Robert William Service (16 January 1874 - 11 September 1958 / Preston)
A RUSTY NAIL
I ran a nail into my hand,
The wound was hard to heal;
So bitter was the pain to stand
I thought how it would feel,
To have spikes thrust through hands and feet,
Impaled by hammer beat.
Then hoisted on a cross of oak
Against the sullen sky,
With all about the jeering follk
Who joyed to see me die;
Die hardly in insensate heat,
With bleeding hands and feet.
Yet was it not that day of Fate,
Of cruelty insane,
Climaxing centuries of hate
That woke our souls to pain !
And are we not the living seed
Of those who did the deed !
Of course, with thankful heart I know
We are not fiends as then;
And in a thousand years or so
We may be gentle men.
But it has cost a poisoned hand,
And pain beyond a cry,
To make me strangely understand
A Cross against the sky.
A LITTLE PRAYER
Let us be thankful, Lord, for little things -
The song of birds, the rapture of the rose;
Cloud-dappled skies, the laugh of limpid springs,
Drowned sunbeams and the perfume April blows;
Bronze wheat a-shimmer, purple shade of trees -
Let us be thankful, Lord of Life, for these !
Let us be praiseful, Sire, for simple sights; -
The blue smoke curling from a fire of peat;
Keen stars a-frolicking on frosty nights,
Prismatic pigeons strutting in a street;
Daisies dew-diamonded in smiling sward -
For simple sights let us be praiseful, Lord !
Let us be grateful, God, for health serene,
The hope to do a kindly deed each day;
The faith of fellowship, a conscience clean,
The will to worship and the gift to pray;
For all of worth in us, of You a part,
Let us be grateful, God, with humble heart.
How often do I wish I were
What people call a character;
A ripe and cherubic old chappie
Who lives to make his fellows happy;
With in his eyes a merry twinkle,
And round his lips a laughing wrinkle;
Who radiating hope and cheer
Grows kindlier with every year.
For this ideal let me strive,
And keep the lad in me alive;
Nor argument nor anger know,
But my own way serenly go;
The woes of men to understand,
Yet walk with humour hand in hand;
To love each day and wonder why
Folks are not so jocund as I.
So be you simple, decent, kind,
With gentle heart and quiet mind;
And if to righteous anger stung,
Restrain your temper and your toungue.
Let thought for others be your guide,
And patience triumph over pride . . .
With charity for those who err,
Live life so folks may say you were
God bless your heart ! A Character.
( THE SUNSHINE SEEKS MY LITTLE ROOM )
The sunshine seeks my little room
To tell me Paris streets are gay;
That children cry the lily bloom
All up and down the leafy way;
That half the town is mad with May,
With flame of flag and boom of bell:
For Carnival is King to-day;
So pen and page, awhile farewell.
A DOMESTIC TRAGEDY
Clorinda met me on the way
As I came from the train;
Her face was anything but gay,
In fact, suggested pain.
"Oh hubby, hubby dear!" she cried,
"I've awful news to tell. . . ."
"What is it, darling ?" I replied;
"Your mother - is she well ?"
"Oh no! oh no! it is not that,
It's something else," she wailed,
My heart was beating pit-a-pat,
My ruddy visage paled.
Like lightning flash in heaven's dome
The fear within me woke:
"Don't say," I cried, "our little home
Has all gone up in smoke !"
She shook her head. Oh, swift I clasped
And held her to my breast;
"The children! Tell me quick," I gasped,
"Believe me, it is best."
Then, then she spoke; 'mid sobs I caught
These words of woe divine:
"It's coo-coo-cook has gone and bought
A new hat just like mine."
A GRAIN OF SAND
If starry space no limit knows
And sun succeeds to sun,
There is no reason to suppose
Our earth the only one.
'Mid countless constellations cast
A million worlds may be,
With each a God to bless or blast
And steer to destiny.
Just think! A million gods or so
To guide each vital stream,
With over all to boss the show
A Deity supreme.
Such magnitudes oppress my mind;
From cosmic space it swings;
So ultimately glad to find
Relief in little things.
For look! Within my hollow hand,
While round the earth careens,
I hold a single grain of sand
And wonder what it means.
Ah! If I had the eyes to see,
And brain to understand,
I think Life's mystery might be
Solved in this grain of sand.
A MEDIOCRE MAN
I'm just a mediocre man
Of no high-brow pretence;
A comfortable life I plan
With care and commonsense.
I do the things most people do,
I echo what they say;
And through my morning paper view
The problems of the day.
No doubt you think I'm colourless,
And yet I fancy, more or less,
I represent the race.
My name may stand for everyone,
At least for nine in ten,
For all in all the world is run
By mediocre men.
Of course you'll maybe not agree
That you are average,
And unlike ordinary me
You strut your little stage,
Well, you may even own a Bank,
And mighty mergers plan,
But Brother, doff your tile and thank
The Mediocre Man.
Why need we newer arms invent,
Poor peoples to destroy ?
With what we have let's be content
And perfect their employ.
With weapons that may millions kill,
Why should we seek for more,
A brighter spate of blood to spill,
A deeper sea of gore ?
The lurid blaze of atom light
Vast continents will blind,
And steep in centuries of night
So let's be glad for gun and blade,
To fight with honest stuff:
Are tank, block-buster, hand-grenade
And napalm not enough ?
Oh to go back a thousand years
When arrows winged their way,
When foemen fell upon the spears
And swords were swung to slay !
Behold! Belching in Heaven black
Mushrooms obscene !
Dear God, the brave days give us back,
When wars were clean !
TWO BLIND MEN
Two blind men met. Said one: "This earth
Has been a blackout from my birth.
Through darkness I have groped my way,
Forlorn, unknowing night from day.
But you - though War destroyed your sight,
Still have your memories of Light,
And to allay your present pain
Can live your golden youth again."
Then said the second: "Aye, it's true,
It must seem magical to you
To know the shape of things that are,
A women's lips, a rose, a star.
But therein lies the hell of it;
Better my eyes had never lit
to love of bluebells in a wood,
Or daffodils in dancing mood.
"You do not know what you have lost,
But I, alas! can count the cost -
Than memories that goad and gall,
Far better not to see at all.
And as for love, you know it not,
For pity is our sorry lot.
So there you see my point of view:
'Tis I, my friend, who envy you.
And which was right still puzzles me:
Perhaps one should be blind to see.
Give me your hand, oh little one !
Like children be we two;
Yet I am old, my day is done
That barely breaks for you.
A baby-basket hard you hold,
With in it cherries four:
You cherish them as men do gold,
And count them o'er.
And then you stumble in your walk;
The cherries scattered lie.
You pick them up with foolish talk
And foolish glad am I,
When you wipe one quite clean of dust
And give it unto me;
So in the baby-basket just
All this is simple, I confess,
A moment piled with peace;
Yet loving men have died for less,
And will till time shall cease. . . .
A silken hand in crinkled one
O Little Innocence !
O blessed moment in the son
E'er I go hence !
I know a garden where the lilies gleam,
And one who lingers in the sunshine there;
She is than white-stoled lily far more fair,
And oh, her eyes are heaven-lit with dream !
I know a garret, cold and dark and drear,
And one who toils and toils with tireless pen,
Until his brave, sad eyes grow weary - then
He seeks the stars, pale, silent as a seer.
And ah, it's strange; for, desolate and dim,
Between these two there rolls an ocean wide;
Yet he is in the garden by her side
And she is in the garret there with him.
An Englishman was Thomas Paine
Who bled for liberty;
But while his fight was far from vain
He died in poverty:
Though some are of the sober thinking
'Twas due to drinking.
Yet this is what appeals to me:
Cobbet, a friend, loved him so well
He sailed across the surly sea
To raw and rigid New Rochelle:
With none to say: 'Take him not from us !'
He raped the grave of Thomas.
And in his library he set
These bones so woe-begone;
I have no doubt his eyes were wet
To scan that skeleton.
That grinning skull from which in season
Emerged the Age of Reason.
Then Cobbet in his turn lay dead,
And auctioneering tones
Over his chattels rudely said:
'Who wants them bloody bones ?'
None did, so they were scattered far
And God knows where they are.
A friend of Franklin and of Pitt
He lived a stormy span;
The flame of liberty he lit
And rang the Rights of Man.
Yet pilgrims from Vermont and Maine
In hero worship seek in vain
The bones of Thomas Paine.
Oh if it were not for my wife
And family increase,
How gladly would I close my life
In monastery peace!
A sweet and scented isle I know
Where monks in muteness dwell,
And there in sereness I would go
And seek a cell.
On milk and oaten meal I'd live,
With carrot, kail and cheese;
The greens that tiny gardens give,
The bounty of the bees.
Then war might rage, I would not know,
Or knowing would not care:
No echo of a world of woe
Would irk me there.
And I would be forgotten too
As mankind I forgot;
Read Shakespeare and the Bible through,
And brood in quiet thought.
Content with birds and trees and flowers
In mellow age to find
'Mid monastery's holy hours
God's Peace of Mind.
Because I've eighty years and odd,
And darkling is my day,
I now prepare to meet my God,
And for forgiveness pray.
Not for salvation is my plea,
Nor Heaven hope, just rest:
Begging: "Dear Father, pardon me,
I did not do my best.
"I did not measure with the Just
To serve my fellow men;
But unto levity and lust
I loaned my precious pen.
I sorrow for the sacred touch,
And though I toiled with zest,
Dear God, have mercy, in-as-much
I did not do my best.
"I bless You for the gift you gave
That brought me golden joy;
Yet here beside the gentle grave
I grieve for its employ.
Have pity, Lord, so well I know
I failed you in the test,
And my last thought is one of woe:
I did not do my best."
She was so wonderful I wondered
If wedding me she had not blundered;
She was so pure, so high above me,
I marvelled how she came to love me:
Or did she? Well, in her own fashion -
Affection, pity, never passion.
I knew I was not worth her love;
Yet oh, how wistfully I strove
To be her equal in some way;
She knew I tried, and I would pray
Some day she'd hold her head in pride,
And stand with praising by my side.
A Weakling, I - she made me strong;
My finest thoughts to her belong;
Through twenty years she mothered me,
And then one day she smothered me
With kisses, saying wild with joy:
"Soon we'll be three - let's hope, a boy."
"Too old to bear a child," they said;
Well, they were right, for both are dead. . . .
Ah no, not dead - she is with me,
And by my side she'll ever be;
Her spirit lingers, half divine:
All good I do is hers, not mine.
God, by my works O let me strive
To keep her gentleness alive !
Let in my heart her spirit glow,
And by my thoughts for others show
She is not dead: she'll never die
While love for humankind have I.
THE PRETTY LADY
He asked the lady in the train
If he might smoke: she smiled consent.
So lighting his cigar and fain
To talk he puffed away content,
Reflecting: how delightful are
Fair dame and fine cigar.
Then from his bulging wallet he
A photograph with pride displayed,
His charming wife and children three,
When suddenly he was dismayed
To hear her say: 'These notes you've got,
I want the lot.'
He scarcely could believe his ears.
He laughed: 'The money isn't mine.
To pay it back would take me years,
And so politely I decline.
Madame, I think you speak in fun:
Have you a gun ?'
She smiled. 'No weapon have I got,
Only my virtue, but I swear
If you don't hand me out the lot
I'll rip my blouse, let down my hair,
Denounce you as a fiend accurst . . .'
He told her: 'Do your worst.'
She did. Her silken gown she tore,
Let down her locks and pulled the cord
That stopped the train, and from the floor
She greeted engineer and guard:
'I fought and fought in vain,' she cried.
'Save me, I'm terrified !'
The man was calm; he stood aloof.
Said he: 'Her game you understand;
But if you doubt, behold the proof
Of innocence is in my hand.'
And as they stared into the car
They saw his logic in a flash . . .
Aloft he held a lit cigar
With two inches of ash.
The portrait there above my bed
They tell me is a work of art;
My Wife, since twenty years she's dead:
Her going nearly broke my heart.
Alas ! No little ones we had
To light our hearth with joy and glee;
Yet as I linger lone and sad
I know she's waiting me.
The picture ? Sargent painted it,
And it has starred in many a show.
Her eyes are on me where I sit,
And follow me where'er I go.
She'll smile like that when I am gone,
And I am frail and oh so ill !
Aye, when I'm waxen, cold and wan,
Lo! She'll be smiling still.
So I have bade them slash in strips
That relic of my paradise.
Let flame destroy those lovely lips
And char the starlight of her eyes !
No human gaze shall ever see
Her beauty, stranger heart to stir:
Nay, her last smile shall be for me,
My last look be for her.
THE RHYME OF THE RESTLESS ONES
We couldn't sit and study for the law;
The stagnation of a bank we couldn't stand;
For our riot blood was surging, and we didn't need much urging
To excitements and excesses that are banned.
So we took to wine and drink and other things,
And the devil in us struggled to be free;
Till our friends rose up in wrath, and they pointed out the path,
And they paid our debts and packed us o'er the sea.
Oh, they shook us off and shipped us o'er the foam,
To the larger lands that lure a man to roam;
And we took the chance they gave
Of a far and foreign grave,
And we bade good-by for evermore to home.
And some of us are climbing on the peak,
And some of us are camping on the plain;
By pine and palm you'll find us, with never claim to bind us,
By track and trail you'll meet us once again.
We are the fated serfs to freedom - sky and sea;
We have failed where slummy cities overflow;
But the stranger ways of earth know our pride and know our worth,
And we go into the dark as fighters go.
Yes, we go into the night as brave men go,
Though our faces they be often streaked with woe;
Yet we're hard as cats to kill,
And our hearts are reckless still,
And we've danced with death a dozen times or so.
And you'll find us in Alaska after gold,
And you'll find us herding cattle in the South.
We like strong drink and fun, and, when the race is run,
We often die with curses in our mouth.
We are wild as colts unbroke, but never mean.
Of our sins we've shoulders broad to bear the blame;
But we'll never stay in town and we'll never settle down,
And we'll never have an object or an aim.
No, there's that in us that time can never tame;
And life will always seem a careless game;
And they'd better far forget
Those who say they love us yet,
Forget, blot out with bitterness our name.
Twin boys I bore, my joy, my care,
My hope, my life they were to me;
Their father, dashing, debonair,
Fell fighting at Gallipoli.
His daring gallantry, no doubt,
They 'herited in equal share:
So when the Second War broke out,
With eagerness they chose the air.
Said Dick: "The sea's too bally slow;
A flying ship's the one for me."
Said Peter: "Land ! Foot-slogging - no !
The jolly sky's my cup of tea."
Well, Dick bailed out in Channel flight,
His foam-flailed body never found;
While Peter, with his plane alight,
Dashed down to death on Kentish ground.
Gay lads they were, and tall and fair,
And had they chosen land or sea,
Shirking the hazards of the air,
They might still have been left to me.
But nothing could I say or do
To move their scorn of sea and land;
Like eagles to the sun they flew -
Why ? Only they could understand.
Hw day and night I prayed for them!
But knew that it was ll in vain;
They measured with heroic men,
Yet . . . I will never pray again.
Though time may grieve my hair to grey,
My lips will never kiss the rod. . . .
Only in dying I may say
In pity - "I forgive you, God."
In kindergarten classed
Dislike they knew;
And as the years went past
It grew and grew;
Until in maidenhood
Each sought a mate,
Then venom in their mood
Was almost hate.
The lure of love they learned
And they were wed;
Yet when they met each turned
Away a head;
Each went her waspish way
With muted damns
Until they met one day
With baby prams.
Then lo! Away was swept
The scorn of years;
Hands clasped they almost wept
With gentle tears.
Forgetting hateful days,
All mother mild,
Each took with tender praise
The other's child.
And now they talk of milk,
Of diapers and such;
Of baby bosoms silk
And tender to the touch.
A gemlike girl and boy,
With hope unsaid,
Each thinks with mother joy:
'May these two wed !'
My neighbour has a field of wheat
And I a rood of vine;
And he will give me bread to eat,
And I will give him wine.
And so we are a jolly pair,
Singing with supper as we share
Red wine and crusty bread.
Now venison is mighty meat
And so is trout and hare;
A mallard duck is sweat to eat
And quail is dainty fare.
But such are foods for festal day,
And we will not repine
While on the table we can lay
Crisp bread and rosy wine.
A will to till one's own of soil
Is worth a kingly crown,
With bread to feed the belly need,
And wine to wash it down.
So with my neighbour I rejoice
That we are fit and free,
Content to praise with lusty voice
Bread, Wine and Liberty.
OH, IT IS GOOD
Oh, it is good to drink and sup,
And then beside the kindly fire
To smoke and heap the faggots up,
And rest and dream to heart's desire.
Oh, it is good to ride and run,
To roam the greenwood wild and free;
To hunt, to idle in the sun,
To leap into the laughing sea.
Oh, it is good with hand and brain
To gladly till the chosen soil,
And after honest sweat and strain
To see the harvest of one's toil.
Oh, it is good afar to roam,
And seek adventure in strange lands;
Yet oh, so good the coming home,
The velvet love of little hands.
So much is good. . . . We thank Thee, God,
For all the tokens Thou hast given,
That here on earth our feet have trod
Thy little shining trails of Heaven.
The man above was a murderer, the man below was a thief;
And I lay there in the bunk between, ailing beyond belief;
A weary armful of skin and bone, wasted with pain and grief.
My feet were froze, and the lifeless toes were purple and green and gray;
The little flesh that clung to my bones, you could punch it in holes like clay;
The skin on my gums was a sullen black, and slowly peeling away.
I was sure enough in a direful fix, and often I wondered why
They did not take the chance that was left and leave me alone to die,
Or finish me off with a dose of dope so utterly lost was I.
But no; they brewed me the green-spruce tea, and nursed me there like a child;
And the homicide he was good to me, and bathed my sores and smiled;
And the thief he starved that I might be fed, and his eyes were kind and mild.
Yet they were woefully wicked men, and often at night in pain
I heard the murderer speak of his deed and dream it over again;
I heard the poor thief sorrowing for the dead self he had slain.
I'll never forget that bitter dawn, so evil, askew and gray,
When they wrapped me round in the skins of beasts and they bore me to a sleigh,
And we started out with the nearest post an hundred miles away.
I'll never forget the trail they broke, with its tense, unuttered woe;
And the crunch, crunch, crunch as their snowshoes sank through the crust of the hollow snow;
And my breath would fail, and every beat of my heart was like a blow.
And oftentimes I would die the death, yet wake up to life anew;
The sun would be all ablaze on the waste, and the sky a blighting blue,
And the tears would rise in my snow-blind eyes and furrow my cheeks like dew.
And the camps we made when their strength outplayed and the day was pinched and wan;
And oh, the joy of that blessed halt, and how I did dread the dawn;
And how I hated the weary men who rose and dragged me on.
And oh, how I begged to rest, to rest, the snow was so sweet a shroud;
And oh, how I cried when they urged me on, cried and cursed them aloud;
Yet on they strained, all racked and pained, and sorely their backs were bowed.
And then it was all like a lurid dream, and I prayed for a swift release
From the ruthless ones who would not leave me to die alone in peace;
Till I wakened up and I found myself at the post of the Mounted Police.
And there was my friend the murderer, and there was my friend the thief,
With bracelets of steel around their wrists, and wicked beyond belief:
But when they come to God's judgment seat, may I be allowed the brief.
MY GUARDIAN ANGEL
When looking back I dimly see
The trails my feet have trod,
Some hand divine, it seems to me,
Has pulled the strings with God;
Some angel form has lifeward leaned
When hope for me was past;
Some love sublime has intervened
To save me at the last.
For look you ! I was born a fool,
Damnation was my fate;
My lot to drivel and to drool,
Egregious and frutrate.
But in the deep of my despair,
When dark my doom was writ,
Some saving hand was always there
to pull me from the Pit.
A Guardian Angel - how absurd !
I scoff at Power Divine.
And yet . . . a someone spoke the word
That willed me from the swine.
And yet, despite my scorn of prayer,
My lack of love or friend,
I know a Presence will be there,
To save me at the end.
I have a house I've lived in long:
I can't recall my going in.
'Twere better bartered for a song
Ere ruin, rot and rust begin.
When it was fresh and fine and fair,
I used it with neglect, I fear;
But now I husband it with care
And cherish it form year to year.
Oh do not put it to the flame
When I have gone, but let the dust,
The honest earth from which it came,
Reclaim it as is only juts.
For when at last I close the door,
And turn the key and go away,
I deed my house forever more
To silence, sleep and slow decay.
My house is old beyond repair,
And soon I must abandon it,
A poor ghost, seeking everywhere
To find a home as fine and fit;
But if I win domain divine
Wherein eternally to dwell,
I'll not forget, O Body Mine !
Life home of Me, I've loved you well.
MY HUNDRED BOOKS
A thousand books my library
And all are primed, it seems to me
Mine are so few I scratch in thought
For just a hundred of the lot
A hundred books, but of the best,
With wisdom savour and digest
Yet when afar from kin and kith
Of quietness I'm happy with
So as nine hundred at me stare
My lack I'm wistfully aware
Yet as my leave of living ends,
Of love I view a hundred friends,
MY INNER LIFE
'Tis true my garments threadbare are,
And sorry poor I seem;
But inly I am richer far
Than any poet's dream.
For I've a hidden life no one
Can ever hope to see;
A sacred sanctuary none
May share with me.
Aloof I stand from out the strife,
Within my heart a song;
By virtue of my inner life
I to myself belong.
Against man-ruling I rebel,
Yet do not fear defeat,
For to my secret citadel
I may retreat.
Oh you who have an inner life
Beyond this dismal day
With wars and evil rumours rife,
Go blessedly your way.
Your refuge hold inviolate;
Unto yourself be true,
And shield serene from sordid fate
The Real You.
Like prim Professor of a College
I primed my shelves with books of knowledge;
And now I stand before them dumb,
Just like a child that sucks its thumb,
And stares forlorn and turns away,
With dolls or painted bricks to play.
They glour at me, my tomes of learning.
"You dolt!" they jibe; "you undiscerning
Moronic oaf, you make a fuss,
With highbrow swank selecting us;
Saying: "I'll read you all some day' -
And now you yawn and turn away.
"Unwanted wait we with our store
Of facts and philosophic lore;
The scholarship of all the ages
Snug packed within our uncut pages;
The mystery of all mankind
In part revealed - but you are blind.
"You have no time to read, you tell us;
Oh, do not think that we are jealous
Of all the trash that wins your favour,
The flimsy fiction that you savour:
We only beg that sometimes you
Will spare us just an hour or two.
"For all the minds that went to make us
Are dust if folk like you forsake us,
And they can only live again
By virtue of your kindling brain;
In magice print they packed their best:
Come - try their wisdom to digest. . . ."
Said I: "Alas! I am not able;
I lay my cards upon the table,
And with deep shame and blame avow
I am too old to read you now;
So I will lock you in glass cases
And shun your sad, reproachful faces."
* * * * * * * * *
My library is noble planned,
Yet in it desolate I stand;
And though my thousand books I prize,
Feeling a witling in their eyes,
I turn from them in weariness
To wallow in the Daily Press.
For, oh, I never, never will
The noble field of knowledge till:
I pattern words with artful tricks,
As children play with painted bricks,
And realize with futile woe,
Nothing I know - nor want to know.
My library has windowed nooks;
And so I turn from arid books
To vastitude of sea and sky,
And like a child content am I
With peak and plain and brook and tree,
Crying: "Behold! the books for me:
Nature, be thou my Library !"