Edgar Lee Masters

(23 August 1868 – 5 March 1950 / Kansas / United States)

Ballad Of Jesus Of Nazareth - Poem by Edgar Lee Masters

I.

It matters not what place he drew
At first life's mortal breath,
Some say it was in Bethlehem,
And some in Nazareth.
But shame and sorrow were his lot
And shameful was his death.

The angels sang, and o'er the barn
Wherein the infant lay,
They hung a star, for they foresaw
The sad world's better day,
But well God knew what thyme and rue
Were planted by his way.

The children of the Pharisees
In hymn and orison
Worshipped the prophets, whom their sires
To cruel death had done,
And said, 'had we been there their death
We had not looked upon.'

While the star shone the angels saw
The tombs these children built
For those the world had driven out,
And smitten to the hilt,
God knew these wretched sons would bear
The self-same bloody guilt.

Always had he who strives for men
But done some other thing,
If he had not led a hermit life,
Or had not had his fling,
We would have followed him, they say,
And made him lord and King.

For John was clothed in camel's hair
And lived among the brutes;
But Jesus fared where the feast was spread
To the sound of shawms and lutes,
Where gathered knaves and publicans
And hapless prostitutes.

Like children in the market place
Who sullen sat and heard,
With John they would not mourn, nor yet
Rejoice at Jesus' word;
Had Jesus mourned, or John rejoiced,
He had been King and lord.

II.

From Bethlehem until the day
He came up to the feast
We hear no word, we only know
In wisdom he increased,
We know the marvelous boy did awe
The Pharisee and priest.

For wearied men wake to admire
A genius in the bud;
Before the passion of the world
Flows through him like a flood;
Ere he becomes a scourge to those
Who drink of mankind's blood.

Perhaps in him they saw an arm
To keep the people still;
And fool the meek and slay the weak
And give the King his will;
And put a wall for armŽd men
'Round every pleasant hill.

And this is why in after years
The Galilean wept;
The cup of youth was sweet with truth
But a green worm in it crept;
And that was dullness clothed in power,
And hate which never slept.

Through twenty years he drove the plane,
And shaped with ax and saw;
And dreamed upon the Hebrew writ
Unto a day of awe,
When he felt the world fit to his grasp
As by a mighty law.

He looked upon the sunny sky,
And 'round the flowering earth;
He heard the poor man's groan of woe,
And the prince's song of mirth;
Then Jesus vowed the life of man
Should have another birth.

And this is why the Son of Man
Wept when he knew the loss,
The toil and sacrifice to cleanse
A little earthly dross;
And that a god to save twelve men
Must die upon the cross.

III.

'Twas on a pleasant day in June
Beneath an azure sky
That 'round him stood the multitude
And saw within his eye
The light that from nor sun nor star
Ever was known to fly.

And some came out to scoff and laugh,
And some to lay a snare;
The rhetorician gaped to see:
The learnŽd carpenter.
The money changer, judge and priest,
And statesman all were there.

Some thought the Galilean mad;
Some asked, is he sincere?
Some said he played the demagogue
To gain the people's ear,
And raise a foe against the law
That lawful men should fear.

But all the while did C¾sar's might
Grow big with blood and lust;
And no one brooked his tyrant arm,
For the statesman said the crust
That paupers gnaw is by the law,
And that the law is just.

From hunger's hovel, from the streets;
From horror's blackened niche
Earth's mourners came and hands were stretched
To touch him from the ditch.
Then rose a Scribe and said he turned
The poor against the rich.

And those who hated C¾sar's rule,
Albeit sowed the lie
That Jesus stirred sedition up
That he might profit by
A revolution, which should clothe
Himself in monarchy.

Through twice a thousand years the world
Has missed the words he taught;
To forms and creeds and empty show
Christ never gave a thought,
But wrongs that men do unto men
They were the wrongs he fought.

He did not eat with washen hands,
Nor keep the Sabbath day;
He did not to the Synagogue
Repair to sing and pray.
Nor for to-morrow take a thought,
To mar life's pleasant way.

He saw that all of human woe
Takes root in hate and greed;
He saw until men love their kind
The human heart must bleed.
And that nor hymn nor sacrifice
Meets any human need.

And this is why he scourged the rich
And lashed the Pharisee,
And stripped from every pious face
The mask hypocrisy;
And so laced Mary Magdalene,
Caught in adultery.

And this is why with grievous fire
He smote the lawyer's lore.
And every wile of cunning guile
Which made the burden more
Upon the backs of wretched men,
Who heavy burdens bore.

Therefore when that the hour was come
For him to die, they blent
Of many things a lying charge,
But at last the argument
They killed him with was that he stirred
The people's discontent.

From thence the world has gone its way
Of this truth, deaf and blind,
And every man who struck the law
Has felt the halter bind,
Until his words were choked in death
Uttered for human kind.

Now did the dreams of Galilee
Awake as from a sleep,
Fly up from earth, and Life unmasked
Life's promise did not keep,
And Jesus saw the face of Life,
And all who see it weep.

God's spirit fled the damnŽd earth
And left the earth forlorn.
No more did Jesus walk the fields,
And pluck the ripened corn;
Nor muse beside the silent sea,
Upon a summer's morn.

Before the heart of Christ was pierced
With agony divine,
He sat him down in a merry mood
With loving friends to dine.
And once in Cana he did turn
The water into wine.

Now put from shore, swept far to sea
His shallop caught the tide,
Arched o'er him was eternity
'Twixt starless wastes and wide.
God's spirit seemed withdrawn that once
Walked hourly at his side.

IV.

Gladly the common people heard
And called upon his name.
But yet he knew what they would do,
Christ Jesus knew their frame,
And that he should be left alone
Upon a day of shame.

Sharper than thorns upon the brow,
Or nails spiked through the hand
Is when the people fly for fear
And cannot understand;
And let their saviors die the death
As creatures contraband.

For wrongs that flourish by a lie
Are hard enough to bear;
But wrongs that take their root in truth
Shade every brow with care;
And this is why Gethsemane
Was shadowed with despair.

In dark and drear Gethsemane
Hell's devils laughed and raved,
When Jesus torn by fear and doubt
Reprieve from sorrow craved;
For who would lose his life, unless
Another's life he saved?

V.

In youth when all the world appeared
As fresh as any flower,
Satan besought the Son of Man,
New-clothed in godly power,
And took him to behold the world
Upon a lofty tower.

To every man of god-like might
Comes Satan once to give
The crown, the crosier and the sword
And bid him laugh and live,
While Hope hides in the wilderness,
A hunted fugitive.

But neither gold nor kingly crown
Tempted the Son of Man
He hoped as many souls have hoped,
Ever since time began,
That love itself can overcome,
Hate's foul leviathan

Some fix their faith to heaven's grace,
And some to saintly bones;
Some think that water doth contain
A virtue which atones;
And some believe that men are saved
By penitential groans.

But of all faith that ever fired
A spirit with its glow
That is supreme which thinks that truth
No power can overthrow;
And he believes who takes and cleaves
To the thorny way of woe!

For life is sweet, and sweet it is
With jeweled sandals shod
To trip where happy blossoms shoot
Up from the fragrant sod;
And what sustains the souls that pass
Alway beneath the rod?

The book of worldly lore he closed
And bound it with a hasp;
And in the hour of danger came
No king with friendly clasp.
It was the hand of love against
The anger of the asp.

Since Jesus died the lust of kings
Has linked the cross and crown;
And slaughtered millions whom to save
From heaven he came down;
And all to tame the mind of man
To his divine renown.

But whether he were man or god
This thing at least is true;
He hated with a lordly hate
The Gentile and the Jew,
Who robbed the poor and wronged the weak,
And kept the widow's due.

And those all clothed in raiment soft,
Who in kings' houses dwell;
And those who compass sea and land
Their proselytes to swell;
And when they make one he is made
Two-fold the child of hell.

And those who tithe of anise give,
But sharpen beak and claw;
And those who plait the web of hate
The heart of man to flaw;
And hungry lawyers who pile up
The burdens of the law.

I wonder not they slew the Christ
And put upon his brow
The cruel crown of thorns, I know
The world would do it now;
And none shall live who on himself
Shall take the self-same vow.

And none shall live who tries to balk
The heavy hand of greed;
And he who hopes for human help
Against his hour of need
Will find the souls he tried to save
Ready to make him bleed.

For he who flays the hypocrite,
And scourges with a thong
The money changer, soon will find
The money changer strong;
And even the people will incline
To think his mission wrong.

And pious souls will say he is
At best a castaway;
Some will remember he blasphemed
And broke the Sabbath day.
And the coward friend will fool his heart
And then he will betray.

At last the Scribe and Pharisee
No longer could abide
The tumult which his words stirred up
In every country side;
And so they made a sign, which meant
He must be crucified.

For him no sword was raised, no king
Came forward for his sake;
And every son of mammon laughed
To see death overtake
The fool who fastened to the truth
And made his life the stake.

VI.

Upon a day when Jesus' soul
Like an angel's voice did quire,
The heart of all the people burned
With a white and holy fire;
And they did sweep to make him king
Over the world's empire.

His kingdom was not of this world,
But this they would not own;
And he to save themselves did go
To a mountain place alone,
And there did pray that holy Truth
Might find somewhere a throne.

When Henry was by Francis sought
To make him emperor,
They walked upon a cloth of gold,
As sovereign lords of war.
And trumpets blew and banners flew
About the royal car.

When Caesar back to Rome returned
With all the world subdued,
The soldiers and the priests did shout,
And cried the multitude;
For he had slain his country's foes,
And drenched their land with blood.

But all the triumph of the Christ
That ever came to pass
Was when he rode amidst a mob
Upon a borrowed ass;
And this is all the worldly pomp
A genius ever has.

His cloth of gold were branches cut
And strewn upon the ground;
And every money-changer laughed,
And the judges looked and frowned;
But no one saw a flag unfurled,
Or heard a bugle sound.

To-day whene'er a coxcomb king
Visits a foreign shore,
The simple people deck themselves
And all the cannon roar.
But it would not do such grace to show
To a soul of lordly lore.

VII.

Of all sad suppers ever spread
For broken hearts to eat,
That was the saddest where the Christ
Did serve the bread and meat;
And, ere he served them, washed with care
Each worn disciple's feet.

And who would hold in memory
That supper, let him call
His loved friends about his board
And serve them one and all;
And with a loving spirit crown
The simple festival.

For this I hold to be the truth,
And Jesus said the same;
That men who meet as brothers, they
Are gathered in his name;
And only for its evil deeds
A soul he will disclaim.

Through climes of sun and climes of snow
Full many a wretched knight,
The holy grail, without avail
Did make his life's delight,
And lo! the thing it symbolized
Was ever in their sight.

The cup whereof Christ Jesus drank
Was wholly without grace;
And whether made of stone or wood
Was lost or broke apace.
And no one thought to keep a cup
While looking in his face.

They kept no cup, their only thought
Was for the morrow morn.
And as he passed the wine and bread
With pallid hands and worn,
Peter did swear he would not leave
His stricken lord forlorn.

John, the beloved, on his breast,
Wept while the hour did pass.
Judas did groan when Jesus struck
Behind his soul's arras.
All trembled for the bitter hate,
And power of Caiaphas.

But for that simple, farewell feast
In Holland, France and Spain,
Ten million men as true as John
Were racked and burnt and slain,
As if they held remembrance of
The farewell feast of Cain.

Had Jesus known what fratricide
Over his words would fall
I think he would have gone straightway
Up to the judgment hall,
And never broken bread or drunk
The cup his friends withal.

Though a good tree brings forth good fruit,
What good bears naught but good?
What sum of saintly life contains
No grain of devil's food?
What purest truth when past its youth
Is not its own falsehood?

And every rod wherewith the wise
Have cleft each barrier sea,
That men might walk across and reach
The land of liberty,
In hands of kings were snakes whose stings
Were worse than slavery.

VIII.

The rulers thought it best to wait
Till Jesus were alone;
They had forgot the coward crowd
Never protects its own,
But leaves its leaders to the whim
Of wrong upon a throne.

Had malcontents for Pilate sought
To do a treasonous thing,
Ten thousand loyal fishermen
Had made the traitors swing;
For they are taught they cannot live
Unless they have a king.

But soldiers came with swords and staves
To sieze one helpless man.
And only Peter had a sword
To smite the craven clan
And only Peter stood his ground,
And all the people ran.

I wish, since Jesus by the world
Is held to be divine,
That he had lived to give to men
A perfect anodyne,
And raise to human liberty
A world compelling shrine.

A shrine 'round which should lie to-day
The world's discarded crowns,
And swords and guns and gilded gawds
And monkish beads and gowns;
But, as it is, upon these things,
They say, he never frowns.

And only by an argument
Can any being show
That Jesus would chop out and burn
These monstrous roots of woe.
And so these roots are living yet,
And still the roots do grow.

Unto this day in divers lands
Pilate is singled out
For curses that he did not save
Christ from the rabble's shout;
But they forget he was a judge,
And had a judge's doubt.

The sickly fear of the rulers' sneer
Clutches the judge's heart.
And to hide behind a hoary lie
Is the judge's highest art;
And the judgment hall has a door that leads
To the room of the money mart.

The laws wherewith men murder men
Are dark with skeptic slime;
They are not stars that point the way
To truth in every clime.
Wherefore was Jesus crucified,
For what was not a crime.

When Pilate questioned what is truth
He did not mean to jest;
He meant to show when life's at stake
How difficult the quest
Through hollow rules and empty forms
To truth's ingenuous test.

And Pilate might have pardoned him
Had not the lawyers said,
The Galilean strove to put
A crown upon his head.
And how could Jesus be a king,
Who blood had never shed?

The trial of Jesus long ago
Was cursed in solemn rhyme;
For the judgment hall was but farcical
And the trial a pantomime.
Save that it led to a felon's death
For what was not a crime.

The common people on that day
Had enough black-bread to eat.
And what to them was another's woe
Before the judgment seat?
They were content that day to keep
From pit-falls their own feet.

Had Herod stood, whate'er the charge,
Before the people's bar
The sophists would have cut it down
With reason's scimitar,
And called the peasants to enforce
The judgment near and far.

And had they failed to save their king
From every foul mischance
The banded Anarchs of the world
Had held them in durance,
As afterward the crownŽd heads
Did punish recreant France.

IX.

So it fell out amid the rout
Of captain, lord and priest,
They bound his hands with felon bands
And they flogged him like a beast.
And Pilate washed his hands, and then
For them a thief released.

And only women solaced him,
And one mad courtesan,
'Save thou thyself,' the elders cried,
'Who came to rescue man.'
Where were the common people then?
The common people ran.

Between two thieves upon a hill
The terror to proclaim
They racked his body on a cross
Till his thirst was like a flame;
And they mocked his woe and they wagged their heads,
And they spat upon his name.

God thought a picture like to this,
Fire-limned against the sky,
Once seen, would never fade away
From the world's careless eye;
And that the lesson that it taught
No soul could wander by.

God thought the shadow of this cross,
Athwart the mad world's ken,
Would stay with shame the hands that kill
The men who die for men,
And that no soul for love of truth
Need ever die again.

Many a man the valley of death
With fearless step hath trod;
The prophet is a phoenix soul,
And the wretch is a sullen clod.
But Jesus in his death became
Liker unto a god

Liker unto a god he grew
Who walked through heaven and hell;
He died as he forgave the mob
That 'round the cross did yell.
They knew not what they did, and this
Jesus, the god, knew well.

For hate is spawned of ignorance
And ignorance of hate.
And all the fangŽd shapes that creep
From their incestuous state
Enter the gardens of the world,
And cursŽd keep their fate.

Near Gadara did Jesus drive
By an occult power and sign
The unclean devils from a loon
Into a herd of swine.
But the swinish devils entered the Scribes,
And slew a soul divine.

Christ healed the blind, but could not ope
The eyes of ignorance,
Nor turn to wands of peace and love
Hate's bloody sword and lance;
But the swinish fiends who took his life
Received a pardoning glance.

And Jesus raised the dead to life,
And he cured the lame and halt
But he could not heal a hateful soul,
And keep it free from fault;
Nor bring the savour back again
To the world's trampled salt.


X.

After his death the rulers slept,
And the judges were at ease;
For they had killed a rebel soul
And strewed his devotees;
But the imp of time is a thing perverse,
And laughs at men's decrees.

For it is vain to kill a man,
His life to stigmatize;
Herein the wisdom of the world
Is folly to the wise;
For those the world doth kill, the world
Will surely canonize.

To look upon a lovŽd face
By the Gorgon Death made stone,
Will make the heart leap up with fear
And the soul with sorrow groan;
Alas! who knows what thing he knew
Ere the light of life was flown?

Who knows what tears did start to well,
But were frozen at their source?
Who knows his ashen grief who felt
That iron hand of force?
Or what black thing he saw before
He grew a lifeless corse?

And, much of hope, but more of woe
Falls with the chastening rod,
As the living think of an orphan soul
That the spectral ways may trod,
And how that orphan soul must cry
In its new world after God.

So the fisherman did sigh at night,
For a dream-face haunted them.
By day they hid as branded men
Within Jerusalem.
And the common people, safe at home,
Did breathe a requiem.

But where he lay, one fearless soul,
Mad Magdalene, from whom
Christ cast the seven devils out,
Came in the morning's gloom,
And thence arose the burning faith
That Christ rose from the tomb

But all do know the mind of man
Mixes the false and true,
And deifies each Son of God
That ever hatred slew;
And weaves him magic tales to tell
Of what the man could do.

The legends grow, as grow they must
The wonder to equip.
And ere they write the legends out,
They pass from lip to lip,
Till a simple life becomes a theme
For studied scholarship.

But this I know that after Christ
Did die on Calvary,
He never more did preach to men,
Nor scourge the Pharisee;
Else it was vain to still his voice
And nail him to a tree.

Nor scribe nor priest were ever more
By him disquieted.
And little did it mean to them
That he rose from the dead.
For greed can sleep when it has killed
The thing that it did dread.

And never a king or satrap knew
That Christ the tomb had rent;
He might have lived a second life,
With every lord's consent,
If never more he sought to stir
The people's discontent.

He might have risen from the dead
And gone to Galilee;
And there paced out a hundred years
In a sorrowed revery,
If he but never preached again
The creed humanity.

XI.

To distant lands did Jesus' words,
Like sparks that burst in flame,
Fly forth to light the ways of dole,
And blind the eyes of shame,
Till subtle kings, to staunch their wounds,
Did conjure with his name.

When kings did pilfer Jesus' might,
His words of love were turned
To swords and goads and heavy loads,
And rods and brands that burned;
And never had the world before
So piteously mourned.

Of peasant Mary they did make
A statue all of gold;
And placed a crown upon her head
With jewels manifold.
And Jesus' words were strained and drawn
This horror to uphold.

They robed a rebel royally,
And placed within his hand
A scepter, that himself should be
One of their murderous band.
And it is tragical that men
Can never understand.

For Herod crowned the carpenter
With woven thorns of hate.
And put a reed within his hand
A king to imitate.
Now kings have made a rebel soul
The patron of the state.

And kingcraft never hatched a lie,
This falsehood to surpass.
For Jesus' only hour of pomp
Was what a genius has;
He rode amidst a howling mob
Upon a borrowed ass.

Though his cloth of gold were branches cut
And strewed upon the ground;
And though the money-changers laughed,
While the judges looked and frowned;
To-day for him the flag is flown,
And all the bugles sound.

To-day where'er the treacherous sword
Takes lord-ship in the world,
The bloody rag they call the flag,
In his name is unfurled.
And round the standard of the cross
Is greed, the python, curled.

For wrongs that have the show of truth
Are hard enough to bear,
But wrongs that flourish by a lie,
Shade wisdom's brow with care.
And still in dark Gethsemane
There lurks the fiend Despair.

And still in drear Gethsemane,
Hell's devils laugh and rave,
Because the Prince of Peace hath failed
The wayward world to save.
For every word he spoke is made
A shackle to enslave.

Man's wingd hopes are white at dawn,
But the hand of malice smuts.
O, angel voices drowned and lost
Amid the growl of guts!
O spirit hands that strain to draw
A dead world from the ruts!

God made a stage of Palestine,
And the drama played was Life;
And the Eye of Heaven sat and watched
The true and false at strife;
While a masque o' the World did play the pimp,
And take a whore to wife.

I wonder not they slew the Christ,
And put upon his brow
A mocking crown of thorns, I know
The world would do it now;
And none shall live who on himself
Shall take the self-same vow.

And none shall live who tries to balk
The heavy hand of greed.
And who betakes him to the task,
That heart will surely bleed.
But a little truth, somehow is saved
Out of each dead man's creed.

Out of the life of him who scourged
The Scribe and Pharisee,
A willing world can take to heart
The creed humanity;
And all the wonder tales of Christ
Are naught to you and me.

And it matters not what place he drew,
At first life's mortal breath,
Nor how it was his spirit rose
And triumphed over death,
But good it is to hear and do
The word that Jesus saith.

Until the perfect truth shall lie
Treasured and set apart;
One whole, harmonious truth to set
A seal upon each heart;
And none may ever from that truth
In any wise depart.


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Poem Submitted: Friday, April 9, 2010



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