Verse > Anthologies > The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse > 302. The Breath of Life
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Nicholson & Lee, eds.  The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse. 1917.
  
302. The Breath of Life
By James Stephens  (b. 1882)
  
AND while they talked and talked, and while they sat
  Changing their base minds into baser coin;
And telling—they! how truth and beauty join,
And how a certain this was good, but that
Was baser than the viper or the toad,        5
Or the blind beggar glaring down the road.
 
I turned from them in fury, and I ran
To where the moon shone out upon the height,
Down the long reaches of a summer night,
Stretching slim fingers, and the starry clan       10
Grew thicker than the flowers that we see
Clustered in quiet fields of greenery.
 
Around me was the night-time sane and cold,
The clouds that knew no care and no restraint
Swung through the silences, or drifted faint       15
To pale horizons, wreathing fold on fold,
The moon’s sharp edge, each rolling cloud a sea,
A foam of silver shining gloriously.
 
The quietudes that sunder star from star,
The hazy distances of loneliness,       20
Where never eagle’s wing or timid press
Of lark or wren could venture, and the far
Profundities untravelled and unstirred
By any act of man or thought or word.
 
These held me with amazement and delight:       25
I yearned up through the spaces of the sky,
Beyond the rolling clouds, beyond the high
And delicate white moon, and up the height,
And past the rocking stars, and out to where
The ether failed in spaces sharp and bare.       30
 
The breath that is the very breath of life
Throbbed close to me: I heard the pulses beat,
That lift the universes into heat:
The slow withdrawal, and the deeper strife
Of His wide respiration, like a sea       35
It ebbed and flooded through immensity.
 
His breath alone in wave on mighty wave!
O moon and stars swell to a raptured song!
Ye mountains toss the harmony along!
O little men with little souls to save       40
Swing up glad chantings, ring the skies above,
With boundless gratitude for boundless love!
 
Probing the ocean to its steepest drop;
Rejoicing in the viper and the toad,
And the blind beggar glaring down the road;       45
And they who talk and talk and never stop
Equally quickening; with a care to bend
The gnat’s slant wing into a swifter end.
 
Searching the quarries of all life, the deep
Low crannies and shy places of the world,       50
To warm the smallest insect that is curled
In a deep root, or on the sun to heap
Fiercer combustion, spending love on all
In equal share, the mighty and the small.
 
The silence clung about me like a gift,       55
The tender night-time folded me around
Protectingly, and in a peace profound
The clouds drooped slowly backward drift on drift
Into the darkness, and the moon was gone,
And soon the stars had vanished every one.       60
 
But on the sky, a handsbreadth in the west,
A faint cold brightness crept and soared and spread,
Until the rustling heavens overhead,
And the grey trees and grass were manifest:
Then through the chill a golden spear was hurled,       65
And the big sun tossed laughter on the world.

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