Amy Lowell: St. Helena, May, 1821

St. Helena, May, 1821

Tap!  Tap!  Tap! Through the white tropic night. Tap!  Tap! Beat the hammers, Unwearied, indefatigable. They are hanging dull black cloth about the dead. Lustreless black cloth Which chokes the radiance of the moonlight And puts out the little moving shadows of leaves. Tap!  Tap! The knocking makes the candles quaver, And the long black hangings waver Tap!  Tap!  Tap! Tap!  Tap! In the ears which do not heed. Tap!  Tap! Above the eyelids which do not flicker. Tap!  Tap! Over the hands which do not stir. Chiselled like a cameo of white agate against the hangings, Struck to brilliance by the falling moonlight, A face! Sharp as a frozen flame, Beautiful as an altar lamp of silver, And still.  Perfectly still. In the next room, the men chatter As they eat their midnight lunches. A knife hits against a platter. But the figure on the bed Between the stifling black hangings Is cold and motionless, Played over by the moonlight from the windows And the indistinct shadows of leaves.
Tap!  Tap! Upholsterer Darling has a fine shop in Jamestown. Tap!  Tap! Andrew Darling has ridden hard from Longwood to see to the work in his shop   in Jamestown. He has a corps of men in it, toiling and swearing, Knocking, and measuring, and planing, and squaring, Working from a chart with figures, Comparing with their rules, Setting this and that part together with their tools. Tap!  Tap!  Tap! Haste indeed! So great is the need That carpenters have been taken from the new church, Joiners have been called from shaping pews and lecterns To work of greater urgency. Coffins! Coffins is what they are making this bright Summer morning. Coffins — and all to measurement. There is a tin coffin, A deal coffin, A lead coffin, And Captain Bennett's best mahogany dining-table Has been sawed up for the grand outer coffin. Tap!  Tap!  Tap! Sunshine outside in the square, But inside, only hollow coffins and the tapping upon them. The men whistle, And the coffins grow under their hammers In the darkness of the shop. Tap!  Tap!  Tap!
Tramp of men. Steady tramp of men. Slit-eyed Chinese with long pigtails Bearing oblong things upon their shoulders March slowly along the road to Longwood. Their feet fall softly in the dust of the road; Sometimes they call gutturally to each other and stop to shift shoulders. Four coffins for the little dead man, Four fine coffins, And one of them Captain Bennett's dining-table! And sixteen splendid Chinamen, all strong and able And of assured neutrality. Ah!  George of England, Lord Bathhurst & Co. Your princely munificence makes one's heart glow. Huzza!  Huzza!  For the Lion of England!
Tap!  Tap!  Tap! Marble likeness of an Emperor, Dead man, who burst your heart against a world too narrow, The hammers drum you to your last throne Which always you shall hold alone. Tap!  Tap! The glory of your past is faded as a sunset fire, Your day lingers only like the tones of a wind-lyre In a twilit room. Here is the emptiness of your dream Scattered about you. Coins of yesterday, Double napoleons stamped with Consul or Emperor, Strange as those of Herculaneum — And you just dead! Not one spool of thread Will these buy in any market-place. Lay them over him, They are the baubles of a crown of mist Worn in a vision and melted away at waking. Tap!  Tap! His heart strained at kingdoms And now it is content with a silver dish. Strange World!  Strange Wayfarer! Strange Destiny! Lower it gently beside him and let it lie. Tap!  Tap!  Tap!