By William Dean Howells
(1837 - 1920)
SOMETIMES, when after spirited debate
Of letters or affairs, in thought I go
Smiling unto myself, and all aglow
With some immediate purpose, and elate
As if my little, trivial scheme were great,
And what I would so were already so:
Suddenly I think of her that died, and know,
Whatever friendly or unfriendly fate
Befall me in my hope or in my pride,
It is all nothing but a mockery,
And nothing can be what it used to be,
When I could bid my happy life abide,
And build on earth for perpetuity,
Then, in the deathless days before she died.
From Generation to Generation
INNOCENT spirits, bright, immaculate ghosts!
Why throng your heavenly hosts,
As eager for their birth
In this sad home of death, this sorrow-haunted earth?
Beware! Beware! Content you where you are,
And shun this evil star,
Where we who are doomed to die
Have our brief being, and pass, we know not where or why.
We have not to consent or to refuse;
It is not ours to choose:
We come because we must,
We know not by what law, if unjust or if just.
The doom is on us, as it is on you,
That nothing can undo;
And all in vain you warn:
As your fate is to die, our fate is to be born.
WE sailed and sailed upon the desert sea
Where for whole days we alone seemed to be.
At last we saw a dim, vague line arise
Between the empty billows and the skies,
That grew and grew until it wore the shape
Of cove and inlet, promontory and cape;
Then hills and valleys, rivers, fields, and woods,
Steeples and roofs, and village neighborhoods.
And then I thought, “Sometime I shall embark
Upon a sea more desert and more dark
Than ever this was, and between the skies
And empty billows I shall see arise
Another world out of that waste and lapse,
Like yonder land. Perhaps—perhaps—perhaps!”
YES, death is at the bottom of the cup,
And every one that lives must drink it up;
And yet between the sparkle at the top
And the black lees where lurks that bitter drop,
There swims enough good liquor, Heaven knows,
To ease our hearts of all their other woes.
The bubbles rise in sunshine at the brim;
That drop below is very far and dim;
The quick fumes spread, and shape us such bright dreams
That in the glad delirium it seems
As though by some deft sleight, if so we willed,
That drop untasted might be somehow spilled.
In Earliest Spring
TOSSING his mane of snows in wildest eddies and tangles,
  Lion-like, March cometh in, hoarse, with tempestuous breath,
Through all the moaning chimneys, and thwart all the hollows and angles
  Round the shuddering house, threating of winter and death.
But in my heart I feel the life of the wood and the meadow
  Thrilling the pulses that own kindred with fibres that lift
Bud and blade to the sunward, within the inscrutable shadow,
  Deep in the oak’s chill core, under the gathering drift.
Nay, to earth’s life in mine some prescience, or dream, or desire
  (How shall I name it aright?) comes for a moment and goes,—
Rapture of life ineffable, perfect—as if in the brier,
  Leafless there by my door, trembled a sense of the rose.
Judgment Day
BEFORE Him weltered like a shoreless sea
The souls of them that had not sought to be,
With all their guilt upon them, and they cried,
They that had sinned from hate and lust and pride,
“Thou that didst make us what we might become,
Judge us!” The Judge of all the earth was dumb;
But high above them, in His sovereign place,
He lifted up the pity of His face.
The Two Wives
THE COLONEL rode by his picket-line
  In the pleasant morning sun,
That glanced from him far off to shine
  On the crouching rebel picket’s gun.
From his command the captain strode
  Out with a grave salute,
And talked with the colonel as he rode:—
  The picket levelled his piece to shoot.
The colonel rode and the captain walked,—
  The arm of the picket tired;
Their faces almost touched as they talked,
  And, swerved from his aim, the picket fired.
The captain fell at the horse’s feet,
  Wounded and hurt to death,
Calling upon a name that was sweet
  As God is good, with his dying breath.
And the colonel that leaped from his horse and knelt
  To close the eyes so dim,
A high remorse for God’s mercy felt,
  Knowing the shot was meant for him.
And he whispered, prayer-like, under his breath,
  The name of his own young wife:
For Love, that had made his friend’s peace with Death,
  Alone could make his with life.
WITHIN a poor man’s squalid home I stood:
The one bare chamber, where his work-worn wife
Above the stove and wash-tub passed her life,
Next the sty where they slept with all their brood.
But I saw not that sunless, breathless lair,
The chamber’s sagging roof and reeking floor;
The smeared walls, broken sash, and battered door;
The foulness and forlornness everywhere.
I saw a great house with the portals wide
Upon a banquet room, and, from without,
The guests descending in a brilliant line
By the stair’s statued niches, and beside
The loveliest of the gemmed and silken rout
The poor man’s landlord leading down to dine.
What Shall It Profit?
IF I lay waste and wither up with doubt
The blessed fields of heaven where once my faith
Possessed itself serenely safe from death;
If I deny the things past finding out;
Or if I orphan my own soul of One
That seemed a Father, and make void the place
Within me where He dwelt in power and grace,
What do I gain by that I have undone?