The Man Against The Sky


Edwin Arlington Robinson

Between me and the sunset, like a dome

Against the glory of a world on fire,

Now burned a sudden hill,

Bleak, round, and high, by flame-lit height made higher,

With nothing on it for the flame to kill

Save one who moved and was alone up there

To loom before the chaos and the glare

As if he were the last god going home

Unto his last desire.

Dark, marvelous, and inscrutable he moved on

Till down the fiery distance he was gone,--

Like one of those eternal, remote things

That range across a man's imaginings

When a sure music fills him and he knows

What he may say thereafter to few men,--

The touch of ages having wrought

An echo and a glimpse of what he thought

A phantom or a legend until then;

For whether lighted over ways that save,

Or lured from all repose,

If he go on too far to find a grave,

Mostly alone he goes.

Even he, who stood where I had found him,

On high with fire all around him,--

Who moved along the molten west,

And over the round hill's crest

That seemed half ready with him to go down,

Flame-bitten and flame-cleft,--

As if there were to be no last thing left

Of a nameless unimaginable town,--

Even he who climbed and vanished may have taken

Down to the perils of a depth not known,

From death defended though by men forsaken,

The bread that every man must eat alone;

He may have walked while others hardly dared

Look on to see him stand where many fell;

And upward out of that, as out of hell,

He may have sung and striven

To mount where more of him shall yet be given,

Bereft of all retreat,

To sevenfold heat,--

As on a day when three in Dura shared

The furnace, and were spared

For glory by that king of Babylon

Who made himself so great that God, who heard,

Covered him with long feathers, like a bird.

Again, he may have gone down easily,

By comfortable altitudes, and found,

As always, underneath him solid ground

Whereon to be sufficient and to stand

Possessed already of the promised land,

Far stretched and fair to see:

A good sight, verily,

And one to make the eyes of her who bore him

Shine glad with hidden tears.

Why question of his ease of who before him,

In one place or another where they left

Their names as far behind them as their bones,

And yet by dint of slaughter, toil, and theft,

And shrewdly sharpened stones,

Carved hard the way for his ascendancy

Through deserts of lost years?

Why trouble him now who sees and hears

No more than what his innocence requires,

And therefore to no other height aspires

Than one at which he neither quails nor tires?

He may do more by seeing what he sees

Than others eager for iniquities;

He may, by seeing all things for the best,

Incite futurity to do the rest.

Or with an even likelihood,

He may have met with atrabilious eyes

The fires of time on equal terms and passed

Indifferently down, until at last

His only kind of grandeur would have been,

Apparently, in being seen.

He may have had for evil or for good

No argument; he may have had no care

For what without himself went anywhere

To failure or to glory, and least of all

For such a stale, flamboyant miracle;

He may have been the prophet of an art

Immovable to old idolatries;

He may have been a player without a part,

Annoyed that even the sun should have the skies

For such a flaming way to advertise;

He may have been a painter sick at heart

With Nature's toiling for a new surprise;

He may have been a cynic, who now, for all

Of anything divine that his effete

Negation may have tasted,

Saw truth in his own image, rather small,

Forebore to fever the ephemeral,

Found any barren height a good retreat

From any swarming street,

And in the sun saw power superbly wasted;

And when the primitive old-fashioned stars

Came out again to shine on joys and wars

More primitive, and all arrayed for doom,

He may have proved a world a sorry thing

In his imagining,

And life a lighted highway to the tomb.

Or, mounting with infirm unsearching tread,

His hopes to chaos led,

He may have stumbled up there from the past,

And with an aching strangeness viewed the last

Abysmal conflagration of his dreams,--

A flame where nothing seems

To burn but flame itself, by nothing fed;

And while it all went out,

Not even the faint anodyne of doubt

May then have eased a painful going down

From pictured heights of power and lost renown,

Revealed at length to his outlived endeavor

Remote and unapproachable forever;

And at his heart there may have gnawed

Sick memories of a dead faith foiled and flawed

And long dishonored by the living death

Assigned alike by chance

To brutes and hierophants;

And anguish fallen on those he loved around him

May once have dealt the last blow to confound him,

And so have left him as death leaves a child,

Who sees it all too near;

And he who knows no young way to forget

May struggle to the tomb unreconciled.

Whatever suns may rise or set

There may be nothing kinder for him here

Than shafts and agonies;

And under these

He may cry out and stay on horribly;

Or, seeing in death too small a thing to fear,

He may go forward like a stoic Roman

Where pangs and terrors in his pathway lie,--

Or, seizing the swift logic of a woman,

Curse God and die.

Or maybe there, like many another one

Who might have stood aloft and looked ahead,

Black-drawn against wild red,

He may have built, unawed by fiery gules

That in him no commotion stirred,

A living reason out of molecules

Why molecules occurred,

And one for smiling when he might have sighed

Had he seen far enough,

And in the same inevitable stuff

Discovered an odd reason too for pride

In being what he must have been by laws

Infrangible and for no kind of cause.

Deterred by no confusion or surprise

He may have seen with his mechanic eyes

A world without a meaning, and had room,

Alone amid magnificence and doom,

To build himself an airy monument

That should, or fail him in his vague intent,

Outlast an accidental universe--

To call it nothing worse--

Or by the burrowing guile

Of Time disintegrated and effaced,

Like once-remembered mighty trees go down

To ruin, of which by man may now be traced

No part sufficient even to be rotten,

And in the book of things that are forgotten

Is entered as a thing not quite worth while.

He may have been so great

That satraps would have shivered at his frown,

And all he prized alive may rule a state

No larger than a grave that holds a clown;

He may have been a master of his fate,

And of his atoms,--ready as another

In his emergence to exonerate

His father and his mother;

He may have been a captain of a host,

Self-eloquent and ripe for prodigies,

Doomed here to swell by dangerous degrees,

And then give up the ghost.

Nahum's great grasshoppers were such as these,

Sun-scattered and soon lost.

Whatever the dark road he may have taken,

This may who stood on high

And faced alone the sky,

Whatever drove or lured or guided him,--

A vision answering a trust unshaken,

An easy trust assumed of easy trials,

A sick negation born of weak denials,

A crazed abhorrence of an old condition,

A blind attendance on a brief ambition,--

Whatever stayed him or derided him,

His way was even as ours;

And we, with all our wounds and all our powers,

Must each await alone at his own height

Another darkness or another light;

And there, of our poor self dominion reft,

If inference and reason shun

Hell, Heaven, and Oblivion,

May thwarted will (perforce precarious,

But for our conservation better thus)

Have no misgiving left

Of doing yet what here we leave undone?

Or if unto the last of these we cleave,

Believing or protesting we believe

In such an idle and ephemeral

Florescence of the diabolical,--

If, robbed of two fond old enormities,

Our being had no onward auguries,

What then were this great love of ours to say

For launching other lives to voyage again

A little farther into time and pain,

A little faster in a futile chase

For a kingdom and a power and a Race

That would have still in sight

A manifest end of ashes and eternal night?

Is this the music of the toys we shake

So loud,--as if there might be no mistake

Somewhere in our indomitable will?

Are we no greater than the noise we make

Along one blind atomic pilgrimage

Whereon by crass chance billeted we go

Because our brains and bone and cartilage

Will have it so?

If this we say, then let us all be still

About our share in it, and live and die

More quietly thereby.

Where was he going, this man against the sky?

You know not, nor do I.

But this we know, if we know anything:

That we may laugh and fight and sing

And of our transience here make offering

To an orient Word that will not be erased,

Or, save in incommunicable gleams

Too permanent for dreams,

Be found or known.

No tonic and ambitious irritant

Of increase or of want

Has made an otherwise insensate waste

Of ages overthrown

A ruthless, veiled, implacable foretaste

Of other ages that are still to be

Depleted and rewarded variously

Because a few, by fate's economy,

Shall seem to move the world the way it goes;

No soft evangel of equality,

Safe cradled in a communal repose

That huddles into death and may at last

Be covered well with equatorial snows--

And all for what, the devil only knows--

Will aggregate an inkling to confirm

The credit of a sage or of a worm,

Or tell us why one man in five

Should have a care to stay alive

While in his heart he feels no violence

Laid on his humor and intelligence

When infant Science makes a pleasant face

And waves again that hollow toy, the Race;

No planetary trap where souls are wrought

For nothing but the sake of being caught

And sent again to nothing will attune

Itself to any key of any reason

Why man should hunger through another season

To find out why 'twere better late than soon

To go away and let the sun and moon

And all the silly stars illuminate

A place for creeping things,

And those that root and trumpet and have wings,

And herd and ruminate,

Or dive and flash and poise in rivers and seas,

Or by their loyal tails in lofty trees

Hang screeching lewd victorious derision

Of man's immortal vision.

Shall we, because Eternity records

Too vast an answer for the time-born words

We spell, whereof so many are dead that once

In our capricious lexicons

Were so alive and final, hear no more

The Word itself, the living word no man

Has ever spelt,

And few have ever felt

Without the fears and old surrenderings

And terrors that began

When Death let fall a feather from his wings

And humbled the first man?

Because the weight of our humility,

Wherefrom we gain

A little wisdom and much pain,

Falls here too sore and there too tedious,

Are we in anguish or complacency,

Not looking far enough ahead

To see by what mad couriers we are led

Along the roads of the ridiculous,

To pity ourselves and laugh at faith

And while we curse life bear it?

And if we see the soul's dead end in death,

Are we to fear it?

What folly is here that has not yet a name

Unless we say outright that we are liars?

What have we seen beyond our sunset fires

That lights again the way by which we came?

Why pay we such a price, and one we give

So clamoringly, for each racked empty day

That leads one more last human hope away,

As quiet fiends would lead past our crazed eyes

Our children to an unseen sacrifice?

If after all that we have lived and thought,

All comes to Nought,--

If there be nothing after Now,

And we be nothing anyhow,

And we know that,--why live?

'Twere sure but weaklings vain distress

To suffer dungeons where so many doors

Will open on the cold eternal shores

That look sheer down

To the dark tideless floods of Nothingness

Where all who know may drown.


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