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Elegy on John Butler Howells

  Who died, "with the first song of the birds," Wednesday morning,
  April 27, 1864.



  I.


  In the early morning when I wake
  At the hour that is sacred for his sake,


  And hear the happy birds of spring
  In the garden under my window sing,


  And through my window the daybreak blows
  The sweetness of the lily and rose,


  A dormant anguish wakes with day,
  And my heart is smitten with strange dismay:


  Distance wider than thine, O sea,
  Darkens between my brother and me!


  II.


  A scrap of print, a few brief lines,
  The fatal word that swims and shines


  On my tears, with a meaning new and dread,
  Make faltering reason know him dead,


  And I would that my heart might feel it too,
  And unto its own regret be true;


  For this is the hardest of all to bear,
  That his life was so generous and fair,


  So full of love, so full of hope,
  Broadening out with ample scope,


  And so far from death, that his dying seems
  The idle agony of dreams


  To my heart, that feels him living yet,--
  And I forget, and I forget.


  III.


  He was almost grown a man when he passed
  Away, but when I kissed him last


  He was still a child, and I had crept
  Up to the little room where he slept,


  And thought to kiss him good-by in his sleep;
  But he was awake to make me weep


  With terrible homesickness, before
  My wayward feet had passed the door.


  Round about me clung his embrace,
  And he pressed against my face his face,


  As if some prescience whispered him then
  That it never, never should be again.


  IV.


  Out of far-off days of boyhood dim,
  When he was a babe and I played with him,


  I remember his looks and all his ways;
  And how he grew through childhood's grace,


  To the hopes, and strifes, and sports, and joys,
  And innocent vanity of boys;


  I hear his whistle at the door,
  His careless step upon the floor,


  His song, his jest, his laughter yet,--
  And I forget, and I forget.


  V.


  Somewhere in the graveyard that I know,
  Where the strawberries under the chestnuts grow,


  They have laid him; and his sisters set
  On his grave the flowers their tears have wet;


  And above his grave, while I write, the song
  Of the matin robin leaps sweet and strong


  From the leafy dark of the chestnut-tree;
  And many a murmuring honey-bee


  On the strawberry blossoms in the grass
  Stoops by his grave and will not pass;


  And in the little hollow beneath
  The slope of the silent field of death,


  The cow-bells tinkle soft and sweet,
  And the cattle go by with homeward feet,


  And the squirrel barks from the sheltering limb,
  At the harmless noises not meant for him;


  And Nature, unto her loving heart
  Has taken our darling's mortal part,


  Tenderly, that he may be,
  Like the song of the robin in the tree,


  The blossoms, the grass, the reeds by the shore,
  A part of Summer evermore.


  VI.


  I write, and the words with my tears are wet,--
  But I forget, O, I forget!


  Teach me, Thou that sendest this pain,
  To know and feel my loss and gain!


  Let me not falter in belief
  On his death, for that is sorest grief:


  O, lift me above this wearing strife,
  Till I discern his deathless life,


  Shining beyond this misty shore,
  A part of Heaven evermore.


Venice, Wednesday Morning, at Dawn, May 16, 1864.



 

William Dean Howells