by Friedrich Ruckert
In Syria walked a man one day
And led a camel on the way.
A sudden wildness seized the beast,
And as they strove its rage increased.
So fearsome grew its savagery
That for his life the man must flee.
And as he ran, he spied a cave
That one last chance of safety gave.
He heard the snorting beast behind
Come nearer--with distracted mind
Leaped where the cooling fountain sprang,
Yet not to fall, but catch and hang;
By lucky hap a bramble wild
Grew where the o'erhanging rocks were piled.
He saved himself by this alone,
And did his hapless state bemoan.
He looked above, and there was yet
Too close the furious camel's threat
That still of fearful rage was full.
He dropped his eyes toward the pool,
And saw within the shadows dim
A dragon's jaws agape for him--
A still more fierce and dangerous foe
If he should slip and fall below.
So, hanging midway of the two,
He spied a cause of terror new:
Where to the rock's deep crevice clung
The slender root on which he swung,
A little pair of mice he spied,
A black and white one side by side--
First one and then the other saw
The slender stem alternate gnaw.
They gnawed and bit with ceaseless toil,
And from the roots they tossed the soil.
As down it ran in trickling stream,
The dragon's eyes shot forth a gleam
Of hungry expectation, gazed
Where o'er him still the man was raised,
To see how soon the bush would fall,
The burden that it bore, and all.
That man in utmost fear and dread
Surrounded, threatened, hard bested,
In such a state of dire suspense
Looked vainly round for some defense.
And as he cast his bloodshot eye
First here, then there, saw hanging nigh
A branch with berries ripe and red;
Then longing mastered all his dread;
No more the camel's rage he saw,
Nor yet the lurking dragon's maw,
Nor malice of the gnawing mice,
When once the berries caught his eyes.
The furious beast might rage above,
The dragon watch his every move,
The mice gnaw on--naught heeded he,
But seized the berries greedily--
In pleasing of his appetite
The furious beast forgotten quite.
You ask, "What man could ever yet,
So foolish, all his fears forget?"
Then know, my friend, that man are you--
And see the meaning plain to view.
The dragon in the pool beneath
Sets forth the yawning jaws of death;
The beast from which you helpless flee
Is life and all its misery.
There you must hang 'twixt life and death
While in this world you draw your breath.
The mice, whose pitiless gnawing teeth
Will let you to the pool beneath
Fall down, a hopeless castaway,
Are but the change of night and day.
The black one gnaws concealed from sight
Till comes again the morning light;
From dawn until the eve is gray,
Ceaseless the white one gnaws away.
And, 'midst this dreadful choice of ills,
Pleasure of sense your spirit fills
Till you forget the terrors grim
That wait to tear you limb from limb,
The gnawing mice of day and night,
And pay no heed to aught in sight
Except to fill your mouth with fruit
That in the grave-clefts has its root.
Last updated January 14, 2019