Ridgely Torrence: Eye-Witness

Updated September 23, 2019 | Infoplease Staff


Ridgely Torrence

Down by the railroad in a green valley
By dancing water, there he stayed awhile
Singing, and three men with him, listeners,
All tramps, all homeless reapers of the wind,
Motionless now and while the song went on
Transfigured into mages thronged with visions;
There with the late light of the sunset on them
And on clear water spinning from a spring
Through little cones of sand dancing and fading,
Close beside pine woods where a hermit thrush
Cast, when love dazzled him, shadows of music
That lengthened, fluting, through the singer's pauses
While the sure earth rolled eastward bringing stars
Over the singer and the men that listened
There by the roadside, understanding all.
A train went by but nothing seemed to be changed.
Some eye at a car window must have flashed
From the plush world inside the glassy Pullman,
Carelessly bearing off the scene forever,
With idle wonder what the men were doing,
Seeing they were so strangely fixed and seeing
Torn papers from their smeary dreary meal
Spread on the ground with old tomato cans
Muddy with dregs of lukewarm chicory,
Neglected while they listened to the song.
And while he sang the singer's face was lifted,
And the sky shook down a soft light upon him
Out of its branches where like fruits there were
Many beautiful stars and planets moving,
With lands upon them, rising from their seas,
Glorious lands with glittering sands upon them,
With soils of gold and magic mould for seeding,
The shining loam of lands afoam with gardens
On mightier stars with giant rains and suns
There in the heavens; but on none of all
Was there ground better than he stood upon:
There was no world there in the sky above him
Deeper in promise than the earth beneath him
Whose dust had flowered up in him the singer
And three men understanding every word.
The Tramp Sings:
I will sing, I will go, and never ask me "Why?"
I was born a rover and a passer-by.
I seem to myself like water and sky,
A river and a rover and a passer-by.
But in the winter three years back
We lit us a night fire by the track,
And the snow came up and the fire it flew
And we couldn't find the warming room for two.
One had to suffer, so I left him the fire
And I went to the weather from my heart's desire.
It was night on the line, it was no more fire,
But the zero whistle through the icy wire.
As I went suffering through the snow
Something like a shadow came moving slow.
I went up to it and I said a word;
Something flew above it like a kind of bird.
I leaned in closer and I saw a face;
A light went round me but I kept my place.
My heart went open like an apple sliced;
I saw my Saviour and I saw my Christ.
Well, you may not read it in a book,
But it takes a gentle Saviour to give a gentle look.
I looked in his eyes and I read the news;
His heart was having the railroad blues.
Oh, the railroad blues will cost you dear,
Keeps you moving on for something that you don't see here.
We stood and whispered in a kind of moon;
The line was looking like May and June.
I found he was a roamer and a journey man
Looking for a lodging since the night began.
He went to the doors but he didn't have the pay.
He went to the windows, then he went away.
Says, "We'll walk together and we'll both be fed."
Says, "I will give you the `other' bread."
Oh, the bread he gave and without money!
O drink, O fire, O burning honey!
It went all through me like a shining storm:
I saw inside me, it was light and warm.
I saw deep under and I saw above,
I saw the stars weighed down with love.
They sang that love to burning birth,
They poured that music to the earth.
I heard the stars sing low like mothers.
He said: "Now look, and help feed others."
I looked around, and as close as touch
Was everybody that suffered much.
They reached out, there was darkness only;
They could not see us, they were lonely.
I saw the hearts that deaths took hold of,
With the wounds bare that were not told of;
Hearts with things in them making gashes;
Hearts that were choked with their dreams' ashes;
Women in front of the rolled-back air,
Looking at their breasts and nothing there;
Good men wasting and trapped in hells;
Hurt lads shivering with the fare-thee-wells.
I saw them as if something bound them;
I stood there but my heart went round them.
I begged him not to let me see them wasted.
Says, "Tell them then what you have tasted."
Told him I was weak as a rained-on bee;
Told him I was lost. — Says: "Lean on me."
Something happened then I could not tell,
But I knew I had the water for every hell.
Any other thing it was no use bringing;
They needed what the stars were singing,
What the whole sky sang like waves of light,
The tune that it danced to, day and night.
Oh, I listened to the sky for the tune to come;
The song seemed easy, but I stood there dumb.
The stars could feel me reaching through them
They let down light and drew me to them.
I stood in the sky in a light like day,
Drinking in the word that all things say
Where the worlds hang growing in clustered shapes
Dripping the music like wine from grapes.
With "Love, Love, Love," above the pain,
— The vine-like song with its wine-like rain.
Through heaven under heaven the song takes root
Of the turning, burning, deathless fruit.
I came to the earth and the pain so near me,
I tried that song but they couldn't hear me.
I went down into the ground to grow,
A seed for a song that would make men know.
Into the ground from my roamer's light
I went; he watched me sink to night.
Deep in the ground from my human grieving,
His pain ploughed in me to believing.
Oh, he took earth's pain to be his bride,
While the heart of life sang in his side.
For I felt that pain, I took its kiss,
My heart broke into dust with his.
Then sudden through the earth I found life springing;
The dust men trampled on was singing.
Deep in my dust I felt its tones;
The roots of beauty went round my bones.
I stirred, I rose like a flame, like a river,
I stood on the line, I could sing forever.
Love had pierced into my human sheathing,
Song came out of me simple as breathing.
A freight came by, the line grew colder,
He laid his hand upon my shoulder.
Says, "Don't stay on the line such nights,"
And led me by the hand to the station lights.
I asked him in front of the station-house wall
If he had lodging. Says, "None at all."
I pointed to my heart and looked in his face. —
"Here, — if you haven't got a better place."
He looked and he said: "Oh, we still must roam
But if you'll keep it open, well, I'll call it `home'."
The thrush now slept whose pillow was his wing.
So the song ended and the four remained
Still in the faint starshine that silvered them,
While the low sound went on of broken water
Out of the spring and through the darkness flowing
Over a stone that held it from the sea.
Whether the men spoke after could not be told,
A mist from the ground so veiled them, but they waited
A little longer till the moon came up;
Then on the gilded track leading to the mountains,
Against the moon they faded in common gold
And earth bore East with all toward the new morning.
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