Verse > Anthologies > The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse > 163. A Nympholept
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Nicholson & Lee, eds.  The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse. 1917.
  
163. A Nympholept
By Algernon Charles Swinburne  (1837–1909)
  
SUMMER, and noon, and a splendour of silence, felt,
Seen, and heard of the spirit within the sense.
Soft through the frondage the shades of the sunbeams melt,
  Sharp through the foliage the shafts of them, keen and dense,
  Cleave, as discharged from the string of the God’s bow, tense        5
As a war-steed’s girth, and bright as a warrior’s belt.
  Ah, why should an hour that is heaven for an hour pass hence?
 
I dare not sleep for delight of the perfect hour,
  Lest God be wroth that his gift should be scorned of man.
The face of the warm bright world is the face of a flower,       10
  The word of the wind and the leaves that the light winds fan
  As the word that quickened at first into flame, and ran,
Creative and subtle and fierce with invasive power,
  Through darkness and cloud, from the breath of the one God, Pan.
 
The perfume of earth possessed by the sun pervades       15
  The chaster air that he soothes but with sense of sleep.
Soft, imminent, strong as desire that prevails and fades,
  The passing noon that beholds not a cloudlet weep
  Imbues and impregnates life with delight more deep
Than dawn or sunset or moonrise on lawns or glades       20
  Can shed from the skies that receive it and may not keep.
 
The skies may hold not the splendour of sundown fast;
  It wanes into twilight as dawn dies down into day.
And the moon, triumphant when twilight is overpast,
  Takes pride but awhile in the hours of her stately sway.       25
  But the might of the noon, though the light of it pass away,
Leaves earth fulfilled of desires and of dreams that last;
  But if any there be that hath sense of them none can say.
 
For if any there be that hath sight of them, sense, or trust
  Made strong by the might of a vision, the strength of a dream,       30
His lips shall straiten and close as a dead man’s must,
  His heart shall be sealed as the voice of a frost-bound stream.
  For the deep mid mystery of light and of heat that seem
To clasp and pierce dark earth, and enkindle dust,
  Shall a man’s faith say what it is? or a man’s guess deem?       35
 
Sleep lies not heavier on eyes that have watched all night
  Than hangs the heat of the noon on the hills and trees.
Why now should the haze not open, and yield to sight
  A fairer secret than hope or than slumber sees?
  I seek not heaven with submission of lips and knees,       40
With worship and prayer for a sign till it leap to light:
  I gaze on the gods about me, and call on these.
 
I call on the gods hard by, the divine dim powers
  Whose likeness is here at hand, in the breathless air,
In the pulseless peace of the fervid and silent flowers,       45
  In the faint sweet speech of the waters that whisper there.
  Ah, what should darkness do in a world so fair?
The bent-grass heaves not, the couch-grass quails not or cowers;
  The wind’s kiss frets not the rowan’s or aspen’s hair.
 
But the silence trembles with passion of sound suppressed,       50
  And the twilight quivers and yearns to the sunward, wrung
With love as with pain; and the wide wood’s motionless breast
  Is thrilled with a dumb desire that would fain find tongue
  And palpitates, tongueless as she whom a man-snake stung,
Whose heart now heaves in the nightingale, never at rest       55
  Nor satiated ever with song till her last be sung.
 
Is it rapture or terror that circles me round, and invades
  Each vein of my life with hope—if it be not fear?
Each pulse that awakens my blood into rapture fades,
  Each pulse that subsides into dread of a strange thing near       60
  Requickens with sense of a terror less dread than dear.
Is peace not one with light in the deep green glades
  Where summer at noonday slumbers? Is peace not here?
 
The tall thin stems of the firs, and the roof sublime
  That screens from the sun the floor of the steep still wood,       65
Deep, silent, splendid, and perfect and calm as time,
  Stand fast as ever in sight of the night they stood,
  When night gave all that moonlight and dewfall could.
The dense ferns deepen, the moss glows warm as the thyme:
  The wild heath quivers about me: the world is good.       70
 
Is it Pan’s breath, fierce in the tremulous maidenhair,
  That bids fear creep as a snake through the woodlands, felt
In the leaves that it stirs not yet, in the mute bright air,
  In the stress of the sun? For here has the great God dwelt:
  For hence were the shafts of his love or his anger dealt.       75
For here has his wrath been fierce as his love was fair,
  When each was as fire to the darkness its breath bade melt.
 
Is it love, is it dread, that enkindles the trembling noon,
  That yearns, reluctant in rapture that fear has fed,
As man for woman, as woman for man? Full soon,       80
  If I live, and the life that may look on him drop not dead,
  Shall the ear that hears not a leaf quake hear his tread,
The sense that knows not the sound of the deep day’s tune
  Receive the God, be it love that he brings or dread.
 
The naked noon is upon me: the fierce dumb spell,       85
  The fearful charm of the strong sun’s imminent might,
Unmerciful, steadfast, deeper than seas that swell,
  Pervades, invades, appals me with loveless light,
  With harsher awe than breathes in the breath of night.
Have mercy, God who art all! For I know thee well,       90
  How sharp is thine eye to lighten, thine hand to smite.
 
The whole wood feels thee, the whole air fears thee: but fear
  So deep, so dim, so sacred, is wellnigh sweet.
For the light that hangs and broods on the woodlands here,
  Intense, invasive, intolerant, imperious, and meet       95
  To lighten the works of thine hands and the ways of thy feet,
Is hot with the fire of the breath of thy life, and dear
  As hope that shrivels or shrinks not for frost or heat.
 
Thee, thee the supreme dim godhead, approved afar,
  Perceived of the soul and conceived of the sense of man      100
We scarce dare love, and we dare not fear: the star
  We call the sun, that lit us when life began
  To brood on the world that is thine by his grace for a span,
Conceals and reveals in the semblance of things that are
  Thine immanent presence, the pulse of thy heart’s life, Pan.      105
 
The fierce mid noon that wakens and warms the snake
  Conceals thy mercy, reveals thy wrath: and again
The dew-bright hour that assuages the twilight brake
  Conceals thy wrath and reveals thy mercy: then
  Thou art fearful only for evil souls of men      110
That feel with nightfall the serpent within them wake,
  And hate the holy darkness on glade and glen.
 
Yea, then we know not and dream not if ill things be,
  Or if aught of the work of the wrong of the world be thine.
We hear not the footfall of terror that treads the sea,      115
  We hear not the moan of winds that assail the pine:
  We see not if shipwreck reign in the storm’s dim shrine;
If death do service and doom bear witness to thee
  We see not,—know not if blood for thy lips be wine.
 
But in all things evil and fearful that fear may scan,      120
  As in all things good, as in all things fair that fall,
We know thee present and latent, the lord of man;
  In the murmuring of doves, in the clamouring of winds that call
  And wolves that howl for their prey; in the mid-night’s pall,
In the naked and nymph-like feet of the dawn, O Pan,      125
  And in each life living, O thou the God who art all.
 
Smiling and singing, wailing and wringing of hands,
  Laughing and weeping, watching and sleeping, still
Proclaim but and prove but thee, as the shifted sands
  Speak forth and show but the strength of the sea’s wild will      130
  That sifts and grinds them as grain in the storm-wind’s mill.
In thee is the doom that falls and the doom that stands:
  The tempests utter thy word, and the stars fulfil.
 
Where Etna shudders with passion and pain volcanic
  That rend her heart as with anguish that rends a man’s,      135
Where Typho labours, and finds not his thews Titanic,
  In breathless torment that ever the flame’s breath fans,
  Men felt and feared thee of old, whose pastoral clans
Were given to the charge of thy keeping; and soundless panic
  Held fast the woodland whose depths and whose heights were Pan’s.      140
 
And here, though fear be less than delight, and awe
  Be one with desire and with worship of earth and thee,
So mild seems now thy secret and speechless law,
  So fair and fearless and faithful and godlike she,
  So soft the spell of thy whisper on stream and sea,      145
Yet man should fear lest he see what of old men saw
  And withered: yet shall I quail if thy breath smite me.
 
Lord God of life and of light and of all things fair,
  Lord God of ravin and ruin and all things dim,
Death seals up life, and darkness the sunbright air,      150
  And the stars that watch blind earth in the deep night swim
  Laugh, saying, ‘What God is your God, that ye call on him?
What is man, that the God who is guide of our way should care
  If day for a man be golden, or night be grim?’
 
But thou, dost thou hear? Stars too but abide for a span,      155
  Gods too but endure for a season; but thou, if thou be
God, more than shadows conceived and adored of man,
  Kind Gods and fierce, that bound him or made him free,
  The skies that scorn us are less in thy sight than we,
Whose souls have strength to conceive and perceive thee, Pan,      160
  With sense more subtle than senses that hear and see.
 
Yet may it not say, though it seek thee and think to find
  One soul of sense in the fire and the frost-bound clod,
What heart is this, what spirit alive or blind,
  That moves thee: only we know that the ways we trod      165
  We tread, with hands unguided, with feet unshod,
With eyes unlightened; and yet, if with steadfast mind,
  Perchance may we find thee and know thee at last for God.
 
Yet then should God be dark as the dawn is bright,
  And bright as the night is dark on the world—no more.      170
Light slays not darkness, and darkness absorbs not light;
  And the labour of evil and good from the years of yore
  Is even as the labour of waves on a sunless shore.
And he who is first and last, who is depth and height,
  Keeps silence now, as the sun when the woods wax hoar.      175
 
The dark dumb godhead innate in the fair world’s life
  Imbues the rapture of dawn and of noon with dread,
Infects the peace of the star-shod night with strife,
  Informs with terror the sorrow that guards the dead.
  No service of bended knee or of humbled head      180
May soothe or subdue the God who has change to wife:
  And life with death is as morning with evening weds.
 
And yet, if the light and the life in the light that here
  Seem soft and splendid and fervid as sleep may seem
Be more than the shine of a smile or the flash of a tear,      185
  Sleep, change, and death are less than a spell-struck dream,
  And fear than the fall of a leaf on a starlit stream.
And yet, if the hope that hath said it absorb not fear,
  What helps it man that the stars and the waters gleam?
 
What helps it man, that the noon be indeed intense,      190
  The night be indeed worth worship? Fear and pain
Were lords and masters yet of the secret sense,
  Which now dares deem not that light is as darkness, fain
  Though dark dreams be to declare it, crying in vain.
For whence, thou God of the light and the darkness, whence      195
  Dawns now this vision that bids not the sunbeams wane?
 
What light, what shadow, diviner than dawn or night,
  Draws near, makes pause, and again—or I dream—draws near?
More soft than shadow, more strong than the strong sun’s light,
  More pure than moonbeams—yea, but the rays run sheer      200
  As fire from the sun through the dusk of the pinewood, clear
And constant; yea, but the shadow itself is bright
  That the light clothes round with love that is one with fear.
 
Above and behind it the noon and the woodland lie,
  Terrible, radiant with mystery, superb and subdued,      205
Triumphant in silence; and hardly the sacred sky
  Seems free from the tyrannous weight of the dumb fierce mood
  Which rules as with fire and invasion of beams that brood
The breathless rapture of earth till its hour pass by
  And leave her spirit released and her peace renewed.      210
 
I sleep not: never in sleep has a man beholden
  This. From the shadow that trembles and yearns with light
Suppressed and elate and reluctant—obscure and golden
  As water kindled with presage of dawn or night—
  A form, a face, a wonder to sense and sight,      215
Grows great as the moon through the month; and her eyes embolden
  Fear, till it change to desire, and desire to delight.
 
I sleep not: sleep would die of a dream so strange;
  A dream so sweet would die as a rainbow dies,
As a sunbow laughs and is lost on the waves that range      220
  And reck not of light that flickers or spray that flies.
  But the sun withdraws not, the woodland shrinks not or sighs,
No sweet thing sickens with sense or with fear of change;
  Light wounds not, darkness blinds not, my steadfast eyes.
 
Only the soul in my sense that receives the soul      225
  Whence now my spirit is kindled with breathless bliss
Knows well if the light that wounds it with love makes whole,
  If hopes that carol be louder than fears that hiss,
  If truth be spoken of flowers and of waves that kiss,
Of clouds and stars that contend for a sunbright goal.      230
  And yet may I dream that I dream not indeed of this?
 
An earth-born dreamer, constrained by the bonds of birth,
  Held fast by the flesh, compelled by his veins that beat
And kindle to rapture or wrath, to desire or to mirth,
  May hear not surely the fall of immortal feet,      235
  May feel not surely if heaven upon earth be sweet;
And here is my sense fulfilled of the joys of earth,
  Light, silence, bloom, shade, murmur of leaves that meet.
 
Bloom, fervour, and perfume of grasses and flowers aglow,
  Breathe and brighten about me: the darkness gleams,      240
The sweet light shivers and laughs on the slopes below,
  Made soft by leaves that lighten and change like dreams;
  The silence thrills with the whisper of secret streams
That well from the heart of the woodland: these I know:
  Earth bore them, heaven sustained them with showers and beams.      245
 
I lean my face to the heather, and drink the sun
  Whose flame-lit odour satiates the flowers: mine eyes
Close, and the goal of delight and of life is one:
  No more I crave of earth or her kindred skies.
  No more? But the joy that springs from them smiles and flies:      250
The sweet work wrought of them surely, the good work done,
  If the mind and the face of the season be loveless, dies.
 
Thee, therefore, thee would I come to, cleave to, cling,
  If haply thy heart be kind and thy gifts be good,
Unknown sweet spirit, whose vesture is soft in spring,      255
  In summer splendid, in autumn pale as the wood
  That shudders and wanes and shrinks as a shamed thing should,
In winter bright as the mail of a war-worn king
  Who stands where foes fled far from the face of him stood.
 
My spirit or thine is it, breath of thy life or of mine,      260
  Which fills my sense with a rapture that casts our fear?
Pan’s dim frown wanes, and his wild eyes brighten as thine,
  Transformed as night or as day by the kindling year.
  Earth-born, or mine eye were withered that sees, mine ear
That hears were stricken to death by the sense divine,      265
  Earth-born I know thee: but heaven is about me here.
 
The terror that whispers in darkness and flames in light,
  The doubt that speaks in the silence of earth and sea,
The sense, more fearful at noon than in midmost night,
  Of wrath scarce hushed and of imminent till to be,      270
  Where are they? Heaven is as earth, and as heaven to me
Earth: for the shadows that sundered them here take flight;
  And naught is all, as am I, but a dream of thee.

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