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
The Meeting
 
          The two speakers in the meeting referred to in this poem were Avis Keene, whose very presence was a benediction, a woman lovely in spirit and person, whose words seemed a message of love and tender concern to her hearers; and Sibyl Jones, whose inspired eloquence and rare spirituality impressed all who knew her. In obedience to her apprehended duty she made visits of Christian love to various parts of Europe, and to the West Coast of Africa and Palestine.

THE ELDER folks shook hands at last,
Down seat by seat the signal passed.
To simple ways like ours unused,
Half solemnized and half amused,
With long-drawn breath and shrug, my guest        5
His sense of glad relief expressed.
Outside, the hills lay warm in sun;
The cattle in the meadow-run
Stood half-leg deep; a single bird
The green repose above us stirred.        10
“What part or lot have you,” he said,
“In these dull rites of drowsy-head?
Is silence worship? Seek it where
It soothes with dreams the summer air,
Not in this close and rude-benched hall,        15
But where soft lights and shadows fall,
And all the slow, sleep-walking hours
Glide soundless over grass and flowers!
From time and place and form apart,
Its holy ground the human heart,        20
Nor ritual-bound nor templeward
Walks the free spirit of the Lord!
Our common Master did not pen
His followers up from other men;
His service liberty indeed,        25
He built no church, He framed no creed;
But while the saintly Pharisee
Made broader his phylactery,
As from the synagogue was seen
The dusty-sandalled Nazarene        30
Through ripening cornfields lead the way
Upon the awful Sabbath day,
His sermons were the healthful talk
That shorter made the mountain-walk,
His wayside texts were flowers and birds,        35
Where mingled with His gracious words
The rustle of the tamarisk-tree
And ripple-wash of Galilee.”
 
“Thy words are well, O friend,” I said;
“Unmeasured and unlimited,        40
With noiseless slide of stone to stone,
The mystic Church of God has grown.
Invisible and silent stands
The temple never made with hands,
Unheard the voices still and small        45
Of its unseen confessional.
He needs no special place of prayer
Whose hearing ear is everywhere;
He brings not back the childish days
That ringed the earth with stones of praise,        50
Roofed Karnak’s hall of gods, and laid
The plinths of Philæ’s colonnade.
Still less He owns the selfish good
And sickly growth of solitude,—
The worthless grace that, out of sight,        55
Flowers in the desert anchorite;
Dissevered from the suffering whole,
Love hath no power to save a soul.
Not out of Self, the origin
And native air and soil of sin,        60
The living waters spring and flow,
The trees with leaves of healing grow.
 
“Dream not, O friend, because I seek
This quiet shelter twice a week,
I better deem its pine-laid floor        65
Than breezy hill or sea-sung shore;
But nature is not solitude:
She crowds us with her thronging wood;
Her many hands reach out to us,
Her many tongues are garrulous;        70
Perpetual riddles of surprise
She offers to our ears and eyes;
She will not leave our senses still,
But drags them captive at her will:
And, making earth too great for heaven,        75
She hides the Giver in the given.
 
“And so, I find it well to come
For deeper rest to this still room,
For here the habit of the soul
Feels less the outer world’s control;        80
The strength of mutual purpose pleads
More earnestly our common needs;
And from the silence multiplied
By these still forms on either side,
The world that time and sense have known        85
Falls off and leaves us God alone.
 
“Yet rarely through the charmed repose
Unmixed the stream of motive flows,
A flavor of its many springs,
The tints of earth and sky it brings;        90
In the still waters needs must be
Some shade of human sympathy;
And here, in its accustomed place,
I look on memory’s dearest face;
The blind by-sitter guesseth not        95
What shadow haunts that vacant spot;
No eyes save mine alone can see
The love wherewith it welcomes me!
And still, with those alone my kin,
In doubt and weakness, want and sin,        100
I bow my head, my heart I bare
As when that face was living there,
And strive (too oft, alas! in vain)
The peace of simple trust to gain,
Fold fancy’s restless wings, and lay        105
The idols of my heart away.
 
“Welcome the silence all unbroken,
Nor less the words of fitness spoken,—
Such golden words as hers for whom
Our autumn flowers have just made room;        110
Whose hopeful utterance through and through
The freshness of the morning blew;
Who loved not less the earth that light
Fell on it from the heavens in sight,
But saw in all fair forms more fair        115
The Eternal beauty mirrored there.
Whose eighty years but added grace
And saintlier meaning to her face,—
The look of one who bore away
Glad tidings from the hills of day,        120
While all our hearts went forth to meet
The coming of her beautiful feet!
Or haply hers, whose pilgrim tread
Is in the paths where Jesus led;
Who dreams her childhood’s sabbath dream        125
By Jordan’s willow-shaded stream,
And, of the hymns of hope and faith,
Sung by the monks of Nazareth,
Hears pious echoes, in the call
To prayer, from Moslem minarets fall,        130
Repeating where His works were wrought
The lesson that her Master taught,
Of whom an elder Sibyl gave,
The prophecies of Cumæ’s cave!
 
“I ask no organ’s soulless breath        135
To drone the themes of life and death,
No altar candle-lit by day,
No ornate wordsman’s rhetoric-play,
No cool philosophy to teach
Its bland audacities of speech        140
To double-tasked idolaters
Themselves their gods and worshippers,
No pulpit hammered by the fist
Of loud-asserting dogmatist,
Who borrows for the Hand of love        145
The smoking thunderbolts of Jove.
I know how well the fathers taught,
What work the later schoolmen wrought;
I reverence old-time faith and men,
But God is near us now as then;        150
His force of love is still unspent,
His hate of sin as imminent;
And still the measure of our needs
Outgrows the cramping bounds of creeds;
The manna gathered yesterday        155
Already savors of decay;
Doubts to the world’s child-heart unknown
Question us now from star and stone;
Too little or too much we know,
And sight is swift and faith is slow;        160
The power is lost to self-deceive
With shallow forms of make-believe.
We walk at high noon, and the bells
Call to a thousand oracles,
But the sound deafens, and the light        165
Is stronger than our dazzled sight;
The letters of the sacred Book
Glimmer and swim beneath our look;
Still struggles in the Age’s breast
With deepening agony of quest        170
The old entreaty: ‘Art thou He,
Or look we for the Christ to be?’
 
“God should be most where man is least:
So, where is neither church nor priest,
And never rag of form or creed        175
To clothe the nakedness of need,—
Where farmer-folk in silence meet,—
I turn my bell-unsummoned feet;
I lay the critic’s glass aside,
I tread upon my lettered pride,        180
And, lowest-seated, testify
To the oneness of humanity;
Confess the universal want,
And share whatever Heaven may grant.
He findeth not who seeks his own,        185
The soul is lost that ’s saved alone.
Not on one favored forehead fell
Of old the fire-tongued miracle,
But flamed o’er all the thronging host
The baptism of the Holy Ghost;        190
Heart answers heart: in one desire
The blending lines of prayer aspire;
‘Where, in my name, meet two or three,’
Our Lord hath said, ‘I there will be!’
 
“So sometimes comes to soul and sense        195
The feeling which is evidence
That very near about us lies
The realm of spiritual mysteries.
The sphere of the supernal powers
Impinges on this world of ours.        200
The low and dark horizon lifts,
To light the scenic terror shifts;
The breath of a diviner air
Blows down the answer of a prayer:
That all our sorrow, pain, and doubt        205
A great compassion clasps about,
And law and goodness, love and force,
Are wedded fast beyond divorce.
Then duty leaves to love its task,
The beggar Self forgets to ask;        210
With smile of trust and folded hands,
The passive soul in waiting stands
To feel, as flowers the sun and dew,
The One true Life its own renew.
 
“So, to the calmly gathered thought        215
The innermost of truth is taught,
The mystery dimly understood,
That love of God is love of good,
And, chiefly, its divinest trace
In Him of Nazareth’s holy face;        220
That to be saved is only this,—
Salvation from our selfishness,
From more than elemental fire,
The soul’s unsanctified desire,
From sin itself, and not the pain        225
That warns us of its chafing chain;
That worship’s deeper meaning lies
In mercy, and not sacrifice,
Not proud humilities of sense
And posturing of penitence,        230
But love’s unforced obedience;
That Book and Church and Day are given
For man, not God,—for earth, not heaven,—
The blessed means to holiest ends,
Not masters, but benignant friends;        235
That the dear Christ dwells not afar,
The king of some remoter star,
Listening, at times, with flattered ear
To homage wrung from selfish fear,
But here, amidst the poor and blind,        240
The bound and suffering of our kind,
In works we do, in prayers we pray,
Life of our life, He lives to-day.”

  1868.
 
 
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