Treasure Island

Henry Lawson

(17 June 1867 – 2 September 1922 / Grenfell, New South Wales)

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Faces In The Street



They lie, the men who tell us in a loud decisive tone
That want is here a stranger, and that misery's unknown;
For where the nearest suburb and the city proper meet
My window-sill is level with the faces in the street --
Drifting past, drifting past,
To the beat of weary feet --
While I sorrow for the owners of those faces in the street.

And cause I have to sorrow, in a land so young and fair,
To see upon those faces stamped the marks of Want and Care;
I look in vain for traces of the fresh and fair and sweet
In sallow, sunken faces that are drifting through the street --
Drifting on, drifting on,
To the scrape of restless feet;
I can sorrow for the owners of the faces in the street.

In hours before the dawning dims the starlight in the sky
The wan and weary faces first begin to trickle by,
Increasing as the moments hurry on with morning feet,
Till like a pallid river flow the faces in the street --
Flowing in, flowing in,
To the beat of hurried feet --
Ah! I sorrow for the owners of those faces in the street.

The human river dwindles when 'tis past the hour of eight,
Its waves go flowing faster in the fear of being late;
But slowly drag the moments, whilst beneath the dust and heat
The city grinds the owners of the faces in the street --
Grinding body, grinding soul,
Yielding scarce enough to eat --
Oh! I sorrow for the owners of the faces in the street.

And then the only faces till the sun is sinking down
Are those of outside toilers and the idlers of the town,
Save here and there a face that seems a stranger in the street,
Tells of the city's unemployed upon his weary beat --
Drifting round, drifting round,
To the tread of listless feet --
Ah! My heart aches for the owner of that sad face in the street.

And when the hours on lagging feet have slowly dragged away,
And sickly yellow gaslights rise to mock the going day,
Then flowing past my window like a tide in its retreat,
Again I see the pallid stream of faces in the street --
Ebbing out, ebbing out,
To the drag of tired feet,
While my heart is aching dumbly for the faces in the street.

And now all blurred and smirched with vice the day's sad pages end,
For while the short `large hours' toward the longer `small hours' trend,
With smiles that mock the wearer, and with words that half entreat,
Delilah pleads for custom at the corner of the street --
Sinking down, sinking down,
Battered wreck by tempests beat --
A dreadful, thankless trade is hers, that Woman of the Street.

But, ah! to dreader things than these our fair young city comes,
For in its heart are growing thick the filthy dens and slums,
Where human forms shall rot away in sties for swine unmeet,
And ghostly faces shall be seen unfit for any street --
Rotting out, rotting out,
For the lack of air and meat --
In dens of vice and horror that are hidden from the street.

I wonder would the apathy of wealthy men endure
Were all their windows level with the faces of the Poor?
Ah! Mammon's slaves, your knees shall knock, your hearts in terror beat,
When God demands a reason for the sorrows of the street,
The wrong things and the bad things
And the sad things that we meet
In the filthy lane and alley, and the cruel, heartless street.

I left the dreadful corner where the steps are never still,
And sought another window overlooking gorge and hill;
But when the night came dreary with the driving rain and sleet,
They haunted me -- the shadows of those faces in the street,
Flitting by, flitting by,
Flitting by with noiseless feet,
And with cheeks but little paler than the real ones in the street.

Once I cried: `Oh, God Almighty! if Thy might doth still endure,
Now show me in a vision for the wrongs of Earth a cure.'
And, lo! with shops all shuttered I beheld a city's street,
And in the warning distance heard the tramp of many feet,
Coming near, coming near,
To a drum's dull distant beat,
And soon I saw the army that was marching down the street.

Then, like a swollen river that has broken bank and wall,
The human flood came pouring with the red flags over all,
And kindled eyes all blazing bright with revolution's heat,
And flashing swords reflecting rigid faces in the street.
Pouring on, pouring on,
To a drum's loud threatening beat,
And the war-hymns and the cheering of the people in the street.

And so it must be while the world goes rolling round its course,
The warning pen shall write in vain, the warning voice grow hoarse,
But not until a city feels Red Revolution's feet
Shall its sad people miss awhile the terrors of the street --
The dreadful everlasting strife
For scarcely clothes and meat
In that pent track of living death -- the city's cruel street.

Submitted: Tuesday, December 31, 2002

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Comments about this poem (Faces In The Street by Henry Lawson )

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  • Peter Stavropoulos (10/3/2013 11:18:00 PM)

    “Oh, my ways are strange ways and new ways and
    old ways, And deep ways and steep ways and high ways and low, I’m at home and at
    ease on a track that I know not, And restless and lost on a road that I
    know” – Henry Lawson (Report) Reply

  • Liliana ~el (10/3/2013 6:09:00 PM)

    Quite interesting. Liked the repetition giving the poem unity. Describing the reality of the people starving, unemployed, and without shelter. Really enjoyed the turn this account took with the spirit of revolution! with rhythm, energy ablaze, and continuing beat; great contrast for this piece. (Report) Reply

  • Charlotte Gunther (10/3/2013 7:33:00 AM)

    i wondered why the poet spent the whole day in his room assigning gloom and doom to all those faces. He didn't know anything about anyone. didn't he have a job, too? guess not. but he had an agenda.
    nice poem though. i like the rhythm. (Report) Reply

  • Deci Hernandez (10/3/2012 3:25:00 PM)

    Delilah pleads for custom at the corner of the street
    Ah mammon's slaves
    (The first couplet in the last stanza)

    True stories repeated and repeated and repeated in our history (Report) Reply

  • Kevin Straw (10/3/2012 1:07:00 PM)

    Lawson's Red Revolution brought a state of misery far more than that of 19th century England, and it added a terror that was absent from that era. He might also have looked up the French revolution as an awful example of what happens when a state collapses. Luckily England had WWII and WWI to deflect the discontent (and killing many of the discontented) , but it was also a society much more ready to solve the problems of the Industrial Revolution. But had either of those wars been lost there might well have been a revolution in England. (Report) Reply

  • Herman Chiu (10/3/2009 8:30:00 PM)

    Great poem, with an important message about what we are turning ourselves into.
    But Mr. Harmon, I don't fully agree with you. I do not believe money is the root of all evil, as money is an object on its own, which we cannot blame for any of our problems (except when we need more of it) . If the problem lies in us, then we should fix it; not say that currency, which we invented, is at source of our problems. After all, what is money but a number - a representation for what we think something is worth so that humans can easily understand it? (Report) Reply

  • Guybrush Threepwood (10/3/2009 5:22:00 PM)

    Michael Harmon, I agree 100%; the future does look extremely bleak. But it's our job to work to change that perceived future, no?

    Anyway, I know this is kind of a stretch, but would you say that the length of it lends to its message; the idea of the unending grind and the slogging nature of it? I know that's a bit strange to suggest, that an artist would make something intentionally boring, but it's a thought. I like it, personally. (Report) Reply

  • Michael Harmon (10/3/2009 1:16:00 PM)

    On topic: though it is a bit long-winded (ie. too long) , the poem has a good heart.

    Off topic: I believed thirty-seven years ago (when I was twenty) that the proverb, 'money (or the desire for it) is the root of all evil', was true. I still believe it; nothing in all these years has shown me otherwise. Until we grow up as a species, the so-called 'free market system' is all we can look forward to; from that perspective, the future looks rather bleak. (Report) Reply

  • Guybrush Threepwood (10/3/2009 10:30:00 AM)

    Actually, it took World War II. Many, if not most, of the programs setup during the Great Depression in response to the business exploitation in the 1920s ended up widening that divide. Programs like the WPA and NIRA took more money out of the poor and middle class's hands than it gave. The NIRA especially did some damage in that it destroyed competition by allowing the few larger corporations in any given industry set standard prices, and basically make codes for how their particular industry was going to sell its product. They did a lot of damage and that's why many of FDR's provisions ended up being voted unconstitutional-they weren't good for the country.

    Don't get me wrong, by the by, the free market system needs a lot of work. Corporations, just like the government or the church, when given too much freedom and too much power have shown that they have no qualms with raping us.

    On topic: Good poem. Really captures the trapped feeling, the hopelessness of a people pressed under the thumb of an economy they have little say in. (Report) Reply

  • Kevin Straw (10/3/2009 4:32:00 AM)

    This poem expresses the horror many felt at the grinding poverty millions of people in rich capitalist countries suffered in the 19th and early 20th centuries.Which horror led many of them to espouse communist philosophies. A fine controlled worthy poem, I feel, regardless of its poltiical sympathies. Alas Lawson's question 'would the apathy of wealthy men endure
    Were all their windows level with the faces of the Poor? ' was answered by most of those wealthy men with a shameful 'yes'. It took government action to restore a reasonable balance between them and the starving poor (who were often starving even when in work) . (Report) Reply

Read all 13 comments »

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