James Brunton Stephens (17 June 1835 – 29 June 1902 / Borrowstounness, on the Firth of Forth, Scotland;)
A Coin of Trajan in Australia
Through what strange winding ways of circumstance,
Through what conspiracies of time and chance,
By what long chain of hands, from his who pressed
Upon thy disc the Imperial countenance,
Then threw thee, one of many, with the rest—
By what long chain of hands, a living line
Of transfer hast thou come from his to mine?
Could I but trace thee back from mine to his,
Through the long process of the centuries
From touch to touch of hands that took or gave,
And read as current things the destinies
Writ on each palm—of master, matron, slave—
Whereon a moment thou hast lain, I should
Know all that life can hold of ill or good.
How strange to think, nigh two millenniums gone,
While yet thy legend white from mintage shone,
At such an hour of just such day divine,
Some Roman maiden's hand thou layest upon,
Whose living warmth became a moment thine—
That into this thine actual substance stole
The gentle tremors pulsing from her soul!
Nor yet less strange to think of what long space
Thou layest forgot in some forgotten place
While Empire fell, or passed to Pontiff-Kings,
And while the gradual darkening of thy face
Was all thy share in all the change of things,
Till some chance hand thy secret touched at last
And drew thee forth to witness of the past;—
To be, when after lapse of many days
Thy vagrant fate through unrecorded ways
At length had brought thee to this alien clime,
A voice that, heedless all of blame or praise,
Protests the spirit of a regal time
Against a later dispensation, when
No more doth glory sway the souls of men.
Sway me one instant with the glory gone,
One dazzled moment let me gaze upon
What is impossible again to be,
This image and this superscription con
As when in silver glow of novelty
They stood for present Empire, and designed
A god incarnate throned amid mankind!—
* * * * *
Oh, magic disc, responsive to my mood!
I saw him on his dizzy altitude,
Serene, august, the lord of all the world!
Imperial in a space of light he stood,
While round his feet in storm-lit turmoil whirled
A cloud of striving Dignities, that hid
From him all nether woes ill-auguried.
Above distraction, and beyond dispute,
The incommunicable attribute
Of majesty made fiat of his breath;
And when all fain of some imagined suit
I lifted suppliant hands for life or death,
And caught his glance of calm Olympian pride,
I swooned, and, swooning, “Ave Caesar,” cried!
* * * * *
The glory-tissued vision, warp and woof,
Dissolves before the sense of self-reproof.
Ah, foolish-fain of pictured History!
This in the only land beneath heav'n's roof
Where never yet hath manhood bent the knee
To man the one sole continent whose sod
The foot of regnant kinghood ne'er hath trod!
And yet—and yet—though all around us lies
The freest land beneath the o'er-arching skies,
Rich in a polity of common weal,
Is there among us aught that justifies
The scorn of ancient things? Can we repeal
The union 'twixt the present and the past,
And place ourselves as first, whom God made last
Because of that which was is that which is;
We are the children of the centuries;
And if our ancients in excess of awe
To Caesar rendered even more than his,
We reap their legacy in sense of law;
Yea, Freedom conscious grew by stress of thrall
The might of one revealed the strength of all.
Comments about this poem (A Coin of Trajan in Australia by James Brunton Stephens )
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