Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, ON THE MANTLEPIECE, by JAMES LANE ALLEN

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ON THE MANTLEPIECE, by            
First Line: The roses and vines and the tall, straight, delicate
Last Line: They will open in paradise.

Audi Alteram Pattern

The roses and vines and the tall, straight, delicate poplars,
Growing about a beautiful old sixteenth-century French château,
One clear morning of autumn were strung with silver ropes of spider-web,
And the cold, green grass with its butterfly leaves
Was rimmed with white dew.
From the tops of the poplars could have been seen the fields,
Far away in the sunlight, sere and brown like a flooring --
Out there sere and brown with the last of their summer music.

A valet with a duster in his hand and on his forearm a dust cloth --
He may have been Swiss, for he wore a loin-cloth of forest green
Entered a front room of the château and suddenly stood perfectly still there,
Listening amid the decorous morning silence of the château
To a loud, nasty, little foreign noise coming from somewhere.
He uttered a few words, straight as the poplars but far from being so delicate.
Uttered them in a language of the Academy and of Fabre,
Finding the language of Fabre adequate for what he had to say regarding a bug,
Adding in the same language, "What are you doing there under that rug?"
And forward he strode and gave a quick
Academic or dithyrambic or choric kick
At the loose beautiful old marble (perhaps) brick.
And the Cricket on the Hearth,
For all its matutinal spontaneous mirth,
And without time for a sigh
That no poet was nigh
To see him die,
Was mashed -- song and senses, back and belly --
Into unpotted cricket jelly.
And all the literary offspring of Boz,
Boz who despised your sentimentality
But doted on his own sentimentality
(As the rest of us) --
All the literary offspring of Boz
Who despise sentimentality about a Dresden shepherdess
But dote on sentimentality about the toes of a cricket --
The twentieth-century Bozzers,
Successors to those nineteenth-century ones
Who loved the domestic canary, and the owl if perched on a bookcase,
And the pheasant With its young and its nest if well arranged on a table --
Served sous cloche like mushrooms,
The twentieth-century Bozzers, green and leafy with genius
And ready to exude poetic gum at the bare mention of the natural,
Laboring at the cult of the natural
And therefore never natural themselves
Because no cult is natural
But is a saturated solution of self-consciousness,
All the Neo-Bozzers must have wailed aloud
At the sudden violent death
Of the Cricket on the Hearth --
A natural thing making natural music,
Having been caught in an altogether unnatural place.

But the valet lifted the little Dresden shepherdess from the mantelpiece
And dusted her tenderly and put her back in her place,
As the valet before him had done,
As the valet after him would dust her tenderly and put her back in her place.
But he held her awhile and at arm's length and looked at her,
Smiled at her slippers and at the rose in her hand,
Smiled at her hat tilted the way he had seen one,
Thought of some one he loved and slipped his arm about her
In advance of the coming dusk and counted the days to follow
Before she should have fine things on her feet and her hair and her bosom.

Then more briskly he went on with his dusting,
The happier for the shepherdess as workman, lover and man,
And none the worse for the happiness.

One day the Marquis, lord of the château and gardens,
White and slight and slim like the poplars about his birthplace,
Paused before the shepherdess, thinking of the Marquise,
Seeing her as she was in the days of' their youth together --

Days now vanished forever beyond the brown fields of autumn.
And all that day with a tenderer grace and an eye on the lost
He watched her.
One day the Marquise, catching sight of the shepherdess,
Suddenly thought of something laid away in its freshness,
Folded still sweet and fresh in its antique woodwork.
It she would send as a gift to the daughter of the cure,
About to be married, a godchild.

One day the abbe, the scholar, brother of the Marquis,
Walking gravely in the room with thoughts of his history,
Wheeled angrily before the little Dresden shepherdess on the mantelpiece,
Remembering Marie Antoinette and her acres of pastoral playground
In the forest of Versailles near the Petit Trianon.
Saw once more and more near him French follies and revolution,
Went straight from the room and wrote more fiercely on avenging Time,
Wrote on the work of France in the coming glory of the world.

But all the valets mashed all the crickets
Singing in the morning stillness of the beautiful sixteenth-century French château.
And none of them as he dusted the shepherdess laid her in the nook of his arm
And carried her out to the fields and set her up there with the crickets,
Thinking the fields the place for the Dresden shepherdess.
And none of them caught a cricket and brought it back to the château
And dusted it and put it on the mantelpiece.
Or under the mantelpiece as the natural place for a cricket;
And none of the valets, if he could help it, killed a cricket in the fields,
But stepped over it carefully if tangled in the grass and unable to escape sudden death
under his feet.

For the valets have nothing against the crickets in the fields
Where nothing ends or defeats
The music of the earth --
Read Keats!
Glorious, undoctrined, undoctored spirit!
Who sang of the grasshopper
But who sang too of the Grecian urn on the mantelpiece
(Or some equivalent of the mantelpiece) --
Sang of the sentimental, artificial scene on the Grecian urn --
More sentimental, more artificial, than the little Dresden shepherdess --
Sang of the artificial Greek heifer lowing at artificial Greek skies.
Boundless poet of Nature
But poet also of all that is beautiful.
In the bounded spirit of man --

The most beautiful thing in that spirit being man's art.
His art which is but little pictures
To bring near him the beauty that is far away or beyond him.
Whether it be the little Dresden shepherdess on the mantelpiece,
Or the Grecian urn on its mantelpiece
With its sentimental, artificial heifer lowing at the skies
And at the mystery of sacrifice; or whether it be
The little wooden crucifix, held before dying eyes,
As the hope that, closing on earth,
They will open in paradise.

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