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On the Way

—The following imaginary dialogue between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, which is not based upon any specific incident in American history, may be supposed to have occurred a few months previous to Hamilton’s retirement from Washington’s Cabinet in 1795 and a few years before the political ingenuities of Burr—who has been characterized, without much exaggeration, as the inventor of American politics—began to be conspicuously formidable to the Federalists.
These activities on the part of Burr resulted, as the reader will remember, in the Burr-Jefferson tie for the Presidency in 1800, and finally in the Burr-Hamilton duel at Weehawken in 1804.
BURR Hamilton, if he rides you down, remember That I was here to speak, and so to save Your fabric from catastrophe.
That’s good; For I perceive that you observe him also.
A President, a-riding of his horse, May dust a General and be forgiven; But why be dusted—when we’re all alike, All equal, and all happy? Here he comes— And there he goes.
And we, by your new patent, Would seem to be two kings here by the wayside, With our two hats off to his Excellency.
Why not his Majesty, and done with it? Forgive me if I shook your meditation, But you that weld our credit should have eyes To see what’s coming.
Bury me first if I do.
HAMILTON There’s always in some pocket of your brain A care for me; wherefore my gratitude For your attention is commensurate With your concern.
Yes, Burr, we are two kings; We are as royal as two ditch-diggers; But owe me not your sceptre.
These are the days When first a few seem all; but if we live We may again be seen to be the few That we have always been.
These are the days When men forget the stars, and are forgotten.
BURR But why forget them? They’re the same that winked Upon the world when Alcibiades Cut off his dog’s tail to induce distinction.
There are dogs yet, and Alcibiades Is not forgotten.
HAMILTON Yes, there are dogs enough, God knows; and I can hear them in my dreams.
BURR Never a doubt.
But what you hear the most Is your new music, something out of tune With your intention.
How in the name of Cain, I seem to hear you ask, are men to dance, When all men are musicians.
Tell me that, I hear you saying, and I’ll tell you the name Of Samson’s mother.
But why shroud yourself Before the coffin comes? For all you know, The tree that is to fall for your last house Is now a sapling.
You may have to wait So long as to be sorry; though I doubt it, For you are not at home in your new Eden Where chilly whispers of a likely frost Accumulate already in the air.
I think a touch of ermine, Hamilton, Would be for you in your autumnal mood A pleasant sort of warmth along the shoulders.
HAMILTON If so it is you think, you may as well Give over thinking.
We are done with ermine.
What I fear most is not the multitude, But those who are to loop it with a string That has one end in France and one end here.
I’m not so fortified with observation That I could swear that more than half a score Among us who see lightning see that ruin Is not the work of thunder.
Since the world Was ordered, there was never a long pause For caution between doing and undoing.
BURR Go on, sir; my attention is a trap Set for the catching of all compliments To Monticello, and all else abroad That has a name or an identity.
HAMILTON I leave to you the names—there are too many; Yet one there is to sift and hold apart, As now I see.
There comes at last a glimmer That is not always clouded, or too late.
But I was near and young, and had the reins To play with while he manned a team so raw That only God knows where the end had been Of all that riding without Washington.
There was a nation in the man who passed us, If there was not a world.
I may have driven Since then some restive horses, and alone, And through a splashing of abundant mud; But he who made the dust that sets you on To coughing, made the road.
Now it seems dry, And in a measure safe.
BURR Here’s a new tune From Hamilton.
Has your caution all at once, And over night, grown till it wrecks the cradle? I have forgotten what my father said When I was born, but there’s a rustling of it Among my memories, and it makes a noise About as loud as all that I have held And fondled heretofore of your same caution.
But that’s affairs, not feelings.
If our friends Guessed half we say of them, our enemies Would itch in our friends’ jackets.
Howsoever, The world is of a sudden on its head, And all are spilled—unless you cling alone With Washington.
Ask Adams about that.
HAMILTON We’ll not ask Adams about anything.
We fish for lizards when we choose to ask For what we know already is not coming, And we must eat the answer.
Where’s the use Of asking when this man says everything, With all his tongues of silence? BURR I dare say.
I dare say, but I won’t.
One of those tongues I’ll borrow for the nonce.
He’ll never miss it.
We mean his Western Majesty, King George.
HAMILTON I mean the man who rode by on his horse.
I’ll beg of you the meed of your indulgence If I should say this planet may have done A deal of weary whirling when at last, If ever, Time shall aggregate again A majesty like his that has no name.
BURR Then you concede his Majesty? That’s good, And what of yours? Here are two majesties.
Favor the Left a little, Hamilton, Or you’ll be floundering in the ditch that waits For riders who forget where they are riding.
If we and France, as you anticipate, Must eat each other, what Cæsar, if not yourself, Do you see for the master of the feast? There may be a place waiting on your head For laurel thick as Nero’s.
You don’t know.
I have not crossed your glory, though I might If I saw thrones at auction.
HAMILTON Yes, you might.
If war is on the way, I shall be—here; And I’ve no vision of your distant heels.
BURR I see that I shall take an inference To bed with me to-night to keep me warm.
I thank you, Hamilton, and I approve Your fealty to the aggregated greatness Of him you lean on while he leans on you.
HAMILTON This easy phrasing is a game of yours That you may win to lose.
I beg your pardon, But you that have the sight will not employ The will to see with it.
If you did so, There might be fewer ditches dug for others In your perspective; and there might be fewer Contemporary motes of prejudice Between you and the man who made the dust.
Call him a genius or a gentleman, A prophet or a builder, or what not, But hold your disposition off the balance, And weigh him in the light.
Once (I believe I tell you nothing new to your surmise, Or to the tongues of towns and villages) I nourished with an adolescent fancy— Surely forgivable to you, my friend— An innocent and amiable conviction That I was, by the grace of honest fortune, A savior at his elbow through the war, Where I might have observed, more than I did, Patience and wholesome passion.
I was there, And for such honor I gave nothing worse Than some advice at which he may have smiled.
I must have given a modicum besides, Or the rough interval between those days And these would never have made for me my friends, Or enemies.
I should be something somewhere— I say not what—but I should not be here If he had not been there.
Possibly, too, You might not—or that Quaker with his cane.
BURR Possibly, too, I should.
When the Almighty Rides a white horse, I fancy we shall know it.
HAMILTON It was a man, Burr, that was in my mind; No god, or ghost, or demon—only a man: A man whose occupation is the need Of those who would not feel it if it bit them; And one who shapes an age while he endures The pin pricks of inferiorities; A cautious man, because he is but one; A lonely man, because he is a thousand.
No marvel you are slow to find in him The genius that is one spark or is nothing: His genius is a flame that he must hold So far above the common heads of men That they may view him only through the mist Of their defect, and wonder what he is.
It seems to me the mystery that is in him That makes him only more to me a man Than any other I have ever known.
BURR I grant you that his worship is a man.
I’m not so much at home with mysteries, May be, as you—so leave him with his fire: God knows that I shall never put it out.
He has not made a cripple of himself In his pursuit of me, though I have heard His condescension honors me with parts.
Parts make a whole, if we’ve enough of them; And once I figured a sufficiency To be at least an atom in the annals Of your republic.
But I must have erred.
HAMILTON You smile as if your spirit lived at ease With error.
I should not have named it so, Failing assent from you; nor, if I did, Should I be so complacent in my skill To comb the tangled language of the people As to be sure of anything in these days.
Put that much in account with modesty.
BURR What in the name of Ahab, Hamilton, Have you, in the last region of your dreaming, To do with “people”? You may be the devil In your dead-reckoning of what reefs and shoals Are waiting on the progress of our ship Unless you steer it, but you’ll find it irksome Alone there in the stern; and some warm day There’ll be an inland music in the rigging, And afterwards on deck.
I’m not affined Or favored overmuch at Monticello, But there’s a mighty swarming of new bees About the premises, and all have wings.
If you hear something buzzing before long, Be thoughtful how you strike, remembering also There was a fellow Naboth had a vineyard, And Ahab cut his hair off and went softly.
HAMILTON I don’t remember that he cut his hair off.
BURR Somehow I rather fancy that he did.
If so, it’s in the Book; and if not so, He did the rest, and did it handsomely.
HAMILTON Commend yourself to Ahab and his ways If they inveigle you to emulation; But where, if I may ask it, are you tending With your invidious wielding of the Scriptures? You call to mind an eminent archangel Who fell to make him famous.
Would you fall So far as he, to be so far remembered? BURR Before I fall or rise, or am an angel, I shall acquaint myself a little further With our new land’s new language, which is not— Peace to your dreams—an idiom to your liking.
I’m wondering if a man may always know How old a man may be at thirty-seven; I wonder likewise if a prettier time Could be decreed for a good man to vanish Than about now for you, before you fade, And even your friends are seeing that you have had Your cup too full for longer mortal triumph.
Well, you have had enough, and had it young; And the old wine is nearer to the lees Than you are to the work that you are doing.
HAMILTON When does this philological excursion Into new lands and languages begin? BURR Anon—that is, already.
Only Fortune Gave me this afternoon the benefaction Of your blue back, which I for love pursued, And in pursuing may have saved your life— Also the world a pounding piece of news: Hamilton bites the dust of Washington, Or rather of his horse.
For you alone, Or for your fame, I’d wish it might have been so.
HAMILTON Not every man among us has a friend So jealous for the other’s fame.
How long Are you to diagnose the doubtful case Of Demos—and what for? Have you a sword For some new Damocles? If it’s for me, I have lost all official appetite, And shall have faded, after January, Into the law.
I’m going to New York.
BURR No matter where you are, one of these days I shall come back to you and tell you something.
This Demos, I have heard, has in his wrist A pulse that no two doctors have as yet Counted and found the same, and in his mouth A tongue that has the like alacrity For saying or not for saying what most it is That pullulates in his ignoble mind.
One of these days I shall appear again, To tell you more of him and his opinions; I shall not be so long out of your sight, Or take myself so far, that I may not, Like Alcibiades, come back again.
He went away to Phrygia, and fared ill.
HAMILTON There’s an example in Themistocles: He went away to Persia, and fared well.
BURR So? Must I go so far? And if so, why so? I had not planned it so.
Is this the road I take? If so, farewell.
HAMILTON Quite so.

Poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson
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