Classic and Contemporary Poetry
THREE DEAD FRIENDS, by JAMES WHITCOMB RILEY Poet's Biography
First Line: Always suddenly they are gone
Last Line: Half inaudibly shrieks to god.
Alternate Author Name(s): Johnson Of Boone, Benj. F.
Subject(s): Death; Friendship; Graves; Grief; Widows & Widowers; Dead, The; Tombs; Tombstones; Sorrow; Sadness
ALWAYS suddenly they are gone --
The friends we trusted and held secure --
Suddenly we are gazing on,
Not a smiling face, but the marble-pure
Dead mask of a face that nevermore
To a smile of ours will make reply --
The lips close-locked as the eyelids are, --
Gone -- swift as the flash of the molten ore
A meteor pours through a midnight sky,
Leaving it blind of a single star.
Tell us, O Death, Remorseless Might!
What is this old, unescapable ire
You wreak on us? -- from the birth of light
Till the world be charred to a core of fire!
We do no evil thing to you --
We seek to evade you -- that is all --
That is your will -- you will not be known
Of men. What, then, would you have us do? --
Cringe, and wait till your vengeance fall,
And your graves be fed, and the trumpet blown?
You desire no friends; but we -- O we
Need them so, as we falter here,
Fumbling through each new vacancy,
As each is stricken that we hold dear.
One you struck but a year ago;
And one not a month ago; and one --
(God's vast pity!) -- and one lies now
Where the widow wails, in her nameless woe,
And the soldiers pace, with the sword and gun,
Where the comrade sleeps, with the laureled brow.
And what did the first? -- that way-ward soul,
Clothed of sorrow, yet nude of sin,
And with all hearts bowed in the strange control
Of the heavenly voice of his violin.
Why, it was music the way he stood,
So grand was the poise of the head and so
Full was the figure of majesty! --
One heard with the eyes, as a deaf man would,
And with all sense brimmed to the overflow
With tears of anguish and ecstasy.
And what did the girl, with the great warm light
Of genius sunning her eyes of blue,
With her heart so pure, and her soul so white --
What, O Death, did she do to you?
Through field and wood as a child she strayed,
As Nature, the dear sweet mother led;
While from her canvas, mirrored back,
Glimmered the stream through the everglade
Where the grape-vine trailed from the trees to wed
Its likeness of emerald, blue and black.
And what did he, who, the last of these,
Faced you, with never a fear, O Death?
Did you hate him that he loved the breeze,
And the morning dews, and the rose's breath?
Did you hate him that he answered not
Your hate again -- but turned, instead,
His only hate on his country's wrongs?
Well -- you possess him, dead! -- but what
Of the good he wrought? With laureled head
He bides with us in his deeds and songs.
Laureled, first, that he bravely fought,
And forged a way to our flag's release;
Laureled, next, for the harp he taught
To wake glad songs in the days of peace --
Songs of the woodland haunts he held
As close in his love as they held their bloom
In their inmost bosoms of leaf and vine --
Songs that echoed and pulsed and welled
Through the town's pent streets, and the sick child's room,
Pure as a shower in soft sunshine.
Claim them, Death; yet their fame endures.
What friend next will you rend from us
In that cold, pitiless way of yours,
And leave us a grief more dolorous?
Speak to us! -- tell us, O Dreadful Power! --
Are we to have not a lone friend left? --
Since, frozen, sodden, or green the sod,
In every second of every hour,
Some one, Death, you have thus bereft,
Half inaudibly shrieks to God.
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