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Charles Mackay (Чарльз Маккей)


The Vision of Mockery


All happy things are earnest. Once I roamed
In England, or in Dreamland, through the streets
Of a huge, buzzing, dense, metropolis.
Slowly, in teeming thoroughfares, I walked,
One of the people, hearing with their ears,
Beholding with their eyes, and in their thought
Divining, till my soul was filled with grief
At all that I beheld, and felt, and knew.

It was a gibing, laughing, sneering crowd,
Devoid of truth, faith, love, and earnestness,
Except a horrid earnestness for gain;
Fierce love of lucre, which, if one had not,
He was despised and trodden down of men:
Which, if one had, he was adored of all,
Placed on a pinnacle to be admired,
Flattered, and filled with other rich men's gifts;
His overflowing fulness made more full,
His vulgarness thought choice gentility,
His vices virtues, and his prejudice
Wisdom innate, his coarse words oracles,
And he a chief and model of mankind.

But for all else than wealth these swarming crowds
Had slight regard; and when their daily toil
In search of it was done, and time hung loose,
They gathered in their clubs and theatres,
In market-place, or corner of the streets,
And mocked and gibed, and held the best buffoon
The wisest man, so he but made them laugh.
Nothing was holy to these wretched crowds,
But all things food for jest and ribald wit,
Caricature, lampoon, and mockery.
I said to one, " Is this the end of life?
Is there no reverence for God or man?"
He turned and looked, and with a well-bred stare,
Eyed me askance: " What would you have?" quoth he;
" We keep our reverence for sabbath-days,
And look demure the seventh part of our time.
If for six days we toil, six nights we laugh,
And who shall blame us? What new bore art thou,
From lands hyperborean, that canst think
Laughter a crime?" " Nay," I replied, " not so;
Laughter is virtuous, if there be a cause:
But mockery!" — Thereat he smiled again,
Arching his eyebrows, that his eyes, full-stretched,
Might take the measure of my littleness,
And disappeared amid the gathering throng.

I spake no more, but wandered wearily on,
Until I reached a wide and crowded mart,
Where one, a mild and venerable man,
Addressed the multitude with slow, clear voice.
Few gave him audience; but he heeded not,
And spoke his thought, unmindful of the jeers
Of would-be wits, and shallow mountebanks,
Scoffers and punsters, and obese dull clowns.

" Vain and unhappy multitudes," he said,
" That gibe and sneer at every holy thing,
Is this your law of life? Is this the end?
Lo! ye have souls immortal and sublime,
To be made infinite in love and light,
And heavenly knowledge, if ye will but ope
The inner fountains and the inner eyes,
And see the deep and full significance,
The worth and wherefore of the life of man.
Is it not sad, O myriad, myriad souls,
Infinite and immortal as ye are,
That ye will make your own infinity
A retrogression? Immortality,
Change of vile vesture for a viler still?
That ye will circle with the feculent clay
Your life-light heavenly clear, until it burn
No fairer, to the outward world, than foul,
Thick exhalations of a stagnant fen?
Is it not sad, that germs which should expand,
Even here, to trees of bole magnificent,
Should rot and perish in unsavory mire;
Or, ere they rot, be eaten up by swine, —
Swine of ill-passion, selfishness, and lust?
Is it not sad — a thing for bitter tears —
Unless for hope, and efforts made more strong
By seeming hopelessness — that men should live
And never know the meaning of their life?
That they should die, and never know that death
Is change, not ceasing; and that life and death
Are ebb and flow of an eternal tide,
In which the ripple may become a wave,
The wave a sea, the sea a universe?

" Alas! poor crowds! self-quenched, self-sacrificed,
Why will ye crawl, when ye might walk erect?
Why will ye grovel, when ye might aspire?
Why will ye don foul rags, when ye might wear
Angelic vestments? Why co-herd with beasts,
And graze in fields, or wallow in the mire,
When ye might feed on manna dropped from heaven?"

Thereat a listener in the crowd exclaimed —
One with a portly paunch, and large round face,
And little twinkling eyes, — " You waste your words:
Why do you preach to us of things like these,
Things transcendental and absurdly wise?
The earth is man's; man is the earth's. Forget
These idle dreams; and eat, and drink, and laugh,
And speculate, and hoard a heap of gold;
And so be one of us, that as you live
You may enjoy; and when you die, die well,
Leaving plump money-bags to bless your sons."
And all the people laughed, and cried, " Hear! hear!"
With loud applause, and shouts vociferous.
But still the orator undaunted stood,
Though laughter sputtered round him, and vain scoffs,
Like muddy showerlets, fell on every side;
And more he would have said, but that a cry
Of one in haste, and in great stress of speech,
Made interruption: " Lo! the children die!
The little children, and you heed them not.
The children die: they perish, body and soul,
In pestilent lanes, and rotting alleys vile;
Thousands on thousands, more than eyes can count.
God's sun shines on them, but they never heard
His name who made it: the fair world they tread
Is foul to them that never saw the fields,
The green trees, the great mountains, the bright streams,
Or knew that God, who fashioned all things, loves
All he has made, and children most of all,
The purest from his hand. Why should they die?
For life in ignorance is very death.
Some of them toil, and waste their tender limbs
In mills, or mines, from morn till past the night:
Machines of flesh, too sorely overwrought
To reach maturity e'er they grow old.
Some of them toil not, but by night and day
Prowl in the fetid ways, and lie, and steal,
And curse; and never know that words can bless,
Or that such thing as blessing in this world
Was ever heard of: — Save, oh! save them all:
If not for their sakes, for our own! Not one
Of all these myriads, were we truly wise,
Should perish thus. For, though they live in shame,
And fill the world with crimes and miseries,
Great is their sorrow, but the guilt is ours."

He ceased, and through the crowd a murmur ran,
As though his words had moved them to remorse,
Or pity — but it died away; and one
Speaking for many, as if he alone
Were mouth-piece and interpreter of men,
Exclaimed in pompous wise, " Why should we heed?
Why interfere? It is a perilous thing
To step between a parent and its child.
Each for himself; each father for his own:
No good can come of such philosophy.
It weighs all things in theoretic scales,
And meddles but to mar. The world is good;
Let it alone: 'twill educate itself."
He ceased, and looked about him with a smile
That said, as plainly as a smile can say,
How smart he was, how practically wise.
Whereat another, taking up the chant,
Said, " Bah! it irks my patience evermore,
To hear such vulgar flattery of the crowd:
Were they not born to drudge, to groan, to sweat?
Is't not so written in the Book? If so,
Why give them knowledge they can never use?
A little of it is a poisonous thing,
And much is utterly beyond their reach; —
So, prithee, Master Quack, let well alone.
If thou canst sing for our amusement, sing;
Or dance, then dance; or jest, then jest away;
Stand on thy head, cut capers in the air,
Or any thing thou wilt but preach of this."
Thereat the crowd laughed as with one accord;
And when the earnest man again essayed
To speak his truth, they raised derisive shouts
That stifled all his words upon his lips,
And filled his heart and mine with pity and grief.

What more was said I know not, nor how long
I stood amongst them; but a sudden cry,
And rushing of the people to one place,
Aroused me from my lethargy, and, lo!
I heard a voice potential with the crowd,
Coarse and stentorian, breaking on my ear:
" Behold!" it said, " behold the game of games,
The chance of chances — better than all trade,
Commerce, or industry pursued by man.
Who plays it well grows wealthy in a day;
Who plays it ill may gain more great reward
Than Labor with his utmost pith and stress
Could sweat for in a life." And as he spake,
Loose scraps of paper fluttered in his hands.
There seemed deep fascination in the sight,
For every eye beseeched and every tongue
Implored him for them. From his vulgar clutch
They dropped like flakes of snow innumerous.
And then the scramble and the crash began;
Old men and young, the famished and the full,
The rich and poor, widow, and wife, and maid,
Master and servant, all with one intent
Rushed on the paper; from their eager eyes
Flashing a fierce, unconquerable greed,
Their hot palms itching, all their being filled
With one desire; so that amid the press
If some were crushed and smitten to the ground
They heeded not, but trod on fallen heads
As unconcernedly as racing steeds
Trample the sward. And still the paper flakes
Fell fast around; and still the crowd rushed on,
Roaring and wild, their myriad hands held up
To grasp the glittering prizes ere they fell.
Then came a pause. A fearful mockery
Began to spread. Each called his fellow — fool!
And every fool acknowledged — so he was,
But thought his neighbor greater fool than he.
And there was laughter loud, and stifled groans,
And shouts obstreporous, till all at once
They dropped the scraps of paper from their hands,
As if a leprosy was in its touch;
And in their haste, o'er eager to depart
From that gross presence, trod each other down.

As in a burning theatre, a crowd
Rushing by hundreds to one narrow door,
Meet certain death to flee uncertain fire;
So they in panic at the lust of gain,
That each man saw in others, not in self,
Fled in confusion, breathless and distraught,
Nor cared who died, if they themselves escaped.
I stood amazed, and blushed for human-kind,
When on my ears a strain of music broke,
Melting in soft harmonious cadences.
I looked, and on a platform raised on high,
Beheld a lady beauteous as the dawn,
Dancing in robes of white and azure gauze;
Her breast was bare; her limbs nor bare, nor hid,
But full defined through her transparent robes,
Filled the beholders with voluptuous thoughts.
She seemed to float upon the buoyant air,
To be a creature of an element
More spiritual than earth; and when she smiled
There was such witchery in her painted cheeks,
That all the crowd, entranced with great delight,
And quite forgetful of their past distress,
Shouted with loud acclaim, and clapped their hands.
And when she twirl'd upon her pliant toe,
One fair limb vertical, the other raised
To horizontal straightness, such a burst
Of irrepressible, overpowering joy,
Filled all the air, it seemed as men were mad,
And dancing were supremest bliss of earth; —
The fairest dancer, first of woman-kind.
Then as she curtsied with a winning look
To her idolaters, a shower of wreaths,
Garlands, and evergreens, and laurel crowns,
Fell all around her, and another burst
Of universal gladness rang around;
And she, descending from her platform, slid
Graceful into her chariot, and the crowd
Filled with new frenzy at her loveliness,
Unyoked her prancing jennets, dapple-grey,
And drew her forth triumphant to her home.

Still more amazed, I left this fearful crowd,
And wandered out amid the quiet woods
To hold communion with my secret soul,
And note, in Memory's many-storied book,
What I had seen and heard — that pondering well
Its true significance, I might extract
Good from the ill, and from the darkness light.



Charles Mackay's other poems:
  1. Kilravock Tower
  2. The Floating Straw
  3. Unknown Romances
  4. Old Opinions
  5. The Out-Comer and the In-Goer


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