A Letter to My Son

BETWEEN US, Stanley, we must bridge a span
Perhaps the broadest in the life of Man;
McKinley and Victoria, familiar
As household gods when I was the young Hillyer,
To ashes and to legend have gone down, —
And Mickey Mouse has ousted Buster Brown.
In green suburban streets I played at ease,
Untroubled by the passing carriages,
Save when some dowager, averse to ball,
Scowled at us, brandishing her parasol,
Yet left (because of Grandmother) unspoken
Her thoughts of stolen grapes and windows broken.
Alas! though Mrs. Howe has been entombed
Some thirty years, my palate was foredoomed
Never again to taste such provender
As that forbidden fruit I stole from her.
I smell the arbors now, I see the lawn
Yellow with leaves like flakes of shattered dawn;
I smell the bonfire smoke, I smell the grapes;
But the October flavor still escapes.
I’ve planted twenty vineyards since that lime
To catch the mixture of sweet juice and rime,
And not one grape, however cool and swollen,
Renews the ecstasy of those I’ve stolen.
Pray do not, in your after years, reread
As ‘ theft the simplest method to succeed ’
These casual lines. Our family does not mix
In banking, surgery, or politics.
It was a safe time, when all’s said and done;
Back yards were big, streets open to the sun.
But sometimes, as if fashioned to disturb,
A horseless carriage pushed us to the curb;
Where, teetering with fury, in full force
We shouted to the driver, ‘Get a horse!’
An incantation powerful enough
To stop the motor with expiring cough;
Whereat the driver, cursing as we jeered,
Beneath the underpinning disappeared.
O for the wisdom of those saucy boys
Who rightly guessed a danger in such toys,
Now toys no longer; with inverted rôles,
Motors have made mere playthings of men’s souls.
Not war, not plague, not any ill you mention
Has crushed mankind like this obscene invention;
All life resolves, in leisure or in toil,
To the production or misuse of oil.
Man’s body flung full speed straight up the hill
Mounts with a nervous lift; his mind is nil.
Free in the air he skims, the while his spirit
Dives down to every ill that brutes inherit.
Let others praise inventiveness; I know
That where wings go there also bombs can go.
In short, dear son, my aging nervous centres Quiver with indignation at inventors;
But you, no doubt, will find it commonplace
To speed through time and hurtle into space:
Two elements that bend to Berkeley’s dream
By being something less than what they seem.
But though speedometers burn up with speed,
And clocks whirl madly at a moment’s need,
Eternity awaits. That does not heed.
Yet I am not so much a misanthrope
As to conceive my past a future hope.
Things change, and that is well, and I am weary
Of the past gilded, and the future dreary.
Your childhood is just so much happier
As I am wiser than my parents were;
Not to contemn them, but if sudden change
In common life swirls in so great a range,
Surely a loving and astute perspective
Ignores what once inspired a long invective.
I have not taught you that the fiends stand ready
To pierce with red-hot pitchforks Mrs. Eddy;
Nor that the tentacles of furtive Spain
Groped to Havana and blew up the Maine;
Nor that the Unitarians and Jews
Have invitations they can not refuse
To an unending carnival of fire
Where all non-Trinitarians perspire.
The High Church and the Low Church still may vie;
You do not know it, Stanley, — nor do I.
Please God, that you are so much the more near Him
For hearing fewer things that don’t endear Him.
Yet with it all, I would not seem to mock
My minute spent on the ancestral clock.
It was a nervous time, and I prefer
To split the seconds where they did not err.
Music I had and Christmas trees and books,
A sound physique and tolerable looks;
And something more, of undetermined cause,
That always irritates our best in-laws:
A calm, accumulated family feeling
That we survive though other clans go reeling, —
A sentiment that will annoy your wife,
But buttress you against the stress of life;
A doctrine not dependent on a name
Or the accoutrements of transient fame,
But adequacy quietly achieved, —
The right to live from those who rightly lived:
Farmers and judges, soldiers and professors,
Never the dispossessed or great possessors;
Avoiding, on the one hand, county farms,
And, on the other, bogus coats of arms.
In short, my dear, fail not to be a snob
To wealth ungoverned or ungoverned mob,
And be the one American whose veins
Can prove no pulsing out of Charlemagne’s.
How many honored names have played the fool
In social registers at boarding school,
Where youngsters form a library restricted
To lists of the elect and unelected;
A Calvinistic Judgment Day on earth,
Predestined by unworthy money’s worth;
To sneer so natural, so unbent to laugh,
And calf love guided by the golden calf.
Soap-box or scented soap; the two extremes
Make nightmares of our democratic dreams.
That choice you must avoid; ay, there’s the rub —
To join, but not exemplify, a club;
Or live on Grub Street and not be a grub.
I can not hope for you long years of peace;
Frail flies the halcyon from the shores of Greece.
Not long the tranquil sunlight, and not long
The sailors’ cheerful chant, the pastoral song.
See, the waves turn to lead; the sun goes under
Thick looming cumuli alive with thunder.
For one false moment Nature holds its breath,
Then heights fall down, depths rise up from beneath.
In vain to furl the sail or guess the stars;
The storm that rends the hull snaps off the spars;
The rudder steers no course, — one aimless arc
And then the final dive into the dark.
Ships wood or steel, their captains fools or sages,
So they go, so men go, so go the ages.
And yet you still may read on empty graves
Where those should sleep who sleep beneath the waves:
‘Sail thou! for even as we perished, we
Saw other ships sail on across the sea.'
Let pale Lucretius from his sheltered coast
Rejoice in safety while the brave are lost.
Afraid of living as he feared the ocean,
He drank at last a love-inflaming potion
That killed Lucretius with his first emotion.
Dear son, if in this pater filio I dare not gild the evils that I know,
Be not alarmed. Most generations think
Their world is trembling on the final brink.
My generation, nurtured on the pleasant
Illusion of a static world — that was n’t —
Woke with a start, both world and vision gone;
Yet better waking so, than dreaming on.
I’d gladly lap you in a Lydian theme,
But stronger musics penetrate the dream,
The pulsing drum, the bugle, and the blast
That overthrows all ivory towers at last.
Go not to war except in your own heart,
To quell unreason and tear greed apart.
Take up your sword to guard that quiet gate
Against blind hatred in a world of hate.
Go not to war, — there’s not a cause that gives
Life to the soldier who no longer lives.
No eloquence in how enduring stone
Makes unknown soldiers, to the future, known.
Go not to war! if Peace has lost her war
There is no other thing worth fighting for.
That dreamy Pharaoh who, beside the Nile,
Beheld the outstretched hands of morning smile,
When courier on courier cried for aid,
Let empires crumble, and was not afraid.
‘Assyria mocks your honor. Babylon
Flames in revolt; your provinces are gone!
Send out your armies to maintain your pride.’
The armies were not sent; the empire died.
Who cares to what dead sovereign it gives
Its dead allegiance? King Akhnaten lives!
Though life is perilous with war and wrack,
With fears that linger, loves that come not back;
Out of the fretted sea in after years
The slow-grown coral isle of joy appears.
I can not envy you your coming teens
That seize on life, not knowing what it means.
The twenties such dogmatic japes commit
As later strain apologetic wit.
The thirties labor, pucker-browed with fear
Of mornings after and a lame career.
But forty-one — your mother for a wife,
You for a son — establishes a life.
You in your first, I in my fifth, decade,
Perhaps are happiest when all is said.
But happiness so different as to smother
Hopes of translating either to the other.
Yours is that rainbow web so finely spun
To catch the golden motes that dust the sun,
Floating along light air, a filmy skein
Torn by one gust or shattered by the rain.
But how shall I, to whom that joy is lost,
In memory’s dull mirror find its ghost?
And how shall you, who know the shining thing,
Snare what is nothing if not on the wing?
Like gold, it goes as soon as you have felt it;
Time is the aqua regia to melt it, —
Time that brings love and debts and daily shaving;
So spend the gold that vanishes with saving.
Now the November dusk is closing in,
The ink grows thick; the inspiration thin.
Away with you! don’t read across my shoulder,
For that is rude; and this waits till you’re older.
Time for your music lesson! Every key
Gleams like a tooth awaiting dentistry.
Be merciful, be careful, for my sake.
’T is not piano keys, but ears that ache.
Well-played, enrapt musician! I at nine
Had surely bungled that melodic line.
So in all things I tried, may you succeed, —
But pray be not a poet. O give heed
To filial conscience, lest my poet’s name
Be mere parental adjunct to your fame.
Yet if you were my rival, I should be
Content though lost in your biography.
Play on, and happiness attend your song,
Sweet be its cadence, and its echoes, long.