As swift the rider o’er Lake Constance flew
His horse, snow-scattering. Dusk followed day.
His shadow, dark-blue giant, greyed away.
Even its final violet. Night grew.
The plain, has it no end? He tries in vain
to see where snow and lake-horizon blur.
Thank God! A distant lamp that twinkling stirs:
the far side must be reached – The ferry’s gained.
The ferryman, shocked, speaks. And he hears straight
Away, but hears another sound: the smash
and pound on ice of thundering hooves that crash,
each leap a mighty clock’s stroke on the gate
made by impatient death: he taunts, provokes.
He comes – The door splits wide – A cord that chokes –
And of that man, who on the bank slid down,
dead, dead, by the ice– the ferryman still spoke –
in throttled throat a futile scream that choked,
in dying ear the tolling hoof-clack’s sound,
thinks often, who aged slowly in great pain:
reviewing life, he can’t see why the taut-
stretched surface of frail, sorrow-battered thought,
had not just split and left him quite insane.
He listens, helpless: distant memories
murmur of Then, and Then. As if his I
were dizzied, gripped by fear of what might lie
in deep recesses of his soul’s abyss.
He listens; with uncertain hand he strokes
his anxious forehead. And he sits; and looks.
He sees his life, an endless desert scene.
and thinks of picture books of childhood years:
the sand’s bright yellow, all’s quite empty here,
though tiny background triangles are seen;
they’re pyramids is soon his proud conclusion –
Would he not in oblivion’s cooling shade
his weariness now happily have laid,
no longer baited by remote illusion.
He thinks: That was me then; and now I’m grey.
And in my father’s garden had my own
small plot of cress and radishes in May,
and violets, deep purple, and some brown;
those I liked best. And yellow. – And one hand
rubs from the other a dry feel of sand.
And as the twilight slowly fell he lay
in the grass, gazing at the evening sky;
the garden an abyss, walls mountain-high,
black with ivy and cobwebs’ drab array;
it seemed a well in which the light of day
floated on darkness, full of wraithlike shapes;
from next-door neighbours stray sounds that escaped
plonked into it like stones: a laugh, – a name.
He saw the swallows as black flitting specks
beneath the evening clouds now yellow-flecked;
later, against the blue, though, they were missed.
And the thin twitter of their veering cheeping
that seemed to make the lofty silence deepen,
fell as fine drizzle into his abyss.
The yellow clouds turned very slowly red.
He thought then: Now the sunset has begun;
and looked back at the swallows who had sun
for such a long while yet. And often dread
ran through him: mother will be dead one day,
what then? – Once he recalled he’d felt quite near
a bat’s low rustling, then a stab of fear,
when it loomed up close to him, huge and grey.
He noticed then how deep the dark was stowed
in his abyss and slowly overflowed,
and waves of darkness all around were milling;
then, suddenly, he saw a twinkling blue
right by the sloping roof he could just view,
that lovely star, bright as a brand-new shilling.
The clouds turned grey. And up above now was
no swallow visible. Chilly the ground.
Night moths, white for the most part, whirled around.
Small beetles rustled in the dewy grass.
And like a marble of fine, pale-blue glass
a lion or dog of silver at its core,
so, on the sloping roof, poised that large star,
though without falling off; a moment past
it had been standing closer to, he thought.
At times the old pear tree’s blackened leaves were caught
by the evening wind. At times this quivering mingled
with flutterings against the path’s fine shingle.
Could that be such a bat? – It grew quite chill –
A window somewhere closed – Then all was still.
Time to go in. Just one last final stare.
The star had slid a little further off. –
A shame such creatures could often just drop
down on you. ‘Always creeping in your hair,’
said auntie, and the danger was quite real:
she knew – ‘What was her name? Long since, that day’ –
of a young girl whose plait was cut away
because a bat was trapped there; makes you squeal.
Though from a distance they looked nice for sure:
he saw them zigzag in their jagged flight,
and then behind each other, three or four,
in comic haste teetering through the sky;
you heard their rasping, chittering inflection
when round the house they fell out of direction.
What will life be like later? he then thought.
When you’re grown up, what then? – And he straightway
recalled a poem from The Break of Day
in which it stated everything Christ taught
was ‘balm and physic for the pain of life
and all the afflictions that its root do blight’;
and then: ‘My yoke is mild, my burden light’;
and: ‘Heavenly bliss transcends all earthly strife.’
Grandma had read aloud, and then she’d said:
You couldn’t help but feel it was all true.
And though he’d not yet grasped what she had read,
the gist was: life was nasty through and through.
Would he, when grown up, out of misery
also wish to be dead? That could not be.
It grew quite cold: his clothes felt damp with dew.
So slowly things had gone, it seemed still light;
though deep the twilight, it was not yet night.
He went inside, for supper now was due.
On entering still shivering the room,
he felt secure – a stranger though, he sensed;
the plate’s rim gleamed, a disc of white against
the yellow gaslight, with its hissing plume.
Now, vaguely listening, talking, he first saw
how dark, how blue-black it had grown outdoors;
it seemed as if he’d come back from afar;
he ate his sandwich, gave a goodnight kiss,
and went up, full of yellow clouds’ pure bliss,
of dusk, of future, and of evening star;
folded his clothes in a devout routine:
for they had cost much toil; and then he knelt,
prayed to the Lord for his parents, and felt
the sleeping-suit lie cool on his warm skin.
And, dreaming now, past black-green ivy saw
swallow and bat flit swiftly to and fro,
and on a chimney top watched from below
the anxious teetering of a silver taw. –
And suddenly he knows, all this was him. –
It’s like yesterday. – And recalls the grim
tale of a man turned grey at one quick throw. –
And suddenly he knows all: God! – he sees
his life is but an endless misery.
And strikes the table with one mighty blow.