A Conversation by James Vila Blake



Amid a throng of merry people
An aged dame sat quietly,
Alone, looking, not looked upon,
Glad in their festival, and drinking
Her sober glass spiced with their glee.
I, seeing not the royalty
Which God hath crowned when he leads age
Into the court of company,
Passed by that gentle majesty,
To youth and beauty. But soon chided,
I saw her eye whose eye I sought,
And heard her voice whose voice I loved,
Turn toward the dame with reverence.
"Go there! Pay court where it is due,"
She said, "and not to me. There sits 
Station august; go talk to her."

Gently admonished, I drew near
That meek sublimity, and spoke:—
"Lady," said I, "by right divine
Queen of this noisy throng, may I
Pay homage due from youth, and hear
Thy wisdom?" "Nay," she said, "the body
Of stiffening age shall drink with thanks

The new wine of thy youth." "Nay, nay,"

I answered, " thou wilt give to me

Stored wealth." "No," said she, "I will draw

From thee life to enjoy my wealth."

"Why, then," I said, " I will stay here

Not as a suitor, for himself

Seeking advantage, paying homage

To a mere ruler; but at home

In thy mild realm, giving free service."

Then, knowing her lone life, I asked,
"Where is thy charge and whilom playmate,
That winsome child whom I have seen
Alternate following thee and followed?
I have not met his smile of late.
Often I saw him at the school
Where thou wast waiting, serving him
With holy deference of knowledge
To tender ignorance; and often
I saw thee guiding him to church,
As if in his sweet company
To draw near heaven—'tis made of such.
By thee, within the holy walls,
He sat, or on thy lap slept childlike;
For preachers yet preach not to children.
And at thy house his games have filled
My ears with innocence; I marked him
Float in swift curves well-nigh the ceiling
In his light swing, and laugh, not fearing;
Thy daughter's child. Where is he now?"

Smiling, she answered me, the heart
Meanwhile, still young, so strongly sending
Through stiffening cords its tide, they trembled,
And the voice shook:

"Thou wilt remember,
Hardly twelve months ago the child's
Dear mother-flesh, cast by the spirit,
Was borne from church to mingle with
The earth that fed it. And the father
Was twice bereaved, since I the child kept
In whom they, being two, grew one.
But soon the father took the child,
To keep in sight that rare alloy
Wherein he and the mother mingled
Defy the analysis of death."

"And so," I said, "he took the boy—
'Twas natural—and left thee lone.
Dost find the day too sad, too long,
Now that no child's small troubles call thee
To help or heal? Belike time weighs
Upon thy heart too heavily."

"Not so," she said, " for I find duties
To make day busy and night sleepy;
And time I wield like a gold sceptre
By which I keep my realm in order.
I have a son, a manly lad,
Who early goes to work each morn.

He comes not home the live-long day,
But night brings him again, a star
That rises on me in all weathers.
Right early, and, in winter months,
Long before light, I must rise up
To set his breakfast,—pleasant work!
'Tis sweet to see him eat my food
With the keen zest of health and toil!
Soon he is gone, the table cleared,
The stove left comely, shining ranks
Of glass and metal on the shelf
Disposed, utensils bright and useful.
Then leisure comes, filled with new pleasures.
Another lad, a traveler,
I have, who visits all the climes
Of this vast land, from sea to sea,
And with his own eyes looks on nature,
Not taking tales from other men.
Up towering mountain peaks he goes,
And down in dark mines, over plains,
On inland seas. He treads wild forests,
Sleeps on the moss and drinks from brooks.
In his canoe, mid fertile fields,
He goes up rivers to their springs,
Or floats in canyons where a torrent
Hurled from a height has hewn a course
From flinty rock, for ages cutting,
Till the cleft stone precipitous
Towers up a mile above the bed.
He sees strange creatures, men more strange.

Cities magnificent he visits,
Where laws are made and streams of trade
Together rush, a roaring maelstrom.
And from his journeys I have letters,
And boxes of strange things he sends me,
And books of notes and strange adventure,
Thick tomes in which I read untiring.
He says the monstrous sea-board city,
Begirt with floods both salt and fresh,
The ocean and the watery hills
Embracing it like rival lovers,
Is a great continent itself,
Where all the peoples of the earth
Are gathered and all tongues are spoken.

Then comes my hour of exercise.
Tracking in thought my traveler's feet
Beguiles me not of my own walk
Which health requires, of mind and body.
And I wot well that I go forth In paths familiar girt with wonders
As great as those my traveler sees.
Under the sky I walk with awe;
Sunbeams broidered with shadows deck me;
The birds and far halloos of children,
Voices of men and tread of feet,
The cries of beasts, and watery hush
Of dew-tipped leaves, I hear, rejoicing;
And my heart sings and offers thanks
In summer's leafy tabernacles

Or gothic frames of trees in winter.
Kind greetings meet me—privilege
Of age long living in one place.
I visit marts of garden products,
For rosy fruit to deck the meal
At evening of my dear good lad;
For he from work comes hungry home.
I purchase webs of snowy cloth
To make him clothes or deck his bed.
Belike I buy some silk or linen
Against the Sunday, when afresh
And sprucely he shall dress, and rest.
These errands done of love or pleasure,
Homeward I turn; but pause, reluctant,
Lingering to breathe again my joy
For all the sweet day's blessedness.

Then do I eat, with thanks, at mid-day,
Frugal and lone, my slight repast.
Then up and down my house I go,
Setting it all in comely order,
Renewing the night-ravaged rooms.
The well aired beds are made, and downy
Pillows up-piled, like drifts of snow.
Fresh water sparkles in the ewers,
Fresh towels drape the rack, and air
Is fresh and crisp in every cranny.
The broom, a tool invincible,
Renews the floor. A pure aroma
Of cleanliness pervades the place.

This odor of fresh garniture,
Also a sweet fatigue, awhile
Lull me to sleep. And so my days pass."

The dame ceased, but I answered not,
Thinking how simple was this life,
How fresh and sweet, how tranquil, simple:
Like to the house that held it, daily
Renewed. I thought how well they do,
What gentle ministers are they,
Who, knowing naught of Nature's secret
Save to adore it, naught of learning,
Yet fill our days with wholesomeness,
Our nights with uninfected sleep,
And purify our lives and dwellings,
Washed, weeded, winnowed, ventilated.
O homely arts of unstained thrift,
Instincts of souls immaculate
Which, from their own unsullied stream,
Our bodies' dwelling clarify,
Let none despise you, lowly sources
Of sweetness, privacy and health!
And ye that practice these, unfailing,
In lowliness of place or duty,
Naught knowing but your simple lot,
Or suffering pangs of higher dreams,—
Ye shall be blest, in heaven rewarded,
Where spotless usefulness is crowned.

Then, with new reverence: "Surely," said I,
"Thy life is lonely since the child 
Went to his father; art not lonely?"

"Lonely?" she said; "Can one be lonely 
In the audience-room of life? 
I open My window wide and life engulfs me, 
Befriends me with companionship 
And consolation. But lest this 
Seem too remote to satisfy 
The heart that languishes alone, 
Know that I cherish in my house 
Two kinds of living things. My plants 
I tend with love. I wash their leaves, 
And prune them to grow not ungainly; 
And with the soil mix food and drink, 
That they get not athirst nor languish. 
I know their names and characters. 
Their constancy is beautiful,— 
Always the same to those that guard them. 
Blooming, their colors seem rays broken 
From aether, sunsets, clouds and stars. 
Their scent is air from Paradise, 
Sealed in the bud, freed when it opens. 
Also I have my birds, now five, 
But lately six; for yesterday 
I sold one, grieve, and wish I had not. 
They pick the shell within the cage, 
And blithe they are, content and happy, 
Knowing no other life; ay, sooth, 
Favored; for birds toil hard to live,
 Hunting their food; and many a robin
In sight of a canary's cage
Has starved to death, hearing his song.
At early morn I give them food
And drink, the while I talk to them.
Then I provide them brimming bowls
In which they bathe them merrily,
And smooth their plumage with pink bills,
Nodding their saucy heads with pleasure.
I hang their cages, cleansed, in sunbeams,
Shaded if fervent. Then their songs
They pour, throats full and beaks upraised,
In answering strains, or all together—
Sweet music of a tropic isle
Caught from the clang of shells and pebbles
On coasts where breaking waves roll back;
But known to me; I know their notes,
And hail them like familiar words.
These are my company before
My lad comes home. I am not lonely."

"But is not work," I asked, " unaided, 
A burden?"

"Surely not," she answered. 
"But one thing at a time I do, 
And all things slowly. No, I tire not. 
I have full strength. My heart is songful, 
Although my withered voice sings not. 
My share of sorrow I have had,
Loss, pain, and unrequited toil;
But all is past, and where the flame burned
Spring up our Lord's new shoots of goodness."

A duty called. I made my reverence. 
The venerable lady answered, 
"Thanks, sir, for sitting down beside me; 
You have conferred a pleasure on me." 
Amazed, humbled, I turned away, 
Glad to hide shame, shame sore yet welcome. 
Could this be royal? this mien lowly, 
The royal sovereignty of age? 
Ay! throned! The last shall be the first, 
And giddy throngs of those now first 
Must be the last, with gentleness, 
Before they shall be crowned.

Thanked ?— For what I had not grace myself 
To purpose, blinded to God's glory? 
O let me not walk in his splendors, 
Splendors of innocence in babes, 
Of joy, woe, pathos, in mid-life, 
And of the majesty of age— 
Blind, senseless, like a clod or stone, 
Or with my eyes prone earthward, brute-like, 
Peering for prey to feed ambition. 
But let me know the things God makes, 
And worship what he sets on high. 
O let me feel the pang, the woe,
 The shame, that any other knows;
And know the praise, the honor, glory,
Of lowly hearts living beside me.
Blest be thou, venerable dame!
Thy house is heaven's ante-chamber,
With voices filled from inner halls,
Sweet converse to invite thy heart;
Till thou lay down thy simple life,
And give thy soul to God with peace. 
From Poems By James Vila Blake