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Edwin Arlington Robinson - Isaac and Archibald

(To Mrs. Henry Richards)

Isaac and Archibald were two old men. 
I knew them, and I may have laughed at them 
A little; but I must have honored them 
For they were old, and they were good to me. 

I do not think of either of them now,
Without remembering, infallibly, 
A journey that I made one afternoon 
With Isaac to find out what Archibald 
Was doing with his oats. It was high time 
Those oats were cut, said Isaac; and he feared
That Archibald—well, he could never feel 
Quite sure of Archibald. Accordingly 
The good old man invited me—that is, 
Permitted me—to go along with him; 
And I, with a small boy’s adhesiveness
To competent old age, got up and went. 

I do not know that I cared overmuch 
For Archibald’s or anybody’s oats, 
But Archibald was quite another thing, 
And Isaac yet another; and the world
Was wide, and there was gladness everywhere. 
We walked together down the River Road 
With all the warmth and wonder of the land 
Around us, and the wayside flash of leaves,— 
And Isaac said the day was glorious;
But somewhere at the end of the first mile 
I found that I was figuring to find 
How long those ancient legs of his would keep 
The pace that he had set for them. The sun 
Was hot, and I was ready to sweat blood;
But Isaac, for aught I could make of him, 
Was cool to his hat-band. So I said then 
With a dry gasp of affable despair, 
Something about the scorching days we have 
In August without knowing it sometimes;
But Isaac said the day was like a dream, 
And praised the Lord, and talked about the breeze. 
I made a fair confession of the breeze, 
And crowded casually on his thought 
The nearness of a profitable nook
That I could see. First I was half inclined 
To caution him that he was growing old, 
But something that was not compassion soon 
Made plain the folly of all subterfuge. 
Isaac was old, but not so old as that.

So I proposed, without an overture, 
That we be seated in the shade a while, 
And Isaac made no murmur. Soon the talk 
Was turned on Archibald, and I began 
To feel some premonitions of a kind
That only childhood knows; for the old man 
Had looked at me and clutched me with his eye, 
And asked if I had ever noticed things. 
I told him that I could not think of them, 
And I knew then, by the frown that left his face
Unsatisfied, that I had injured him. 
“My good young friend,” he said, “you cannot feel 
What I have seen so long. You have the eyes— 
Oh, yes—but you have not the other things: 
The sight within that never will deceive,
You do not know—you have no right to know; 
The twilight warning of experience, 
The singular idea of loneliness,— 
These are not yours. But they have long been mine, 
And they have shown me now for seven years
That Archibald is changing. It is not 
So much that he should come to his last hand, 
And leave the game, and go the old way down; 
But I have known him in and out so long, 
And I have seen so much of good in him
That other men have shared and have not seen, 
And I have gone so far through thick and thin, 
Through cold and fire with him, that now it brings 
To this old heart of mine an ache that you 
Have not yet lived enough to know about.
But even unto you, and your boy’s faith, 
Your freedom, and your untried confidence, 
A time will come to find out what it means 
To know that you are losing what was yours, 
To know that you are being left behind;
And then the long contempt of innocence—
God bless you, boy!—don’t think the worse of it 
Because an old man chatters in the shade— 
Will all be like a story you have read 
In childhood and remembered for the pictures.

And when the best friend of your life goes down, 
When first you know in him the slackening 
That comes, and coming always tells the end,— 
Now in a common word that would have passed 
Uncaught from any other lips than his,
Now in some trivial act of every day, 
Done as he might have done it all along 
But for a twinging little difference 
That nips you like a squirrel’s teeth—oh, yes, 
Then you will understand it well enough.
But oftener it comes in other ways; 
It comes without your knowing when it comes; 
You know that he is changing, and you know 
That he is going—just as I know now 
That Archibald is going, and that I
Am staying.… Look at me, my boy, 
And when the time shall come for you to see 
That I must follow after him, try then 
To think of me, to bring me back again, 
Just as I was to-day. Think of the place
Where we are sitting now, and think of me— 
Think of old Isaac as you knew him then, 
When you set out with him in August once 
To see old Archibald.”—The words come back 
Almost as Isaac must have uttered them,
And there comes with them a dry memory 
Of something in my throat that would not move. 

If you had asked me then to tell just why 
I made so much of Isaac and the things 
He said, I should have gone far for an answer;
For I knew it was not sorrow that I felt, 
Whatever I may have wished it, or tried then 
To make myself believe. My mouth was full 
Of words, and they would have been comforting 
To Isaac, spite of my twelve years, I think;
But there was not in me the willingness 
To speak them out. Therefore I watched the ground; 
And I was wondering what made the Lord 
Create a thing so nervous as an ant, 
When Isaac, with commendable unrest,
Ordained that we should take the road again— 
For it was yet three miles to Archibald’s, 
And one to the first pump. I felt relieved 
All over when the old man told me that; 
I felt that he had stilled a fear of mine
That those extremities of heat and cold 
Which he had long gone through with Archibald 
Had made the man impervious to both; 
But Isaac had a desert somewhere in him, 
And at the pump he thanked God for all things
That He had put on earth for men to drink, 
And he drank well,—so well that I proposed 
That we go slowly lest I learn too soon 
The bitterness of being left behind, 
And all those other things. That was a joke
To Isaac, and it pleased him very much; 
And that pleased me—for I was twelve years old. 

At the end of an hour’s walking after that 
The cottage of old Archibald appeared. 
Little and white and high on a smooth round hill
It stood, with hackmatacks and apple-trees 
Before it, and a big barn-roof beyond; 
And over the place—trees, house, fields and all— 
Hovered an air of still simplicity 
And a fragrance of old summers—the old style
That lives the while it passes. I dare say 
That I was lightly conscious of all this 
When Isaac, of a sudden, stopped himself, 
And for the long first quarter of a minute 
Gazed with incredulous eyes, forgetful quite
Of breezes and of me and of all else 
Under the scorching sun but a smooth-cut field, 
Faint yellow in the distance. I was young, 
But there were a few things that I could see, 
And this was one of them.—“Well, well!” said he;
And “Archibald will be surprised, I think,” 
Said I. But all my childhood subtlety 
Was lost on Isaac, for he strode along 
Like something out of Homer—powerful 
And awful on the wayside, so I thought.
Also I thought how good it was to be 
So near the end of my short-legged endeavor 
To keep the pace with Isaac for five miles. 

Hardly had we turned in from the main road 
When Archibald, with one hand on his back
And the other clutching his huge-headed cane, 
Came limping down to meet us.—“Well! well! well!” 
Said he; and then he looked at my red face, 
All streaked with dust and sweat, and shook my hand, 
And said it must have been a right smart walk
That we had had that day from Tilbury Town.— 
“Magnificent,” said Isaac; and he told 
About the beautiful west wind there was 
Which cooled and clarified the atmosphere. 
“You must have made it with your legs, I guess,”
Said Archibald; and Isaac humored him 
With one of those infrequent smiles of his 
Which he kept in reserve, apparently, 
For Archibald alone. “But why,” said he, 
“Should Providence have cider in the world
If not for such an afternoon as this?” 
And Archibald, with a soft light in his eyes, 
Replied that if he chose to go down cellar, 
There he would find eight barrels—one of which 
Was newly tapped, he said, and to his taste
An honor to the fruit. Isaac approved 
Most heartily of that, and guided us 
Forthwith, as if his venerable feet 
Were measuring the turf in his own door-yard, 
Straight to the open rollway. Down we went,
Out of the fiery sunshine to the gloom, 
Grateful and half sepulchral, where we found 
The barrels, like eight potent sentinels, 
Close ranged along the wall. From one of them 
A bright pine spile stuck out alluringly,
And on the black flat stone, just under it, 
Glimmered a late-spilled proof that Archibald 
Had spoken from unfeigned experience. 
There was a fluted antique water-glass 
Close by, and in it, prisoned, or at rest,
There was a cricket, of the brown soft sort 
That feeds on darkness. Isaac turned him out, 
And touched him with his thumb to make him jump, 
And then composedly pulled out the plug 
With such a practised hand that scarce a drop
Did even touch his fingers. Then he drank 
And smacked his lips with a slow patronage 
And looked along the line of barrels there 
With a pride that may have been forgetfulness 
That they were Archibald’s and not his own.
“I never twist a spigot nowadays,” 
He said, and raised the glass up to the light, 
“But I thank God for orchards.” And that glass 
Was filled repeatedly for the same hand 
Before I thought it worth while to discern
Again that I was young, and that old age, 
With all his woes, had some advantages. 
“Now, Archibald,” said Isaac, when we stood 
Outside again, “I have it in my mind 
That I shall take a sort of little walk—
To stretch my legs and see what you are doing. 
You stay and rest your back and tell the boy 
A story: Tell him all about the time 
In Stafford’s cabin forty years ago, 
When four of us were snowed up for ten days
With only one dried haddock. Tell him all 
About it, and be wary of your back. 
Now I will go along.”—I looked up then 
At Archibald, and as I looked I saw 
Just how his nostrils widened once or twice
And then grew narrow. I can hear today 
The way the old man chuckled to himself— 
Not wholesomely, not wholly to convince 
Another of his mirth,—as I can hear 
The lonely sigh that followed.—But at length
He said: “The orchard now’s the place for us; 
We may find something like an apple there, 
And we shall have the shade, at any rate.” 
So there we went and there we laid ourselves 
Where the sun could not reach us; and I champed
A dozen of worm-blighted astrakhans 
While Archibald said nothing—merely told 
The tale of Stafford’s cabin, which was good, 
Though “master chilly”—after his own phrase— 
Even for a day like that. But other thoughts
Were moving in his mind, imperative, 
And writhing to be spoken: I could see 
The glimmer of them in a glance or two, 
Cautious, or else unconscious, that he gave 
Over his shoulder: … “Stafford and the rest—
But that’s an old song now, and Archibald 
And Isaac are old men. Remember, boy, 
That we are old. Whatever we have gained, 
Or lost, or thrown away, we are old men. 
You look before you and we look behind,
And we are playing life out in the shadow— 
But that’s not all of it. The sunshine lights 
A good road yet before us if we look, 
And we are doing that when least we know it; 
For both of us are children of the sun,
Like you, and like the weed there at your feet. 
The shadow calls us, and it frightens us— 
We think; but there’s a light behind the stars 
And we old fellows who have dared to live, 
We see it—and we see the other things,
The other things … Yes, I have seen it come 
These eight years, and these ten years, and I know 
Now that it cannot be for very long 
That Isaac will be Isaac. You have seen— 
Young as you are, you must have seen the strange
Uncomfortable habit of the man? 
He’ll take my nerves and tie them in a knot 
Sometimes, and that’s not Isaac. I know that— 
And I know what it is: I get it here 
A little, in my knees, and Isaac—here.”
The old man shook his head regretfully 
And laid his knuckles three times on his forehead. 
“That’s what it is: Isaac is not quite right. 
You see it, but you don’t know what it means: 
The thousand little differences—no,
You do not know them, and it’s well you don’t; 
You’ll know them soon enough—God bless you, boy!— 
You’ll know them, but not all of them—not all. 
So think of them as little as you can: 
There’s nothing in them for you, or for me—
But I am old and I must think of them; 
I’m in the shadow, but I don’t forget 
The light, my boy,—the light behind the stars. 
Remember that: remember that I said it; 
And when the time that you think far away
Shall come for you to say it—say it, boy; 
Let there be no confusion or distrust 
In you, no snarling of a life half lived, 
Nor any cursing over broken things 
That your complaint has been the ruin of.
Live to see clearly and the light will come 
To you, and as you need it.—But there, there, 
I’m going it again, as Isaac says, 
And I’ll stop now before you go to sleep.— 
Only be sure that you growl cautiously,
And always where the shadow may not reach you.” 

Never shall I forget, long as I live, 
The quaint thin crack in Archibald’s voice, 
The lonely twinkle in his little eyes, 
Or the way it made me feel to be with him.
I know I lay and looked for a long time 
Down through the orchard and across the road, 
Across the river and the sun-scorched hills 
That ceased in a blue forest, where the world 
Ceased with it. Now and then my fancy caught
A flying glimpse of a good life beyond— 
Something of ships and sunlight, streets and singing, 
Troy falling, and the ages coming back, 
And ages coming forward: Archibald 
And Isaac were good fellows in old clothes,
And Agamemnon was a friend of mine; 
Ulysses coming home again to shoot 
With bows and feathered arrows made another, 
And all was as it should be. I was young. 

So I lay dreaming of what things I would,
Calm and incorrigibly satisfied 
With apples and romance and ignorance, 
And the still smoke from Archibald’s clay pipe. 
There was a stillness over everything, 
As if the spirit of heat had laid its hand
Upon the world and hushed it; and I felt 
Within the mightiness of the white sun 
That smote the land around us and wrought out 
A fragrance from the trees, a vital warmth 
And fullness for the time that was to come,
And a glory for the world beyond the forest. 
The present and the future and the past, 
Isaac and Archibald, the burning bush, 
The Trojans and the walls of Jericho, 
Were beautifully fused; and all went well
Till Archibald began to fret for Isaac 
And said it was a master day for sunstroke. 
That was enough to make a mummy smile, 
I thought; and I remained hilarious, 
In face of all precedence and respect,
Till Isaac (who had come to us unheard) 
Found he had no tobacco, looked at me 
Peculiarly, and asked of Archibald 
What ailed the boy to make him chirrup so. 
From that he told us what a blessed world
The Lord had given us.—“But, Archibald,” 
He added, with a sweet severity 
That made me think of peach-skins and goose-flesh, 
“I’m half afraid you cut those oats of yours 
A day or two before they were well set.”
“They were set well enough,” said Archibald,— 
And I remarked the process of his nose 
Before the words came out. “But never mind 
Your neighbor’s oats: you stay here in the shade 
And rest yourself while I go find the cards.
We’ll have a little game of seven-up 
And let the boy keep count.”—“We’ll have the game, 
Assuredly,” said Isaac; “and I think 
That I will have a drop of cider, also.” 

They marched away together towards the house
And left me to my childish ruminations 
Upon the ways of men. I followed them 
Down cellar with my fancy, and then left them 
For a fairer vision of all things at once 
That was anon to be destroyed again
By the sound of voices and of heavy feet— 
One of the sounds of life that I remember, 
Though I forget so many that rang first 
As if they were thrown down to me from Sinai. 

So I remember, even to this day,
Just how they sounded, how they placed themselves, 
And how the game went on while I made marks 
And crossed them out, and meanwhile made some Trojans. 
Likewise I made Ulysses, after Isaac, 
And a little after Flaxman. Archibald
Was injured when he found himself left out, 
But he had no heroics, and I said so: 
I told him that his white beard was too long 
And too straight down to be like things in Homer. 
“Quite so,” said Isaac.—“Low,” said Archibald;
And he threw down a deuce with a deep grin 
That showed his yellow teeth and made me happy. 
So they played on till a bell rang from the door, 
And Archibald said, “Supper.”—After that 
The old men smoked while I sat watching them
And wondered with all comfort what might come 
To me, and what might never come to me; 
And when the time came for the long walk home 
With Isaac in the twilight, I could see 
The forest and the sunset and the sky-line,
No matter where it was that I was looking: 
The flame beyond the boundary, the music, 
The foam and the white ships, and two old men 
Were things that would not leave me.—And that night 
There came to me a dream—a shining one,
With two old angels in it. They had wings, 
And they were sitting where a silver light 
Suffused them, face to face. The wings of one 
Began to palpitate as I approached, 
But I was yet unseen when a dry voice
Cried thinly, with unpatronizing triumph, 
“I’ve got you, Isaac; high, low, jack, and the game.” 

Isaac and Archibald have gone their way 
To the silence of the loved and well-forgotten. 
I knew them, and I may have laughed at them;
But there’s a laughing that has honor in it, 
And I have no regret for light words now. 
Rather I think sometimes they may have made 
Their sport of me;—but they would not do that, 
They were too old for that. They were old men,
And I may laugh at them because I knew them. 

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Added: Jun 3 2005 | Viewed: 1226 times | Comments and analysis of Isaac and Archibald by Edwin Arlington Robinson Comments (222)

Isaac and Archibald - Comments and Information

Poet: Edwin Arlington Robinson
Poem: Isaac and Archibald

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