Voltairine de Cleyre, “To Strive and Fail” (1908)

There was a lonely wind crying around the house, and wailing away through the twilight, like a child that has been refused and gone off crying. Every now and then the trees shivered with it, and dropped a few leaves that splashed against the windows like big, soft tears, and then fell down on the dark, dying grass, and lay there till the next wind rose and whirled them away. Rain was gathering. Close by the gray patch of light within the room a white face bent over a small table, and dust-dim fingers swept across the strings of a zither. The low, pathetic opening chords of Albert’s “Herbst-Klage” wailed for a moment like the wind; then a false note sounded, and the player threw her arms across the table and rested her face upon them. What was the use? She knew how it ought to be, but she could never do it,—never make the strings strike true to the song that was sounding within, sounding as the wind and the rain and the falling leaves sounded it, as long ago the wizard Albert had heard and conjured it out of the sound-sea, before the little black notes that carried the message over the world were written. The weary brain wandered away over the mystery of the notes, and she whispered dully, “A sign to the eye, and a sound to the ear—and that is his gift to the world—his will—and he is dead, dead, dead;—he was so great, and they are so silly, those little black foolish dots—and yet they are there—and by them his soul sings—”

The numb pain at her heart forced some sharp tears from the closed eyes. She bent and unbent her fingers hopelessly, two or three times, and then let them lie out flat and still. It was not their fault, not the fingers’ fault; they could learn to do it, if they only had the chance; but they could never, never have the chance. They must always do something else, always a hundred other things first, always save and spare and patch and contrive; there was never time to do the thing she longed for most. Only the odd moments, the unexpected freedoms, the stolen half-hours, in which to live one’s highest dream, only the castaway time for one’s soul! And every year the fleeting glory waned, wavered, sunk away more and more sorrowfully into the gray, soundless shadows of an unlived life. Once she had heard it so clearly,—long ago, on the far-off sun-spaced, wind-singing fields of home,—the wild sweet choruses, the songs no man had ever sung. Still she heard them sometimes in the twilight, in the night, when she sat alone and work was over; high and thin and fading, only sound-ghosts, but still with the incomparable glory of a first revelation, a song no one else has ever heard, a marvel to be seized and bodied; only,—they faded away into the nodding sleep that would conquer, and in the light and rush of day were mournfully silent. And she never captured them, never would; life was half over now.

With the thought she started up, struck the chords again, a world of plaint throbbing through the strings; surely the wizard himself would have been satisfied. But ah, once more the fatal uncertainty of the fingers. . . . She bit the left hand savagely, then touched it, softly and remorsefully, with the other, murmuring: “Poor fingers! Not your fault.” At last she rose and stood at the window, looking out into the night, and thinking of the ruined gift, the noblest gift, that had been hers and would die dumb; thinking of the messages that had come to her up out of the silent dark and sunk back into it, unsounded; of the voices she would have given to the messages of the masters, and never would give now; and with a bitter compression of the lips she said: “Well, I was born to strive and fail.”

And suddenly a rush of feeling swept her own life out of sight, and away out in the deepening night she saw the face of an old, sharp-chinned, white-haired, dead man; he had been her father once, strong and young, with chestnut hair and gleaming eyes, and with his own dream of what he had to do in life. Perhaps he, too, had heard sounds singing in the air, a new message waiting for deliverance. It was all over now; he had grown old and thin-faced and white, and had never done anything in the world; at least nothing for himself, his very own; he had sewn clothes,—thousands, millions of stitches in his work-weary life—no doubt there were still in existence scraps and fragments of his work,—in some old ragbag perhaps—beautiful, fine stitches, into which the keen eyesight and the deft hand had passed, still showing the artist-craftsman. But that was not his work; that was the service society had asked of him and he had rendered; himself, his own soul, that wherein he was different from other men, the unbought thing that the soul does for its own outpouring,—that was nowhere. And over there, among the low mounds of the soldiers’ graves, his bed was made, and he was lying in it, straight and still, with the rain crying softly above him. He had been so full of the lust of life, so alert, so active! and nothing of it all!—”Poor father, you failed too,” she muttered softly.

And then behind the wraith of the dead man there rose an older picture, a face she had never seen, dead fifty years before; but it shone through the other face, and outshone it, luminous with great suffering, much overcoming, and complete and final failure. It was the face of a woman not yet middle-aged, smitten with death, with the horror of utter strangeness in the dying eyes; the face of a woman lost in a strange city of a strange land, and with her little crying, helpless children about her, facing the inexorable agony there on the pavement, where she was sinking down, and only foreign words falling in the dying ears!—She, too, had striven; how she had striven! Against the abyss of poverty there in the old world; against the load laid on her by Nature, Law, Society, the triune God of Terror; against the inertia of another will. She had bought coppers with blood, and spared and saved and endured and waited; she had bent the gods to her will; she had sent her husband to America, the land of freedom and promise; she had followed him at last, over the great blue bitter water with its lapping mouths that had devoured one of her little ones upon the way; she had been driven like a cow in the shambles at the landing stage; she had been robbed of all but her ticket, and with her little children had hungered for three days on the overland journey; she had lived it through, and set foot in the promised land; but somehow the waiting face was not there, had missed her or she, him,—and lost and alone with Death and the starving babes, she sank at the foot of the soldiers’ monument, and the black mist came down on the courageous eyes, and the light was flickering out forever. With a bitter cry the living figure in the room stretched its hands toward the vision in the night. There was nothing there, she knew it; nothing in the heavens above nor the earth beneath to hear the cry,—not so much as a crumbling bone any more,—but she called brokenly, “Oh, why must she die so, with nothing, nothing, not one little reward after all that struggle? To fall on the pavement and die in the hospital at last!”

And shuddering, with covered eyes and heavy breath, she added wearily, “No wonder that I fail; I come of those who failed; my father, his mother,—and before her?”

Behind the fading picture, stretched dim, long shadows of silent generations, with rounded shoulders and bent backs and sullen, conquered faces. And they had all, most likely, dreamed of some wonderful thing they had to do in the world, and all had died and left it undone. And their work had been washed away, as if writ in water, and no one knew their dreams. And of the fruit of their toil other men had eaten, for that was the will of the triune god; but of themselves was left no trace, no sound, no word, in the world’s glory; no carving upon stone, no indomitable ghost shining from a written sign, no song singing out of black foolish spots on paper,—nothing. They were as though they had not been. And as they all had died, she too would die, slave of the triple Terror, sacrificing the highest to the meanest, that somewhere in some lighted ball-room or gas-bright theater, some piece of vacant flesh might wear one more jewel in her painted hair.

“My soul,” she said bitterly, “my soul for their diamonds!” It was time to sleep, for to-morrow—work.

Voltairine de Cleyre, “To Strive and Fail,” Mother Earth 3 no. 9 (November 1908): 360-363.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.