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First Line: It seems as if - or did the actual chance
Last Line: Not first learn and then live, is our concern.
Subject(s): Smart, Christopher (1722-1771)


IT seems as if ... or did the actual chance
Startle me and perplex? Let truth be said!
How might this happen? Dreaming, blindfold led
By visionary hand, did soul's advance
Precede my body's, gain inheritance
Of fact by fancy -- so that when I read
At length with waking eyes your Song, instead
Of mere be wilderment, with me first glance
Was but full recognition that in trance
Or merely thought's adventure some old day
Of dim and done-with boyishness, or -- well,
Why might it not have been, the miracle
Broke on me as I took my sober way
Through veritable regions of our earth
And made discovery, many a wondrous one?


Anyhow, fact or fancy, such its birth:
I was exploring some huge house, had gone
Through room and room complacently, no dearth
Anywhere of the signs of decent taste,
Adequate culture: wealth had run to waste
Nowise, nor penury was proved by stint:
All showed the Golden Mean without a hint
Of brave extravagance that breaks the rule.
The master of the mansion was no fool
Assuredly, no genius just as sure!
Safe mediocrity had scorned the lure
Of now too much and now too little cost,
And satisfied me sight was never lost
Of moderate design's accomplishment
In calm completeness. On and on I went
With no more hope than fear of what came next,
Till lo, I push a door, sudden uplift
A hanging, enter, chance upon a shift
Indeed of scene! So -- thus it is thou deck'st
High heaven, our low earth's brick-and-mortar work?


It was the Chapel. That a star, from murk
Which hid, should flashingly emerge at last,
Were small surprise: but from broad day I passed
Into a presence that turned shine to shade.
There fronted me the Rafael Mother-Maid,
Never to whom knelt votarist in shrine
By Nature's bounty helped, by Art's divine
More varied -- beauty with magnificence --
Than this: from floor to roof one evidence
Of how far earth may rival heaven. No niche
Where glory was not prisoned to enrich
Man's gaze with gold and gems, no space but glowed
With color, gleamed with carving -- hues which owed
Their outburst to a brush the painter fed
With rainbow-substance -- rare shapes never wed
To actual flesh and blood, which, brain-born once.
Became the sculptor's dowry, Art's response
To earth's despair. And all seemed old yet new:
Youth, -- in the marble's curve, the canvas' hue,
Apparent, -- wanted not the crowning thrill
Of age the consecrator. Hands long still
Had worked here -- could it be, what lent them skill
Retained a power to supervise, protect,
Enforce new lessons with the old, connect
Our life with theirs? No merely modern touch
Told me that here the artist, doing much,
Elsewhere did more, perchance does better, lives --
So needs must learn.


Well, these provocatives
Having fulfilled their office, forth I went
Big with anticipation -- well-nigh fear --
Of what next room and next for startled eyes
Might have in store, surprise beyond surprise.
Next room and next and next -- what followed here?
Why, nothing! not one object to arrest
My passage -- everywhere too manifest
The previous decent null and void of best
And worst, mere ordinary right and fit,
Calm commonplace which neither missed, nor hit
Inch-high, inch-low, the placid mark proposed.


Armed with this instance, have I diagnosed
Your case, my Christopher? The man was sound
And sane at starting: all at once the ground
Gave way beneath his step, a certain smoke
Curled up and caught him, or perhaps down broke
A fireball wrapping flesh and spirit both
In conflagration. Then -- as heaven were loth
To linger -- let earth understand too well
How heaven at need can operate -- off fell
The flame-robe, and the untransfigured man
Resumed sobriety, -- as he began,
So did he end nor alter pace, not he!


Now, what I fain would know is -- could it be
That he -- whoe'er he was that furnished forth
The Chapel, making thus, from South to North,
Rafael touch Leighton, Michelagnolo
Join Watts, was found but once combining so
The elder and the younger, taking stand
On Art's supreme, -- or that yourself who sang
A Song where flute-breath silvers trumpet-clang,
And stations you for once on either hand
With Milton and with Keats, empowered to claim
Affinity on just one point -- (or blame
Or praise my judgment, thus it fronts you full) --
How came it you resume the void and null,
Subside to insignificance, -- live, die
-- Proved plainly two mere mortals who drew nigh
One moment -- that, to Art's best hierarchy,
This, to the superhuman poet-pair?
What if, in one point only, then and there
The otherwise all-unapproachable
Allowed impingement? Does the sphere pretend
To span the cube's breadth, cover end to end
The plane with its embrace? No, surely!
Contact is contact, sphere's touch no whit less
Than cube's superimposure. Such success
Befell Smart only out of throngs between
Milton and Keats that donned the singing-dress --
Smart, solely of such songmen, pierced the screen
'Twixt thing and word, lit language straight from soul, --
Left no fine film-flake on the naked coal
Live from the censer -- shapely or uncouth,
Fire-suffused through and through, one blaze of truth
Undeadened by a lie, -- (you have my mind) --
For, think! this blaze outleapt with black behind
And blank before, when Hayley and the rest ...
But let the dead successors worst and best
Bury their dead: with life be my concern --
Yours with the fire-flame: what I fain would learn
Is just -- (suppose me haply ignorant
Down to the common knowledge, doctors vaunt)
Just this -- why only once the fire-flame was:
No matter if the marvel came to pass
The way folk judged -- if power too long suppressed
Broke loose and maddened, as the vulgar guessed
Or simply brain-disorder (doctors said),
A turmoil of the particles disturbed,
Brain's workaday performance in your head,
Spurred spirit to wild action health had curbed,
And so verse issued in a cataract
Whence prose, before and after, unperturbed
Was wont to wend its way. Concede the fact
That here a poet was who always could --
Never before did -- never after would --
Achieve the feat: how were such fact explained?


Was it that when, by rarest chance, there fell
Disguise front Nature, so that Truth remained
Naked, and whoso saw for once could tell
Us others of her majesty and might
In large, her lovelinesses infinite
In little, -- straight you used the power wherewith
Sense penetrating as through rind to pith
Each object, thoroughly revealed might view
And comprehend the old things thus made new,
So that while eye saw, soul to tongue could trust
Thing which struck word out, and once more adjust
Real vision to right language, till heaven's vault
Pompous with sunset, storm-stirred sea's assault
On the swilled rock-ridge, earth's embosomed brood
Of tree and flower and weed, with all the life
That flies or swims or crawls, in peace or strife,
Above, below -- each had its note and name
For Man to know by, -- Man who, now -- the same
As erst in Eden, needs that all he sees
Be named him ere he note by what degrees
Of strength and beauty to its end Design
Ever thus operates -- (your thought and mine,
No matter for the many dissident) --
So did you sing your Song, so truth found vent
In words for once with you?


Then -- back was furled
The robe thus thrown aside, and straight the world
Darkened into the old oft-catalogued
Repository of things that sky, wave, land,
Or show or hide, clear late, accretion-clogged
Now, just as long ago, by tellings and
Re-tellings to satiety, which strike
Muffled upon the ear's drum. Very like
None was so startled as yourself when friends
Came, hailed your fast-returning wits:
"Health mends
Importantly, for -- to be plain with you --
This scribble on the wall was done -- in lieu
Of pen and paper -- with -- ha, ha! -- your key
Denting it on the wainscot! Do you see
How wise our caution was? Thus much we stopped
Of babble that had else grown print: and lopped
From your trim bay-tree this unsightly bough --
Smart's who translated Horace! Write us now" ...
Why, what Smart did write -- never afterward
One line to show that he, who paced the sward,
Had reached the zenith from his madhouse cell.


Was it because you judged (I know full well
You never had the fancy) -- judged -- as some --
That who makes poetry must reproduce
Thus ever and thus only, as they come,
Each strength, each beauty, everywhere diffuse
Throughout creation, so that eye and ear.
Seeing and hearing, straight shall recognize,
At touch of just a trait, the strength appear, --
Suggested by a line's lapse see arise
All evident the beauty, -- fresh surprise
Startling at fresh achievement? "So, indeed
Wallows the whale's bulk in the waste of brine.
Nor otherwise its feather-tufts make fine
Wild Virgin's Bower when stars faint off to seed!"
(My prose -- your poetry I dare not give,
Purpling too much my mere gray argument.)
-- Was it because you judged -- when fugitive
Was glory found, and wholly gone and spent
Such power of startling up deaf ear, blind eye,
At truth's appearance, -- that you humbly bent
The head and, bidding vivid work good-by,
Doffed lyric dress and trod the world once more
A drab-clothed decent proseman as before?
Strengths, beauties, by one word's flash thus laid bare
-- That was effectual service: made aware
Of strengths and beauties, Man but hears the text,
Awaits your teaching. Nature? What comes next?
Why all the strength and beauty? -- to be shown
Thus in one word's flash, thenceforth let alone
By Man who needs must deal with aught that's known
Never so lately and so little? Friend,
First give us knowledge, then appoint its use!
Strength, beauty are the means: ignore their end?
As well you stopped at proving how profuse
Stones, sticks, nay stubble lie to left and right
Ready to help the builder, -- careless quite
If he should take, or leave the same to strew
Earth idly, -- as by word's flash bring in view
Strength, beauty, then bid who beholds the same
Go on beholding. Why gains unemployed?
Nature was made to be by Man enjoyed
First; followed duly by enjoyment's fruit,
Instruction -- haply leaving joy behind:
And you, the instructor, would you slack pursuit
Of the main prize, as poet help mankind
Just to enjoy, there leave them? Play the fool,
Abjuring a superior privilege?
Please simply when your function is to rule --
By thought incite to deed? From edge to edge
Of earth's round, strength and beauty everywhere
Pullulate -- and must you particularize
All, each and every apparition? Spare
Yourself and us the trouble! Ears and eyes
Want so much strength and beauty, and no less
Nor more, to learn life's lesson by. Oh, yes --
The other method's favored in our day!
The end ere the beginning: as you may
Master the heavens before you study earth,
Make you familiar with the meteor's birth
Ere you descend to scrutinize the rose!
I say, o'erstep no least one of the rows
That lead man from the bottom where he plants
Foot first of all, to life's last ladder-top:
Arrived there, vain enough will seem the vaunts
Of those who say -- "We scale the skies, then drop
To earth -- to find, how all things there are loth
To answer heavenly law: we understand
The meteor's course, and lo, the rose's growth --
How other than should be by law's command!"
Would not you tell such -- "Friends, beware lest fume
Offuscate sense: learn earth first ere presume
To teach heaven legislation. Law must be
Active in earth or nowhere: earth you see, --
Or there or not at all, Will, Power and Love
Admit discovery, -- as below, above
Seek next law's confirmation! But reverse
The order, where's the wonder things grow worse
Than, by the law your fancy formulates,
They should be? Cease from anger at the fates
Which thwart themselves so madly. Live and learn,
Not first learn and then live, is our concern.

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