The Man with the Oiling-Can

The Man with the Oiling-CanIN ancient Essex once I saw an ancient man,
Most motionless of men
(By Tiptree, Tolleshunt Knights and Tolleshunt D’Arcy ran
The ancient railway then),
And in his wrinkled hand he held an oiling-can.
It was at eventide, before the moon began
Her slow, belated journey over heaven’s span;
She did not rise till ten.

Against the whitewashed railings, silently, he leant,
By station-lantern-shine
(By Tiptree, Tolleshunt Knights and Tolleshunt D’Arcy went
The ancient railway line);
His cap was peaked, his blue-clad back was somewhat bent,
And from his smouldering pipe there came a fearful scent,
Like acrid wood-smoke from the watch-fires of Tashkent
Mingled with turpentine.

As I passed by he did not turn his dreaming head,
Neither unbend his back
(To Tiptree, Tolleshunt Knights and Tolleshunt D’Arcy led
The ancient railway track);

Yet since he did not tumble down, he was not dead.
The hour was passing late, he should have been in bed;
He seems to serve no useful purpose here, I said,
And on a night so black.

Beneath his stiff-peaked cap I marked his beady eye,
His overhanging brow
(By Tiptree, Tolleshunt Knights and Tolleshunt D’Arcy ply
New-fangled buses now);
Upon the platform waited seven men, and I,
And this immobile ancient, standing silent by.
The train drew in, its fiery smoke against the sky.
A lantern at its prow.

And still he did not move. And there, for all I know,
That ancient still remains.
(By Tiptree, Tolleshunt Knights and Tolleshunt D’Arcy go
The ghostly railway trains.)
He leans against his fence, his fragrant pipe aglow,
Watching the phantom engines passing to and fro,
And on his cap the seedlings fall, and mosses grow
In the soft Essex rains.

R. P. Lister

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