Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, DOMESDAY BOOK: AT NICE, by EDGAR LEE MASTERS

Poetry Explorer

Classic and Contemporary Poetry

DOMESDAY BOOK: AT NICE, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Dear, let me tell you, safe beside you now
Last Line: To coroner merival in a leisure hour:
Subject(s): Drinks & Drinking; France; Guns; Love; Soldiers; Wine

Dear, let me tell you, safe beside you now,
Your hand in mine, here from this peak of sand,
Under this pine tree, where the wild grapes spill
Their fragrance on the lake breeze, from that oak
Half buried in the sand, devoured by sand --
The water of the lake is just as blue
As the sea is there at Nice, the caps as white
As foam around Mont Boron, Cap Ferrat.
Here let me tell you things you do not know,
I could not write, repeat what well you know,
How love of you sustained me, never changed,
But through a love was brighter, flame of the torch
I bore for you in battle, as an incense
Cast in a flame awakes the deeper essence
Of fire and makes it mount.

And I am here --
Here now with you at last -- the war is over --
I have this aching side, these languid mornings,
And pray for that old strength which never knew
Fatigue or pain -- but I am here with you,
You are my bride now, I have earned you, dear.
I fought the fight, endured the endless days
When rain fell, days of absence, and the days
Of danger when my only prayer was this:
Give me, O God, to see you once again.
This is the deepest rapture, tragedy
Of this our life, beyond our minds to fathom,
A thing to stand in awe of, touch in reverence,
That we -- we mortals, find in one another
Such source of ecstasy, of pain. My love,
I lay there in the hospital so weak,
Flopping my hands upon the coverlet,
And praying God to live. In such an hour
To be away from you! There are no words
To speak the weary hours of fear and thought,
In such an absence, facing death, perhaps,
A burial in France, with thoughts of you,
Mourning some years, perhaps, healed partly then
And wedded to another; then at last
Myself forgot, or nearly so, and life
Taking you on with duties, house and children;
And my poor self forgotten, gone to dust,
Wasted along the soil of France.

Thank God,
I'm here with you -- it's real, all this is true:
The roar of the water, sand-hills, infinite sky,
The gulls, the distant smoke, the smell of grapes,
The haze of amethyst behind us there,
In those ravines of stunted oak and pine.
All this is real. This is America.
The very air we find from coast to coast,
The sensible air for lungs seems freer here.
I had no sooner landed in New York
Than my arms said stretch out, there's room to stretch.
I walked along the streets so happy, light
Of heart and heard the newsboys, shop-girls talk:
"O, what a cheese he is," or "beat it now" --
I can't describe the thrill I had to hear
This loose abandoned slang spilled all around,
Like coppers soiled from handling, but so real,
And having power to purchase memories
Of what I loved and lost awhile, my land!
Well, then I wanted roast-beef, corn on cob,
And had them in an hour at early lunch.
I telegraphed you, gave New York a day,
And came to you. We are together now,
We do not dream, do we? We are together
After the war, to live our lives and grow
And make of love, experience, life more rich.
That's what you say to me -- it shall be so.

Now I will tell you what I promised to tell
About my illness and the battle -- well,
I wrote you of my illness, only hinted
About the care I had, that is the point;
'Twas care alone that saved me, I was ill
Beyond all words to tell. And all the while
I suffered, fearing I would die; but then
I could not bear to think I should not rise
To join my fellows, battle once again,
And charge across the trenches, take no part
In crushing down the Prussian. For I knew
He would be crushed at last. I could not bear
To think I should not take a hand in that,
Be there when he lay fallen, victory
From voice to voice should pass along the lines.
Well, for some weeks I lay there, and at last
Words dropped around me that the time was near
For blows to count -- would I be there to strike?
Could I get well in time? And every day
A sweet voice said: "You're better, oh it's great
How you are growing stronger; yesterday
Your fever was but one degree, to-day
It is a little higher. You must rest,
Not think so much! It may be normal perhaps
To-morrow or the next day. In a week
You will be up and gaining, and the battle
Will not be fought before then, I am sure,
And not until you're well and strong again."
And thus it went from day to day. Such hands
Washed my hot face and bathed me, tucked me in,
And fed me too. And once I said to her:
"I love a girl, I must get well to fight,
I must get well to go to her." And she,
It was the nurse I spoke to, took my hand,
And turned away with tears. You see it's there
We see the big things, nothing else, the things
That stand out like the mountains, lesser things
Are lost like little hillocks under the shadows
Of great emotions, hopes, realities.
Well, so it went. And on a day she leaned
Above my face to smooth the pillow out.
And from her heart a golden locket fell,
And dangled by the silver chain. The locket
Flew open and I saw a face within it,
That is I saw there was a face, but saw
No eyes or hair, saw nothing to limn out
The face so I would know it.

Then I said:
"You have a lover, nurse." She straightened up
And questioned me: "Have you been ill before?
Do you know of the care a nurse can give,
And what she can withhold?" I answered "Yes."
And then she asked: "Have you felt in my hands
Great tenderness, solicitude, even prayer?" --
Here, sweetheart, do not let your eyes get moist,
I'll tell you everything, for you must see
How spirits work together, love to love
Passes and does its work.

Well, it was true,
I felt her tenderness, which was like prayer,
And so I answered her: "If I get well,
You will have cured me with your human love."
And then she said: "Our unit reached this place
When there was neither stoves nor lights. At night
We went to bed by candles. Stumbled around
Amid the trunks and beds by candle light.
Well, one of us would light a candle, then
Each, one by one, the others lighted theirs
From this one down the room. And so we passed
The light along. And as a candle died,
The others burned, to which the light was passed.
Well, now," she said, "that is a figure of love:
We get the flame from someone, light another,
Make brighter light by holding flame to flame --
Sometimes we searched for something, held two candles
Together for a greater light. And so,
My soldier, I have given you the care
That comes from love -- of country and the cause,
But brightened, warmed by one from whom the flame
Was passed to me, a love that took my hand
And warmed it, made it tender for that love,
Which said pour out and serve, take love for him
And use it in the cause, by using hands
To bathe, to soothe, to smooth a pillow down,
To heal, sustain."

The truth is, dearest heart,
I had not lived, I think, except for her.
And there we were: I filled with love for you,
And therefore praying to get well and fight,
Be worthy of your love, and there she was
With love for someone, striving with that love
To nurse me through and give me well and strong
To battle in the cause.

Then I got well
And joined my company. She took my hand
As I departed, closed her eyes and said:
"May God be with you."

Well, it was Belleau,
That jungle of machine guns, like a thicket
Of rattle snakes. And there was just one thing
To clean that thicket out -- we had to charge,
And so we yelled and charged. No soldier knows
How one survives in such a charge as that.
You simply yell and charge; the bullets fall
Like drops of rain around you pitter-pat;
And on you go and think: where will it get me,
The stomach or the heart or through the head?
What will it be like, sudden blackness, pain,
No pain at all? And so you charge the nests.
The fellows fell around us like tenpins,
Dropped guns, or flung them up, fell on their faces,
Or toppled backward, pitched ahead and flung
Their helmets off in pitching. And at last
I found myself half-dazed, as in a dream,
Right in a nest, two Boches facing me,
And then I saw this locket, as I saw it
Fall from her breast, it might have been a glint
Of metal, flash of firing, I don't know.
I only know I ran my bayonet
Through one of them; he fell, I stuck the other,
Then something stung my side. When I awoke
I lay upon a cot, and heard the nurses
Discuss the peace, the armistice was signed,
The war was over. Well, and in a way
We won the war, I won the war, as one
Who did his part, at least.

Then I got up,
But I was weak and dazed. They said to me
I should not cross the ocean in the winter,
My lungs might get infected; anyway,
The flu was raging. So they sent me down
To Nice upon a furlough, as I wrote.
I could not write you all I saw and heard,
It was all lovely and all memorable.

But first before I picture Nice to you,
My days at Nice, lest you have doubts and fears
When I reveal to you I saw this nurse
First on the Promenade des Anglais there,
Saw much of her in Nice, I saw at once
She was that Elenor Murray whom they found
Along the river dead; and for the rest
To make all clear, I'll tell you everything.
You see I didn't write you of this girl
And what we did there, lest you might suspect
Some vagrant mood in me concealed or glossed,
Which ended in betrayal of our love.
Eyes should look into eyes to supplement
The words of truth with light of truth, where nothing
Of thoughts that hide have chance to slip and crawl
Through eyes averted, twinklings, change of light,
Or if they do, reveal themselves, as snakes
Are seen when winding into coverts of grass.

Well, then we met upon the promenade.
She ran toward me, kissed me -- oh so glad.
I told her of the battle, of my wound.
And for herself it seemed she had been ill,
Off duty for a month before she came
To Nice for health; she said as much to me.
I think she had been ill, yet I could sense,
Or seemed to sense a mystery, I don't know,
Behind her illness. Yet you understand
How it was natural we should be happy
To meet again, in Nice, too. For you see
The army life develops comradeship.
And when we meet the old life rises up
And wakes its thrills and memories. It seemed
She had been there some days when I arrived
And knew the place, and said, "I'll show you Nice."
There was a major she was waiting for,
As it turned out. He came there in a week,
We had some walks together, all the three,
And then I lost them.

But before he came
We did the bright cafes and Monte Carlo,
And here my little nurse showed something else
Besides the tender hands, the prayerful soul.
She had been taking egg-nogs, so she said,
But now she took to wine, and drink she could
Beyond all men I know. I had to stop
Or fall beneath the table, leaving her
To order more. And she would sit and weave
From right to left hip in a rhythmic way,
And cast her eyes obliquely right and left.
It was this way: The music set her thrilling,
And keeping time this way. She loved to go
Where we could see cocotes, adventurers;
Where red vitality was feasting, drinking,
And dropping gold upon the gaming table.
We sunned ourselves within the Jardin Public,
And walked the beach between the bathing places
Where they dry orange peel to make perfumes.
And in that golden sunshine by the sea
Caught whiffs of lemon blossoms, and each day
I bought her at the stands acacia,
Or red anemones -- I tell you all --
There was no moment that my thought betrayed
Your heart, dear one. She had been good to me.
I saw that she was hungry for these things,
For rapture, so I gave them -- you don't mind,
It came to nothing, dearest.

But at last
A different Elenor Murray than I knew
There in the hospital took shape before me.
That serving soul, that maid of humble tasks,
And sacrifice for others, and that face
Of waitress or of ingenue, day by day
Assumed sophistication, looks and lines
Of knowledge in the world, experience
In places of patrician ways. She knew
New York as well as I, cafes and shops;
Dropped pregnant hints at times that made me think
What more she knew, what she was holding back.
Until at last all she had done for me
Seemed just what mortals do to earn their bread
In any calling, made more generous, maybe,
By something in a moment's mood. In truth
The ideal showed the clogged pores in the skin
Under the light she stood in. For you know
When we see people happy we can say
Those tears were not all tears -- we pitied more
Than we were wise to pity -- that's the feeling:
Most men are Puritans in this, I think.
A woman dancing, drinking, makes you laugh,
And half despise yourself for great emotion
When seeing her in prayer or reverent thought.
But now I come to something more concrete:
The day before the major came we lunched
Where we could see the Mediterranean,
The clubs, hotels and villas. There she sat
All dressed in white, a knitted jacket of silk
Matching the leaves upon the trees, and looked
As fashionable as the rest. The waiter came.
She did not take the card nor order from it,
Was nonchalant, familiar, said at last:
"We want some Epernay. You have it doubtless."
The waiter bowed. I looked at Elenor,
That was the character of revealing things
I saw from day to day. For truth to tell
This Epernay might well have been charged water
For all I knew. I asked her, and she said:
"Delicious wine, not strong." And so we lunched,
And the music stormed, and lunchers gabbled, smoked,
And dandies ogled. And this Epernay
Worked in our blood and Elenor rattled on.
And she was flinging eyes from right to left
And moving rhythmically from hip to hip,
And with a finger beating out the time.
Somehow our hands touched, then she closed her eyes,
Her body shook a little and grew limp.
"What is the matter?" Then she raised her eyes
And looked me through an instant. What, my dear,
You won't hear any more? Oh, very well,
That's all, there is no more.

But after while
When things got quieter, the lunchers thinned,
The music ended, and the wine grown tame
Within our veins, she told me on a time
Some years before she was confirmed, and thought
She'd take the veil, and for two years or more
Was all absorbed in pious thoughts and works.
"But how we learn and change," she added then,
"In training we see bodies, learn to know
How thirst and hunger, needs of body cry
For daily care, become materialists,
Unmoralists a little in the sense
That any book, or theories of the soul
Should tie the body from its natural needs.
Though I accept the faith, no less than ever,
That God is and the Savior is and spirit
Is no less real than body, has its needs,
Separate or through the body."

Oh, that girl!
She made me guess and wonder. But next day
I had a fresh surprise, the major came
And she was changed completely. I forgot,
I must tell you what happened after lunch.
We rose and she grew impish, stood and laughed
As if the secret of the laugh was hers
Beyond the concrete matter of the laugh.
She said, "I'll show you something beautiful."
We started out to see it, walked the road
Around the foot of Castle Hill. You know
The wind blows gustily at Nice; and so
All of a sudden went my hat, way up,
Far off, and instantly such laughter rose,
And boisterous shouts that made me think at once
I had been tricked, somehow. It is this way:
The gamins loiter there to watch the victims
Who lose their hats. And Elenor sat down,
And laughed until she cried. I do not know,
Perhaps I was not amorous enough
At luncheon and she pranked me for revenge.
Well, then the major came, he took my place.
I was the third one in the party now,
But saw them every day. What did we do?
No Monte Carlo now, nor ordering
Without the card, she was completely changed,
Demure again, all words of lovely things:
The war had changed the world, had lifted up
The spirit of man to visions, and the major
Adored her, drank it in. And we explored
Limpia and the Old Town, looked aloft
At Mont Cau d'Aspremont, picked hellebore,
And orchids in the gorges, saw St. Pons,
The Valley of Hepaticas, sunned ourselves
Within the Jardin Public, where the children
Play riotously; and Elenor would draw
A straying child to her and say: "You darling."
I saw her do this once and dry her eyes
And to the major say: "They are so lovely,
I had to give up teaching school, the children
Stirred my emotions till I could not bear
To be among them." And to make an end,
I spent the parts of three days with these two.
And on the last day we went to the summit
Of the Corinche Road, and saw the sea and Europe
Spread out before us -- oh, you cannot know
The beauty of it, dear, until you see it.
And Elenor sat down as in a trance,
And looked and did not speak for minutes. Then
She said: "How pure a place this is -- it's nature,
And I can worship here, this makes you hate
The cafes and the pleasures of the town."
What was this woman, dear, what was her soul?
Or was she half and half? Oh, after all,
I am a hostile mixture, so are you.

And so I drifted out, and only stayed
A day or two beyond that afternoon.
I took a last walk on the Promenade;
At last saw just ahead of me these two,
His arm was fast in hers, they sauntered on
As if in serious talk. As I came up,
I greeted them and said good-bye again.

Where is the major? Did the major steal
The heart of Elenor Murray, speed her death?
They could have married. Why did she return?
Or did the major follow her? Well, dear,
Here is the story, truthful to a fault.
My soul is yours, I kept it true to you.
Hear how the waters roar upon the sand!
I close my eyes and almost can believe
We are together on the Corniche Road.

Well, it may never be that Merival
Heard from Bernard of Elenor at Nice,
Although he knew it sometime, knew as well
Her service in the war had nerved the men
And by that much had put the Germans down.
America at the fateful moment lent
Her strength to bring the war's end. Elenor
Was one of many to cross seas and bring
Life strength against the emperor, once secure,
And throned in power against such phagocytes
As Elenor Murray, Bernard, even kings.
And sawing wood at Amerongen all
He thought of was of brains and monstrous hearts
Which sent the phagocytes from America,
England and France to eat him up at last.

One day an American soldier, so 'tis said
Someone told Merival, was walking near
The house at Amerongen, saw a man
With drooped mustache and whitened beard approach,
Two mastiffs walked beside him. As he passed
Unrecognized, the soldier to a mate
Spoke up and said: "What hellish dogs are those? --
Like Bismarck used to have; I saw a picture
Of Bismarck with his dogs." The drooped mustache
Turned nervously and took the soldiers in,
Then strode ahead. The emperor was stunned
To hear an American soldier use a knife
As sharp as that.

But Elenor at Nice
Walked with the major as Bernard has told.
And this is wrinkled water, dark and far
From Merival, unknown to him. He hears,
And this alone, she went from Nice to Florence,
Was ill there in a convent, we shall see.
This is the tale that Irma Leese related
To Coroner Merival in a leisure hour:

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