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 Prayer of Agassiz
 
          The island of Penikese in Buzzard’s Bay was given by Mr. John Anderson to Agassiz for the uses of a summer school of natural history. A large barn was cleared and improvised as a lecture-room. Here, on the first morning of the school, all the company was gathered. “Agassiz had arranged no programme of exercises,” says Mrs. Agassiz, in Louis Agassiz; his Life and Correspondence, “trusting to the interest of the occasion to suggest what might best be said or done. But, as he looked upon his pupils gathered there to study nature with him, by an impulse as natural as it was unpremeditated, he called upon them to join in silently asking God’s blessing on their work together. The pause was broken by the first words of an address no less fervent than its unspoken prelude.” This was in the summer of 1873, and Agassiz died the December following.

ON the isle of Penikese,
Ringed about by sapphire seas,
Fanned by breezes salt and cool,
Stood the Master with his school.
Over sails that not in vain        5
Wooed the west-wind’s steady strain,
Line of coast that low and far
Stretched its undulating bar,
Wings aslant along the rim
Of the waves they stooped to skim,        10
Rock and isle and glistening bay,
Fell the beautiful white day.
 
Said the Master to the youth:
“We have come in search of truth,
Trying with uncertain key        15
Door by door of mystery;
We are reaching, through His laws,
To the garment-hem of Cause,
Him, the endless, unbegun,
The Unnamable, the One        20
Light of all our light the Source,
Life of life, and Force of force.
As with fingers of the blind,
We are groping here to find
What the hieroglyphics mean        25
Of the Unseen in the seen,
What the Thought which underlies
Nature’s masking and disguise,
What it is that hides beneath
Blight and bloom and birth and death.        30
By past efforts unavailing,
Doubt and error, loss and failing,
Of our weakness made aware,
On the threshold of our task
Let us light and guidance ask,        35
Let us pause in silent prayer!”
 
Then the Master in his place
Bowed his head a little space,
And the leaves by soft airs stirred,
Lapse of wave and cry of bird,        40
Left the solemn hush unbroken
Of that wordless prayer unspoken,
While its wish, on earth unsaid,
Rose to heaven interpreted.
As, in life’s best hours, we hear        45
By the spirit’s finer ear
His low voice within us, thus
The All-Father heareth us;
And His holy ear we pain
With our noisy words and vain.        50
Not for Him our violence
Storming at the gates of sense,
His the primal language, His
The eternal silences!
 
Even the careless heart was moved,        55
And the doubting gave assent,
With a gesture reverent,
To the Master well-beloved.
As thin mists are glorified
By the light they cannot hide,        60
All who gazed upon him saw,
Through its veil of tender awe,
How his face was still uplit
By the old sweet look of it,
Hopeful, trustful, full of cheer,        65
And the love that casts out fear.
Who the secret may declare
Of that brief, unuttered prayer?
Did the shade before him come
Of th’ inevitable doom,        70
Of the end of earth so near,
And Eternity’s new year?
 
In the lap of sheltering seas
Rests the isle of Penikese;
But the lord of the domain        75
Comes not to his own again:
Where the eyes that follow fail,
On a vaster sea his sail
Drifts beyond our beck and hail.
Other lips within its bound        80
Shall the laws of life expound;
Other eyes from rock and shell
Read the world’s old riddles well:
But when breezes light and bland
Blow from Summer’s blossomed land,        85
When the air is glad with wings,
And the blithe song-sparrow sings,
Many an eye with his still face
Shall the living ones displace,
Many an ear the word shall seek        90
He alone could fitly speak.
And one name forevermore
Shall be uttered o’er and o’er
By the waves that kiss the shore,
By the curlew’s whistle sent        95
Down the cool, sea-scented air;
In all voices known to her,
Nature owns her worshipper,
Half in triumph, half lament.
Thither Love shall tearful turn,        100
Friendship pause uncovered there,
And the wisest reverence learn
From the Master’s silent prayer.

  1873.
 
 
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