John G. Neihardt: The Poet's Town

Updated September 23, 2019 | Infoplease Staff

The Poet's Town

John G. Neihardt


'Mid glad green miles of tillage
And fields where cattle graze,
A prosy little village,
You drowse away the days.
And yet — a wakeful glory
Clings round you as you doze;
One living lyric story
Makes music of your prose.
Here once, returning never,
The feet of song have trod;
And flashed — Oh, once forever! —
The singing Flame of God.


These were his fields Elysian:
With mystic eyes he saw
The sowers planting vision,
The reapers gleaning awe.
Serfs to a sordid duty,
He saw them with his heart,
Priests of the Ultimate Beauty,
Feeding the flame of art.
The weird, untempled Makers
Pulsed in the things he saw;
The wheat through its virile acres
Billowed the Song of Law.
The epic roll of the furrow
Flung from the writing plow,
The dactyl phrase of the green-rowed maize
Measured the music of Now.


Sipper of ancient flagons,
Often the lonesome boy
Saw in the farmers' wagons
The chariots hurled at Troy.
Trundling in dust and thunder
They rumbled up and down,
Laden with princely plunder,
Loot of the tragic Town.
And once when the rich man's daughter
Smiled on the boy at play,
Sword-storms, giddy with slaughter,
Swept back the ancient day!
War steeds shrieked in the quiet,
Far and hoarse were the cries;
And Oh, through the din and the riot,
The music of Helen's eyes!
Stabbed with the olden Sorrow,
He slunk away from the play,
For the Past and the vast To-morrow
Were wedded in his To-day.


Rich with the dreamer's pillage,
An idle and worthless lad,
Least in a prosy village,
And prince in Allahabad;
Lover of golden apples,
Munching a daily crust;
Haunter of dream-built chapels,
Worshipping in the dust;
Dull to the worldly duty,
Less to the town he grew,
And more to the God of Beauty
Than even the grocer knew!


Corn for the buyers, and cattle —
But what could the dreamer sell?
Echoes of cloudy battle?
Music from heaven and hell?
Spices and bales of plunder
Argosied over the sea?
Tapestry woven of wonder,
And myrrh from Araby?
None of your dream-stuffs, Fellow,
Looter of Samarcand!
Gold is heavy and yellow,
And value is weighed in the hand!


And yet, when the years had humbled
The Kings in the Realm of the Boy,
Song-built bastions crumbled,
Ash-heaps smothering Troy;
Thirsting for shattered flagons,
Quaffing a brackish cup,
With all of his chariots, wagons —
He never could quite grow up.
The debt to the ogre, To-morrow,
He never could comprehend:
Why should the borrowers borrow?
Why should the lenders lend?
Never an oak tree borrowed,
But took for its needs — and gave.
Never an oak tree sorrowed;
Debt was the mark of the slave.
Grass in the priceless weather
Sucked from the paps of the Earth,
And the hills that were lean it fleshed with green —
Oh, what is a lesson worth?
But still did the buyers barter
And the sellers squint at the scales;
And price was the stake of the martyr,
And cost was the lock of the jails.


Windflowers herald the Maytide,
Rendering worth for worth;
Ragweeds gladden the wayside,
Biting the dugs of the Earth;
Violets, scattering glories,
Feed from the dewy gem:
But dreamers are fed by the living and dead —
And what is the gift from them?


Never a stalk of the Summer
Dreams of its mission and doom:
Only to hasten the Comer —
Martyrdom unto the Bloom.
Ever the Mighty Chooser
Plucks when the fruit is ripe,
Scorning the mass and letting it pass,
Keen for the cryptic type.
Greece in her growing season
Troubled the lands and seas,
Plotted and fought and suffered and wrought —
Building a Sophocles!
Only a faultless temple
Stands for the vassal's groan;
The harlot's strife and the faith of the wife
Blend in a graven stone.
Ne'er do the stern gods cherish
The hope of the million lives;
Always the Fact shall perish
And only the Truth survives.
Gardens of roses wither,
Shaping the perfect rose:
And the poet's song shall live for the long,
Dumb, aching years of prose.


King of a Realm of Magic,
He was the fool of the town,
Hiding the ache of the tragic
Under the grin of the clown.
Worn with the vain endeavor
To fit in the sordid plan;
Doomed to be poet forever,
He longed to be only a man;
To be freed from the god's enthralling,
Back with the reeds of the stream;
Deaf to the Vision calling,
And dead to the lash of the Dream.


But still did the Mighty Makers
Stir in the common sod;
The corn through its awful acres
Trembled and thrilled with God!
More than a man was the sower,
Lured by a man's desire,
For a triune Bride walked close at his side —
Dew and Dust and Fire!
More than a man was the plowman,
Shouting his gee and haw;
For a something dim kept pace with him,
And ever the poet saw;
Till the winds of the cosmic struggle
Made of his flesh a flute,
To echo the tune of a whirlwind rune
Unto the million mute.


Son of the Mother of mothers,
The womb and the tomb of Life,
With Fire and Air for brothers
And a clinging Dream for a wife;
Ever the soul of the dreamer
Strove with its mortal mesh,
And the lean flame grew till it fretted through
The last thin links of flesh.
Oh, rending the veil asunder,
He fled to mingle again
With the dred Orestean thunder,
The Lear of the driven rain!


Once in a cycle the comet
Doubles its lonesome track.
Enriched with the tears of a thousand years,
Æschylus wanders back.
Ever inweaving, returning,
The near grows out of the far;
And Homer shall sing once more in a swing
Of the austere Polar Star.
Then what of the lonesome dreamer
With the lean blue flame in his breast?
And who was your clown for a day, O Town,
The strange, unbidden guest?


'Mid glad green miles of tillage
And fields where cattle graze;
A prosy little village,
You drowse away the days.
And yet — a wakeful glory
Clings round you as you doze;
One living, lyric story
Makes music of your prose!
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