At the “Mermaid”

Robert Browning

The figure that thou here seest . . . Tut!
Was it for gentle Shakespeare put?
B. JORSON. (Adapted.)


I—“NEXT POET?” No, my hearties,
    I nor am nor fain would be!
Choose your chiefs and pick your parties,
    Not one soul revolt to me!
I, forsooth, sow song-sedition?
    I, a schism in verse provoke?
I, blown up by bard’s ambition,
    Burst—your bubble-king? You joke.

Come, be grave! The sherris mantling
    Still about each mouth, mayhap,
Breeds you insight—just a scantling—
    Brings me truth out—just a scrap.
Look and tell me! Written, spoken,
    Here’s my life-long work: and where
—Where’s your warrant or my token
    I’m the dead king’s son and heir?

Here’s my work: does work discover—
    What was rest from work—my life?
Did I live man’s hater, lover?
    Leave the world at peace, at strife?
Call earth ugliness or beauty?
    See things there in large or small?
Use to pay its Lord my duty?
    Use to own a lord at all?

Blank of such a record, truly,
    Here’s the work I hand, this scroll,
Yours to take or leave; as duly,
    Mine remains the unproffered soul.
So much, no whit more, my debtors—
    How should one like me lay claim
To that largess elders, betters
    Sell you cheap their souls for—fame?

Which of you did I enable
    Once to slip inside my breast,
There to catalogue and label
    What I like least, what love best,
Hope and fear, believe and doubt of,
    Seek and shun, respect—deride?
Who has right to make a rout of
    Rarities he found inside?

Rarities or, as he’d rather,
    Rubbish such as stocks his own:
Need and greed (oh, strange) the Father
    Fashioned not for him alone!
Whence—the comfort set a-strutting,
    Whence—the outcry “Haste, behold!
Bard’s breast open wide, past shutting,
    Shows what brass we took for gold!”

Friends, I doubt not he’d display you
    Brass—myself call orichalc,—
Furnish much amusement; pray you
    Therefore, be content I balk
Him and you, and bar my portal!
    Here’s my work outside: opine
What’s inside me mean and mortal!
    Take your pleasure, leave me mine!

Which is—not to buy your laurel
    As last king did, nothing loth.
Tale adorned and pointed moral
    Gained him praise and pity both.
Out rushed sighs and groans by dozens
    Forth by scores oaths, curses flew:
Proving you were cater-cousins,
    Kith and kindred, king and you!

Whereas do I ne’er so little
    (Thanks to sherris), leave ajar
Bosom’s gate—no jot nor tittle
    Grow we nearer than we are.
Sinning, sorrowing, despairing,
    Body-ruined, spirit-wrecked,—
Should I give my woes an airing,—
    Where’s one plague that claims respect?

Have you found your life distasteful?
    My life did and does smack sweet.
Was your youth of pleasure wasteful?
    Mine I saved and hold complete.
Do your joys with age diminish?
    When mine fail me, I’ll complain.
Must in death your daylight finish?
    My sun sets to rise again.

What, like you, he proved—your Pilgrim—
    This our world a wilderness,
Earth still gray and heaven still grim,
    Not a hand there his might press,
Not a heart his own might throb to,
    Men all rogues and women—say,
Dolls which boys’ heads duck and bob to,
    Grown folk drop or throw away?

My experience being other,
    How should I contribute verse
Worthy of your king and brother?
    Balaam-like I bless, not curse.
I find earth not gray but rosy,
    Heaven not grim but fair of hue.
Do I stoop? I pluck a posy.
    Do I stand and stare? All’s blue.

Doubtless I am pushed and shoved by
    Rogues and fools enough: the more
Good luck mine, I love, am loved by
    Some few honest to the core.
Scan the near high, scout the far low!
    “But the low come close:” what then?
Simpletons? My match is Marlowe;
    Sciolists? My mate is Ben.

Womankind—“the cat-like nature,
    False and fickle, vain and weak”—
What of this sad nomenclature
    Suits my tongue, if I must speak?
Does the sex invite, repulse so,
    Tempt, betray, by fits and starts?
So becalm but to convulse so,
    Decking heads and breaking hearts?

Well may you blaspheme at fortune!
    I “threw Venus” (Ben, expound!)
Never did I need importune
    Her, of all the Olympian round.
Blessings on my benefactress!
    Cursings suit—for aught I know—
Those who twitched her by the back tress,
    Tugged and thought to turn her—so!

Therefore, since no leg to stand on
    Thus I’m left with,—joy or grief
Be the issue,—I abandon
    Hope or care you name me Chief!
Chief and king and Lord’s anointed,
    I?—who never once have wished
Death before the day appointed:
    Lived and liked, not poohed and pished!

“Ah, but so I shall not enter,
    Scroll in hand, the common heart—
Stopped at surface: since at centre
    Song should reach Welt-schmers, world-smart!”
“Enter in the heart?” Its Shelly
    Cuirass guard mine, fore and aft!
Such song “enters in the belly
    And is cast out in the draught.”

Back then to our sherris-brewage!
    “Kingship” quotha? I shall wait—
Waive the present time: some new age . . . 
    But let fools anticipate!
Meanwhile greet me—“friend, good fellow,
    Gentle Will,” my merry men!
As for making Envy yellow
    With “Next Poet”—(Manners, Ben!)

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