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Edwin Arlington Robinson - The Book of Annandale

I

Partly to think, more to be left alone, 
George Annandale said something to his friends— 
A word or two, brusque, but yet smoothed enough 
To suit their funeral gaze—and went upstairs; 
And there, in the one room that he could call
His own, he found a sort of meaningless 
Annoyance in the mute familiar things 
That filled it; for the grate’s monotonous gleam 
Was not the gleam that he had known before, 
The books were not the books that used to be,
The place was not the place. There was a lack 
Of something; and the certitude of death 
Itself, as with a furtive questioning, 
Hovered, and he could not yet understand. 
He knew that she was gone—there was no need
Of any argued proof to tell him that, 
For they had buried her that afternoon, 
Under the leaves and snow; and still there was 
A doubt, a pitiless doubt, a plunging doubt, 
That struck him, and upstartled when it struck,
The vision, the old thought in him. There was 
A lack, and one that wrenched him; but it was 
Not that—not that. There was a present sense 
Of something indeterminably near— 
The soul-clutch of a prescient emptiness
That would not be foreboding. And if not, 
What then?—or was it anything at all? 
Yes, it was something—it was everything— 
But what was everything? or anything? 
Tired of time, bewildered, he sat down;
But in his chair he kept on wondering 
That he should feel so desolately strange 
And yet—for all he knew that he had lost 
More of the world than most men ever win— 
So curiously calm. And he was left
Unanswered and unsatisfied: there came 
No clearer meaning to him than had come 
Before; the old abstraction was the best 
That he could find, the farthest he could go; 
To that was no beginning and no end—
No end that he could reach. So he must learn 
To live the surest and the largest life 
Attainable in him, would he divine 
The meaning of the dream and of the words 
That he had written, without knowing why,
On sheets that he had bound up like a book 
And covered with red leather. There it was— 
There in his desk, the record he had made, 
The spiritual plaything of his life: 
There were the words no eyes had ever seen
Save his; there were the words that were not made 
For glory or for gold. The pretty wife 
Whom he had loved and lost had not so much 
As heard of them. They were not made for her. 
His love had been so much the life of her,
And hers had been so much the life of him, 
That any wayward phrasing on his part 
Would have had no moment. Neither had lived enough 
To know the book, albeit one of them 
Had grown enough to write it. There it was,
However, though he knew not why it was: 
There was the book, but it was not for her, 
For she was dead. And yet, there was the book. 

Thus would his fancy circle out and out, 
And out and in again, till he would make
As if with a large freedom to crush down 
Those under-thoughts. He covered with his hands 
His tired eyes, and waited: he could hear— 
Or partly feel and hear, mechanically— 
The sound of talk, with now and then the steps
And skirts of some one scudding on the stairs, 
Forgetful of the nerveless funeral feet 
That she had brought with her; and more than once 
There came to him a call as of a voice— 
A voice of love returning—but not hers.
Whose he knew not, nor dreamed; nor did he know, 
Nor did he dream, in his blurred loneliness 
Of thought, what all the rest might think of him. 

For it had come at last, and she was gone 
With all the vanished women of old time,—
And she was never coming back again. 
Yes, they had buried her that afternoon, 
Under the frozen leaves and the cold earth, 
Under the leaves and snow. The flickering week, 
The sharp and certain day, and the long drowse
Were over, and the man was left alone. 
He knew the loss—therefore it puzzled him 
That he should sit so long there as he did, 
And bring the whole thing back—the love, the trust, 
The pallor, the poor face, and the faint way
She last had looked at him—and yet not weep, 
Or even choose to look about the room 
To see how sad it was; and once or twice 
He winked and pinched his eyes against the flame 
And hoped there might be tears. But hope was all,
And all to him was nothing: he was lost. 
And yet he was not lost: he was astray— 
Out of his life and in another life; 
And in the stillness of this other life 
He wondered and he drowsed. He wondered when
It was, and wondered if it ever was 
On earth that he had known the other face— 
The searching face, the eloquent, strange face— 
That with a sightless beauty looked at him 
And with a speechless promise uttered words
That were not the world’s words, or any kind 
That he had known before. What was it, then? 
What was it held him—fascinated him? 
Why should he not be human? He could sigh, 
And he could even groan,—but what of that?
There was no grief left in him. Was he glad? 

Yet how could he be glad, or reconciled, 
Or anything but wretched and undone? 
How could he be so frigid and inert— 
So like a man with water in his veins
Where blood had been a little while before? 
How could he sit shut in there like a snail? 
What ailed him? What was on him? Was he glad? 
Over and over again the question came, 
Unanswered and unchanged,—and there he was.
But what in heaven’s name did it all mean? 
If he had lived as other men had lived, 
If home had ever shown itself to be 
The counterfeit that others had called home, 
Then to this undivined resource of his
There were some key; but now … Philosophy? 
Yes, he could reason in a kind of way 
That he was glad for Miriam’s release— 
Much as he might be glad to see his friends 
Laid out around him with their grave-clothes on,
And this life done for them; but something else 
There was that foundered reason, overwhelmed it, 
And with a chilled, intuitive rebuff 
Beat back the self-cajoling sophistries 
That his half-tutored thought would half-project.

What was it, then? Had he become transformed 
And hardened through long watches and long grief 
Into a loveless, feelingless dead thing 
That brooded like a man, breathed like a man,— 
Did everything but ache? And was a day
To come some time when feeling should return 
Forever to drive off that other face— 
The lineless, indistinguishable face— 
That once had thrilled itself between his own 
And hers there on the pillow,—and again
Between him and the coffin-lid had flashed 
Like fate before it closed,—and at the last 
Had come, as it should seem, to stay with him, 
Bidden or not? He were a stranger then, 
Foredrowsed awhile by some deceiving draught
Of poppied anguish, to the covert grief 
And the stark loneliness that waited him, 
And for the time were cursedly endowed 
With a dull trust that shammed indifference 
To knowing there would be no touch again
Of her small hand on his, no silencing 
Of her quick lips on his, no feminine 
Completeness and love-fragrance in the house, 
No sound of some one singing any more, 
No smoothing of slow fingers on his hair,
No shimmer of pink slippers on brown tiles. 

But there was nothing, nothing, in all that: 
He had not fooled himself so much as that; 
He might be dreaming or he might be sick, 
But not like that. There was no place for fear,
No reason for remorse. There was the book 
That he had made, though.… It might be the book; 
Perhaps he might find something in the book; 
But no, there could be nothing there at all— 
He knew it word for word; but what it meant—
He was not sure that he had written it 
For what it meant; and he was not quite sure 
That he had written it;—more likely it 
Was all a paper ghost.… But the dead wife 
Was real: he knew all that, for he had been
To see them bury her; and he had seen 
The flowers and the snow and the stripped limbs 
Of trees; and he had heard the preacher pray; 
And he was back again, and he was glad. 
Was he a brute? No, he was not a brute:
He was a man—like any other man: 
He had loved and married his wife Miriam, 
They had lived a little while in paradise 
And she was gone; and that was all of it. 

But no, not all of it—not all of it:
There was the book again; something in that 
Pursued him, overpowered him, put out 
The futile strength of all his whys and wheres, 
And left him unintelligibly numb— 
Too numb to care for anything but rest.
It must have been a curious kind of book 
That he had made it: it was a drowsy book 
At any rate. The very thought of it 
Was like the taste of some impossible drink— 
A taste that had no taste, but for all that
Had mixed with it a strange thought-cordial, 
So potent that it somehow killed in him 
The ultimate need of doubting any more— 
Of asking any more. Did he but live 
The life that he must live, there were no more
To seek.—The rest of it was on the way. 

Still there was nothing, nothing, in all this— 
Nothing that he cared now to reconcile 
With reason or with sorrow. All he knew 
For certain was that he was tired out:
His flesh was heavy and his blood beat small; 
Something supreme had been wrenched out of him 
As if to make vague room for something else. 
He had been through too much. Yes, he would stay 
There where he was and rest.—And there he stayed;
The daylight became twilight, and he stayed; 
The flame and the face faded, and he slept. 
And they had buried her that afternoon, 
Under the tight-screwed lid of a long box, 
Under the earth, under the leaves and snow.


II

Look where she would, feed conscience how she might, 
There was but one way now for Damaris— 
One straight way that was hers, hers to defend, 
At hand, imperious. But the nearness of it, 
The flesh-bewildering simplicity,
And the plain strangeness of it, thrilled again 
That wretched little quivering single string 
Which yielded not, but held her to the place 
Where now for five triumphant years had slept 
The flameless dust of Argan.—He was gone,
The good man she had married long ago; 
And she had lived, and living she had learned, 
And surely there was nothing to regret: 
Much happiness had been for each of them, 
And they had been like lovers to the last:
And after that, and long, long after that, 
Her tears had washed out more of widowed grief 
Than smiles had ever told of other joy.— 
But could she, looking back, find anything 
That should return to her in the new time,
And with relentless magic uncreate 
This temple of new love where she had thrown 
Dead sorrow on the altar of new life? 
Only one thing, only one thread was left; 
When she broke that, when reason snapped it off,
And once for all, baffled, the grave let go 
The trivial hideous hold it had on her,— 
Then she were free, free to be what she would, 
Free to be what she was.—And yet she stayed, 
Leashed, as it were, and with a cobweb strand,
Close to a tombstone—maybe to starve there. 

But why to starve? And why stay there at all? 
Why not make one good leap and then be done 
Forever and at once with Argan’s ghost 
And all such outworn churchyard servitude?
For it was Argan’s ghost that held the string, 
And her sick fancy that held Argan’s ghost— 
Held it and pitied it. She laughed, almost, 
There for the moment; but her strained eyes filled 
With tears, and she was angry for those tears—
Angry at first, then proud, then sorry for them. 
So she grew calm; and after a vain chase 
For thoughts more vain, she questioned of herself 
What measure of primeval doubts and fears 
Were still to be gone through that she might win
Persuasion of her strength and of herself 
To be what she could see that she must be, 
No matter where the ghost was.—And the more 
She lived, the more she came to recognize 
That something out of her thrilled ignorance
Was luminously, proudly being born, 
And thereby proving, thought by forward thought, 
The prowess of its image; and she learned 
At length to look right on to the long days 
Before her without fearing. She could watch
The coming course of them as if they were 
No more than birds, that slowly, silently, 
And irretrievably should wing themselves 
Uncounted out of sight. And when he came 
Again, she might be free—she would be free.
Else, when he looked at her she must look down, 
Defeated, and malignly dispossessed 
Of what was hers to prove and in the proving 
Wisely to consecrate. And if the plague 
Of that perverse defeat should come to be—
If at that sickening end she were to find 
Herself to be the same poor prisoner 
That he had found at first—then she must lose 
All sight and sound of him, she must abjure 
All possible thought of him; for he would go
So far and for so long from her that love— 
Yes, even a love like his, exiled enough, 
Might for another’s touch be born again— 
Born to be lost and starved for and not found; 
Or, at the next, the second wretchedest,
It might go mutely flickering down and out, 
And on some incomplete and piteous day, 
Some perilous day to come, she might at last 
Learn, with a noxious freedom, what it is 
To be at peace with ghosts. Then were the blow
Thrice deadlier than any kind of death 
Could ever be: to know that she had won 
The truth too late—there were the dregs indeed 
Of wisdom, and of love the final thrust 
Unmerciful; and there where now did lie
So plain before her the straight radiance 
Of what was her appointed way to take, 
Were only the bleak ruts of an old road 
That stretched ahead and faded and lay far 
Through deserts of unconscionable years.

But vampire thoughts like these confessed the doubt 
That love denied; and once, if never again, 
They should be turned away. They might come back— 
More craftily, perchance, they might come back— 
And with a spirit-thirst insatiable
Finish the strength of her; but now, today 
She would have none of them. She knew that love 
Was true, that he was true, that she was true; 
And should a death-bed snare that she had made 
So long ago be stretched inexorably
Through all her life, only to be unspun 
With her last breathing? And were bats and threads, 
Accursedly devised with watered gules, 
To be Love’s heraldry? What were it worth 
To live and to find out that life were life
But for an unrequited incubus 
Of outlawed shame that would not be thrown down 
Till she had thrown down fear and overcome 
The woman that was yet so much of her 
That she might yet go mad? What were it worth
To live, to linger, and to be condemned 
In her submission to a common thought 
That clogged itself and made of its first faith 
Its last impediment? What augured it, 
Now in this quick beginning of new life,
To clutch the sunlight and be feeling back, 
Back with a scared fantastic fearfulness, 
To touch, not knowing why, the vexed-up ghost 
Of what was gone? 

Yes, there was Argan’s face,
Pallid and pinched and ruinously marked 
With big pathetic bones; there were his eyes, 
Quiet and large, fixed wistfully on hers; 
And there, close-pressed again within her own, 
Quivered his cold thin fingers. And, ah! yes,
There were the words, those dying words again, 
And hers that answered when she promised him. 
Promised him? … yes. And had she known the truth 
Of what she felt that he should ask her that, 
And had she known the love that was to be,
God knew that she could not have told him then. 
But then she knew it not, nor thought of it; 
There was no need of it; nor was there need 
Of any problematical support 
Whereto to cling while she convinced herself
That love’s intuitive utility, 
Inexorably merciful, had proved 
That what was human was unpermanent 
And what was flesh was ashes. She had told 
Him then that she would love no other man,
That there was not another man on earth 
Whom she could ever love, or who could make 
So much as a love thought go through her brain; 
And he had smiled. And just before he died 
His lips had made as if to say something—
Something that passed unwhispered with his breath, 
Out of her reach, out of all quest of it. 
And then, could she have known enough to know 
The meaning of her grief, the folly of it, 
The faithlessness and the proud anguish of it,
There might be now no threads to punish her, 
No vampire thoughts to suck the coward blood, 
The life, the very soul of her. 

Yes, Yes, 
They might come back.… But why should they come back?
Why was it she had suffered? Why had she 
Struggled and grown these years to demonstrate 
That close without those hovering clouds of gloom 
And through them here and there forever gleamed 
The Light itself, the life, the love, the glory,
Which was of its own radiance good proof 
That all the rest was darkness and blind sight? 
And who was she? The woman she had known— 
The woman she had petted and called “I”— 
The woman she had pitied, and at last
Commiserated for the most abject 
And persecuted of all womankind,— 
Could it be she that had sought out the way 
To measure and thereby to quench in her 
The woman’s fear—the fear of her not fearing?
A nervous little laugh that lost itself, 
Like logic in a dream, fluttered her thoughts 
An instant there that ever she should ask 
What she might then have told so easily— 
So easily that Annandale had frowned,
Had he been given wholly to be told 
The truth of what had never been before 
So passionately, so inevitably 
Confessed. 

For she could see from where she sat
The sheets that he had bound up like a book 
And covered with red leather; and her eyes 
Could see between the pages of the book, 
Though her eyes, like them, were closed. And she could read 
As well as if she had them in her hand,
What he had written on them long ago,— 
Six years ago, when he was waiting for her. 
She might as well have said that she could see 
The man himself, as once he would have looked 
Had she been there to watch him while he wrote
Those words, and all for her.… For her whose face 
Had flashed itself, prophetic and unseen, 
But not unspirited, between the life 
That would have been without her and the life 
That he had gathered up like frozen roots
Out of a grave-clod lying at his feet, 
Unconsciously, and as unconsciously 
Transplanted and revived. He did not know 
The kind of life that he had found, nor did 
He doubt, not knowing it; but well he knew
That it was life—new life, and that the old 
Might then with unimprisoned wings go free, 
Onward and all along to its own light, 
Through the appointed shadow. 

While she gazed
Upon it there she felt within herself 
The growing of a newer consciousness— 
The pride of something fairer than her first 
Outclamoring of interdicted thought 
Had ever quite foretold; and all at once
There quivered and requivered through her flesh, 
Like music, like the sound of an old song, 
Triumphant, love-remembered murmurings 
Of what for passion’s innocence had been 
Too mightily, too perilously hers,
Ever to be reclaimed and realized 
Until today. Today she could throw off 
The burden that had held her down so long, 
And she could stand upright, and she could see 
The way to take, with eyes that had in them
No gleam but of the spirit. Day or night, 
No matter; she could see what was to see— 
All that had been till now shut out from her, 
The service, the fulfillment, and the truth, 
And thus the cruel wiseness of it all.

So Damaris, more like than anything 
To one long prisoned in a twilight cave 
With hovering bats for all companionship, 
And after time set free to fight the sun, 
Laughed out, so glad she was to recognize
The test of what had been, through all her folly, 
The courage of her conscience; for she knew, 
Now on a late-flushed autumn afternoon 
That else had been too bodeful of dead things 
To be endured with aught but the same old
Inert, self-contradicted martyrdom 
Which she had known so long, that she could look 
Right forward through the years, nor any more 
Shrink with a cringing prescience to behold 
The glitter of dead summer on the grass,
Or the brown-glimmered crimson of still trees 
Across the intervale where flashed along, 
Black-silvered, the cold river. She had found, 
As if by some transcendent freakishness 
Of reason, the glad life that she had sought
Where naught but obvious clouds could ever be— 
Clouds to put out the sunlight from her eyes, 
And to put out the love-light from her soul. 
But they were gone—now they were all gone; 
And with a whimsied pathos, like the mist
Of grief that clings to new-found happiness 
Hard wrought, she might have pity for the small 
Defeated quest of them that brushed her sight 
Like flying lint—lint that had once been thread.… 
Yes, like an anodyne, the voice of him,
There were the words that he had made for her, 
For her alone. The more she thought of them 
The more she lived them, and the more she knew 
The life-grip and the pulse of warm strength in them. 
They were the first and last of words to her,
And there was in them a far questioning 
That had for long been variously at work, 
Divinely and elusively at work, 
With her, and with the grace that had been hers; 
They were eternal words, and they diffused
A flame of meaning that men’s lexicons 
Had never kindled; they were choral words 
That harmonized with love’s enduring chords 
Like wisdom with release; triumphant words 
That rang like elemental orisons
Through ages out of ages; words that fed 
Love’s hunger in the spirit; words that smote; 
Thrilled words that echoed, and barbed words that clung;— 
And every one of them was like a friend 
Whose obstinate fidelity, well tried,
Had found at last and irresistibly 
The way to her close conscience, and thereby 
Revealed the unsubstantial Nemesis 
That she had clutched and shuddered at so long; 
And every one of them was like a real
And ringing voice, clear toned and absolute, 
But of a love-subdued authority 
That uttered thrice the plain significance 
Of what had else been generously vague 
And indolently true. It may have been
The triumph and the magic of the soul, 
Unspeakably revealed, that finally 
Had reconciled the grim probationing 
Of wisdom with unalterable faith, 
But she could feel—not knowing what it was,
For the sheer freedom of it—a new joy 
That humanized the latent wizardry 
Of his prophetic voice and put for it 
The man within the music. 

So it came
To pass, like many a long-compelled emprise 
That with its first accomplishment almost 
Annihilates its own severity, 
That she could find, whenever she might look, 
The certified achievement of a love
That had endured, self-guarded and supreme, 
To the glad end of all that wavering; 
And she could see that now the flickering world 
Of autumn was awake with sudden bloom, 
New-born, perforce, of a slow bourgeoning.
And she had found what more than half had been 
The grave-deluded, flesh-bewildered fear 
Which men and women struggle to call faith, 
To be the paid progression to an end 
Whereat she knew the foresight and the strength
To glorify the gift of what was hers, 
To vindicate the truth of what she was. 
And had it come to her so suddenly? 
There was a pity and a weariness 
In asking that, and a great needlessness;
For now there were no wretched quivering strings 
That held her to the churchyard any more: 
There were no thoughts that flapped themselves like bats 
Around her any more. The shield of love 
Was clean, and she had paid enough to learn
How it had always been so. And the truth, 
Like silence after some far victory, 
Had come to her, and she had found it out 
As if it were a vision, a thing born 
So suddenly!—just as a flower is born,
Or as a world is born—so suddenly. 

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Poet: Edwin Arlington Robinson
Poem: The Book of Annandale
Poem of the Day: Apr 1 2014
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