The Clerks, by Edward Arlington Robinson

I did not think that I should find them there
When I came back again; but there they stood,
As in the days they dreamed of when young blood
Was in their cheeks and women called them fair.
Be sure, they met me with an ancient air,—
And yes, there was a shop-worn brotherhood
About them; but the men were just as good,
And just as human as they ever were.

And you that ache so much to be sublime,
And you that feed yourselves with your descent,
What comes of all your visions and your fears?
Poets and kings are but the clerks of Time,
Tiering the same dull webs of discontent,
Clipping the same sad alnage of the years.


Note: “alnage” is an old word referring to a measure of cloth. So why does the poet use it here? Well, Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology all feature a group of divine beings who weave Fate, spinning and weaving each person’s life and destiny. (The average reader of poetry in Robinson’s time knew that without having to consult a footnote.) And “tiering” is another old word, meaning “to arrange in layers,” or “to cascade in an overlapping sequence”–thus, weaving. So the poets and kings weave dull tapestries, the same dull images over and over again, and not any more significant than the fate of your local nobody. (Well–that sounded so much better the way Robinson said it than it did in my dry explanation, didn’t it?)


One response

  1. […] sonnets by John Milton or Christina Rossetti. Also, there’s last week’s post featuring Edward Arlington Robinson. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. Posted in: Formal Meter, […]

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