Verse > Anthologies > The World’s Best Poetry > Vol. IX. Tragedy: Humor
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Bliss Carman, et al., eds.  The World’s Best Poetry.
Volume IX. Tragedy: Humor.  1904.
 
Poems of Tragedy: IX. Russia
Ivàn Ivànovitch
Robert Browning (1812–1889)
 
EARLY one winter morn, in such a village as this,
Snow-whitened everywhere except the middle road
Ice-roughed by track of sledge, there worked by his abode
Ivàn Ivànovitch, the carpenter, employed
On a huge shipmast trunk; his axe now trimmed and toyed        5
With branch and twig, and now some chop athwart the bole
Changed bole to billets, bared at once the sap and soul.
About him, watched the work his neighbors sheepskin-clad;
Each bearded mouth puffed steam, each gray eye twinkled glad
To see the sturdy arm which, never stopping play,        10
Proved strong man’s blood still boils, freeze winter as he may.
Sudden, a burst of bells. Out of the road, on edge
Of the hamlet—horse’s hoofs galloping. “How, a sledge?
What ’s here?” cried all as—in, up to the open space,
Workyard and market-ground, folk’s common meeting-place,—        15
Stumbled on, till he fell, in one last bound for life,
A horse; and, at his heels, a sledge held—“Dmìtri’s wife!
Back without Dmìtri too! and children—where are they?
Only a frozen corpse!”

                They drew it forth: then—“Nay,
Not dead, though like to die! Gone hence a month ago:        20
Home again, this rough jaunt—alone through night and snow—
What can the cause be? Hark—Droug, old horse, how he groans:
His day ’s done! Chafe away, keep chafing, for she moans:
She ’s coming to! Give here: see, motherkin, your friends!
Cheer up, all safe at home! Warm inside makes amends        25
For outside cold,—sup quick! Don’t look as we were bears!
What is it startles you? What strange adventure stares
Up at us in your face? You know friends—which is which?
I ’m Vàssili, he ’s Sergeì, Ivàn Ivànovitch”—
 
At the word, the woman’s eyes, slow-wandering till they neared        30
The blue eyes o’er the bush of honey-colored beard,
Took in full light and sense and—torn to rags, some dream
Which hid the naked truth—O loud and long the scream
She gave, as if all power of voice within her throat
Poured itself wild away to waste in one dread note!        35
Then followed gasps and sobs, and then the steady flow
Of kindly tears: the brain was saved, a man might know.
Down fell her face upon the good friend’s propping knee;
His broad hands smoothed her head, as fain to brush it free
From fancies, swarms that stung like bees unhived. He soothed—        40
“Loukèria, Loùscha!”—still he, fondling, smoothed and smoothed.
At last her lips formed speech.

                    “Ivàn, dear—you indeed?
You, just the same dear you! While I … Oh, intercede,
Sweet Mother, with thy Son Almighty—let his might
Bring yesterday once more, undo all done last night!        45
But this time yesterday, Ivàn, I sat like you,
A child on either knee, and, dearer than the two,
A babe inside my arms, close to my heart—that ’s lost
In morsels o’er the snow! Father, Son, Holy Ghost,
Cannot you bring again my blessèd yesterday?”        50
 
When no more tears would flow, she told her tale: this way.
 
“Maybe, a month ago,—was it not?—news came here,
They wanted, deeper down, good workmen fit to rear
A church and roof it in. ‘We ’ll go,’ my husband said:
‘None understands like me to melt and mould their lead.’        55
So, friends here helped us off—Ivàn, dear, you the first!
How gay we jingled forth, all five—(my heart will burst)—
While Dmìtri shook the reins, urged Droug upon his track!
 
“Well, soon the month ran out, we just were coming back,
When yesterday—behold, the village was on fire!        60
Fire ran from house to house. What help, as, nigh and nigher,
The flames came furious? ‘Haste,’ cried Dmìtri, ‘men must do
The little good man may: to sledge and in with you,
You and our three! We check the fire by laying flat
Each building in its path,—I needs must stay for that,—        65
But you … no time for talk! Wrap round you every rug,
Cover the couple close,—you ’ll have the babe to hug.
No care to guide old Droug, he knows his way, by guess,
Once start him on the road: but chirrup, none the less!
The snow lies glib as glass and hard as steel, and soon        70
You ’ll have rise, fine and full, a marvel of a moon.
Hold straight up, all the same, this lighted twist of pitch!
Once home and with our friend Ivàn Ivànovitch,
All ’s safe: I have my pay in pouch, all ’s right with me,
So I but find as safe you and our precious three!        75
Off, Droug!’—because the flames had reached us, and the men
Shouted, ‘But lend a hand, Dmìtri—as good as ten!’
 
“So, in we bundled—I and those God gave me once;
Old Droug, that ’s stiff at first, seemed youthful for the nonce:
He understood the case, galloping straight ahead.        80
Out came the moon: my twist soon dwindled, feebly red
In that unnatural day—yes, daylight bred between
Moonlight and snow-light, lamped those grotto-depths which screen
Such devils from God’s eye. Ah, pines, how straight you grow,
Nor bend one pitying branch, true breed of brutal snow!        85
Some undergrowth had served to keep the devils blind
While we escaped outside their border!

                        “Was that—wind?
Anyhow, Droug starts, stops, back go his ears, he snuffs,
Snorts,—never such a snort! then plunges, knows the sough ’s
Only the wind: yet, no—our breath goes up too straight!        90
Still the low sound,—less low, loud, louder, at a rate
There ’s no mistaking more! Shall I lean out—look—learn
The truth whatever it be? Pad, pad! At last, I turn—
 
“’T is the regular pad of the wolves in pursuit of the life in the sledge!
An army they are: close-packed they press like the thrust of a wedge:        95
They increase as they hunt: for I see, through the pine-trunks ranged each side,
Slip forth new fiend and fiend, make wider and still more wide
The four-footed steady advance. The foremost—none may pass:
They are the elders and lead the line, eye and eye—green-glowing brass!
But a long way distant still. Droug, save us! He does his best:        100
Yet they gain on us, gain, till they reach,—one reaches … How utter the rest?
O that Satan-faced first of the band! How he lolls out the length of his tongue,
How he laughs and lets gleam his white teeth! He is on me, his paws pry among
The wraps and the rugs! O my pair, my twin-pigeons, lie still and seem dead!
Stepàn, he shall never have you for a meal,—here ’s your mother instead!        105
No, he will not be counselled—must cry, poor Stiòpka, so foolish! though first
Of my boy-brood, he was not the best: nay, neighbors called him the worst:
He was puny, an undersized slip,—a darling to me, all the same!
But little there was to be praised in the boy, and a plenty to blame.
I loved him with heart and soul, yes—but, deal him a blow for a fault,        110
He would sulk for whole days. ‘Foolish boy! lie still or the villain will vault,
Will snatch you from over my head!’ No use! he cries, he screams,—who can hold
Fast a boy in frenzy of fear! It follows—as I foretold!
The Satan-face snatched and snapped: I tugged, I tore, and then
His brother too needs must shriek! If one must go, ’t is men        115
The Tsar needs, so we hear, not ailing boys! Perhaps
My hands relaxed their grasp, got tangled in the wraps:
God, he was gone! I looked: there tumbled the cursed crew,
Each fighting for a share: too busy to pursue!
That ’s so far gain at least: Droug, gallop another verst        120
Or two, or three—God sends we beat them, arrive the first!
A mother who boasts two boys was ever accounted rich:
Some have not a boy: some have, but lose him,—God knows which
Is worse: how pitiful to see your weakling pine
And pale and pass away! Strong brats, this pair of mine!        125
 
“O misery! for while I settle to what near seems
Content, I am ’ware again of the tramp, and again there gleams—
Point and point—the line, eyes, levelled green brassy fire!
So soon is resumed your chase? Will nothing appease, naught tire
The furies? And yet I think—I am certain the race is slack,        130
And the numbers are nothing like. Not a quarter of the pack!
Feasters and those full-fed are staying behind … Ah, why?
We ’ll sorrow for that too soon! Now,—gallop, reach home and die,
Nor ever again leave house, to trust our life in the trap
For life—we call a sledge! Teriòscha, in my lap!        135
Yes, I ’ll lie down upon you, tight-tie you with the strings
Here—of my heart! No fear, this time, your mother flings …
Flings? I flung? Never! But think!—a woman, after all,
Contending with a wolf! Save you I must and shall,
Terentiì!        140
 
“How now? What, you still head the race,
Your eyes and tongue and teeth crave fresh food,
      Satan-face?
      Flash again?
There and there! Plain I struck green fire out!        145
All a poor fist can do to damage eyes proves vain!
My fist—why not crunch that? He is wanton for … O God,
Why give this wolf his taste? Common wolves scrape and prod
The earth till out they scratch some corpse—mere putrid flesh!
Why must this glutton leave the faded, choose the fresh?        150
Terentiì—God, feel!—his neck keeps fast thy bag
Of holy things, saints’ bones, this Satan-face will drag
Forth, and devour along with him, our Pope declared
The relics were to save from danger!

                        “Spurned, not spared!
’T was through my arms, crossed arms, he—nuzzling now with snout,        155
Now ripping, tooth and claw—plucked, pulled Terentiì out,
A prize indeed! I saw—how could I else but see?—
My precious one—I bit to hold back—pulled from me!
Up came the others, fell to dancing—did the imps!—
Skipped as they scampered round. There ’s one is gray, and limps:        160
Who knows but old bad Màrpha—she always owed me spite
And envied me my births—skulks out of doors at night
And turns into a wolf, and joins the sisterhood,
And laps the youthful life, then slinks from out the wood,
Squats down at the door by dawn, spins there demure as erst        165
—No strength, old crone—not she!—to crawl forth half a verst!
 
“Well, I escaped with one: ’twixt one and none there lies
The space ’twixt heaven and hell. And see, a rose-light dyes
The endmost snow: ’t is dawn, ’t is day, ’t is safe at home!
We have outwitted you! Ay, monsters, snarl and foam,        170
Fight each the other fiend, disputing for a share,—
Forgetful in your greed, our finest off we bear,
Tough Droug and I,—my babe, my boy that shall be man,
My man that shall be more, do all a hunter can
To trace and follow and find and catch and crucify        175
Wolves, wolfkins, all your crew! A thousand deaths shall die
The whimperingest cub that ever squeezed the teat!
‘Take that!’ we ’ll stab you with,—‘the tenderness we met
When, wretches, you danced round,—not this, thank God—not this!
Hellhounds, we balk you!’        180
 
“But—Ah, God above!—Bliss, bliss,—
Not the band, no! And yet—yes, for Droug knows him! One—
This only of them all has said ‘She saves a son!’
His fellows disbelieve such luck: but he believes,
He lets them pick the bones, laugh at him in their sleeves:        185
He ’s off and after us,—one speck, one spot, one ball
Grows bigger, bound on bound,—one wolf as good as all!
Oh, but I know the trick! Have at the snaky tongue!
That ’s the right way with wolves! Go, tell your mates I wrung
The panting morsel out, left you to howl your worst!        190
Now for it—now! Ah me, I know him—thrice-accurst
Satan-face,—him to the end my foe!

                            “All fight ’s in vain:
This time the green-brass points pierce to my very brain.
I fall—fall as I ought—quite on the babe I guard:
I overspread with flesh the whole of him. Too hard        195
To die this way, torn piecemeal? Move hence? Not I—one inch!
Gnaw through me, through and through: flat thus I lie nor flinch!
O God, the feel of the fang furrowing my shoulder!—see!
It grinds—it grates the bone. O Kìrill under me,
Could I do more? Besides he knew the wolf’s way to win:        200
I clung, closed round like wax: yet in he wedged and in,
Past my neck, past my breasts, my heart, until … how feels
The onion-bulb your knife parts, pushing through its peels,
Till out you scoop its clove wherein lie stalk and leaf
And bloom and seed unborn?

                “That slew me: yes, in brief,
        205
I died then, dead I lay doubtlessly till Droug stopped
Here, I suppose. I come to life, I find me propped
Thus,—how or when or why—I know not. Tell me, friends,
All was a dream: laugh quick and say the nightmare ends!
Soon I shall find my house: ’t is over there: in proof,        210
Save for that chimney heaped with snow, you ’d see the roof
Which holds my three—my two—my one—not one?

                            “Life ’s mixed
With misery, yet we live—must live. The Satan fixed
His face on mine so fast, I took its print as pitch
Takes what it cools beneath. Ivàn Ivànovitch,        215
’T is you unharden me, you thaw, disperse the thing!
Only keep looking kind, the horror will not cling,
Your face smooths fast away each print of Satan. Tears
—What good they do! Life ’s sweet, and all its after-years,
Ivàn Ivànovitch, I owe you! Yours am I!        220
May God reward you, dear!”

                    Down she sank. Solemnly
Ivàn rose, raised his axe,—for fitly as she knelt,
Her head lay: well apart, each side, her arms hung,—dealt
Lightning-swift thunder-strong one blow—no need of more!
Headless she knelt on still: that pine was sound of core        225
(Neighbors used to say)—cast-iron-kernelled—which
Taxed for a second stroke Ivàn Ivànovitch.
 
The man was scant of words as strokes. “It had to be:
I could no other: God it was, bade ‘Act for me!’”
Then stooping, peering round—what is it now he lacks?        230
A proper strip of bark wherewith to wipe his axe,
Which done, he turns, goes in, closes the door behind.
The others mute remain, watching the blood-snake wind
Into a hiding-place among the splinter-heaps.
 
At length, still mute, all move: one lifts—from where it steeps        235
Redder each ruddy rag of pine—the head: two more
Take up the dripping body: then, mute still as before,
Move in a sort of march, march on till marching ends
Opposite to the church; where halting,—who suspends,
By its long hair, the thing, deposits in its place        240
The piteous head: once more the body shows no trace
Of harm done: there lies whole the Loùscha, maid and wife
And mother, loved until this latest of her life.
Then all sit on the bank of snow which bounds a space
Kept free before the porch of judgment: just the place!        245
 
Presently all the souls, man, woman, child which make
The village up, are found assembling for the sake
Of what is to be done. The very Jews are there:
A Gypsy-troop, though bound with horses for the Fair,
Squats with the rest. Each heart with its conception seethes        250
And simmers, but no tongue speaks: one may say,—none breathes.
 
Anon from out the church totters the Pope—the priest—
Hardly alive, so old, a hundred years at least.
With him, the Commune’s head, a hoary senior too,
Stàrosta, that ’s his style,—like Equity Judge with you,—        255
Natural Jurisconsult: then, fenced about with furs,
Pomeschik—Lord of the Land, who wields—and none demurs—
A power of life and death. They stoop, survey the corpse.
 
Then, straightened on his staff, the Stàrosta—the thorpe’s
Sagaciousest old man—hears what you just have heard,        260
From Droug’s first inrush, all, up to Ivàn’s last word—
“God bade me act for him: I dared not disobey!”
 
Silence—the Pomeschik broke with “A wild wrong way
Of righting wrong—if wrong there were, such wrath to rouse!
Why was not law observed?
*        *        *        *        *
        265
Ivàn Ivànovitch has done a deed that ’s named
Murder by law and me: who doubts, may speak unblamed!”
 
All turned to the old Pope. “Ay, children, I am old—
How old, myself have got to know no longer. Rolled
Quite round, my orb of life, from infancy to age,        270
Seems passing back again to youth. A certain stage
At least I reach, or dream I reach, where I discern
Truer truths, laws behold more lawlike than we learn
When first we set our foot to tread the course I trod
With man to guide my steps: who leads me now is God.        275
‘Your young men shall see visions:’ and in my youth I saw
And paid obedience to man’s visionary law:
‘Your old men shall dream dreams.’ And, in my age, a hand
Conducts me through the cloud round law to where I stand
Firm on its base,—know cause, who, before, knew effect.
*        *        *        *        *
        280
                                I hold he saw
The unexampled sin, ordained the novel law,
Whereof first instrument was first intelligence
Found loyal here. I hold that, failing human sense,
The very earth had oped, sky fallen, to efface        285
Humanity’s new wrong, motherhood’s first disgrace.
Earth oped not, neither fell the sky, for prompt was found
A man and man enough, head-sober and heart-sound
Ready to hear God’s voice, resolute to obey.
Ivàn Ivànovitch, I hold, has done, this day,        290
No otherwise than did, in ages long ago,
Moses when he made known the purport of that flow
Of fire athwart the law’s twain-tables! I proclaim
Ivàn Ivànovitch God’s servant!”
*        *        *        *        *
                    When the Amen grew dull        295
And died away and left acquittal plain adjudged,
“Amen!” last sighed the lord. “There ’s none shall say I grudged
Escape from punishment in such a novel case.
Deferring to old age and holy life,—be grace
Granted! say I. No less, scruples might shake a sense        300
Firmer than I boast mine. Law ’s law, and evidence
Of breach therein lies plain,—blood-red-bright—all may see!
Yet all absolve the deed: absolved the deed must be!”
*        *        *        *        *
So, while the youngers raised the corpse, the elders trooped
Silently to the house: where halting, some one stooped,        305
Listened beside the door; all there was silent too.
Then they held counsel; then pushed door and, passing through,
Stood in the murderer’s presence.
                        Ivàn Ivànovitch
Knelt, building on the floor that Kremlin rare and rich
He deftly cut and carved on lazy winter nights.        310
Some five young faces watched, breathlessly, as, to rights,
Piece upon piece, he reared the fabric nigh complete.
Stèscha, Ivàn’s old mother, sat spinning by the heat
Of the oven where his wife Kàtia stood baking bread.
Ivàn’s self, as he turned his honey-colored head,        315
Was just in the act to drop, ’twixt fir-cones,—each a dome,
The scooped-out yellow gourd presumably the home
Of Kolokol the Big: the bell, therein to hitch,
—An acorn-cup—was ready: Ivàn Ivànovitch
Turned with it in his mouth.

                    They told him he was free
        320
As air to walk abroad. “How otherwise?” asked he.
 
 
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