Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, BOYHOOD FRIENDS, by EDGAR LEE MASTERS



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BOYHOOD FRIENDS, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Old adam warfield had an only son
Last Line: A sigh of harold, looking at the stars.
Subject(s): Friendship


Old Adam Warfield had an only son
But many daughters, and the son was turned
His seventeenth year, when cannon split the walls
Of Sumter and awoke the nation's fear;
As when a thief at midnight fits the key
Within the entrance door, and struck with dread
The inmates start from sleep, hearing a creak
And step upon the stair.

The father tilled
A rented field, and Henry, who was the son,
Toiled with him, while the daughters kept the house --
The mother being frail -- in harvest time
Binding for holiday the sickled wheat.
One April day when Henry and his sire
Made windrows of the stalks of corn, which fired
Smoked in sweet incense to the soul of spring,
When the frogs chorused and the blackbirds sang,
A horseman passed, shouting the breathless news
That Sumter's fort had fallen. With this word
Young Henry Warfield left his work and ran
Towards the cottage followed by old Adam,
Who begged amid his tears the boy to stay,
Pleading his youth, and that he being old
Needed his help.

But when the mother heard
His resolution and his sisters ran
Leaving their garden work, and threw their arms
About his neck with wailings and with tears
The boy wept too, but changed not his resolve
To seek the war. And ere they knew, he passed
The gate through and with shaded hands they saw
His figure disappear below the hill,
Hastn'ing towards Wendell Shipley's mansion house,
Who was the justice of the township and
Owner of many acres, and of the field
Which Adam Warfield rented.

Wendell's son,
A youth near eighteen, had been sent afar
To master Greek and Latin, since the father
Had lost the chance himself, but having failed
Was disciplined and now at home he idled
The days away, half-sulking, half-ashamed,
His father pondering him.

So Henry came
Bringing to them the dreadful news of war,
And asking money for his fare to reach
The place of muster fifty miles away.
Then Wendell's son, named Harold, asked to go,
Whereat his father darkened, brief of speech,
Forbidding him, and giving Henry fare
To reach the place of muster, bade him speed.
Thus ended all the talk and Henry left.

That night there was a moon flooding the fields,
And Harold lay awake and looked upon it,
Now resting on his elbow with his face
Turned to the window, now at length stretched out
Dreaming of war, and following in his thought
The steps of Henry, Adam Warfield's son,
And only staff. Then thinking of himself
Whom no one needed, nay, who had disused
His father's aid -- and of his father's silence
When he crept home from school in ill report --
Then flashed into his head that mayhap fame
And triumph in the world lay on this path
Now open to him in this day of war.
So slipping from his bed he dressed himself
And through the door stole and along the walk,
Patting old Gypsy who lay near the gate,
Thumping the steps with her responsive tail.
Thus to the place of muster Harold went.

Whom on arrival should he see but Henry
Who welcomed him, but warned him of the age
He must pretend to, as himself had done.
Then treason to his heart arose in Harold:
For seeing how the hardened officers
Dispatched their business, and the discipline
That threatened, and the life that had begun
To show itself in hardship and in strife,
The soul of Harold sickened, and he told
His age when asked, and being then rejected
Turned his slow steps towards his father's house.
And having come was greeted joyfully
With kisses from his mother. Wendell too
Warmed to the boy in pride that he had made
Himself an offering to the country's cause,
Forgetting that old Adam Warfield's son
Must needs belie his age to join the troops.
And of this Harold spoke not, kept his peace.

In the first battle Henry's spirit quailed.
Another day a skirmish 'twixt two forests
Engaged some scattered forces, when his hand
Stung suddenly, and blood dripped till 'twas bound.
Then harder service, and then Shiloh thundered,
And Henry seasoned to the horror of war --
His nerves grown resonant as the wire strings
Drawn taut across the viol's sounding board --
With tense, rapt courage, loaded, fired, advanced
Until he fell, one bullet through his side,
Another through the thigh bone, lying as dead
Upon that bloody field, whence he was borne
For surgery and to be nursed for months,
Not to return to service with his fellows,
But doing duty in the hospital
Till the war's end. Then home he came at last
With soul and body schooled for any fate
And took again the burden of the farm.
But Harold Shipley meanwhile turned to books,
Won his degree and chose for work the law.
While in the years that followed Henry kept
A quiet way by Wendell's wide domain,
Serving or renting, when at forty-five
A pension gave him means to buy a field
Of forty acres with a cottage on it,
Where with a wife and numerous progeny
He lived unknown.

But Harold's name was heard
As one whom fame had almost touched for skill
In the law's riddles, and for gift of speech
In counsel or debate. Yet as the years
Passed by he saw the prize still out of reach,
Too high, too far, standing distinct and clear
Above him, now the mists of youth which show
All heights near by were cleared, and cruel light
Translucent, cold, shone round the difficult rocks
Beyond his strength. Then sorrow and then age
Came on him and the grief of seventy years
Found him alone, empty of heart and poor
In courage for the end.

One day a memory
Of the old days with Henry flashed upon him
When they had camped together in a storm
That blew the tent high in the trees, in rain
That swelled the river, and the boyish pride
That filled them to out-brave the night and sleep
On sodden blankets; and a strange desire
Filled him to talk with Henry. So he went
And sought the humble cottage where he dwelt.

He found him in the middle afternoon
Lopping the branches from a broken tree,
A shrivelled, hardy man, of leather face
And gray, harsh hair, beneath which shone the eyes
Grown scarcely older than the boyish eyes
Of long ago, but lighted with a light
Unwavering and clear, which seemed to speak
Of elemental secrets and the love
Of intimate fellowship with nature's moods,
Of perils faced, of tests of fire, of days
And nights upon the battlefield. And Harold,
Reading these secrets in his look, stood awed
In admiration, feeling that this man
Had mastered life, and though alone and poor
Had need of nothing.

Many years before
The wife of Henry died, and one by one
His sons and daughters left him. So at dusk
Henry prepared the supper midst the talk
Of youthful days and laughter for the deeds
That came to memory. After supper pipes
Before the doorway, and the silence fell
That haunts the woodlands, broken by the cry
Of whippoorwills. And in the silence came
Over the mood of Harold, as he saw
The enshadowed figure of his friend stooped over,
Elbows on knees, a vision of their lives:
Now since the fires of time had burned to dust,
All save the hardest residue of soul,
What had life brought or left him half as rich
As that this farmer-soldier, from the depths
Of sacrifice and toil obscurely mined,
Had smelted and possessed -- the inner peace
And strength, and consciousness that life
has played the touchstone to the best in a man.
So Henry seemed to Harold to have won,
And viewed himself as one who yet had failed,
Spite of his wider wisdom and the fame
The years had brought him.

Henry broke the silence:
"To-morrow I must go at cutting weeds."
"And I," said Harold, "must be back in town."
Over them shone the dipper where the wind
Parted the tree-tops, covering with its sound
A sigh of Harold, looking at the stars.





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