Variations On A Theme
‘Forgive the Sleeping Man’
Fallen on grass, the drought grass pale and brittle,
With such wide stretch of arid meadow
Beyond his round head, slack feet and around him;
Sleeping here he seems strayed, uncared-for, little—
Mean in his mean clothes, and I in my mean clothes watching,
And in the sun. Forgive the sleeping man:
Not careless, not at ease, not free in air,
Not living. Mortally sick instead, and the sickness catching.
Kill him we must. Not rouse. Already dead and swaddled
In cerements that already stink to heaven
He is dead, is dead.
By falling to sleep there unwarily he saddled
Himself with the weight of death and the weight is pressing—
Forgive the sleeping man, the dead man!
Ask grace for deed done. More easily than the murdered
Murderers find it—But from whence comes blessing?
God, awake always,
Forgive the sleeping man.
Man has not many days, and here in sunlight
Lies he sleeping, low down on the earth lying;
Lips set and solemn, head laid down as though the dying
Had been quite easy, and his gentle hair
Compassionately spread in wing-shape over brow.
Those who have not known sleep
Might well think waking fine.
This man lay down to weep and fell instead
Into the quietness of Man’s deep despair;
Lies now in the silence of the last word said.
Nothing is strange, or sorrowful, or new—
Quietly he sleeps, and does not even dream.
Oh the man that sleeps yet
Holds under his closed eyelids
The darkening, the fading ashes
Of that fire we remember;
Still we discern the fire,
The sharp tongues of a summer
Whose brief, immediate radiance
Sleeps beneath his eyelids.
The man who sleeps, whose soul has fled,
Is man-alone, whether he sleeps in bed
Or in the grave; let spirit but begone
And back comes innocence. With all his sinning done,
Man lies here tranquil now the God has fled.
The man who drowns, see how he rests his head!
I saw him once, saw him laid on the water dead;
And in the flowing stems of his meek hair,
In the arched throat, the swaying of his lightly pillowed head,
I saw all loveliness of sleep, and all care banished.
Trouble of thought, fevers, the spinning words,
Torment of right and wrong, of lost and found,
Loud daylight cries, the muffled night-winged birds,
Splinters of sky, masterful earth: when he forsook the ground
All these were conquered, and he so could lie
Gently upon the rocking water and untroubled die.
(Rousseau’s picture: ‘The Sleeping Gypsy’)
Who cried, long years ago, ‘Forgive the sleeping man’?
And now, who here sleeps, closed within the span
Of emptiness and light? Here lies the born,
And nothing in the landscape or the morning
Predicates death. Here woman newly made
Sleeps safely still, in opened light;
And here the lion Sun can stand beside her
Unthwarted yet by body’s cry for shade.
Here, tidy, side by side, her feet
Which never yet trod earth; her hands are still,
And she alone in all the empty land.
Whether the Lost Thing Found
Whether the lost thing found, the exile reaching coast
Late and at last, a wide ocean crossed
And foothold on soil once more:
Which, soul does not know for sure, but feels
Sometimes this, and sometimes as if she were still
Alien, a stateless creature, one without knowledge of home:
Until, on an evening perhaps, when the west wind steals
Like the ghost of summers past over the greying hill,
Suddenly soul awakes, and knows she has come
To the place that’s her own.
And now in welcome the sky
Lights star after star on high; and the world sails on,
Stately, a ship into darkness going, tall on the seas
Of calm and eternal night;
And all on board her are safe, and bound for home.1