The Ballad of the Children of the Czar
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.
From Selected Poems, copyright © 1959 by Delmore Schwartz. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.