Conrad Potter Aiken (5 August 1889 – 17 August 1973 / Savannah, Georgia)
The House Of Dust: Part 03: 10: Letter
From time to time, lifting his eyes, he sees
The soft blue starlight through the one small window,
The moon above black trees, and clouds, and Venus,—
And turns to write . . . The clock, behind ticks softly.
It is so long, indeed, since I have written,—
Two years, almost, your last is turning yellow,—
That these first words I write seem cold and strange.
Are you the man I knew, or have you altered?
Altered, of course—just as I too have altered—
And whether towards each other, or more apart,
We cannot say . . . I've just re-read your letter—
Not through forgetfulness, but more for pleasure—
Pondering much on all you say in it
Of mystic consciousness—divine conversion—
The sense of oneness with the infinite,—
Faith in the world, its beauty, and its purpose . . .
Well, you believe one must have faith, in some sort,
If one's to talk through this dark world contented.
But is the world so dark? Or is it rather
Our own brute minds,—in which we hurry, trembling,
Through streets as yet unlighted? This, I think.
You have been always, let me say, "romantic,"—
Eager for color, for beauty, soon discontented
With a world of dust and stones and flesh too ailing:
Even before the question grew to problem
And drove you bickering into metaphysics,
You met on lower planes the same great dragon,
Seeking release, some fleeting satisfaction,
In strange aesthetics . . . You tried, as I remember,
One after one, strange cults, and some, too, morbid,
The cruder first, more violent sensations,
Gorgeously carnal things, conceived and acted
With splendid animal thirst . . . Then, by degrees,—
Savoring all more delicate gradations
In all that hue and tone may play on flesh,
Or thought on brain,—you passed, if I may say so,
From red and scarlet through morbid greens to mauve.
Let us regard ourselves, you used to say,
As instruments of music, whereon our lives
Will play as we desire: and let us yield
These subtle bodies and subtler brains and nerves
To all experience plays . . . And so you went
From subtle tune to subtler, each heard once,
Twice or thrice at the most, tiring of each;
And closing one by one your doors, drew in
Slowly, through darkening labyrinths of feeling,
Towards the central chamber . . . Which now you've reached.
What, then's, the secret of this ultimate chamber—
Or innermost, rather? If I see it clearly
It is the last, and cunningest, resort
Of one who has found this world of dust and flesh,—
This world of lamentations, death, injustice,
Sickness, humiliation, slow defeat,
Bareness, and ugliness, and iteration,—
Too meaningless; or, if it has a meaning,
Too tiresomely insistent on one meaning:
Futility . . . This world, I hear you saying,—
With lifted chin, and arm in outflung gesture,
Coldly imperious,—this transient world,
What has it then to give, if not containing
Deep hints of nobler worlds? We know its beauties,—
Momentary and trivial for the most part,
Perceived through flesh, passing like flesh away,—
And know how much outweighed they are by darkness.
We are like searchers in a house of darkness,
A house of dust; we creep with little lanterns,
Throwing our tremulous arcs of light at random,
Now here, now there, seeing a plane, an angle,
An edge, a curve, a wall, a broken stairway
Leading to who knows what; but never seeing
The whole at once . . . We grope our way a little,
And then grow tired. No matter what we touch,
Dust is the answer—dust: dust everywhere.
If this were all—what were the use, you ask?
But this is not: for why should we be seeking,
Why should we bring this need to seek for beauty,
To lift our minds, if there were only dust?
This is the central chamber you have come to:
Turning your back to the world, until you came
To this deep room, and looked through rose-stained windows,
And saw the hues of the world so sweetly changed.
Well, in a measure, so only do we all.
I am not sure that you can be refuted.
At the very last we all put faith in something,—
You in this ghost that animates your world,
This ethical ghost,—and I, you'll say, in reason,—
Or sensuous beauty,—or in my secret self . . .
Though as for that you put your faith in these,
As much as I do—and then, forsaking reason,—
Ascending, you would say, to intuition,—
You predicate this ghost of yours, as well.
Of course, you might have argued,—and you should have,—
That no such deep appearance of design
Could shape our world without entailing purpose:
For can design exist without a purpose?
Without conceiving mind? . . . We are like children
Who find, upon the sands, beside a sea,
Strange patterns drawn,—circles, arcs, ellipses,
Moulded in sand . . . Who put them there, we wonder?
Did someone draw them here before we came?
Or was it just the sea?—We pore upon them,
But find no answer—only suppositions.
And if these perfect shapes are evidence
Of immanent mind, it is but circumstantial:
We never come upon him at his work,
He never troubles us. He stands aloof—
Well, if he stands at all: is not concerned
With what we are or do. You, if you like,
May think he broods upon us, loves us, hates us,
Conceives some purpose of us. In so doing
You see, without much reason, will in law.
I am content to say, 'this world is ordered,
Happily so for us, by accident:
We go our ways untroubled save by laws
Of natural things.' Who makes the more assumption?
If we were wise—which God knows we are not—
(Notice I call on God!) we'd plumb this riddle
Not in the world we see, but in ourselves.
These brains of ours—these delicate spinal clusters—
Have limits: why not learn them, learn their cravings?
Which of the two minds, yours or mine, is sound?
Yours, which scorned the world that gave it freedom,
Until you managed to see that world as omen,—
Or mine, which likes the world, takes all for granted,
Sorrow as much as joy, and death as life?—
You lean on dreams, and take more credit for it.
I stand alone . . . Well, I take credit, too.
You find your pleasure in being at one with all things—
Fusing in lambent dream, rising and falling
As all things rise and fall . . . I do that too—
With reservations. I find more varied pleasure
In understanding: and so find beauty even
In this strange dream of yours you call the truth.
Well, I have bored you. And it's growing late.
For household news—what have you heard, I wonder?
You must have heard that Paul was dead, by this time—
Of spinal cancer. Nothing could be done—
We found it out too late. His death has changed me,
Deflected much of me that lived as he lived,
Saddened me, slowed me down. Such things will happen,
Life is composed of them; and it seems wisdom
To see them clearly, meditate upon them,
And understand what things flow out of them.
Otherwise, all goes on here much as always.
Why won't you come and see us, in the spring,
And bring old times with you?—If you could see me
Sitting here by the window, watching Venus
Go down behind my neighbor's poplar branches,—
Just where you used to sit,—I'm sure you'd come.
This year, they say, the springtime will be early.
Comments about this poem (The House Of Dust: Part 03: 10: Letter by Conrad Potter Aiken )
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