Robert Penn Warren


Mortal Limit

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Paradox of Time

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Original Sin: A Short Story

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Nodding, its great head rattling like a gourd,

And locks like seaweed strung on the stinking stone,

The nightmare stumbles past, and you have heard

It fumble your door before it whimpers and is gone:

It acts like the old hound that used to snuffle your door and moan.


You thought you had lost it when you left Omaha,

For it seemed connected then with your grandpa, who

Had a wen on his forehead and sat on the veranda

To finger the precious protuberance, as was his habit to do,

Which glinted in sun like rough garnet or the rich old brain bulging through.


But you met it in Harvard Yard as the historic steeple

Was confirming the midnight with its hideous racket,

And you wondered how it had come, for it stood so imbecile,

With empty hands, humble, and surely nothing in pocket:

Riding the rods, perhaps-or grandpa's will paid the ticket.


You were almost kindly then, in your first homesickness,

As it tortured its stiff face to speak, but scarcely mewed;

Since then you have outlived all your homesickness,

But have met it in many another distempered latitude:

Oh, nothing is lost, ever lost! at last you understood.


But it never came in the quantum glare of sun

To shame you before your friends, and had nothing to do

With your public experience or private reformation:

But it thought no bed too narrow-it stood with lips askew

And shook its great head sadly like the abstract Jew.


Never met you in the lyric arsenical meadows

When children call and your heart goes stone in the bosom;

At the orchard anguish never, nor ovoid horror,

Which is furred like a peach or avid like the delicious plum.

It takes no part in your classic prudence or fondled axiom.


Not there when you exclaimed: "Hope is betrayed by

Disastrous glory of sea-capes, sun-torment of whitecaps

-There must be a new innocence for us to be stayed by."

But there it stood, after all the timetables, all the maps,

In the crepuscular clatter of always, always, or perhaps.


You have moved often and rarely left an address,

And hear of the deaths of friends with a sly pleasure,

A sense of cleansing and hope, which blooms from distress;

But it has not died, it comes, its hand childish, unsure,

Clutching the bribe of chocolate or a toy you used to treasure.


It tries the lock; you hear, but simply drowse:

There is nothing remarkable in that sound at the door.

Later you may hear it wander the dark house

Like a mother who rises at night to seek a childhood picture;

Or it goes to the backyard and stands like an old horse cold in the pasture.

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