by Edgar Lee Masters
[from Spoon River Anthology, 1 of 33 poems added to the 1916 edition]
[The graveyard of Spoon River. Two voices are heard behind a screen decorated with diabolical and angelic figures in various allegorical relations. A faint light shows dimly through the screen as if it were woven of leaves, branches and shadows.]
First Voice:—A game of checkers?
Second Voice:—Well, I don’t mind.
First Voice:—I move the Will.
Second Voice:—You’re playing it blind.
First Voice:—Then here’s the Soul.
Second Voice:—Checked by the Will.
First Voice:—Eternal Good!
Second Voice:—And Eternal Ill.
First Voice:—I haste for the King row.
Second Voice:—Save your breath.
First Voice:—I was moving Life.
Second Voice:—You’re checked by Death.
First Voice:—Very good, here’s Moses.
Second Voice:—And here’s the Jew.
First Voice:—My next move is Jesus.
Second Voice:—St. Paul for you!
First Voice:—Yes, but St. Peter—
Second Voice:—You might have foreseen—
First Voice:—You’re in the King row—
Second Voice:—With Constantine!
First Voice:—I’ll go back to Athens.
Second Voice:—Well, here’s the Persian.
First Voice:—All right, the Bible.
Second Voice:—Pray now, what version?
First Voice:—I take up Buddha.
Second Voice:—It never will work.
First Voice:—From the corner Mahomet.
Second Voice:—I move the Turk.
First Voice:—The game is tangled; where are we now?
Second Voice:—You’re dreaming worlds. I’m in the King row.
Move as you will, if I can’t wreck you
I’ll thwart you, harry you, rout you, check you.
First Voice:—I’m tired. I’ll send for my Son to play.
I think he can beat you finally—
First Voice:—I must preside at the stars’ convention.
Second Voice:—Very well, my lord, but I beg to mention
I’ll give this game my direct attention.
First Voice:—A game indeed! But Truth is my quest.
Second Voice:—Beaten, you walk away with a jest.
I strike the table, I scatter the checkers.
[A rattle of a falling table and checkers flying over a floor.]
Aha! You armies and iron deckers,
Races and states in a cataclysm—
Now for a day of atheism!
[The screen vanishes and Beelzebub steps forward carrying a trumpet, which he blows faintly. Immediately Loki and Yogarindra start up from the shadows of night.]
Beelzebub:—Good evening, Loki!
Loki:—The same to you!
Yogarindra:—My greetings, too.
Loki:—Whence came you, comrade?
Beelzebub:—From yonder screen.
Yogarindra:—And what were you doing?
Beelzebub:—Stirring His spleen.
Loki:—How did you do it?
Beelzebub:—I made it rough
In a game of checkers.
Yogarindra:—I thought I heard the sounds of a battle.
Beelzebub:—No doubt! I made the checkers rattle,
Turning the table over and strewing
The bits of wood like an army pursuing.
Yogarindra:—I have a game! Let us make a man.
Loki:—My net is waiting him, if you can.
Yogarindra:—And here’s my mirror to fool him with—
Beelzebub:—Mystery, falsehood, creed and myth.
Loki:—But no one can mold him, friend, but you.
Beelzebub:—Then to the sport without more ado.
Yogarindra:—Hurry the work ere it grow to day.
Beelzebub:—I set me to it. Where is the clay?
[He scrapes the earth with his hands and begins to model.]
Beelzebub:—Out of the dust,
Out of the slime,
A little rust,
And a little lime.
Muscle and gristle,
Brayed with a pestle,
Fat and bone.
Out of the marshes,
Out of the vaults,
Gas and salts.
What is this you call a mind,
Flitting, drifting, pale and blind,
Soul of the swamp that rides the wind?
Jack-o’-lantern, here you are!
Dream of heaven, pine for a star,
Chase your brothers to and fro,
Back to the swamp at last you’ll go.
The Valley:—Hilloo! Hilloo!
[Beelzebub in scraping up the earth turns out a skull.]
Beelzebub:—Old one, old one.
Now ere I break you,
Crush you and make you
Clay for my use,
Let me observe you:
You were a bold one
Flat at the dome of you,
Heavy the base of you,
False to the home of you,
Strong was the face of you,
Strange to all fears.
Yet did the hair of you
Hide what you were.
Now to re-nerve you—
[He crushes the skull between his hands and mixes it with the clay.]
Now you are dust,
Limestone and rust.
I mold and I stir
And make you again.
The Valley:—Again? Again?
[In the same manner Beelzebub has fashioned several figures, standing them against the trees.]
Loki:—Now for the breath of life. As I remember
You have done right to mold your creatures first,
And stand them up.
I make the will.
Yogarindra:—Out of sensation
Comes his ill.
Out of my mirror
Springs his error.
Who was so cruel
To make him the slave
Of me the sorceress, you the knave,
And you the plotter to catch his thought,
Whatever he did, whatever he sought?
With a nature dual
Of will and mind
A thing that sees, and a thing that’s blind.
Come! to our dance! Something hated him
Made us over him, therefore fated him.
[They join hands and dance.]
Loki:—Passion, reason, custom, rules,
Creeds of the churches, lore of the schools,
Taint in the blood and strength of soul.
Flesh too weak for the will’s control;
Poverty, riches, pride of birth,
Wailing, laughter, over the earth,
Here I have you caught again,
Enter my web, ye sons of men.
Yogarindra:—Look in my mirror! Isn’t it real?
What do you think now, what do you feel?
Here is treasure of gold heaped up;
Here is wine in the festal cup.
Tendrils blossoming, turned to whips,
Love with her breasts and scarlet lips.
Breathe in their nostrils.
Out of nothingness into death.
Out of the mold, out of the rocks
Wonder, mockery, paradox!
Soaring spirit, groveling flesh,
Bait the trap, and spread the mesh.
Give him hunger, lure him with truth,
Give him the iris hopes of Youth.
Starve him, shame him, fling him down,
Whirled in the vortex of the town.
Break him, age him, till he curse
The idiot face of the universe.
Over and over we mix the clay,—
What was dust is alive to-day.
The Three:—Thus is the hell-born tangle wound
Swiftly, swiftly round and round.
Beelzebub:—[Waving his trumpet.] You live! Away!
One of the Figures:—How strange and new!
I am I, and another, too.
Another Figure:—I was a sun-dew’s leaf, but now
What is this longing?—
Another Figure:—Earth below
I was a seedling magnet-tipped
Drawn down earth—
Another Figure:—And I was gripped
Electrons in a granite stone,
Now I think.
Another Figure:—Oh, how alone!
Another Figure:—My lips to thine. Through thee I find
Something alone by love divined!
Beelzebub:—Begone! No, wait. I have bethought me, friends;
Let’s give a play.
[He waves his trumpet.]
To yonder green rooms go.
[The figures disappear.]
Yogarindra:—Oh, yes, a play! That’s very well, I think,
But who will be the audience? I must throw
Illusion over all.
Loki:—And I must shift
The scenery, and tangle up the plot.
Beelzebub:—Well, so you shall! Our audience shall come
From yonder graves.
[He blows his trumpet slightly louder than before. The scene changes. A stage arises among the graves. The curtain is down, concealing the creatures just created, illuminated halfway up by spectral lights. Beelzebub stands before the curtain.]
Beelzebub:—[A terrific blast of the trumpet.] Who-o-o-o-o-o!
[Immediately there is a rustling as of the shells of grasshoppers stirred by a wind; and hundreds of the dead, including those who have appeared in the Anthology, hurry to the sound of the trumpet.]
A Voice:—Gabriel! Gabriel!
Many Voices:—The Judgment day!
Beelzebub:—Be quiet, if you please
At least until the stars fall and the moon.
Many Voices:—Save us! Save us!
[Beelzebub extends his hands over the audience with a benedictory motion and restores order.]
Beelzebub:—Ladies and gentlemen, your kind attention
To my interpretation of the scene.
I rise to give your fancy comprehension,
And analyze the parts of the machine.
My mood is such that I would not deceive you,
Though still a liar and the father of it,
From judgment’s frailty I would retrieve you,
Though falsehood is my art and though I love it.
Down in the habitations whence I rise,
The roots of human sorrow boundless spread.
Long have I watched them draw the strength that lies
In clay made richer by the rotting dead.
Here is a blossom, here a twisted stalk,
Here fruit that sourly withers ere its prime;
And here a growth that sprawls across the walk,
Food for the green worm, which it turns to slime.
The ruddy apple with a core of cork
Springs from a root which in a hollow dangles,
Not skillful husbandry nor laborious work
Can save the tree which lightning breaks and tangles.
Why does the bright nasturtium scarcely flower
But that those insects multiply and grow,
Which make it food, and in the very hour
In which the veinèd leafs and blossoms blow?
Why does a goodly tree, while fast maturing,
Turn crooked branches covered o’er with scale?
Why does the tree whose youth was not assuring
Prosper and bear while all its fellows fail?
I under earth see much. I know the soil.
I know where mold is heavy and where thin.
I see the stones that thwart the plowman’s toil,
The crooked roots of what the priests call sin.
I know all secrets, even to the core,
What seedlings will be upas, pine or laurel;
It cannot change howe’er the field’s worked o’er.
Man’s what he is and that’s the devil’s moral.
So with the souls of the ensuing drama
They sprang from certain seed in certain earth.
Behold them in the devil’s cyclorama,
Shown in their proper light for all they’re worth.
Now to my task: I’ll give an exhibition
Of mixing the ingredients of spirit.
[He waves his wand.]
Come, crucible, perform your magic mission,
Come, recreative fire, and hover near it!
I’ll make a soul, or show how one is made.
[He waves his wand again. Parti-colored flames appear.]
This is the woman you shall see anon!
[A red flame appears.]
This hectic flame makes all the world afraid:
It was a soldier’s scourge which ate the bone.
His daughter bore the lady of the action,
And died at thirty-nine of scrofula.
She was a creature of a sweet attraction,
Whose sex-obsession no one ever saw.
[A purple flame appears.]
Lo! this denotes aristocratic strains
Back in the centuries of France’s glory.
[A blue flame appears.]
And this the will that pulls against the chains
Her father strove until his hair was hoary.
Sorrow and failure made his nature cold,
He never loved the child whose woe is shown,
And hence her passion for the things which gold
Brings in this world of pride, and brings alone.
The human heart that’s famished from its birth
Turns to the grosser treasures, that is plain.
Thus aspiration fallen fills the earth
With jungle growths of bitterness and pain.
Of Celtic, Gallic fire our heroine!
Courageous, cruel, passionate and proud.
False, vengeful, cunning, without fear o’ sin.
A head that oft is bloody, but not bowed.
Now if she meet a man—suppose our hero,
With whom her chemistry shall war yet mix,
As if she were her Borgia to his Nero,
’Twill look like one of Satan’s little tricks!
However, it must be. The world’s great garden
Is not all mine. I only sow the tares.
Wheat should be made immune, or else the Warden
Should stop their coming in the world’s affairs.
But to our hero! Long ere he was born
I knew what would repel him and attract.
Such spirit mathematics, fig or thorn,
I can prognosticate before the fact.
[A yellow flame appears.]
This is a grandsire’s treason in an orchard
Against a maid whose nature with his mated.
[Lurid flames appear.]
And this his memory distrait and tortured,
Which marked the child with hate because she hated.
Our heroine’s grand dame was that maid’s own cousin—
But never this our man and woman knew.
The child, in time, of lovers had a dozen,
Then wed a gentleman upright and true.
And thus our hero had a double nature:
One half of him was bad, the other good.
The devil must exhaust his nomenclature
To make this puzzle rightly understood.
But when our hero and our heroine met
They were at once attracted, the repulsion
Was hidden under Passion, with her net
Which must enmesh you ere you feel revulsion.
The virus coursing in the soldier’s blood,
The orchard’s ghost, the unknown kinship ’twixt them,
Our hero’s mother’s lovers round them stood,
Shadows that smiled to see how Fate had fixed them.
This twain pledge vows and marry, that’s the play.
And then the tragic features rise and deepen.
He is a tender husband. When away
The serpents from the orchard slyly creep in.
Our heroine, born of spirit none too loyal,
Picks fruit of knowledge—leaves the tree of life.
Her fancy turns to France corrupt and royal,
Soon she forgets her duty as a wife.
You know the rest, so far as that’s concerned,
She met exposure and her husband slew her.
He lost his reason, for the love she spurned.
He prized her as his own—how slight he knew her.
[He waves a wand, showing a man in a prison cell.]
Now here he sits condemned to mount the gallows—
He could not tell his story—he is dumb.
Love, says your poets, is a grace that hallows,
I call it suffering and martyrdom.
The judge with pointed finger says, “You killed her.”
Well, so he did—but here’s the explanation;
He could not give it. I, the drama-builder,
Show you the various truths and their relation.
[He waves his wand.]
Now, to begin. The curtain is ascending,
They meet at tea upon a flowery lawn.
Fair, is it not? How sweet their souls are blending—
The author calls the play “Laocoön.”
A Voice:—Only an earth dream.
Another Voice:—With which we are done.
A flash of a comet
Upon the earth stream.
Another Voice:—A dream twice removed,
A spectral confusion
Of earth’s dread illusion.
A Far Voice:—These are the ghosts
From the desolate coasts.
Would you go to them?
Only pursue them.
Whatever enshrined is
Within you is you.
In a place where no wind is,
Out of the damps,
Be ye as lamps.
To me alone true,
The Life and the Fire.
[Beelzebub, Loki, and Yogarindra vanish. The phantasmagoria fades out. Where the dead seemed to have assembled, only heaps of leaves appear. There is the light as of dawn. Voices of Spring.]
First Voice:—The springtime is come, the winter departed,
She wakens from slumber and dances light-hearted.
The sun is returning
We are done with alarms,
Earth lifts her face burning,
Held close in his arms.
The sun is an eagle
Who broods o’er his young,
The earth is his nursling
In whom he has flung
The life-flame in seed,
In blossom desire,
Till fire become life,
And life become fire.
Second Voice:—I slip and I vanish,
I baffle your eye;
I dive and I climb,
I change and I fly.
You have me, you lose me,
Who have me too well,
Now find me and use me—
I am here in a cell.
Third Voice:—You are there in a cell?
Oh, now for a rod
With which to divine you—
Second Voice:—Nay, child, I am God.
Fourth Voice:—When the waking waters rise from their beds of snow, under the hill,
In little rooms of stone where they sleep when icicles reign,
The April breezes scurry through woodlands, saying “Fulfill!
Awaken roots under cover of soil—it is Spring again.”
Then the sun exults, the moon is at peace, and voices
Call to the silver shadows to lift the flowers from their dreams.
And a longing, longing enters my heart of sorrow, my heart that rejoices
In the fleeting glimpse of a shining face, and her hair that gleams.
I arise and follow alone for hours the winding way by the river,
Hunting a vanishing light, and a solace for joy too deep.
Where do you lead me, wild one, on and on forever?
Over the hill, over the hill, and down to the meadows of sleep.
The Sun:—Over the soundless depths of space for a hundred million miles
Speeds the soul of me, silent thunder, struck from a harp of fire.
Before my eyes the planets wheel and a universe defiles,
I but a luminant speck of dust upborne in a vast desire.
What is my universe that obeys me—myself compelled to obey
A power that holds me and whirls me over a path that has no end?
And there are my children who call me great, the giver of life and day,
Myself a child who cry for life and know not whither I tend.
A million million suns above me, as if the curtain of night
Were hung before creation’s flame, that shone through the weave of the cloth,
Each with its worlds and worlds and worlds crying upward for light,
For each is drawn in its course to what?—as the candle draws the moth.
The Milky Way:—Orbits unending,
Life never ending,
Power without end.
A Voice:—Wouldst thou be lord,
Not peace but a sword.
Not heart’s desire—
Worship thy power,
Conquer thy hour,
Sleep not but strive,
So shalt thou live.
Infinite Depths:—Infinite Law,
[To read more Spoon River Anthology click here.]