Past And Future - Poem by John Kenyon
Our Past—how strangely swift! Its years—mere months!
Months—clipped to weeks! and longest day—an hour!
But oh! how slow the Future; slow to all
Of every age and being. Yon school-urchin,
Fresh from his Christmas-home, as now he bends him
With saddened brow o'er the black greasy slate;
Or strains himself, at stroke of early clock,
His all-unwelcome bedtime, to confront
Cold touch of wiry sheet, ah! not like home's;
How vainly would he pierce the dim half year
To his next holidays; and asks himself,
'And will they—will they—can they ever come?'
Youth too, who sighs for the proud masterdom
Of one and twenty; his great holiday;
When he may satisfy intense desire
With horn and hound and golden racing-cup;
Maturer toys! Or he, young too, who wends him
From Eastern warfare, on some gallant ship,
Home to his bride affianced, whom he hath loved
From their late school-hood; tho' the willing prow
Cut cheerily on; and the still-steady breeze
Stiffen each sail; and that long lively wake
May tell to all but him how fast she goes;
He too (and each in turn) exclaims 'How slow!'
Yea, Middle-Age not less, tho' oft he hath proved
How Time, the crawling tortoise, as he deemed,
Hath, all that while, been Time, the fleet of foot;
Who—having won the Future all too soon—
With sudden turning, as of wheel reversed—
Unwinds that Future back into the Past;
Spite of experience, he too holds the Coming
A long, long tract; blank space interminable,
On which to inscribe his plans; wealth to be won;
Or honours added; or field joined to field;
Or glory achieved thro' arms, or art, or song;
Till, on a day, he finds his head a-whitening;
Yet, even then, his plans all unfulfilled,
May scarce yield credence to his own grey hairs.
So surely is the Future long to All!
Nay, not to All. A certain hill there is,
Not like the mighty Tuscan's obscure wood,
'In the mid-way of this our mortal life,'
But one third further on; which whoso climbs,
Should pensive thought disown him not, there finds
If brief the Past, how brief the Future too.
Thence marks he what scant slip doth lie between
Him and that fated sea, that gulfeth all.
So near, he views distinct the thin surf-line,
Narrowing yet more and more the narrow strand.
And even may hear the onward-stealing wave,
Which pulses, ah! how regular; if faint
As his own pulse, which soon shall cease to beat.
Sad lore to learn! which he, who once hath learned,
Forgets not; but henceforward walks his life
Ghost-beckoned by the Future. Like to him,
(Of such men tell) some second-sighted seer,
For whom the very merriest village bells,
That ever pealed for new-born babe, or bride,
Have yet, within, a haunting under-note,
That saith 'Ere long we toll.' Or yet more like
Yon felon-wretch law doomed; to whom yet mercy
Hath granted some brief respite; if, in sooth,
It be a boon of mercy, that sad leave
To pause awhile, and shudder o'er th' abyss,
And then 'Farewell.'
So 'tis—that every age
Doth make its own believings. Things, so named,
But seemings; and our very solidest facts
Mere shadows from the will; or standing-place
Shapes the whole vision. Sculptor young was he,
And teeming with the thoughts of his own years,
Who first devised yon figure of old Time.
He knew him old; and gave him withered limbs;
Yet sinewy, and strong for work withal;
(For Youth believeth in long working day,)
And those firm wings; for he had far to fly;
And that stout scythe; for he had much to mow;
Then with one forelock, and ('twas Art's caprice)
A chrystal hour-glass in the marble-hand,
The statue stood complete.
And stood around
A group—as young—regarding. Hopes and Fears—
Nay—Fears were none; but gratulating Hopes;
Each for his own glad prospect. While the gayer
Were jeering him. As 'Go thy way, Old Grey-beard!
Thou of the chrystal cone admonitory!
With thy long scythe and longer wings, go mow
All, if thou wilt, the steppes of Tartary;
Or fly thee, if thou choose, from pole to pole;
For what art thou to us? Unless indeed
We clutch—as sooth we will—the jocund moral
Of thy short forelock, and enjoy the Present.'
That Present long had passed. Years were flown by;
And lo! there stood beside that self-same statue
Another group; another yet the same;
A few grey-headed men; the scant remains
Of those who had gazed before. The rest—where were they?
But now, methinks, not only were their locks,
But eye-sights changed,—to which no more appeared
The same—that statue; or had changed, like them.
For that broad chrystal cone, down which, of old,
When shifted to reverse by curious hand,
The sands had seemed to drawl, (like some rich unguent
From forth the narrow neck of golden vase
Dripping reluctantly, when dark-locked beauty
Impatient craves it for her clustering hair,)
They now beheld it dwarfed and tapered down
To minute-glass; through which the glittering grains,
Too swift almost for aged eyes to follow,
Leapt twinklingly; as if in turn to jeer,
With 'Now, good friends! we sure run fast enough!'
So too that scythe, whose length of curvature
Had seemed full fit to sweep uncounted fields,
(And which, or whether plied thro' rough or smooth,
—For rough and smooth to Time are all the same—
Had stirred the heedless ear of youth no more
Than doth the mower's, who, on some sweet June morn,
Steals silently amid the dewy grass,)
Was now a short hooked sickle; fit not less
For its cramped breadth of harvest; and they heard it,
Or thought they heard it, rasping audibly
With brisk sharp rustle 'mid the dry sere stalks;
Themselves as dry and sere!
While each long wing,
Down pointed from spare back to skinny heel,
—Which might have borne strong eagle on his quest
From realm to realm—was clipped and rounded now,
As those which only just suffice to bear
The whirring partridge on from brake to brake;
If swift, yet soon to fall. Or like the plumes
Fan-shaped and hardly fledged; which sculpture hangs
On the sleek shoulders of the little Loves.
They too, as many a maiden's tear attests,
They too, who take short flights—and drop too soon.
But lo! beside that figure of old Time
Stood now another figure; which, whilom,
Had not stood there; or which they saw not then,
When youth is busied more to feel than see.
Figure it was with loosely-folded arms,
And bended brow, and introspective eye,
Which seemed as if it pondered on the Past.
The young, had any such been mingling there,
Might well have marvelled what such form should mean.
But of that gray-haired group, which clustered round,
Not one there was but knew the name—and sighed—
When—asking—it was answered them 'Regret.'
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