O heart-sick days! O nights of woe!
Amid crowded accumulations of ghastly morbidity, cities fill’d with the foolish,
Ignorance, vulgarity, rudeness, conceit, and dullness are the reigning gods,
Endless trains of the faithless jostle each other in selfish scramble, because unaccustomed to refined joy,
The chief thought is of selfish indulgence.

O heart-sick days! O nights of woe!
Behold a secret silent loathing and despair, a depressed mind, melancholy, ennui,
Dreary, sickening, unmanly lassitude that, to so many, fills up and curses what ought to be the best years of their lives,
Each one mocks the others, and mocks himself or herself,
And of each one the core of life, namely happiness, is full of the rotten excrement of maggots.
What pity may we well feel for the flabby, lymphatic, half-grown, puny creatures called men and women, such morbid abortions, of whom earth is full!

All the scenes of life, and the workers homeward returning:
Inside of dresses and ornaments,
Inside of those wash’d and trimm’d faces, white, shaved, soft-fleshed, shrinking,
Another self, a duplicate of every one, skulking and hiding it goes,
Formless and wordless through the streets of the cities,
Home to the houses of men and women,
To the shamed and angry stairs trod by sneaking footsteps,
To the dreariness of a home where indifference and hate are the Penates,
where the weary partners come to pour out upon each other, or upon their children, the hoarded spleen of the day, and to aggravate, by recriminations, care and anxiety already too oppressive, from disappointment and despair in heartless marriage.

A thought haunts me every glimpse I get of our top-loftical phases of wealth and fashion in this country,
A pretty race, smartly attired, polite and bland in the parlors,
Each one just like hundreds of the rest, a regular gentleman or lady, with a silver door-plate and a pew in church.
Through the laughter, dancing, dining, supping,
The unhealthy pleasures, extravagant dissipations of the few,
With perfumes, heat, and wine, beneath the dazzling chandeliers
The processes of culture rapidly create a class of supercilious infidels,
Dull down-hearted doubters who believe in nothing.

Persons arrived at high positions appear gaunt and naked—
A drunkard’s breath, unwholesome eater’s face, venerealee’s flesh,
The flippant expression, the unsteady eye, the impure complexion,
Faces almost corpse-like, so ashy and listless,
Cased in too many cerements.

They are ill at ease, much too conscious, and far from happy,
Robbing one another of joy.

Let that man, young or old, never deceive himself with the folly that the sore stuff is hid by the cloth he wears,
Elegant dress frequently covers a sick soul,
And the furniture of a handsome carriage may be but the trappings of misery;
Though the eye does not see, nor the hand touch, nor the nose smell, the rank odor strikes out.

A perpetual natural disguiser of herself,
Outside—fair costume, countenance smiling, form upright,
A mask concealing her face, concealing her form,
Changes and transformations every hour, every moment,
Falling upon her even when she sleeps.
the mean and bandaged spirit is perpetually dissatisfied with itself,
withdrawn, baffled, mad, turbulent, feeble.
No more a sonorous voice or springy step,
No brain, no heart left, no magnetism of sex,
Scant of muscle, scant of love-power, eyes that vainly crave the light,
Lungs rotting away piecemeal, stomach sour and cankerous,
Joints rheumatic, bowels clogged with abomination,
Blood circulating dark and poisonous streams, ashes and filth,
Death under the breast-bones, hell under the skull-bones

In best hours, the perception crystalline, what delusion, what a mockery, seem all these eager aims, these politics, amours, ambitions, these prevalent business aims that fill us.
Let crusted worldlings pay the tribute of a light laugh—light and empty as their own hollow hearts—
I hear secret convulsive sobs, deep half-stifled sobs,
A muffled sonorous sound of men bow’d and moved to weeping.
What living and buried speech is always vibrating here, what howls restrain’d by decorum,
Keeping fair with the customs, speaking not a syllable of itself,
Speaking of anything else but never of itself,
No husband, no wife, no friend, no lover, trusted to hear the confession.

How they mutter! a chorus of age’s complaints,
The doubt, suspicion, dread, of gradual, certain decadence of man,
That sad incessant refrain, shrill, fearful,
Appealing, shrieking, berating, to escape the general doom.
wailing word is borne through the air for a moment,
Then blank and gone and still, and utterly lost.

Such storms, such wrecks, such mysteries, fires, wrong, greed for wealth, religious problems, crosses,
All the woes and sad happenings of life and death—
Such a living death, which, (to make a terrible but true confession,) so many lead, uncomfortably realizing, through their middle age, the distresses and bleak impressions of death, stretched out year after year,
Sad, hasty, unwaked sonnambules walking the dusk,
Alive after what custom has served them, but nothing more.

As death presses closer and closer, the soul rushes hither and thither,
Receiver of the issuing sickness and revolt at the close of a life without elevation or naivete,
Chatterer of the ghastly chatter of a death without serenity or majesty.

I list to the dirge, the voices of men and women wreck’d,
At anguish with themselves, remorseful after deeds done,
Despairing cries float ceaselessly toward me—
A young woman’s voice appealing to me, for comfort,
A young man’s voice, “Shall I not escape?”,
Some suicide’s despairing cry—Away to the boundless waste, and
never again return—creeping into the blood like cold, polish’d steel.

The newspapers every month contain accounts of individuals, assuredly prosperous in all their pecuniary affairs, and some of them young and healthy, who in the very midst of what the poor think perfect bliss, have committed self-murder.
The suicide went to a lonesome place with a pistol and killed himself,
I came that way and stumbled upon him,
I witness the corpse with its dabbled hair, I note where the pistol has fallen.
A promising young fellow, 23 or so,
Such a result so soon—and from such a beginning!
Do you suppose it was love and money combined—the cause?
Here you see a picture of a dream of despair,
The torch of youth and life quench’d in despair.

As I travel I see hundreds and hundreds of farms,
Looks as though the folks ought to be happy—but I suppose they are just like all the rest,
Struggling today the same—battling the same,
Ever the soul dissatisfied, wandering, yearning, curious, with restless explorations,
With questionings, baffled, formless, feverish,
With never-happy hearts, unconvinced at last.

I know the unspoken interrogatories, by experience I know them,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me.
Throb, baffled and curious brain! throw out questions and answers!
Let others dispose of questions, I dispose of nothing,
I arouse inexplicable, unanswerable
With a barb’d tongue questioning every one I meet.

A hand-mirror—hold it up sternly—see this it sends back,
Who is it? is it you? who are you? and what are you secretly guilty of all your life?
What real happiness have you had one single hour through your whole life?
Wherefore unsatisfied soul? and whither O mocking life?
Do you know your destination?
(It is vain to skulk—do you hear that mocking and laughter? Do you hear the ironical echoes?)
These thoughts in the darkness why are they?
These yearnings why are they, the something never still’d—never entirely gone?
Is the reason-why strangely hidden?
Would you sound below the restless ocean of the entire world?
Would you know the dissatisfaction? the urge and spur of every life? the invisible need of every seed?

Ever the same old mystery and problem, the curious whether and how,
Ever the puzzles of birth and death,
The puzzle of puzzles, and that we call Being,
Ever the old inexplicable query, the question, O me! so sad, recurring—
What good amid these, O me, O life?
What is a man anyhow? What am I? What are you?
How often I think neither I know, nor any man knows, aught of them.

We know not what the use O life, nor know the aim, the end, nor really aught we know,
That great mystery, in the shadow of which we live and move and have our being,
The ultimate human problem, never solving.
The baffling unknownness meets us at a certain point of our investigation of any and all things—
O if the whole world should prove indeed a sham, a suck and a sell!

NEXT: The Poet’s Doubt and Despair