The Mulberries

I.

ON the Rialto Bridge we stand ;
The street ebbs under and makes no sound ;
But, with bargains shrieked on every hand,
The noisy market rings around.
“ Mulberries, fine mulberries, here !”
A tuneful voice, — and light, light measure ;
Though I hardly should count these mulberries dear,
If I paid three times the price for my pleasure.
Brown hands splashed with mulberry blood,
The basket wreathed with mulberry leaves
Hiding the berries beneath them; — good !
Let us take whatever the young rogue gives.
For you know, old friend, I have n’t eaten
A mulberry since the ignorant joy
Of anything sweet in the mouth could sweeten
All the bitter world for a boy.

II.

O, I mind the tree in the meadow stood
By the road near the hill : when I clomb aloof
On its branches, this side of the girdled wood,
I could see the top of our cabin roof.
And, looking westward, could sweep the shores
Of the river where we used to swim
Under the ghostly sycamores,
Haunting the waters smooth and dim ;
And eastward athwart the pasture-lot
And over the milk-white buckwheat field
I could see the stately elm, where I shot
The first black squirrel I ever killed.
And southward over the bottom-land
I could see the mellow breadths of farm
From the river-shores to the hills expand,
Clasped in the curving river’s arm.
In the fields we set our guileless snares
For rabbits and pigeons and wary quails,
Content with the vaguest feathers and hairs
From doubtful wings and vanished tails.
And in the blue summer afternoon
We used to sit in the mulberry-tree :
The breaths of wind that remembered June
Shook the leaves and glittering berries free ;
And while we watched the wagons go
Across the river along the road
To the mill above or the mill below,
With horses that stooped to the heavy load,
We told old stories and made new plans,
And felt our hearts gladden within us again,
For we did not dream that this life of a man ’s
Could ever be what we know as men.
We sat so still that the woodpeckers came
And pillaged the berries overhead ;
From his log the chipmonk, waxen tame,
Peered and listened to what we said.

III.

One of us long ago was carried
To his grave on the hill above the tree ;
One is a farmer there, and married ;
One has wandered over the sea.
And, if you ask me, I hardly know
Whether I ’d be the dead or the clown, —
The clod above or the clay below, —
Or this listless dust by fortune blown
To alien lands. For, however it is,
So little we keep with us in life :
At best we win only victories,
Not peace, not peace, O friend, in this strife.
But if I could turn from the long defeat
Of the little successes once more, and be
A boy, with the whole wide world at my feet,
Under the shade of the mulberry-tree, —
From the shame of the squandered chances, the sleep
Of the will that cannot itself awaken,
From the promise the future can never keep,
From the fitful purposes vague and shaken, —
Then, while the grasshopper sang out shrill
In the grass beneath the blanching thistle,
And the afternoon air, with a tender thrill,
Harked to the quail’s complaining whistle, —
Ah me ! should I paint the morrows again
In quite the colors so faint to-day,
And with the imperial mulberry’s stain
Re-purple life’s doublet of hodden-gray ?

Know again the losses of disillusion ?
For the sake of the hope, have the old deceit? —
In spite of the question’s bitter infusion,
Don’t you find these mulberries over-sweet ?

All our atoms are changed, they say ;
And the taste is so different since then ;
We live, but a world has passed away
With the years that perished to make us men.
W. D. Howells.