Verse > John Greenleaf Whittier > The Poetical Works in Four Volumes
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John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892).  The Poetical Works in Four Volumes.  1892.
 
Religious Poems
Questions of Life
 
          And the angel that was sent unto me, whose name was Uriel gave me an answer and said,
  “Thy heart hath gone too far in this world, and thinkest thou to comprehend the way of the Most High?”
  Then said I, “Yea, my Lord.”
  Then said he unto me, “Go thy way, weigh me the weight of the fire or measure me the blast of the wind, or call me again the day that is past.”—2 ESDRAS, chap. iv.

A BENDING staff I would not break,
A feeble faith I would not shake,
Nor even rashly pluck away
The error which some truth may stay,
Whose loss might leave the soul without        5
A shield against the shafts of doubt.
 
And yet, at times, when over all
A darker mystery seems to fall,
(May God forgive the child of dust,
Who seeks to know, where Faith should trust!)        10
I raise the questions, old and dark,
Of Uzdom’s tempted patriarch,
And, speech-confounded, build again
The baffled tower of Shinar’s plain.
 
I am: how little more I know!        15
Whence came I? Whither do I go?
A centred self, which feels and is;
A cry between the silences;
A shadow-birth of clouds at strife
With sunshine on the hills of life;        20
A shaft from Nature’s quiver cast
Into the Future from the Past;
Between the cradle and the shroud,
A meteor’s flight from cloud to cloud.
 
Thorough the vastness, arching all,        25
I see the great stars rise and fall,
The rounding seasons come and go,
The tided oceans ebb and flow;
The tokens of a central force,
Whose circles, in their widening course,        30
O’erlap and move the universe;
The workings of the law whence springs
The rhythmic harmony of things,
Which shapes in earth the darkling spar,
And orbs in heaven the morning star.        35
Of all I see, in earth and sky,—
Star, flower, beast, bird,—what part have I?
This conscious life,—is it the same
Which thrills the universal frame,
Whereby the caverned crystal shoots,        40
And mounts the sap from forest roots,
Whereby the exiled wood-bird tells
When Spring makes green her native dells?
How feels the stone the pang of birth,
Which brings its sparkling prism forth?        45
The forest-tree the throb which gives
The life-blood to its new-born leaves?
Do bird and blossom feel like me,
Life’s many-folded mystery,—
The wonder which it is to be?        50
Or stand I severed and distinct,
From Nature’s chain of life unlinked?
Allied to all, yet not the less
Prisoned in separate consciousness,
Alone o’erburdened with a sense        55
Of life, and cause, and consequence?
 
In vain to me the Sphinx propounds
The riddle of her sights and sounds;
Back still the vaulted mystery gives
The echoed question it receives.        60
What sings the brook? What oracle
Is in the pine-tree’s organ swell?
What may the wind’s low burden be?
The meaning of the moaning sea?
The hieroglyphics of the stars?        65
Or clouded sunset’s crimson bars?
I vainly ask, for mocks my skill
The trick of Nature’s cipher still.
 
I turn from Nature unto men,
I ask the stylus and the pen;        70
What sang the bards of old? What meant
The prophets of the Orient?
The rolls of buried Egypt, hid
In painted tomb and pyramid?
What mean Idúmea’s arrowy lines,        75
Or dusk Elora’s monstrous signs?
How speaks the primal thought of man
From the grim carvings of Copan?
Where rests the secret? Where the keys
Of the old death-bolted mysteries?        80
Alas! the dead retain their trust;
Dust hath no answer from the dust.
 
The great enigma still unguessed,
Unanswered the eternal quest;
I gather up the scattered rays        85
Of wisdom in the early days,
Faint gleams and broken, like the light
Of meteors in a northern night,
Betraying to the darkling earth
The unseen sun which gave them birth;        90
I listen to the sibyl’s chant,
The voice of priest and hierophant;
I know what Indian Kreeshna saith,
And what of life and what of death
The demon taught to Socrates;        95
And what, beneath his garden-trees
Slow pacing, with a dream-like tread,
The solemn-thoughted Plato said;
Nor lack I tokens, great or small,
Of God’s clear light in each and all,        100
While holding with more dear regard
The scroll of Hebrew seer and bard,
The starry pages promise-lit
With Christ’s Evangel over-writ,
Thy miracle of life and death,        105
O Holy One of Nazareth!
 
On Aztec ruins, gray and lone,
The circling serpent coils in stone,—
Type of the endless and unknown;
Whereof we seek the clue to find,        110
With groping fingers of the blind!
Forever sought, and never found,
We trace that serpent-symbol round
Our resting-place, our starting bound!
Oh, thriftlessness of dream and guess!        115
Oh, wisdom which is foolishness!
Why idly seek from outward things
The answer inward silence brings?
Why stretch beyond our proper sphere
And age, for that which lies so near?        120
Why climb the far-off hills with pain,
A nearer view of heaven to gain?
In lowliest depths of bosky dells
The hermit Contemplation dwells.
A fountain’s pine-hung slope his seat,        125
And lotus-twined his silent feet,
Whence, piercing heaven, with screenëd sight,
He sees at noon the stars, whose light
Shall glorify the coming night.
 
Here let me pause, my quest forego;        130
Enough for me to feel and know
That He in whom the cause and end,
The past and future, meet and blend,—
Who, girt with his Immensities,
Our vast and star-hung system sees,        135
Small as the clustered Pleiades,—
Moves not alone the heavenly quires,
But waves the spring-time’s grassy spires,
Guards not archangel feet alone,
But deigns to guide and keep my own;        140
Speaks not alone the words of fate
Which worlds destroy, and worlds create,
But whispers in my spirit’s ear,
In tones of love, or warning fear,
A language none beside may hear.        145
 
To Him, from wanderings long and wild,
I come, an over-wearied child,
In cool and shade His peace to find,
Like dew-fall settling on my mind.
Assured that all I know is best,        150
And humbly trusting for the rest,
I turn from Fancy’s cloud-built scheme,
Dark creed, and mournful eastern dream
Of power, impersonal and cold,
Controlling all, itself controlled,        155
Maker and slave of iron laws,
Alike the subject and the cause;
From vain philosophies, that try
The sevenfold gates of mystery,
And, baffled ever, babble still,        160
Word-prodigal of fate and will;
From Nature, and her mockery, Art,
And book and speech of men apart,
To the still witness in my heart;
With reverence waiting to behold        165
His Avatár of love untold,
The Eternal Beauty new and old!

  1852.
 
 
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