A YOUNG MAN'S TRAGEDY
by Wilfrid Scawen Blunt
WHEN is life other than a tragedy,
Whether it is played in tears from the first scene,
In sable robes and grief's mute pageantry,
For loves that died ere they had ever been,
Or whether on the edge of joys set keen,
While all the stage with laughter is agog,
Death stepping forward with an altered mien
Pulls off his mask, and speaks the epilogue?
Life is a play acted by dying men,
Where, if its heroes seem to foot it well
And go light-tongued without grimace of pain,
Death will be found anon. And who shall tell
Which part was saddest, or in youth or age,
When the tired actor stops and leaves the stage?
Yes, who shall tell the value of our tears,
Whether we wept aright or idly grieved?
There is a tragedy in unloved years,
And in those passionate hours by love deceived,
In lips unkissed and hopes too soon bereaved,
And youth's high courage which no strength could save,
And manhood's web of fate by folly weaved,
And grey-haired grief brought down into the grave.
Who shall distinguish truly and be wise
'Twixt grief and grief, 'twixt night and night? The sun
Has its own sorrow and a voice that cries
Louder than darkness of its joys undone,
And pleads with that exceeding bitter cry,
"I have tasted honey, and behold, I die!"
A little honey! Ay, a little sweet,
A little pleasure when the years were young,
A joyous measure trod by dancing feet,
A tale of folly told by a loved tongue.
These are the things by which our hearts are wrung
More than by tears. Oh, I would rather laugh,
So I had not to choose such tales among
Which was most laughable. Man's nobler half
Resents mere sorrow. I would rather sit
With just the common crowd that watch the play
And mock at harlequin and the clown's wit,
And call it tragedy and go my way.
I should not err, because the tragic part
Lay not in these, but sealed in my own heart.
And thus it is. The tale I have to tell
Is such another. He who reads shall find
That which he brings to it of Heaven or Hell
For his best recompense where much is blind,
A jest-book or a sermon or mere wind,--
Each as he may,--for life's least godly mirth
Is mingled strangely here with fate unkind,
And this is a true story of the Earth.
The passionate heart of youth with its desires
Is not all noble, and some baseness clings
For ever mixed with its eternal fires,
Else were it single among human things.
And all life's wisdom learns but this last plan,
To jest at tears and weep Man's mirth and Man.
I had been an hour at Lyons. My breath comes
Fast when I think of it. An hour, no more,
I trod those streets and listened to the drums,
The mirth, the music, and the city's roar,
And found no sermon for me in her stones.
It was the evening of St. Martin's fair,
And all the world, its working bees and drones,
Had gone out to the quays in the sweet air,
To taste that thing more sweet to human breath,
Its own mad laughter at its own mad kind.
"An hour of prayer," I mused, "for men of faith."
Yet all these worshippers were only blind.
And I, no whit less blind, among them went
In search of pleasure for my punishment.
The Lyons fair! In truth it was a Heaven
For idlers' eyes, a feast of curious things,
Swings, roundabouts, and shows, the Champions Seven,
Dramas of battles and the deaths of kings,
The whole Place d'Armes grown white as if with snow,
With canvas booths arrayed in triple lines,
And jugglers, lions, snakes from Mexico,
Dancers on tight ropes, clowns and columbines.
I went among them all with grave intent,
I, too, to find it may be some delight.
I was a boy and knew not what life meant,
Nor what the pleasures were men seek in it.
Only I knew that mingling with that throng,
I was a stranger a strange world among.
I had made my round, as yet with little gain
Of undiscovered good in that gay place.
I had sought my share of pleasure, but in vain.
Laughter was not for me, and hid her face.
I had asked for mirth. The oracles were dumb.
No sound of Folly with her tinkling feet
Had bid my own feet follow, and no home
Was mine for merriment or musings sweet.
I had ceased to hope and almost ceased to seek,
When, from the farthest booth of all, the bray
Of brass and drums and fiddling and the shriek
Of a dwarf's voice invited me to stay.
The crowd, as scenting some more mirthful thing,
Surged round that booth agape and wondering.
It was a booth no larger than the rest,
No loftier fashioned and no more sublime,
As poor a shrine as ever youth possessed
In which to worship truth revealed in time.
Yet to my soul the mean remembrance clings
With all the folly of that far fair eve,
And my pulse throbs with lost imaginings,
And passion rises from its grave to grieve.
Vain dreams, brute images! and over all
The shrill-voiced dwarf its hierarch and priest,
Vaunting its praise, a pagan prince of Baal.
It scared me as of some wild idol feast.
"The Booth of Beauty," thus it was I read,
Blazoned in scarlet letters overhead.
I stopped, I listened, and I entered in,
With half-a-dozen more, that sight to see.
"The Booth of Beauty," 'twas a name of sin
Which seemed to promise a new mystery.
There was a crowd already in the place,
And 'twixt me and the stage, now darkly hid,
The gathering evening had come down apace,
And all was dim within and overspread.
I know not by what instinct or mute proof
Of Providence it was, but this is true,
Even as I stepped 'neath that ignoble roof,
A prescience warned me there of portents new,
And a voice spoke with no uncertain sound
Warning me back as from ungodly ground.
An instant, just an instant, and no more,
And it was gone, and I with eyes unsealed
Saw the bald pageant stripped to its thought's core,
And naked there to my scared eyes revealed.
Upon a throne which filled the upper space
Two female monsters sat, the first a girl
Marked like a leopard with pied arms and face,
And restless eyes aflame and teeth of pearl.
Her as we ventured near, I heard awhile
Say she was hungry, and a gleam like blood
Lighted her lips and died in a fierce smile.
A woman's hand behind me in the crowd
Clutched at my arm, and through the booth there went
A shiver of half fear, half merriment.
Beyond her sat a second monster. She
In shape and sense was undisguisedly real,
An ox-eyed queen of full-fed majesty
And giant height and comeliness ideal.
She too her tale related, as was due,
In measured tones, her age, her birth, her name,
Bourgeois her parents, friends of order too,
And good Imperialists of honest fame,
Her age eighteen, her height seven feet, her waist
An ell and more in its circumference,
Her leg above the knee, and where was placed
Its point of full development. . . The sense
Of the rest I lost, for laughing half aloud
Again a woman touched me in the crowd.
She was a little woman dressed in black,
Who stood on tiptoe with a childish air,
Her face and figure hidden in a sacque,
All but her eyes and forehead and dark hair.
Her brow was pale, but it was lit with light,
And mirth flashed out of it, it seemed in rays.
A childish face, but wise with woman's wit
And something, too, pathetic in its gaze.
In the bare dusk of that unseemly place
I noted all, and this besides, a scar
Which on her cheek had left a paler trace.
It seemed to tell its tale of love and war.
That little scar! Doubt whispered of this one,
Boy as I was, she had not lived a nun.
A second warning, nor unheeded. Yet
The thought appealed to me as no strange thing,
Pure though I was, that love impure had set
Its seal on that fair woman in her Spring.
Her broken beauty did not mar her grace
In form or spirit. Nay, it rather moved.
It seemed a natural thing for that gay face
It should have known and suffered and been loved.
It kindled in me, too, to view it thus,
A mood of daring which was more than mine,
And made my shamefaced heart leap valorous,
And fired its courage to a zeal divine.
All this, in one short instant, as I gazed
Into her eyes, admiring, yet amazed.
Me, too, she doubtless read. For, with her hand
Raised as for help and pointing to a chair,
She bade me, with a gesture, part command
And part entreaty, I would set her there.
She could not see, she said, the Queen of Love
My eyes so coveted, and laughed and laid
Upon my lips the fingers of her glove
When I protested at the words she said.
I hardly know how it all came about
But did her bidding as she would, and she
From her new vantage bore the humour out
And mocked the more at each new mockery.
And still she held my arm and I her dress,
"Lest she should fall," she said, in waywardness.
Thus it began with laughter. But anon
The ox-eyed queen, who had resumed by rote
The tale of her perfections one by one,
Turned by some ominous chance towards the spot
Where we two stood. "And take good note," said she,"
All here is honest beauty, flesh and blood,
As any in the world. Yet, if there be
A doubt between you, let me make it good.
Which of you two will honour me so near
As to prove the truth?" My cheeks in spite of me
Flamed in the dark, and I was seized with fear
And a wild doubt lest mine the choice should be.
The little woman on the chair began
To shout aloud and bid me play the man.
Oh, 'tis a terrible thing in early youth
To be assailed by laughter and mute shame,
A terrible thing to be befooled forsooth
By one's own foolish face betrayed in flame.
The little traitor, when she saw me dumb,
Went on to clap her hands, till all and each
Took up the jest and called on me to come
And prove my courage in the manly breach.
The imperious queen stood waiting for me there,
Pointing and beckoning, and the crowd closed in.
Under the cover of a wilder air
From the brass band, the darkness and the din,
I know not how it was, in fear or fun,
I touched that monster's knee, and all was done.
I touched that knee. She did not show surprise,
And the earth had not opened at our feet.
She did not even laugh. Her foolish eyes
Twinkled a moment in her cheeks, then set
Like fog-bound stars for ever from my sight.
And at a signal from the little woman,
Who clung to me still, a chorus left and right
Of laughter rose Homeric and inhuman,
Drowning all further sense in one wild roar.
I heard the spotted girl with leopard lips
Complain that she was hungry as before,
And all the world was merged in an eclipse,
Darkening the air around and overhead,
And then I broke away and turned and fled.
Alas, poor Queen of Beauty! In my heart
I could weep for you and your sad graceless doom.
You stand at my life's threshold in the part
Of king's chief jester in the ante-room,
And none more near the throne. You made us sport
According to your folly, and passed on,
And now you live with pension in Love's Court,
And privilege to jest and wear the crown.
Yes, I could weep for you. Your part it was
To strike the cymbals on a night sublime
For Love's first bridal dance. Alas, alas!
Time, the avenger of our manhood's prime,
Is gathering all life courtiers to his cell,
And you among the rest. So fare you well.
I fled the booth with feelings as of Cain,
Yet laughing at my own bewilderment.
My cheeks had blushed till it was physical pain,