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Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935). Collected Poems. 1921.

III. Captain Craig, Etc.

2. 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.