Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE SINGERS OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, by GEORGE BARLOW (1847-1913)

Poetry Explorer

Classic and Contemporary Poetry

First Line: When the twentieth century fadeth
Last Line: For the distant sake of us who sleep?
Subject(s): English Poetry - 19th Century; Hugo, Victor (1802-1885); Music & Musicians; Poetry & Poets; Singing & Singers; Voices; Songs


When the twentieth century fadeth
As the present century nears its doom,
Will the singers it remembers,
Glancing back along the years of bloom,
Be diviner than the singers
Chanting through our century's sun and gloom?


What strange wars and tribulations
Will the far-off voices have to sing!
Creeds and thrones of newer peoples:
Flowers of many another laughing spring:
Love with eyes the same as ever,
Love the eternal century-mocking king!


Yet though grand the future singers,
Stately though their march of music, be,
Our strange century hath been gladdened;
Woodland green and lake and silver sea,
Purple moor and breezy upland,
Golden gorse-bright heather-haunted lea,—


These have heard our century's singers.
What glad faces shone beneath the light
Of the passionate early morning!
When the fields of Europe rang with fight
All the faces of our singers
Brightened into measureless delight!—


When Napoleon from the Island
Passed, and let the whole world sink to sleep,
Three great singers sang his passing,
Half in triumph, half with eyes that weep;
Byron, Shelley, Victor Hugo,
Rose and sang with passion true and deep.


Far off, very far, it seemeth:
Close beside those early singers stood
Blood-smeared wild-eyed Revolution,
And her spirit mingled with their mood;
Now long bright decades of blossoms
Hide that vision gaunt and gore-imbrued.


Wordsworth stands between. His mountains
Hide the red and blood-streaked dawn of day.
He with ever-tender passion
Towards the cloud-swept valleys points the way:
To his spirit Revolution
Had but one pale far-off word to say.


Oh those valleys and the mountains,
And the lakes and sunsets calm and clear!
Will they be to future singers
As profoundly, passionately, dear?
Will the rocks be mute for ever,
Frowning from their silent towers and sheer?—


Who will sing the Grecian blossoms
As this century's Grecian spirit sang,
Keats,—and all our lanes and hedges
To the sound of Pagan harping rang:—
Forth from dark-hued English waters
Many a sweet-lipped white-limbed Naiad sprang!


Grey-haired venerable Landor
Full of classic passion lived and died:
Strong-browed drama-moulding Browning
Won our woman-poet for his bride:
She too was this century's singer,—
Lyric soul to Sappho's soul allied.


If the century had been barren,
Seen no may-tree blossom in its dells;
Never one wild climbing rose-bush;
Never any spire of fox-glove bells;
Never luscious-scented gorse-brake
That the air to sweet response compels;—


If no blossom had been with us,
She the flower of flowers had filled the air
With an unexampled fragrance;
Sovereign and sufficient, had been there;
Yes, the century would have marvelled
At the song-flowers one sweet heart could bear.


Now the century's days are darkening:
Round about her still the singers stand:
One with sad eyes light-forsaken
Nobly sings amid the younger band;
Now no more the English meadows
Lay their golden blossoms in his hand.


Yet when bright and full of beauty
Forth the laughing century like a bride
Stepped, was any sweeter singer
Found among the many at her side?
He among the later chosen
Stands, and every door-way opens wide.


All the doorways of the valleys
Open of their free-will unto him:
Why should any be reluctant?
For a season brief his eyes are dim:
But the souls of all the blossoms
And of clouds and waters he can hymn.


Marston, blind yet full of vision,
Seeing more than soulless myriads see,
Lo! I singing in the twilight
Of the darkening years along with thee
Bring thee greeting of the woodland
And the solemn greeting of the sea.


In the dawning of the era
Swift-eyed, seeing, the laurelled singers rose:
But the God-endowed blind singer,
Pale and patient, waited for its close:
Now we hold his hand, and guide him;
Yet the soul-path he the blind man shows.


He the path that leaves the valley
Winding upward towards the heaven of song
Points out: leads us, far less clearly
Seeing, the rocky ringing heights along:
He can shame the mountain eagle
With his soul-gaze keen and full and strong.


This would make the century brighter
Were no other singer left to see:
Were no voices heard, nor figures
Seen upon the mountains,—only he:
This would soothe the moaning twilight
Into dawn-like rapturous melody.


Was there ever heard a sweeter
Song than his to lull a century's close?
Was there ever known a purer
Love than his for violet and for rose?
Were there ever greater stronger
Arms wherein love's bosom might repose?


Was there ever spirit nearer
To the inmost sacred soul of things?
Did blind Homer's soul see deeper?
Did blind Milton's kingly voice that rings
Through the sonnet chant more sweetly,—
Blind, yet listening to Love's rushing wings!


Had the tender heart of poet
Ever tenderer sweeter things to say
To the tender heart of woman
Than this blind bard singing in our day?
Blind alone to what is evil,—
Wide-eyed as the sun to bright love's ray.


Through the sonnet-metre chanting
He hath found full many a word unsaid
By the elder poets waiting
For his coming. Round about his bed
Gleam the robes of many visions,
White-winged, dark-winged, soft or sweet or dread.


Keats and Shelley and the early
Singers, I born later in the day
Missed the holy sound and sight of;
But I meet a friend beneath the grey
Evening light: a brother singer,
Blind, but swift of vision even as they.


Never yet the rolling waters
Held more might of colour than they hold
In the song of the blind poet:
There the sunset breathes and burns with gold:
There the beauty of all blossoms
Mixes,—leaf on soft leaf, fold on fold.


There the sovereign grace of woman
Gleams, and fills the highways of his strain
With the sunlight of her beauty,—
Crowned, a very queen of song, again:
Death has trodden amid his roses,—
Yet what soft scents passing words remain!


Though his song is full of sadness
And a sense of dear love dead and white,
Yet the music of his measure
Thrills the hearer's rapt soul with delight;
Though the darkness is around him,
Countless stars about his brow are bright!


Though the darkness closes round him,
Light he gives to others,—and the bloom
Of an infinite soul-healing
Breathes on others from his passion's tomb;
And he comes, and brings the morning
Glancing golden-sandalled through the gloom.


All our hearts are full of pity;
And the spirits of mountains and of flowers
And of waves and rocking woodlands
And of sunsets mix their love with ours;
All the hearts of roses know him,
Thrilling as his footstep nears their bowers.


Much our souls would do to help him;
Little may our strongest yearning reach;
Though the pity never fails us,
Fails the song, and weak imperfect speech;
Wild our words are like the wailing
Of the wind through smooth leaves of the beech.


Yet our singing, brother, take it,
And the heart that finds the singing weak,
Pale beside the deep emotion
That like the dumb waters cannot speak,—
Only surge, and surge for ever,—
Flash, and for a moment tinge the cheek.


Lonely, many waited for thee;
Blind, that thou mightest give them eyes to see:
Jealous flowers and hills and rivers
Left forlorn by Shelley looked to thee:
All the unsung heart of Nature;
Many an uncrowned lake, and tearful lea.


For the whole of Nature never,
Bridelike, conquered by a single bard,
Kissed his lips and stood before him,
Loosed her purple deep hair golden-starred;
Still for each the blue receding
Heaven-depths show some mocking gateways barred.


Thus, though Spenser filled the Sonnet
With soft fire and wreathed fair flowers around,
And though Milton shook its pillars
Till live thunder leapt along the ground,
Something still is left for later
Singers: still new harps and newer sound.


Tender buds of beauty gleaming
Half-unseen beside the grassy way
Waited,—till the blind sweet singer,
Marston, came and touched the buds, and they
Sprang to sudden fragrant glory,
Gold for dim pale yellow, red for grey.


If the whole of Nature truly
Were one bride for one great king of song,
Would not kingly Victor Hugo
With the lips that never fostered wrong,
Only equal wide-eyed justice,
Lure her coy reluctant feet along?


Would not she the spirit of Nature
Who was girlish, young, when Shelley came,
Meet, mature, the century's singer,
Hugo,—touch his lips with lips of flame?
Surely, white as if for bridal,
Bride-pure, her our greatest heart may claim.


If for any single singer
She, sweet Nature, like a woman stood
Conquered, virginal and tearful,
Merging now in passion every mood,
For this singer, high-browed, lonely,
Forth she came, by godlike lips subdued.


Other singers win the kisses
Of the flowers her handmaids sweet and white:
Violet-lips and rose-caresses;
Clasp of pliant ivy-tendrils bright;
But for him her voice of ocean
Sounds, and calls him towards her through the night.


He the giant message hearing
Leaves all friends and passes forth alone,
Knowing that the woman calls him,
Nature, to be sharer of her throne:
Through blue gulfs her whisper thrilleth,
Over limitless white waters blown.


He through crimson dawn returning,
Kissed and held of Nature through the night,
Dazzles us with kingly glances
Till we shrink from their excessive light;
Still the awful kiss of Nature
Leaves his lips imperishably bright.


Yet the age hath room for others.
Midway 'tween the younger and elder band
Tennyson, most English-hearted,
Brow-bound with the English leaf, doth stand:
And the lanes and English meadows
Move and bloom and brighten at his hand.


His the message not of ocean:
Not the kiss that floats across the sea:
Not the lips whose breath is breezes:
Not the sweet-winged spirit of night,—not she:—
His the calm heart of the valleys,
Filled with many a flower and golden tree.


His all English women's beauty
In the lanes with English violets starred:—
But the century hath another
Whom the thunder crowned and sought for bard;
Whom the lightning kissed, and loved him;
For whose soul the sea-wind wrestled hard.


Byron! still the lonely Jura
Seeks thee, widowed, weary,—and her sighs
Rolling through the rolling thunder
Find no kindred heart nor song-replies;
And the sea hath lost its comrade,—
On its billowy lips the laughter dies.


Yet the sea of Revolution
Through a younger fiery singer thrills;
And his heart hath caught the rapture
Somewhat of the green far foam-flecked hills,
And his soul hath laughed for gladness
With the laughing clear-eyed mountain-rills.


Somewhat of the Master's mantle
And of speech of his hath fallen on thee,
Swinburne: somewhat of the eternal
Might and wrath and rapture of the sea
Through thy sea-like song hath spoken;
Somewhat of the soul of all things free.


And the heart of many a goddess
Left forlorn and weary since the day
When the Pagan shrines' redeemer,
Keats, alas! too early, passed away,
Dares to glance up, and rejoices
Hearing the old note within thy lay.


Bowed and full of desolation
Was full many a goddess' bright-haired head
When along the viewless valleys
Rang the news that bright-haired Keats was dead:
Eyes long dry and tearless wept him,
And for years no rose won all its red.


But before the century fully
Passed, a new and fervent singer rose,
And the gods shook off their mourning;
Lo! again the trembling water glows
Round about the form of Venus,
Wakeful after over-long repose.


Once again an English singer
Twines about his brow the old Grecian bays,
And the bright hills laugh for gladness,
And his feet are swift i' the rose-hung ways
Where the feet of Keats before him
Dashed the dewdrops from the springing sprays.


Ah! we cannot name each singer.
Can we name the flowers that shine along
English glades and wind-kissed meadows?
Can we enshrine each star within our song?
League by league o'er blue sky-billows
Falls the splendour of the starry throng.


Yet a note of sadness mingles
With our song that praises these who sing.
All must pass. One century forward
Just as blue shall gleam the swallow's wing
O'er the deep green water flashing;
Just as sweet shall be the ungrey-haired Spring!


Pink the early almond-blossom
Still amid the branches brown shall shine:
And the bees shall hum for ever
Through the ivy and round about the vine;
And the blue-green feathery leafage
Still shall crown the red shaft of the pine.


Then shall hearts alive and glowing
Seek towards dead strong hearts who sing to-day.
But the rose shall laugh and scatter
Dewy pink-red leaves beside the way:
One live flower shall have the magic
All dead things and bloodless to outweigh.


Nature! Yes our poets win her,
Some for mistress, some for deathless bride,
So it seems. Yet young and girlish
She shall smile some future bard beside;
Just as if no soul before him
Ever sang her beauty,—and, singing, died.


Just as if no flower had ever
Loved the sun, and withered at its might:
In a hundred years shall Nature
Bring the spring with sudden gleam of white
Snowdrop-handmaids o'er the valleys,—
And the moon is new-born every night.


Every night the night's star thrilleth
At the marriage-message of the sea:
What grows old and grey in Nature?
Nought that Nature fashions; only we:—
Not more snowy was the primal
Than last April's dazzling chestnut tree.


So, when singers are arising,
Eager, young, as singers past arose,
Virginal and full of sweetness
Will the world's eyes meet them, and the rose.
Round about each new-born poet
Arms most white his virgin era throws.


Yet when each new bard hath kissed her,
If he looks within her eyes and deep,
Shall he mark a shade of sadness,—
'Mid the throbs that through her bosom leap
Note one single pulse that trembles
For the distant sake of us who sleep?

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