It was twenty-five years ago that I lay in my mother’s lap
New born to life, nor knowing one whit of all that should hap:
That day was I won from nothing to the world of struggle and pain,
Twenty-five years ago — and to-night am I born again.
I look and behold the days of the years that are passed away,
And my soul is full of their wealth, for oft were they blithe and gay
As the hours of bird and of beast: they have made me calm and strong
To wade the stream of confusion, the river of grief and wrong.
A rich man was my father, but he skulked ere I was born,
And gave my mother money, but left her life to scorn;
And we dwelt alone in our village: I knew not my mother’s “shame,”
But her love and her wisdom I knew till death and the parting came.
Then a lawyer paid me money, and I lived awhile at a school,
And learned the lore of the ancients, and how the knave and the fool
Have been mostly the masters of earth: yet the earth seemed fair and good
With the wealth of field and homestead, and garden and river and wood;
And I was glad amidst it, and little of evil I knew
As I did in sport and pastime such deeds as a youth might do,
Who deems he shall live for ever. Till at last it befel on a day
That I came across our Frenchman at the edge of the new-mown hay,
A-fishing as he was wont, alone as he always was;
So I helped the dark old man to bring a chub to grass,
And somehow he knew of my birth, and somehow we came to be friends,
Till he got to telling me chapters of the tale that never ends;
The battle of grief and hope with riches and folly and wrong.
He told how the weak conspire, he told of the fear of the strong;
He told of dreams grown deeds, deeds done ere time was ripe,
Of hope that melted in air like the smoke of his evening pipe;
Of the fight long after hope in the teeth of all despair;
Of battle and prison and death, of life stripped naked and bare.
But to me it all seemed happy, for I gilded all with the gold
Of youth that believes not in death, nor knoweth of hope grown cold.
I hearkened and learned, and longed with a longing that had no name,
Till I went my ways to our village and again departure came.
Wide now the world was grown, and I saw things clear and grim,
That awhile agone smiled on me from the dream-mist doubtful and dim.
I knew that the poor were poor, and had no heart or hope;
And I knew that I was nothing with the least of evils to cope;
So I thought the thoughts of a man, and I fell into bitter mood,
Wherein, except as a picture, there was nought on the earth that was good;
Till I met the woman I love, and she asked, as folk ask of the wise,
Of the root and meaning of things that she saw in the world of lies.
I told her all I knew, and the tale told lifted the load
That made me less than a man; and she set my feet on the road.
So we left our pleasure behind to seek for hope and for life,
And to London we came, if perchance there smouldered the embers of strife
Such as our Frenchman had told of; and I wrote to him to ask
If he would be our master, and set the learners their task.
But “dead” was the word on the letter when it came back to me,
And all that we saw henceforward with our own eyes must we see.
So we looked and wondered and sickened; not for ourselves indeed:
My father by now had died, but he left enough for my need;
And besides, away in our village the joiner’s craft had I learned,
And I worked as other men work, and money and wisdom I earned.
Yet little from day to day in street or workshop I met
To nourish the plant of hope that deep in my heart had been set.
The life of the poor we learned, and to me there was nothing new
In their day of little deeds that ever deathward drew.
But new was the horror of London that went on all the while
That rich men played at their ease for name and fame to beguile
The days of their empty lives, and praised the deeds they did,
As though they had fashioned the earth and found out the sun long hid;
Though some of them busied themselves from hopeless day to day
With the lives of the slaves of the rich and the hell wherein they lay.
They wrought meseems as those who should make a bargain with hell,
That it grow a little cooler, and thus for ever to dwell.
So passed the world on its ways, and weary with waiting we were.
Men ate and drank and married; no wild cry smote the air,
No great crowd ran together to greet the day of doom;
And ever more and more seemed the town like a monstrous tomb
To us, the Pilgrims of Hope, until to-night it came,
And Hope on the stones of the street is written in letters of flame.
This is how it befel: a workmate of mine had heard
Some bitter speech in my mouth, and he took me up at the word,
And said: “Come over tomorrow to our Radical spouting-place;
For there, if we hear nothing new, at least we shall see a new face;
He is one of those Communist chaps, and ’tis like that you two may agree.”
So we went, and the street was as dull and as common as aught you could see;
Dull and dirty the room. Just over the chairman’s chair
Was a bust, a Quaker’s face with nose cocked up in the air;
There were common prints on the wall of the heads of the party fray,
And Mazzini dark and lean amidst them gone astray.
Some thirty men we were of the kind that I knew full well,
Listless, rubbed down to the type of our easy-going hell.
My heart sank down as I entered, and wearily there I sat
While the chairman strove to end his maunder of this and of that.
And partly shy he seemed, and partly indeed ashamed
Of the grizzled man beside him as his name to us he named.
He rose, thickset and short, and dressed in shabby blue,
And even as he began it seemed as though I knew
The thing he was going to say, though I never heard it before.
He spoke, were it well, were it ill, as though a message he bore,
A word that he could not refrain from many a million of men.
Nor aught seemed the sordid room and the few that were listening then
Save the hall of the labouring earth and the world which was to be.
Bitter to many the message, but sweet indeed unto me,
Of man without a master, and earth without a strife,
And every soul rejoicing in the sweet and bitter of life:
Of peace and good-will he told, and I knew that in faith he spake,
But his words were my very thoughts, and I saw the battle awake,
And I followed from end to end; and triumph grew in my heart
As he called on each that heard him to arise and play his part
In the tale of the new-told gospel, lest as slaves they should live and die.
He ceased, and I thought the hearers would rise up with one cry,
And bid him straight enrol them; but they, they applauded indeed,
For the man was grown full eager, and had made them hearken and heed:
But they sat and made no sign, and two of the glibber kind
Stood up to jeer and to carp his fiery words to blind.
I did not listen to them, but failed not his voice to hear
When he rose to answer the carpers, striving to make more clear
That which was clear already; not overwell, I knew,
He answered the sneers and the silence, so hot and eager he grew;
But my hope full well he answered, and when he called again
On men to band together lest they live and die in vain,
In fear lest he should escape me, I rose ere the meeting was done,
And gave him my name and my faith — and I was the only one.
He smiled as he heard the jeers, and there was a shake of the hand,
He spoke like a friend long known; and lo! I was one of the band.
And now the streets seem gay and the high stars glittering bright;
And for me, I sing amongst them, for my heart is full and light.
I see the deeds to be done and the day to come on the earth,
And riches vanished away and sorrow turned to mirth;
I see the city squalor and the country stupor gone.
And we a part of it all — we twain no longer alone
In the days to come of the pleasure, in the days that are of the fight —
I was born once long ago: I am born again to-night.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58