V. de C., “A Poetic Swing Around the Circle” (1888)

A Poetic Swing Around the Circle

Now, all he truth seekers, attend my tale.
I am not writing “no such word as dale”
(Which, Truth Seeker observes, is common sense
Beyond the average poem’s just pretense),
But scribbling out a simple little story.
For any fibs you’ll please giv God glory,
For any merit please giv me the credit,
And render all due thanks when you hav read it.

There is a place that’s called the Smoky City;
It has that reputation, more’s the pity
That nicknames cling when we hav long outgrown them;
In cases like thi people shouldn’t own them;
For ‘tis most undeserved–a clearer air,
A purer sky, you’ll not find anywhere.
And when the “heathen” pilgrim’s feet here roam
A faithful chorus bids him welcome home.

And so it was that when the glowing mist,
Hiding the rose-blush, where the sunrise kissed
The tender east, unveiled the morning light
Laughing the dewdrops into jewels bright;
When the long journey o’er the purple hills
Became a past, whose benison distils
The peace of Liberty, that dwells on hights
Lifted toward stars–heeding no lower lights;
When all that I hav written heretofore became
A part of yesterday’s eternal claim,
I met again those veterans of wars
Whose peaceful battles left no hideous scars:
But yet upon each forehead sealed the seal
Of purpose highly wrought, of earnest zeal,
Of long endeavor in the cause that burns
Within their hearts, and gloriously turns
E’en dim-eyed Age ito a lustrous glow,
Like glancing north-light on the Arctic snow.

And, a propos, our secretary’s call
Bids all the faithful gather here next fall,
When the soft haze of Indian Summer reigns,
About the hill-tops, like Love’s tender chains.
Now, brethren—“sistern” too—from far and near
He that hath ears to hear, let him hear:
Don’t fail to come! Miss it and you’ll be sorry.
My word—I’ve been there! There’s the stanch “Old Harry,”
The “noble Roman,” and our Mr. Grundy,
His wife too, God bless her—no outlandish Sunday
Of Pennsylvania Blue laws chains her nature;
No church can bind that democratic creature.
Then there’s the jeweler with his Russian name—
‘Twould take too long for me to write the same,
And even if I did, ‘twere sad to tell
Whether ‘twere harder to pronounce or spell.
However, this is all a moonshine matter—
A name’s a name—no more; of course rose-attar
Would smell as sweet if ‘twere written sk—
Oh, now I’ve done it! Pardon—didn’t “thunk!”)
Well, when you feel a trifle too important,
As if you owned a few world more or less,
Had solved all problems in and out of court, and
Had some knowledge to throw in, address
This modest, unpretentious little Russian,
And get yourself into a good discussion.
Just lay your theories out coolly, slowly
(Be careful not to put in any “holy,”
For by the gods you find you’ve holes enough in
Before you finish with your mental scufflin’);
Elaborate, with all due ostentation,
On every detail giv full explanation,
And when you’ve finished to your satisfaction,
Giv him his cue. O Lord! A double, back-action,
Two-edged, three-ply play of forked lightning
Were slow beside his cuts! To put in writing
The nice and gentle way he asks a question
That sets you spinning, like a last year’s nest on
Fall winds borne, is more than I can hit off;
It must be heard—it can’t be read or writ off.
But Marc-us, mark me, though I cannot catch you,
You’re growing up some children that’ll fetch you.

Yet do you know the last day of the season
(I lectured on replacing God with reason)
This modern socrates like the discourse
So well he moved a vote of thanks; of course,
The Union seconded and said Amen,
“Old Harry” handed me the vote, and then—
I hate to own it, I’m not sentimental—
But somehow that did touch me—it unbent all
My small dignity, and a big wink dropped!
Do you suppose they thanked because I stopped?
Maybe ’twas so—the day was awful hot;
’Twas heath most unrighteous, freshly brought
By some Calvinian crank from Old Nick’s kitchen,
With broiling smells, such as God’s word is rich in.
Yet that conclusion makes my vain heart grieve; it
Isn’t flattering, and I shan’t believe it.
I’ve very little faith in myth or fable;
But I believe those people wear the label
Of clear, deep candor in their honest eyes;
They can’t be roasted into telling lies.
They won’t be scared—more than one preacher’s tried it.
Each owns his mind; no other can decide it.
And so, by putting this and that together,
I don’t believe it was the sweaty weather:
I don’t believe that vote misrepresented.
They what you like, but I believe they meant it.
For I believe the long-contested battle
With God’s hot-short, and hell’s infernal rattle
Dinned in their ears by Presbyterian preachers,
Has made them honest toward their fellow-creatures,
Hating the fraud, the shallow, base pretension,
Of those who offer prayerful intervention
To save the soul from Christ’s paternal yearning
To show his love by an eternal burning;
Whose panacea for desire is “Pray for it,”
Then pass the hat that you may meekly pay for it
The prayer, I mean); who tell of gold-paved streets,
And feather-legged angels, piteous bleats
Of Agnus Dei’s, till John’s “towers of jasper”
Turn into hitch-post in a big sheep-pasture—
Hating the things, I say, the Pittsburgh Union
Has, by sheer opposition, earned a boon, one
Can but envy them—a disposition
To uphold truth. It is an acquisition
All Liberals are proud of! It will pierce
Like Voltaire’s dagger, polished, steel-like, fierce,
In the marrow of the church’s bones.
En parenthese, it’s run by Pierce and Jones,
Not Davy, but the other.
Ah, dear Truth!
Bright as the glance of star beams, strong like youth,
Flashing thy splendor though the heavy night,
Heraldic emblem of the coming light!
How many, struggling for thy glorious prize,
Hav breathed their lives out like a sacrifice!
How willingly hav laid at they fair feet
Their little all that it might be complete;
And had no hope, no thought of petty gain,
No care that all the world mocked it as vain.
’Twas not in vain! Nay, while the rolling world
Sweeps down the cycles—while the shadows curl’d
And gray and shrunken, like a rim of smoke,
Volcanic whisper from the rock-lips broke,
Are torn and shredded by thy lightning-stroke!
Long as the east shall womb her suns unborn
And night’s trailed splendors rush to meet the morn,
So long their deeds will liv in heart and brain,
Pointing the higher way! No truth is vain.

But here am I up in a peroration!
i’ll clip my wings and get back to narration.
The long and short is this—these, in truth, rich ones,
Hav had so many tussles with the Christians,
And worsted them so oft, that, though their hell
Has lost all flavor save an oldish smell.
They’ve aped so well their God—pray hav no doubt of ‘em—
With little hells they’ve cooked the lies all out of ‘em.

And yet to hint that ’tis their sole attraction,
This creed of truthfulness, were base detraction.
They’ve all the romance of the blue-bent skies
Lanced, like a Moorish veil, by starry eyes;
And all the music of swift-running waters,
Like laughter rippling from Joy’s bright-lipped daughters;
And all the majesty of solemn hills
Whose rocky echo like a deep song thrills,
Kingly, sublime, yet all uncrowned of men,
Wearing the sun-gold for a diadem.
And all the gifts that breathe poetic passion
Fall free from Nature’s hand, as rain-drops plash on
The fair green earth, which brightens into bloom
Even as hope which blossoms on a tomb
Where tears hav fallen.

’Tis a pretty sight
To stand upon Mount Washington at night.
And look away over the glowing stage
Whereon these thousands play their parts. Fierce Rage,
Pride and Ambition, Anger, Hate, and Lust
Are stalking there. Want gnaws his meager crust,
Red Murder lurks in hollow, caverned eyes,
Grief, Sorrow, and Despair breathe unheard sighs.
And still the stage is lit! Love drops her smiles,
And Gaiety whirls down the brilliant aisles:
Joy treads with happy feet and laughs at tears,
Hope points her hand and bids good-bye to fear,
What need hav they, these happy ones, to know
The pain that rends the suffering hears below?
Why should they see the gaunt and shadowy things
Cowering and cursing in the darkened wings?
Trip “down the front”—your act, O Joy, is brief,
And all too soon you’ll play the part of Grief!
And all too soon you’ll feel the dagger-dart
Driven by woe into your very heart!
The wave is light, but down beneath the wave
Lies the dark ocean-bed, a giant grave!
Life’s wine waves laugh, but down beneath the laugh
Lies the dark misery no throat can quaff!
And well for him who dwells upon the hights
Untouched by joy or grief. The red stage lights
Show to his clearer gaze the coming time
When the “drop” bell will peal a deadly chime
To ring the curtain down upon an awful crime.

But here again my wings are growing out;
It is remarkable how fast they sprout!
I’ve serious thoughts of making application
To God, or Beelzebub, for a situation
To hunt up comets, or waylay the preachers
And scare ‘em on dark nights. The holy teachers
Might think about that song the faithful sing:
“Take me beneath the shadow of thy wing;”
And then, again, they might, which is more likely,
Run like a sinner, hollering, “God almighty!”

I hope my nonsense doesn’t “make you tired;”
This poem’s what John Byers calls inspired,
Though not to spoil it by anticipation
i’ll tell that further on in the narration.
You see, Friend Byers, a long time ago,
Pulled himself out of superstition’s slough,
And feeling, as God did, that “it was good,”
Wanted to help his neighbors all he could,
And so, last June-time, he secured a hall,
Engaged your scribe, made the thing free to all,
And one bright evening in the perfumed weather
A crowd of solemn Christians go together.
(Of course, there was a sprinkling of the heathen,
Doubtful of soul—waiting for God to breathe one.)
Well, the good people put on nice, long faces,
Like they were going to twang off David’s praises,
Puckered their foreheads, scanned me with their eyes,
Folded their arms, and looked, oh, very wise!
I thought: “Dear Christians, if looks don’t disguise us,
You’re fairly stupid and most awfully righteous.”
And do you know, I talked for one straight hour
Before they felt their livers turning sour?
For fact, they would have swallowed the whole dose,
Had I not shocked them just about the close,
And never known but what ’twas good, sound preaching,
Until their stomachs gave a mighty retching.
I spoke about that lie, “In God we trust,”
Hoping the time was coming, as it must,
When money’ll be on such a solid basis
No trust’s required in God. Oh my, the faces!
The livers all at once began to frolic,
And out they went as if they’d all the colic!
Of course, the Liberals were all amused,
Myself among them. May I be excused,
Dear Christians—I don’t like the game of trust;
But clearly in your case it’s “trust or bust.”

This lecture was delivered in the country
Six miles from Greensburg; ’tis a pretty place,
But when the Ghost-killer is on the hunt, he
Can’t do better than to run a chase
Around these hills and kill a few old ghosts,
Such as the churches hoard here, by the hosts.
I met my pleasant friend old Mr. Null
(Though void’s no name for what’s inside his skull)
And had a chatty time on various topics,
Including crops and gods, frigids and tropics;
On politics we struck a different note—
He votes for Ingersoll, and I—don’t vote.
A good, tried thinker, though; been through the fires
Of fierce church hatred; so has Mr. Byers.
About that theory of inspiration,
The best I ever heard. “Moses’s creation,
And Josh and Jim and Peter, all inspired!”
“Yes,” says our friend, “and here’s the thought he’s sired.
One day while talking with a Christian neighbor,
Trying to get his thinking powers to labor,
Which, by the way, was rather a newish field,
The Christian said: “Our law has been revealed
By inspired writers.”
“Well, what’s to inspire?”
“Oh, to be filled up with God’s holy fire.”
“Not so, my friend; ’tis to draw in one’s breath,
A thing we’ll do, till we’re choked by Death.
An inspired man, then, is a man that’s living;
An expired man is dead. The thing is plain,
Of course you’re right—don’t hav the least misgiving,
No dead man wrote it,” comment would be vain.

I passed some pleasant days at Frankfort Springs,
Days when the sunlight spread his golden wings
And rested softly on the rose-wreathed earth,
Kissing the buds until the bloom came forth.
And when the night queen’s silver shining bark
Sailed slowly up the long blue bays of dark,
Gliding serenely o’er the heavenly laks,
The star-foam rushing in her whitening wake;
When every blade of grass a shining tear
Dropped, like sad lashes, on the dead Day’s bier;
When the warm breezes nestled in each tree,
As children nestle ‘gainst their mother’s knee,
As sleepy children, weary with their play,
Close their sweet eyes, while Slumber steals away
Into the silence of a dewey sleep;
Only the lit leaves’ gentle flutterings seem
The quivering smile of childhood’s happy dream;
When all the soothing sounds that fold and press
And fill the soul full of life’s blessedness,
Stole o’er the landscape like a tide of peace,
Hushing all harshness with a gentle “Cease,”
The better life, the higher hopings, came
Like speaking things, and gently called my name,
And bade me look forever toward the best,
So a wide love might ever be my guest:
Might steal from hatred all its keenest sting,
And take from life its every bitter thing.
For who can know each joyless circumstance,
Each fair deceit, that served but to enhance
The struggles for the Right, misunderstood,
Misnamed, misplaced, the bad accounted good?
And who can know the years of lonely strife,
Or by a single act, dare judge a life?
Hatred is garish—‘neath its yellow ray
Acts gleam like points; the rest is torn away.
But Love’s white radiance throws a mystic veil
That puts all action from our judgment’s pale.

Long, long I shall remember those clear springs
Under the rock shades, where the water sings.
Nor less recall the gentle poet guide
Who showed the wonders of that country-side.
A man whom nature gifted with a pen
Which might hav stirred all that is best in men;
But, yet, so simple, modest are his words,
They fall unconscious as the song of birds;
And like the bird whose sweetest music rings
Where solitude its freest echo flings,
The soul which breathes these thoughts where genius thrills,
Livs all unnoticed, ‘mong these green-crowned hills:
Loving the lowly, toiling with the poor,
Asking the right to lift and help—no more.

And then, oh, then, that blessed Christian lady
Who used to tell me when my meals were ready!
Look at this picture of religious folly!
A visage sallow, lean, and melancholy,
The most lugubrious eyes, a prayerful pose,
Mouth like a trap, a hatchet for a nose,
As pleasant to converse with us as a dummy,
The tout ensemble like an Egyptian mummy!
Heavens! what a lot of God she did hav in her!
I know she must; no ordinary sinner
Could hav withstood my long attempts to win her.
But when one day the milk was sour at dinner,
I gave it up—I knew it was no use;
Defeat is odious, but I couldn’t choose.
It is so strange that, to be good, the people
Hav to make faces long as a Christian steeple,
And hate themselvs and everybody else,
Turning their homes to ably patterned hells.

One Sunday, ’twas the twenty-fourth of June,
The broad Ohio’s waters were in tune,
As down their bosom swept a picnic boat;
The Sabbath breaking wicked were afloat!
Our pious friends will please note this deduction:
Christians on board—that saved us from destruction.
The skurrying ripples laughed and danced and sung,
The naiads’ arms about our craft were flung,
The people got the fever in their feet
And danced and laughed too. Down the watery street
We swept swift past the famed McKeesport rocks;
Presto! they had us shut within the locks.

Ah, what rare music’s in a waterfall!
Down, down it shivers like a silver wall,
Above, the foam curls like a snowy smoke,
Below, the chimes ring like a clear bell’s stroke;
Down, down we float between the shimmering banks,
Where Nature’s Antony marshals his shining ranks,
Assaults the shadows, puts them all to rout,
Then finds his Cleopatra in a cloud.

Ah, many another conqueror finds it sweet
To yield his triumph for love’s dear defeat!
We talked, played cards, and ate, and ate, and ate
And ate again; and got home very late.
Moral: Successful picnics ground in this short sum-up,
A lot of viands and a hungry stomach.

The Tuesday after, having packed my grip,
(And got the train-time right), prepared to Skip;”
Said Au revoir until the coming fall,
When, once again, I hope to meet you all.
Be sure and come, now—you will be delighted;
Besides, refusal’s rude when one’s invited.
Hotels are good—the bedsteads hav nice springs—
Not too many of the “get there’s” “without wings.”
To set a stylish, neat and tempting table
There’s no one better than our Pittsburgh Abel;
Always obliging, ready to meet your wishes
With widest choice—foreign and nativ dishes,
With pretty titles that are most delicious.
And then, if opposition’s what you crave,
There’s lots of that—churches enough to save,
If that would do it, the whole population
The earth has witnessed since her first formation.
You’ll find Christ’s braves with all their bright war-paint on,
Plotting to slay a thing that doesn’t exist,
Praying you’ll put God’s armor of restraint on,
And swearing you’re possessed if you resist:
Fools, frauds, fanatics cutting up their capers,
And any saints’ amount of lying papers.

I met some Liberals at Ashtabula,
Had a discussion on the Greek in school, a
Series of nice naps, and altogether
A pleasant time, in spite of rainy weather.
At Cleveland, on the Fourth, we celebrated
By visiting the graves—to get elated.
So quiet it is in that solemn city,
Where the pale headstones gleam like white-armed Pity,
Seems the great silence of the sacred dead
An altar dear, where Hope and Sorrow wed.
From that tall monument, whose sad gray stone
Marks where a nation’s friend finds his last home,
We look upon the peaceful streets below,
Where, soft as flakes, Time’s footfalls come and go,
Leaving no touch upon the reflex face,
Whose lineaments our memories still must trace
As we hav known them, when the light showered round,
Ere we consigned them to the underground.
The grasses sleep, and gently o’er their sleep
The breezes pause and sigh, “O Grave, thou’t deep!”
Far off the waters roll; in their dim blue
The eye sees, till it sees no more; they strew
On the near shore, vague fragments, torn and tossed,
Like half-remembered deeds in distance lost;
And then they go out on the endless surge
That rolls and breaks on the horizon’s verge:
Little we know the near, and less can tell
What things are floating on the far-off swell:
Little we know of Life; still less can say
Whether Death laps the shores of Night or Day.
. . . . . . . . . .
Out upon Erie’s waves—the gliding Dark
Puts out her lamps; the east shoots up a spark
That kindles to a flame—the dawn is lit!
Anon dark clouds roll sullen over it.
The Storm is on the water—its great feet
Pass with wide trampling, like an army’s beat;
The white caps rise, the foam is whirled like snow.
Sudden athwart the gray, a brilliant glow
Streams like a meteor, dazzles, disappears,
Gleams out again; the sunlight’s fiery spear
Hav pierced the Storm-heart! A wide-gushing flood
Pours as he dies, and tints the sky with blood.
The red light pales into an amber hue,
Morn opes her eyes, and lifts their glorious blue!

And with the trust that still through every cloud
May shine the radiance no gloom can shroud,
That each of us may still behold “the true,
The good, the beautiful,” I bid adieu.

V. de C.


Voltairine de Cleyre, “A Poetic Swing Around the Circle,” The Truth Seeker 15 no. 34 (August 25, 1888): 542.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2166 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.