[Editor: This poem by J.H. Greene was published in The Bulletin Reciter, 1901.]
The Jester of the Damned.
The Laughter-Maker was dead who had shaken the world with mirth ;
His soul flew up from the grave, leaving a mournful earth ;
Up through the web of the stars, till he came to the Gates of Gold,
And there he claimed admittance right haughtily and bold :
“Out on the earth You created, my laughter can move them all ;
When they saw my name on the coffin, they sniggered under my pall.
“When the collar was tight and galling, the yoke too heavy to bear,
I taught them how to ease it, I lightened the load of care.
“Weary and wasted women, haggard and hopeless men,
Drank for a moment from Lethe, learnt to be merry again ;
“Laughter bred patient courage ; I, with my gibes and quips,
Taught them to dance in the fetters, laugh at the curling whips —
“They whom love had forsaken, they whom love had accurst,
They whose souls were ready out of their lives to burst,
“They whom the world had trampled — asking but breathing space —
Rose and conquered the world by laughing back in its face.
“Gaze on the green globe yonder, whirring and spinning along !
Through the hoarse jar of its engines catch you a wisp of song ?
“Mine is the song they are singing, mine is the mirth you hear.
Over the steaming turmoil and jangle of rusted gear :
“Laugh when the strain ’s severest — make it a joke — you can !
Smile at the nerve that tingles — conquer it — prove a man !
“Play with the scythe and hour-glass — grin for his grin give Death !
Show him you are his master — laugh with your dying breath !
“This is the creed I have practised, this is the faith I taught —
Ask of the millions yonder the miracles it has wrought.
“How do you reckon the tally? What is the wage I hold ?
Have I not earned my welcome? Open the Gates of Gold !”
Strangely the Judge smiled, speaking: “Judge of yourself you ’ll be —
You are paid in the coin you pay with; and for the payment — See !”
Opened the lapis arches, parted the sapphired sheen —
The Laughter-Maker fell on his knees at the sight revealed between.
All the glow of a garden, all that a sunset shows,
All the distracting beauty that flushes the face of a rose !
Hues that play in the opal, shadows on molten gold,
Just ere the ingot, cooling, frosts in the shielding mould !
Music the midnight planets murmur down in the deep,
All the haunting faces thronging a Poet’s sleep !
* * * * * *
“Now,” said the Judge, “for your verdict! What does that Ruby declare ?
Look in the mirror of blood and flame, and read your answer there!”
A strutting leering clown, with a hideous painted face,
Dull, soulless eyes and coarse lips curled in a mountebank’s grimace !
Said the Judge, as there rose faint harmonies of some celestial hymn :
“How would that figure look, think you, in the choir of the Seraphim ?
“What have the Blest with laughter? They have no whips to endure ;
You and your Art grotesque would here have a sinecure.”
The Laughter-Maker saw and heard, and he knew his ugliness !
He turned away and dropped in dismay to the depths of nothingness,
Till he came to the Other Gates — black and rusty and grim—
And through the keyhole flew fiery tongues that sputtered and spat at him.
Back they flew at his summons, and out on the roaring flame
Came cheers upon cheers in chorus, when the Janitor gave his name.
“Welcome, O Laughter-Maker! Bring him with honour in,
Truly our Lord is good to the suffering sons of Sin !
“Here is the balm we have needed — give us a rousing joke !
Help us to empty our lungs of the stench of the sulphur smoke !
“Make us scoff at the brimstone, teach us to laugh at the coals ;
Yours shall it be to win the debris of the hearts of poor damned souls !
“Way for the grand procession! Room for the Lords of Hell !
Guards, present your pokers ! Ring the Great Fire Bell !”
They marched the Laughter-Maker in : Cerberus wagged his tail ;
Charon caught a crab with joy, when he joined in the crowd’s “All Hail !”
They gave him a lofty throne on the edge of a crater’s pit,
With heralds around in a ring to trumpet forth his wit.
Loud they blared his laughter, over the burning seas,
Into the bubbling cesspits, bringing a brief surcease
To roast and toast and turning-spit and skewer and frizzling hide,
The rabid devouring draught that flew through the damper open wide.
They tied their tails in true-love knots, danced round him where he sat ;
But they prodded his ribs with toasting-forks whenever the joke fell flat.
They splashed him over with lava, made him skip on red-hot bricks,
Gave him to drink from a kettle’s mouth — till he had to learn new tricks.
And when his wage they threw him, laughing and shouting “Encore !”
He picked it up — ’twas heated pence — and then they laughed the more.
There in the City of Devils — star of comedians — he
Plays the lead in a one-act farce for all eternity.
And sitting where they have throned him, the Jester of the Damned,
At times he thinks of the Gates of Gold, that in his face were slammed,
And then his laugh is loudest ! never he plays so well,
As when he remembers Heaven, he — who is damned in Hell.
J. H. Greene
A.G. Stephens (editor). The Bulletin Reciter: A Collection of Verses for Recitation from “The Bulletin” [1880-1901], The Bulletin Newspaper Company, Sydney, 1902 [first published 1901], pages 134-139
Kevin V. O'Brien says
It has been many years since I have understood and been moved and provoked by a poem.