Ada Cambridge (21 November 1844 – 19 July 1926 / St Gemans, Norfolk)
The Hand In The Dark
How calm the spangled city spread below!
How cool the night! How fair the starry skies!
How sweet the dewy breezes! But I know
What, under all their seeming beauty, lies.
That million-fibred heart, alive, is wrung
With every grief that human creatures fear.
Could its dumb anguish find a fitting tongue
The very dead within their graves would hear.
It calls me from my rest, that voiceless wail
Of Lazarus at the gate — my kith and kin
Whose cruise and cake, and staff and beacon, fail —
The famished crowd, that cannot enter in.
How can I take my ease amid this pain,
These pangs, these tears, these crimes, that never cease?
While homeless children cry for bread in vain
How can I eat? How can I sleep in peace?
Poor comrades of the fight, that have no place!
Brothers and sisters, born to want and wrong.
Born weak and maimed, to run a hopeless race,
Lost at the start, against the hale and strong!
Poor scapegoats of the wilderness, that fast
For those who feast! And, ah, poor feasters too!
They also thirst and hunger at the last.
And this is Life — and all the Race can do.
Vain, vain the listening ear, the questioning gaze.
Shoreless, unplumbed, the ether-ocean lies
Above these roofs, beyond the smoke and haze —
The Infinite — alive with watching eyes.
To see our orb of sorrow whirling there —
The tiny swarm of struggling things, that curse
Their subject province, and yet calmly dare
To claim the kingship of the Universe.
Dread cloud of witnesses to earth's disgrace!
Earth is my trust — I am afraid to look
Those still and stern accusers in the face,
And haste to hide in my familiar nook.
My little nook — where is it? Have I none?
I grow confused betwixt the sea and shore.
I had some lamps to guide me — one by one
They flashed and failed, and now I have no more.
Where am I? Oh, where am I? I can feel —
To feel my torment — but I cannot see,
I cannot hear. My brain begins to reel,
My heart to faint. Almighty, speak to me!
Help me! Or, in Thy pity, take me hence
While feeling heart and thinking brain are whole,
Or give me any rag of carnal sense,
So it suffice to wrap my naked soul!
* * * * *
No word. No sign. Yet something in the air
Soothes, like a cool hand on a fevered brow.
Replenished, from the ashes of despair
I rise renewed. Belovèd, where art thou?
She sleeps. She stirs. She hears the lightest fall
Of foot familiar with her chamber floor.
Her spirit answers to my spirit's call:
Come home! Come home! And I am saved once more.
Bringing no leaf of hope, alone and late,
Spent and wing-weary, famished for a crumb,
The wandering dove heads back to nest and mate.
My Love and Comforter, I come! I come!
Here is the welcome threshold of my ark,
My island-home amid the trackless flood.
Her hand shuts out the Silence and the Dark;
Her pulse thrills life into my fainting blood.
She draws me down upon that couch of bliss,
Her faithful arms, her tender mother-breast;
I clasp her close, those sweetest lips I kiss,
And, at long last, I have my hour of rest.
* * * * *
Thou, too, my love, hast wandered far and wide,
And hast come home, where all thy wanderings cease.
The door is shut. Thy mate is at thy side.
Here is thy long-sought pillow. Sleep in peace.
Heed not the patter of the weeping eaves,
The groan of branches bending to the rain,
The sad tap-tapping of dead autumn leaves,
Like ghostly fingers, on the window-pane.
The wind-borne echoings, from east and west,
Of weeping woe and wailing agony;
All night they cry round thy beleaguered nest,
But fear them not, for thou art safe with me.
Let the sad world spin on, a trail of shame
Amongst the myriad worlds. Whate'er befalls,
The great God knows that we are not to blame.
Our world is here, within our chamber walls.
In this asylum, secret and apart,
Whereof we keep the one and only key,
Rest thee, poor tired heart, upon my heart,
As all my weary being rests in thee.
Good-night! Good-night! Sleep deep and well, my bride.
The fight goes on, but we have won release.
Our wounds are healed, our tears are shed and dried.
Let the storms rage — they cannot break our peace.
* * * * *
Peace — is it peace? What is that form of fear
That looms ahead? What distillation sours
The joy of life when thou, alive, art near,
And nought seems wanting to the perfect hours?
What chills my passion when I love thee most,
And dims my eyes, and veils thy face, and slips,
An unseen shadow, like a creeping ghost,
Betwixt my hungering kisses and thy lips?
What, amid richest plenty, starves me thus?
What is it steals my soul's content, and thine —
That sits a guest at marriage-feast with us,
And mixes poison with the food and wine?
* * * * *
A vision comes. A graveyard, all alone,
A small green mound, a withered funeral wreath;
Love's last drear symbol of a graven stone,
And Life and I but worthless dust beneath.
There weep the dews, and winds of winter blow;
The soft breeze rustles in the bending grass;
The cold rain falls there, and the drifting snow.
But tears fall not, nor lover's footsteps pass.
Bees hum all day amid the young spring leaves;
The rooks call loudly from the elm-tree bough;
The sparrows twitter in the old church eaves;
But no voice cries for me, or calls me, now.
Bright beams of morning compass me about;
The stars shine o'er me, and the pale moonlight;
But I, that lit and warmed thee, am gone out
Like a burnt candle, in eternal night.
Earth to the earth upon this churchyard slope,
Ashes to ashes, nothing to the nought;
No tryst between us, and no star of hope
To light the path so passionately sought.
And still the sands between thy fingers run —
Desires, delights, ambitions, days and years,
Rich hours of life for thee, though mine are done —
Too full for vain regrets, too brief for tears.
I have lost all, but thou dost hold and save,
Adding new treasure to thy rifled store;
While weeds grow long on the deserted grave
Where sleeps thy mate who may be thine no more.
* * * * *
This is the fate I fear, the ghost I see,
The dream I dream at night, the thought I dread —
That thus 't'will be someday with thee and me,
Thou fain to live while I am doubly dead.
Thou still defiant of our common foe,
I vanquished quite — the once-resplendent crown
Of all thy joys become a dragging woe,
To be lopped off lest it should weigh thee down.
I, once thy sap of life, a wasteful drain
On thy green vigour, like a rotten branch;
I, once thy health, a paralysing pain,
A bleeding wound, that thou must haste to stanch.
Because the dead are dead — the past is gone;
Because dear life is sweet and time is brief,
And some must fall, and some must still press on,
Nor waste scant strength in unavailing grief.
* * * * *
I blame thee not. I know what must be must.
Nor shall I suffer when apart from thee.
I shall not care, when I am mouldering dust,
That once quick love is in the grave with me.
Cast me away — thou knowest I shall not fret;
Take thy due joys — I shall not bear the cost.
I, that am thus forgotten, shall forget,
Nor shed one tear for all that I have lost.
Not then the sting of death, the day of dole,
When corpse of love lies under funeral pall;
'Tis now I wear the sackcloth on my soul,
Bereaved and lonely, while possessed of all.
* * * * *
If thou wert dead, belovèd, should I turn
Deaf heart to memory when of thee she spake?
Should I, when this pure fire had ceased to burn,
Seek other hearths for sordid comfort's sake?
No, no! Yet I am mortal, I am weak,
And any fire is warm in wintry cold.
Alas! alas! The fateful years will wreak
Their own stern will on ours, when all is told.
Tell us, 0 Thou that canst behold us grope,
Whole-souled, incessant, through these realms unknown
For but one touch of a substantial hope,
How can we keep our dear selves for our own?
Whence did we come? And is it there we go?
We look behind — night hides our place of birth;
The blank ahead hides Heaven, for aught we know;
But what is Heaven to us, whose home is Earth?
Flesh may be gross — the husk that holds the seed;
Jewels of gold worth more than common bread;
But we are flesh, and common bread our need.
Angels in glory, we should still be dead.
What is the infinite Universe to him
Who has no home? Eternal Future seems,
Like the eternal Past, unreal and dim,
The airy region of a poet's dreams.
What spirit-essence, howsoe'er divine,
Can our lost selves restore from dusty grave?
Her mortal mind and body — hers and mine —
Make all the joys I know, and all I crave.
No fair romance of transcendental bliss,
No tale of palms and crowns, my dull heart stirs,
That only hungers for a woman's kiss,
And asks no life that is not one with hers.
No such Hereafter do I ask to see;
No such pale hope my sinking soul exalts;
I want no sexless angel — only thee,
My human love, with all thy human faults.
Just as thou art — not beautiful or wise,
But prone to simple sins and sad unrest —
With thy warm lips and arms, and thy sweet eyes,
Sweeter for tears they weep upon my breast.
Just as thou art, with thy soft household ways,
Thy noble failures and thy poor success,
Thy love that fits me for my strenuous days;
A mortal woman — neither more nor less.
* * * * *
And thou must pass, with these too rapid hours,
To that great deep wherefrom we both were brought;
Thy sentient flesh must turn to grass and flowers,
To birds and beasts, to dust — to air — to nought.
I know the parable. The great oaks grow
To their vast stature from an acorn grain,
And mightiest man was once an embryo.
But how can nothing bring thee forth again?
And is the new oak tree the old oak tree?
And is the son the father? And would'st thou,
If thou could'st rise from nothing, be to me
The precious self that satisfies me now?
Words! Words! A tale — a fairy legend, drawn
From lore of babes, that men must cast away;
Faith of the primal dreamer and the dawn,
Eluding vision in the light of day.
Here in our little island-home we bide
Our few brief years — the years that we possess.
Beyond, the Infinite on every side
Holds what no man may know, though all may guess.
We may remain — a lasting miracle. Ay, well we may. Our island-home is rife
With marvels greater than the tongue can tell,
And all things teem and travail with new life.
We may awake, ineffably alive,
Divinely perfect, in some higher sphere:
But still not we shall wake — the we who strive,
Who love and learn, who joy and suffer, here.
What then our hope, if any hope there be?
A something vague and formless and unknown,
That some strange beings, yet unborn, shall see.
Alas! And all we cry for is our own.
Only to be ourselves — not cast abroad
In space and time, for either bliss or woe;
Only to keep the treasures we have stored.
And they must pass away. And we must go.
How can we bear it? How can we submit?
Like a wild beast imprisoned, in our pain
We rave and rage for some way out of it,
And bruise and bleed against the bars in vain.
All, all is dark. Beyond our birth and death —
At either end — the same unyielding door.
We live, we love, while we draw human breath;
And then we die. And then? We know no more.
* * * * *
Ah, but look up, above these roofs and spires,
To where the stars shine down like watching eyes.
Conceive the tumult of those spinning fires!
Behold the vastness of those midnight skies!
And count the value of this speck of earth
Amid the countless Whole; and measure Man —
That on this speck but yesterday had birth,
And claims all God — with the prodigious plan.
Man, but a phase of planetary change,
That once was not, and will give place anon
To other forms, more beautiful and strange —
To pass in turn — till Earth herself is gone.
Earth, that is next to nothing in the sum
Of things created — a brief mote in space,
With all her aeons past and yet to come.
How we miscalculate our size — our place!
Yet are we men — details of the design,
Set to our course, like circling sun and star;
Mortal, infinitesimal, yet divine
Of that divine which made us what we are.
And yet this world, this microscopic ball,
This cast-up grain of sand upon the shore,
This trivial shred and atom of the ALL,
Is still our Trust, that we must answer for.
A lighthouse in the Infinite, with lamps
That we must trim and feed until we die;
A lonely outpost of the unseen camps
That we must keep, although we know not why.
The workman and the soldier have the word;
Theirs to obey, and not to question. Thus
We stand to orders that we never heard,
Bound to our little part. Enough for us.
The warm sap runs; the tender leaves unfold;
Ant helps his brother ant; birds build and sing;
The patient earthworm aids the pregnant mould
To fruit in autumn and to bud in spring.
Not less am I in wisdom and in will
Than ants and worms. I am full-furnished too
My arduous errand hither to fulfil.
I know my work, and what a man can do.
Maker of all! Enough that Thou hast given
This tempered mind, this brain without a flaw.
Enough for me to strive, as I have striven,
To make them serve their purpose and Thy law.
* * * * *
But, oh, my soul's companion! Thee I seek
For daily courage to support my lot.
In thee hath Nature made me strong or weak.
My human comforter, forsake me not!
My nobler self, in whom I live my best,
Strengthen me! Raise me! Lead me to the last!
Lay thy dear head upon my throbbing breast,
Give me thy hands, that I may hold thee fast!
Come close — come closer! Let me feel thy heart,
Thy pulsing heart, thy breathing lips, on mine.
0 love, let only death and graveyard part —
If they must part — my flesh and soul from thine!
Be thou my purer eyes, my keener ears,
My finer conscience, clean and unafraid,
Till these few, swift, inexorable years
Have borne us both beyond the reach of aid.
My rod and staff upon this lonely way,
My beacon-lamp till need of light is past;
Till the great Shadow, lengthening day by day,
Spreads over all and quenches us at last.
Comments about this poem (The Hand In The Dark by Ada Cambridge )
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