Once Upon a Time.

Only look at Gaffer Grey1
Creeping slowly on his way,2
With a staff to help him stand,3
Leant on with a shaking hand ;4
With a step that fears to meet5
The pebbles of the village street ;6
With a cheek that falleth in,7
And a very peaked chin ;8
With a forehead made of wrinkles9
Carved in crosses, cranks, and crinkles,10
And a voice so thin and mumbling11
That his glee might pass for grumbling.12
See his eyes so blear and dim,13
And his beard so grey and grim ;14
See his legs, all lean and lank,15
Dwindled down to skin and shank.16
Poor old Gaffer Grey is labelled17
With the words that tune my rhyme :18
Read him over—you’ll discover19
Nought but Once upon a time.”20
I wander’d to a spot of earth,21
Where Fame had crowned the ruin-crags,22
Where ravens in their shrieking mirth23
Flapp’d their black wings like conquerors’ flags24
Waving above a battle-field ;25
Where bat and lizard had allied,26
With mole and owlet by their side,27
And forced the bulwark foe to yield.28
Some phantasy beguiled my sight29
With vision of a gorgeous story,—30
Of jewell’d roof, of halls of light,31
Of purple woof, of walls of might,32
Of pillar’d temples, thrones of state,33
Of pomp and palace, grand and great,34
Of people’s shouts, of feasting kings,35
And all the myriad dazzling things36
That haunt the place of faded glory.37
—I started, for a frighten’d thrush38
Flew from a tuft of sedgy rush,39
Then, gazing down, I stepp’d aside40
To let the toad crawl back and hide ;41
A squirrel brood ran up the larch42
That sway’d within the oriel arch,43
And then my tread disturb’d the rest44
Of a wild rabbit in its nest.45
I trampled through the dank thick grass,46
To catch the bindweed’s trailing flowers,47
That tied themselves in tangled mass48
An elderly man is hunched over and leaning on a cane. In the background, there is a child standing at the entrance of a hut. 1/2 page.
Across the cracking turret towers.49
The topmost battlement was lying50
Co-equal with the buttress pile ;51
And dolefully the wind was sighing52
Through festive court and priestly aisle.53
Time’s robe of green was flung about54
The mammoth skeleton of strength ;55
And scatter’d bones of granite stones56
Told of its giant breadth and length.57
I stood upon a scatter’d heap58
Of fragments of the watch-tower Keep ;59
I wander’d on, and stroll’d across60
The banquet-hall, laid down with moss ;61
I climbed some steps shut out from day,62
Till dust and nettles choked my way ;63
I saw a mushroom springing up64
Where royal feet had led the dance ;65
I saw the foxglove’s swinging cup66
Where knights had hung their banner’d lance ;67
And as I gazed I saw a hand—68
A wither’d hand—stretch forth and write69
A short text fraught with holy thought,70
Easy to read by dullest sight.71
’Twas plain and terse, but sacred page72
Gives nought more simple and sublime,73
It soften’d youth, it solaced age,74
It mock’d the hero and the sage75
In these words— Once upon a time.”76
’Twas but yesterday I found77
A score of letters, closely bound :78
Some were torn in treasured pieces,79
Some were worn in careful creases,80
Ink had faded, seals had crumbled,81
And my heart felt sad and humbled ;82
For I knew the thoughts, the hopes,83
The earnest wish, the brilliant tropes84
Those letters hasten’d to reveal85
Were symboll’d by the ink and seal.86
I opened one—my pulse grew quicker,87
My eyelid fell, my breath came thicker ;88
I traced its lines, close, firm, and clear,89
Telling how deeply, fondly dear,90
The being was for whose loved sake91
That letter came, with such a cake.92
It gave report of Pincher’s health,93
It told of Muff’s increase of wealth94
In five young rabbits, all milk-white,95
That Gyp and Dobbin were “ all right,”96
That Midsummer Would quickly come,97
And then for holidays and home.98
I gave a gasp, half sob, half sigh,99
While Memory’s flood-wave filled my eye,100
And folded from my misty gaze101
My mother and my schoolgirl days.102
I look’d upon another hand,103
Bold, free, and dashing in its form ;104
And then I saw the lee-shore strand,105
A woman is standing in front of a desk and reading a letter. 1/2 page.
And heard the passion of the storm106
That tore the right arm from its hold,107
And flung it nerveless, still and cold,108
Upon the rocks, no more to send109
Its tidings full of life and joy,110
And cheer his childhood’s playmate-friend111
With letters from the sailor boy.112
Another and another scroll113
I opened—one by one I read :114
I gazed as they who may unrol ;115
A shroud to look upon the dead.116
Love, with its ardent vows, was there,117
Friendship, that promised to be true,118
Words that like summer light and air119
Fill’d my heart’s world with gold and blue.120
Where was the lover? Where the friend ?121
The bond that was to know no end ?122
Where was the promise and the vow ?123
Alas, a yawning gulf of gloom,124
Bridged only by the dark grey tomb,125
Had open’d wide ’twixt then and now.126
A muffled sound seem’d breathing round,127
A mingled tone of merry chime128
And funeral knells, but all the bells129
Gave chorus of the theme which tells130
Sad tales of Once upon a time.”131
Come, I will write my epitaph132
In letters shadowy and dim,133
And though the young strong man may laugh,134
’Twill shortly serve as well for him.135
Just heap the clay where frost and sun136
May help the ivy leaf to climb,137
And all I’ve said, and all I’ve done,138
And all I’ve lost, and all I’ve won,139
The struggling race that I have run140
Shall find full record on the stone141
In these few words of solemn tone,—142
Once upon a time.”143