Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, TO-MORROW IS MY BIRTHDAY, by EDGAR LEE MASTERS



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Classic and Contemporary Poetry

TO-MORROW IS MY BIRTHDAY, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Well, then, another drink! Ben jonson knows
Last Line: Let's walk and hear the lark.
Subject(s): Birthdays; Jonson, Ben (1572-1637); Middle Age; Poetry & Poets


Well, then, another drink! Ben Jonson knows,
So do you, Michael Drayton, that to-morrow
I reach my fifty-second year. But hark ye,
To-morrow lacks two days of being a month --
Here is a secret -- since I made my will.
Heigh ho! that's done too! I wonder why I did it?
That I should make a will! Yet it may be
That then and jump at this most crescent hour
Heaven inspired the deed.

As a mad younker
I knew an aged man in Warwickshire
Who used to say, "Ah, mercy me," for sadness
Of change, or passing time, or secret thoughts.
If it was spring he sighed it, if 'twas fall,
With drifting leaves, he looked upon the rain
And with doleful suspiration kept
This habit of his grief. And on a time
As he stood looking at the flying clouds,
I loitering near, expectant, heard him say it,
Inquired, "Why do you say 'Ah, mercy me,'
Now that it's April?" So he hobbled off
And left me empty there.

Now here am I!
Oh, it is strange to find myself this age,
And rustling like a peascod, though unshelled,
And, like this aged man of Warwickshire,
Slaved by a mood which must have breath -- "Tra-la!"
That's what I say instead of "Ah, mercy me."
For look you, Ben, I catch myself with "Tra-la"
The moment I break sleep to see the day.
At work, alone, vexed, laughing, mad or glad
I say, "Tra-la" unknowing. Oft at table
I say, "Tra-la." And 'tother day, poor Anne
Looked long at me and said, "You say, 'Tra-la'
Sometimes when you're asleep; why do you so?"
Then I bethought me of that aged man
Who used to say, "Ah, mercy me," but answered:
"Perhaps I am so happy when awake
The song crops out in slumber -- who can say?"
And Anne arose, began to keel the pot,
But was she answered, Ben? Who know a woman?

To-morrow is my birthday. If I die,
Slip out of this with Bacchus for a guide,
What soul would interdict the poppied way?
Heroes may look the Monster down, a child
Can wilt a lion, who is cowed to see
Such bland unreckoning of his strength -- but I,
Having so greatly lived, would sink away
Unknowing my departure. I have died
A thousand times, and with a valiant soul
Have drunk the cup, but why? In such a death
To-morrow shines and there's a place to lean.
But in this death that has no bottom to it,
No bank beyond, no place to step, the soul
Grows sick, and like a falling dream we shrink
From that inane which gulfs us, without place
For us to stand and see it.

Yet, dear Ben,
This thing must be; that's what we live to know
Out of long dreaming, saying that we know it.
As yeasty heroes in their braggart teens
Spout learnedly of war, who never saw
A cannon aimed. You drink too much to-day,
Or get a scratch while turning Lucy's stile,
And like a beast you sicken. Like a beast
They cart you off. What matter if your thought
Outsoared the Phoenix? Like a beast you rot.
Methinks that something wants our flesh, as we
Hunger for flesh of beasts. But still to-morrow,
To-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow
Creeps in this petty pace -- O, Michael Drayton,
Some end must be. But 'twixt the fear of ceasing
And weariness of going on we lie
Upon these thorns!

These several springs I find
No new birth in the Spring. And yet in London
I used to cry, "O, would I were in Stratford;
It's April and the larks are singing now.
The flags are green along the Avon river;
O, would I were a rambler in the fields.
This poor machine is racing to its wreck.
This grist of thought is endless, this old sorrow
Sprouts, winds and crawls in London's darkness.
Come
Back to your landscape! Peradventure waits
Some woman there who will make new the earth,
And crown the spring with fire."

So back I come.
And the springs march before me, say, "Behold
Here are we, and what would you, can you use us?"
What good is air if lungs are out, or springs
When the mind's flown so far away no spring,
Nor loveliness of earth can call it back?
I tell you what it is: in early youth
The life is in the loins; by thirty years
It travels through the stomach to the lungs,
And then we strut and crow. By forty years
The fruit is swelling while the leaves are fresh.
By fifty years you're ripe, begin to rot.
At fifty-two, or fifty-five or sixty
The life is in the seed -- what's spring to you?
Puff! Puff! You are so winged and light you fly.
For every passing zephyr, are blown off,
And drifting, God knows where, cry out "tra-la,"
"Ah, mercy me," as it may happen you.
Puff! Puff! away you go!

Another drink?
Why, you may drown the earth with ale and I
Will drain it like a sea. The more I drink
The better I see that this is April time....

Ben! There is one Voice which says to everything:
"Dream what you will, I'll make you bear your seed.
And, having borne, the sickle comes among ye
And takes your stalk." The rich and sappy greens
Of spring or June show life within the loins,
And all the world is fair, for now the plant
Can drink the level cup of flame where heaven
Is poured full by the sun. But when the blossom
Flutters its colors, then it takes the cup
And waves the stalk aside. And having drunk
The stalk to penury, then slumber comes
With dreams of spring stored in the imprisoned germ,
An old life and a new life all in one,
A thing of memory and of prophecy,
Of reminiscence, longing, hope and fear.
What has been ours is taken, what was ours
Becomes entailed on our seed in the spring,
Fees in possession and enjoyment too....

The thing is sex, Ben. It is that which lives
And dies in us, makes April and unmakes,
And leaves a man like me at fifty-two,
Finished but living, on the pinnacle
Betwixt a death and birth, the earth consumed
And heaven rolled up to eyes whose troubled glances
Would shape again to something better -- what?
Give me a woman, Ben, and I will pick
Out of this April, by this larger art
Of fifty-two, such songs as we have heard,
Both you and I, when weltering in the clouds
Of that eternity which comes in sleep,
Or in the viewless spinning of the soul
When most intense. The woman is somewhere,
And that's what tortures, when I think this field
So often gleaned could blossom once again
If I could find her.

Well, as to my plays:
I have not written out what I would write.
They have a thousand buds of finer flowering.
And over "Hamlet" hangs a teasing spirit
As fine to that as sense is fine to flesh.
Good friends, my soul beats up its prisoned wings
Against the ceiling of a vaster whorl
And would break through and enter. But, fair friends,
What strength in place of sex shall steady me?
What is the motive of this higher mount?
What process in the making of myself --
The very fire, as it were, of my growth --
Shall furnish forth these writings by the way,
As incident, expression of the nature
Relumed for adding branches, twigs and leaves?...

Suppose I'd make a tragedy of this,
Focus my fancied "Dante" to this theme,
And leave my halfwrit "Sappho," which at best
Is just another delving in the mine
That gave me "Cleopatra" and the Sonnets?
If you have genius, write my tragedy,
And call it "Shakespeare, Gentleman of Stratford,"
Who lost his soul amid a thousand souls,
And had to live without it, yet live with it
As wretched as the souls whose lives he lived.
Here is a play for you: Poor William Shakespeare,
This moment growing drunk, the famous author
Of certain sugared sonnets and some plays,
With this machine too much to him, which started
Some years ago, now cries him nay and runs
Even when the house shakes and complains, "I fall,
You shake me down, my timbers break apart.
Why, if an engine must go on like this
The building should be stronger."

Or to mix,
And by the mixing, unmix metaphors,
No mortal man has blood enough for brains
And stomach too, when the brain is never done
With thinking and creating.

For you see,
I pluck a flower, cut off a dragon's head --
Choose twixt these figures -- lo, a dozen buds,
A dozen heads out-crop. For every fancy,
Play, sonnet, what you will, I write me out
With thinking "Now I'm done," a hundred others
Crowd up for voices, and, like twins unborn
Kick and turn o'er for entrance to the world.
And I, poor fecund creature, who would rest,
As 'twere from an importunate husband, fly
To money-lending, farming, mulberry trees,
Enclosing Welcombe fields, or idling hours
In common talk with people like the Combes.
All this to get a heartiness, a hold
On earth again, lest Heaven Hercules,
Finding me strayed to mid-air, kicking heels
Above the mountain tops, seize on my scruff
And bear me off or strangle.

Good, my friends,
The "Tempest" is as nothing to the voice
That calls me to performance -- what I know not.
I've planned an epic of the Asian wash
Which slopped the star of Athens and put out,
Which should all history analyze, and present
A thousand notables in the guise of life,
And show the ancient world and worlds to come
To the last blade of thought and tiniest seed
Of growth to be. With visions such as these
My spirit turns in restless ecstacy,
And this enslaved brain is master sponge,
And sucks the blood of body, hands and feet.
While my poor spirit, like a butterfly
Gummed in its shell, beats its bedraggled wings,
And cannot rise.

I'm cold, both hands and feet.
These three days past I have been cold, this hour
I am warm in three days. God bless the ale.
God did do well to give us anodynes....
So now you know why I am much alone,
And cannot fellow with Augustine Phillips,
John Heminge, Richard Burbage, Henry Condell,
And do not have them here, dear ancient friends,
Who grieve, no doubt, and wonder for changed love.
Love is not love which alters when it finds
A change of heart, but mine has changed not, only
I cannot be my old self. I blaspheme:
I hunger for broiled fish, but fly the touch
Of hands of flesh.

I am most passionate,
And long am used perplexities of love
To bemoan and to bewail. And do you wonder,
Seeing what I am, what my fate has been?
Well, hark you; Anne is sixty now, and I,
A crater which erupts, look where she stands
In lava wrinkles, eight years older than I am,
As years go, but I am a youth afire
While she is lean and slippered. It's a Fury
Which takes me sometimes, makes my hands clutch out
For virgins in their teens. O sullen fancy!
I want them not, I want the love which springs
Like flame which blots the sun, where fuel of body
Is piled in reckless generosity....
You are most learned, Ben, Greek and Latin know,
And think me nature's child, scarce understand
How much of physic, law, and ancient annals
I have stored up by means of studious zeal.
But pass this by, and for the braggart breath
Ensuing now say, "Will was in his cups,
Potvaliant, boozed, corned, squiffy, obfuscated,
Crapulous, inter pocula, or so forth.
Good sir, or so, or friend, or gentleman,
According to the phrase or the addition
Of man and country, on my honor, Shakespeare
At Stratford, on the twenty-second of April,
Year sixteen-sixteen of our Lord was merry --
Videlicet, was drunk." Well, where was I? --
Oh yes, at braggart breath, and now to say it:
I believe and say it as I would lightly speak
Of the most common thing to sense, outside
Myself to touch or analyze, this mind
Which has been used by Something, as I use
A quill for writing, never in this world
In the most high and palmy days of Greece,
Or in this roaring age, has known its peer.
No soul as mine has lived, felt, suffered, dreamed,
Broke open spirit secrets, followed trails
Of passions curious, countless lives explored
As I have done. And what are Greek and Latin,
The lore of Aristotle, Plato to this?
Since I know them by what I am, the essence
From which their utterance came, myself a flower
Of every graft and being in myself
The recapitulation and the complex
Of all the great. Were not brains before books?
And even geometrics in some brain
Before old Gutenberg? O fie, Ben Jonson,
If I am nature's child am I not all?
Howe'er it be, ascribe this to the ale,
And say that reason in me was a fume.
But if you honor me, as you have said,
As much as any, this side idolatry,
Think, Ben, of this: That I, whate'er I be
In your regard, have come to fifty-two,
Defeated in my love, who knew too well
That poets through the love of women turn
To satyrs or to gods, even as women
By the first touch of passion bloom or rot
As angels or as bawds.

Bethink you also
How I have felt, seen, known the mystic process
Working in man's soul from the woman soul
As part thereof in essence, spirit and flesh,
Even as a malady may be, while this thing
Is health and growth, and growing draws all life,
All goodness, wisdom for its nutriment.
Till it become a vision paradisic,
And a ladder of fire for climbing, from its topmost
Rung a place for stepping into heaven....

This I have know, but had not. Nor have I
Stood coolly off and seen the woman, used
Her blood upon my palette. No, but heaven
Commanded my strength's use to abort and slay
What grew within me, while I saw the blood
Of love untimely ripped, as 'twere a child
Killed i' the womb, a harpy or an angel
With my own blood stained.

As a virgin shamed
By the swelling life unlicensed needles it,
But empties not her womb of some last shred
Of flesh which fouls the alleys of her body,
And fills her wholesome nerves with poisoned sleep,
And weakness to the last of life, so I
For some shame not unlike, some need of life
To rid me of this life I had conceived
Did up and choke it too, and thence begot
A fever and a fixed debility
For killing that begot.

Now you see that I
Have not grown from a central dream, but grown
Despite a wound, and over the wound and used
My flesh to heal my flesh. My love's a fever
Which longed for that which nursed the malady,
And fed on that which still preserved the ill,
The uncertain, sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept
Has left me. And as reason is past care
I am past cure, with ever more unrest
Made frantic-mad, my thoughts as madmen's are,
And my discourse at random from the truth,
Not knowing what she is, who swore her fair
And thought her bright, who is as black as hell
And dark as night.

But list, good gentlemen,
This love I speak of is not as a cloak
Which one may put away to wear a coat,
And doff that for a jacket, like the loves
We men are wont to have as loves or wives.
She is the very one, the soul of souls,
And when you put her on you put on light,
Or wear the robe of Nessus, poisonous fire,
Which if you tear away you tear your life,
And if you wear you fall to ashes. So
'Tis not her bed-vow broke, I have broke mine,
That ruins me; 'tis honest faith quite lost,
And broken hope that we could find each other,
And that mean more to me and less to her.
'Tis that she could take all of me and leave me
Without a sense of loss, without a tear,
And make me fool and perjured for the oath
That swore her fair and true. I feel myself
As like a virgin who her body gives
For love of one whose love she dreams is hers,
But wakes to find herself a toy of blood,
And dupe of prodigal breath, abandoned quite
For other conquests. For I gave myself,
And shrink for thought thereof, and for the loss
Of myself never to myself restored.
The urtication of this shame made plays
And sonnets, as you'll find behind all deeds
That mount to greatness, anger, hate, disgust,
But, better, love.

To hell with punks and wenches,
Drabs, mopsies, doxies, minxes, trulls and queans,
Rips, harridans and strumpets, pieces, jades.
And likewise to the eternal bonfire lechers,
All rakehells, satyrs, goats and placket fumblers,
Gibs, breakers-in-at-catch-doors, thunder tubes.
I think I have a fever -- hell and furies!
Or else this ale grows hotter i' the mouth.
Ben, if I die before you, let me waste
Richly and freely in the good brown earth,
Untrumpeted and by no bust marked out.
What good, Ben Jonson, if the world could see
What face was mine, who wrote these plays and sonnets?
Life, you have hurt me. Since Death has a veil
I take the veil and hide, and like great Caesar
Who drew his toga round him, I depart.

Good friends, let's to the fields -- I have a fever.
After a little walk, and by your pardon,
I think I'll sleep. There is no sweeter thing,
Nor fate more blessed than to sleep. Here, world,
I pass you like an orange to a child:
I can no more with you. Do what you will.
What should my care be when I have no power
To save, guide, mould you? Naughty world you need me
As little as I need you: go your way!
Tyrants shall rise and slaughter fill the earth,
But I shall sleep. In wars and wars and wars
The ever-replenished youth of earth shall shriek
And clap their gushing wounds -- but I shall sleep,
Nor earthy thunder wake me when the cannon
Shall shake the throne of Tartarus. Orators
Shall fulmine over London or America
Of rights eternal, parchments, sacred charters
And cut each others' throats when reason fails --
But I shall sleep. This globe may last and breed
The race of men till Time cries out "How long?"
But I shall sleep ten thousand thousand years.
I am a dream, Ben, out of a blessed sleep --
Let's walk and hear the lark.





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