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Elizabeth Barrett Browning

(6 March 1806 – 29 June 1861 / Durham / England)

Human Life’s Mystery


We sow the glebe, we reap the corn,
We build the house where we may rest,
And then, at moments, suddenly,
We look up to the great wide sky,
Inquiring wherefore we were born…
For earnest or for jest?

The senses folding thick and dark
About the stifled soul within,
We guess diviner things beyond,
And yearn to them with yearning fond;
We strike out blindly to a mark
Believed in, but not seen.

We vibrate to the pant and thrill
Wherewith Eternity has curled
In serpent-twine about God’s seat;
While, freshening upward to His feet,
In gradual growth His full-leaved will
Expands from world to world.

And, in the tumult and excess
Of act and passion under sun,
We sometimes hear—oh, soft and far,
As silver star did touch with star,
The kiss of Peace and Righteousness
Through all things that are done.

God keeps His holy mysteries
Just on the outside of man’s dream;
In diapason slow, we think
To hear their pinions rise and sink,
While they float pure beneath His eyes,
Like swans adown a stream.

Abstractions, are they, from the forms
Of His great beauty?—exaltations
From His great glory?—strong previsions
Of what we shall be?—intuitions
Of what we are—in calms and storms,
Beyond our peace and passions?

Things nameless! which, in passing so,
Do stroke us with a subtle grace.
We say, ‘Who passes?’—they are dumb.
We cannot see them go or come:
Their touches fall soft, cold, as snow
Upon a blind man’s face.

Yet, touching so, they draw above
Our common thoughts to Heaven’s unknown,
Our daily joy and pain advance
To a divine significance,
Our human love—O mortal love,
That light is not its own!

And sometimes horror chills our blood
To be so near such mystic Things,
And we wrap round us for defence
Our purple manners, moods of sense—
As angels from the face of God
Stand hidden in their wings.

And sometimes through life’s heavy swound
We grope for them!—with strangled breath
We stretch our hands abroad and try
To reach them in our agony,—
And widen, so, the broad life-wound
Which soon is large enough for death.

Submitted: Thursday, January 01, 2004

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