Robert Browning.

Selections from the poetical works of Robert Browning : from the sixth London edition (first and second series) online

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Won't he, ma'am ?

But what if our distinguished host, like Sludge,
Bade God bear witness that he played no trick,
While you believed that what produced the raps
Was just a certain child who died, you know,
And whose last breath you thought your lips had felt ?
Eh ? That's a capital point, ma'am : Sludge begins
At your entreaty with your dearest dead,
The little voice set lisping once again,
The tiny hand made feel for yours once more,
The poor lost image brought back, plain as dreams,
Which image, if a word had chanced recall,
The customary cloud would cross your eyes,
Your heart return the old tick, pay its pang !
A right mood for investigation, this !
One's at one's ease with Saul and Jonathan,
Pompey and Cresar : but one's own lost child . . .
I wonder, when you heard the first clod drop
From the spadeful at the grave, did you feel free
To investigate who twitched your funeral scarf,
Or brushed your flounces ? Then, it came of course
You should be stunned and stupid ; then (how else ?)
Your breath stopped with your blood, your brain struck work
But now, such causes fail of such effects,
All's changed, the little voice begins afresh,
Yet you, calm, consequent, can test and try
And touch the truth. " Tests ? Didn't the creature tell
Its nurse's name, and say it lived six years,
And rode a rocking-horse ? Enough of tests !
Sludge never could learn that ! "

He could not, eh ?

You compliment him " Could not V " Speak for yourself !
I'd like to know the man I ever saw

Once, never mind where, how, why, when, once saw,
Of whom I do not keep some matter treasured
He'd swear I " could not " know, sagacious soul !
What ? Do you live in this world's blow of blacks,
Palaver, gossipry, a single hour
Nor find one smut has settled on your nose,
Of a smut's worth, no more, no less ? one fact
Out of the drift of facts, whereby you learn
What some one was, somewhere, somewhen, somevvhy ?
You don't tell folk " See what has stuck to me !
Judge Humgruffin, our most distinguished man,
Your uncle was a tailor, and your wife
Thought to have married Miggs, missed him, hit you 1
Do you, sir, though you see him twice a week ?
" No," you reply, " what use retailing it?
Why should I ?"" But, you see, one day you shoidd.





238



MR. SLUDGE, "THE MEDIUM.




Because one day there's much use, when this fact
Brings you the Judge upon both gouty knees
Before the supernatural ; proves that Sludge
Knows, as you say, a thing he " could not " know :
Will not Sludge thenceforth keep an outstretched face
The way the wind drives ?

" Could not ! " Look you now
I'll tell you a story ! There's a whiskered chap,
A foreigner, that teaches miisic here
And gets his bread, knowing no better way.
He says, the fellow who informed of him
And made him fly his country and fall West,
Was a hunchback cobbler, sat, stitched soles, and sang,
In some outlandish place, the city Rome,
In a cellar by their Broadway, all day long ;
Never asked questions, stopped to listen or look,
Nor lifted nose from lapstone ; let the world
Roll round his three-legged stool, and news run in
The ears he hardly seemed to keep pricked up.
Well, that man went on Sundays, touched his pay,
And took his praise from government, you see ;
For something like two dollars every week,
He'd engage tell you some one little thing
Of some one man, which led to many more
(Because one truth leads right to the world's end),
And make you that man's master when he dined
And on what dish, where walked to keep his health,
And to what street. His trade was, throwing thus
His sense out, like an anteater's long tongue,
Soft, innocent, warm, moist, impassible,
And when 'twas crusted o'er with creatures slick,
Their juice enriched his palate. " Could not Sludge ! "
I'll go yet a step farther, and maintain,
Once the imposture plunged its proper depth
I' the rotten of your natures, all of you
(If one's not mad nor drunk, and hardly then),
It's impossible to cheat that's, be found out !
Go tell your brotherhood this first slip of mine,
All to-day's tale, how you detected Sludge,
Behaved unpleasantly! till he was fain confess,
And so has come to grief ! You'll find, I think,
Why Sludge still snaps his fingers in your face.
There now, you've told them ! What's their prompt reply ?
" Sir, did that youth confess he had cheated me,
I'd disbelieve him. He may cheat at times ;
That's in the ' medium '-nature, thus they're made.
Vain and vindictive, cowards, prone to scratch.
And so all cats are ; still a cat's the beast
You coax the strange electric sparks from out,
By rubbing back its fur ; not so a dog,
Nor lion, nor lamb : 'tis the cat's nature, sir !
Why not the dog's ? Ask God, who made them beasts !
D'ye think the sound, the nicely balanced man
Like me " (aside) " like you yourself," (aloud)
" He's stuff to make a ' medium ' ? Bless your soul,
'Tis these hysteric, hybrid half-and-halfs,
Equivocal, worthless vermin yield the fire !
We must take such as we find them, 'ware their tricks,





MR. SLUDGE, "THE MEDIUM."



239



"Wanting their service. Sir, Sludge took in you
How, I can't say, not being there to watch :
He was tried, was tempted by your easiness,
He did not take in me ! "

Thank you for Sludge !
I'm to be grateful to such patrons, eh,
When what you hear's my best word ? 'Tis a challenge
" Snap at all strangers, half-tamed prairie-dog,
So you cower duly at your keeper's nod !
Cat, show what claws were made for, muffling them
Only to me ! Cheat others if you can,
Me,*if you dare ! " And, my wise sir, I dared
Did cheat you first, made you cheat others next,
And had the help o' your vaunted manliness
To bully the incredulous. You used me ?
Have not I used you, taken full revenge,
Persuaded folk they knew not their own name,
And straight they'd own the error ! Who was the fool
When, to an awe-struck wide-eyed open-mouthed
Circle of sages. Sludge would introduce
Milton composing baby-rhymes, and Locke
Reasoning in gibberish, Homer writing Greek
In naughts and crosses, Asaph setting psalms
To crotchet and quaver ? I've made a spirit squeak
In sham voice for a minute, then outbroke
Bold in my own, defying the imbeciles
Have copied some ghost's pothooks, half a page,
Then ended with my own scrawl undisguised.
" All right ! The ghost was merely using Sludge,
Suiting itself from his imperfect stock ! '
Don't talk of gratitude to me ! For what ?
For being treated as a showman's ape,
Encouraged to be wicked and make sport,
Fret or sulk, grin or whimper, any mood
So long as the ape be in it and no man
Because a nut pays every mood alike.
Curse your superior, superintending sort,
Who, since you hate smoke, send up boys that climb
To cure your chimney, bid a " medium " lie
To sweep you truth down ! Curse your women too,
Your insolent wives and daughters, that fire up
Or faint away if a male hand squeeze theirs,
Yet, to encourage Sludge, may play with Sludge
As only a " medium," only the kind of thing
They must humor, fondle . . . oh, to misconceive
Were too preposterous ! But I've paid them out !
They've had their wish called for the naked truth,
And in she tripped, sat down, and bade them stare :
They had to blush a little and forgive !
" The fact is, children talk so ; in next world
All our conventions are reversed, perhaps
Made light of : something like old prints, my dear !
The Judge has one, he brought from Italy,
A metropolis in the background, o'er a bridge,
A team of trotting roadsters, cheerful groups
Of wayside travellers, peasants at their work,
And, full in front, quite unconcerned, why not?
Three nymphs conversing with a cavalier,





240





MR. SLUDGE, "THE MEDIUM"



And never a rag among them : ' fine,' folk cry

And heavenly manners seem not much unlike !

Let Sludge go on : we'll fancy it's in print ! "

If such as came for wool, sir, went home shorn,

Where is the wrong I did them ? 'Twas their choice :

They tried the adventure, ran the risk, tossed up

And lost, as some one's sure to do in games ;

They fancied I was made to lose, smoked glass

Useful to spy the sun through, spare their eyes :

And had I proved a red-hot iron plate

They thought to pierce, and, for their pains, grew blind,

Whose were the fault but theirs ? While, as things go,

Their loss amounts to gain, the more's the shame !

They've had their peep into the spirit-world,

And all this world may know it ! They've fed fat

Their self-conceit which else had starved : what chance

Save this, of cackling o'er a golden egg

And compassing distinction from the flock,

Friends of a feather ? Well, they paid for it,

And not prodigiously ; the price o' the play,

Not counting certain pleasant interludes,

Was scarce a vulgar play's worth. When you buy

The actor's talent, do you dare propose

For his soul beside ? Whereas, my soul you buy !

Sludge acts Macbeth, obliged to be Macbeth,

Or you'll not hear his first word ! Just go through

That slight formality, swear himself's the Thane,

And thenceforth he may strut and fret his hour,

Spout, sprawl, or spin his target, no one cares !

Why hadn't I leave to play tricks, Sludge as Sludge ?

Enough of it all ! I've wiped out scores with you

Vented your fustian, let myself be streaked

Like torn-fool with your ochre and carmine,

Worn patchwork your respectable fingers sewed

To metamorphose somebody, yes, I've earned

My wages, swallowed down my bread of shame,

And shake the crumbs off where but in your face ?

As for religion why, I served it, sir !
I'll stick to that ! With my phenomena
I laid the atheist sprawling on his back,
Propped up Saint Paul, or, at least, Swedenborg !
In fact, it's just the proper way to balk
These troublesome fellows liars, one and all,
Are not these sceptics ? Well, to baflie them,
No use in being squeamish : lie yourself !
Erect your buttress just as wide o' the line,
Your side, as they've built up the wall on theirs ;
Where both meet, midway in a point, is truth,
High overhead : so, take your room, pile bricks,
Lie ! Oh, there's titillation in all shame !
What snow may lose in white, it gains in rose !
Miss Stokes turns Rahab, nor a bad exchange !
Glory be on her, for the good she wrought,
Breeding belief anew 'neath ribs of death,
Brow-beating now the unabashed before,
Ridding us of their whole life's gathered straws
By a live coal from the altar ! Why, of old,
Great men spent years and years in writing books




MIL SLUDGE, "THE MEDIUM.'



241




To prove we've souls, and hardly proved it then :

Miss Stokes with her live coal, for you and me 1

Surely, to this good issue, all was fair

Not only fondling Sludge, but, even suppose

He let escape some spice of knavery, well,

In wisely being blind to it ! Don't you praise

Nelson for setting spy-glass to blind eye

And saying . . . what was it that he could not see

The signal he was bothered with ? Ay, indeed !

I'll go beyond : there's a real love of a lie,

Liars find ready-made for lies they make,

As hand for glove, or tongue for sugar-plum.

At best, 'tis never pure and full belief ;

Those farthest in the quagmire, don't suppose

They strayed there with no warning, got no chance

Of a filth-speck in their face, which they clinched teeth,

Bent brow against ! Be sure they had their doubts,

And fears, and fairest challenges to try

The floor o' the seeming solid sand ! But no !

Their faith was pledged, acquaintance too apprised,

All but the last step ventured, kerchiefs waved,

And Sludge called " pet : " 'twas easier marching ou

To the promised land ; join those who, Thursday next,

Meant to meet Shakspeare ; better follow Sludge

Prudent, oh sure ! on the alert, how else ?

But making for the mid-bog, all the same !

To hear your outcries, one would think I caught

Miss Stokes by the scuff o' the neck, and pitched her flat,

Foolish-face-foremost ! Hear these simpletons,

That's all I beg, before my work's begun,

Before I've touched them with my finger-tip !

Thus they await me (do but listen, now !

It's reasoning, this is, I can't imitate

The baby voice, though) " In so many tales

Must be some truth, truth though a pin-point big,

Yet, some : a single man's deceived, perhaps

Hardly, a thousand : to suppose one cheat

Can gull all these, were more miraculous far

Than aught we should confess a miracle "

And so on. Then the Judge sums up (it's rare)

Bids you respect the authorities that leap

To the judgment-seat at once, why, don't you note

The limpid nature, the unblemished life,

The spotless honor, indisputable sense

Of the first upstart with his story ? What

Outrage a boy on whom you ne'er till now

Set eyes, because he finds raps trouble him ?

Fools, these are : ay, and how of their opposites
Who never did, at bottom of their hearts,
Believe for a moment ? Men emasculate,
Blank of belief, who played, as eunuchs use,
With superstition safely, cold of blood,
Who saw what made for them i' the mystery,
Took their occasion, and supported Sludge

As proselytes ? No, thank you, far too shrewd f

But promisers of fair play, encouragers

O' th claimant ; who in candor needs must hoist




242



MR. SLUDGE, "THE MEDIUM."




Sludge up on Mars' Hill, get speech out of Sludge

To carry off, criticise, and cant about !

Didn't Athens treat Saint Paul so ? at any rate,

It's " a new thing," philosophy fumbles at.

Then there's the other picker out of pearl

From dung-heaps, ay, your literary man,

Who draws on his kid gloves to deal with Sludge

Daintily and discreetly, shakes a dust

O' the doctrine, flavors thence, he well knows how,

The narrative or the novel, half-believes,

All for the book's sake, and the public's stare,

And the cash that's God's sole solid in this world !

Look at him ! Try to be too bold, too gross

For the master ! Not you ! He's the man for muck ;

Shovel it forth, full-splash, he'll smooth your brown

Into artistic richness, never fear !

Find him the crude stuff ; when you recognize

Your lie again, you'll doff your hat to it,

Dressed out for company ! " For company,"

I say, since there's the relish of success :

Let all pay due respect, call the lie truth,

Save the soft, silent, smirking gentleman

Who ushered in the stranger : you must sigh

" How melancholy, he, the only one

Fails to perceive the bearing of the truth

Himself gave birth to ! " There's the triumph's smack !

That man would choose to see the whole world roll

I' the slime o' the slough, so he might touch the tip

Of his brush with what I call the best of browns

Tint ghost-tales, spirit-stories, past the power

Of the outworn umber and bistre !

Yet I think

There's a more hateful form of foolery
The social sage's, Solomon of saloons
And philosophic diner-out, the fribble
Who wants a doctrine for a chopping-block
To try the edge of his faculty upon,
Prove how much common sense he'll hack and hew
I' the critical minute 'twixt the soup and fish !
These were my patrons : these, and the like of them
Who, rising in my soul now, sicken it.
These I have injured ! Gratitude to these ?
The gratitude, forsooth, of a prostitute
To the greenhorn and the bully friends of hers,
From the wag that wants the queer jokes for his club,
To the snuff-box-decorator, honest man,
Who just was at his wits' end where to find
So genial a Pasiphae ! All and each
Pay, compliment, protect from the police,
And how she hates them for their pains, like me !
So much for my remorse at thanklessness
Toward a deserving public 1

But, for God ?

Ay, that's a question ! Well, sir, since you press
(How you do teaze the whole thing out of me !
I don't mean you, you know, when I say, " them : ''
Hate you, indeed ! But that Miss Stokes, that Judge I





MR. SLUDGE, "THE MEDIUM.'




Enough, enough with sugar : thank you, sir !)

Now for it then ! Will you believe me, though ?

You've heard what I confess ; I don't unsay

A single word : I cheated when I could,

Rapped with my toe-joints, set sham hands at work,

Wrote down names weak in sympathetic ink,

Rubbed odic lights with ends of phosphor-match,

And all the rest ; believe that : believe this,

By the same token, though it seem to set

The crooked straight again, unsay the said,

Stick up what I've thrown down ; I can't help that,

It's truth ! I somehow vomit truth to-day.

This trade of mine I don't know, can't'be sure

But there was something in it, tricks and all !

Really, I want to light up my own mind.

They were tricks, true, but what I mean to add

Is also true. First, don't it strike you, sir ?

Go back to the beginning, the first fact

We're taught is, there's a world beside this world,

With spirits, not mankind, for tenantry ;

That much within that world once sojourned here,

That all upon this world will visit there,

And therefore that we, bodily here below,

Must have exactly such an interest

In learning what may be the ways o' the world

Above us, as the disembodied folk

Have (by all analogic likelihood)

In watching how things go in the old world

With us, their sons, successors, and what not.

Oh, yes, with added powers probably,

Fit for the novel state, old loves grown pure,

Old interests understood aright, they watch !

Eyes to see, ears to hear, and hands to help,

Proportionate to advancement : they're ahead,

That's all do what we do, but noblier done

Use plate, whereas we eat our meals off delf

(To use a figure).

Concede that, and I ask
Next what may be the mode of intercourse
Between us men here, and those once-men there ?
First comes the Bible's speech ; then, history
With the supernatural element, you know
All that we sucked in with our mothers' milk,
Grew up with, got inside of us at last,
Till it's found bone of bone and flesh of flesh.
See now, we start with the miraculous,
And know it used to be, at all events :
What's the first step we take, and can't but take,
In arguing from the known to the obscure ?
Why, this : " What was before, may be to-day.
Since Samuel's ghost appeared to Saul, of course
My brother's spirit may appear to me."
Go tell your teacher that ! What's his reply ?
What brings a shade of doubt for the first time
O'er his brow late so luminous with faith ?
" Such things have been," says he, " and there's no donb;
Such things may be : but I advise mistrust
Of eyes, ears, stomach, more than all, of brain,




244



MR. SLUDGE, "THE MEDIUMS




Unless it be of your great-grandmother,

Whenever they propose a ghost to you ! "

The end is, there's a composition struck ;

'Tis settled, we've some way of intercourse

Just as in Saul's time ; only, different :

How, when, and where, precisely, find it out !

I want to know, then, what's so natural

As that a person born into this world

And seized on by such teaching, should begin

With firm expectancy and a frank look-out

For his own allotment, his especial share

I' the secret, his particular ghost, in fine ?

I mean, a person born to look that way,

Since natures differ : take the painter-sort,

One man lives fifty years in ignorance

Whether grass be green or red, " No kind of eye

For color," say you ; while another picks

And puts away even pebbles, when a child,

Because of bluish spots and pinky veins

"Give him forthwith a paint-box ! " Just the same

Was I born ..." medium," you won't let me say,

Well, seer of the supernatural

Every when, everyhow, and everywhere,

Will that do ?

I and all such boys of course
Started with the same stock of Bible-truth ;
Only, what in the rest you style their sense,
Instinct, blind reasoning but imperative,
This, betimes, taught them the old world had one law
And ours another : " New world, new laws," cried they :
" None but old laws, seen everywhere at work,"
Cried I, and by their help explained my life
The Jews' way, still a working way to me.
Ghosts made the noises, fairies waved the lights,
Or Santa Claus slid down on New- Year's Eve
And stuffed with cakes the stocking at my bed,
Changed the worn shoes, rubbed clean the fingered slate
O' the sum that came to grief the day before.

This could not last long : soon enough I found

Who had worked wonders thus, and to what end :

But did I find all easy, like my mates ?

Henceforth no supernatural any more ?

Not a whit : what projects the billiard-balls?

" A cue," you answer : " Yes, a cue," said I ;

" But what hand, off the cushion, moved the cue?

What unseen agency, outside the world,

Prompted its puppets to do this and that,

Put cakes and shoes and slates into their mind,

These mothers and aunts, nay eA r en schoolmasters ? "

Thus high I sprang, and there have settled since.

Just so I reason, in sober earnest still,

About the greater godsends, what you call

The serious gains and losses of my life.

What do I know or care about your world

Which either is or seems to be ? This snap

O' my fingers, sir ! My care is for myself ;

Myself am whole and sole reality




MR. SLUDGE, "THE MEDIUM:




245



Inside a raree-show and a market-mob

Gathered about it : that's the use of things.

'Tis easy saying they serve vast purposes,

Advantage their grand selves : be it true or false,

Each thing may have two uses. What's a star ?

A world, or a world's sun : doesn't it serve

As taper also, time-piece, weather-glass,

And almanac ? Are stars not set for signs

When we should shear our sheep, sow corn, prune trees ?

The Bible says so.

Well, I add one use

To all the acknowledged uses, and declare
If I spy Charles's Wain at twelve to-night,
It warns me, " Go, nor lose another day,
And have your hair cut, Sludge ! " You laugh : and why?
Were such a sign too hard for God to give ?
No : but Sludge seems too little for such grace :
Thank you, sir ! So you think, so does not Sludge !
When you and good men gape at Providence,
Go into history and bid us mark
Not merely powder-plots prevented, crowns
Kept on kings' heads by miracle enough,
But private mercies oh, you've told me, sir,
Of such interpositions ! How yourself
Once, missing on a memorable day
Your handkerchief just setting out, you know,
You must return to fetch it, lost the train,
And saved your precious self from what befell
The thirty-three whom Providence forgot.
You tell, and ask me what I think of this ?
Well, sir, I think, then, since you needs must know,
What matter had you and Boston City to boot
Sailed skyward, like burnt onion-peelings? Much
To you, no doubt : for me undoubtedly
The cutting of my hair concerns me more,
Because, however sad the truth may seem,
Sludge is of all-importance to himself.
You set apart that day in every year
For special thanksgiving, were a heathen else :
Well, I who cannot boast the like escape,
Suppose I said " I don't thank Providence
For my part, owing it no gratitude ? "
" Nay, but you owe as much " you'd tutor me,
You, every man alive, for blessings gained
In every hour o' the day, could you but know !
I saw my crowning mercy : all have such,
Could they but see ! " Well, sir, why don't they see ?
" Because they won't look, or perhaps they can't."
Then, sir, suppose I can, and will, and do
Look, microscopically as is right,
Into each hour with its infinitude
Of influences at work to profit Sludge ?
For that's the case : I've sharpened up my sight
To spy a providence in the fire's going out,
The kettle's boiling, the dime's sticking fast
Despite the hole i' the pocket. Call such facts
Fancies, too petty a work for Providence,
And those same thanks which you exact from me,




s



246



MR. SLUDGE, "THE MEDIUM.'




Prove too prodigious payment : thanks for what,

If nothing guards and guides us little men ?

No, no, sir ! You must put away your pride,

Resolve to let Sludge into partnership !

I live by signs and omens : look at the roof

Where the pigeons settle " If the farther bird,

The white, takes wing first, I'll confess when thrashed ;

Not, if the blue does " so I said to myself

Last week, lest you should take me by surprise :

Off flapped the white, and I'm confessing, sir !

Perhaps 'tis Providence's whim and way

"With only me, i' the world : how can you tell ?

" Because unlikely ! " Was it likelier, now,

That this our one out of all worlds beside,

The what-d'you-call-'em millions, should be just

Precisely chosen to make Adam for,

And the rest o' the tale ? Yet the tale's true, yon know ;

Such undeserving clod was graced so once ;

Why not graced likewise undeserving Sludge ?

Are we merit-mongers, flaunt we filthy rags ?

All you can bring against my privilege

Is, that another way was taken with you,

Which I don't question. It's pure grace, my luck.



Online LibraryRobert BrowningSelections from the poetical works of Robert Browning : from the sixth London edition (first and second series) → online text (page 27 of 31)