Last Songs from Vagabondia

by Bliss Carman and Richard Hovey


 

THE MAN WITH THE TORTOISE

TO W.M.F.


 

SUCH curious things the mind bids stay,
Of the thousand and one that pass it by!
The morning we walked through Paris in May,
If you remember as well as I,

There happened—a nothing—an incident—

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One of those trifles that flit half seen,
Save where the spirit sits intent,
Furtive and shy at her window screen.

The servants’ gossip of eye and ear
May surge and hum at her door in spring

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Of the pageant of beauty drawing near,
But she—she is watching a stranger thing!

The myriad rabble of fact and form
May gleam till the senses dance with glee;
But calm, unmoved as the very norm

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And centre of being, muses she;

Indifferent to loveliness, line or hue,
Till a chance bird-wing or a slant sun-ray
May fall as prompt as an actor’s cue,
And there is her part. So it was that day.

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We had turned from your door in the rue Vignon,
The third on the left from the Madelaine. . . .
Forget it? There’s no forgetting when one
Is come at length to his Castle in Spain.

For you were the friend I had loved of old,

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And pictured so often in Paris here,
And promised myself some day to hold
Unaltered and safe and sound, no fear.

For our mistress Nature is great and wise,
And the love of her is eternity;

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But there comes a day when a man must rise
And go where the heart in him longs to be.

So the sea was crossed, and the hour was come;
It was hand on shoulder with us once more.
There was speech enough though the lips were dumb,

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When I stood at last at your modest door.

Your breakfast of capon and Burgundy,
Our talk of Harvard and Norton’s fame,
And your friend the Druse, with cigars laid by—
Your gift from the Baroness What’s-her-name.

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Then into the street of the Capucines
In the blaze of the Paris sun we strolled;
Once more at touch of your blithe light mien
I knew how a springflower breaks the mould.

Through the gay May weather when life was good,

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Idly we sauntered from block to block,
Till round a corner appeared, and stood,
A fellow in workman’s cap and smock,

Basket on arm and whistling low
To something held in the rough right hand.

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A tortoise! Yes, and the creature, so,
Grown tame at the music’s soft command.

Emboldened to peep from the safe snug shell,
Had pushed up its head to the whistler’s face,
The least of wild things under the spell

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Of the last and humblest of Orpheus’ race.

A fragment from some Greek Idyllist,
The plain good look of the bolder text,
Preserving for us the colour and gist
Of a simple age and a life unvexed.

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Did the beast recall how the syrinx blew
When his father Pan first notched a reed?
Was it some familiar note he knew
In the workman’s whistle that made him heed?

Did there wake remembrance dim and large

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Of the drench and glamour, the mist and gleam,
Of a morning once by the shining marge
And murmurous run of a Dorian stream?

Or was it only the reedy plash
Of a Norman river, sunny and small,

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Where a sound of wind in the scarlet ash,
Blown high, blown low, once held him thrall?

Was there nought but the sweet luxurious thrill
Of the senses, strung to rhythm and time?
No shadow of soul, to remember and fill

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The shell that day with a joy sublime?

So still, as for very life he feared
To lose one note of the wild sweet strain.
Ah, mortal, blow till thy breath has cleared
Ages of dust from a haunted brain!

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And often I think, as the days go by,
Of our whistling man and the small mute friend
He had charmed. And a scrap of legendry
Has always given the thought a trend.

An Indian myth (you will pardon its worth!)

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Says a tortoise, firm in his arching shell,
Upbears the creature that bears the earth;
But what holds the tortoise none can tell.

The tortoise, I venture, may symbolise
The husk of being, the outward world,

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The substance of beauty, each form and guise
Where the lurking mind is ensheathed, encurled.

And suppose at the lip of the shell there stood
A mortal bent on the strange and new,
Trying each cadence wild and rude,

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Till the magic melody he blew!

What glimpse to that cunning dweller in clay
Might not the old tortoise Earth afford
Of her very self, some morning in May,
Emerged for once to the perfect chord!

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