The Grave-Digger

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In the garden yonder of yews and death,
There sojourneth
A man who toils, and has toiled for aye.
Digging the dried-up ground all day.

Some willows, surviving their own dead selves.
Weep there around him as he delves.
And a few poor flowers, disconsolate
Because the tempest and wind and wet
Vex them with ceaseless scourge and fret.

The ground is nothing but pits and cones,
Deep graves in every corner yawn;
The frost in the winter cracks the stones,
And when the summer in June is born
One hears, 'mid the silence that pants for breath,
The germinating and life of Death
Below, among the lifeless bones.

Since ages longer than he can know,
The grave-digger brings his human woe,
That never wears out, and lays its head
Slowly down in that earthy bed.

By all the surrounding roads, each day
They come towards him, the coffins white,
They come in processions infinite;
They come from the distances far away.
From corners obscure and out-of-the-way.
From the heart of the towns--and the wide-spreading
The limitless plain, swallows up their track;
They come with their escort of people in black.
At every hour, till the day doth wane;
And at early dawn the long trains forlorn
  Begin again.

The grave-digger hears far off the knell,
Beneath weary skies, of the passing bell,
Since ages longer than he can tell.

Some grief of his each coffin carrieth--
His wild desires toward evenings dark with death
Are here: his mournings for he knows not what:
Here are his tears, for ever on this spot
Motionless in their shrouds: his memories.
With gaze worn-out from travelling through the years
So far, to bid him call to mind the fears
Of which their souls are dying--and with these
  Lies side by side
The shattered body of his broken pride.
His heroism, to which nought replied,
  Is here all unavailing;
His courage, 'neath its heavy armour failing.
And his poor valour, gashed upon the brow.
Silent, and crumbling in corruption now.
The grave-digger watches them come into sight,
  The long, slow roads.
Marching towards him, with all their loads
  Of coffins white.

Here are his keenest thoughts, that one by one
His lukewarm soul hath tainted and undone;
And his white loves of simple days of yore,
in lewd and tempting mirrors sullied o'er;
The proud, mute vows that to himself he made
Are here--for he hath scored and cancelled them,
As one may cut and notch a diadem;
And here, inert and prone, his will is laid,
Whose gestures flashed like lightning keen before.
But that he now can raise in strength no more.

The grave-digger digs to the sound of the knell
'Mid the yews and the deaths in yonder dell.
Since ages longer than he can tell.

Here is his dream--born in the radiant glow.
Of joy and young oblivion, long ago--
That in black fields of science he let go,
That he hath clothed with flame and embers bright,
--Red wings plucked off from Folly in her flight--
That he hath launched toward inaccessible
Spaces afar, toward the distance there,
The golden conquest of the Impossible,
And that the limitless, refractory sky,
Sends back to him again, or it has ere
So much as touched the immobile mystery.

The grave-digger turneth it round and round--
With arms by toil so weary made,
With arms so thin, and strokes of spade--
Since what long times?--the dried-up ground.
Here, for his anguish and remorse, there throng
Pardons denied to creatures in the wrong;
And here, the tears, the prayers, the silent cries,
He would not list to in his brothers' eyes.
The insults to the gentle, and the jeer
What time the humble bent their knees, are here;
Gloomy denials, and a bitter store
Of arid sarcasms, oft poured out before
Devotedness that in the shadow stands
  With outstretched hands.

The grave-digger, weary, yet eager as well.
Hiding his pain to the sound of the knell,
With strokes of the spade turns round and round
The weary sods of the dried-up ground.

Then--fear-struck dallyings with suicide;
Delays, that conquer hours that would decide:
Again--the terrors of dark crime and sin
Furtively felt with frenzied fingers thin:
The fierce craze and the fervent rage to be
The man who lives of the extremity
  Of his own fear:
And then, too, doubt immense and wild affright.
And madness, with its eyes of marble white,
  These all are here.

His head a prey to the dull knell's sound,
In terror the grave-digger turns the ground
With strokes of the spade, and doth ceaseless cast
The dried-up earth upon his past.

The slain days, and the present, he doth see,
Quelling each quivering thrill of life to be.
And drop by drop, through fists whose fingers start.
Pressing the future blood of his red heart;
Chewing with teeth that grind and crush, each part
Of that his future's body, limb by limb,
Till there is but a carcase left to him;
And shewing him, in coffins prisoned,
Or ever they be born, his longings dead.

The grave-digger yonder doth hear the knell,
More heavy yet, of the passing bell.
That up through the mourning horizons doth swell
What if the bells, with their haunting swing,
Would stop on a day that heart-breaking ring!
And the endless procession of corse after corse.
Choke the highways no more of his long remorse
But the biers, with the prayers and the tears,
Immensely yet follow the biers;
They halt by crucifix now, and by shrine,
Then take up once more their mournful line;
On the backs of men, upon trestles borne.
They follow their uniform march forlorn;
Skirting each field and each garden-wall.
Passing beneath the sign-posts tall,
Skirting along by the vast Unknown,
Where terror points horns from the corner-stone.

The old man, broken and propless quite.
Watches them still from the infinite
Coming towards him--and hath beside
Nothing to do, but in earth to hide
His multiple death, thus bit by bit,
And, with fingers irresolute, plant on it
Crosses so hastily, day by day,
Since what long times--he cannot say.

© Emile Verhaeren