Telling Fortunes

By Alice Cary 1820–1871 Alice Cary

‘Be not among wine-bibbers; among riotous eaters of
flesh; for the drunkard and the glutton shall come to
poverty; and drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags.’
Proverbs, 23: 20, 21

I’ll tell you two fortunes, my fine little lad,
      For you to accept or refuse.
The one of them good, and the other one bad;
      Now hear them, and say which you choose!

I see by my gift, within reach of your hand,
      A fortune right fair to behold;
A house and a hundred good acres of land,
      With harvest fields yellow as gold.

I see a great orchard, the boughs hanging down
      With apples of russet and red;
I see droves of cattle, some white and brown,
      But all of them sleek and well-fed.

I see doves and swallows about the barn doors,
      See the fanning-mill whirling so fast,
See men that are threshing the wheat on the floors;
      And now the bright picture is past!

And I see, rising dismally up in the place
      Of the beautiful house and the land,
A man with a fire-red nose on his face,
      And a little brown jug in his hand!

Oh! if you beheld him, my lad, you would wish
      That he were less wretched to see;
For his boot-toes, they gape like the mouth of a fish,
      And his trousers are out at the knee!

In walking he staggers, now this way, now that,
      And his eyes they stand out like a bug’s,
And he wears an old coat and a battered-in hat,
      And I think that the fault is the jug’s!

For our text says the drunkard shall come to be poor,
      And drowsiness clothes men with rags;
And he doesn’t look much like a man, I am sure,
      Who has honest hard cash in his bags.

Now which will you choose? to be thrifty and snug,
      And to be right side up with your dish;
Or to go with your eyes like the eyes of a bug,
      And your shoes like the mouth of a fish!

Source: She Wields a Pen: American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century (University of Iowa Press, 1997)

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Poet Alice Cary 1820–1871

Subjects Social Commentaries

 Alice  Cary


The sisters Alice and Phoebe Cary grew up on a farm near Cincinnati, Ohio. There they immersed themselves in the classics of literature under the tutelage of an older sister whose death in 1833 affected them deeply. Although both published poems while still teenagers, it wasn’t until 1850, after their work had been noticed by such luminaries as Edgar Allan Poe and John Greenleaf Whittier, that a book—Poems of Alice and Phoebe . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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