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Alfred Noyes

(16 September 1880 – 25 June 1958 / Wolverhamton)

The Escape of the Old Grey Squirrel


Old Grey Squirrel might have been
Almost anything -
Might have been a soldier, sailor,
Tinker, tailor
(Never a beggar-man, though, nor thief).
Might have been, perhaps, a king,
Or an Indian chief.

He remained a City clerk
Doubled on a great high stool,
Totting up, from dawn to dark,
Figures, figures, figures, figures,
Red ink, black ink, double rule,
Tot-tot-totting with his pen,
Up and down and round again -
Curious Old Grey Squirrel.

No one ever really knew
What he did at night,
In his room so near the roof,
Up those steep and narrow stairs.
Old Grey Squirrel wasn't quite
The same as other men.
What he said was always true;
He was like a little child
In a thousand things.
Something shy and delicate,
Cold and grave and undefiled,
Seemed to keep him quite aloof.
You could never call him lonely,
Though he lived with memory there.

When he knelt beside his bed
He had nothing much to say
But the simplest little prayer
Learned in childhood, long ago,
And he didn't know or care
Whether Calvinists might call it
Praying for the dead.

Father, mother, sister, brother -
Memories clear as evening bells;
Yes, the very sort of thing
All your clever little scribblers
Love to satirize and sting,
So let's talk of something else.
He collected stamps, you know,
Commonplace Old Squirrel.

Ah, but could you see him there,
When the day's grey work was done,
Poring over his new stamps
With that wise old air;
Looking up the curious places
In his tattered atlas, too
Lands of jungle and of sun,
Ivory tusks and dusky faces,
Whence his latest treasure flew
Like a tropic moth, he thought,
To flutter round his dying lamp. . . .

Visions are not bought and sold;
But, when the foreign mail came in
Bringing his employers news
Of copper, sulphide, zinc and tin
(And the red resultant gold),
Envelopes were thrown away,
So, of course, one clearly sees
He could pick, and he could choose,
Having, as he used to say,
'Very great advantages.'
Rarities could not be bought.
Bus fares don't leave much for spending
On a flight to Zipangu.

All the same, one never knew.
All things come to those who wait -
Isles of palm in rose and blue,
India, China and Peru,
And the Golden Gate.

So he'd turn his treasures over -
Mauve and crimson, buff and cream -
Every stamp an elfin window
Opening on a boy's lost dream.
'Curious, curious, that's Jamaica,
That's Hong Kong (the twopenny red),
I've no doubt they are well worth seeing,
Well worth seeing,' Old Squirrel said.

'Curious' - curious was his word -
Old Grey Squirrel remembered a day
Sitting alone in a whispering fir-wood
(This was in boyhood before they caught him)
Writing a story of far Cathay,
A tale that his friends would think absurd
But would make him famous when he was dead.
'Curious' - thinking of all those years,
All those dreams that had drifted away -
Once, he had thought - but the years had taught him,
Taught him better, and bowed his head.

'Curious' - memory clings and lingers -
Clings - the smell of the fir wood - clings . . .
Through his wrinkled ink-stained fingers,
'Curious, curious,' trickled the tears,
Curious Old Grey Squirrel.

No, you'd hardly call it weeping.
Old Grey Squirrel could not weep.
Head on arm, he might have been
Sleeping; but he did not know.
Most of us are sound asleep;
And, that Christmas Eve, it seems,
He awoke, at last, from dreams.
Gently, as a woman's hand
Something touched him on the brow,
And he woke, in that strange land -
Where he lives for ever now.

All things come to those who wait -
Palms against a deeper blue,
Far Cathay and Zipangu,
And the Golden Gate.

Submitted: Tuesday, April 06, 2010

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