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Captain Craig

Written by: Edwin Arlington Robinson | Biography
 | Quotes (9) |
 I

I doubt if ten men in all Tilbury Town 
Had ever shaken hands with Captain Craig, 
Or called him by his name, or looked at him 
So curiously, or so concernedly, 
As they had looked at ashes; but a few—
Say five or six of us—had found somehow 
The spark in him, and we had fanned it there, 
Choked under, like a jest in Holy Writ, 
By Tilbury prudence. He had lived his life 
And in his way had shared, with all mankind,
Inveterate leave to fashion of himself, 
By some resplendent metamorphosis, 
Whatever he was not. And after time, 
When it had come sufficiently to pass 
That he was going patch-clad through the streets,
Weak, dizzy, chilled, and half starved, he had laid 
Some nerveless fingers on a prudent sleeve, 
And told the sleeve, in furtive confidence, 
Just how it was: “My name is Captain Craig,” 
He said, “and I must eat.” The sleeve moved on,
And after it moved others—one or two; 
For Captain Craig, before the day was done, 
Got back to the scant refuge of his bed 
And shivered into it without a curse— 
Without a murmur even. He was cold,
And old, and hungry; but the worst of it 
Was a forlorn familiar consciousness 
That he had failed again. There was a time 
When he had fancied, if worst came to worst, 
And he could do no more, that he might ask
Of whom he would. But once had been enough, 
And soon there would be nothing more to ask. 
He was himself, and he had lost the speed 
He started with, and he was left behind. 
There was no mystery, no tragedy;
And if they found him lying on his back 
Stone dead there some sharp morning, as they might,— 
Well, once upon a time there was a man— 
Es war einmal ein König, if it pleased him. 
And he was right: there were no men to blame:
There was just a false note in the Tilbury tune— 
A note that able-bodied men might sound 
Hosannas on while Captain Craig lay quiet. 
They might have made him sing by feeding him 
Till he should march again, but probably
Such yielding would have jeopardized the rhythm; 
They found it more melodious to shout 
Right on, with unmolested adoration, 
To keep the tune as it had always been, 
To trust in God, and let the Captain starve.

He must have understood that afterwards— 
When we had laid some fuel to the spark 
Of him, and oxidized it—for he laughed 
Out loud and long at us to feel it burn, 
And then, for gratitude, made game of us:
“You are the resurrection and the life,” 
He said, “and I the hymn the Brahmin sings; 
O Fuscus! and we’ll go no more a-roving.” 
We were not quite accoutred for a blast 
Of any lettered nonchalance like that,
And some of us—the five or six of us 
Who found him out—were singularly struck. 
But soon there came assurance of his lips, 
Like phrases out of some sweet instrument 
Man’s hand had never fitted, that he felt
“No penitential shame for what had come, 
No virtuous regret for what had been,— 
But rather a joy to find it in his life 
To be an outcast usher of the soul 
For such as had good courage of the Sun
To pattern Love.” The Captain had one chair; 
And on the bottom of it, like a king, 
For longer time than I dare chronicle, 
Sat with an ancient ease and eulogized 
His opportunity. My friends got out,
Like brokers out of Arcady; but I— 
May be for fascination of the thing, 
Or may be for the larger humor of it— 
Stayed listening, unwearied and unstung. 
When they were gone the Captain’s tuneful ooze
Of rhetoric took on a change; he smiled 
At me and then continued, earnestly: 
“Your friends have had enough of it; but you, 
For a motive hardly vindicated yet 
By prudence or by conscience, have remained;
And that is very good, for I have things 
To tell you: things that are not words alone— 
Which are the ghosts of things—but something firmer. 
“First, would I have you know, for every gift 
Or sacrifice, there are—or there may be—
Two kinds of gratitude: the sudden kind 
We feel for what we take, the larger kind 
We feel for what we give. Once we have learned 
As much as this, we know the truth has been 
Told over to the world a thousand times;—
But we have had no ears to listen yet 
For more than fragments of it: we have heard 
A murmur now and then, and echo here 
And there, and we have made great music of it; 
And we have made innumerable books
To please the Unknown God. Time throws away 
Dead thousands of them, but the God that knows 
No death denies not one: the books all count, 
The songs all count; and yet God’s music has 
No modes, his language has no adjectives.”

“You may be right, you may be wrong,” said I; 
“But what has this that you are saying now— 
This nineteenth-century Nirvana-talk— 
To do with you and me?” The Captain raised 
His hand and held it westward, where a patched
And unwashed attic-window filtered in 
What barren light could reach us, and then said, 
With a suave, complacent resonance: “There shines 
The sun. Behold it. We go round and round, 
And wisdom comes to us with every whirl
We count throughout the circuit. We may say 
The child is born, the boy becomes a man, 
The man does this and that, and the man goes,— 
But having said it we have not said much, 
Not very much. Do I fancy, or you think,
That it will be the end of anything 
When I am gone? There was a soldier once 
Who fought one fight and in that fight fell dead. 
Sad friends went after, and they brought him home 
And had a brass band at his funeral,
As you should have at mine; and after that 
A few remembered him. But he was dead, 
They said, and they should have their friend no more.— 
However, there was once a starveling child— 
A ragged-vested little incubus,
Born to be cuffed and frighted out of all 
Capacity for childhood’s happiness— 
Who started out one day, quite suddenly, 
To drown himself. He ran away from home, 
Across the clover-fields and through the woods,
And waited on a rock above a stream, 
Just like a kingfisher. He might have dived, 
Or jumped, or he might not; but anyhow, 
There came along a man who looked at him 
With such an unexpected friendliness,
And talked with him in such a common way, 
That life grew marvelously different: 
What he had lately known for sullen trunks 
And branches, and a world of tedious leaves, 
Was all transmuted; a faint forest wind
That once had made the loneliest of all 
Sad sounds on earth, made now the rarest music; 
And water that had called him once to death 
Now seemed a flowing glory. And that man, 
Born to go down a soldier, did this thing.
Not much to do? Not very much, I grant you: 
Good occupation for a sonneteer, 
Or for a clown, or for a clergyman, 
But small work for a soldier. By the way, 
When you are weary sometimes of your own
Utility, I wonder if you find 
Occasional great comfort pondering 
What power a man has in him to put forth? 
‘Of all the many marvelous things that are, 
Nothing is there more marvelous than man,’
Said Sophocles; and he lived long ago; 
‘And earth, unending ancient of the gods 
He furrows; and the ploughs go back and forth, 
Turning the broken mould, year after year.’… 

“I turned a little furrow of my own
Once on a time, and everybody laughed— 
As I laughed afterwards; and I doubt not 
The First Intelligence, which we have drawn 
In our competitive humility 
As if it went forever on two legs,
Had some diversion of it: I believe 
God’s humor is the music of the spheres— 
But even as we draft omnipotence 
Itself to our own image, we pervert 
The courage of an infinite ideal
To finite resignation. You have made 
The cement of your churches out of tears 
And ashes, and the fabric will not stand: 
The shifted walls that you have coaxed and shored 
So long with unavailing compromise
Will crumble down to dust and blow away, 
And younger dust will follow after them; 
Though not the faintest or the farthest whirled 
First atom of the least that ever flew 
Shall be by man defrauded of the touch
God thrilled it with to make a dream for man 
When Science was unborn. And after time, 
When we have earned our spiritual ears, 
And art’s commiseration of the truth 
No longer glorifies the singing beast,
Or venerates the clinquant charlatan,— 
Then shall at last come ringing through the sun, 
Through time, through flesh, a music that is true. 
For wisdom is that music, and all joy 
That wisdom:—you may counterfeit, you think,
The burden of it in a thousand ways; 
But as the bitterness that loads your tears 
Makes Dead Sea swimming easy, so the gloom, 
The penance, and the woeful pride you keep, 
Make bitterness your buoyance of the world.
And at the fairest and the frenziedest 
Alike of your God-fearing festivals, 
You so compound the truth to pamper fear 
That in the doubtful surfeit of your faith 
You clamor for the food that shadows eat.
You call it rapture or deliverance,— 
Passion or exaltation, or what most 
The moment needs, but your faint-heartedness 
Lives in it yet: you quiver and you clutch 
For something larger, something unfulfilled,
Some wiser kind of joy that you shall have 
Never, until you learn to laugh with God.” 
And with a calm Socratic patronage, 
At once half sombre and half humorous, 
The Captain reverently twirled his thumbs
And fixed his eyes on something far away; 
Then, with a gradual gaze, conclusive, shrewd, 
And at the moment unendurable 
For sheer beneficence, he looked at me. 

“But the brass band?” I said, not quite at ease
With altruism yet.—He made a sort 
Of reminiscent little inward noise, 
Midway between a chuckle and a laugh, 
And that was all his answer: not a word 
Of explanation or suggestion came
From those tight-smiling lips. And when I left, 
I wondered, as I trod the creaking snow 
And had the world-wide air to breathe again,— 
Though I had seen the tremor of his mouth 
And honored the endurance of his hand—
Whether or not, securely closeted 
Up there in the stived haven of his den, 
The man sat laughing at me; and I felt 
My teeth grind hard together with a quaint 
Revulsion—as I recognize it now—
Not only for my Captain, but as well 
For every smug-faced failure on God’s earth; 
Albeit I could swear, at the same time, 
That there were tears in the old fellow’s eyes. 
I question if in tremors or in tears
There be more guidance to man’s worthiness 
Than—well, say in his prayers. But oftentimes 
It humors us to think that we possess 
By some divine adjustment of our own 
Particular shrewd cells, or something else,
What others, for untutored sympathy, 
Go spirit-fishing more than half their lives 
To catch—like cheerful sinners to catch faith; 
And I have not a doubt but I assumed 
Some egotistic attribute like this
When, cautiously, next morning I reduced 
The fretful qualms of my novitiate, 
For most part, to an undigested pride. 
Only, I live convinced that I regret 
This enterprise no more than I regret
My life; and I am glad that I was born. 

That evening, at “The Chrysalis,” I found 
The faces of my comrades all suffused 
With what I chose then to denominate 
Superfluous good feeling. In return,
They loaded me with titles of odd form 
And unexemplified significance, 
Like “Bellows-mender to Prince Æolus,” 
“Pipe-filler to the Hoboscholiast,” 
“Bread-fruit for the Non-Doing,” with one more
That I remember, and a dozen more 
That I forget. I may have been disturbed, 
I do not say that I was not annoyed, 
But something of the same serenity 
That fortified me later made me feel
For their skin-pricking arrows not so much 
Of pain as of a vigorous defect 
In this world’s archery. I might have tried, 
With a flat facetiousness, to demonstrate 
What they had only snapped at and thereby
Made out of my best evidence no more 
Than comfortable food for their conceit; 
But patient wisdom frowned on argument, 
With a side nod for silence, and I smoked 
A series of incurable dry pipes
While Morgan fiddled, with obnoxious care, 
Things that I wished he wouldn’t. Killigrew, 
Drowsed with a fond abstraction, like an ass, 
Lay blinking at me while he grinned and made 
Remarks. The learned Plunket made remarks.

It may have been for smoke that I cursed cats 
That night, but I have rather to believe 
As I lay turning, twisting, listening, 
And wondering, between great sleepless yawns, 
What possible satisfaction those dead leaves
Could find in sending shadows to my room 
And swinging them like black rags on a line, 
That I, with a forlorn clear-headedness 
Was ekeing out probation. I had sinned 
In fearing to believe what I believed,
And I was paying for it.—Whimsical, 
You think,—factitious; but “there is no luck, 
No fate, no fortune for us, but the old 
Unswerving and inviolable price 
Gets paid: God sells himself eternally,
But never gives a crust,” my friend had said; 
And while I watched those leaves, and heard those cats, 
And with half mad minuteness analyzed 
The Captain’s attitude and then my own, 
I felt at length as one who throws himself
Down restless on a couch when clouds are dark, 
And shuts his eyes to find, when he wakes up 
And opens them again, what seems at first 
An unfamiliar sunlight in his room 
And in his life—as if the child in him
Had laughed and let him see; and then I knew 
Some prowling superfluity of child 
In me had found the child in Captain Craig 
And let the sunlight reach him. While I slept, 
My thought reshaped itself to friendly dreams,
And in the morning it was with me still. 

Through March and shifting April to the time 
When winter first becomes a memory 
My friend the Captain—to my other friend’s 
Incredulous regret that such as he
Should ever get the talons of his talk 
So fixed in my unfledged credulity— 
Kept up the peroration of his life, 
Not yielding at a threshold, nor, I think, 
Too often on the stairs. He made me laugh
Sometimes, and then again he made me weep 
Almost; for I had insufficiency 
Enough in me to make me know the truth 
Within the jest, and I could feel it there 
As well as if it were the folded note
I felt between my fingers. I had said 
Before that I should have to go away 
And leave him for the season; and his eyes 
Had shone with well-becoming interest 
At that intelligence. There was no mist
In them that I remember; but I marked 
An unmistakable self-questioning 
And a reticence of unassumed regret. 
The two together made anxiety— 
Not selfishness, I ventured. I should see
No more of him for six or seven months, 
And I was there to tell him as I might 
What humorous provision we had made 
For keeping him locked up in Tilbury Town. 
That finished—with a few more commonplace
Prosaics on the certified event 
Of my return to find him young again— 
I left him neither vexed, I thought, with us, 
Nor over much at odds with destiny. 
At any rate, save always for a look
That I had seen too often to mistake 
Or to forget, he gave no other sign. 

That train began to move; and as it moved, 
I felt a comfortable sudden change 
All over and inside. Partly it seemed
As if the strings of me had all at once 
Gone down a tone or two; and even though 
It made me scowl to think so trivial 
A touch had owned the strength to tighten them, 
It made me laugh to think that I was free.
But free from what—when I began to turn 
The question round—was more than I could say: 
I was no longer vexed with Killigrew, 
Nor more was I possessed with Captain Craig; 
But I was eased of some restraint, I thought,
Not qualified by those amenities, 
And I should have to search the matter down; 
For I was young, and I was very keen. 
So I began to smoke a bad cigar 
That Plunket, in his love, had given me
The night before; and as I smoked I watched 
The flying mirrors for a mile or so, 
Till to the changing glimpse, now sharp, now faint, 
They gave me of the woodland over west, 
A gleam of long-forgotten strenuous years
Came back, when we were Red Men on the trail, 
With Morgan for the big chief Wocky-Bocky; 
And yawning out of that I set myself 
To face again the loud monotonous ride 
That lay before me like a vista drawn
Of bag-racks to the fabled end of things.



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