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By Edith Wharton

I


Like Crusoe with the bootless gold we stand

Upon the desert verge of death, and say:

“What shall avail the woes of yesterday

To buy to-morrow’s wisdom, in the land

Whose currency is strange unto our hand?

In life’s small market they had served to pay

Some late-found rapture, could we but delay

Till Time hath matched our means to our demand.”


But otherwise Fate wills it, for, behold,

Our gathered strength of individual pain,

When Time’s long alchemy hath made it gold,

Dies with us—hoarded all these years in vain,

Since those that might be heir to it the mould

Renew, and coin themselves new griefs again.


                                    II


O Death, we come full-handed to thy gate,

Rich with strange burden of the mingled years,

Gains and renunciations, mirth and tears,

And love’s oblivion, and remembering hate,

Nor know we what compulsion laid such freight

Upon our souls—and shall our hopes and fears

Buy nothing of thee, Death? Behold our wares,

And sell us the one joy for which we wait.

Had we lived longer, like had such for sale,

With the last coin of sorrow purchased cheap,

But now we stand before thy shadowy pale,

And all our longings lie within thy keep—

Death, can it be the years shall naught avail?


“Not so,” Death answered, “they shall purchase sleep.”


Source: American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century (The Library of America, 1993)

  • Living

Poet Bio

Edith Wharton
A New York City aristocrat, Edith Wharton wrote poetry and fiction mainly about high society life. Her marriage to a wealthy businessman gave Wharton ample time to devote to writing such well-known novels as The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and Ethan Frome. By age 18 she had already published poems in magazines including the Atlantic Monthly.

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