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How It Strikes A Contemporary
by [?]


 
1855

I only knew one poet in my life:
And this, or something like it, was his way.

You saw go up and down Valladolid,
A man of mark, to know next time you saw.
His very serviceable suit of black
Was courtly once and conscientious still,
And many might have worn it, though none did:
The cloak, that somewhat shone and showed the threads,
Had purpose, and the ruff, significance.
He walked and tapped the pavement with his cane, 10
Scenting the world, looking it full in face,
An old dog, bald and blindish, at his heels.
They turned up, now, the alley by the church,
That leads nowhither; now, they breathed themselves
On the main promenade just at the wrong time:
You’d come upon his scrutinizing hat
Making a peaked shade blacker than itself
Against the single window spared some house
Intact yet with its mouldered Moorish work–
Or else surprise the ferret of his stick 20
Trying the mortar’s temper ‘tween the chinks
Of some new shop a-building, French and fine.
He stood and watched the cobbler at his trade,
The man who slices lemons into drink,
The coffee-roaster’s brazier, and the boys
That volunteer to help him turn its winch.
He glanced o’er books on stalls with half an eye,
And fly-leaf ballads on the vendor’s string,
And broad-edge bold-print posters by the wall.
He took such cognizance of men and things, 30
If any beat a horse, you felt he saw;
If any cursed a woman, he took note;
Yet stared at nobody–you stared at him,
And found, less to your pleasure than surprise,
He seemed to know you and expect as much.
So, next time that a neighbor’s tongue was loosed,
It marked the shameful and notorious fact,
We had among us, not so much a spy,
As a recording chief-inquisitor,
The town’s true master if the town but knew 40
We merely kept a governor for form,
While this man walked about and took account
Of all thought, said and acted, then went home,
And wrote it fully to our Lord the King
Who has an itch to know things, he knows why,
And reads them in his bedroom of a night.
Oh, you might smile! there wanted not a touch,
A tang of . . . well, it was not wholly ease
As back into your mind the man’s look came.
Stricken in years a little–such a brow 50
His eyes had to live under!–clear as flint
On either side the formidable nose
Curved, cut and colored like an eagle’s claw,
Had he to do with A.’s surprising fate?
When altogether old B. disappeared
And young C. got his mistress, was’t our friend,
His letter to the King, that did it all?
What paid the Woodless man for so much pains?
Our Lord the King has favorites manifold,
And shifts his ministry some once a month; 60
Our city gets new governors at whiles–
But never word or sign, that I could hear,
Notified to this man about the streets
The King’s approval of those letters conned
The last thing duly at the dead of night.
Did the man love his office? Frowned our Lord,
Exhorting when none heard–“Beseech me not!
Too far above my people–beneath me!
I set the watch–how should the people know?
Forget them, keep me all the more in mind!” 70
Was some such understanding ‘twixt the two?