Colors of Life
Max Eastman

    American Ideals of Poetry, a Preface


  1. Coming to Port
  2. The Lonely Bather
  3. In My Room
  4. Hours
  5. Fire and Water
  6. You Make No Answer
  7. Out of a Dark Night
  8. A Morning
  9. Anniversary
  10. Autumn Light
  11. A Modern Messiah
  12. In a Red Cross Hospital
  13. A Visit
  14. To Love
  15. Car-Window
  16. Little Fishes
  17. Invocation
  18. Sometimes
  19. To Marie Sukloff an Assassin
  20. To an Actress
  21. Eyes
  22. X-Rays


    A Preface About Sonnets

  23. A Praiseful Complaint
  24. Those You Dined With
  25. The Passions of a Child
  26. As the Crag Eagle
  27. To My Father
  28. To Edward S. Martin
  29. Europe 1914
  30. Isadora Duncan
  31. The Sun
  32. The Net
  33. A Dune Sonnet


  34. Sea-Shore
  35. Rainy Song
  36. A Hymn to God
  37. Coming Spring
  38. Daisies
  39. Bobolink
  40. Diogenes

    Earlier Poems

    A Preface About Their Philosophy

  41. At the Aquarium
  42. Earth's Night
  43. The Thought of Protagoras
  44. To The Ascending Moon
  45. Leif Ericson
  46. Midnight
  47. In March
  48. The Flowers at Church
  49. To the Little Bed at Night
  50. In a Dungeon of Russia
  51. To a Tawny Thrush
  52. The Saint Gaudens Statues
  53. Summer Sunday

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Max Eastman
Colors of Life
Songs and Sonnets

Max Eastman


Edited for the Web
by Steve Spanoudis

. At the Aquarium

    SERENE the silver fishes glide,
    Stern-lipped, and pale, and wonder-eyed;
    As through the aged deeps of ocean,
    They glide with wan and wavy motion.
    They have no pathway where they go,
    They flow like water to and fro.
    They watch with never winking eyes,
    They watch with staring, cold surprise,
    The level people in the air,
    The people peering, peering there,
    Who wander also to and fro,
    And know not why or where they go,
    Yet have a wonder in their eyes,
    Sometimes a pale and cold surprise.

    Max Eastman

. Earth's Night

    Sombre is the night, the stars' light is dimmed
    With smoky exhalations of the earth,
    Whose ancient voice is lifted on the wind
    In ceaseless elegies and songs of tears.
    Earth, I hear thee mourning for thy dead!
    Thou art waving the long grass over thy graves;
    Murmuring over all thy resting children,
    That have run and wandered and gone down
    Upon thy bosom. Thou wilt mourn for him
    Who looketh now a moment on these stars,
    And in the moving boughs of this dark night
    Heareth the murmurous sorrow of thy heart.

    Max Eastman

. The Thought of Protagoras

    MY MEMORY holds a tragic hour to prove,
    Or paint with bleeding stroke, the ancient thought
    That will to sorrow move all minds forever--
    All that love to know. It was the hour
    When lamps wink yellow in the winter twilight,
    And the hurriers go home to rest;
    And we whose task was meditation rose
    And wound a murmuring way among the books
    And effigies, the fading fragrance, of
    A vaulted library--a place to me
    Most like a dim vast cavernous brain, that holds
    All the world hath of musty memory
    In sombre convolutions that are dying.
    There at our faithful table every day,
    In the great shadow of this dissolution,
    We would speak of things eternal, things
    Divine, that change not. And we spoke with one
    Who was a leader of the way to them;
    A man born regal to the realms of thought.
    High, pale, and sculptural his brow,
    And high his concourse with the kings of old,
    Plato, and Aristotle, and the Jew--
    The bold, mild Jew who in his pensive chamber
    Fell in love with God. It was of him,
    And that unhungering love of his, he told us;
    And with soft and stately melody,
    The scholar's eloquence, he lifted us
    Sublime above the very motions of
    Our mortal being, and we walked with him
    The heights of meditation like the gods.
    I have no memory surpassing this.
    And yet--strange pity of our natures or
    Of his--there ran a rumor poisonous.
    Scandal breeds her brood in the house of prayer.
    And we, to whom these were like hours of prayer,
    We whispered things not all philosophy
    When he was gone. We knew but little where
    He went, or whence he came, but this we knew,
    That there was other love in him than what
    He taught us--love that makes more quickly pale !
    Ay, even he was tortured with the lure
    Of mortal motion in the eyes--and lips
    And limbs that were not warm to him alone
    Were warm to him. He drank mortality.
    Dim care, the ghost of retribution, sat
    In pallor on his brow, and made us whisper
    In the shadow of our meditations.
    Faintly, faintly did we feel the hour
    Advancing--livid painting of a thought!
    He spoke of Substance,--strangely--on that day--
    Eternal, self -existent, infinite--
    He seemed, I thought, to rest upon the name.
    And as he spoke there came on me that trance
    Of inattention, when the words would seem
    To drop their magic of containing things,
    And, by a shift, become but things themselves--
    Mere partial motions of the flesh of lips.
    I watched these motions, watched them blandly, till
    I knew I watched them, and that roused me, and
    I heard him saying, "Things, and moving things,
    Are merely modes of but one attribute,
    Of what is infinite in attributes,
    And may be called--" He spoke to there, and then--
    His pencil, the thin pencil, dropped--A crack
    Behind us--A quick step among the books--
    His hand, his head, his body all collapsed
    And fell, or settled utterly, before
    The fact came on us--he was shot and killed.
    But little I remember after that.
    What matters it? The deed, the quick red deed
    Was done, and all his speculations vanished
    Like a sound.

    Max Eastman

. To the Ascending Moon

    RISE, rise, aerial creature, fill the sky
    With supreme wonder, and the bleak earth wash
    With mystery! Pale, pale enchantress, steer
    Thy flight high up into the purple blue,
    Where faint the stars beholding--rain from there
    Thy lucent influence upon this sphere!
    I fear thee, sacred mother of the mad!
    With thy deliberate magic thou of old
    Didst soothe the perplexed brains of idiots whipped,
    And scared, and lacerated for their cure--
    Ay, thou didst spread the balm of sleep on them,
    Give to their minds a curved emptiness
    Of silence like the heaven thou dwellest in;
    Yet didst thou also, with thy rayless light,
    Make mad the surest, draw from their smooth beds
    The very sons of Prudence, maniacs
    To wander forth among the bushes, howl
    Abroad like eager wolves, and snatch the air!
    Oft didst thou watch them prowl among the tombs
    Inviolate of the patient dead, toiling
    In deeds obscure with stealthy ecstasy,
    And thou didst palely peer among them, and
    Expressly shine into their unhinged eyes!
    I fear thee, languid mother of the mad!
    For thou hast still thy alien influence;
    Thou dost sow forth thro' all the fields and hills,
    And in all chambers of the natural earth,
    A difference most strange and luminous.
    This tree, that was the river sycamore,
    Is in thy pensive effluence become
    But the mind's mystic essence of a tree,
    Upright luxuriance thought upon--the stream
    Is liquid timeless motion undefined--
    The world's a gesture dim. Like rapturous thought,
    Which can the rigorous concrete obscure
    Unto annihilation, and create
    Upon the dark a universal vision,
    Thou--even on this bold and local earth,
    The site of the obtruding actual--
    Thou dost erect in awful purity
    The filmy architecture of all dreams.
    And they are perfect. Thou dost shed like light
    Perfection, and a vision give to man
    Of things superior to the tough act,
    Existence, and almost co-equals of
    His own unnamed, and free, and infinite wish!
          Phantoms, phantoms of the transfixed mind!
    Pour down, moon, upon the listening earth--
    The earth unthinking, thy still eloquence!
    Shine in the children's eyes. They drink thy light,
    And laugh in innocence of sorcery,
    And love thy silver. I laugh not, nor gaze
    With half-closed lids upon the awakened night.
    Nay, oft when thou art hailed above the hill,
    I lean not forth, I hide myself in tasks,
    Even to the blunt comfort of routine
    I cling, to drowse my soul against thy charm,
    Yearning for thee, ethereal miracle!

    Max Eastman

. Leif Ericson

    [Leif Ericson, the Norse adventurer, sailed to America 500 years before Columbus --Max Eastman]

    THROUGH the murk of the ocean of history northward and far,
    I descry thee, Sailor! Thy deed like the dive of a star
    Doth startle the ages of darkness through which it is hurled,
    Doth flash, and flare out, and is gone from the eyes of the world!

    What watchers beheld thee, and heralding followed thy lead,
    Or bugled the nations into the track of thy deed?
    What continent soundeth thy name, what people thy praise?
    Who sendeth the signal of gratitude back to the days
    When thou in thy boat didst put forth from the world, and defy
    Infinity, ignorance, tempest, and ocean, and sky?
    No, history brags not of God, nor doth history brag
    Of thee, sailor, who carried thy sail and thy sea-colored flag

    Clear over His seas, drove into His mystery old
    The prow of thy sixty-foot skerry, whose quivering hold
    Could dip but a cupful out of His watery wrath,
    That stormed thee, and snatched at thy bowsprit, and licked up thy path!

    When mythical rumor sky-carried ran over the earth,
    With the whisper of lands that were dreamed of beyond the red birth
    Of the west-wind, the blood of thy body took running fire
    To launch and be swift o'er the sea as a man's desire!

    O rare is the northern morning that shineth for thee!
    A million silvering crests on the cold blue sea--
    And the wind drives in from the jubilant sea to the land,
    And, catching thy laughter, it tosses the cloak in thy hand,

    As taunting thee forth to thy sails in the frosty air,
    Where thousands surround thee with awe and a wondering prayer.
    And they that stand with thee--tumultuous-hearted they stand!
    They bend at thy word--I hear the boat sing on the sand--
    And they slip to their oars as the boat leaps aloft on a wave,
    With thee at the windy helm, joyful and joyfully brave !

    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    

    The depth of the billows is awful, the depth of the sky
    Is silent as God. Silent the dark on high.
    Naught sings to thy heart save thy heart and the wind, the wild giant
    Of ocean, agrin in the darkness, who rattles defiant
    A laugh through thy rigging, and howls from the clouds at thee,
    And moans in a mimic of pain and a murmurous glee.
    Still stern I behold thee, thy stature dim through the dark,
    Unmoved, unreleasing the helm of thy storm-driven bark.
    "God of our fathers, give signs to our sea-worn eyes!
    Give sight to Thy sailors! Give but the sun to arise
    In the morn on an island pale in the haze of the west!
    Beam of the star in the north, is thy only behest
    To gesture me onward eternally unto no shore
    Of these high and wild waters, famed for their hunger of yore?
    Then give to thy sailor for life the courage of death,
    To encounter the taunt of this wind with a rougher breath
    Of gigantic contempt in the soul for where and when,
    So it be onward impetuous, living, onward again!
    He saileth safe who carrieth death on board,
    He flieth a laughing sail in the wrath of the Lord!"
    So sang thy heart to thy heart, and so to the swinging sea
    In a lull of the wind, the song of a spirit free!

    Serene adventurer, lover of distance divine,
    Pursuing thy love forever though never thine,
    sun-tanned king with thy blue eyes over the sea,
    Who dares to sing, and live, the praise of thee?

    Not they that safe in a haven of certainty, steer
    From mooring to mooring with faith and with fear,
    And pray for a map of the universe, pointer, and plan,
    When all the blue waves of the ocean the courage of man
    Challenge to venture, not they are the praisers of thee!
    Nor they who sail for the cargo, and dream that the sea,
    In its wanton wild infinite wonder of motion and sound,
    Is bound by a purpose, as their little breathing is bound.
    The profit of thy great sailing to thee was small,
    And unto the world it was nothing--a man, that was all,
    And his deed like a star, to flame in the dull old sky!
    Of the story of apathy, age after decorous age going by!
    Grapes were thy import, winey and luscious to eat,
    Grapes, and a story--"The dew in the west was sweet!"
    Wine of the distance ever the reddest seems,
    And sweet is the world to the dreamer and doer of dreams!

    Weigh them, O pale-headed merchants--little ye know!
    Compute, O desk-dwellers, ye will not measure him so,
    For ye know only knowledge, ye know not the drive of the will
    That brought it with passion to birth--it driveth still
    Through the hearts of the kindred of earth, the forward fleeing,
    The kin of the stormy soul at the helm of all-being !
    Sailors, unreefed, and high-masted, and wet, and free,
    Who sail in the love of the billows, whose port is the sea--
    They sing thee, O Leif the Lucky, they sing thee sublime,
    And launch with thee, glad as with God, on the ocean of time!

    Max Eastman

. Midnight

        MIDNIGHT is come,
    And thinly in the deepness of the gloom
    Truth rises startle-eyed out of a tomb,
        And we are dumb.

        A death-bell tolls,
    And we still shudder round the too smooth bed,
    For Truth makes pallid watch above the dead,
        Freezing our souls.

        But day returns,
    Light and the garish life, and we are brave,
    For Truth sinks wanly down into her grave.
        Yet the heart yearns.

    Max Eastman

. In March

    ON A soaked fence-post a little blue-backed bird,
    Opening her sweet throat, has stirred
    A million music-ripples in the air
    That curl and circle everywhere.
    They break not shallow at my ear,
    But quiver far within. Warm days are near!

    Max Eastman

. To the Flowers at Church

    SOFT little daughters of the mead,
    The random bush, the wanton weed,
    That lived to love, and loved to breed,
    Who hither bound you?
    You're innocent of all the screed
    That blows around you.

    Sweet daffodils so laughing yellow,
    Beneath a bending pussy-willow,
    You need not try to gulp and swallow
    The Apostles' Creed,
    Or shudder at the fates that follow
    Adam's deed.

    Big bloody hymns the choir sings,
    And blows it to the King of Kings,
    The while you dream of humble things
    That wander there
    Where first you spread your golden wings
    On summer air;

    Like Jesus, simple and divine,
    In beauty, not in raiment fine,
    Who asked no high or holier shrine
    In which to pray,
    Than garden groves of Palestine
    'Neath olives gray.

    His name, I think, would still be bright
    Though churches were unbuilded quite,
    And they whose hearts are toward the height
    Should simple be,
    And lift their heads into the light
    As straight as ye.

    Max Eastman

. To the Little bed at Night

    GOOD-night, little bed, with your patient white pillow,
    Your light little spread, and your blanket of yellow!
    I wonder what leaves you so pensive to-night--
    The breezes are tender, the stars are so bright,
    I should think you would wrinkle a little and smile,
    And be happy to think we can sleep for a while.
    Are you waiting for something? Or are you just seeming
    To listen so breathlessly, hushed, as though dreaming
    A form that is fresher than breezes so light,
    A coming more precious than stars to the night,
    Who shall mould you as soft as the breast of a billow,
    And crown with all beauty your patient white pillow?
    Good-night, little bed--are you lonely so late?
    We will lie down together, together we'll wait.

    Max Eastman

. In a Dungeon of Russia

    Scene: A cell leading to the gallows.
    Characters: A noble lady, who is an assassin. A common murderer.

    The chilling gray, a ghost of mortal dawn,
    Has touched them, and they know the hour. The guard
    Shifts guiltily his shoes upon the stone.
    They raise their eyes in languid terror; but
    The moment passes, and 'tis still again--
    Save, in some piteous way she moves her throat.
    There is a wandering of her burning eyes,
    Until they fix, and strangely stare upon
    The face of her companion. They would plead
    Against the heavy horror of his look;
    For not an idiot's corpse could strike the soul
    More sick with wonder.
                                          "O look up and speak
    To me!"--Her voice is startling to the walls--
    "Speak any word against this gloom!"
                                                              He moves
    A blood-deserted eye, but answers not.
    "Tell if 'twas cold and filthy where you lay!"

    "Ay, filthy cold! Twas cold enough to keep
    The carrion from rotting on these bones!
    They never kill us--never 'til we hang!"

    He spoke a brutal tongue against the gloom.
    And there was heard far off a step, a voice.
    The guard stood up; a quiver moved her limbs.

    "Give me some simple word. Give me your hand
    In comradeship. We die together--and
    The while we breathe--we are each other's world."

    "No--not your world, my lady! Though we die,
    I have no grace to give a hand to you.
    My hand is thick and dirty--yours is pale!"

    "You say 'my lady' in the very tomb!
    Will even death not laugh this weakness off
    Your tongue? To think nobility abides
    This hour! My lady! 0, it is a curse
    That whips me at the grave! I was not born--
    Can I not even die, a human soul?"

    "Yes, you can die! And better--you can kill!
    Tis not your ladyship--the gallows' rope
    Snaps that to nothing! Death? Not death alone
    Can laugh at your nobility--I laugh.
    No--not your piteous ladyship--that dies.
    It is your crime that daunts me--That shall live!
    To plant, with this fine delicate little hand,
    Small heavy death into the very heart
    Of time-defended tyranny--that lives!
    The future is all life for you. For me--
    A glassy look, a yell into the air,
    And I am gone! No life springs up from me!
    I am the dirt that drank the drippings of
    A guilty murder--that is why I sit
    Like sickness here, and goad you with my shame!
    I'll take your hand. I'll tell you I was starved,
    Wrecked, shattered to the bones with drunken hunger,
    And I killed for gold. I'll tell you this--
    Your crime shall live to blot the memory
    Of mine, and me, and all the insane tribe
    Of us, who having strength in poverty
    Will not lie down and starve blot off the world
    Our having been the crime of our killed hopes,
    And gradual infamy!"
                                      The fever gleam
    Was in his eyes--the future! There it burned
    A moment, while he stood to see the door
    Swing darkly open, and the guard salute.
    She stood beside him. And together in
    High union of their fainting hearts, they faced
    The hour that brought them to their level graves.

    Max Eastman, March, 1912

. To a Tawny Thrush

    PINE spirit!
    Breath and voice of a wild glade!
    In the wild forest near it,
    In the cool hemlock or the leafy limb,

    Thou didst run and wander
    Thro' the sun and shade,
    An elvish echo and a shadow dim,
    There in the twilight thou dost lift thy song,
    And give the stilly woods a silver tongue.
    Out of what liquid is thy laughing made?
    A sister of the water thou dost seem,
    The quivering cataract thou singest near,
    Whose glistening stream,
    Unto the listening ear,
    Thou dost outrun with thy cascade
    Of music beautiful and swift and clear--
    A joy unto the mournful forest given!

    As when afar
    A travelling star
    Across our midnight races,
    A moving gleam that quickly ceases,
    Lost in the blue black abyss of heaven,
    So doth thy light and silver singing
    Start and thrill
    The silence round thy piney hill,
    Unto the sober hour a jewel bringing--
    A mystery--a strain of rhythm fleeing--
    A vagrant echo winging
    Back to the unuttered theme of being!

    Max Eastman

. The Saint Gaudens Statues

    [These statues were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum after the sculptor's death. The figures alluded to are the famous statue of Abraham Lincoln, and the monument in memory of Mrs. Henry Adams, the original of which is in the Rock Creek Cemetery at Washington. --Max Eastman]

    POET, thy dreams are grateful to the air
    And the light loves them. Tho' they murmur not,
    Their carven stillness is a music rare,
    And like the song of one whose tongue hath caught
    The clear ethereal essence of his thought.

    I hear the talkers come, the changing throngs
    That with the fashions of a day surround
    Thy visions, and I hear them quell their tongues,
    And hush their querulous shoes upon the ground;
    Thy dreams are with the crown of silence crowned--

    Though they feel not the glowing diadem,
    Who sleep for aye in their cool shapes of stone.
    Nor ever will the sunlight waken them,
    Nor ever will they turn their eyes and moan,
    To think that their brief Poet's life is gone.

    The tender and the lofty soul is gone,
    Who eyed them forth from darkness, and confessed
    His spirit's motion in unmoving stone.
    His praise upon no mortal tongue doth rest;
    By these unwhispering lips it is expressed.

    Soon will the ample arms of night withdraw
    Her shuffling children from the twilit hall--
    From that heroic presence, in dim awe
    Of whom the dark withholds a while her pall,
    And leaves him luminous above them all.

    Then are ye lost in darkness and alone,
    Ye ghostly spirits! And the moment rare
    Doth quicken that too sad and nameless stone,
    To move her robe, and spill her sable hair,
    And be in silence mingled with the air;

    For she is one with the dim glimmering hour,
    And the white spirits beautiful and still,
    And the veiled memory of the vanished power
    That moulded them, the high and infinite will
    That earth begets and earth does not fulfil.

    Max Eastman

. Summer Sunday

    BORNE on the low lake wind there floats to me,
    Out of the distant hill, a sigh of bells,
    Mystic, worshipful, almost unheard,
    As though the past should answer me, and I
    In pagan solitude bow down my head.

    Max Eastman

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