Jean Ingelow

(17 March 1820 - 20 July 1897 / Boston, Lincolnshire)

Honours - Part 2 - Poem by Jean Ingelow

The Answer.

As one who, journeying, checks the rein in haste
Because a chasm doth yawn across his way
Too wide for leaping, and too steeply faced
For climber to essay—

As such an one, being brought to sudden stand,
Doubts all his foregone path if 't were the true,
And turns to this and then to the other hand
As knowing not what to do,—

So I, being checked, am with my path at strife
Which led to such a chasm, and there doth end.
False path! it cost me priceless years of life,
My well-beloved friend.

There fell a flute when Ganymede went up—
The flute that he was wont to play upon:
It dropped beside the jonquil's milk-white cup,
And freckled cowslips wan—

Dropped from his heedless hand when, dazed and mute,
He sailed upon the eagle's quivering wing,
Aspiring, panting—ay, it dropped—the flute
Erewhile a cherished thing.

Among the delicate grasses and the bells
Of crocuses that spotted a rill side,
I picked up such a flute, and its clear swells
To my young lips replied.

I played thereon, and its response was sweet:
But lo, they took from me that solacing reed.
'O shame!' they said; 'such music is not meet;
Go up like Ganymede.

'Go up, despise these humble grassy things,
Sit on the golden edge of yonder cloud.'
Alas! though ne'er for me those eagle wings
Stooped from their eyrie proud.

My flute! and flung away its echoes sleep;
But as for me, my life-pulse beateth low.
And like a last-year's leaf enshrouded deep
Under the drifting snow,

Or like some vessel wrecked upon the sand
Of torrid swamps, with all her merchandise,
And left to rot betwixt the sea and land,
My helpless spirit lies.

Rueing, I think for what then was I made,
What end appointed for—what use designed?
Now let me right this heart that was bewrayed—
Unveil these eyes gone blind.

My well-beloved friend, at noon to-day
Over our cliffs a white mist lay unfurled,
So thick, one standing on their brink might say,
Lo, here doth end the world.

A white abyss beneath, and nought beside;
Yet, hark! a cropping sound not ten feet down:
Soon I could trace some browsing lambs that hied
Through rock-paths cleft and brown.

And here and there green tufts of grass peered through,
Salt lavender, and sea thrift; then behold,
The mist, subsiding ever, bared to view
A beast of giant mould.

She seemed a great sea monster lying content
With all her cubs about her: but deep—deep—
The subtle mist went floating; its descent
Showed the world's end was steep.

It shook, it melted, shaking more, till, lo,
The sprawling monster was a rock; her brood
Were boulders, whereon seamews white as snow
Sat watching for their food.

Then once again it sank, its day was done:
Part rolled away, part vanished utterly,
And glimmering softly under the white sun,
Behold! a great white sea.

O that the mist which veileth my To-come
Would so dissolve and yield unto mine eyes
A worthy path! I 'd count not wearisome
Long toil, nor enterprise,

But strain to reach it; ay, with wrestlings stout
And hopes that even in the dark will grow
(Like plants in dungeons, reaching feelers out),
And ploddings wary and slow.

Is there such path already made to fit
The measure of my foot? It shall atone
For much, if I at length may light on it
And know it for mine own.

But is there none? why, then, 't is more than well:
And glad at heart myself will hew one out,
Let me be only sure; for, sooth to tell,
The sorest dole is doubt—

Doubt, a blank twilight of the heart, which mars
All sweetest colours in its dimness same;
A soul-mist, through whose rifts familiar stars
Beholding, we misname.

A ripple on the inner sea, which shakes
Those images that on its breast reposed,
A fold upon a wind-swayed flag, that breaks
The motto it disclosed.

O doubt! O doubt! I know my destiny,
I feel thee fluttering bird-like in my breast;
I cannot loose, but I will sing to thee,
And flatter thee to rest.

There is no certainty, 'my bosom's guest,'
No proving for the things whereof ye wot;
For, like the dead to sight unmanifest.
They are, and they are not.

But surely as they are, for God is truth,
And as they are not, for we saw them die,
So surely from the heaven drops light for youth,
If youth will walk thereby.

And can I see this light? It may be so;
'But see it thus and thus,' my fathers said.
The living do not rule this world; ah no!
It is the dead, the dead.

Shall I be slave to every noble soul,
Study the dead, and to their spirits bend;
Or learn to read my own heart's folded scroll,
And make self-rule my end?

Thought from without—O shall I take on trust,
And life from others modelled steal or win;
Or shall I heave to light, and clear of rust
My true life from within?

O, let me be myself! But where, O where,
Under this heap of precedent, this mound
Of customs, modes, and maxims, cumbrance rare,
Shall the Myself be found?

O thou Myself, thy fathers thee debarred
None of their wisdom, but their folly came
Therewith; they smoothed thy path, but made it hard
For thee to quit the same.

With glosses they obscured God's natural truth,
And with tradition tarnished His revealed;
With vain protections they endangered youth,
With layings bare they sealed.

What aileth thee, myself? Alas! thy hands
Are tired with old opinions—heir and son,
Thou hast inherited thy father's lands
And all his debts thereon.

O that some power would give me Adam's eyes!
O for the straight simplicity of Eve!
For I see nought, or grow, poor fool, too wise
With seeing to believe.

Exemplars may be heaped until they hide
The rules that they were made to render plain;
Love may be watched, her nature to decide,
Until love's self doth wane.

Ah me! and when forgotten and foregone
We leave the learning of departed days,
And cease the generations past to con,
Their wisdom and their ways—

When fain to learn we lean into the dark,
And grope to feel the floor of the abyss,
Or find the secret boundary lines which mark
Where soul and matter kiss—

Fair world! these puzzled souls of ours grow weak
With beating their bruised wings against the rim
That bounds their utmost flying, when they seek
The distant and the dim.

We pant, we strain like birds against their wires;
Are sick to reach the vast and the beyond;—
And what avails, if still to our desires
Those far-off gulfs respond?

Contentment comes not therefore; still there lies
An outer distance when the first is hailed,
And still for ever yawns before our eyes
An UTMOST—that is veiled.

Searching those edges of the universe,
We leave the central fields a fallow part;
To feed the eye more precious things amerce,
And starve the darkened heart.

Then all goes wrong: the old foundations rock;
One scorns at him of old who gazed unshod;
One striking with a pickaxe thinks the shock
Shall move the seat of God.

A little way, a very little way
(Life is so short), they dig into the rind,
And they are very sorry, so they say,—
Sorry for what they find.

But truth is sacred—ay, and must be told:
There is a story long beloved of man;
We must forego it, for it will not hold—
Nature had no such plan.

And then, 'if God hath said it,' some should cry,
'We have the story from the fountain-head:
Why, then, what better than the old reply,
The first 'Yea, HATH God said?'

The garden, O the garden, must it go,
Source of our hope and our most dear regret?
The ancient story, must it no more show
How man may win it yet?

And all upon the Titan child's decree,
The baby science, born but yesterday,
That in its rash unlearned infancy
With shells and stones at play,

And delving in the outworks of this world,
And little crevices that it could reach,
Discovered certain bones laid up, and furled
Under an ancient beach,

And other waifs that lay to its young mind
Some fathoms lower than they ought to lie,
By gain whereof it could not fail to find
Much proof of ancientry,

Hints at a pedigree withdrawn and vast,
Terrible deeps, and old obscurities,
Or soulless origin, and twilight passed
In the primeval seas,

Whereof it tells, as thinking it hath been
Of truth not meant for man inheritor;
As if this knowledge Heaven had ne'er foreseen
And not provided for!

Knowledge ordained to live! although the fate
Of much that went before it was—to die,
And be called ignorance by such as wait
Till the next drift comes by.

O marvellous credulity of man!
If God indeed kept secret, couldst thou know
Or follow up the mighty Artisan
Unless He willed it so?

And canst thou of the Maker think in sooth
That of the Made He shall be found at fault,
And dream of wresting from Him hidden truth
By force or by assault?

But if He keeps not secret—if thine eyes
He openeth to His wondrous work of late—
Think how in soberness thy wisdom lies,
And have the grace to wait.

Wait, nor against the half-learned lesson fret,
Nor chide at old belief as if it erred,
Because thou canst not reconcile as yet
The Worker and the word.

Either the Worker did in ancient days
Give us the word, His tale of love and might;
(And if in truth He gave it us, who says
He did not give it right?)

Or else He gave it not, and then indeed
We know not if HE IS—by whom our years
Are portioned, who the orphan moons doth lead,
And the unfathered spheres.

We sit unowned upon our burial sod,
And know not whence we come or whose we be,
Comfortless mourners for the mount of God,
The rocks of Calvary:

Bereft of heaven, and of the long-loved page
Wrought us by some who thought with death to cope
Despairing comforters, from age to age
Sowing the seeds of hope:

Gracious deceivers, who have lifted us
Out of the slough where passed our unknown youth;
Beneficent liars, who have gifted us
With sacred love of truth!

Farewell to them: yet pause ere thou unmoor
And set thine ark adrift on unknown seas;
How wert thou bettered so, or more secure
Thou, and thy destinies?

And if then searchest, and art made to fear
Facing of unread riddles dark and hard,
And mastering not their majesty austere,
Their meaning locked and barred:

How would it make the weight and wonder less,
If, lifted from immortal shoulders down,
The worlds were cast on seas of emptiness
In realms without a crown,

And (if there were no God) were left to rue
Dominion of the air and of the fire?
Then if there be a God, 'Let God be true,
And every man a liar.'

But as for me, I do not speak as one
That is exempt: I am with life at feud:
My heart reproacheth me, as there were none
Of so small gratitude.

Wherewith shall I console thee, heart o' mine,
And still thy yearning and resolve thy doubt?
That which I know, and that which I divine,
Alas! have left thee out.

I have aspired to know the might of God,
As if the story of His love was furled,
Nor sacred foot the grasses e'er had trod
Of this redeemèd world:—

Have sunk my thoughts as lead into the deep,
To grope for that abyss whence evil grew,
And spirits of ill, with eyes that cannot weep,
Hungry and desolate flew;

As if their legions did not one day crowd
The death-pangs of the Conquering Good to see!
As if a sacred head had never bowed
In death for man—for me!

Nor ransomed back the souls beloved, the sons
Of men, from thraldom with the nether kings
In that dark country where those evil ones
Trail their unhallowed wings.

And didst Thou love the race that loved not Thee,
And didst Thou take to heaven a human brow?
Dost plead with man's voice by the marvellous sea?
Art Thou his kinsman now?

O God, O kinsman loved, but not enough!
O man, with eyes majestic after death,
Whose feet have toiled along our pathways rough,
Whose lips drawn human breath!

By that one likeness which is ours and Thine,
By that one nature which doth hold us kin,
By that high heaven where, sinless, Thou dost shine
To draw us sinners in,

By Thy last silence in the judgement-hall,
By long foreknowledge of the deadly tree,
By, darkness, by the wormwood and the gall,
I pray Thee visit me.

Come, lest this heart should, cold and cast away
Die ere the guest adored she entertain—
Lest eyes which never saw Thine earthly day
Should miss Thy heavenly reign.

Collie weary-eyed from seeking in the nip night
Thy wanderers strayed upon the pathless wold,
Who wounded, dying, cry to Thee for light,
And cannot find their fold.

And deign, O Watcher, with the sleepless brow,
Pathetic in its yearning—deign reply:
Is there, O is there aught that such as Thou
Wouldst take from such as I?

Are there no briars across Thy pathway thrust?
Are there no thorns that compass it about?
Nor any stones that Thou wilt deign to trust
My hands to gather out?

O, if Thou wilt, and if such bliss might be,
It were a cure for doubt, regret, delay—
Let my lost pathway go—what aileth me?—
There is a better way.

What though unmarked the happy workman toil,
And break unthanked of man the stubborn clod?
It is enough, for sacred is the soil,
Dear are the hills of God.

Far better in its place the lowliest bird
Should sing aright to Him the lowliest song,
Than that a seraph strayed should take the word
And sing His glory wrong.

Friend, it is time to work. I say to thee,
Thou dost all earthly good by much excel;
Thou and God's blessing are enough for me
My work, my work—farewell!


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Poem Submitted: Wednesday, March 10, 2010



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