The Cornetist

Mark Van Doren reads this poem:

When the last freight, dusk-musical, had gone,
Groaning along the dark rails to St Louis,
When the warm night, complete across the cornfields,
Said there was nothing now, no motion left,
No possible sound, we heard him:
Rocked on the silent porch and heard the low notes

Leave on their level errand like the last sound
Ever to be man-blown about the earth.
Like the last man this sentry of the switches
Blew, and the mournful notes, transcending cinders,
Floated above the corn leaves:
Floated above the silks, until arriving,

Arriving, they invaded our warm darkness,
Deep in the still verandah, and we laughed:
"Why, there he is, that pitiful lone devil;
There is the Frisco nightingale again,
There is our mocking-bird man" –
Laughed, and said these things, and went to bed.

And slept; but there are nights now when I waken,
After these years, and all these miles away,
When I sit up and listen for the last sound
Man will have made alive; and doubt a little
Whether we should have laughed;
Whether we should have pitied that poor soul.

You were too sure of being there forever,
And I too soon was leaving to be wise.
Not that his horn had wisdom; but at nighttime
Man has a need of man, and he was there,
Always; the horn was there
Always; and joy, I think, was why we laughed.

And slept; for there is many an hour of drearness,
Many an hour unloud with lips or brass,
When I lie still and listen for the last note
Ever some lung has blown; and am self-envious,
Thinking I once could laugh;
Thinking I once could pity that poor soul.

"Collected and New Poems, 1924-1963"