Augusta Davies Webster (30 January 1837 - 5 September 1894 / Dorset, England)
A Soul in Prison
(The Doubter lays aside his book.)
"Answered a score of times." Oh, looked for teacher,
is this all you will teach me? I in the dark
reaching my hand for you to help me forth
to the happy sunshine where you stand, "Oh shame,
to be in the dark there, prisoned!" answer you;
"there are ledges somewhere there by which strong feet
might scale to daylight: I would lift you out
with just a touch, but that your need's so slight;
for there are ledges." And I grope and strain,
think I've found footing, and slip baffled back,
slip, maybe, deeper downwards. "Oh, my guide,
I find no ledges: help me: say at least
where they are placed, that I may know to seek."
But you in anger, "Nay, wild wilful soul,
thou will rot in the dark, God's sunshine here
at thy prison's very lip: blame not the guide;
have I not told thee there is footing for thee?"
and so you leave me, and with even tread
guide men along the highway ... where, I think,
they need you less.
Say 'twas my wanton haste,
or my drowsed languor, my too earthward eyes
watching for hedge flowers, or my too rapt gaze
it the mock sunshine of a sky-born cloud,
that led me, blindling, here: say the black walls
grew round me while I slept, or that I built
with ignorant hands a temple for my soul
to pray in to herself, and that, for want
of a window heavenwards, a loathsome night
of mildew and decay festered upon it,
till the rotted pillars fell and tombed me in:
let it so be my fault, whichever way,
must I be left to die? A murderer
is helped by holy hands to the byway road
that comes at God through shame; a thief is helped;
A harlot; a sleek cozener that prays,
swindles his customers, and gives God thanks,
and so to bed with prayers. Let them repent,
lay let them not repent, you'll say "These souls
may yet be saved, and make a joy in heaven:"
you are thankful you have found them, you whose charge
is healing sin. But I, hundreds as I,
whose sorrow 'tis only to long to know,
and know too plainly that we know not yet,
we are beyond your mercies. You pass by
and note the moral of our fate: 'twill point
a Sunday's sermon ... for we have our use,
boggarts to placid Christians in their pews--
"Question not, prove not, lest you grow like these:"
and then you tell them how we daze ourselves
on problems now so many times resolved
that you'll not re-resolve them, how we crave
new proofs, as once an evil race desired
new signs and could not see, for stubbornness,
signs given already.
Proofs enough, you say,
quote precedent, "Hear Moses and the prophets."
I know the answer given across the gulf,
but I know too what Christ did: there were proofs,
enough for John and Peter, yet He taught
new proofs and meanings to those doubting two
who sorrowing walked forth to Emmaus
and came back joyful.
"They," you'd answer me,
if you owned my instance, "sorrowed in their doubt,
and did not wholly doubt, and loved."
who read the age's heart in library books
writ by our fathers, this is how you know it!
Do we say "The old faith is obsolete,
the world wags all the better, let us laugh,"
we of to-day? Why will you not divine
the fathomless sorrow of doubt? why not divine
the yearning to be lost from it in love?
And who doubts wholly? That were not to doubt.
Doubt's to be ignorant, not to deny:
doubt's to be wistful after perfect faith.
You will not think that: you come not to us
to ask of us, who know doubt, what doubt is,
but one by one you pass the echoes on,
each of his own pulpit, each of all the pulpits,
and in the swelling sound can never catch
the tremulous voice of doubt that wails in the cold:
you make sham thunder for it, to outpeal
with your own better thunders.
You wise man
and worthy, utter honest in your will,
I love you and I trust you: so I thought
"Here's one whose love keeps measure to belief
with onward vigorous feet, one quick of sight
to catch the clue in scholars' puzzle-knots,
deft to unweave the coil to one straight thread,
one strong to grapple vague Protean faith
and keep her to his heart in one fixed shape
and living; he comes forward in his strength,
as to a battlefield to answer challenge,
as in a storm to buffet with the waves
for shipwrecked men clutching the frothy crests
and sinking; he is stalwart on my side--
mine, who, untrained and weaponless, have warred
at the powers of unbelief, and am borne down--
mine, who am struggling in the sea for breath."
I looked to you as the sick man in his pain
looks to the doctor whose sharp medicines
have the taste of health behind them, looked to you
for--well, for a boon different from this.
My doctor tells me "Why, quite long ago
they knew your fever (or one very like);
and they knew remedies, you'll find them named
in many ancient writers, let those serve:"
and "Thick on the commons, by the daily roads,
the herbs are growing that give instant strength
to palsied limbs like yours, clear such filmed sight:
you need but eyes to spy them, hands to uproot,
Strong accustomed eyes,
strong tutored hands, see for me, reach for me!
But there's a cry like mine rings through the world,
and no help comes. And with slow severing rasp
at our very heart-roots the toothed question grates,
"Do these, who know most, not know anything?"
Oh, teachers, will you teach us? Growing, growing,
like the great river made of little brooks,
our once unrest swells to a smooth despair:
stop us those little brooks; you say you can.
Oh, teachers, teach us, you who have been taught;
learn for us, you who have learned how to learn:
we, jostling, jostled, through the market world
where our work lies, lack breathing space, lack calm,
lack skill, lack tools, lack heart, lack everything,
for your work of the studies. Such roughed minds
we bring to it as when the ploughman tries
his hard unpliant fingers at the pen;
so toil and smudge, then put the blurred scrawl by,
unfinished, till next holiday comes round.
Thus maybe I shall die and the blurred scrawl
be still unfinished, where I try to write
some clear belief, enough to get by heart.
Die still in the dark! Die having lived in the dark!
there's a sort of creeping horror thinking that.
'Tis hard too, for I yearned for light, grew dazed,
not by my sight's unuse and choice of gloom,
but by too bold a gaze at the sun,
thinking to apprehend his perfect light
not darkly through a glass.
Too bold, too bold.
Would I had been appeased with the earth's wont
of helpful daily sunbeams bringing down
only so much heaven's light as may be borne--
heaven's light enough for many a better man
to see his God by. Well, but it is done:
never in any day shall I now be
as if I had not gazed and seen strange lights
swim amid darknesses against the sky.
Never: and, when I dream as if I saw,
'tis dreaming of the sun, and, when I yearn
in agony to see, still do I yearn,
not for the sight I had in happier days,
but for the eagle's strong gaze at the sun.
Ah, well! that's after death, if all be true.
Nay, but for me, never, if all be true:
I love not God, because I know Him not,
I do but long to love Him--long and long
with an ineffable great pain of void;
I cannot say I love Him: that not said,
they of the creeds all tell me I am barred
from the very hope of knowing.
for daily I know less. 'Tis the old tale
of men lost in the mouldy vaults of mines
or dank crypt cemeteries--lamp puffed out,
guides, comrades, out of hearing, on and on
groping and pushing he makes farther way
from his goal of open daylight. Best to wait
till some one come to seek him. But the strain
of such a patience!--and "If no one comes!"
He cannot wait.
If one could hear a voice,
"Not yet, not yet: myself have still to find
what way to guide you forth, but I seek well,
I have the lamp you lack, I have a chart:
not yet; but hope." So might one strongly bear
through the long night, attend with hearkening breath
for the next word, stir not but as it bade.
Who will so cry to us?
Or is it true
you could come to us, guide us, but you will not?
You say it, and not we, teachers of faith;
must we believe you? Shall we not more think
our doubt is consciousness of ignorance,
your faith unconsciousness of ignorance;
so you know less than we?
My author here,
honest at heart, but has your mind a warp--
the zealot's warp, who takes believed for proved;
the disciple's warp, who takes all heard for proved;
the teacher's warp, who takes all taught for proved,
and cannot think "I know not"? Do you move
one stumbling-block that bars out souls from Heaven?
your back to it, you say, "I see no stone;
'tis a fool's dream, an enemy's false tale
to hinder passengers." And I who lean
broken against the stone?
Well, learned man,
I thank you for your book. 'Tis eloquent,
'tis subtle, resolute; I like the roar
of the big battling phrases, like those frets
of hissing irony--a book to read.
It helps one too--a sort of evidence--
to see so strong a mind so strongly clasped
to creeds whose truth one hopes. What would I more?
'tis a dark world, and no man lights another:
'tis a dark world, and no man sees so plain
as he believes he sees ... excepting those
who are mere blind and know it.
Here's a man
thinks his eyes' stretch can plainly scan out God,
and cannot plainly scan his neighbour's face--
he'll make you a hobgoblin, hoofs and horns,
of a poor cripple shivering at his door
begging a bit of food.
We get no food;
stones, stones: but then he but half sees, he trows
'tis honest bread he gives us.
A blind world.
Light! light! oh God, whose other name is Light,
Ay, ay, always if: thought's cursed with ifs.
Well, where's my book?--No "ifs" in that, I think;
a readable shrewd book; 'twill win the critics.
Comments about this poem (A Soul in Prison by Augusta Davies Webster )
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