Verse > John Greenleaf Whittier > The Poetical Works in Four Volumes
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CONTENTS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892).  The Poetical Works in Four Volumes.  1892.
 
The Tent on the Beach
The Grave by the Lake
 
          At the mouth of the Melvin River, which empties into Moultonboro Bay in Lake Winnipesaukee, is a great mound. The Ossipee Indians had their home in the neighborhood of the bay, which is plentifully stocked with fish, and many relics of their occupation have been found.

WHERE the Great Lake’s sunny smiles
Dimple round its hundred isles,
And the mountain’s granite ledge
Cleaves the water like a wedge,
Ringed about with smooth, gray stones,        5
Rest the giant’s mighty bones.
 
Close beside, in shade and gleam,
Laughs and ripples Melvin stream;
Melvin water, mountain-born,
All fair flowers its banks adorn;        10
All the woodland’s voices meet,
Mingling with its murmurs sweet.
 
Over lowlands forest-grown,
Over waters island-strown,
Over silver-sanded beach,        15
Leaf-locked bay and misty reach,
Melvin stream and burial-heap,
Watch and ward the mountains keep.
 
Who that Titan cromlech fills?
Forest-kaiser, lord o’ the hills?        20
Knight who on the birchen tree
Carved his savage heraldry?
Priest o’ the pine-wood temples dim,
Prophet, sage, or wizard grim?
 
Rugged type of primal man,        25
Grim utilitarian,
Loving woods for hunt and prowl,
Lake and hill for fish and fowl,
As the brown bear blind and dull
To the grand and beautiful:        30
 
Not for him the lesson drawn
From the mountains smit with dawn.
Star-rise, moon-rise, flowers of May,
Sunset’s purple bloom of day,—
Took his life no hue from thence,        35
Poor amid such affluence?
 
Haply unto hill and tree
All too near akin was he:
Unto him who stands afar
Nature’s marvels greatest are;        40
Who the mountain purple seeks
Must not climb the higher peaks.
 
Yet who knows in winter tramp,
Or the midnight of the camp,
What revealings faint and far,        45
Stealing down from moon and star,
Kindled in that human clod
Thought of destiny and God?
 
Stateliest forest patriarch,
Grand in robes of skin and bark,        50
What sepulchral mysteries,
What weird funeral-rites, were his?
What sharp wail, what drear lament,
Back scared wolf and eagle sent?
 
Now, whate’er he may have been,        55
Low he lies as other men;
On his mound the partridge drums,
There the noisy blue-jay comes;
Rank nor name nor pomp has he
In the grave’s democracy.        60
 
Part thy blue lips, Northern lake!
Moss-grown rocks, your silence break!
Tell the tale, thou ancient tree!
Thou, too, slide-worn Ossipee!
Speak, and tell us how and when        65
Lived and died this king of men!
 
Wordless moans the ancient pine;
Lake and mountain give no sign;
Vain to trace this ring of stones;
Vain the search of crumbling bones:        70
Deepest of all mysteries,
And the saddest, silence is.
 
Nameless, noteless, clay with clay
Mingles slowly day by day;
But somewhere, for good or ill,        75
That dark soul is living still;
Somewhere yet that atom’s force
Moves the light-poised universe.
 
Strange that on his burial-sod
Harebells bloom, and golden-rod,        80
While the soul’s dark horoscope
Holds no starry sign of hope!
Is the Unseen with sign at odds?
Nature’s pity more than God’s?
 
Thus I mused by Melvin’s side,        85
While the summer eventide
Made the woods and inland sea
And the mountains mystery;
And the hush of earth and air
Seemed the pause before a prayer,—        90
 
Prayer for him, for all who rest,
Mother Earth, upon thy breast,—
Lapped on Christian turf, or hid
In rock-cave or pyramid:
All who sleep, as all who live,        95
Well may need the prayer, “Forgive!”
 
Desert-smothered caravan,
Knee-deep dust that once was man,
Battle-trenches ghastly piled,
Ocean-floors with white bones tiled,        100
Crowded tomb and mounded sod,
Dumbly crave that prayer to God.
 
Oh, the generations old
Over whom no church-bells tolled,
Christless, lifting up blind eyes        105
To the silence of the skies!
For the innumerable dead
Is my soul disquieted.
 
Where be now these silent hosts?
Where the camping-ground of ghosts?        110
Where the spectral conscripts led
To the white tents of the dead?
What strange shore or chartless sea
Holds the awful mystery?
 
Then the warm sky stooped to make        115
Double sunset in the lake;
While above I saw with it,
Range on range, the mountains lit;
And the calm and splendor stole
Like an answer to my soul.        120
 
Hear’st thou, O of little faith,
What to thee the mountain saith,
What is whispered by the trees?—
“Cast on God thy care for these;
Trust Him, if thy sight be dim:        125
Doubt for them is doubt of Him.
 
“Blind must be their close-shut eyes
Where like night the sunshine lies,
Fiery-linked the self-forged chain
Binding ever sin to pain,        130
Strong their prison-house of will,
But without He waiteth still.
 
“Not with hatred’s undertow
Doth the Love Eternal flow;
Every chain that spirits wear        135
Crumbles in the breath of prayer;
And the penitent’s desire
Opens every gate of fire.
 
“Still Thy love, O Christ arisen,
Yearns to reach these souls in prison!        140
Through all depths of sin and loss
Drops the plummet of Thy cross!
Never yet abyss was found
Deeper than that cross could sound!”
 
Therefore well may Nature keep        145
Equal faith with all who sleep,
Set her watch of hills around
Christian grave and heathen mound,
And to cairn and kirkyard send
Summer’s flowery dividend.        150
 
Keep, O pleasant Melvin stream,
Thy sweet laugh in shade and gleam!
On the Indian’s grassy tomb
Swing, O flowers, your bells of bloom!
Deep below, as high above,        155
Sweeps the circle of God’s love.
  1865.
*        *        *        *        *
  He paused and questioned with his eye
    The hearers’ verdict on his song.
  A low voice asked: Is ’t well to pry
    Into the secrets which belong        160
  Only to God?—The life to be
  Is still the unguessed mystery:
Unscaled, unpierced the cloudy walls remain,
We beat with dream and wish the soundless doors in vain.
 
  “But faith beyond our sight may go.”        165
    He said: “The gracious Fatherhood
  Can only know above, below,
    Eternal purposes of good.
  From our free heritage of will,
  The bitter springs of pain and ill        170
Flow only in all worlds. The perfect day
Of God is shadowless, and love is love alway.”
 
  “I know,” she said, “the letter kills;
    That on our arid fields of strife
  And heat of clashing texts distils        175
    The dew of spirit and of life.
  But, searching still the written Word,
  I fain would find, Thus saith the Lord,
A voucher for the hope I also feel
That sin can give no wound beyond love’s power to heal.”        180
 
  “Pray,” said the Man of Books, “give o’er
    A theme too vast for time and place.
  Go on, Sir Poet, ride once more
    Your hobby at his old free pace.
  But let him keep, with step discreet,        185
  The solid earth beneath his feet.
In the great mystery which around us lies,
The wisest is a fool, the fool Heaven-helped is wise.”
 
  The Traveller said: “If songs have creeds,
    Their choice of them let singers make;        190
  But Art no other sanction needs
    Than beauty for its own fair sake.
  It grinds not in the mill of use,
  Nor asks for leave, nor begs excuse;
It makes the flexile laws it deigns to own,        195
And gives its atmosphere its color and its tone.
 
  “Confess, old friend, your austere school
    Has left your fancy little chance;
  You square to reason’s rigid rule
    The flowing outlines of romance.        200
  With conscience keen from exercise,
  And chronic fear of compromise,
You check the free play of your rhymes, to clap
A moral underneath, and spring it like a trap.”
 
  The sweet voice answered: “Better so        205
    Than bolder flights that know no check;
  Better to use the bit, than throw
    The reins all loose on fancy’s neck.
  The liberal range of Art should be
  The breadth of Christian liberty,        210
Restrained alone by challenge and alarm
Where its charmed footsteps tread the border land of harm.
 
  “Beyond the poet’s sweet dream lives
    The eternal epic of the man.
  He wisest is who only gives,        215
    True to himself, the best he can;
  Who, drifting in the winds of praise,
  The inward monitor obeys;
And, with the boldness that confesses fear,
Takes in the crowded sail, and lets his conscience steer.        220
 
  “Thanks for the fitting word he speaks,
    Nor less for doubtful word unspoken;
  For the false model that he breaks,
    As for the moulded grace unbroken;
  For what is missed and what remains,        225
  For losses which are truest gains,
For reverence conscious of the Eternal eye,
And truth too fair to need the garnish of a lie.”
 
  Laughing, the Critic bowed. “I yield
    The point without another word;        230
  Who ever yet a case appealed
    Where beauty’s judgment had been heard?
  And you, my good friend, owe to me
  Your warmest thanks for such a plea,
As true withal as sweet. For my offence        235
Of cavil, let her words be ample recompense.”
 
  Across the sea one lighthouse star,
    With crimson ray that came and went,
  Revolving on its tower afar,
    Looked through the doorway of the tent.        240
  While outward, over sand-slopes wet,
  The lamp flashed down its yellow jet
On the long wash of waves, with red and green
Tangles of weltering weed through the white foam-wreaths seen.
 
  “‘Sing while we may,—another day        245
    May bring enough of sorrow;’—thus
  Our Traveller in his own sweet lay,
    His Crimean camp-song, hints to us,” 1
  The lady said. “So let it be;
  Sing us a song,” exclaimed all three.        250
She smiled: “I can but marvel at your choice
To hear our poet’s words through my poor borrowed voice.”
 

      Her window opens to the bay,
      On glistening light or misty gray,
      And there at dawn and set of day        255
          In prayer she kneels.
      “Dear Lord!” she saith, “to many a home
      From wind and wave the wanderers come;
      I only see the tossing foam
          Of stranger keels.        260
 
      “Blown out and in by summer gales,
      The stately ships, with crowded sails,
      And sailors leaning o’er their rails,
          Before me glide;
      They come, they go, but nevermore,        265
      Spice-laden from the Indian shore,
      I see his swift-winged Isidore
          The waves divide.
 
      “O Thou! with whom the night is day
      And one the near and far away,        270
      Look out on yon gray waste, and say
          Where lingers he.
      Alive, perchance, on some lone beach
      Or thirsty isle beyond the reach
      Of man, he hears the mocking speech        275
          Of wind and sea.
 
      “O dread and cruel deep, reveal
      The secret which thy waves conceal,
      And, ye wild sea-birds, hither wheel
          And tell your tale.        280
      Let winds that tossed his raven hair
      A message from my lost one bear,—
      Some thought of me, a last fond prayer
          Or dying wail!
 
      “Come, with your dreariest truth shut out        285
      The fears that haunt me round about;
      O God! I cannot bear this doubt
          That stifles breath.
      The worst is better than the dread;
      Give me but leave to mourn my dead        290
      Asleep in trust and hope, instead
          Of life in death!”
 
      It might have been the evening breeze
      That whispered in the garden trees,
      It might have been the sound of seas        295
          That rose and fell;
      But, with her heart, if not her ear,
      The old loved voice she seemed to hear:
      “I wait to meet thee: be of cheer,
          For all is well!”
  1865.
*        *        *        *        *
        300
  The sweet voice into silence went,
    A silence which was almost pain
  As through it rolled the long lament,
    The cadence of the mournful main.
  Glancing his written pages o’er,        305
  The Reader tried his part once more;
Leaving the land of hackmatack and pine
For Tuscan valleys glad with olive and with vine.
 
Note 1. The reference is to Bayard Taylor’s poem, The Song of the Camp. [back]
 
 
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