The Hammers

by Amy Lowell

Amy Lowell

I

Frindsbury, Kent, 1786
Bang!
Bang!
Tap!
Tap-a-tap! Rap!
All through the lead and silver Winter days,
All through the copper of Autumn hazes.
Tap to the red rising sun,
Tap to the purple setting sun.
Four years pass before the job is done.
Two thousand oak trees grown and felled,
Two thousand oaks from the hedgerows of the Weald,
Sussex had yielded two thousand oaks
With huge boles
Round which the tape rolls
Thirty mortal feet, say the village folks.
Two hundred loads of elm and Scottish fir;
Planking from Dantzig.
My! What timber goes into a ship!
Tap! Tap!
Two years they have seasoned her ribs on the ways,
Tapping, tapping.
You can hear, though there's nothing where you gaze.
Through the fog down the reaches of the river,
The tapping goes on like heart-beats in a fever.
The church-bells chime
Hours and hours,
Dropping days in showers.
Bang! Rap! Tap!
Go the hammers all the time.
They have planked up her timbers
And the nails are driven to the head;
They have decked her over,
And again, and again.
The shoring-up beams shudder at the strain.
Black and blue breeches,
Pigtails bound and shining:
Like ants crawling about,
The hull swarms with carpenters, running in and out.
Joiners, calkers,
And they are all terrible talkers.
Jem Wilson has been to sea and he tells some wonderful tales
Of whales, and spice islands,
And pirates off the Barbary coast.
He boasts magnificently, with his mouth full of nails.
Stephen Pibold has a tenor voice,
He shifts his quid of tobacco and sings:
"The second in command was blear-eyed Ned:
While the surgeon his limb
was a-lopping,
A nine-pounder came and smack went his head,
Pull away, pull away, pull
away! I say;
Rare news for my Meg of Wapping!"
Every Sunday
People come in crowds
(After church-time, of course)
In curricles, and gigs, and wagons,
And some have brought cold chicken and flagons
Of wine,
And beer in stoppered jugs.
"Dear! Dear! But I tell 'ee 'twill be a fine
ship.
There's none finer in any of the slips at Chatham."
The third Summer's roses have started in to blow,
When the fine stern carving is begun.
Flutings, and twinings, and long slow swirls,
Bits of deal shaved away to thin spiral curls.
Tap! Tap! A cornucopia is nailed into place.
Rap-a-tap! They are putting up a railing filigreed like
Irish lace.
The Three Town's people never saw such grace.
And the paint on it! The richest gold leaf!
Why, the glitter when the sun is shining passes belief.
And that row of glass windows tipped toward the sky
Are rubies and carbuncles when the day is dry.
Oh, my! Oh, my!
They have coppered up the bottom,
And the copper nails
Stand about and sparkle in big wooden pails.
Bang! Clash! Bang!
"And he swigg'd, and Nick swigg'd,
And Ben swigg'd, and Dick swigg'd,
And I swigg'd, and all of us swigg'd it,
And swore there was nothing
like grog."
It seems they sing,
Even though coppering is not an easy thing.
What a splendid specimen of humanity is a true British workman,
Say the people of the Three Towns,
As they walk about the dockyard
To the sound of the evening church-bells.
And so artistic, too, each one tells his neighbour.
What immense taste and labour!
Miss Jessie Prime, in a pink silk bonnet,
Titters with delight as her eyes fall upon it,
When she steps lightly down from Lawyer Green's whisky;
Such amazing beauty makes one feel frisky,
She explains.
Mr. Nichols says he is delighted
(He is the firm);
His work is all requited
If Miss Jessie can approve.
Miss Jessie answers that the ship is "a love".
The sides are yellow as marigold,
The port-lids are red when the ports are up:
Blood-red squares like an even chequer
Of yellow asters and portulaca.
There is a wide "black strake" at the waterline
And above is a blue like the sky when the weather is fine.
The inner bulwarks are painted red.
"Why?" asks Miss Jessie. "'Tis a horrid note."
Mr. Nichols clears his throat,
And tells her the launching day is set.
He says, "Be careful, the paint is wet."
But Miss Jessie has touched it, her sprigged muslin gown
Has a blood-red streak from the shoulder down.
"It looks like blood," says Miss Jessie with a frown.
Tap! Tap! Rap!
An October day, with waves running in blue-white lines and a capful
of wind.
Three broad flags ripple out behind
Where the masts will be:
Royal Standard at the main,
Admiralty flag at the fore,
Union Jack at the mizzen.
The hammers tap harder, faster,
They must finish by noon.
The last nail is driven.
But the wind has increased to half a gale,
And the ship shakes and quivers upon the ways.
The Commissioner of Chatham Dockyard is coming
In his ten-oared barge from the King's Stairs;
The Marine's band will play "God Save Great George Our King";
And there is to be a dinner afterwards at the Crown, with speeches.
The wind screeches, and flaps the flags till they pound like hammers.
The wind hums over the ship,
And slips round the dog-shores,
Jostling them almost to falling.
There is no time now to wait for Commissioners and marine bands.
Mr. Nichols has a bottle of port in his hands.
He leans over, holding his hat, and shouts to the men below:
"Let her go!"
Bang! Bang! Pound!
The dog-shores fall to the ground,
And the ship slides down the greased planking.
A splintering of glass,
And port wine running all over the white and copper stem timbers.
"Success to his Majesty's ship, the Bellerophon!"
And the red wine washes away in the waters of the Medway.

II

Paris, March, 1814
Fine yellow sunlight down the rue du Mont Thabor.
Ten o'clock striking from all the clock-towers of Paris.
Over the door of a shop, in gilt letters:
"Martin -- Parfumeur", and something more.
A large gilded wooden something.
Listen! What a ringing of hammers!
Tap!
Tap!
Squeak!
Tap! Squeak! Tap-a-tap!
"Blaise."
"Oui, M'sieu."
"Don't touch the letters. My name stays."
"Bien, M'sieu."
"Just take down the eagle, and the shield with the bees."
"As M'sieu pleases."
Tap! Squeak! Tap!
The man on the ladder hammers steadily for a minute or two,
Then stops.
"He! Patron!
They are fastened well, Nom d'un Chien!
What if I break them?"
"Break away,
You and Paul must have them down to-day."
"Bien."
And the hammers start again,
Drum-beating at the something of gilded wood.
Sunshine in a golden flood
Lighting up the yellow fronts of houses,
Glittering each window to a flash.
Squeak! Squeak! Tap!
The hammers beat and rap.
A Prussian hussar on a grey horse goes by at a dash.
From other shops, the noise of striking blows:
Pounds, thumps, and whacks;
Wooden sounds: splinters -- cracks.
Paris is full of the galloping of horses and the knocking of hammers.
"Hullo! Friend Martin, is business slack
That you are in the street this morning? Don't turn your
back
And scuttle into your shop like a rabbit to its hole.
I've just been taking a stroll.
The stinking Cossacks are bivouacked all up and down the Champs
Elysees.
I can't get the smell of them out of my nostrils.
Dirty fellows, who don't believe in frills
Like washing. Ah, mon vieux, you'd have to go
Out of business if you lived in Russia. So!
We've given up being perfumers to the Emperor, have we?
Blaise,
Be careful of the hen,
Maybe I can find a use for her one of these days.
That eagle's rather well cut, Martin.
But I'm sick of smelling Cossack,
Take me inside and let me put my head into a stack
Of orris-root and musk."
Within the shop, the light is dimmed to a pearl-and-green dusk
Out of which dreamily sparkle counters and shelves of glass,
Containing phials, and bowls, and jars, and dishes; a mass
Of aqueous transparence made solid by threads of gold.
Gold and glass,
And scents which whiff across the green twilight and pass.
The perfumer sits down and shakes his head:
"Always the same, Monsieur Antoine,
You artists are wonderful folk indeed."
But Antoine Vernet does not heed.
He is reading the names on the bottles and bowls,
Done in fine gilt letters with wonderful scrolls.
"What have we here? `Eau Imperial Odontalgique.'
I must say, mon cher, your names are chic.
But it won't do, positively it will not do.
Elba doesn't count. Ah, here is another:
`Baume du Commandeur'. That's better. He needs
something to smother
Regrets. A little lubricant, too,
Might be useful. I have it,
`Sage Oil', perhaps he'll be good now; with it we'll submit
This fine German rouge. I fear he is pale."
"Monsieur Antoine, don't rail
At misfortune. He treated me well and fairly."
"And you prefer him to Bourbons, admit it squarely."
"Heaven forbid!" Bang! Whack!
Squeak! Squeak! Crack!
CRASH!
"Oh, Lord, Martin! That shield is hash.
The whole street is covered with golden bees.
They look like so many yellow peas,
Lying there in the mud. I'd like to paint it.
`Plum pudding of Empire'. That's rather quaint, it
Might take with the Kings. Shall I try?" "Oh,
Sir,
You distress me, you do." "Poor old Martin's purr!
But he hasn't a scratch in him, I know.
Now let us get back to the powders and patches.
Foolish man,
The Kings are here now. We must hit on a plan
To change all these titles as fast as we can.
`Bouquet Imperatrice'. Tut! Tut! Give
me some ink --
`Bouquet de la Reine', what do you think?
Not the same receipt?
Now, Martin, put away your conceit.
Who will ever know?
`Extract of Nobility' -- excellent, since most of them are killed."
"But, Monsieur Antoine --"
"You are self-willed,
Martin. You need a salve
For your conscience, do you?
Very well, we'll halve
The compliments, also the pastes and dentifrices;
Send some to the Kings, and some to the Empresses.
`Oil of Bitter Almonds' -- the Empress Josephine can have that.
`Oil of Parma Violets' fits the other one pat."
Rap! Rap! Bang!
"What a hideous clatter!
Blaise seems determined to batter
That poor old turkey into bits,
And pound to jelly my excellent wits.
Come, come, Martin, you mustn't shirk.
`The night cometh soon' -- etc. Don't jerk
Me up like that. `Essence de la Valliere' --
That has a charmingly Bourbon air.
And, oh! Magnificent! Listen to this! --
`Vinaigre des Quatre Voleurs'. Nothing amiss
With that -- England, Austria, Russia and Prussia!
Martin, you're a wonder,
Upheavals of continents can't keep you under."
"Monsieur Antoine, I am grieved indeed
At such levity. What France has gone through --"
"Very true, Martin, very true,
But never forget that a man must feed."
Pound! Pound! Thump!
Pound!
"Look here, in another minute Blaise will drop that bird on the
ground."
Martin shrugs his shoulders. "Ah, well, what then? --"
Antoine, with a laugh: "I'll give you two sous for that
antiquated hen."
The Imperial Eagle sells for two sous,
And the lilies go up.
A man must choose!

III

Paris, April, 1814
Cold, impassive, the marble arch of the Place du Carrousel.
Haughty, contemptuous, the marble arch of the Place du Carrousel.
Like a woman raped by force, rising above her fate,
Borne up by the cold rigidity of hate,
Stands the marble arch of the Place du Carrousel.
Tap! Clink-a-tink!
Tap! Rap! Chink!
What falls to the ground like a streak of flame?
Hush! It is only a bit of bronze flashing in the sun.
What are all those soldiers? Those are not the uniforms
of France.
Alas! No! The uniforms of France, Great Imperial
France, are done.
They will rot away in chests and hang to dusty tatters in barn lofts.
These are other armies. And their name?
Hush, be still for shame;
Be still and imperturbable like the marble arch.
Another bright spark falls through the blue air.
Over the Place du Carrousel a wailing of despair.
Crowd your horses back upon the people, Uhlans and Hungarian Lancers,
They see too much.
Unfortunately, Gentlemen of the Invading Armies, what they do not
see,
they hear.
Tap! Clink-a-tink!
Tap!
Another sharp spear
Of brightness,
And a ringing of quick metal lightness
On hard stones.
Workmen are chipping off the names of Napoleon's victories
From the triumphal arch of the Place du Carrousel.
Do they need so much force to quell the crowd?
An old Grenadier of the line groans aloud,
And each hammer tap points the sob of a woman.
Russia, Prussia, Austria, and the faded-white-lily Bourbon king
Think it well
To guard against tumult,
A mob is an undependable thing.
Ding! Ding!
Vienna is scattered all over the Place du Carrousel
In glittering, bent, and twisted letters.
Your betters have clattered over Vienna before,
Officer of his Imperial Majesty our Father-in-Law!
Tink! Tink!
A workman's chisel can strew you to the winds,
Munich.
Do they think
To pleasure Paris, used to the fall of cities,
By giving her a fall of letters!
It is a month too late.
One month, and our lily-white Bourbon king
Has done a colossal thing;
He has curdled love,
And soured the desires of a people.
Still the letters fall,
The workmen creep up and down their ladders like lizards on a wall.
Tap! Tap! Tink!
Clink! Clink!
"Oh, merciful God, they will not touch Austerlitz!
Strike me blind, my God, my eyes can never look on that.
I would give the other leg to save it, it took one.
Curse them! Curse them! Aim at his hat.
Give me the stone. Why didn't you give it to me?
I would not have missed. Curse him!
Curse all of them! They have got the `A'!"
Ding! Ding!
"I saw the Terror, but I never saw so horrible a thing as this.
`Vive l'Empereur! Vive l'Empereur!'"
"Don't strike him, Fritz.
The mob will rise if you do.
Just run him out to the `quai',
That will get him out of the way.
They are almost through."
Clink! Tink! Ding!
Clear as the sudden ring
Of a bell
"Z" strikes the pavement.
Farewell, Austerlitz, Tilsit, Presbourg;
Farewell, greatness departed.
Farewell, Imperial honours, knocked broadcast by the beating hammers
of ignorant workmen.
Straight, in the Spring moonlight,
Rises the deflowered arch.
In the silence, shining bright,
She stands naked and unsubdued.
Her marble coldness will endure the march
Of decades.
Rend her bronzes, hammers;
Cast down her inscriptions.
She is unconquerable, austere,
Cold as the moon that swims above her
When the nights are clear.

IV

Croissy, Ile-de-France, June, 1815
"Whoa! Victorine.
Devil take the mare! I've never seen so vicious a beast.
She kicked Jules the last time she was here,
He's been lame ever since, poor chap."
Rap! Tap!
Tap-a-tap-a-tap! Tap! Tap!
"I'd rather be lame than dead at Waterloo, M'sieu Charles."
"Sacre Bleu! Don't mention Waterloo, and the damned grinning
British.
We didn't run in the old days.
There wasn't any running at Jena.
Those were decent days,
And decent men, who stood up and fought.
We never got beaten, because we wouldn't be.
See!"
"You would have taught them, wouldn't you, Sergeant Boignet?
But to-day it's everyone for himself,
And the Emperor isn't what he was."
"How the Devil do you know that?
If he was beaten, the cause
Is the green geese in his army, led by traitors.
Oh, I say no names, Monsieur Charles,
You needn't hammer so loud.
If there are any spies lurking behind the bellows,
I beg they come out. Dirty fellows!"
The old Sergeant seizes a red-hot poker
And advances, brandishing it, into the shadows.
The rows of horses flick
Placid tails.
Victorine gives a savage kick
As the nails
Go in. Tap! Tap!
Jules draws a horseshoe from the fire
And beats it from red to peacock-blue and black,
Purpling darker at each whack.
Ding! Dang! Dong!
Ding-a-ding-dong!
It is a long time since any one spoke.
Then the blacksmith brushes his hand over his eyes,
"Well," he sighs,
"He's broke."
The Sergeant charges out from behind the bellows.
"It's the green geese, I tell you,
Their hearts are all whites and yellows,
There's no red in them. Red!
That's what we want. Fouche should be fed
To the guillotine, and all Paris dance the carmagnole.
That would breed jolly fine lick-bloods
To lead his armies to victory."
"Ancient history, Sergeant.
He's done."
"Say that again, Monsieur Charles, and I'll stun
You where you stand for a dung-eating Royalist."
The Sergeant gives the poker a savage twist;
He is as purple as the cooling horseshoes.
The air from the bellows creaks through the flues.
Tap! Tap! The blacksmith shoes Victorine,
And through the doorway a fine sheen
Of leaves flutters, with the sun between.
By a spurt of fire from the forge
You can see the Sergeant, with swollen gorge,
Puffing, and gurgling, and choking;
The bellows keep on croaking.
They wheeze,
And sneeze,
Creak! Bang! Squeeze!
And the hammer strokes fall like buzzing bees
Or pattering rain,
Or faster than these,
Like the hum of a waterfall struck by a breeze.
Clank! from the bellows-chain pulled up and down.
Clank!
And sunshine twinkles on Victorine's flank,
Starting it to blue,
Dropping it to black.
Clack! Clack!
Tap-a-tap! Tap!
Lord! What galloping! Some mishap
Is making that man ride so furiously.
"Francois, you!
Victorine won't be through
For another quarter of an hour." "As you hope to die,
Work faster, man, the order has come."
"What order? Speak out. Are you dumb?"
"A chaise, without arms on the panels, at the gate
In the far side-wall, and just to wait.
We must be there in half an hour with swift cattle.
You're a stupid fool if you don't hear that rattle.
Those are German guns. Can't you guess the rest?
Nantes, Rochefort, possibly Brest."
Tap! Tap! as though the hammers were mad.
Dang! Ding! Creak! The farrier's
lad
Jerks the bellows till he cracks their bones,
And the stifled air hiccoughs and groans.
The Sergeant is lying on the floor
Stone dead, and his hat with the tricolore
Cockade has rolled off into the cinders. Victorine snorts
and lays back
her ears.
What glistens on the anvil? Sweat or tears?

V

St. Helena, May, 1821
Tap! Tap! Tap!
Through the white tropic night.
Tap! Tap!
Beat the hammers,
Unwearied, indefatigable.
They are hanging dull black cloth about the dead.
Lustreless black cloth
Which chokes the radiance of the moonlight
And puts out the little moving shadows of leaves.
Tap! Tap!
The knocking makes the candles quaver,
And the long black hangings waver
Tap! Tap! Tap!
Tap! Tap!
In the ears which do not heed.
Tap! Tap!
Above the eyelids which do not flicker.
Tap! Tap!
Over the hands which do not stir.
Chiselled like a cameo of white agate against the hangings,
Struck to brilliance by the falling moonlight,
A face!
Sharp as a frozen flame,
Beautiful as an altar lamp of silver,
And still. Perfectly still.
In the next room, the men chatter
As they eat their midnight lunches.
A knife hits against a platter.
But the figure on the bed
Between the stifling black hangings
Is cold and motionless,
Played over by the moonlight from the windows
And the indistinct shadows of leaves.
Tap! Tap!
Upholsterer Darling has a fine shop in Jamestown.
Tap! Tap!
Andrew Darling has ridden hard from Longwood to see to the work
in his shop
in Jamestown.
He has a corps of men in it, toiling and swearing,
Knocking, and measuring, and planing, and squaring,
Working from a chart with figures,
Comparing with their rules,
Setting this and that part together with their tools.
Tap! Tap! Tap!
Haste indeed!
So great is the need
That carpenters have been taken from the new church,
Joiners have been called from shaping pews and lecterns
To work of greater urgency.
Coffins!
Coffins is what they are making this bright Summer morning.
Coffins -- and all to measurement.
There is a tin coffin,
A deal coffin,
A lead coffin,
And Captain Bennett's best mahogany dining-table
Has been sawed up for the grand outer coffin.
Tap! Tap! Tap!
Sunshine outside in the square,
But inside, only hollow coffins and the tapping upon them.
The men whistle,
And the coffins grow under their hammers
In the darkness of the shop.
Tap! Tap! Tap!
Tramp of men.
Steady tramp of men.
Slit-eyed Chinese with long pigtails
Bearing oblong things upon their shoulders
March slowly along the road to Longwood.
Their feet fall softly in the dust of the road;
Sometimes they call gutturally to each other and stop to shift shoulders.
Four coffins for the little dead man,
Four fine coffins,
And one of them Captain Bennett's dining-table!
And sixteen splendid Chinamen, all strong and able
And of assured neutrality.
Ah! George of England, Lord Bathhurst & Co.
Your princely munificence makes one's heart glow.
Huzza! Huzza! For the Lion of England!
Tap! Tap! Tap!
Marble likeness of an Emperor,
Dead man, who burst your heart against a world too narrow,
The hammers drum you to your last throne
Which always you shall hold alone.
Tap! Tap!
The glory of your past is faded as a sunset fire,
Your day lingers only like the tones of a wind-lyre
In a twilit room.
Here is the emptiness of your dream
Scattered about you.
Coins of yesterday,
Double napoleons stamped with Consul or Emperor,
Strange as those of Herculaneum --
And you just dead!
Not one spool of thread
Will these buy in any market-place.
Lay them over him,
They are the baubles of a crown of mist
Worn in a vision and melted away at waking.
Tap! Tap!
His heart strained at kingdoms
And now it is content with a silver dish.
Strange World! Strange Wayfarer!
Strange Destiny!
Lower it gently beside him and let it lie.
Tap! Tap! Tap!

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