The Man Against the Sky by 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 round 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 ascendency 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, Forbore 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 man who stood on high And faced alone the sky, Whatever drove or lured or guided him,— A vision answering a faith 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 bones 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 That none alive has ever heard Or 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.