Stephen Vincent Benet

Complaint of Body, the Ass,
Against his Rider, the Soul


Well, here we go! 

I told you that the weather looked like snow. 
Why couldn't we have stayed there at the inn? 
There was good straw and barley in the bin 
And a grey jenny with a melting eye, 
Neat-hoofed and sly I rather like them sly- 
Master a trader and a man of sense. 
He likes his life and dinner. So do I. 
Sleeps warm and doesn't try to cross a pass 
A mountain-goat would balk at in his prime, 
Where the hail falls as big as Peter's Pence 
And every stone you slip on rolls a mile! 
But that's not you, of course that's not our style 
We're far too dandipratted and sublime! 
Which of us is the ass? 

Good ground, beyond the snow? 
I've heard that little song before, you know. 
Past cliff and ragged mount 
And the wind's skinning-knife, 
Far and forever far, 
The water of the fount, 
The water that is life 
And the bright star? 
Give me my water from a decent trough, 
Not dabs or ice licked out of freezing stone 
And, as for stars, why, let the stars alone, 
You'll have us both in glory soon enough!

Alas, alack! 
I'm carrying an idiot on my back. 
I'm carrying Mr. Who to God Knows Where. 
Oh, do not fix me with that burning stare 
Of beauteous disdain! 
I'm not a colt. I know my ass's rights. 
A stall and fodder and sound sleep of nights. 
One can't expect to live on sugarcane 
But what's the sense, when one grows old and stiff, 
Of scrambling up this devil-haunted cliff 
To play hot cockles with the Northern Lights? 
I'll balk, that's what I'll do! 
And all the worse for you! 
Oh, lash me if you like I know your way- 
Rake my poor sides and leave the bloody weal 
Beneath your spurring steel. 
My lungs are fire and my limbs are .lead. 

Go on ahead? I can't go on ahead. 
Desert you in your need? Nay, master, nay. 

Nay, master, nay; I grumble as I must 
And yet, as you perceive, I do go on, 
Grudging, impenitent and full of fear 
And knowing my own death. 
You have no fear because you have no breath. 
Your silver essence knows nor cold nor heat. 
Your world's beyond. My only world is here. 
(Oh, the sweet rollings in the summer dust, 
The smell of hay and thistles and the street, 
The quick life, done so soon! ) 
You'll have your guerdon where the journey's done. 
You'll play the hero where the wine is poured, 
You and the moon but I 
Who served you well and shall become a bone, 
Why do I live when it must be to die? 
Why should I serve and still have no reward? 


Your plaint is sound, yet I must rule you still 
With bridle, bit and will. 
For, without me, you are the child unborn 
And the infertile corn. 
I am not cruelty but I am he, 
Drowning in sea, who yet disdains the sea, 
And you that sea, that shore 
And the brave, laboring oar, 
Little upon the main, 
That drives on reefs I know not of but does not drive in vain. 
For I'm your master but your scholar, too, 
And learn great things of you. 
And, though I shall forsake you, nothing loth, 
To grumble with the clods, 
To sleep into the stone, 
Til answer for us both 
When I stand up alone. 
For it is part as your ambassador 
I go before 
To tell the gods who sit above the show, 
How, in this world they never stoop to know, 
Under what skies, against what mortal odds, 
The dust grows noble with desire and pain, 
And that not once but every day anew.