From: The Bird and the Bell with Other Poems (1875)
Author: Christopher Pearse Cranch
Published: Osgood and Company 1875 Boston


THE old and melancholy truth
Still haunts the hours of age and youth.
The world’s great problem on our dreams
Falls freezing like the ice on streams.
The vision sweet, the bitter fact;
The promise large, the meagre act;
The glorious hope, the sigh of pain,—
Like wave on wave, with old refrain
Sound on, again and yet again.

O wise philosopher! too well
Upon our ears your reasoning fell;
Too easily the doors you ope
That lead into our boundless hope.
The road to light is not so cheap;
The bills fire rough, the vales arc steep.
You see not that within each breast
Is rooted deep the great Unrest,—
The god within a prison pent,
That may not yield to argument.
Your proofs we cannot well deny,
Yet clings behind the unsolaced Why.
We strain our vision to the end;
We trust we love the heavenly Friend;
We sun our thoughts in Being’s beam,—
And wake to find our faith a dream.

Why was I born, and where was I
Before this living mystery
That weds the body to the soul?
What are the laws by whose control
I live and feel and think and know?
What the allegiance that I owe
To tides beyond all time and space?
What form of faith must I embrace?
Why thwarted, starved, and overborne
By fate,—an exile, driven forlorn
By fitful winds, where each event
Seems but the whirl of accident?
Why feel our wings so incomplete,
Or, flying, but a plumed deceit,
Renewing all our lives to us
The fable old of Icarus?

Tell me the meaning of the breath
That whispers from the house of death,
That chills thought’s metaphysic strife,
That dims the dream of After-life.
Why, if we lived not ere our birth,
Hope for a state beyond this earth?
Tell me the secret of the hope
That gathers, as we upwards ope
The skylights of the prisoned soul
Unto the perfect and the whole.
Yet why the loveliest things of earth
Mock in their death their glorious birth.
Why, when the scarlet sunset floods
The west beyond the hills and woods,
Or June with roses crowds my porch,
Or northern lights with crimson torch
Illume the snow and veil the stars
With streaming bands and wavering bars,
Or music’s sensuous, soul-like wine
Intoxicates with trance divine,—
Why then must sadness like a thief
Steal my aromas of belief,
And like a cloud that shuts the day
At sunrise, turn my gold to gray?

Tell me why instincts meant for good
Turn to a madness of the blood;
And, baffling all our morals nice,
Nature seems nearly one with vice.
What sin and misery mean, if blent
With good in one divine intent.
Why from such source must evil spring,
And finite still mean suffering?

Thus ever questioning we stand,
As though upon some alien land,
And grope for truth beyond our reach,
Through foreign modes and unknown speech.
One mystery above, below,
Within, o’erveiling all we know.
What riddle harder to unwind
Than man himself can man e’er find?
Wiser than prophet and than sage
Must be the eye that reads this page,—
The enigma of the double soul,—
This angel-devil, half and whole,
Whose eye is filled with wisdom’s light,
Whose lips are breathing lust and spite;
The dim vaults of whose heart and brain
Heaven’s warmth, hell’s heat at once contain.
The isolated text is be
For clashing creeds and prophecy;
The sibyl-leaf that winds have whirled
About the corners of the world;
A scrap, a hint, that chance has swept
Out of the book the heavens have kept.
How can we know,—forlorn we cry,—
Our origin, our destiny?
What need to strive,—we ask,—so fast
The web of fate is o’er us cast?
Why, if the authentic seal we wear,
Should we prove aught than good and fair?

Look on the millions born to blight;
The souls that pine for warmth and light;
The crushed and stifled swarms that pack
The foul streets and the alleys black,—
The miserable lives that crawl
Outside the grim partition wall
‘Twixt rich and poor, ‘twixt foul and fair,
‘Twixt vaulting hope and lame despair.
On that wall’s sunny side, within,
Hang ripening fruits and tendrils green,
O’er garden-beds of bloom and spice,
And perfume as of paradise.
There happy children run and talk
Along the shade-flecked gravel-walk,
And lovers sit in rosy bowers,
And music overflows the hours,
And wealth and health and mirth and books
Make pictures in Arcadian nooks.
But on that wall’s grim outer stones
The fierce north-wind of winter groans;
Through blinding dust, o’er bleak highway,
The slant sun’s melancholy ray
Sees stagnant pool and poisonous weed,
The hearts that faint, the feet that bleed,
The grovelling aim, the flagging faith,
The starving curse, the drowning death!

O wise philosopher! you soothe
Our troubles with a touch too smooth.
Too plausibly your reasonings come.
They will not guide me to my home;
They lead me on a little way
Through meadows, groves, and gardens gay,
Until a wall shuts out my day,—
A screen whose top is hid in clouds,
Whose base is deep on dead men’s souls.
Could I dive under pain and death,
Or mount and breathe the whole heaven’s breath,
I might begin to comprehend
How the Beginning joins the End.

Like one who wanders where he lists
In some enchanted land of mists,
Mid mighty temples to explore
Of hieroglyphs the hidden lore,
Or forms of demigods to trace
Carved on the crumbling ruin’s face:—
He sees the sculptured column stand,
With bas-reliefs wrought, small or grand;
In spiral bands the heroic troops
Circling the shaft in crowded groups;
But, gazing up, sees not at all
The mist-enshrouded capital,
And cornice, frieze, and architrave
Sleep buried in one cloudy grave.
We agonize in doubt, perplexed
O’er fate, free-will, and Bible-text.
In vain. The spirit finds no vent
From out the imprisoning temperament.

Philosophies that stalk in pride
Seem but our shadows magnified;
Windows of many-colored glass
Tinting all thoughts that through us pass;
And Revelation but a name
For the intense grand tones that came
To a few saints whose ears were fine,
In old and distant Palestine.
Truth, truth, God’s truth! naught else,—we cry;
For somewhere in the earth and sky
The master-mind must lurk, whose word
Sounds the keynote of all accord.
Give us thyself, O godlike Truth!
Thy blood-warm veins, thy kiss of youth.
Flit not in many-colored light;
Shine clear, as to the All-seeing Sight.

Yet why should we forever press and dent
The brain with ceaseless blows of argument?
Why overstrain the object-wearied sight,
Nor rest content with passages· of light?
Perhaps it seems that we are backward thrust
From God, that, toiling upward through the dust,
Groping our blindfold way to Truth and Him,
Excess of glory may not pain or dim
The eyes that must be daily trained to see
The full-orbed truths that type the Deity,
Who overcasts his splendors to ensnare
His children in the good and true and fair.

Say blest Illusion, that hoodwinks our eyes,
And veils for us the overpowering skies,
And lights a fire that only cheers and warms.
God weds our souls to undeveloped forms,
And tempers his great lights, which, too intense
For untried eyes, might blind, or craze the sense.
O burning day-star! could the Parsee old
Have worshipped thee, save that with fold on fold
Of space and air the intolerable fire
Were fitted to the limits of desire?
O sacred boundaries ‘twixt unknown and known!
O wholesome stringency of nature’s zone!
Spirit immersed in form, that form may know
Its source, through growth and spiritual throe,
And work together with the all-circling law
That knows no lapse, no accident, no flaw!
So, step by step, through tortuous ways we grope,
Becalmed by faith, blown on by fitful hope;
The vast light-region ne’er entirely hid,
Still shimmering through the labyrinths we thrid;
Still glittering on the angles that project
Along our cavern windings, and protect
Our stumbling steps, nor suffer that we run
Like candle-blinded moths into the sun.
The Himalayan heights are kindly screened;
Their upward sloping bases over-greened
With flowery paths and arbors here and there
For noontide rest; and vistas opening fair,
Where birds are carolling through boughs and vines,
And odors of the aromatic pines.

Therefore I bow my spirit to the Power
That underflows and fills my little hour.
I feel the eternal symphony afloat,
In which I am a breath, a passing note.
I may be but a dull and jarring nerve
In the great body, yet some end I serve.

Yea, though I dream and question still the dream
Thus floating by me upon Being’s stream,
Some end I serve. Love reigns. I cannot lose
The Primal Light, though thousand-fold its hues.
I can believe that somewhere Truth abides;
Not in the ebb and flow of those small tides
That float the dogmas of our saints and sects;
Not in a thousand tainted dialects,
But in the one pure language, could we hear,
That fills with love and light the seraphs’ sphere.
I can believe there is a Central Good,
That burns and shines o’er temperament and mood;
That somewhere God will melt the clouds away,
And his great purpose shine as shines the day.
Then may we know why now we could not know;
Why the great Isis-curtain drooped so low;
Why we were blindfold on a path of light;
Why came wild gleams and voices through the night;
Why we seemed drifting, storm-tost, without rest,
And were but rocking on a Mother’s breast.

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