16 January 2020

Some Write Their Names for Those Behind

Eugene Lee-Hamilton, "The Ladder," Poems and Transcripts (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1878), pp. 10-11:
Life is a ladder which we all must climb;
Some climb alone and some in company;
Some clad in purple, some in tattered rags;
Some climb it followed by their fellow-men
In livery, and some by hungry duns;
Some followed by policemen half the way;
Some climb the ladder boldly, sword in hand,
And others slowly, yawning at each step;
And each man bears a load upon his back:
With one it is a heavy bag of gold;
Another upwards with a load of aches.
Or, worse, a load of evil conscience goes.
All with a weight of care. And all along
The ladder's length are overhanging boughs.
With fruits and flowers for the strong to pluck;
But many, snatching, overreach and fall.
And there are boughs, beneath whose grateful shade
We fain would stop, but we are hurried on,
As in a treadmill, to the journey's end;
And woe to him who looks too far ahead,
Nor feels each step that comes beneath his foot.
Much angry hustling on the way occurs;
The steps are narrow, and the crowd is great:
Some men, in mounting, cling to others' skirts.
But some to others lend a helping hand,
And care but little how they fare themselves.
Some on the ladder write their names for those
Behind to read, but most can leave no trace.
Most climbers drop before they get half-way;
Some, jostled off by treacherous neighbours, fall;
And some jump off, of their own sad accord.
But few are those who reach the topmost bars,
With hair fast whitening as they upward go.
And gathering honours as they take each step;
And when once there, they heave a gentle sigh.
And, scarcely conscious, softly smile — and die.

Maurice Denis, L'Échelle dans le feuillage (1892)

Other poems by Lee-Hamilton: