July 6, 2013

Johnson: She dwelt within a lifelong dream

Robert Underwood Johnson spent his life in the world of publishing, starting off in the periodical industry in the 1870s, before becoming ambassador to Italy in the early 20th century. He was an author, editor, poet, and fought for international copyright and preservation of historic sites and places with natural beauty. He befriended, among others, Nikola Tesla, John Muir, as well as literary figures like Edmund Clarence Stedman and James Whitcomb Riley. Many of his poems are addressed to these friends — and to some who were less famous. His poem to "A Teacher" was dedicated to "The Beautiful Memory Of One Who Gave Her Life To Her Work" and was read at the National Education Association convention in Madison Square Garden in New York, July 6, 1916:

Go praise the Hero, ye who may:
   I sing the Teacher,—one for whom
The morrow was but more to-day,—
Whose fainting labor showed the way
   To pluck one's gladness from his doom.

The leisure others gave to joy
   She gave to toil: to fill the day
With wine of wisdom her employ.
She, once as merry as a boy,
   Had long forgotten how to play.

I see her when the scurrying band
   Have left her, weary and alone,
Her pale cheek pillowed on her hand,
Watching the wistful evening land
   Without repining, tear, or moan.

Mayhap her spirit, never sad,
   (Ah, what a challenge memory stirs!)
Demanded why grim fate forbade
Her motherhood, who gave each lad
   The love she might have given hers.

She dwelt within a lifelong dream
   Of seeing lands of far romance,—
Of loitering by Arno's stream,
Of catching Athens' sunset gleam
   That can alone its fame enhance.

Still, an uncloistered nun she went,
   With naught more fretful than a sigh,
And in her happy task she spent
Her sweetness, like some rose's scent
   In sacred treasury laid by.

Her pure devotion did not gauge
   Her service by her daily need;
And not her scanty, grudging wage,
Nor spectre of forsaken Age,
   Could take the beauty from her creed.

She faced her calling as it stood—
   Incessant, onerous, obscure;
Content if she but sometime could
Be silent partner with the Good,
   Whose victory was to her so sure.

She knew that all who reach the height
   The path of sympathy have trod;
And pondered, many a wakeful night,
How she could aid with gentle might
   The unseen miracles of God.

What though she might not wait the fruit?
   What though she went before the flower?
She gave the timbre to the lute,
And in the voice that else were mute
   Divined the rare, supernal power.

Of all she lent her strength, a few
   Shall wear her name as amulet.
How many more who struggle through,
Remembering not to whom 'tis due,
   Shall still keep memory of the debt!

Oh, could we know of life the whole
   Hid record, what an envied place
Were yours upon the honor scroll,
Ye faithful sentries of the soul,
   Ye childless mothers of the race!

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