Morris Rosenfeld.

Songs of Labor and Other Poems online

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_Translated from the Yiddish by
Rose Pastor Stokes and Helena Frank_


In the Factory
My Boy
The Nightingale to the Workman
What is the World?
From Dawn to Dawn
The Candle Seller
The Pale Operator
The Beggar Family
A Millionaire
September Melodies
The Canary
Want and I
The Phantom Vessel
To my Misery
O Long the Way
To the Fortune Seeker
My Youth
In the Wilderness
I've Often Laughed
Again I Sing my Songs
A Tree in the Ghetto
The Cemetery Nightingale
The Creation of Man
Pen and Shears
For Hire
A Fellow Slave
The Jewish May
The Feast of Lights
Chanukah Thoughts
Measuring the Graves
The First Bath of Ablution
Atonement Evening Prayer
Exit Holiday


In the Factory

Oh, here in the shop the machines roar so wildly,
That oft, unaware that I am, or have been,
I sink and am lost in the terrible tumult;
And void is my soul... I am but a machine.
I work and I work and I work, never ceasing;
Create and create things from morning till e'en;
For what? - and for whom - Oh, I know not! Oh, ask not!
Who ever has heard of a conscious machine?

No, here is no feeling, no thought and no reason;
This life-crushing labor has ever supprest
The noblest and finest, the truest and richest,
The deepest, the highest and humanly best.
The seconds, the minutes, they pass out forever,
They vanish, swift fleeting like straws in a gale.
I drive the wheel madly as tho' to o'ertake them, -
Give chase without wisdom, or wit, or avail.

The clock in the workshop, - it rests not a moment;
It points on, and ticks on: Eternity - Time;
And once someone told me the clock had a meaning, -
Its pointing and ticking had reason and rhyme.
And this too he told me, - or had I been dreaming, -
The clock wakened life in one, forces unseen,
And something besides;... I forget what; Oh, ask not!
I know not, I know not, I am a machine.

At times, when I listen, I hear the clock plainly; -
The reason of old - the old meaning - is gone!
The maddening pendulum urges me forward
To labor and labor and still labor on.
The tick of the clock is the Boss in his anger!
The face of the clock has the eyes of a foe;
The clock - Oh, I shudder - dost hear how it drives me?
It calls me "Machine!" and it cries to me "Sew!"

At noon, when about me the wild tumult ceases,
And gone is the master, and I sit apart,
And dawn in my brain is beginning to glimmer,
The wound comes agape at the core of my heart;
And tears, bitter tears flow; ay, tears that are scalding;
They moisten my dinner - my dry crust of bread;
They choke me, - I cannot eat; - no, no, I cannot!
Oh, horrible toil I born of Need and of Dread.

The sweatshop at mid-day - I'll draw you the picture:
A battlefield bloody; the conflict at rest;
Around and about me the corpses are lying;
The blood cries aloud from the earth's gory breast.
A moment... and hark! The loud signal is sounded,
The dead rise again and renewed is the fight...
They struggle, these corpses; for strangers, for strangers!
They struggle, they fall, and they sink into night.

I gaze on the battle in bitterest anger,
And pain, hellish pain wakes the rebel in me!
The clock - now I hear it aright! - It is crying:
"An end to this bondage! An end there must be!"
It quickens my reason, each feeling within me;
It shows me how precious the moments that fly.
Oh, worthless my life if I longer am silent,
And lost to the world if in silence I die.

The man in me sleeping begins to awaken;
The thing that was slave into slumber has passed:
Now; up with the man in me! Up and be doing!
No misery more! Here is freedom at last!
When sudden: a whistle! - the Boss - an alarum! -
I sink in the slime of the stagnant routine; -
There's tumult, they struggle, oh, lost is my ego; -
I know not, I care not, I am a machine!...

My Boy

I have a little boy at home,
A pretty little son;
I think sometimes the world is mine
In him, my only one.

But seldom, seldom do I see
My child in heaven's light;
I find him always fast asleep...
I see him but at night.

Ere dawn my labor drives me forth;
'Tis night when I am free;
A stranger am I to my child;
And strange my child to me.

I come in darkness to my home,
With weariness and - pay;
My pallid wife, she waits to tell
The things he learned to say.

How plain and prettily he asked:
"Dear mamma, when's 'Tonight'?
O when will come my dear papa
And bring a penny bright?"

I hear her words - I hasten out -
This moment must it be! -
The father-love flames in my breast:
My child must look at me!

I stand beside the tiny cot,
And look, and list, and - ah!
A dream-thought moves the baby-lips:
"O, where is my papa!"

I kiss and kiss the shut blue eyes;
I kiss them not in vain.
They open, - O they see me then!
And straightway close again.

"Here's your papa, my precious one; -
A penny for you!" - ah!
A dream still moves the baby-lips:
"O, where is my papa!"

And I - I think in bitterness
And disappointment sore;
"Some day you will awake, my child,
To find me nevermore."

The Nightingale to the Workman

Fair summer is here, glad summer is here!
O hark! 'tis to you I am singing:
The sun is all gold in a heaven of blue,
The birds in the forest are trilling for you,
The flies 'mid the grasses are winging;
The little brook babbles - its secret is sweet.
The loveliest flowers would circle your feet, -
And you to your work ever clinging!...
Come forth! Nature loves you. Come forth! Do not fear!
Fair summer is here, glad summer is here,
Full measure of happiness bringing.
All creatures drink deep; and they pour wine anew
In the old cup of life, and they wonder at you.
Your portion is waiting since summer began;
Then take it, oh, take it, you laboring man!

'Tis summer today; ay, summer today!
The butterflies light on the flowers.
Delightfully glistens the silvery rain,
The mountains are covered with greenness again,
And perfumed and cool are the bowers.
The sheep frisk about in the flowery vale,
The shepherd and shepherdess pause in the dale,
And these are the holiest hours!...
Delay not, delay not, life passes away!
'Tis summer today, sweet summer today!
Come, throttle your wheel's grinding power!...
Your worktime is bitter and endless in length;
And have you not foolishly lavished your strength?
O think not the world is with bitterness rife,
But drink of the wine from the goblet of life.

O, summer is here, sweet summer is here!
I cannot forever be trilling;
I flee on the morrow. Then, you, have a care!
The crow, from the perch I am leaving, the air
With ominous cries will be filling.
O, while I am singing to you from my tree
Of love, and of life, and of joy yet to be,
Arouse you! - O why so unwilling!...
The heavens remain not so blue and so clear; -
Now summer is here! Come, summer is here!
Reach out for the joys that are thrilling!
For like you who fade at your wheel, day by day,
Soon all things will fade and be carried away.
Our lives are but moments; and sometimes the cost
Of a moment o'erlooked is eternity lost.

What is the World?

Well, say you the world is a chamber of sleep,
And life but a sleeping and dreaming?
Then I too would dream: and would joyously reap
The blooms of harmonious seeming;
The dream-flow'rs of hope and of freedom, perchance,
The rich are so merrily reaping; -
In Love's eyes I'd fancy the joy of romance;
No more would I dream Love is weeping.

Or say you the world is a banquet, a ball,
Where everyone goes who is able?
I too wish to sit like a lord in the hall
With savory share at the table.
I too can enjoy what is wholesome and good,
A morsel both dainty and healthy;
I have in my body the same sort of blood
That flows in the veins of the wealthy.

A garden you say is the world, where abound
The sweetest and loveliest roses?
Then would I, no leave asking, saunter around
And gather me handfuls of posies.
Of thorns I am sure I would make me no wreath;
(Of flowers I am very much fonder).
And with my beloved the bowers beneath
I'd wander, and wander, and wander.

But ah! if the world is a battlefield wild,
Where struggle the weak with the stronger,
Then heed I no storm and no wife and no child! -
I stand in abeyance no longer; -
Rush into the fire of the battle nor yield,
And fight for my perishing brother;
Well, if I am struck - I can die on the field;
Die gladly as well as another....


No rest - not one day in the seven for me?
Not one, from the maddening yoke to be free?
Not one to escape from the boss on the prowl,
His sinister glance and his furious growl,
The cry of the foreman, the smell of the shop, -
To feel for one moment the manacles drop?
- _'Tis rest then you want, and you fain would forget?
To rest and oblivion they'll carry you yet._

The flow'rs and the trees will have withered ere long,
The last bird already is ending his song;
And soon will be leafless and shadeless the bow'rs...
I long, oh I long for the perfume of flow'rs!
To feel for a moment ere stripped are the trees,
In meadow lands open, the breath of the breeze.
- _You long for the meadow lands breezy and fair?
O, soon enough others will carry you there._

The rivulet sparkles with heavenly light,
The wavelets they glisten, with diamonds bedight.
Oh, but for a moment to leap in the stream,
And play in the waters that ripple and gleam!
My body is weakened with terrible toil. -
The bath would refresh me, renew me the while.
- _You dream of a bath in the shimmering stream?
'Twill come - when forever is ended your dream._

The sweatshop is smoky and gloomy and mean -
I strive - oh, how vainly I strive to be clean!
All day I am covered with grime and with dirt.
You'd laugh, - but I long for a spotless white shirt!
For life that is noble, 'tis needful, I ween,
To work as a man should; and still be as clean.
- _So now 'tis your wish all in white to be dressed?
In white they will robe you, and lay you to rest._

The woods they are cool, and the woods they are free; -
To dream and to wander, how sweet it would be!
The birds their eternal glad holiday keep;
With song that enchants you and lulls you to sleep.
'Tis hot here, - and close! and the din will not cease.
I long for the forest, its coolth and its peace.
- _Ay, cool you will soon be; and not only cool,
But cold as no forest can make you, O Fool!_

I long for a friend who will comfort and cheer,
And fill me with courage when sorrow is near;
A comrade, of treasures the rarest and best,
Who gives to existence its crown and its crest;
And I am an orphan - and I am alone;
No friend or companion to call me his own.
- _Companions a-plenty - they're numberless too;
They're swarming already and waiting for you._


(To a Young Girl)

Say whither, whither, pretty one?
The hour is young at present!
How hushed is all the world around!
Ere dawn - the streets hold not a sound.
O whither, whither do you run?
Sleep at this hour is pleasant.
The flowers are dreaming, dewy-wet;
The bird-nests they are silent yet.
Where to, before the rising sun
The world her light is giving?

"To earn a living."

O whither, whither, pretty child,
So late at night a-strolling?
Alone - with darkness round you curled?
All rests! - and sleeping is the world.
Where drives you now the wind so wild?
The midnight bells are tolling!
Day hath not warmed you with her light;
What aid can'st hope then from the night?
Night's deaf and blind! - Oh whither, child,
Light-minded fancies weaving?

"To earn a living."

From Dawn to Dawn

I bend o'er the wheel at my sewing;
I'm spent; and I'm hungry for rest;
No curse on the master bestowing, -
No hell-fires within me are glowing, -
Tho' pain flares its fires in my breast.

I mar the new cloth with my weeping,
And struggle to hold back the tears;
A fever comes over me, sweeping
My veins; and all through me goes creeping
A host of black terrors and fears.

The wounds of the old years ache newly;
The gloom of the shop hems me in;
But six o'clock signals come duly:
O, freedom seems mine again, truly...
Unhindered I haste from the din.

* * * * *

Now home again, ailing and shaking,
With tears that are blinding my eyes,
With bones that are creaking and breaking,
Unjoyful of rest... merely taking
A seat; hoping never to rise.

I gaze round me: none for a greeting!
By Life for the moment unpressed,
My poor wife lies sleeping - and beating
A lip-tune in dream false and fleeting,
My child mumbles close to her breast.

I look on them, weeping in sorrow,
And think: "When the Reaper has come -
When finds me no longer the morrow -
What aid then? - from whom will they borrow
The crust of dry bread and the home?

"What harbors that morrow," I wonder,
"For them when the breadwinner's gone?
When sudden and swift as the thunder
The bread-bond is broken asunder,
And friend in the world there is none."

A numbness my brain is o'ertaking...
To sleep for a moment I drop:
Then start!... In the east light is breaking! -
I drag myself, ailing and aching,
Again to the gloom of the shop.

The Candle Seller

In Hester Street, hard by a telegraph post,
There sits a poor woman as wan as a ghost.
Her pale face is shrunk, like the face of the dead,
And yet you can tell that her cheeks once were red.
But love, ease and friendship and glory, I ween,
May hardly the cause of their fading have been.
Poor soul, she has wept so, she scarcely can see.
A skeleton infant she holds on her knee.
It tugs at her breast, and it whimpers and sleeps,
But soon at her cry it awakens and weeps -
"Two cents, my good woman, three candles will buy,
As bright as their flame be my star in the sky!"

Tho' few are her wares, and her basket is small,
She earns her own living by these, when at all.
She's there with her baby in wind and in rain,
In frost and in snow-fall, in weakness and pain.
She trades and she trades, through the good times and slack -
No home and no food, and no cloak to her back.
She's kithless and kinless - one friend at the most,
And that one is silent: the telegraph post!
She asks for no alms, the poor Jewess, but still,
Altho' she is wretched, forsaken and ill,
She cries Sabbath candles to those that come nigh,
And all that she pleads is, that people will buy.

To honor the sweet, holy Sabbath, each one
With joy in his heart to the market has gone.
To shops and to pushcarts they hurriedly fare;
But who for the poor, wretched woman will care?
A few of her candles you think they will take? -
They seek the meat patties, the fish and the cake.
She holds forth a hand with the pitiful cry:
"Two cents, my good women, three candles will buy!"
But no one has listened, and no one has heard:
Her voice is so weak, that it fails at each word.
Perchance the poor mite in her lap understood,
She hears mother's crying - but where is the good

I pray you, how long will she sit there and cry
Her candles so feebly to all that pass by?
How long will it be, do you think, ere her breath
Gives out in the horrible struggle with Death?
How long will this frail one in mother-love strong,
Give suck to the babe at her breast? Oh, how long?
The child mother's tears used to swallow before,
But mother's eyes, nowadays, shed them no more.
Oh, dry are the eyes now, and empty the brain,
The heart well-nigh broken, the breath drawn with pain.
Yet ever, tho' faintly, she calls out anew:
"Oh buy but two candles, good women, but two!"

In Hester Street stands on the pavement of stone
A small, orphaned basket, forsaken, alone.
Beside it is sitting a corpse, cold and stark:
The seller of candles - will nobody mark?
No, none of the passers have noticed her yet.
The rich ones, on feasting are busily set,
And such as are pious, you well may believe,
Have no time to spare on the gay Sabbath eve.
So no one has noticed and no one has seen.
And now comes the nightfall, and with it, serene,
The Princess, the Sabbath, from Heaven descends,
And all the gay throng to the synagogue wends.

Within, where they pray, all is cleanly and bright,
The cantor sings sweetly, they list with delight.
But why in a dream stands the tall chandelier,
As dim as the candles that gleam round a bier?
The candles belonged to the woman, you know,
Who died in the street but a short time ago.
The rich and the pious have brought them tonight,
For mother and child they have set them alight.
The rich and the pious their duty have done:
Her tapers are lighted who died all alone.
The rich and the pious are nobly behaved:
A body - what matters? But souls must be saved!

O synagogue lights, be ye witnesses bold
That mother and child died of hunger and cold
Where millions are squandered in idle display;
That men, all unheeded, must starve by the way.
Then hold back your flame, blessed lights, hold it fast!
The great day of judgment will come at the last.
Before the white throne, where imposture is vain,
Ye lights for the soul, ye'll be lighted again!
And upward your flame there shall mount as on wings,
And damn the existing false order of things!

The Pale Operator

If but with my pen I could draw him,
With terror you'd look in his face;
For he, since the first day I saw him,
Has sat there and sewed in his place.

Years pass in procession unending,
And ever the pale one is seen,
As over his work he sits bending,
And fights with the soulless machine.

I feel, as I gaze at each feature,
Perspiring and grimy and wan,
It is not the strength of the creature, -
The will only, urges him on.

And ever the sweat-drops are flowing,
They fall o'er his thin cheek in streams,
They water the stuff he is sewing,
And soak themselves into the seams.

How long shall the wheel yet, I pray you,
Be chased by the pale artisan?
And what shall the ending be, say you?
Resolve the dark riddle who can!

I know that it cannot be reckoned, -
But one thing the future will show:
When this man has vanished, a second
Will sit in his place there and sew.

The Beggar Family

Within the court, before the judge,
There stand six wretched creatures,
They're lame and weary, one and all,
With pinched and pallid features.
The father is a broken man,
The mother weak and ailing,
The little children, skin and bone,
With fear and hunger wailing.

Their sins are very great, and call
Aloud for retribution,
For their's (maybe you guess!) the crime
Of hopeless destitution.
They look upon the judge's face,
They know what judges ponder,
They know the punishment that waits
On those that beg and wander.

For months from justice they have fled
Along the streets and highways,
From farm to farm, from town to town,
Along the lanes and byways.
They've slept full oftentimes in jail,
They're known in many places;
Yet still they live, for all the woe
That's stamped upon their faces.

The woman's chill with fear. The man
Implores the judge: "Oh tell us,
What will you? With our children small
Relentlessly expel us?
Oh let us be! We'll sleep at night
In corners dark; the city
Has room for all! And some kind soul
Will give a crust in pity.

"For wife and children I will toil:
It cannot be much longer
(For God almighty is and good!)
Ere I for work am stronger.
Oh let us here with men remain,
Nor drive us any further!
Oh why our curses will you have,
And not our blessings rather!"

And now the sick man quails before
The judge's piercing glances:
"No, only two of you shall go
This time and take your chances.
Your wife and you! The children four
You'll leave, my man, behind you,
For them, within the Orphan's Home,
Free places I will find you."

The father's dumb - the mother shrieks:
"My babes and me you'd sever?
If God there be, such cruel act
Shall find forgiveness never!
But first, oh judge, must you condemn
To death their wretched mother -
I cannot leave my children dear
With you or any other!

"I bore and nursed them, struggling still
To shelter and to shield them,
Oh judge, I'll beg from door to door,
My very life-blood yield them!
I know you do not mean it, judge,
With us poor folk you're jesting.
Give back my babes, and further yet
We'll wander unprotesting."

The judge, alas! has turned away,
The paper dread unrolled,
And useless all the mother's grief,
The wild and uncontrolled.
More cruel can a sentence be
Than that which now is given?
Oh cursed the system 'neath whose sway
The human heart is riven!

A Millionaire

No, not from tuning-forks of gold
Take I my key for singing;
From Upper Seats no order bold
Can set my music ringing;
But groans the slave through sense of wrong,
And naught my voice can smother;
As flame leaps up, so leaps my song
For my oppressed brother.

And thus the end comes swift and sure...
Thus life itself must leave me;
For what can these my brothers poor
In compensation give me,
Save tears for ev'ry tear and sigh? -
(For they are rich in anguish).
A millionaire of tears am I,
And mid my millions languish.

September Melodies


The summer is over!
'Tis windy and chilly.
The flowers are dead in the dale.
All beauty has faded,
The rose and the lily
In death-sleep lie withered and pale.

Now hurries the stormwind
A mournful procession
Of leaves and dead flowers along,
Now murmurs the forest
Its dying confession,
And hushed is the holiest song.

Their "prayers of departure"
The wild birds are singing,
They fly to the wide stormy main.
Oh tell me, ye loved ones,
Whereto are ye winging?
Oh answer: when come ye again?

Oh hark to the wailing
For joys that have vanished!
The answer is heavy with pain:
Alas! We know only
That hence we are banished -
But God knows of coming again!


The Tkiyes*-man has blown his horn,
And swift the days' declining;
The leaves drop off, in fields forlorn
Are tender grasses pining.

The earth will soon be cold and bare,
Her robe of glory falling;
Already to the mourner's prayer
The last wild bird is calling.

He sings so sweetly and so sad
A song of friends who parted,
That even if it find you glad,
It leaves you broken hearted.

The copses shudder in the breeze,
Some dream-known terror fearing.
Awake! O great and little trees!
The Judgment-day is nearing!

O men! O trees in copses cold!
Beware the rising weather!
Or late or soon, both young and old
Shall strew the ground together....

[*Tkiye: first blast of the Ram's horn.]


All the striving, all the failing,
To the silent Nothing sailing.
Swiftly, swiftly passing by!
For the land of shadows leaving,
Where a wistful hand is weaving
Thy still woof, Eternity!

Gloomy thoughts in me awaken,
And with fear my breast is shaken,
Thinking: O thou black abyss;
All the toil and thrift of life,
All the struggle and the strife,
Shall it come at last to this?

With the grave shall be requited
Good and evil, and united
Ne'er to separate again?
What the light hath parted purely,
Shall the darkness join more surely? -
Was the vict'ry won in vain?

O mute and infinite extension,
O time beyond our comprehension,
Shall thought and deed ungarnered fall?
Ev'rything dost take and slay,
Ev'rything dost bear away,

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