Percy MacKaye

(1897-1956 / United States)

School - Poem by Percy MacKaye

I
Old Hezekiah leaned hard on his hoe
And squinted long at Eben, his lank son.
The silence shrilled with crickets. Day was done,
And, row on dusky row,
Tall bean poles ribbed with dark the gold-bright afterglow.
Eben stood staring: ever, one by one,
The tendril tops turned ashen as they flared.
Still Eben stared.

O, there is wonder on New Hampshire hills,
Hoeing the warm, bright furrows of brown earth,
And there is grandeur in the stone wall's birth,
And in the sweat that spills
From rugged toil its sweetness; yet for wild young wills
There is no dew of wonder, but start dearth,
In one old man who hoes his long bean rows,
And only hoes.

Old Hezekiah turned slow on his heel.
He touched his son. Thro' all the carking day
There are so many littlish cares to weigh
Large natures down, and steel
The heart of understanding. 'Son, how is't ye feel?
What are ye starin' on -- a gal?' A ray
Flushed Eben from the fading afterflow:
He dropped his hoe.

He dropped his hoe, but sudden stooped again
And raised it where it fell. Nothing he spoke,
But bent his knee and -- crack! the handle broke,
Splintering. With glare of pain,
He flung the pieces down, and stamped upon them; then --
Like one who leaps out naked from his cloak --
Ran. 'Here, come back! Where are ye bound -- you fool?'
He cried -- 'To school!'

II
Now on the mountain morning laughed with light --
With light and all the future in her face,
For there she looked on many a far-off place
And wild adventurous sight,
For which the mad young autumn wind hallooed with might
And dared the roaring mill-brook to the race,
Where blue-jays screamed beyond the pine-dark pool --
'To school! -- To school!'

Blackcoated, Eben took the barefoot trail,
Holding with wary hand his Sunday boots;
Harsh catbirds mocked his whistling with their hoots;
Under his swallowtail
Against his hip-strap bumping, clinked his dinner pail;
Frost maples flamed, lone thrushes touched their lutes;
Gray squirrels bobbed, with tails stiff curved to backs,
To eye his tracks.

Soon at the lonely crossroads he passed by
The little one-room schoolhouse. He peered in.
There stood the bench where he had often been
Admonished flagrantly
To drone his numbers: now to this he said good-bye
For mightier lure of more romantic scene:
Good-bye to childish rule and homely chore
Forevermore!

All day he hastened like the flying cloud
Breathless above him, big with dreams, yet dumb.
With tightened jaw he chewed the tart spruce gum,
And muttered half aloud
Huge oracles. At last, where thro' the pine-tops bowed
The sun, it rose! -- His heart beat like a drum.
There, there it rose -- his tower of prophecy:
The Acadamy!

III
They learn to live who learn to contemplate,
For contemplation is the unconfined
God who creates us. To the growing mind
Freedom to think is fate,
And all that age and after-knowledge augurate
Lies in a little dream of youth enshrined:
That dream to nourish with the skilful rule
Of love -- is school.

Eben, in mystic tumult of his teens,
Stood bursting -- like a ripe seed -- into soul.
All his life long he had watched the great hills roll
Their shadows, tints and sheens
By sun- and moonrise; yet the bane of hoeing beans,
And round of joyless chores, his father's toll,
Blotted their beauty; nature was as naught:
He had never thought.

But now he climbed his boyhood's castle tower
And knocked. Ah, well then for his after-fate
That one of nature's masters opened the gate,
Where like an April shower
Live influence quickened all his earth-blind seed to power.
Strangely his sense of truth grew passionate,
And like a young bull, led in yoke to drink,
He bowed to think.

There also bowed their heads with him to quaff --
The snorting herd! And many a wholesome grip
He had of rivalry and fellowship.
Often the game was rough,
But Eben tossed his horns and never balked the cuff;
For still through play and task his Dream would slip --
A radiant Herdsman, guiding destiny
To his degree.

IV
Once more old Hezekiah stayed his hoe
To squint at Eben. Silent, Eben scanned
A little roll of sheepskin in his hand,
While, row on dusky row,
Tall bean poles ribbed with dar the gold-pale afterglow.
The boy looked up: here was another land!
Mountain and farm with mystic beauty flared
Where Eben stared.

Stooping, he lifted with a furtive smile
Two splintered sticks, and spiced them. Nevermore
His spirit would go beastwise to his chore
Blinded, for even while
He stooped to the old task, sudden in the sunset's pile
His radiant Herdsman swung a fiery door,
Thro' which came forth with far-borne trumpetings
Poets and kings,

His fellow conquerors: there Virgil dreamed,
There Cæsar fought and won the barbarous tribes,
There Darwin, pensive, bore the ignorant gibes,
And One with thorns redeemed
From malice the wild hearts of men: there surged and streamed
With chemic fire the forges of old scribes
Testing anew the crucibles of toil
To save God's soil.

So Eben turned again to hoe his beans,
But now, to ballads which his Herdsman sung,
Henceforth he hoed the dream in with the dung,
And for his ancient spleens
Planting new joys, imagination found him means.
At last old Hezekiah loosed his tongue:
'Well, boy, this school -- what has it learned ye to know?'
He said: 'To hoe.'


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Poem Submitted: Thursday, April 22, 2010



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