Verse > Anthologies > Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. > An American Anthology, 1787–1900
Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. (1833–1908).  An American Anthology, 1787–1900.  1900.
421. From “What Is the Use?”
By Erastus Wolcott Ellsworth
I SAW a man, by some accounted wise,
For some things said and done before their eyes,
Quite overcast, and, in a restless muse,
    Pacing a path about,
    And often giving out:        5
        “What is the use?”
Then I, with true respect: “What meanest thou
By those strange words, and that unsettled brow;
Health, wealth, the fair esteem of ample views?
    To these things thou art born.”        10
    But he, as one forlorn,
        “What is the use?
“I have surveyed the sages and their books,
Man, and the natural world of woods and brooks,
Seeking that perfect good that I would choose;        15
    But find no perfect good,
    Settled, and understood.
        What is the use?
“Life, in a poise, hangs trembling on the beam,
Even in a breath bounding to each extreme        20
Of Joy and sorrow; therefore I refuse
    All beaten ways of bliss,
    And only answer this:
        ‘What is the use?’
“Who ’ll care for me when I am dead and gone?        25
Not many now—and, surely, soon, not one;
And should I sing like an immortal Muse,
    Men, if they read the line,
    Read for their good, not mine;
        What is the use?        30
“And song, if passable, is doomed to pass—
Common, though sweet as the new-scythed grass.
Of human deeds and thoughts, Time bears no news,
    That, flying, he can lack,
    Else they would break his back.        35
        What is the use?
“Spirit of Beauty, breath of golden lyres,
Perpetual tremble of immortal wires,
Divinely torturing rapture of the Muse,
    Conspicuous wretchedness—        40
    Thou starry, sole success—
        What is the use?
“Doth not all struggle tell, upon its brow,
That he who makes it is not easy now,
But hopes to be? Vain Hope, that dost abuse,        45
    Coquetting with thine eyes,
    And fooling him who sighs!
        What is the use?
“Go, pry the lintels of the pyramids,
Lift the old kings’ mysterious coffin lids:        50
This dust was theirs, whose names these stones confuse,—
    These mighty monuments
    Of mighty discontents.
        What is the use?
“Did not he sum it all, whose gate of pearls        55
Blazed royal Ophir, Tyre, and Syrian girls,—
The great, wise, famous monarch of the Jews?
    Though rolled in grandeur vast,
    He said of all, at last,
        ‘What is the use?’        60
“Oh, but to take of life the natural good,
Even as a hermit caverned in a wood,
More sweetly fills my sober-suited views,
    Than sweating to attain
    Any luxurious pain.        65
        What is the use?
“Give me a hermit’s life, without his beads,
His lantern-jawed and moral-mouthing creeds;
Systems and creeds the natural heart abuse.
    What need of any Book,        70
    Or spiritual crook?
        What is the use?
“I love, and God is love. And I behold
Man, nature, God, one triple chain of gold,
Nature in all, sole Oracle and Muse.        75
    What should I seek at all,
    More than is natural?
        What is the use?”
Seeing this man so heathenly inclined,
So wilted in the mood of a good mind,        80
I felt a kind of heat of earnest thought,
    And studying in reply,
    Answered him, eye to eye:—
“Thou dost amaze me that thou dost mistake
The wandering rivers for the fountain lake:        85
What is the end of living?—happiness?—
    An end that none attain
    Argues a purpose vain.
“Plainly, this world is not a scope for bliss,
But duty. Yet we see not all that is,        90
Nor may be, some day, if we love the light:
    What man is, in desires,
    Whispers where man aspires.
“But what and where are we?—what now—to-day?
Souls on a globe that spins our lives away,        95
A multitudinous world, where heaven and hell,
    Strangely in battle met,
    Their gonfalons have set.
“Dust though we are, and shall return to dust,
Yet, being born to battles, fight we must;        100
Under which ensign is our only choice.
    We know to wage our best;
    God only knows the rest.
“Then, since we see about us sin and dole,
And some things good, why not, with hand and soul,        105
Wrestle and succor out of wrong and sorrow;
    Grasping the swords of strife;
    Making the most of life?
“Yea, all that we can wield is worth the end,
If sought as God’s and man’s most loyal friend;        110
Naked we come into the world, and take
    Weapons of various skill—
    Let us not use them ill.”


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