The Slum Child

No flower grew where I was bred,
No leafy tree
Its canopy of greenness spread
Over my youthful head.

My woodland walk was gutter stone,
Nowhere for me
Was given a place where I alone
Could to myself be gone.

In leafless Summer's stench and noise
I'd sit and play
With other as lean-faced girls and boys,
And sticks and stones for toys—

Homeless, till evening dark came down;
And street lamp's ray
On weary skulking beggary thrown
Flared in the night-hung town.

Then up the noisome stairs I'd creep
For food and rest,
Or, empty-bellied, lie, and weep
My wordless woes to sleep:

And wept in silence—shaken with fear—
But cautious lest
Those on the mattress huddled near
Should, cursing, wake and hear. . . .

O wondrous Life! though plainly I see,
Thus looking back,
What evil, and filth, and poverty,
In childhood harboured me,

And marvel that merciless man could so
The innocent wrack;
Yet, in bare truth, I also know
A well-spring of peace did flow,

Secretly blossomed, along that street;
And—foul-mouthed waif—
Though I in no wise heeded it
In the refuse at my feet,

Yet, caged within those spectral bones,
Aloof and safe,
Some hidden one made mock of groans,
Found living bread in stones.

O mystery of mysteries!
Between my hands I take that face,
Bloodless and bleak, unchildlike wise—
Epitome of man's disgrace—

I search its restless eyes,
And, from those woe-flecked depths, at me
Looks back through all its misery
A self beyond surmise.
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