How Good are the Poor (Poem by Victor Hugo)

Old Poem

How Good are the Poor
By Victor Hugo

'Tis night — within the close stout cabin door,
    The room is wrapped in shade save where there fall
Some twilight rays that creep along the floor,
    And show the fisher's nets upon the wall.

In the dim corner, from the oaken chest,
    A few white dishes glimmer; through the shade
Stands a tall bed with dusky curtains dressed,
    And a rough mattress at its side is laid.

Five children on the long low mattress lie — 
    A nest of little souls, it heaves with dreams;
In the high chimney the last embers die,
    And redden the dark room with crimson gleams.

The mother kneels and thinks, and pale with fear,
    She prays alone, hearing the billows shout:
While to wild winds, to rocks, to midnight drear,
    The ominous old ocean sobs without.

Poor wives of fishers! Ah! 'tis sad to say,
    Our sons, our husbands, all that we love best,
Our hearts, our souls, are on those waves away,
    Those ravening wolves that know not ruth, nor rest.

Think how they sport with these beloved forms;
    And how the clarion-blowing wind unties
Above their heads the tresses of the storms:
    Perchance even now the child, the husband, dies.

For we can never tell where they may be
    Who, to make head against the tide and gale,
Between them and the starless, soulless sea
    Have but one bit of plank, with one poor sail.

Terrible fear! We seek the pebbly shore,
    Cry to the rising billows, "Bring them home."
Alas! what answer gives their troubled roar,
    To the dark thought that haunts us as we roam.

Janet is sad: her husband is alone,
    Wrapped in the black shroud of this bitter night:

His children are so little, there is none
    To give him aid. "Were they but old, they might."
Ah, mother! when they too are on the main,
How wilt thou weep: "Would they were young again!"

She takes his lantern — 'tis his hour at last
    She will go forth, and see if the day breaks,
And if his signal-fire be at the mast;
    Ah, no — not yet — no breath of morning wakes.

No line of light o'er the dark water lies;
    It rains, it rains, how black is rain at morn:
The day comes trembling, and the young dawn cries — 
    Cries like a baby fearing to be born.

Sudden her humane eyes that peer and watch
    Through the deep shade, a mouldering dwelling find,
No light within — the thin door shakes — the thatch
    O'er the green walls is twisted of the wind,

Yellow, and dirty, as a swollen rill,
    "Ah, me," she saith, "here does that widow dwell;
Few days ago my good man left her ill:
    I will go in and see if all be well."

She strikes the door, she listens, none replies,
    And Janet shudders. "Husbandless, alone,
And with two children — they have scant supplies.
    Good neighbor! She sleeps heavy as a stone."

She calls again, she knocks, 'tis silence still;
    No sound — no answer — suddenly the door,
As if the senseless creature felt some thrill
    Of pity, turned — and open lay before.

She entered, and her lantern lighted all
    The house so still, but for the rude waves' din.
Through the thin roof the plashing rain-drops fall,
    But something terrible is couched within.

"So, for the kisses that delight the flesh,
    For mother's worship, and for children's bloom,
For song, for smile, for love so fair and fresh,
    For laugh, for dance, there is one goal — the tomb."

And why does Janet pass so fast away?
    What hath she done within that house of dread?
What foldeth she beneath her mantle gray?
    And hurries home, and hides it in her bed:
    With half-averted face, and nervous tread,
    What hath she stolen from the awful dead?

The dawn was whitening over the sea's verge
    As she sat pensive, touching broken chords
Of half-remorseful thought, while the hoarse surge
    Howled a sad concert to her broken words.

"Ah, my poor husband! we had five before,
    Already so much care, so much to find,
For he must work for all. I give him more.
    What was that noise? His step! Ah, no! the wind.

"That I should be afraid of him I love!
    I have done ill. If he should beat me now,
I would not blame him. Did not the door move?
    Not yet, poor man." She sits with careful brow
Wrapped in her inward grief; nor hears the roar
    Of winds and waves that dash against his prow,
Nor the black cormorant shrieking on the shore.

Sudden the door flies open wide, and lets
    Noisily in the dawn-light scarcely clear,
And the good fisher, dragging his damp nets,
    Stands on the threshold, with a joyous cheer.

"'Tis thou!" she cries, and, eager as a lover,
    Leaps up and holds her husband to her breast;
Her greeting kisses all his vesture cover;
    "'Tis I, good wife!" and his broad face expressed

How gay his heart that Janet's love made light.
    "What weather was it?" "Hard." "Your fishing?" "Bad.
The sea was like a nest of thieves to-night;
    But I embrace thee, and my heart is glad.

"There was a devil in the wind that blew;
    I tore my net, caught nothing, broke my line,
And once I thought the bark was broken too;
    What did you all the night long, Janet mine?"

She, trembling in the darkness, answered, "I!
    Oh, naught — I sew'd, I watch'd, I was afraid,
The waves were loud as thunders from the sky;
    But it is over." Shyly then she said — 

"Our neighbor died last night; it must have been
    When you were gone. She left two little ones,
So small, so frail — William and Madeline;
    The one just lisps, the other scarcely runs."

The man looked grave, and in the corner cast
    His old fur bonnet, wet with rain and sea,
Muttered awhile, and scratched his head, — at last
    "We have five children, this makes seven," said he.

"Already in bad weather we must sleep
    Sometimes without our supper. Now! Ah, well — 
'Tis not my fault. These accidents are deep;
    It was the good God's will. I cannot tell.

"Why did He take the mother from those scraps,
    No bigger than my fist. 'Tis hard to read;
A learned man might understand, perhaps — 
    So little, they can neither work nor need.

"Go fetch them, wife; they will be frightened sore,
    If with the dead alone they waken thus.
That was the mother knocking at our door,
    And we must take the children home to us.

"Brother and sister shall they be to ours,
    And they will learn to climb my knee at even;
When He shall see these strangers in our bowers,
    More fish, more food, will give the God of Heaven.

"I will work harder; I will drink no wine — 
    Go fetch them. Wherefore dost thou linger, dear?
Not thus were wont to move those feet of thine."
    She drew the curtain, saying, "They are here!"

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