Henry Adams on H Street       

 
The bronze lamp with the silk shade edged in silver,

The steel nibs waiting by the pen, the ivory

Paper-cutter sheathed in gold - a present

From one of the millionaires he startled,

And the tortoise-shell portfolio where the letters

Were blotted so no tears should show: how easily

The scene is set; how easily one does not understand.

 

He hated history, this great historian,

For it was true or false or was it falsely

True? - or some such thing: the point eluded

Him, and as he aged, he tired of trouble.

Why bother to set out the wickednesses

Of the Morgans, all that pirate-band who looted

This Irish-filled republic, if they then invited one to dine?

 

The trolley-cars that rattled past the White House,

Clanging and swaying through a pinchbeck Paris,

Foretold that future which he would not enter -

Machine-made time when Descartes would be ruler;

And even now the hard electric dazzle

Had made false Lafayette in bronze more foolish;

Absurd aristocrat, like Roosevelt prancing towards a mob.

 

Why must he spurn the present? Were the Middle

Ages less full of cheats and cautious counsellors?

And their religion, did it matter to them

As much as this triumphant Mammon-worship

To its votaries - these feather-boaed women

And their adulterous lovers in grey top-hats?

The world of Edith Wharton, more evil than the Greeks.

 

Ah, well, a paragraph, perhaps a passage -

Another book to fashion from the ashes

Of his youth, which lay between the firedogs

That stood like sphinxes there below his portrait,

That Sargent semi-likeness, O memento

Mori! - and at Solesmes the monks still singing

Vespers, then the Abbot saying: ‘Enfin, nous mourons seul.’

 

Here is this hideous house he longed for beauty

Such as had dazed him once at Chartres - the violet

Light lit up with gold and green and sudden scarlet,

And Christ no longer distant, now the lasting

Friend - if he could shed his cold New England,

That Hawthorne land of rocks and pride, ancestral

Guilts derived from trading slaves, he might become at

          last a child.

 

Down on his knees beside the inlay writing

Table, unhaloed famous head inclining

To the faded Persian carpet floor, praying:

‘Lady, you are my only hope; O Virgin

Sinless, Rose without a thorn, now rescue

Me, your least servant, lost in fame and folly!’

Then wrote to ask a priest to come - and all at once

          was dead.