Ballad of John Cable and Three Gentlemen

By W. S. Merwin b. 1927
He that had come that morning,   
One after the other,
Over seven hills,
Each of a new color,

Came now by the last tree,   
By the red-colored valley,   
To a gray river
Wide as the sea.

There at the shingle
A listing wherry
Awash with dark water;   
What should it carry?

There on the shelving,   
Three dark gentlemen.   
Might they direct him?   
Three gentlemen.

“Cable, friend John, John Cable,”   
When they saw him they said,   
“Come and be company
As far as the far side.”

“Come follow the feet,” they said,   
“Of your family,
Of your old father
That came already this way.”

But Cable said, “First I must go   
Once to my sister again;
What will she do come spring   
And no man on her garden?

She will say ‘Weeds are alive   
From here to the Stream of Friday;   
I grieve for my brother’s plowing,’
Then break and cry.”

“Lose no sleep,” they said, “for that fallow:   
She will say before summer,
‘I can get me a daylong man,
Do better than a brother.’ ”

Cable said, “I think of my wife:   
Dearly she needs consoling;   
I must go back for a little
For fear she die of grieving.”

“Cable,” they said, “John Cable,   
Ask no such wild favor;
Still, if you fear she die soon,   
The boat might wait for her.”

But Cable said, “I remember:   
Out of charity let me
Go shore up my poorly mother,   
Cries all afternoon.”

They said, “She is old and far,   
Far and rheumy with years,   
And, if you like, we shall take   
No note of her tears.”

But Cable said, “I am neither   
Your hired man nor maid,   
Your dog nor shadow
Nor your ape to be led.”

He said, “I must go back:
Once I heard someone say
That the hollow Stream of Friday   
Is a rank place to lie;

And this word, now I remember,   
Makes me sorry: have you   
Thought of my own body   
I was always good to?

The frame that was my devotion   
And my blessing was,
The straight bole whose limbs   
Were long as stories—

Now, poor thing, left in the dirt   
By the Stream of Friday
Might not remember me
Half tenderly.”

They let him nurse no worry;
They said, “We give you our word:   
Poor thing is made of patience;   
Will not say a word.”

“Cable, friend John, John Cable,”   
After this they said,
“Come with no company
To the far side.

To a populous place,
A dense city
That shall not be changed   
Before much sorrow dry.”

Over shaking water
Toward the feet of his father,   
Leaving the hills’ color
And his poorly mother

And his wife at grieving   
And his sister’s fallow   
And his body lying   
In the rank hollow,

Now Cable is carried   
On the dark river;   
Nor even a shadow   
Followed him over.

On the wide river   
Gray as the sea
Flags of white water   
Are his company.

W. S. Merwin, “Ballad of John Cable and Three Gentlemen” from The First Four Books of Poems (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2000). Copyright © 2000 by W. S. Merwin. Reprinted with the permission of The Wylie Agency, Inc.

Source: The First Four Books of Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 1975)

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Poet W. S. Merwin b. 1927


Subjects Family & Ancestors, The Body, Travels & Journeys, Death, Living, Relationships, Activities, Nature

Poetic Terms Ballad

 W. S. Merwin


W.S. Merwin is a prolific, leading American writer whose poetry, translations, and prose have won praise over seven decades. His first book, A Mask for Janus (1952),  was chosen by W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Though that first book reflected the formalism of the period, Merwin eventually became known for an impersonal, open style that eschewed punctuation. Writing in the Guardian, Jay Parini described Merwin’s . . .

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SUBJECT Family & Ancestors, The Body, Travels & Journeys, Death, Living, Relationships, Activities, Nature


Poetic Terms Ballad

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