Written in golden letters underneath.
I climb’d the marble steps, and pushing back
The curtain on the threshold, enter’d in; 312
And in an instant, as one quits the sun
And steals ’mid umbrage where the light is strain’d
Thro’ blood-red blooms and alabaster leaves,
I found myself alone in solemn shades.
Facing me to the eastward, whence the day
Crept thro’ a stainéd window (figuring
The Sun himself burning with golden beams
And lighting globes of green and amethyst),
A solemn Altar, upon which there stood
The golden image of a sleeping Child,
And bending o’er the cradle where he lay
A Skeleton of silver, ruby-eyed;
And round the solemn place, to left and right,
Were many-colour’d windows limn’d whereon
Instead of saints were wise men of the earth—
Physicians azure-robed, astronomers
With stars for crowns, pale bards in singing robes,
And women like the sibyl, book in hand.
From some mysterious heart of this fair shrine
A solemn organ music slowly throbb’d,
With deep pulsations, like the sound o’ the sea.
Then spirit-broken, awed and wondering,
I cast myself upon my face and pray’d;
And while I lay, methought, an unseen choir
Sang of primæval darkness suddenly
Struck by the golden ploughshare of the sun, 313
Of kindling azure fields where softly fell
The nebulous seeds that blossom’d into worlds,
Of dark transfigurations changing slowly
From rock to flower, from flower to things of life,
And through the mystic scale, from beasts to man;
And lo! meseem’d a darkness and despair,
O’ermastering, awe-compelling, creeping down
Like clouds that blacken from the mountain-peaks
And shroud the peaceful valleys, stole upon me,
And swathed my soul in dread before I knew,
So that I could not pray, nor knew indeed
What spirit to pray to or what god to praise,
For all I felt within and over me
Was some blind sense of demiurgic doom
Feeling with strange progressions up to life,
Then breaking, as a wave that breaks and goes!
Then cried I: ‘Spirit of Man, if spirit thou art
That in this Temple broodest like a cloud,
Blind Spirit of Doom and Mystery and Change,
How shall I apprehend thee? Wrap thyself
In humble raiment of some awful god,
And I shall know thee; clothe thy ghost divine
In piteous limbs of white humanity,
Speak with a human whisper in mine ear,
And rest thy human hand upon my hair,
And I shall feel thy touch, and worship thee; 314
Come down, O God! if thou art quick not dead,
And walk as other gods have walk’d the world
With tread that thunders or with feet that bleed,
That I may feel thee pass and bow to thee—
For who shall worship darkness deep as death,
And silence still as stone, and dreariest dread,
Faceless and eyeless, formless, without bound?’
Thus praying, I was startled by a voice,
Angry though feeble, crying in mine ear,
‘Arise! profane not with a foolish cry
This Temple of the Law!’ and looking up,
I saw a woman very grey and old
Leaning upon a staff and gazing at me:
Her robe all black and wrought with starry signs
Like those upon the Temple’s azure dome,
Her hair as white as wool, her wrinkled face
As blank and ashen-grey as is the Sphinx;
So strange and sinister her look, she seem’d
One of the fabled Mothers who for ever
Intone Cimmerean runes of death and birth.
‘What woman art thou?’ I cried, and she replied,
‘A Virgin of the Temple; one whose task
’Tis to preserve the altar clean and pure,
And sweep the floor of dust. I heard thee praying
And came to warn thee hence; for prayers like thine 315
Offend the solemn Spirit of the place.’
Name me that Spirit, and I will pray to Him!
Alack! no tongue hath named him, and no eye
Hath seen, no mortal known, the Unknowable;
But if thou needst must pray, give prayers to those
Who are pictured on the windows and the walls—
The blesséd men who by their thoughts and deeds
Have builded up this Temple of the Law.
Men that have perish’d! why should I pray to those,
Seeing I famish for the Imperishable?
Aye me! the foolish hunger and the thirst
Of babes who sit before the laden board
And crave for fabled meat and drink of gods!
Take heed; for in a little while thine eyes
Shall close from seeing, and thy throat and ears
Be fill’d with dust. Death is the one thing sure,
And Death is here, the Shadow in the shrine! 316
Yet Death is but the shadow of a change,
Since naught that is departs, tho’ all things die!
Thy words are dark as night. What meanest thou?
Lives pass. The Spirit of Life alone survives.
Yea, and survives for ever, being God.
There is no God, but only Death and Change.
Read me thy riddle, Mother Sibylline!
The Darkness that for ever gathers here,
And in the heavens, and in the heart of man,
Is elemental; ’tis the primal force
For ever quickening into life and change,
For ever failing in a thousand forms,
And falling back to feed the central Heart
That throbs for ever thro’ the flaming worlds. 317
Spark of that Heart, that heliocentric flame,
Art thou, who, being kindled for a moment,
Shalt vanish as a spark blown from a forge!
Aye me!—only a spark, to flash and fade!
Nay, less!—this earth is but a flake of fire,
Fallen from the nearest of those flaming suns
Which burn a space and then like lesser lives
In their due season blacken and grow cold.
Think on thy littleness, thy feebleness,
And praise the mystic, all-pervading Law,
Which on the eyelids of unnumber’d worlds
Sheds the ephemeral life, the dust of Time.
Alas! how should I praise the Invisible,
Which shows me baser than the dust indeed?
The empty Void shall never have my prayer,
But that which lifts me up and gives me wings,
And proves me more than any unconscious world
However luminous and beautiful,—
That will I worship. Fairer far, methinks,
The meanest, smallest, tutelary god 318
That ever gave men gifts of fruit and flowers,
The frailest spirit of human fantasy
Blessing the worshipper with kindly hands,
Than this dead Terror of the Inevitable,
Weighing like leaden Death, with Death’s despair,
In the core of countless worlds! I ask for God,
For Light, not Darkness, and for Life, not Death;
Not for the fatal doom which leaves me low—
Nay, for the gentle, upward-urging Hand
Which lifts me on to immortality!
So saying, I left her standing sadly there,
And quitting that proud Temple fled again
Into the common sunlight; but my soul
Was sad as night and darken’d with a doubt,
And in my veins the ominous sense of doom
Was creeping like some cold and fatal drug;
So that the City with its thousand lights
Seem’d like a feeble taper flickering
In chilly winds of death, and all the throng
Moths hovering round a melancholy flame.
Faint was my spirit as a sickly light
Held in the night and shielded by thin hands
From the strong wintry wind, when presently
I mark’d another temple marble-wrought,
And seeing that the doors were open wide 319
Enter’d, and passed thro’ echoing corridors,
And found myself within its inmost core.
And in a lofty hall, with marble paven,
One stood before a table wrought of stone
And strewn with phials, knives, and instruments
Of sharpest steel; before him, ranged in rows,
On benches forming a great semi-moon,
His audience throng’d, all hungry ears and eyes.
The man was stript to the elbow, both his hands
Were stain’d and bloody; and in the right he held
A scalpel dripping blood; beneath him lay,
Fasten’d upon the board, while from its heart
Flowed the last throbbing stream of gentle life,
A cony as white as snow. In cages near
Were other victims—cony and cat and ape,
Lambkins but newly yean’d, and fluttering doves
Which preen’d their wings and coo’d their summer cry.
The hall was darken’d from the sun, but lit
By lamps electric that around them shed
Insufferable brightness clear as day.
Presently at the door there enter’d one
Who by a chain did lead a gentle hound
Which scenting new-shed blood drew back in dread;
Whereon from all the benches rose a cry
Of cruel laughter; and the lecturer smiled, 320
And wiping then his blood-stain’d instrument
And casting down the cony scarcely dead,
Prepared the altar for fresh sacrifice.
The hound drew back and struggled with the chain
In act to fly, but roughly dragged and driven
He reach’d the lecturer’s feet and there lay down,
Panting and looking up with pleading eyes;
The lecturer smiled again and patted him,
When lo! the victim lick’d the bloody hand,
Pleading for kindness and for pity still.
Then in my dream methought I heard a voice
Ring clearly and coldly as a churchyard bell,
Saying, ‘Lo! our next subject, friends—a hound,
Chosen in preference even to the ape,
Because the convolutions of his brain
Are likest to the highest, even Man’s!’
Suddenly in my vision I perceived
The victim’s face, though hairy and hound-like still,
Was now mysteriously humanised
Into the likeness of a naked Faun,
Who pricking hairy ears and rolling eyes
Shriek’d with a sylvan cry! and at the sound
There came from all the cages round about
A murmur such as in the leafy woods
Comes rippling from the merry flocks of Pan; 321
Yea, I beheld them—cony and cat and ape,
And lo! the tamest and the feeblest there
Had ta’en the pretty pleading human looks
Of naiad babes and tiny freckled fauns,
Sweet elves and pigmy centaurs of the woods!
And when the victim moan’d, they answer’d him
With pitying babble of the unconscious groves,
Cries of the haunted forest, and such shrieks
As the pale dryad prison’d in the tree
Yields when the woodman stabs her milky bark;
And mingled with such piteous woodland sounds
There came a gentle bleating as of lambs,
Blent with another and a stranger sound,
Faint, as of infants crying for the breast!
This pass’d; for all my soul, being sick and sad,
Grew blinded with the fastly-flowing tears;
Yet straining once again my troubled sense
I saw the faun strapt down upon the board,
And though his feet were beast-like, his twain hands
Were human, and his fingers clutch’d the knife!
He shriek’d; I shriek’d in answer; and, behold,
His head turn’d softly, and his eyes sought mine.
Then, lo! a miracle—face, form, and limbs,
Changed on the instant—neither hound nor faun 322
Lay there awaiting the tormentor’s knife,
But One, a living form as white as wax,
Stigmata on his feet and on his hands,
And on his face, still shining as a star,
The beauty of Eros and the pain of Christ!
I knew Him, but none other mortal knew,
Though every tiny faun and god o’ the wood,
Still garrulously babbling, named the Name;
And looking up into the torturer’s face
He wept and murmur’d, ‘Even as ye use
The very meanest of my little ones,
So use ye Me!’ That other smiled and paused—
He only heard the moaning of a hound—
Then crushing one hand on the murmuring mouth,
He with the other took the glittering knife,
And leisurely began!
I look’d no more;
But covering up mine eyes I shriek’d aloud
And rush’d in horror from the accurséd place;
But at the door I turn’d, and turning met
The piteous eyeballs fix’d in agony
Beneath a forehead by the knife laid bare!
‘Almighty God,’ I cried, ‘behold Thy Son!’
And pointed at the victim. As I spake,
A throng of frowning men surrounded me,
Crying, ‘Who raves? down with him! drive him forth!’ 323
And in an instant I was smitten and driven
Beyond the porch into the open air.
There stood I panting, dazzled by the day
Which burnt all golden in the paven square,
And gazing back upon the gloomy porch
As on the sulphur-spewing mouth of Hell.
Then one, a tall grave wight in priestly robes,
Strode to me, crying, ‘Hence! profane no more
The Temple with thy presence!’ but I call’d
My curse upon the place, and lifting hands,
Again cried out on God.
What man art thou
That darest in this holy place blaspheme,
Knowing God is not, knowing the wise have proved
All gods to be a shadow and a snare?
God is! He hears! O God, send down a sign
To slay these slaves who torture Christ Thy Son!
Wild is thy speech. What hast thou heard or seen,
To rob thee of thy wits and make thee mad?
In there the Christ is worse than crucified;
He moans, He bleeds beneath the torturer’s knife!
O fool! what is this Christ of whom you rave?
A man of Judah, who, being mad like thee,
Eighteen long centuries since was crucified,
And cried the self-same wild despairing cry
To God who could not, or who would not, hear?
What wrought he for the world? A net of lies!
What legacy bequeath’d he? Tears and dreams!
I tell thee, man, that those who uplight the knife [l.xv]
In this fair Temple of Humanity
Have heal’d more wounds in man’s poor suffering flesh
Than e’er your Christ did open in man’s soul.
Your God had sacrifice of lambs and beeves,
A holocaust whose smoke did blacken heaven!
We to a fairer god, the Spirit of Man,
Offer in love a few poor living things 325
Whose sufferings by use are sanctified.
E’en as ye serve the meanest of His lambs,
So serve ye Christ, the Shepherd of the flock!
Man is the Shepherd of this world, and we
The friends and priests of Man; to Man alone
Belongs the privilege of dispensing pain;
All lower things are means and instruments;
And if to save him but a finger-ache
’Tis meet the baser types should bleed and die.
Look round upon this City! Years ago
Your Christ, a hideous Phantom, haunted it,
And in his train Disease and Pestilence,
Foulness and Fever, danced their dance of Death.
Our wise men came and drave the Phantom forth,
And since that hour the ways are bright and clean;
Disease is banish’d, Pestilence is now
An old man’s memory, Death itself is turn’d
Into the servant and the slave of Man.
Death comes indeed! Ye have not vanquish’d Death!
Death is the holy usher stoled in black
Who cometh to the wearied out and old
Saying, ‘Your bed is made—’tis time to rest!’
Right gladly to the solemn death-chamber
They follow, and are curtain’d in that sleep
Which never yet was stirr’d by man or God;
And yet they die not, since no force is lost,
But passeth on, and these survive for ever
In children ever coming, ever going,
To make the merry music of the world.
Merry, indeed!—made up of tears and moans,
Of fair things martyr’d, frail things sacrificed,
In name of that most cruel god of all,
The godless Spirit of Man! and lo! at last,
Your children are baptized with blood of beasts,
And heal’d with death of innocent childlike things,
And strengthen’d out of slaughter. Woe is me!
That ever child should draw his strength from death,
And be the heir of cruelty and pain!
Like one half waking and half sleeping, risen
From spirit-chilling visions of the night,
Uncertain of the world wherein he walks, 327
Haunted and clouded, thro’ the City I pass’d;
And voices seem’d afar off, and all sounds
Ghostly and strange, and every face I met
Fantastic, melancholy, and unreal:
And weary hours pass’d by, and still I walk’d;
And in the end I found myself alone
Upon a green hillside beyond the town,
Entering a beauteous Garden of the Dead.
The place was green and still, with shadowy walks,
And banks of gracious flowers; and ranged in rows
Along the grassy terraces were placed
White urns that held the ashes of the dead,—
In each of these a handful white as salt
Left from the cleansing fire; and in the midst
There stood a building like a sepulchre
From the iron heart of which a pale blue flame
Rose strange and sacrificial; hither came
The bearers with their burdens linen-wrapt
Which being dropt into the furnace-flame
Shrivell’d like leaves and swiftly were consumed.
While near the fiery place I gazing stood
I saw from out the glistening gate of brass
An old man issue, naked to the waist,
And holding in his hands a silver urn.
Still darken’d and perplex’d I spake to him, 328
And when he answer’d, setting down the urn
And gazing at me with lacklustre eyes,
His voice seem’d ghostly, faint, and far away.
‘Art thou the sexton of this place?’ I cried;
And straightway he replied, wiping his brows,
‘Adam the Last, the watcher of the fire—
That is my name and office, gentle sir.’
So, Adam, last or first, the old order stands?
Your masters have not yet abolish’d Death!
Nay, God forbid! (alas! the foolish name
I learnt when I was young!)—Death comes to all;
The one thing sure and best—man’s Comforter!
Can men that are so merry, having upbuilt
A City so serene and beautiful,
Still welcome silence and the end of all?
Yea, verily—though should they hear me breathe
The dreary truth, the rulers of the City
Might rob me of mine office, gentle sir; 329
But by thy face and raiment I perceive
Thou art a stranger, coming from the land
Of gracious gods and old, where I was born.
Fair is the City, as thou sayest, and merry,
Yet many men grow weary of its mirth,
And ere their time would gladly welcome sleep!
How so? ’Tis surely bliss for any man
To live and gladden in so sweet a place?
I know not. Times are changed. In times gone by,
When Fever and Disease and Pestilence
Walk’d freely through the streets and garner’d men,
I have mark’d upon the brows of those that died
A light that comes not now. I have stood and watch’d
By deathbeds, and as Death bent down to grasp
The throbbing throat and clutch the fluttering life,
I have seen him shrink and like a frighten’d hound
Crouch panting at the flash o’ the dying face,
The proud imperious wave o’ the dying hand;
Yea oftentimes, when men call’d out on God,
Defying Death with smiles, it seem’d a charm 330
To affright the Phantom which affrighteth all!
Yet now men welcome Death, as thou hast said.
Yea, but how differently, how wearily!
With no sweet hope of waking, with no thought
Of meeting those who have fallen to sleep before;
With no glad childish vision of delight
To come upon them when the morrow breaks
Happy and loving as a father’s face.
They know their day is o’er, and that is all:
What matter if it hath been sunny and merry,
’Tis ended—night come duly—all is done.
Moreover, nowadays, methinks that men,
Knowing so clearly, love not one another
As in the good old times when I was young!
For, look you, master, wedlock is a bond
Between the strong and strong, who know that soon
All fall asunder in Death’s crucible;
And when a man or woman dies by chance,
What use to mourn?—the vase of life is broken,
And there’s an end; wherefore, methinks, that men 331
Knew more of Love when they were mournfuller.
For Suffering and Sorrow walk’d the world
Like veiléd angels pointing heavenward,
And folk were sadder then, but hopefuller;
And now, indeed, since Hope hath gone away
With all the other angels, Death alone
Remains the one cold friend and comforter.
Now much I marvell’d, hearing such sad speech
Drop from the old man’s mouth like simple sooth;
And gazing down upon the glorious City
Which sparkled in the sunshine under us,
Seeing the earth and air alive with life,
And catching from afar the faint glad cries
Of multitudinous creatures fluttering
Like motes in the sunbeam, still I seem’d to be
A ghost upon the borderland of Death,
Having no portion in humanity;
And like another ghost the old man seem’d,
Garrulously babbling with a voice as thin
As any heard in dream; then side by side
We walk’d together to the highest bourne
Of that fair burial-place, and lo! I saw,
Stretching before me on the further side,
A darkness like a mighty thunder-cloud— 332
Darkness on darkness, far as eye could see.
‘What land lies yonder at our feet?’ I said,
And pointed downward. Gravely he replied:
‘Nay, sir, I know not, but I have heard folk say
A melancholy and a sunless land,
Forest on forest, dreary, without bound,—
Haunted by monsters, beasts and saurians
Of the primæval slime; a land, alack!
Unfit for man to dwell in, melancholy
As were the dusk beginnings of the world.’
Then in my dream, which seem’d no dream at all,
Methought I leapt, like one who takes the plunge
From some black cape into a midnight sea,
Into that gulf of darkness; and the night
Crash’d round and o’er me, as I sunk and sunk [l.xvi]
Down, down, to dark oblivion deep as death;
When for a space I lost all count of time,
But senseless lay amid the ooze and drift
Of the unconscious shadows; yet at last
I stirr’d and waken’d, lying like a weed
On a cold isle of moonlight in the midst
Of cloud on cloud breaking like wave on wave
Around me; thro’ the darkness I perceived
Far off the glowworm glimmer of the City 333
Which I had left behind.
Feebly I rose,
Affrighted at the cold new stir of life
Along my veins, and murmur’d, ‘Woe is me!
I live, who would have died; I am quick, who fain
Would have return’d to stony nothingness!
And I have search’d the world, and left the prints
Of my sad footsteps on the tracts of Time,
Yet am I houseless and a wanderer still
From City unto City, knowing at last
My quest is fruitless and my dreaming vain!’
Then with a cry I faced the seas of night,
And blindly hasten’d on, I knew not whither!
Page 311, l. xxiii, from the Greek:
I have to admit defeat on this one. Asclepios is the Greek god of medicine. The inscription does not appear to be a quotation. Replacing the Greek alphabet it becomes: ‘To aletheuein kai to energetein’. ‘aletheuein’ is a verb derived from ‘truth’, which seems to mean “to be disclosing, to remove the world from concealedness and coveredness.” ‘energetein’ seems to be derived from ‘action’ or ‘energy’. So, the closest I can get is ‘The way to the truth and the energy’.
Alterations in the 1901 edition of The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan:
Page 295, l. vi: Even as I paused in wonder, crying aloud:
Page 302, l. xii: Than Sodom, which He did destroy by fire.
Page 304, l. viii: Upon the God of Thunder. Some stood rapt
Page 324, l. xv: I tell thee, man, that those who uplift the knife
Page 332, l. xvi: Crash’d round and o’er me, as I sank and sank ]
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