Death’s Echo

“O who can ever gaze his fill,”
        Farmer and fisherman say,
“On native shore and local hill,
Grudge aching limb or callus on the hand?
Father, grandfather stood upon this land,
And here the pilgrims from our loins will stand.”
        So farmer and fisherman say
        In their fortunate hey-day:
        But Death’s low answer drifts across
        Empty catch or harvest loss
             Or an unlucky May:
The earth is an oyster with nothing inside it,
   Not to be born is the best for man;
The end of toil is a bailiff’s order,
   Throw down the mattock and dance while you can.
“O life’s too short for friends who share,”
        Travellers think in their hearts,
“The city’s common bed, the air,
The mountain bivouac and the bathing beach,
Where incidents draw every day from each
Memorable gesture and witty speech.”
        So travellers think in their hearts,
        Till malice or circumstance parts
        Them from their constant humour:
        And slyly Death’s coercive rumour
             In that moment starts:
A friend is the old old tale of Narcissus,
   Not to be born is the best for man;
An active partner in something disgraceful,
   Change your partner, dance while you can.
“O stretch your hands across the sea,”
        The impassioned lover cries,
“Stretch them towards your harm and me.
Our grass is green, and sensual our brief bed,
The stream sings at its foot, and at its head
The mild and vegetarian beasts are fed.”
        So the impassioned lover cries
        Till the storm of pleasure dies:
        From the bedpost and the rocks
        Death’s enticing echo mocks,
              And his voice replies:
The greater the love, the more false to its object,
   Not to be born is the best for man;
After the kiss comes the impulse to throttle,
   Break the embraces, dance while you can.
“I see the guilty world forgiven,”
        Dreamer and drunkard sing,
“The ladders let down out of heaven,
The laurel springing from the martyr’s blood,
The children skipping where the weeper stood,
The lovers natural and the beasts all good.”
        So dreamer and drunkard sing
        Till day their sobriety bring:
        Parrotwise with Death’s reply
        From whelping fear and nesting lie,
             Woods and their echoes ring:
The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews,
   Not to be born is the best for man;
The second-best is a formal order,
   The dance’s pattern; dance while you can.
Dance, dance, for the figure is easy,
   The tune is catching and will not stop;
Dance till the stars come down from the rafters;
   Dance, dance, dance till you drop.

September 1936


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