The School Bag

Black Riders

Stephen Crane

Black riders came from the sea. 
There was clang and clang of spear and shield, 
And clash and clash of hoof and heel, 
Wild shouts and the wave of hair
In the rush upon the wind: 
Thus the ride of sin.

Three little birds in a row 
Sat musing. 
A man passed near that place. 
Then did the little birds nudge each other. 
They said, "He thinks he can sing." 
They threw back their heads to laugh. 
With quaint countenances 
They regarded him.
They were very curious, 
Those three little birds in a row.

In the desert 
I saw a creature, naked, bestial, 
who, squatting upon the ground, 
Held his heart in his hands, 
And ate of it. 
I said, "Is it good, friend?" 
"It is bitter bitter," he answered; 
"But I like it 
Because it is bitter, 
And because it is my heart."

Yes, I have a thousand tongues, 
And nine and ninety-nine lie. 
Though I strive to use the one,
It will make no melody at my will, 
But is dead in my mouth.

Once there came a man 
Who said, 
"Range me all men of the world in rows." 
And instantly 
There was terrific clamour among the people 
Against being ranged in rows. 
There was a loud quarrel, world-wide. 
It endured for ages; 
And blood was shed 
By those who would not stand in rows, 
And by those who pined to stand in rows. 
Eventually, the man went to death, weeping. 
And those who staid in bloody scuffle 
Knew not the great simplicity.

God fashioned the ship of the world carefully. 
With the infinite skill of an All-Master 
Made He the hull and the sails, 
Held He the rudder 
Ready for adjustment. 
Erect stood He, scanning His work proudly. 
Then-at fateful time-a wrong called, 
And God turned, heeding. 
Lo, the ship, at this opportunity, 
slipped slyly, 
Making cunning noiseless travel down the ways.
So that, forever rudderless, it went upon the seas 
Going ridiculous voyages, 
Making quaint progress, 
Turning as with serious purpose 
Before stupid winds. 
And there were many in the sky 
Who laughed at this thing.

Mystic shadow, bending near me, 
Who art thou? 
Whence come ye? 
And-tell me-is it fair 
Or is the truth bitter as eaten fire? 
Tell me! 
Fear not that I should quaver. 
For I dare-I dare. 
Then, tell me!

I looked here;
I looked there; 
Nowhere could I see my love. 
And-this time- 
She was in my heart. 
Truly, then, I have no complaint, 
For though she be fair and fairer, 
She is none so fair as she
In my heart.

I stood upon a high place, 
And saw, below, many devils 
Running, leaping, 
and carousing in sin. 
One looked up, grinning, 
And said, "Comrade! Brother!"

Should the wide world roll away, 
Leaving black terror, 
Limitless night, 
Nor God, nor man, nor place to stand 
Would be to me essential, 
If thou and thy white arms were there, 
And the fall to doom a long way.

In a lonely place, 
I encountered a sage 
Who sat, all still, 
Regarding a newspaper. 
He accosted me:
"Sir, what is this?" 
Then I saw that I was greater, 
Aye, greater than this sage. 
I answered him at once, 
"Old, old man, it is the wisdom of the age." 
The sage looked upon me with admiration.

"And the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the 
heads of the children, even unto the third and fourth 
generation of them that hate me." 

Well, then I hate thee, unrighteous picture; 
Wicked image, I hate thee; 
So, strike with thy vengeance 
The heads of those little men 
Who come blindly. 
It will be a brave thing.

If there is a witness to my little life, 
To my tiny throes and struggles, 
He sees a fool; 
And it is not fine for gods to menace fools.

There was crimson clash of war. 
Lands turned black and bare; 
Women wept; 
Babes ran, wondering. 
There came one who understood not these things. 
He said, "Why is this?" 
Whereupon a million strove to answer him. 
There was such intricate clamour of tongues, 
That still the reason was not.

"Tell brave deeds of war." 

Then they recounted tales, -- 
"There were stern stands 
And bitter runs for glory." 

Ah, I think there were braver deeds.

Charity thou art a lie,
A toy of women, 
A pleasure of certain men. 
In the presence of justice, 
Lo, the walls of the temple 
Are visible 
Through thy form of sudden shadows.

There were many who went in huddled procession, 
They knew not whither; 
But, at any rate, success or calamity 
Would attend all in equality. 

There was one who sought a new road. 
He went into direful thickets, 
And ultimately he died thus, alone; 
But they said he had courage.

In heaven, 
Some little blades of grass 
Stood before God. 
"What did you do?" 
Then all save one of the little blades 
Began eagerly to relate 
The merits of their lives. 
This one stayed a small way behind, 
Presently, God said, 
"And what did you do?" 
The little blade answered, "Oh my Lord, 
Memory is bitter to me, 
For, if I did good deeds, 
I know not of them." 
Then God, in all His splendor, 
Arose from His throne.
"Oh, best little blade of grass!" He said.

A god in wrath 
Was beating a man; 
He cuffed him loudly 
With thunderous blows 
That rang and rolled over the earth. 
All people came running. 
The man screamed and struggled, 
And bit madly at the feet of the god. 
The people cried, 
"Ah, what a wicked man!" 
"Ah, what a redoubtable god!"

A learned man came to me once. 
He said, "I know the way, -- come." 
And I was overjoyed at this. 
Together we hastened. 
Soon, too soon, were we 
Where my eyes were useless, 
And I knew not the ways of my feet. 
I clung to the hand of my friend; 
But at last he cried, "I am lost.”

There was, before me, 
Mile upon mile 
Of snow, ice, burning sand. 
And yet I could look beyond all this, 
To a place of infinite beauty; 
And I could see the loveliness of her 
Who walked in the shade of the trees. 
When I gazed, 
All was lost 
But this place of beauty and her. 
When I gazed, 
And in my gazing, desired, 
Then came again 
Mile upon mile, 
Of snow, ice, burning sand.

Once I saw mountains angry, 
And ranged in battle-front. 
Against them stood a little man; 
Aye, he was no bigger than my finger. 
I laughed, and spoke to one near me, 
"Will he prevail?" 
"Surely," replied this other; 
"His grandfathers beat them many times." 
Then did I see much virtue in grandfathers- 
At least, for the little man 
Who stood against the mountains.

Places among the stars, 
Soft gardens near the sun, 
Keep your distant beauty; 
Shed no beams upon my weak heart. 
Since she is here 
In a place of blackness, 
Not your golden days 
Nor your silver nights 
Can call me to you. 
Since she is here 
In a place of blackness, 
Here I stay and wait

I saw a man pursuing the horizon; 
Round and round they sped. 
I was disturbed at this; 
I accosted the man. 
"It is futile," I said, 
"You can never-" 

"You lie," he cried, 
And ran on.

Behold, the grave of a wicked man, 
And near it, a stern spirit. 

There came a drooping maid with violets,
 But the spirit grasped her arm. 
"No flowers for him," he said. 
The maid wept: 
"Ah, I loved him." 
But the spirit, grim and frowning: 
"No flowers for him." 

Now, this is it-
If the spirit was just, 
Why did the maid weep?

There was set before me a mighty hill, 
And long days I climbed 
Through regions of snow. 
When I had before me the summit-view, 
It seemed that my labour 
Had been to see gardens 
Lying at impossible distances.

A youth in apparel that glittered 
Went to walk in a grim forest. 
There he met an assassin 
Attired all in garb of old days; 
He, scowling through the thickets, 
And dagger poised quivering, 
Rushed upon the youth. 
"Sir," said this latter, 
"I am enchanted, believe me, 
To die, thus, In this medieval fashion, 
According to the best legends; 
Ah, what joy!" 
Then took he the wound, smiling, 
And died, content.

"Truth," said a traveller, 
"Is a rock, a mighty fortress; 
Often have I been to it, 
Even to its highest tower, 
From whence the world looks black." 

"Truth," said a traveller, 
"Is a breath, a wind, 
A shadow, a phantom; 
Long have I pursued it, 
But never have I touched 
The hem of its garment." 

And I believed the second traveller; 
For truth was to me 
A breath, a wind, 
A shadow, a phantom, 
And never had I touched 
The hem of its garment.

Behold, from the land of the farther suns 
I returned. 
And I was in a reptile-swarming place, 
Peopled, otherwise, with grimaces, 
Shrouded above in black impenetrableness. 
I shrank, loathing, 
Sick with it. 
And I said to him, 
"What is this?" 
He made answer slowly, 
"Spirit, this is a world; 
This was your home."

Supposing that I should have the courage 
To let a red sword of virtue
 Plunge into my heart, 
Letting to the weeds of the ground
 My sinful blood, 
What can you offer me? 
A gardened castle? 
A flowery kingdom? 

What? A hope? 
Then hence with your red sword of virtue.

Many workmen
 Built a huge ball of masonry 
Upon a mountain-top. 
Then they went to the valley below, 
And turned to behold their work. 
"It is grand," they said; 
They loved the thing. 

Of a sudden, it moved: 
It came upon them swiftly; 
It crushed them all to blood. 
But some had opportunity to squeal.

Two or three angels 
Came near to the earth. 
They saw a fat church. 
Little black streams of people 
Came and went in continually. 
And the angels were puzzled 
To know why the people went thus, 
And why they stayed so long within.

There was one I met upon the road 
Who looked at me with kind eyes. 
He said, "Show me of your wares." 
And this I did, 
Holding forth one. 
He said, "It is a sin." 
Then held I forth another; 
He said, "It is a sin." 
Then held I forth another; 
He said, "It is a sin."
And so to the end; 
Always he said, "It is a sin." 
And, finally, I cried out, 
"But I have none other." 
Then did he look at me 
With kinder eyes. 
"Poor soul!" he said.

I stood upon a highway, 
And, behold, there came 
Many strange peddlers. 
To me each one made gestures, 
Holding forth little images, saying, 
"This is my pattern of God. 
Now this is the God I prefer." 

But I said, "Hence! 
Leave me with mine own, 
And take you yours away; 
I can't buy of your patterns of God, 
The little gods you may rightly prefer."

A man saw a ball of gold in the sky; 
He climbed for it, 
And eventually he achieved it- 
It was clay. 

Now this is the strange part: 
When the man went to the earth 
And looked again, 
Lo, there was the ball of gold. 
Now this is the strange part: 
It was a ball of gold. 
Aye, by the heavens, it was a ball of gold.

I met a seer. 
He held in his hands 
The book of wisdom. 
"Sir," I addressed him, 
"Let me read." "Child-" he began. 
"Sir," I said, 
"Think not that I am a child, 
For already I know much 
Of that which you hold. 
Aye, much." 

He smiled. 
Then he opened the book 
And held it before me.- 
Strange that I should have grown so suddenly blind.

On the horizon the peaks assembled; 
And as I looked, 
The march of the mountains began.
As they marched, they sang, 
"Aye! We come! We come!”

The ocean said to me once, 
Yonder on the shore 
Is a woman, weeping. 
I have watched her. 
Go you and tell her this- 
Her lover I have laid 
In cool green hall. 
There is wealth of golden sand 
And pillars, coral-red; 
Two white fish stand guard at his bier.

"Tell her this 
And more- 
That the king of the seas
Weeps too, old, helpless man. 
The bustling fates 
Heap his hands with corpses 
Until he stands like a child 
With a surplus of toys."

The livid lightnings flashed in the clouds; 
The leaden thunders crashed. 
A worshipper raised his arm. 
"Hearken! Hearken! The voice of God!" 

"Not so," said a man. 
"The voice of God whispers in the heart 
So softly 
That the soul pauses, 
Making no noise, 
And strives for these melodies, 
Distant, sighing, like faintest breath, 
And all the being is still to hear."

And you love me? 

I love you. 

You are, then, cold coward. 
Aye; but, beloved, 
When I strive to come to you, 
Man's opinions, a thousand thickets, 
My interwoven existence, 
My life, 
Caught in the stubble of the world 
Like a tender veil- 
This stays me. 
No strange move can I make 
Without noise of tearing 
I dare not.

If love loves, 
There is no world 
Nor word. 
All is lost 
Save thought of love 
And place to dream. 
You love me? 

I love you. 
You are, then, cold coward. 

Aye; but, beloved-

Love walked alone. 
The rocks cut her tender feet, 
And the brambles tore her fair limbs. 
There came a companion to her, 
But, alas, he was no help, 
For his name was heart's pain.

I walked in a desert. 
And I cried, 
"Ah, God, take me from this place!" 
A voice said, "It is no desert." 
I cried, "Well, But- 
The sand, the heat, the vacant horizon." 
A voice said, "It is no desert."

There came whisperings in the winds: 
"Good-bye! Good-bye!" 
Little voices called in the darkness: 
"Good-bye! Good-bye!" 
Then I stretched forth my arms. 
There came whisperings in the wind 
"Good-bye! Good-bye!" 
Little voices called in the darkness: 
"Good-bye! Good-bye!"

I was in the darkness; 
I could not see my words 
Nor the wishes of my heart. 
Then suddenly there was a great light- 

"Let me into the darkness again."

Tradition, thou art for suckling children, 
Thou art the enlivening milk for babes; 
But no meat for men is in thee. 
But, alas, we all are babes.

Many red devils ran from my heart 
And out upon the page, 
They were so tiny 
The pen could mash them. 
And many struggled in the ink. 
It was strange 
To write in this red muck 
Of things from my heart.

"Think as I think," said a man, 
"Or you are abominably wicked; 
You are a toad." 

And after I had thought of it, 
I said, "I will, then, be a toad."

Once there was a man- 
Oh, so wise! 
In all drink 
He detected the bitter, 
And in all touch 
He found the sting. 
At last he cried thus: 
"There is nothing- 
No life, 
No joy, 
No pain- 
There is nothing save opinion, 
And opinion be damned."

I stood musing in a black world, 
Not knowing where to direct my feet. 
And I saw the quick stream of men 
Pouring ceaselessly, 
Filled with eager faces, 
A torrent of desire. 
I called to them, 
"Where do you go? What do you see?" 
A thousand voices called to me. 
A thousand fingers pointed. 
"Look! look! There!" 

I know not of it. 
But, lo! In the far sky shone a radiance 
Ineffable, divine- 
A vision painted upon a pall; 
And sometimes it was, 
And sometimes it was not. 
I hesitated. 
Then from the stream 
Came roaring voices, 
"Look! look! There!" 

So again I saw, 
And leaped, unhesitant, 
And struggled and fumed 
With outspread clutching fingers. 
The hard hills tore my flesh; 
The ways bit my feet. 
At last I looked again. 

No radiance in the far sky, 
Ineffable, divine; 
No vision painted upon a pall; 
And always my eyes ached for the light. 
Then I cried in despair, 
"I see nothing! Oh, where do I go?" 
The torrent turned again its faces: 
"Look! look! There!" 

And at the blindness of my spirit 
They screamed, 
"Fool! fool! fool!" 

You say you are holy, 
And that 
Because I have not seen you sin. 
Aye, but there are those 
Who see you sin, my friend.

A man went before a strange god- 
The god of many men, sadly wise. 
And the deity thundered loudly, 
Fat with rage, and puffing. 
"Kneel, mortal, and cringe 
And grovel and do homage 
To My Particularly Sublime Majesty."
                                        The man fled. 

Then the man went to another god- 
The god of his inner thoughts. 
And this one looked at him 
With soft eyes 
Lit with infinite comprehension, 
And said, "My poor child!"

Why do you strive for greatness, fool? 
Go pluck a bough and wear it. 
It is as sufficing. 

My Lord, there are certain barbarians 
Who tilt their noses 
As if the stars were flowers, 
And Thy servant is lost among their shoe-buckles. 
Fain would I have mine eyes even with their eyes. 

Fool, go pluck a bough and wear it.

Blustering god, 
Stamping across the sky 
With loud swagger, 
I fear you not. 
No, though from Your highest heaven 
You plunge Your spear at my heart, 
I fear you not. 
No, not if the blow 
Is as the lightning blasting a tree, 
I fear you not, puffing braggart. 

If Thou canst see into my heart 
That I fear thee not, 
Thou wilt see why I fear thee not, 
And why it is right. 
So threaten not, thou, with thy bloody spears, 
Else thy sublime ears shall hear curses. 

Withal, there is one whom I fear: 
I fear to see grief upon that face. 
Perchance, friend, He is not your god; 
If so, spit upon him. 
By it you will do no profanity. 
But I- 
Ah, sooner would I die 
Than see tears in those eyes of my soul.

"It was wrong to do this," said the angel. 
"You should live like a flower, 
Holding malice like a puppy, 
Waging war like a lambkin." 

"Not so," quoth the man 
Who had no fear of spirits; 
"It is only wrong for angels 
Who can live like the flowers, 
Holding malice like the puppies, 
Waging war like the lambkins."

A man toiled on a burning road, 
Never resting. 
Once he saw a fat, stupid ass 
Grinning at him from a green place. 
The man cried out in rage, 
"Ah! Do not deride me, fool! 
I know you- 
All day stuffing your belly, 
Burying your heart 
In grass and tender sprouts: 
It will not suffice you." 
But the ass only grinned at him from the green place.

A man feared that he might find an assassin; 
Another that he might find a victim. 
One was more wise than the other. 

With eye and with gesture 
You say you are holy. 
I say you lie; 
For I did see you 
Draw away your coats 
From the sin upon the hands 
Of a little child. 

The sage lectured brilliantly. 
Before him, two images: 
"Now this one is a devil, 
And this one is me." 
He turned away. 
Then a cunning pupil 
Changed the positions. 
Turned the sage again: 
"Now this one is a devil, 
And this one is me." 
The pupils sat, all grinning, 
And rejoiced in the game. 
But the sage was a sage.

Walking in the sky, 
A man in strange black garb 
Encountered a radiant form. 
Then his steps were eager; 
Bowed he devoutly. 
"My Lord," said he. 
But the spirit knew him not.

Upon the road of my life, 
Passed me many fair creatures, 
Clothed all in white, and radiant. 
To one, finally, I made speech: 
"Who art thou?" 
But she, like the others, 
Kept cowled her face, 
And answered in haste, anxiously, 
"I am good deed, forsooth; 
You have often seen me." 
"Not uncowled," I made reply. 
And with rash and strong hand, 
Though she resisted, 
I drew away the veil 
And gazed at the features of vanity. 
She, shamefaced, went on; 
And after I had mused a time, 
I said of myself, 

There was a man and a woman 
Who sinned. 
Then did the man heap the punishment 
All upon the head of her, 
And went away gaily. 

There was a man and a woman 
Who sinned. 
And the man stood with her. 
As upon her head, so upon his, 
Fell blow and blow, 
And all people screaming, "Fool!" 
He was a brave heart. 

He was a brave heart. 
Would you speak with him, friend? 
Well, he is dead, 
And there went your opportunity. 
Let it be your grief 
That he is dead 
And your opportunity gone; 
For, in that, you were a coward.

There was a man who lived a life of fire. 
Even upon the fabric of time, 
Where purple becomes orange 
And orange purple, 
This life glowed, 
A dire red stain, indelible; 
Yet when he was dead, 
He saw that he had not lived.

There was a great cathedral. 
To solemn songs, 
A white procession 
Moved toward the altar. 
The chief man there 
Was erect, and bore himself proudly. 
Yet some could see him cringe, 
As in a place of danger, 
Throwing frightened glances into the air, 
A-start at threatening faces of the past.

Friend, your white beard sweeps the ground. 
Why do you stand, expectant? 
Do you hope to see it 
In one of your withered days? 
With your old eyes 
Do you hope to see 
The triumphal march of justice? 
Do not wait, friend! 
Take your white beard 
And your old eyes 
To more tender lands.

Once, I knew a fine song, 
It is true, believe me- 
It was all of birds, 
And I held them in a basket; 
When I opened the wicket, 
Heavens! They all flew away. 
I cried, "Come back, little thoughts!" 
But they only laughed. 
They flew on 
Until they were as sand 
Thrown between me and the sky.

If I should cast off this tattered coat, 
And go free into the mighty sky; 
If I should find nothing there 
But a vast blue, 
Echoless, ignorant- 
What then?

God lay dead in heaven; 
Angels sang the hymn of the end; 
Purple winds went moaning, 
Their wings drip-dripping 
With blood 
That fell upon the earth. 
It, groaning thing, 
Turned black and sank. 
Then from the far caverns 
Of dead sins 
Came monsters, livid with desire. 
They fought, 
Wrangled over the world, 
A morsel. 
But of all sadness this was sad- 
A woman's arms tried to shield 
The head of a sleeping man 
From the jaws of the final beast.

A spirit sped 
Through spaces of night; 
And as he sped, he called, 
"God! God!" 
He went through valleys 
Of black death-slime, 
Ever calling, 
"God! God!" 
Their echoes 
From crevice and cavern 
Mocked him: 
"God! God! God!" 
Fleetly into the plains of space 
He went, ever calling, 
"God! God!" 
Eventually, then, he screamed, 
Mad in denial, 
"Ah, there is no God!" 
A swift hand, 
A sword from the sky, 
Smote him, 
And he was dead.