The Ballad of the Children of the Czar

By Delmore Schwartz 1913–1966 Delmore Schwartz
1

The children of the Czar   
Played with a bouncing ball

In the May morning, in the Czar’s garden,   
Tossing it back and forth.

It fell among the flowerbeds   
Or fled to the north gate.

A daylight moon hung up
In the Western sky, bald white.

Like Papa’s face, said Sister,   
Hurling the white ball forth.


       2

While I ate a baked potato   
Six thousand miles apart,

In Brooklyn, in 1916,   
Aged two, irrational.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt   
Was an Arrow Collar ad.

O Nicholas! Alas! Alas!
My grandfather coughed in your army,

Hid in a wine-stinking barrel,   
For three days in Bucharest

Then left for America
To become a king himself.


       3

I am my father’s father,
You are your children’s guilt.

In history’s pity and terror   
The child is Aeneas again;

Troy is in the nursery,
The rocking horse is on fire.

Child labor! The child must carry   
His fathers on his back.

But seeing that so much is past   
And that history has no ruth

For the individual,
Who drinks tea, who catches cold,

Let anger be general:
I hate an abstract thing.


       4

Brother and sister bounced   
The bounding, unbroken ball,

The shattering sun fell down   
Like swords upon their play,

Moving eastward among the stars   
Toward February and October.

But the Maywind brushed their cheeks   
Like a mother watching sleep,

And if for a moment they fight   
Over the bouncing ball

And sister pinches brother   
And brother kicks her shins,

Well! The heart of man is known:   
It is a cactus bloom.


       5

The ground on which the ball bounces   
Is another bouncing ball.

The wheeling, whirling world   
Makes no will glad.

Spinning in its spotlight darkness,   
It is too big for their hands.

A pitiless, purposeless Thing,   
Arbitrary and unspent,

Made for no play, for no children,   
But chasing only itself.

The innocent are overtaken,   
They are not innocent.

They are their father’s fathers,
The past is inevitable.


       6

Now, in another October   
Of this tragic star,

I see my second year,   
I eat my baked potato.

It is my buttered world,
But, poked by my unlearned hand,

It falls from the highchair down   
And I begin to howl.

And I see the ball roll under   
The iron gate which is locked.

Sister is screaming, brother is howling,   
The ball has evaded their will.

Even a bouncing ball   
Is uncontrollable,

And is under the garden wall.   
I am overtaken by terror

Thinking of my father’s fathers,   
And of my own will.

Delmore Schwartz, “The Ballad of the Children of the Czar” from Selected Poems (1938-1958): Summer Knowledge. Copyright © 1967 by Delmore Schwartz. Reprinted with the permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation, www.wwnorton.com/nd/welcome.htm.

Source: Selected Poems (1938-1958): Summer Knowledge (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1967)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Delmore Schwartz 1913–1966

Subjects Family & Ancestors, Time & Brevity, History & Politics, Youth, Parenthood, Living, Relationships, Social Commentaries

Poetic Terms Ballad

 Delmore  Schwartz

Biography

Delmore Schwartz had, writes Alfred Kazin, "a feeling for literary honor, for the highest standards, that one can only call noble—he loved the nobility of example presented by the greatest writers of our century, and he wanted in this sense to be noble himself, a light unto the less talented.... So he suffered, unceasingly, because he had often to disappoint himself—because the world turned steadily more irrational and . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Family & Ancestors, Time & Brevity, History & Politics, Youth, Parenthood, Living, Relationships, Social Commentaries

Poetic Terms Ballad

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.