Verse > Anthologies > Harriet Monroe, ed. > Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, 1912–22
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Harriet Monroe, ed. (1860–1936).  Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.  1912–22.
 
Avenel Gray
By Edwin Arlington Robinson
 
AVENEL GRAY at fifty had gray hair,
Gray eyes, and a gray cat—coincidence
Agreeable enough to be approved
And shared by all her neighbors; or by all
Save one, who had, in his abused esteem,        5
No share of it worth having. Avenel Gray
At fifty had the favor and the grace
Of thirty—the gray hair being only a jest
Of time, he reasoned, whereby the gray eyes
Were maybe twenty or maybe a thousand.        10
Never could he persuade himself to say
Flow old or young they were, or what was in them,
Or whether in the mind or in the heart
Of their possessor there had ever been,
Or ever should be, more than room enough        15
For the undying dead. All he could say
Would be that she was now to him a child,
A little frightened or a little vexed,
And now a sort of Miss Methusaleh,
Adept and various in obscurity        20
And in omniscience rather terrible—
Until she smiled and was a child again,
Seeing with eyes that had no age in them
That his were growing older. Seneca Sprague
At fifty had hair grayer, such as it was,        25
Than Avenel’s—an atoll, as it were,
Circling a smooth lagoon of indignation,
Whereunder were concealed no treacheries
Or monsters that were perilous to provoke.
 
Seneca sat one Sunday afternoon        30
With Avenel in her garden. There was peace
And languor in the air, but in his mind
There was not either—there was Avenel;
And where she was, and she was everywhere,
There was no peace for Seneca. So today        35
Should see the last of him in any garden
Where a sphynx-child, with gray eyes and gray hair,
Would be the only flower that he might wish
To pluck, wishing in vain. “I’m here again,”
Seneca said, “and I’m not here alone;        40
You may observe that I’ve a guest with me
This time, Time being the guest. Scythe, glass, and all,
You have it, the whole ancient apparatus.
Time is a guest not given to long waiting,
And, in so far as you may not have known it,        45
I’m Destiny. For more than twenty years
My search has been for an identity
Worth Time’s acknowledgment; and heretofore
My search has been but a long faltering,
Paid with an unavailing gratitude        50
And unconfessed encouragement from you.
What is it in me that you like so much,
And love so little? I’m not so much a monkey
As many who have had their heart’s desire,
And have it still. My perishable angel,        55
Since neither you nor I may live forever
Like this, I’ll say the folly that has fooled us
Out of our lives was never mine, but yours.
There was an understanding long ago
Between the laws and atoms that your life        60
And mine together were to be a triumph;
But one contingency was overlooked,
And that was a complete one. All you love,
And all you dare to love, is far from here—
Too far for me to find where I am going.”        65
 
“Going?” Avenel said. “Where are you going?”
There was a frightened wonder in her eyes
Until she found a way for them to laugh:
“At first I thought you might be going to tell me
That you had found a new way to be old—        70
Maybe without remembering all the time
How gray we are. But when you soon began
To be so unfamiliar and ferocious—
Well, I began to wonder. I’m a woman.”
 
Seneca sighed before he shook his head        75
At Avenel: “You say you are a woman,
And I suppose you are. If you are not,
I don’t know what you are; and if you are,
I don’t know what you mean.”
                        “By what?” she said.
A faint bewildered flush covered her face,        80
While Seneca felt within her voice a note
As near to sharpness as a voice like hers
Might have in silent hiding. “What have I done
So terrible all at once that I’m a stranger?”
 
“You are no stranger than you always were,”        85
He said, “and you are not required to be so.
You are no stranger now than yesterday,
Or twenty years ago; or thirty years
Longer ago than that, when you were born—
You and your brother. I’m not here to scare you,        90
Or to pour any measure of reproach
Out of a surplus urn of chilly wisdom;
For watching you to find out whether or not
You shivered swallowing it would be no joy
For me. But since it has all come to this—        95
Which is the same as nothing, only worse,
I am not either wise or kind enough,
It seems, to go away from you in silence.
My wonder is today that I have been
So long in finding what there was to find,        100
Or rather in recognizing what I found
Long since and hid with incredulities
That years have worn away, leaving white bones
Before me in a desert. All those bones,
If strung together, would be a skeleton        105
That once upheld a living form of hope
For me to follow until at last it fell
Where there was only sand and emptiness.
For a long time there was not even a grave—
Hope having died there all alone, you see,        110
And in the dark. And you, being as you are,
Inseparable from your traditions—well,
I went so far last evening as to fancy,
Having no other counsellor than myself
To guide me, that you might be entertained,        115
If not instructed, hearing how far I wandered,
Following hope into an empty desert,
And what I found there. If we never know
What we have found, and are accordingly
Adrift upon the wreck of our invention,        120
We make our way as quietly to shore
As possible, and we say no more about it;
But if we know too well for our well-being
That what it is we know had best be shared
With one who knows too much of it already,        125
Even kindliness becomes, or may become,
A strangling and unwilling incubus.
A ghost would often help us if he could,
But being a ghost he can’t. I may confuse
Regret with wisdom, but in going so far        130
As not impossibly to be annoying,
My wish is that you see the part you are
Of nature. When you find anomalies here
Among your flowers and are surprised at them,
Consider yourself and be surprised again;        135
For they and their potential oddities
Are all a part of nature. So are you,
Though you be not a part that nature favors,
And favoring, carries on. You are a monster;
A most adorable and essential monster.”        140
 
He watched her face and waited, but she gave him
Only a baffled glance before there fell
So great a silence there among the flowers
That even their fragrance had almost a sound;
And some that had no fragrance may have had,        145
He fancied, an accusing voice of color
Which her pale cheeks now answered with another;
Wherefore he gazed a while at tiger-lilies
Hollyhocks, dahlias, asters and hydrangeas—
The generals of an old anonymous host        150
That he knew only by their shapes and faces.
Beyond them he saw trees; and beyond them
A still blue summer sky where there were stars
In hiding, as there might somewhere be veiled
Eternal reasons why the tricks of time        155
Were played like this. Two insects on a leaf
Would fill about as much of nature’s eye,
No doubt, as would a woman and a man
At odds with heritage. Yet there they sat,
A woman and a man, beyond the range        160
Of all deceit and all philosophy
To make them less or larger than they were.
The sun might only be a spark among
Superior stars, but one could not help that.
 
“If a grim God that watches each of us        165
In turn, like an old-fashioned schoolmaster,”
Seneca said, still gazing at the blue
Beyond the trees, “no longer satisfies,
Or tortures our credulity with harps
Or fires, who knows if there may not be laws        170
Harder for us to vanquish or evade
Than any tyrants? Rather, we know there are;
Or you would not be studying butterflies
While I’m encouraging Empedocles
In retrospect. He was a mountain-climber,        175
You may remember; and while I think of him,
I think if only there were more volcanoes,
More of us might be climbing to their craters
To find out what he found. You are sufficient,
You and your cumulative silences        180
Today, to make of his abysmal ashes
The dust of all our logic and our faith;
And since you can do that, you must have power
That you have never measured. Or, if you like,
A power too large for any measurement        185
Has done it for you, made you as you are,
And led me for the last time, possibly,
To bow before a phantom in your garden.”
He smiled—until he saw tears in her eyes,
And then remarked, “Here comes a friend of yours.        190
Pyrrhus, you call him. Pyrrhus because he purrs.”
 
“I found him reading Hamlet,” Avenel said;
“By which I mean that I was reading Hamlet.
But he’s an old cat now. And I’m another—
If you mean what you say, or seem to say.        195
If not, what in the world’s name do you mean?”
 
He met the futile question with a question
Almost as futile and almost as old:
“Why have I been so long learning to read,
Or learning to be willing to believe        200
That I was learning? All that I had to do
Was to remember that your brother once
Was here, and is here still. Why have I waited—
Why have you made me wait—so long to say so?”
Although he said it kindly, and foresaw        205
That in his kindness would be pain, he said it—
More to the blue beyond the trees, perhaps,
Or to the stars that moved invisibly
To laws implacable and inviolable,
Than to the stricken ears of Avenel,        210
Who looked at him as if to speak. He waited,
Until it seemed that all the leaves and flowers,
The butterflies and the cat, were waiting also.
 
“Am I the only woman alive,” she asked,
“Who has a brother she may not forget?        215
If you are here to be mysterious,
Ingenuousness like mine may disappoint you.
And there are women somewhere, certainly,
Riper for mysteries than I am yet.
You see me living always in one place,        220
And all alone.”
                “No, you are not alone,”
Seneca said: “I wish to God you were!
And I wish more that you had been so always,
That you might be so now. Your brother is here,
And yet he has not been here for ten years.        225
Though you’ve a skill to crowd your paradigms
Into a cage like that, and keep them there,
You may not yet be asking quite so much
Of others, for whom the present is not the past.
We are not all magicians; and Time himself        230
Who is already beckoning me away,
Would surely have been cut with his own scythe,
And long ago, if he had followed you
In all your caprioles and divagations.
You have deceived the present so demurely        235
That only few have been aware of it,
And you the least of all. You do not know
How much it was of you that was not you
That made me wait. And why I was so long
In seeing that it was never to be you,        240
Is not for you to tell me—for I know.
I was so long in seeing it was not you,
Because I would not see. I wonder, now,
If I should take you up and carry you off,
Like an addressable orang-outang,        245
You might forget the grave where half of you
Is buried alive, and where the rest of you,
Whatever you may believe it may be doing,
Is parlously employed.” As if to save
His mistress the convention of an answer,        250
The cat jumped up into her lap and purred,
Folded his paws, and looked at Seneca
Suspiciously. “I might almost have done it,”
He said, “if insight and experience
Had not assured me it would do no good.        255
Don’t be afraid. I have tried everything,
Only to be assured it was not you
That made me fail. If you were here alone,
You would not see the last of me so soon;
And even with you and the invisible        260
Together, maybe I might have seized you then
Just hard enough to leave you black and blue—
Not that you would have cared one way or other,
With him forever near you, and if unseen,
Always a refuge. No, I should not have hurt you.        265
It would have done no good—yet might perhaps
Have made me likelier to be going away
At the right time. Anyhow, damn the cat.”
 
Seneca looked at Avenel till she smiled,
And so let loose a tear that she had held        270
In each of her gray eyes. “I am too old,”
She said, “and too incorrigibly alone,
For you to laugh at me. You have been saying
More nonsense in an hour than I have heard
Before in forty years. Why do you do it?        275
Why do you talk like this of going away?
Where would you be, and what would you be doing?
You would be like a cat in a strange house—
Like Pyrrhus here in yours. I have not had
My years for nothing; and you are not so young        280
As to be quite so sure that I’m a child.
We are too old to be ridiculous,
And we’ve been friends too long.”
                    “We have been friends
Too long,” he said, “to be friends any longer.
And there you have the burden of a song        285
That I came here to sing this afternoon.
When I said friends you might have halted me,
For I meant neighbors.”
                “I know what you meant,”
Avenel answered, gazing at the sky,
And then at Seneca. “The great question is,        290
What made you say it? You mention powers and laws,
As if you understood them. Am I stranger
Than powers and laws that make me as I am?”
 
“God knows you are no stranger than you are,
For which I praise Him,” Seneca said, devoutly.        295
“I see no need of prayer to bring to pass
For me more prodigies or more difficulties.
I cry for them no longer when I know
That you are married to your brother’s ghost,
Even as you were married to your brother—        300
Never contending or suspecting it,
Yet married all the same. You are alone,
But only in so far as to my eyes
The sight of your beloved is unseen.
Why should I come between you and your ghost,        305
Whose hand is always chilly on my shoulder,
Drawing me back whenever I go forward?
I should have been acclaimed stronger than he
Before he died, but he can twist me now,
And I resign my dream to his dominion.        310
And if by chance of an uncertain urge
Of weariness or pity you might essay
The stranglings of a twofold loyalty,
The depth and length and width of my estate,
Measured magnanimously, would be but that        315
Of half a grave. I’d best be rational,
I’m saying therefore to myself today,
And leave you quiet. I can originate
No reason larger than a leucocyte
Why you should not, since there are two of you,        320
Be tranquil here together till the end.”
 
“You would not tell me this if it were true,
And I, if it were true, should not believe it,”
Said Avenel, stroking slowly with cold hands
The cat’s warm coat. “But I might still be vexed—        325
Yes, even with you; and that would be a pity.
It may be well for you to go away—
Or for a while—perhaps. I have not heard
Such an unpleasant nonsense anywhere
As this of yours. I like you, Seneca,        330
But not when you bring Time and Destiny,
As now you do, for company. When you come
Some other day, leave your two friends outside.
We have gone well without them for so long
That we shall hardly be tragedians now,        335
Not even if we may try; and we have been
Too long familiar with our differences
To quarrel—or to change.”
                    Avenel smiled
At Seneca with gray eyes wherein were drowned
Inquisitive injuries, and the gray cat yawned        340
At him as he departed with a sigh
That answered nothing. He went slowly home,
Imagining, as a fond improvisation,
That waves huger than Andes or Sierras
Would soon be overwhelming, as before,        345
A ship that would be sunk for the last time
With all on board, and far from Tilbury Town.
 
 
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