Verse > Anthologies > The World’s Best Poetry > Vol. IV. The Higher Life
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Bliss Carman, et al., eds.  The World’s Best Poetry.
Volume IV. The Higher Life.  1904.
 
III. Faith: Hope: Love: Service
The Vision of Sir Launfal
James Russell Lowell (1819–1891)
 
Prelude to Part First
OVER his keys the musing organist,
  Beginning doubtfully and far away,
First lets his fingers wander as they list,
  And builds a bridge from Dreamland for his lay;
Then, as the touch of his loved instrument        5
  Gives hope and fervor, nearer draws his theme,
First guessed by faint auroral flushes sent
  Along the wavering vista of his dream.
 
    Not only around our infancy
    Doth heaven with all its splendors lie;        10
    Daily, with souls that cringe and plot,
    We Sinais climb and know it not.
 
  Over our manhood bend the skies;
    Against our fallen and traitor lives
  The great winds utter prophecies;        15
    With our faint hearts the mountain strives;
  Its arms outstretched, the druid wood
    Waits with its Benedicite;
  And to our age’s drowsy blood
    Still shouts the inspiring sea.        20
 
  Earth gets its price for what Earth gives us:
    The beggar is taxed for a corner to die in.
  The priest hath his fee who comes and shrives us,
    We bargain for the graves we lie in;
  At the devil’s booth are all things sold,        25
  Each ounce of dross costs its ounce of gold;
  For a cap and bells our lives we pay,
    Bubbles we buy with a whole soul’s tasking:
  ’T is heaven alone that is given away,
    ’T is only God may be had for the asking;        30
  No price is set on the lavish summer;
  June may be had by the poorest comer.
 
  And what is so rare as a day in June?
    Then, if ever, come perfect days;
  Then Heaven tries earth if it be in tune,        35
    And over it softly her warm ear lays;
  Whether we look, or whether we listen,
  We hear life murmur, or see it glisten;
  Every clod feels a stir of might,
    An instinct within it that reaches and towers,        40
  And groping blindly above it for light,
    Climbs to a soul in grass and flowers;
  The flush of life may well be seen
    Thrilling back over hills and valleys;
  The cowslip startles in meadows green,        45
    The buttercup catches the sun in its chalice,
  And there ’s never a leaf nor a blade too mean
    To be some happy creature’s palace;
  The little bird sits at his door in the sun,
    Atilt like a blossom among the leaves,        50
  And lets his illumined being o’errun
    With the deluge of summer it receives;
His mate feels the eggs beneath her wings,
And the heart in her dumb breast flutters and sings;
He sings to the wide world, and she to her nest,—        55
In the nice ear of Nature which song is the best?
 
  Now is the high tide of the year,
    And whatever of life hath ebbed away
  Comes flooding back with a ripply cheer,
    Into every bare inlet and creek and bay;        60
  Now the heart is so full that a drop overfills it;
  We are happy now because God wills it;
  No matter how barren the past may have been,
  ’T is enough for us now that the leaves are green;
  We sit in the warm shade and feel right well        65
  How the sap creeps up and the blossoms swell;
  We may shut our eyes, but we cannot help knowing
  That skies are clear and grass is growing;
    The breeze comes whispering in our ear
    That dandelions are blossoming near,        70
  That maize has sprouted, that streams are flowing,
  That the river is bluer than the sky,
  That the robin is plastering his house hard by:
  And if the breeze kept the good news back,
  For other couriers we should not lack;        75
    We could guess it all by yon heifer’s lowing,—
  And hark! how clear bold chanticleer,
  Warmed with the new wine of the year,
    Tells all in his lusty crowing!
 
  Joy comes, grief goes, we know not how;        80
  Everything is happy now,
    Everything is upward striving;
  ’T is as easy now for the heart to be true
  As for grass to be green or skies to be blue,—
    ’T is the natural way of living:        85
  Who knows whither the clouds have fled?
    In the unscarred heaven they leave no wake;
  And the eyes forget the tears they have shed,
    The heart forgets its sorrow and ache;
The soul partakes the season’s youth,        90
  And the sulphurous rifts of passion and woe
Lie deep ’neath a silence pure and smooth,
  Like burnt-out craters healed with snow.
    What wonder if Sir Launfal now
    Remember the keeping of his vow?        95
 
Part First
    “MY golden spurs now bring to me,
      And bring to me my richest mail,
    For to-morrow I go over land and sea
      In search of the Holy Grail:
    Shall never a bed for me be spread,        100
    Nor shall a pillow be under my head,
    Till I begin my vow to keep;
    Here on the rushes will I sleep,
    And perchance there may come a vision true
    Ere day create the world anew.”        105
      Slowly Sir Launfal’s eyes grew dim;
      Slumber fell like a cloud on him,
    And into his soul the vision flew.
 
  The crows flapped over by twos and threes,
  In the pool drowsed the cattle up to their knees,        110
    The little birds sang as if it were
    The one day of summer in all the year,
  And the very leaves seemed to sing on the trees:
  The castle alone in the landscape lay
  Like an outpost of winter, dull and gray;        115
  ’T was the proudest hall in the North Countree,
  And never its gates might opened be,
  Save to lord or lady of high degree;
  Summer besieged it on every side,
  But the churlish stone her assaults defied;        120
  She could not scale the chilly wall,
  Though around it for leagues her pavilions tall
      Stretched left and right.
      Over the hills and out of sight;
        Green and broad was every tent,        125
        And out of each a murmur went
      Till the breeze fell off at night.
 
  The drawbridge dropped with a surly clang,
  And through the dark arch a charger sprang,
  Bearing Sir Launfal, the maiden knight,        130
  In his gilded mail, that flamed so bright
  It seemed the dark castle had gathered all
  Those shafts the fierce sun had shot over its wall
    In his siege of three hundred summers long,
  And binding them all in one blazing sheaf,        135
    Had cast them forth; so, young and strong,
  And lightsome as a locust leaf,
  Sir Launfal flashed forth in his maiden mail,
  To seek in all climes for the Holy Grail.
 
  It was morning on hill and stream and tree,        140
    And morning in the young knight’s heart;
  Only the castle moodily
  Rebuffed the gifts of the sunshine free,
    And gloomed by itself apart;
  The season brimmed all other things up        145
  Full as the rain fills the pitcher-plant’s cup.
 
As Sir Launfal made morn through the darksome gate,
  He was ’ware of a leper, crouched by the same,
Who begged with his hand and moaned as he sate;
  And a loathing over Sir Launfal came;        150
The sunshine went out of his soul with a thrill,
  The flesh ’neath his armor ’gan shrink and crawl,
And midway its leap his heart stood still
  Like a frozen waterfall;
  For this man, so foul and bent of stature,        155
  Rasped harshly against his dainty nature,
  And seemed the one blot on the summer morn,—
  So he tossed him a piece of gold in scorn.
 
  The leper raised not the gold from the dust:—
  “Better to me the poor man’s crust,        160
  Better the blessing of the poor,
  Though I turn me empty from his door:
  That is no true alms which the hand can hold;
  He gives only the worthless gold
    Who gives from a sense of duty;        165
  But he who gives but a slender mite,
  And gives to that which is out of sight,—
    That thread of the all-sustaining Beauty
  Which runs through all and doth all unite,—
  The hand cannot clasp the whole of his alms,        170
  The heart outstretches its eager palms;
  For a god goes with it and makes it store
  To the soul that was starving in darkness before.”
 
Prelude to Part Second
DOWN swept the chill wind from the mountain peak,
  From the snow five thousand summers old;        175
On open wold and hilltop bleak
  It had gathered all the cold,
And whirled it like sleet on the wanderer’s cheek;
  It carried a shiver everywhere
  From the unleafed boughs and pastures bare;        180
  The little brook heard it, and built a roof
  ’Neath which he could house him winter-proof;
  All night by the white stars’ frosty gleams
  He groined his arches and matched his beams;
  Slender and clear were his crystal spars        185
  As the lashes of light that trim the stars;
  He sculptured every summer delight
  In his halls and chambers out of sight;
  Sometimes his tinkling waters slipt
  Down through a frost-leaved forest crypt.        190
  Long, sparkling aisles of steel-stemmed trees
  Bending to counterfeit a breeze;
  Sometimes the roof no fretwork knew
  But silvery mosses that downward grew;
  Sometimes it was carved in sharp relief        195
  With quaint arabesques of ice-fern leaf;
  Sometimes it was simply smooth and clear
  For the gladness of heaven to shine through, and here
  He had caught the nodding bulrush tops
  And hung them thickly with diamond drops,        200
  That crystalled the beams of moon and sun,
  And made a star of every one:
  No mortal builder’s most rare device
  Could match this winter palace of ice;
  ’T was as if every image that mirrored lay        205
  In his depths serene through the summer day,
  Each fleeting shadow of earth and sky,
      Lest the happy model should be lost,
  Had been mimicked in fairy masonry
      By the elfin builders of the frost.        210
 
  Within the hall are song and laughter;
    The cheeks of Christmas glow red and jolly,
  And sprouting is every corbel and rafter
    With lightsome green of ivy and holly;
  Through the deep gulf of the chimney wide        215
  Wallows the Yule-log’s roaring tide;
  The broad flame pennons droop and flap
    And belly and tug as a flag in the wind;
  Like a locust shrills the imprisoned sap,
    Hunted to death in its galleries blind;        220
  And swift little troops of silent sparks,
    Now pausing, now scattering away as in fear,
  Go threading the soot forest’s tangled darks
    Like herds of startled deer.
 
  But the wind without was eager and sharp;        225
  Of Sir Launfal’s gray hair it makes a harp,
          And rattles and wrings
          The icy strings,
  Singing in dreary monotone
  A Christmas carol of its own,        230
  Whose burden still, as he might guess,
  Was “Shelterless, shelterless, shelterless!”
 
The voice of the seneschal flared like a torch
As he shouted the wanderer away from the porch,
And he sat in the gateway and saw all night        235
  The great hall fire, so cheery and bold,
  Through the window slits of the castle old,
  Build out its piers of ruddy light
  Against the drift of the cold.
 
Part Second
  THERE was never a leaf on bush or tree,
        240
  The bare boughs rattled shudderingly;
  The river was dumb and could not speak,
    For the weaver Winter its shroud had spun;
  A single crow on the tree-top bleak
    From his shining feathers shed off the cold sun;        245
  Again it was morning, but shrunk and cold,
  As if her veins were sapless and old,
  And she rose up decrepitly
  For a last dim look at earth and sea.
 
  Sir Launfal turned from his own hard gate,        250
  For another heir in his earldom sate:
  An old, bent man, worn out and frail,
  He came back from seeking the Holy Grail.
  Little he recked of his earldom’s loss,
  No more on his surcoat was blazoned the cross;        255
  But deep in his soul the sigh he wore,
  The badge of the suffering and the poor.
 
  Sir Launfal’s raiment thin and spare
  Was idle mail ’gainst the barbèd air,
  For it was just at the Christmas-time;        260
  So he mused, as he sat, of a sunnier clime,
  And sought for a shelter from cold and snow
  In the light and warmth of long ago.
  He sees the snake-like caravan crawl
  O’er the edge of the desert, black and small,        265
  Then nearer and nearer, till, one by one,
  He can count the camels in the sun,
  As over the red-hot sands they pass
  To where, in its slender necklace of grass,
  The little spring laughed and leapt in the shade,        270
  And with its own self like an infant played,
  And waved its signal of palms.
 
  “For Christ’s sweet sake, I beg an alms:”—
  The happy camels may reach the spring,
  But Sir Launfal sees only the grewsome thing,        275
  The leper, lank as the rain-blanched bone,
  That cowers beside him, a thing as lone
  And white as the ice-isles of Northern seas
  In the desolate horror of his disease.
 
  And Sir Launfal said,—“I behold in thee        280
  An image of Him who died on the tree;
  Thou also hast had thy crown of thorns,—
  Thou also hast had the world’s buffets and scorns,—
  And to thy life were not denied
  The wounds in the hands and feet and side:        285
  Mild Mary’s Son, acknowledge me;
  Behold, through him, I give to thee!”
 
  Then the soul of the leper stood up in his eyes
    And looked at Sir Launfal, and straightway he
  Remembered in what a haughtier guise        290
    He had flung an alms to leprosie,
  When he girt his young life up in gilded mail
  And set forth in search of the Holy Grail.
  The heart within him was ashes and dust:
  He parted in twain his single crust,        295
  He broke the ice on the streamlet’s brink,
  And gave the leper to eat and drink;
  ’T was a mouldy crust of coarse brown bread,
    ’T was water out of a wooden bowl,—
  Yet with fine wheaten bread was the leper fed,        300
    And ’t was red wine he drank with his thirsty soul.
 
  As Sir Launfal mused with a downcast face,
  A light shone round about the place;
  The leper no longer crouched at his side,
  But stood before him glorified,        305
  Shining and tall and fair and straight
  As the pillar that stood by the Beautiful Gate,—
  Himself the Gate whereby men can
  Enter the temple of God in Man.
 
His words were shed softer than leaves from the pine,        310
And they fell on Sir Launfal as snows on the brine,
That mingle their softness and quiet in one
With the shaggy unrest they float down upon;
And the voice that was softer than silence said:—
Lo, it is I, be not afraid!        315
In many climes, without avail,
Thou hast spent thy life for the Holy Grail:
Behold, it is here,—this cup which thou
Didst fill at the streamlet for me but now;
This crust is my body broken for thee,        320
This water His blood that died on the tree;
The Holy Supper is kept indeed
In whatso we share with another’s need.
Not what we give, but what we share,—
For the gift without the giver is bare;        325
Who gives himself with his alms feeds three,—
Himself, his hungering neighbor, and me.”
 
Sir Launfal awoke as from a swound:—
“The Grail in my castle here is found!
Hang my idle armor up on the wall,        330
Let it be the spider’s banquet-hall;
He must be fenced with stronger mail
Who would seek and find the Holy Grail.”
 
The castle gate stands open now,
  And the wanderer is welcome to the hall        335
As the hang-bird is to the elm-tree bough;
  No longer scowl the turrets tall.
The summer’s long siege at last is o’er:
When the first poor outcast went in at the door,
She entered with him in disguise,        340
And mastered the fortress by surprise;
There is no spot she loves so well on ground;
She lingers and smiles there the whole year round;
The meanest serf on Sir Launfal’s land
Has hall and bower at his command;        345
And there ’s no poor man in the North Countree
But is lord of the earldom as much as he.
 
 
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