Alfred Austin

(30 May 1835 – 2 June 1913 / Headingley)

At The Gate Of The Convent - Poem by Alfred Austin

Beside the Convent Gate I stood,
Lingering to take farewell of those
To whom I owed the simple good
Of three days' peace, three nights' repose.

My sumpter-mule did blink and blink;
Was nothing more to munch or quaff;
Antonio, far too wise to think,
Leaned vacantly upon his staff.

It was the childhood of the year:
Bright was the morning, blithe the air;
And in the choir I plain could hear
The monks still chanting matin prayer.

The throstle and the blackbird shrilled,
Loudly as in an English copse,
Fountain-like note that, still refilled,
Rises and falls, but never stops.

As lush as in an English chase,
The hawthorn, guessed by its perfume,
With folds on folds of snowy lace
Blindfolded all its leaves with bloom.

Scarce seen, and only faintly heard,
A torrent, 'mid far snow-peaks born,
Sang kindred with the gurgling bird,
Flowed kindred with the foaming thorn.

The chanting ceased, and soon instead
Came shuffling sound of sandalled shoon;
Each to his cell and narrow bed
Withdrew, to pray and muse till noon.

Only the Prior-for such their Rule-
Into the morning sunshine came.
Antonio bared his locks; the mule
Kept blinking, blinking, just the same.

I thanked him with a faltering tongue;
I thanked him with a flowing heart.
``This for the poor.'' His hand I wrung,
And gave the signal to depart.

But still in his he held my hand,
As though averse that I should go.
His brow was grave, his look was bland,
His beard was white as Alpine snow.

And in his eye a light there shone,
A soft, subdued, but steadfast ray,
Like to those lamps that still burn on
In shrines where no one comes to pray.

And in his voice I seemed to hear
The hymns that novice-sisters sing,
When only anguished Christ is near,
And earth and life seem vanishing.

``Why do you leave us, dear my son?
Why from calm cloisters backward wend,
Where moil is much and peace is none,
And journeying hath nor bourne nor end?

``Read I your inmost soul aright,
Heaven hath to you been strangely kind;
Gave gentle cradle, boyhood bright,
A fostered soul, a tutored mind.

``Nor wealth did lure, nor penury cramp,
Your ripening soul; it lived and throve,
Nightly beside the lettered lamp,
Daily in field, and glade, and grove.

``And when the dawn of manhood brought
The hour to choose to be of those
Who serve for gold, or sway by thought,
You doubted not, and rightly chose.

``Loving your Land, you face the strife;
Loved by the Muse, you shun the throng;
And blend within your dual life
The patriot's pen, the poet's song.

``Hence now, in gaze mature and wise,
Dwells scorn of praise, dwells scorn of blame;
Calm consciousness of surer prize
Than dying noise of living fame.

``Have you not loved, been loved, as few
Love, or are loved, on loveless earth?
How often have you felt its dew?
Say, have you ever known its dearth?

``I speak of love divorced from pelf,
I speak of love unyoked and free,
Of love that deadens sense of self,
Of love that loveth utterly.

``And this along your life hath flowed
In full and never-failing stream,
Fresh from its source, unbought, unowed,
Beyond your boyhood's fondest dream.''

He paused. The cuckoo called. I thought
Of English voices, English trees.
The far-off fancy instant brought
The tears; and he, misled by these,

With hand upon my shoulder, said,
``You own 'tis true. The richest years
Bequeath the beggared heart, when fled,
Only this legacy of tears.

``Why is it that all raptures cloy?
Though men extol, though women bless,
Why are we still chagrined with joy,
Dissatisfied with happiness?

``Yes, the care-flouting cuckoo calls,
And yet your smile betokens grief,
Like meditative light that falls
Through branches fringed with autumn leaf.

``Whence comes this shadow? You are now
In the full summer of the soul.
The answer darkens on your brow:
`Winter the end, and death the goal.'

``Yes, vain the fires of pride and lust
Fierce in meridian pulses burn:
Remember, Man, that thou art dust,
And unto dust thou shalt return.

``Rude are our walls, our beds are rough,
But use is hardship's subtle friend.
He hath got all that hath enough;
And rough feels softest, in the end.

``While luxury hath this disease,
It ever craves and pushes on.
Pleasures, repeated, cease to please,
And rapture, once 'tis reaped, is gone.

``My flesh hath long since ceased to creep,
Although the hairshirt pricketh oft.
A plank my couch; withal, I sleep
Soundly as he that lieth soft.

``And meagre though may be the meal
That decks the simple board you see,
At least, my son, we never feel
The hunger of satiety.

``You have perhaps discreetly drunk:
O, then, discreetly, drink no more!
Which is the happier, worldling, monk,
When youth is past, and manhood o'er?

``Of life beyond I speak not yet.
'Tis solitude alone can e'er,
By hushing controversy, let
Man catch earth's undertone of prayer.

``Your soul which Heaven at last must reap,
From too much noise hath barren grown;
Long fallow silence must it keep,
Ere faith revive, and grace be sown.

``Let guide and mule alone return.
For you I will prepare a cell,
In whose calm silence you will learn,
Living or dying, All is well!''

Again the cuckoo called; again
The merle and mavis shook their throats;
The torrent rambled down the glen,
The ringdove cooed in sylvan cotes.

The hawthorn moved not, but still kept
As fixedly white as far cascade;
The russet squirrel frisked and leapt
From breadth of sheen to breadth of shade.

I did not know the words had ceased,
I thought that he was speaking still,
Nor had distinguished sacred priest
From pagan thorn, from pagan rill.

Not that I had not harked and heard;
But all he bade me shun or do,
Seemed just as sweet as warbling bird,
But not more grave and not more true.

So deep yet indistinct my bliss,
That when his counsels ceased to sound,
That one sweet note I did not miss
From other sweet notes all around.

But he, misreading my delight,
Again with urging accents spoke.
Then I, like one that's touched at night,
From the deep swoon of sweetness woke.

And just as one that, waking, can
Recall the thing he dreamed, but knows
'Twas of the phantom world that man
Visits in languors of repose;

So, though I straight repictured plain
All he had said, it seemed to me,
Recalled from slumber, to retain
No kinship with reality.

``Father, forgive!'' I said; ``and look!
Who taught its carolling to the merle?
Who wed the music to the brook?
Who decked the thorn with flakes of pearl?

``'Twas He, you answer, that did make
Earth, sea, and sky: He maketh all;
The gleeful notes that flood the brake,
The sad notes wailed in Convent stall.

``And my poor voice He also made;
And like the brook, and like the bird,
And like your brethren mute and staid,
I too can but fulfil His word.

``Were I about my loins to tie
A girdle, and to hold in scorn
Beauty and Love, what then were I
But songless stream, but flowerless thorn?

``Why do our senses love to list
When distant cataracts murmur thus?
Why stealeth o'er your eyes a mist
When belfries toll the Angelus?

``It is that every tender sound
Art can evoke, or Nature yield,
Betokens something more profound,
Hinted, but never quite revealed.

``And though it be the self-same Hand
That doth the complex concert strike,
The notes, to those that understand,
Are individual, and unlike.

``Allow my nature. All things are,
If true to instinct, well and wise.
The dewdrop hinders not the star;
The waves do not rebuke the skies.

``So leave me free, good Father dear,
While you on humbler, holier chord
Chant your secluded Vespers here,
To fling my matin notes abroad.

``While you with sacred sandals wend
To trim the lamp, to deck the shrine,
Let me my country's altar tend,
Nor deem such worship less divine.

``Mine earthly, yours celestial love:
Each hath its harvest; both are sweet.
You wait to reap your Heaven, above;
I reap the Heaven about my feet.

``And what if I-forgive your guest
Who feels, so frankly speaks, his qualm-
Though calm amid the world's unrest,
Should restless be amid your calm?

``But though we two be severed quite,
Your holy words will sound between
Our lives, like stream one hears at night,
Louder, because it is not seen.

``Father, farewell! Be not distressed;
And take my vow, ere I depart,
To found a Convent in my breast,
And keep a cloister in my heart.''

The mule from off his ribs a fly
Flicked, and then zigzagged down the road.
Antonio lit his pipe, and I
Behind them somewhat sadly strode.

Just ere the Convent dipped from view,
Backward I glanced: he was not there.
Within the chapel, well I knew,
His lips were now composed in prayer.

But I have kept my vow. And when
The cuckoo chuckleth o'er his theft,
When throstles sing, again, again,
And runnels gambol down the cleft,

With these I roam, I sing with those,
And should the world with smiles or jeers
Provoke or lure, my lids I close,
And draw a cowl about my ears.


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Poem Submitted: Thursday, April 8, 2010



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