Laughter

  by: Conrad Aiken (1889-1973)

 

 

 

 

(Youth Speaks to His Own Old Age)

 

You, whom these eyes, no longer mine,
Shall see in the mirror's flash and shine,
Meagre of face and pale of cheek,
Pale mouth, and lines that sadness speak:
All the grey shipwreck of this me
Who look upon you and laugh for glee,
Mocking at you, poor feeble thing,
You word that's uttered, you tune that's played,
You body shrunken, you soul decayed,
You heart that whispers but cannot sing:
You, when you walk abroad in sun,
Blinking at last for the too much light,
Scorning the young life that can run,
Scorning the fierce life that can fight,
And drooling wisdom day by day,
Presuming, you, to point the way:
Here are my eyes upon you, now,
Colder than stars to sear your brow,
Here is my hand upon your hand,
A stronger grip than yours can stand,
Here are my words, so cruelly true,--
If you be false, they are stones for you ...
And because you are feeble, a crawling thing,
Walking by walls to hold and cling,
With terror of darkness on your breath,
And terror lest you be dead, with death:
Catching perhaps at straws of faith,
Drunk with religion in hope to drown
These maddening truths that will not down,
Clutching philosophy's vapid wraith:
Here is my perfect scorn for you,
The scorn from youth to old age due,
Merciless laughter, sharp as knife,
The egotistical laugh of life.
I hold my sides!--let truth be said,
'Twere better if things like you were dead.
For I have strength to face this earth,
I am risen warm and strong from birth,
I am song, I am love, I am bitter hate,
The laughter of speed that will not wait.
Nature is hard, but hard am I,
The hard will live, the soft must die:
And I who am nature know this truth,--
The soul of nature's soul is youth.
If you deny me, turn to shame,
Or pity me,--forego my name;
For youth is right, and age is wrong--
You but a prayer, while I am song!

 

The weak hates strong: you will hate me,
And war upon me, with cunning wiles,--
Pity me, with indulgent smiles,
And shrug your shoulders paternally.
'Mad youth!' you'll murmur--'how mad it is!
He must indulge his ecstasies!
Youth is a madness, it will pass,
The fever of blood, the mad blind eyes--
His stars will burn him, he'll grow wise,
The years bring calm to lad and lass.
And what we thought so fine in youth
Was at the most but half of truth,--
For truth is not of youth or age,
But some of life's whole pilgrimage,--
The young men's visions, the old men's dreams,
The passion of days, the thought of years;
Age's cautions, and youth's extremes;
Laughter is life no more than tears.
Youth sings, "the height of life is youth,
All after that is retrograde,
The music falters, the flowers fade,
And falsehood masquerades as truth."
Youth sings, "Age hath no right to speak,
Nature abhors him, he is weak,
But youth is right, for youth is strong,
Youth is the young earth's bridal-song!"
I was a young man once, myself,
Youth, I can sympathize with you;
I speak impartially from my shelf--
Truth lies half way between the two.
Youth scorns old age,--well, youth is right,
That is youth's nature; age scorns youth,
Age too is just; each sees the light
As nature grants, and each sees truth...
For truth is not of youth or age,
But sum of life's whole pilgrimage,
A wonder of many wonders wrought,
Blended of passion and of thought;
And so, young man, we'll compromise--
Each of us, in our way, is wise!'

 

Thus you will speak, O cunning one,
Warming your cold hands in the sun;
Squinting your eyes in too bright light,
Shielding your face's sickly white.
However weak, life fends for self,--
Thus you, old ghost! you shuffling trimmer!
You speak impartially from your shelf?--
You clutch at rays, for the light grows dimmer.
This much I'll not begrudge you, then--
Go, justify yourself to men,
With powers of darkness come to terms
Lest you turn sick with dread of worms.
But, for the hard work of my brain,
Hands off! your yellow hands would stain.
Our best work, youth's! one finger mars;
If you must loathe it, or disclaim,
I beg you, then, forego my name,--
Else, die, mid laughter from the stars!

 

And yet, what's life? Come, here's my hand.
For at the last, I see it well,
Age were not age unless it fell,
And crawls--because it cannot stand.
I pity you,--I laugh at you,--
Yet to your years I see you true,
Truer than if, with rigid thought,
Your age to ghost of youth you wrought.
Poor soul! go, make your peace with death,
And warm your heart with a shibboleth!
Yes, you will hate, despise my work,--
How else?--But here's my laughing dirk,
Here I have snared you, all complete,
Your pitiful pale hands, struggling feet;
If you breathe poison on my art
Here is my poniard, here your heart!...
Because you are aged, senile, lamed,
For this, man, you shall not be blamed,
Though youth must smirk old age to see,
And merriment bubbles up in me;
But if with hand that smears and mars
You touch our best work, yours and mine,--
Then comes my laughter from earth and stars,
Youthful and cruel, wild, divine!


   More poems by Conrad Aiken