The Poet’s Doubt and Despair


The plodding and sordid crowds I see around me, the poor results of all,
The aimless and resultless ways of most human lives,
The empty and useless years of the rest—
With the rest me intertwined!
Every thought that flounders in them the same flounders in me.

Are you the new person drawn toward me?
Do you suppose yourself advancing on real ground toward a real heroic man?
How many have fondly supposed what you are supposing now—only to be disappointed.
I am by no means that benevolent, equable, happy creature you portray,
Nor do those know me best who admire me and vauntingly praise me.
You must not construct such an unauthorized and imaginary ideal figure, and so devotedly invest your loving nature in it.

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also—
Frivolous, sullen, moping, angry, affected, disheartened,
I take my place among you as much as among any,
(You say you are a great fool—don’t you know every acute fellow secretly knows that about himself—I do.)
Yet, yet, ye downcast hours, I know ye also,
I know the sea of torment, doubt, despair, and unbelief;
The doubts of daytime and the doubts of nighttime,
How often they dart out of themselves as if to confound me and mock me!

Maybe one is now reading this who meets all my grand assumptions and egotisms with derision—
As if I never deride myself!
Myself forever reproaching myself, for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?
Or maybe one who is puzzled at me—

As if I were not puzzled at myself!
Me, so puzzling, wandering and confused, lost to myself, ill-assorted, contradictory.

O me, man of slack faith so long,
Me with mole’s eyes, unrisen to buoyancy and vision—unfree.
What do I know of life? what of myself?
Even I myself I often think know little or nothing of my real life,
I have not once had the least idea who or what I am,
Only a few hints, a few diffused faint clues and indirections I seek for my own use to trace out here,

And those appear that perplex me—
As to that, who is aware of his own nature?
At once I find the least thing that belongs to me, or that I see or touch, I know not,
I perceive I have not really understood anything, not a single object, and that no man ever can.

I know not even my own work past or present—
Those startings out, beating flights of wings, uncertain where you will soar, or bring up, or whether you will soar at all, to end perhaps in ignominious fall and failure!
Those toils and struggles of baffled impeded articulation—those moods of proudest ambition and daring, quickly followed by deeper moods of qualm, despair, utter distrust of one’s self!
Unfoldings so copious, often inopportune—so many failures, (amid no loud call or market for my sort of poetic utterance,) so much unsatisfactory,
The fortunes, misfortunes, through many years—all carried along and merged in the afterwards, the way things work, the apparent terminations, the results so unexpected.

Has not the chaos of my pages its enclosing purport, its clue or formulation?
Upon the whole, it evades me more than anybody
My greatest thoughts, as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre, shallow, mere exhalations?
What wretched shred e’en at the best of all?
Will they germinate anything? will they filter to any deep emotion? any heart and brain?
Is it the prophet’s thought I speak, or am I raving?
My tongue the shallowest of any, still uttering, still ejaculating—
Canst never cease this babble?

Would not people laugh at me?
O me repellent and ugly!
Behold this swarthy face, the white wool unclipt upon my neck,
My brown hands and the silent manner of me without charm.
The real me withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I have written,
Pointing in silence to these songs, and then to the sand beneath.

I know I am restless and make others so,
I am filled with restlessness after I know not what.
One doubt, nauseous, undulating like a snake, crawl’d on the ground before me,
Continually preceding my steps, turning upon me oft, ironically hissing low:
I am incomplete.
Where is what I started for so long ago?
Something yet unfound, though I have diligently sought it many a long year,
Wandering, yearning, inquiring, tireless.
Why is it that a sense comes always crushing in on me,
As of one happiness I have missed, and one friend and companion I have never made?
My pride is impotent, my love gets no response.

Poor and paralyzed, venting a heavy heart,
Batter’d, wreck’d, sore, stiff with many toils, sicken’d and nigh to death,

Hell and despair are upon me, I am too full of woe!
In sighs at night in rage dissatisfied with myself,
In those long-drawn, ill-supprest sighs,
The best I had done seems to me blank and suspicious.
Oppress’d with myself that I have dared to open my mouth to sing at all,
My best moods seem to shun me,
From shadows deep and dark, out of the still and pensive evening,
A procession of ghosts in arriere, in the soul’s twilight,
Of all those angry wrestlings, those absurd trusts, those rejections, hauteurs, shames;
Utter defeat upon me weighs—all lost— the foe victorious.

As for me, torn, stormy, amid these vehement days,
I plan out my little schemes for the future, and cogitate fancies,
And occasionally there floats forth like wreaths of smoke, and about as substantial, my daydreams
Dim ever-shifting guesses spread before me,
Of newer better worlds, their mighty parturition,
Mocking, perplexing me,
Doubts to be solv’d, blanks to be fill’d.

What is my destination? O I fear it is henceforth chaos!
My hands, my limbs grow nerveless,
Dim and dreadful thoughts have lately been floating through my brain,
I am getting savage, my brain feels rack’d, bewilder’d,
There seems to be no relief.

Weights of lead, how ye clog and cling at my ankles,
O cruel hands that hold me powerless,
Baffled, balk’d, bent to the very earth,
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul—
That this earthly habitation is a place of torment to my miserable self, is made painfully evident every day of existence.

Nature here in sight of the sea taking advantage of me to dart upon me and sting me,
Sea waters ever-rolling and rushing in or out—never placid, never calm—
Surely they please this uneasy spirit, me, that ebbs and flows too all the while,
Yet gets nowhere and amounts to nothing.

We murmur alike reproachfully, rolling sands and drift, knowing not why,
These little shreds indeed standing for you and me and all,
I too am but a trail of drift and debris,
I too but signify at the utmost a little wash’d-up drift,
A few sands and dead leaves to gather,
Gather, and merge myself as part of the sands and drift,
Myself a speck, a point on the world’s floating vast.

O who is that ghost, that form in the dark,
In the night, in solitude, tears
What shapeless lump is that, bent, crouch’d there on the sand,
On the white shore dripping, dripping, suck’d in by the sand,
Streaming tears, sobbing tears, moist tears from the eyes of a muffled head?
O shade so sedate and decorous by day, with calm countenance and regulated pace,
But away at night as you fly, none looking—
O then the unloosen’d ocean,
Of tears! tears! tears!
The measureless waters of human tears.

I discover myself on the verge of a usual mistake—
That I could forget the trickling tears, and the blows of the bludgeons and hammers!
That I could look with a separate look on my own crucifixion and bloody crowning.

Trickle drops! my blue veins leaving!
O drops of me! trickle, slow drops,
Candid from me falling, drip, bleeding drops,
From wounds made to free you whence you were prison’d,
From my face, from my forehead and lips,
From my breast, from within where I was conceal’d, press forth red drops, confession drops,
Stain every page, stain every song I sing, every word I say, bloody drops,
Let them know your scarlet heat, let them glisten,
Saturate them with yourself all ashamed and wet,
Glow upon all I have written or shall write, bleeding drops,
Let it all be seen in your light, blushing drops.

Oh, ye gods, press me not too far—pour not my cup too full,
Time, put spurs to thy leaden wings, and bring on the period when my allotted time of torment here shall be fulfilled,
Speed, ye airy hours, lift me from this earthly purgatory,
Rouse up my slow belief, give me some vision of the future,
Give me for once its prophecy and joy.

NEXT: Transcending Doubt and Despair