Scene 3. A Cliff On The Breton Coast, Overhanging The Sea
Adam Lindsay Gordon
Down drops the red sun; through the gloaming
They burst-raging waves of the sea,
Foaming out their own shame-ever foaming
Their leprosy up with fierce glee;
Flung back from the stone, snowy fountains
Of feathery flakes, scarcely flag
Where, shock after shock, the green mountains
Explode on the iron-grey crag.
The salt spray with ceaseless commotion
Leaps round me. I sit on the verge
Of the cliff-‘twixt the earth and the ocean
With feet overhanging the surge.
In thy grandeur, oh, sea! we acknowledge,
In thy fairness, oh, earth! we confess,
Hidden truths that are taught in no college,
Hidden songs that no parchments express.
Were they wise in their own generations,
Those sages and sagas of old?
They have passed; o’er their names and their nations
Time’s billows have silently rolled;
They have passed, leaving little to their children,
Save histories of a truth far from strict;
Or theories more vague and bewildering,
Since three out of four contradict.
Lost labour! vain bookworms have sat in
The halls of dull pedants who teach
Strange tongues, the dead lore of the Latin,
The scroll that is god-like and Greek:
Have wasted life’s spring tide in learning
Things long ago learnt all in vain;
They are slow, very slow, in discerning
That book lore and wisdom are twain.
Pale shades of a creed that was mythic,
By time or by truth overcome,
Your Delphian temples and Pythic
Are ruins deserted and dumb;
Your Muses are hushed, and your Graces
Are bruised and defaced; and your gods,
Enshrined and enthroned in high places
No longer, are powerless as clods;
By forest and stream let, where glistened
Fair feet of the Naiads that skimmed
The shallows; where the Oreads listened,
Rose-lipped, amber-haired, marble-limbed,
No lithe forms disport in the river,
No sweet faces peer through the boughs,
Elms and beeches wave silent for ever,
Ever silent the bright water flows.
(Were they duller or wiser than we are,
Those heathens of old? Who shall say?
Worse or better? Thy wisdom, O ‘Thea
Glaucopis’, was wise in thy day;
And the false gods alluring to evil,
That swayed reckless votaries then,
Were slain to no purpose; they revel
Re-crowned in the hearts of us men.)
Dead priests of Osiris and Isis,
And Apis! that mystical lore,
Like a nightmare, conceived in a crisis
Of fever, is studied no more;
Dead Magian! yon star-troop that spangles
The arch of yon firmament vast
Looks calm, like a host of white angels,
On dry dust of votaries past.
On seas unexplored can the ship shun
Sunk rocks? Can man fathom life’s links,
Past or future, unsolved by Egyptian
Or Theban, unspoken by Sphinx?
The riddle remains still unravelled
By students consuming night oil.
Oh, earth! we have toiled, we have travailed,
How long shall we travail and toil?
How long? The short life that fools reckon
So sweet, by how much is it higher
Than brute life?-the false gods still beckon,
And man, through the dust and the mire,
Toils onward, as toils the dull bullock,
Unreasoning, brutish, and blind,
With Ashtaroth, Mammon, and Moloch
In front, and Alecto behind.
The wise one of earth, the Chaldean,
Serves folly in wisdom’s disguise;
And the sensual Epicurean,
Though grosser, is hardly less wise;
‘Twixt the former, half pedant, half pagan,
And the latter, half sow and half sloth,
We halt, choose Astarte or Dagon,
Or sacrifice freely to both.
With our reason that seeks to disparage,
Brute instinct it fails to subdue;
With our false illegitimate courage,
Our sophistry, vain and untrue;
Our hopes that ascend so and fall so,
Our passions, fierce hates and hot loves,
We are wise (aye, the snake is wise also)
Wise as serpents, NOT harmless as doves.
Some flashes, like faint sparks from heaven,
Come rarely with rushing of wings;
We are conscious at times we have striven,
Though seldom, to grasp better things;
These pass, leaving hearts that have faltered,
Good angels with faces estranged,
And the skin of the Ethiop unaltered,
And the spots of the leopard unchanged.
Oh, earth! pleasant earth! have we hankered
To gather thy flowers and thy fruits?
The roses are withered, and cankered
The lilies, and barren the roots
Of the fig-tree, the vine, the wild olive,
Sharp thorns and sad thistles that yield
Fierce harvest-so WE live, and SO live
The perishing beasts of the field.
And withal we are conscious of evil
And good-of the spirit and the clod,
Of the power in our hearts of a devil,
Of the power in our souls of a God,
Whose commandments are graven in no cypher,
But clear as His sun-from our youth
One at least we have cherished-‘An eye for
An eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’
Oh, man! of thy Maker the image;
To passion, to pride, or to wealth,
Sworn bondsman, from dull youth to dim age,
Thy portion the fire or the filth,
Dross seeking, dead pleasure’s death rattle
Thy memories’ happiest song,
And thy highest hope-scarce a drawn battle
With dark desperation. How long?
Roar louder! leap higher! ye surf-beds,
And sprinkle your foam on the furze;
Bring the dreams that brought sleep to our turf-beds,
To camps of our long ago years,
With the flashing and sparkling of broadswords,
With the tossing of banners and spears,
With the trampling of hard hoofs on hard swards,
With the mingling of trumpets and cheers.
The gale has gone down; yet outlasting
The gale, raging waves of the sea,
Casting up their own foam, ever casting
Their leprosy up with wild glee,
Still storm; so in rashness and rudeness
Man storms through the days of his grace;
Yet man cannot fathom God’s goodness,
Exceeding God’s infinite space.
And coldly and calmly and purely
Grey rock and green hillock lie white
In star-shine dream-laden-so surely
Night cometh-so cometh the night
When we, too, at peace with our neighbour,
May sleep where God’s hillocks are piled,
Thanking HIM for a rest from day’s labour,
And a sleep like the sleep of a child!