I among these aloof obscurely stood.
The Feast and noon grew high, and Sacrifice
Had filled their hearts with mirth, high cheer, & wine,
When to their sports they turned. Immediately
Was Samson as a public servant brought,
In their state Livery clad; before him Pipes
And Timbrels, on each side went armed guards,
Both horse and foot before him and behind
Archers, and Slingers, Cataphracts and Spears.
At sight of him the people with a shout
Rifted the Air clamoring their god with praise,
Who had made their dreadful enemy their thrall.
He patient but undaunted where they led him.
Came to the place, and what was set before him
Which without help of eye, might be assayed,
To heave, pull, draw, or break, he still performed
All with incredible, stupendous force,
None daring to appear Antagonist.
At length for intermission sake they led him
Between the pillars; he his guide requested
(For so from such as nearer stood we heard)
As over-tired to let him lean a while
With both his arms on those two massive Pillars
That to the arched roof gave main support.
He unsuspicious led him; which when Samson
Felt in his arms, with head a while inclined,
And eyes fast fixed he stood, as one who prayed,
Or some great matter in his mind revolved.
At last with head erect thus cried aloud,
Hitherto, Lords, what your commands imposed
I have performed, as reason was, obeying,
Not without wonder or delight beheld.
Now of my own accord such other trial
I mean to shew you of my strength, yet greater;
As with amaze shall strike all who behold.
This uttered, straining all his nerves he bowed,
As with the force of winds and waters pent,
When Mountains tremble, those two massive Pillars
With horrible convulsion to and fro,
He tugged, he shook, till down they came and drew
The whole roof after them, with burst of thunder
Upon the heads of all who sate beneath,
Lords, Ladies, Captains, Councilors, or Priests,
Their choice nobility and flower, not only
Of this but each Philistian City round
Met from all parts to solemnize this Feast.
Samson with these immixt, inevitably
Pulled down the same destruction on himself;
The vulgar only escaped who stood without.
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain.
They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer.
He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground.
He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
Riches I hold in light esteem,
And Love I laugh to scorn;
And lust of fame was but a dream,
That vanished with the morn:
And if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me
Is, “Leave the heart that now I bear,
And give me liberty!”
Yes, as my swift days near their goal:
’Tis all that I implore;
In life and death a chainless soul,
With courage to endure.
Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been,
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies,
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortes when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
The day was going badly for my body until glorious King Alexander shattered the enemy formation with a lightning cavalry charge from between my temples to the base of my neck. Astride wild Bucephalus he cut a figure of terrible beauty.
The Emperor Napoleon has ordered a barrage of cannon to dislodge the forces entrenched in my lungs. A part of his humble beginnings is his time as a lowly artilleryman. I cough violently to aid him in his work.
Hannibal, for my benefit, has buried the hatchet with the Romans. He and grim Scipio have surrounded the enemy with great slaughter behind my left knee. How long can such an alliance hold?
The aching in my right shoulder is where Stonewall Jackson himself has his opponents trapped in a withering crossfire of musket shot and grate. Earlier an explosion knocked the General from his horse. The concentration of this odd, otherworldly man is unbroken as he dusts himself off.
Julius Caesar is directing the whole operation from a base just under my heart. No detail of battle escapes his great mind, infinitely perceptive and utterly ruthless, the most gifted killer of them all.
Though the day is uncertain, I’m heartened that my defense has fallen into such capable hands. A more crucial battle was never fought. The fallen are discharged in giant waves through a shivering tide of clammy sweat.
Primitive Man viewed magic as a childish approximation of science. Magicians, sorcerers, shamans and the like, used people’s intuitive understanding of cause and effect plus simple incredulity to claim control over the workings of the world with charms, spells and potions. Eventually, even savages realized that the tricks of the magicians didn’t work. However, if the supernatural forces which controlled the world around him could not be commanded, primitive man reasoned, perhaps they could be placated or amused. Magic evolved into worship.
Today we lives in the era of science, but I wonder if the attitude of the average man is not so different from what it was in those earlier times. He might understand the little pieces of the world that he encounters daily, but the system, how it all fits together, that’s too large and complex for him. There’s the kingdom of the keepers of secret knowledge and it’s as obscure to him as it has ever been.
Consider the powers granted to him; the ability to fly through the air, collapse time, freeze it, communicate instantly at a distance, heal the body etc. They allow him to giddily glimpse omnipotence but then befuddle the deepest part of himself. And does he not sense, behind it all, some dimly perceived consciousness, perhaps just now awakening. Where is it coming from?
So, in the wee hours of a supposedly new age he holds two trains of thought in his mind at once. One the one hand, he’s confident that if he knows how to talk to this thing that gives him power, then he can control it. That it will do precisely what he wants it to do when he uses the correct commands in the correct order. But also, like the Athenians in the Aereopagus, he prays to an unknown God that the whole thing doesn’t break down, or die, or worst of all, become angry with him.