Tell me, ye wise ones, if ye can

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Tell me, ye wise ones, if ye can,
Whither and whence the race of man.
For I have seen his slender clan
Clinging to hoar hills with their feet,
Threading the forest for their meat.
Moss and lichens, bark and grain
They rake together with might and main,
And they digest them with anxiety and pain.
I meet them in their rags and unwashed hair,
Instructed to eke out their scanty fare—
Brave race—with a yet humbler prayer.
Beggars they are, aye, on the largest scale.
They beg their daily bread at heaven's door,
And if their this year's crop alone should fail,
They neither bread nor begging would know more.
They are the titmen of their race,
And hug the vales with mincing pace
Like Troglodytes, and fight with cranes.
We walk 'mid great relations' feet.
What they let fall alone we eat.
We are only able
To catch the fragments from their table.
These elder brothers of our race,
By us unseen, with larger pace
Walk o'er our heads, and live our lives,
Embody our desires and dreams,
Anticipate our hoped-for gleams.
We grub the earth for our food.
We know not what is good.
Where does the fragrance of our orchards go,
Our vineyards, while we toil below?
A finer race and finer fed
Feast and revel above our head.
The tints and fragrance of the flowers and fruits
Are but the crumbs from off their table,
While we consume the pulp and roots.
Sometimes we do assert our kin,
And stand a moment where once they have been.
We hear their sounds and see their sights,
And we experience their delights.
But for the moment that we stand
Astonished on the Olympian land,
We do discern no traveller's face,
No elder brother of our race,
To lead us to the monarch's court
And represent our case;
But straightway we must journey back,
Retracing slow the arduous track,
Without the privilege to tell,
Even, the sight we know so well.[1]

  1. [Eight lines, somewhat altered, Week, pp. 407, 408; Riv. 503.]