American Poetry LVII - R.S. Gwynn - Train for Ill, A Ballad



Train for Ill, A Ballad
R.S. Gwynn (1948)


Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck's a chance, but trouble's sure,
I'd face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good. ... A. E. Housman

The train for Ill is a long train
That takes on passengers in Pain,
Where prayers are offered to complain
To skies of unrelenting rain And all roads run downhill.
And we who slowly file aboard
Clutch tickets we can scarce afford;
Protesting our unjust reward, We take the train for Ill.

The platform soon grows loud with those
Who wear dark bands and Sunday clothes,
Whose shared emotion plainly shows
With handkerchiefs near every nose. They watch the coaches fill,
And as our group departs a few
Shed tears, which others fail to do:
Survivors' benefits accrue On the train for Ill.

With ashes smeared on every face
The children who appear to chase
The last car seem to run in place
As if inclined to lose the race. Their cries grow short and shrill
And fall behind as we descend,
Cars swaying lightly in the wind,
A grade that shudders to the end Of the train for Ill.

Oh, if there were some way we could
Journey instead to distant Good!
We touch old charms and knock on wood
But each mile makes it understood That we never will.
To our sorrow we must learn
The shining hopes for which we yearn
Are stamped, like tickets, "No return" On the train for Ill.

How soon it seems the soft light goes—
Then summer's heat, then corn in rows,
Then on a wall one brilliant rose
Signals a stop as petals close In the growing chill.
Our faltering voices raise to sing
Remembrances of how the spring
Gathered its green regrets to bring To the train for Ill.

"Shall we know any good again?"
Some cry. "How many times? And when?"
The warnings on our medicine
Offer no clues what may be in Each dark and bitter pill.
Beside the tracks two lovers kiss.
We know we have no part in this,
The daily dose we never miss On the train for Ill.

And at the end what will remain?
An emptiness that can contain
All losses and all hopes of gain,
Even nostalgic thoughts of Pain, That city on the hill?
With no more failings to confess
We lift our voices up to bless
Each frail design of loveliness,
All sweetness that grows less and less Aboard the train for Ill.

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