He was not, and He could not be! 25
His thunder answer’d: but I proved
’Twas only phantom-drift and cloud—
The more the elements were moved
Against me, more I laugh’d aloud!
Then some one interceded—’twas,
As usual, one of Eve’s dear sex!
And on a day it came to pass,
Standing upon the slippery decks,
I heard that I from time to time
Might cease upon the waves to dance.
“Father, he knew not of his crime,
Give the poor devil another chance!”
“One chance—a dozen!”—answered He,
Whom I had proved could never be!
So said—so done! The Eternal Force,
Law, Love, Power, God, whate’er you please
To name it, steered my sleepless course
To land for intervals of ease;
And there, at the divine request
Of her who deem’d me worth retrieving,
I roam’d about and did my best
To grasp what millions die believing.
In vain! in vain! where’er I went,
Folly and death were all I found,
My upas-tree of discontent
With dead sea fruit was rightly crown’d;
I found both men and women rotten,
I saw no joys but health and money, 26
Love was a fable long forgotten,
While Lust, though sweet, was poison’d honey.
I knew all creeds, all superstitions,
All gods that men and women rever.
I tried all customs and conditions,
Adopted every priest’s petitions,
And got the same old answer ever.
The answer? Your dyspeptic German
Has given it—Death! Annihilation!
So back to sea, half ghost, half merman,
Scorning the terrors that deter Man,
I hasten’d, sick of all Creation!’
I listen’d wondering. Thoughts as drear
Had haunted me for many a year,
And yet so phrased they seem’d to be
Accurst and full of blasphemy.
Into his face I look’d again
And saw my soul’s reflection there,—
Pallor of passion and of pain,
Shadows of cruel, black despair:
A spirit poison’d through and through,
Yet hungering for the sun and dew;
A nature warp’d and wild, yet fraught
With agonies of piteous thought;
A soul predoom’d to Death and Hate,
Yet eager to be saved and shriven—
A life so wholly desolate
It seem’d fierce irony of Fate 27
To mock it with one glimpse of Heaven!
‘A hundred years ago,’ said he,
‘Began my folly or my crime;
Since then I’ve kept a Diary
To pass away my idle time.
Just for a joke, ’tis written in
Mine own red blood, on parchment skin
(Best for the brine and wet), and here
Upon my heart for many a year
I’ve kept it. Would you care to view it?’
So saying, from his breast he drew it—
A book with many a finger-mark,
And placed it in my hand—and while
I glanced across its pages dark,
He prattled on with cynic smile.
‘Like a young lady, truth to tell,
I’ve kept my cordiphonia well!
My thoughts, my careless meditations,
Are all set down in these queer pages—
My bonnes fortunes and my flirtations,
Sketches of ladies of all nations—
Tall, short, dark, fair, and of all ages!
There’s matter there of strange variety,
Strange retrospects of sport and scandal,
Which any journal of society
Would roundly pay, methinks, to handle.
They are at your service, if you please 28
To use them—prithee look them over—
Memoirs are now the mode, and these
Are highly spiced, as you’ll discover!
They prove at least that such a quest—
To find true love and self-surrender,
Is but a foolish, idle jest!
I’ve roam’d the world from east to west,
Found many kind, and some few tender,
But never one prepared to give
Her soul that he she loved might live,
And Death’s last draught of hemlock take
For some poor damnèd devil’s sake.
I’ll grant you, Man were saved and proved
Immortal, could he thus be loved;
But no! the seed of Eve our Mother
Is capable of much, but never
Of wholly losing for another
All stake in happiness for ever!
They’ll love, and even accept damnation,
So they but hold their man the surer,
But absolute obliteration
Of self for his soul’s preservation,
Demands diviner powers and purer.
I’ve tost the gauge to God, and cried:
“Prove such self-abnegation to me!
Find such a Soul—I’ll stoop my pride,
Admit the justice I denied,
With which you torture and pursue me. 29
Assume one Angel possible,
And God is surely proved as well!
Admit one soul from Self set free,
You prove Man’s Immortality.
The problem’s fair! As I’m a sinner,
The Old One finds it hard of proving;
I hold myself an easy winner,
After a century of loving.”’
‘Peace upon earth! goodwill to men!’
The bells rang out around the room,
Beyond the frosted window pane
The still snow waver’d through the gloom:
Hung on the wall above my head
A prickly branch of holly bled
Bright drop by drop—berry and thorn
Symbolic of that Christmas morn!
‘Not one,’ methought; ‘yes—One, who gave
His life that those might live who die!
Rabbi,’ I cried, ‘come from Thy grave,
To give this mocking voice the lie!’
He laughed. ‘My wager, sir, concern’d
The softer sex and not the other!
A million hearts like yours have turn’d
For comfort to our Elder Brother.
In vain! He found, as we must find,
The baseness of all humankind, 30
And broke His gentle heart in proving
Sisters and brethren not worth loving!
He, too, in that consummate minute,
As I have done, His God denied;
He play’d for Heaven and fail’d to win it,
Bow’d a despairing head, and died!’
E’en as he spake the bells peal’d loud
In clearer, wilder jubilation;
He listen’d, with his dark head bow’d,
A little space in meditation,—
His face toward the fire, his soul
Black as the sullen flickering coal.
Suddenly from the embers came
A tremulous blood-red hand of flame,
Touch’d him upon the forehead, lit
His gloomy cheek and crimson’d it
As if with fire from Hell! . . . and still
The white snow waver’d through the gloom;
‘Peace unto men! peace and goodwill!’
The bells, in mockery of his doom,
Rang loud and clear!
‘Enough,’ he said,
‘Our King of Doctrinaires is dead.
Once, I believe, one wintry night,
Hundreds of years ago, He rose,
And blunder’d with His ghostly light
Across the drift, amidst the snows, 31
Forded the narrow seas and found
The Devil and Pope Joanna crown’d,
Set side by side beneath the dome
Of great St. Peter’s, there in Rome;
Then, finding He too soon had risen,
And was not wanted or expected,
Back to his resting-place and prison
He hasten’d sleepy and dejected,
And laid him down, and closed his eyes—
There, dead as any stone, He lies!
Poor fellow! he was disappointed,
Like all your dreamers in the end;
What God the Father left unjointed,
Shapeless and vile, no priest anointed,
No seer, no doctrinaire, can mend.
Enough of Him, enough of folly!
What use o’er fruitless dreams to ponder?
Pull down your evergreen and holly,
And hang the skull and crossbones yonder.
Sweeter than constant introspection
The light afloat which rovers follow—
There’s not a creed will bear reflection,
There’s never a god escapes dissection,
Not even Jesus or Apollo!
I know where man stands now!—I’ve studied
Your last philosophies right through—
Found my poor intellect bemudded,
Grown sceptical and bitter-blooded, 32
And curst the whole pragmatic crew.
’Sdeath, what a waste of time, to pore
On all such melancholy lore—
Only to find this world as silly,
As puzzled, as in times long gone,
When grew from Christ’s pure Hûleh-lily
The prickly logos of St. John!’ [l.viii]
He paused, then added, ‘All this season,
During my residence among you,
I’ve search’d the poor stale scraps of reason
The last Philosophers have flung you.
I’ve read through Comte, the Catechism,
(Half common sense, half crank and schism),
And Harriet Martineau’s synopsis;
Puzzled through Littré’s monstr’-informous
Until my brain grew blank as Topsy’s!
I’ve suck’d the bloodless books of Mill,
As void of gall as any pigeon;
I’ve swallow’d Congreve’s patent pill
To purge man’s liver of Religion;
I’ve tried my leisure to amuse
With Freddy Harrison’s reviews;
I’ve thumb’d the essays of John Morley,
So positive they made me poorly;
Turning to follow with a smile
The tea-cup tempests of Carlyle, 33
I’ve been amazed at times to view
The proselytes Tom fill’d with wonder—
Ruskin, half seraph and half shrew,
And divers dealers in cheap thunder.
I’ve also, Heaven preserve me! read
Daniel Deronda! which was worse
Than any doom a wretch may dread,
Except, of course, pragmatic verse!
The Leben Jesu, Renan’s Vie,
I also studied thoroughly;
I vivisected cats with Lewes,
I tortured gentle dogs with Ferrier,
Found out just what grimalkin’s mew is,
And how tails wag in pug and terrier,
But came, however close I sought,
No nearer to the riddle of Thought!
With Huxley’s aid, now much in vogue,
I made cheap Knowledge all my own,
And kissed, allured by Tyndall’s brogue,
The scientific Blarney-stone!
I talk’d with Bastian, who affirms
Spontaneous generation proven,
And, prone with Darwin, watch’d the worms
Wriggling—like live eels in an oven.
Then finally, in sheer despair,
Burn’d deep with Scepticism’s caustic,
Found Spencer staring at the air,
Crying “God knows if God is there!” 34
And in a trice, became agnostic!
‘In this most fashionable creed,
Which even he who runs may read,
I found an Open Sesame
To England’s best society.
The great Arch-Priest of Canterbury
Kindly invited me to dine,
And with the Bishops I made merry
Over the walnuts and the wine;
Found them agnostic to a man,
But doing all good fellows can
To make their crank old Ship, the Church,
Still staggering on with many a lurch,
Take in her sails and trim her anchor
Before the Storm swept down and sank her.
I met Matt Arnold at their table,
Where no Dissenter hoped to be;
Voting the Trinity a fable
I dived as deep as I was able
Into the “Stream of Tendency!”
Then floating on, in soul’s distress,
Currents that swirl to righteousness,
Was bound, half drowning, to assever
“Poof! further off from God than ever!”
‘About that time I met a girl
With raven hair and teeth of pearl,
And just one touch of rouge to veil 35
The ennui of a cheek too pale.
One evening, after we had sat
In the Lyceum, wondering at
The great tragedian wrapt in gloom
Of Hamlet’s sable cloak and plume,
We, strolling down at midnight-tide
To the Embankment, paused to see
The two stone Sphinxes, heavy-eyed,
Crouching together side by side
And gazing at Eternity.
“Behold,” I said, “the Mystic Ones
Who know the secret of the suns,
And coldly sit in contemplation
Of the dark riddle of Creation!”
She laugh’d. “My dear, don’t heed” (she said)
“Those rayless eyes—try mine instead!
Love’s the one riddle worth the guessing,
Woman the one Sphinx worth caressing!
Don’t mind those stony ancient Misses
Who cannot feel and cannot see—
Quit things incapable of kisses,
And take a hansom home with me!”’
While, diabolically sneering
At every system, foul or fair,
He prattled on, I nodded, hearing
The echo of mine own despair—
Indeed, the mocking voice I heard 36
Seem’d more within me than without:
Yea, every thought and every word
Chimed discord to my dread and doubt.
Fainter and fainter, as it seem’d,
Grew the strange ghostly Form of fancy,
Till, rubbing eyes as if I dream’d,
I cried, ‘By heaven, ’tis necromancy!
Ghost, alter ego, dull delusion
Of sense and spirit in confusion,
Begone! avaunt! back to the Ocean
Of vague primordial emotion
From which you came!’ But as I spake
He rose, with eyes that flash’d like steel!
‘Nay, shake your sleepy soul awake,’
He said, ‘and know that I am real!
Yet now my period of probation
Ends for the present, and I go
Back to the watery desolation
The cruel Ocean’s ebb and flow—
Hark, hark, they call me!’ Tall and wild,
He panted quick as if for breath,
His pallid face no longer smiled,
His eyes grew sunken, dim with death,
And from the distance, through the swells
Of moaning wind and Yuletide bells,
A faint sound broke upon mine ears
Of ‘Hillo, hillo—come away!’
Then laughter as of marineres 37
Hoisting their anchor ’mid the spray;
Nay, more, I seem’d to catch the sound
Of whistling cordage, flapping sail.
I gazed aghast—my head went round—
The house seem’d rocking ’neath the bound
Of billows shrieking to the gale.
‘Once more, once more,’ he moaned aloud,
‘Adrift, unpitied, lost in gloom,
As lonely as a thunder-cloud,
I fly to face the blasts of doom!
No peace, no rest, on earth or heaven—
No respite yet,’ I heard him cry,
‘Spirit of Pain, to be forgiven!
To rest a little space, and die!’
Then all my soul was strangely stirred
To pity, and my eyes grew dim;
And quietly, without a word,
I stretch’d my hands out, blessing him!
But louder, clearer, through the dark,
With, ‘Hillo, hillo, come away!’
Those voices from some phantom Barque
Rang, while he trembled to obey;
A moment more, he rose his height,
His eyes shot gleams of baleful light,
His hands were clench’d, and with a shriek
Of mocking laughter, he return’d:
‘I come! I come!’ But lo, his cheek 38
Grew frozen, and though his dark eyes burn’d
With wicked fire, his body grew
Bent as with centuries of care,—
Transform’d he shrank before my view,
With snowy beard and sad grey hair!
Yea, e’en his raiment seem’d to change
To something ancient, quaint, and strange—
Rags blown with wind and torn with storm
That round a skeletonian form
Clung wild as weeds. Ah! then indeed
I knew God’s homeless Outcast, he
Who, poison’d with the Serpent’s seed,
Can ne’er be purified or freed
Till Death shall drink the mighty Sea!
I saw him for a moment thus,
Storm-beaten, old, and blasphemous,
All desolate and all forlorn,—
Then, while I pitied his despair,
The bells rang in the Christmas morn,
And he had vanish’d into air!. . .
That was in Yuletide ’77.
Ten winters later I again
Beheld beneath the sunless heaven,
Pallid in ecstasy of pain,
That outcast Shape: or did I only
Dream, and behold him as I dream’d
No longer desolate and lonely 39
But beauteous and at last redeem’d?
Of that sublime transfiguration
My later song, not this, must be—
Meantime I mark in meditation
His dreary voyage to salvation
Across a sad and sleepless Sea.
Here follow, tuned to English tongue,
The Flights of Vanderdecken, sung
By one whose soul oft seems to share
His doom of darkness and despair.
Accept the songs, O Reader! weft
Of that strange Book the Outcast left,
Mingled with warp of modern fashion.
Telling the story of his quest,
His weary wanderings without rest,
I seem to plumb mine own soul’s passion!
Here, then, the Modern Spirit stands,
Holding within his ring’d white hands
The Book of Doubt, the Writ of Reason!
While foolish women weep and wonder,
He ponders in and out of season
And gropes from blunder on to blunder.
He needs no Devil to beguile him,
While wine and wantons lure and wile him;
He needs no God to thunder o’er him,
While Nature spreads her storms before him. 40
This is the Modern—this is he
Who would, yet cannot, bend the knee!
Who would, yet cannot, be once more
A child in the soft moonlight kneeling!
All creeds he knows, all wicked lore
That puzzles thought and palsies feeling.
How shall he yonder heavens afar win
In poor Spinoza’s merry-go-round?
How shall he ’scape the apes of Darwin,
Dark’ning what once was fairy ground?
How in this tearful world, tomb-paven,
Shall he find resting-place and haven?
How? By the magic which of old
Set yonder suns and planets spinning!
By that one warmth which ne’er grows cold,
By that one living Heart of gold
Which throbs and throbb’d at Time’s beginning!
By that which is, and still shall be,
In spite of all Philosophy!
From that we came, to that we go,
By that alone we live and are—
Core of the Rose whose petals blow
Beyond the farthest shining star!
Safe, despite Nature’s cataclysm,
Sure, though the suns should cease to shine,
Love burns and flames through Thought’s abysm,
Serene, mysterious, and divine!
One little word solves all creation, 41
Abides when Death and Time have pass’d—
Damn’d by the genius of Negation,
Man shall be saved by Love at last!
Page 32, l.viii: ‘logos’ is given in the original Greek - because of font problems, it was simpler to translate it. The reference is to the first sentence in the Gospel of John, where it is more usually translated as ‘word’: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”.]