Faces in the Street
They lie, the men who tell us in a loud decisive tone
That want is here a stranger, and that misery’s unknown;
For where the nearest suburb and the city proper meet
My window-sill is level with the faces in the street—
Drifting past, drifting past,
To the beat of weary feet—
While I sorrow for the owners of those faces in the street.
And cause I have to sorrow, in a land so young and fair,
To see upon those faces stamped the marks of Want and Care;
I look in vain for traces of the fresh and fair and sweet
In sallow, sunken faces that are drifting through the street—
Drifting on, drifting on,
To the scrape of restless feet;
I can sorrow for the owners of the faces in the street.
In hours before the dawning dims the starlight in the sky
The wan and weary faces first begin to trickle by,
Increasing as the moments hurry on with morning feet,
Till like a pallid river flow the faces in the street—
Flowing in, flowing in,
To the beat of hurried feet—
Ah! I sorrow for the owners of those faces in the street.
The human river dwindles when ’tis past the hour of eight,
Its waves go flowing faster in the fear of being late;
But slowly drag the moments, whilst beneath the dust and heat
The city grinds the owners of the faces in the street—
Grinding body, grinding soul,
Yielding scarce enough to eat—
Oh! I sorrow for the owners of the faces in the street.
And then the only faces till the sun is sinking down
Are those of outside toilers and the idlers of the town,
Save here and there a face that seems a stranger in the street,
Tells of the city’s unemployed upon his weary beat—
Drifting round, drifting round,
To the tread of listless feet—
Ah! My heart aches for the owner of that sad face in the street.
And when the hours on lagging feet have slowly dragged away,
And sickly yellow gaslights rise to mock the going day,
Then flowing past my window like a tide in its retreat,
Again I see the pallid stream of faces in the street—
Ebbing out, ebbing out,
To the drag of tired feet,
While my heart is aching dumbly for the faces in the street.
And now all blurred and smirched with vice the day’s sad pages end,
For while the short ‘large hours’ toward the longer ‘small hours’ trend,
With smiles that mock the wearer, and with words that half entreat,
Delilah pleads for custom at the corner of the street—
Sinking down, sinking down,
Battered wreck by tempests beat—
A dreadful, thankless trade is hers, that Woman of the Street.
But, ah! to dreader things than these our fair young city comes,
For in its heart are growing thick the filthy dens and slums,
Where human forms shall rot away in sties for swine unmeet,
And ghostly faces shall be seen unfit for any street—
Rotting out, rotting out,
For the lack of air and meat—
In dens of vice and horror that are hidden from the street.
I wonder would the apathy of wealthy men endure
Were all their windows level with the faces of the Poor?
Ah! Mammon’s slaves, your knees shall knock, your hearts in terror beat,
When God demands a reason for the sorrows of the street,
The wrong things and the bad things
And the sad things that we meet
In the filthy lane and alley, and the cruel, heartless street.
I left the dreadful corner where the steps are never still,
And sought another window overlooking gorge and hill;
But when the night came dreary with the driving rain and sleet,
They haunted me—the shadows of those faces in the street,
Flitting by, flitting by,
Flitting by with noiseless feet,
And with cheeks but little paler than the real ones in the street.
Once I cried: ‘Oh, God Almighty! if Thy might doth still endure,
Now show me in a vision for the wrongs of Earth a cure.’
And, lo! with shops all shuttered I beheld a city’s street,
And in the warning distance heard the tramp of many feet,
Coming near, coming near,
To a drum’s dull distant beat,
And soon I saw the army that was marching down the street.
Then, like a swollen river that has broken bank and wall,
The human flood came pouring with the red flags over all,
And kindled eyes all blazing bright with revolution’s heat,
And flashing swords reflecting rigid faces in the street.
Pouring on, pouring on,
To a drum’s loud threatening beat,
And the war-hymns and the cheering of the people in the street.
And so it must be while the world goes rolling round its course,
The warning pen shall write in vain, the warning voice grow hoarse,
But not until a city feels Red Revolution’s feet
Shall its sad people miss awhile the terrors of the street—
The dreadful everlasting strife
For scarcely clothes and meat
In that pent track of living death—the city’s cruel street.
This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on July 29, 2023, by the Academy of American Poets.
“‘Faces in the Street’ finds its speaker occupying a position Deaf people often slide into, ‘the unguarded quarter.’ A phrase familiar to Deaf communities, and itself the name of a Deaf Australian author’s publishing company, it comes from David Wright’s 1969 memoir ‘Deafness.’ ‘Like an eccentrically-sited camera taking angle-shots that distort but may often reveal otherwise masked lineaments of truth,’ Wright writes, ‘the deaf person watches from the unexpected and unguarded quarter.’ Henry Lawson turns his speaker’s vantage into a sweeping view of a white settler society, with all its grimness but also with its potential for revolution. Lawson was the son of a feminist publisher, had once been engaged to the future socialist literary icon Mary Gilmore, and was, at the time the poem was published, about to marry Bertha Bredt Jr., the daughter of the prominent socialist activist, bookstore owner, and writer Bertha Bredt Sr. Despite these relationships with strong women, he proved to be an abusive husband and was thrown into jail seven times for, among other misdemeanors, failure to pay child support. An alcoholic, he was often depressed. Unguarded quarter or no, he was subjected to and the cause of the same miseries listed in ‘Faces in the Street.’ Perhaps it is no accident that hammering repetition propels the poem, as it is possibly the only way to turn around a juggernaut.”
—John Lee Clark