Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, OBERAMMERGAU, 1890, by WILLIAM ALLEN BUTLER



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OBERAMMERGAU, 1890, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: A trembling vow breathed in a night of fears
Last Line: Show forth his passion till the saviour come.
Subject(s): Crucifixion; Jesus Christ; Oberammergau Passion-play; Religion; Jesus Christ - Crucifixion; Theology


A TREMBLING vow breathed in a night of fears;
A votive offering wet with bitter tears;
Faith's faltering cry through thickest midnight gloom;
Hope's last faint signal by the opening tomb;
Thus, in despair, the stricken peasants prayed:
"O, Father, if this cruel plague be stayed,
We and our children pledge ourselves to Thee,
In every decade of the years to be,
While Ammer's waters through our valley glide,
Or Kofel's summit greets the morning tide,
With all our powers, however scant and rude,
In very act and true similitude,
Before the world and in the light of day,
The Saviour's cross and Passion to portray."

The prayer was heard, so runs the record old,
Thenceforth no lamb was stricken in the fold,
Nor man, nor matron, youth or maiden died,
But healing balm, from every mountain side
Brought back new health to wasted forms and gave
In every home a rescue from the grave.
Safe in its hill-girt vale the hamlet slept;
Through the green dales the gentle Ammer swept,
New blessings bringing to each peasant door,
And all was peace and plenty as of yore;
While far above, fit genius of the place,
Gray Kofel, towering from his massive base,
Still kept his sentry watch, where, stern and lone,
Rose to the sky his rugged, cross-tipped cone.

The trembling lips which breathed that early vow,
Long stilled in death, are dust and ashes now;
The years have flown, the centuries rolled away,
Kingdoms and crowns have crumbled to decay;
Old things have passed away, all things are new,
But to the fathers' pledge the sons are true.
No chance of war, nor tidal wave of change
Have ploughed their furrows past this mountain range.
While perjured monarchs from their seats were hurled,
And trusts betrayed with blood have drenched the world,
On these poor peasants, all untaught, unskilled,
Fell the rich blessing of a vow fulfilled,
Till, on the mountain-top, the handful sown
Of precious grain, to such fair height has grown
That while, from far, the wondering world looks on,
Its golden fruitage shakes like Lebanon.

We sat in silence, twice two thousand souls,
Our thoughts together fused like molten coals;
Round the vast theatre, through its open space,
The summer sunlight fell and filled the place;
In the blue sky, fit background for each scene,
Rose the encircling hills with pastures green;
A Sabbath stillness wrapt us all about,
And overhead the birds flew in and out.
A sudden stir—then, with clear note and strong,
The bright-robed chorus, bursting into song—
Broke the deep silence with the measured strain
Which keeps throughout the play its long refrain,
To herald each new action and rehearse
The Scripture story, wrought in stately verse,
While groups symbolic placed before the view
Those ancient types, the figures of the True,
Which deep within their mystic lines enfold
All the New Covenant, blent with all the Old.
In these rare groupings, posed with wondrous art,
From every home the peasants take their part,
For each and all, strong man or tender child,
An act of worship, pure and undefiled.
Chorus and symbols both, twin streamlets, glide,
By the main Drama's full majestic tide.

The curtain rises: a tumultuous throng
Fills the vast stage; with shouting and with song,
And wealth of waving palms, they bring with them
The Son of David to Jerusalem.
He comes—as written in the prophet's roll—
Meek, lowly, riding on an ass's foal.
Alighting, now, He stands before our view.
How strange the semblance and how strangely true;
The player is a peasant—such was He,
Working in wood—His trade was carpentry;
The noble figure, wrapped in simplest robe,
Might fit a monarch born to rule the globe;
Beneath the parted locks, the oval face
Seems a true type of Judah's lofty race;
That face serenely sad, severely grave,
With pity tender, with high purpose brave.
A human Christ, the Son of Man is He;
Jesus of Nazareth, in Galilee;
True son of Mary, yet by sin untainted,
The Man of Sorrows, and with grief acquainted;
John's Lamb of God, unblemished, without spot,
Who sought His own and they received Him not;
Judah's fierce Lion, as, with knotted cord,
He clears the Temple of its sordid horde,
O'erturns the tables, in His righteous wrath,
Drives the scared usurers from His royal path
And spurns the caitiff band, whose knavish trade
His Father's house a den of thieves has made.
Leader and Lord, true heir of Israel's throne,
Will He not make this kingly hour His own,
While loud hosannas, in the market-place,
Proclaim Him head of David's royal race!

Alas! His hour has come, but not the hour
Of Judah's throne regained, or earthly power.
Scarce cease the plaudits when the baffled crowd
Of Temple traders, with their curses loud,
Smarting with shame and wild with rage and fears,
Besiege the Sanhedrim. On willing ears
Their cry for vengeance falls; the plot is laid
To seize the Nazarene, with Judas' aid;
The flames of hate by priestly craft are fed,
Jesus is doomed—a price is on His head.
The greed of gold, corroding all the heart,
Is shown with vivid strokes in Judas' part.
He bears the bag, at best a slender hoard,
And sits a welcome guest at Simon's board;
There Mary kneels, intent on service meet,
And pours the spikenard on the Master's feet.
Then, through the perfumed air, with sudden haste,
The traitor sneers and chides the needless waste:
"This ointment sold, three hundred pence had brought
To feed the poor—what folly she hath wrought."
In calm rebuke the Master's voice is heard:
"Let her alone," is His reproving word,
"Against My burial this good work shall be;
The poor ye always have—not always Me."

For death anointed thus, He fearless goes,
To face once more His unrelenting foes;
He turns from Bethany, calm resting-place,
And towards Jerusalem sets His steadfast face.
There have the prophets perished, there must He,
Last of the prophets, die on Calvary.
But as He passes on the village street,
Mother and Son for one brief moment meet.
No scene more tender: while her pierced heart bleeds,
With sharp foreboding, earnestly she pleads
To share His coming doom, His opening grave,
If from His foes Himself He will not save,
Gently He calms her—must He not fulfil
To the last bitter end the Father's will?
And while, through tears, we gaze, with stifled breath,
He parts from Mary on His way to death.

The scene has shifted: in the twilight gloom
The Twelve are with Him in the upper room;
This the Real Presence, when the bread He breaks,
The wine-cup blesses and of both partakes,
Then from His heart what wealth of love is poured
On all the chosen, round that Paschal board;
While seated nearest, loved beyond the rest,
John leans his head upon his Master's breast.
The supper ended, silently He moves,
With tenderest ministry to those He loves,
And meekly stoops—O sacrifice complete!—
With girded towel, at the traitor's feet.

The plot moves swiftly; from the Master's touch
The false disciple flies, and with foul clutch
The thirty pieces grasps—the price of blood—
Then, headlong swept upon the surging flood
Of Jewish hate, at once, with stealthy tread,
To Olive's shade the Roman band is led;
His whispered signal to the soldiers, this—
"He whom ye seek is He whom I shall kiss."
There, while each weary, sad disciple sleeps,
His midnight watch, alone, the Master keeps;
An hour of agony. At last He cries:
"He that betrays Me is at hand. Arise!"
And, as He speaks, that holiest shrine of prayer
Bristles with Roman spears, and Judas there
Glides through the garden, and, with serpent hiss,
"Hail, Master!" calls; betraying with a kiss!

The end draws near. In haste the rulers meet;
Their hunted victim now is at their feet.
They speed the trial; set in foul array
The perjured hirelings; swear His life away,
And meet His claims divine with taunting cry—
"What need of proof? Ye hear His blasphemy!"
Soon the swift sentence falls, His doom must be
A felon's death, which Pilate shall decree.
"Not death! Not death!" then Judas wildly cries,
"Condemn Him not to die—to sacrifice
The Master's precious life I never meant—
What have I done? Betrayed the Innocent."
"See thou to that," unmoved, the priests exclaim,
And Judas, stung by guilt, convulsed with shame,
Flings back the shekels, and with frenzied stride
Rushes to death—an outcast suicide.

At Pilate's bar, the Roman's proud disdain
Fades into fear he strives to hide in vain;
In this strange prisoner, friendless and alone,
He finds a nature nobler than his own;
No Galilean, cast in common mould,
Kingly as Cæsar, patient, calm, and bold,
He seeks no earthly crown; His nobler aim
To witness to the truth. For this He came.
And "What is truth?" the startled Pagan cries,
While Truth Incarnate stands before his eyes.
No fault in Him he finds, but it may be
That Herod, lately come from Galilee,
Can best adjudge, and so the soldiers bring
The guiltless prisoner to that guilty king.
Here He stands silent. Herod vainly seeks
Some word or sign, but not a word He speaks;
The men of war, like raging beasts of prey,
Torment the victim whom they dare not slay;
As long foretold in prophecy and psalm,
They mock and jeer and smite with open palm,
While He, as sheep before the shearers dumb,
Waits, in meek silence, till the end shall come.
How strange a contrast on the stage is shown—
The cunning tetrarch on his vassal throne,
Herod, the "fox," as Jesus named him well,
Who slew the Baptist in his prison cell,
Loud with coarse sneers, half jester and half brute;
The Christ, immaculate, sublimely mute.

No judgment Herod gives; with crafty skill
He bows obsequious to Pilate's will;
And now, once more, the weary prisoner stands
Before his judgment-seat, and in his hands
Trembles His fate. Feebly the Roman strives
To save this life, worth all Judean lives;
But now the priests have roused the people's rage,
And once again a concourse fills the stage
And rules the hour—the false and fickle crowd
That yesterday, with shout and chorus loud,
Welcomed the coming king; their vengeful cry
Is not "Hosanna" now, but "Crucify!"
"What! crucify your king? Behold Him there!"
"We have no king but Cæsar!" rends the air.
One last appeal: "The Paschal feast is nigh,
At which one malefactor doomed to die
I must release," and as he speaks they fetch
From prison walls hard by, a loathsome wretch,
Condemned for many crimes, the Law's just prey,
Who stands before them in the light of day,
A hideous sight, whereat all outcries cease,
While Pilate cries, "Whom will ye I release?"
Too swiftly comes the answer to his call—
"Not Jesus, but Barabbas," say they all.
With coward will, borne down by Jewish hate,
Meanly he leaves the victim to His fate,
Washes his hands, vain show, and in one breath
Declares Christ guiltless—gives Him up to death.

So swiftly all has passed, that Mary knows
Only of Jesus' capture by His foes;
The Master taken, His disciples fled,
And in their flight the fatal tidings spread.
But John and Peter through the darkness crept
Where, in the High Priest's hall, the watch was kept,
And by the firelight, near their Master's side,
Waited, in fear, for what might next betide.
There, as the Lord foretold, to Peter came
His sudden, craven lapse; his hour of shame.
Slow waned the night, and ere the cock crew twice,
Had he, with oaths, denied the Saviour thrice;
Then the Lord looked on Peter, and he went,
In outer darkness, to the banishment
Of bitter tears, his head in anguish bowed,
Beating his breast, with lamentations loud.
John hastes to Mary, and we see them next,
In the great city wandering, perplexed
With doubts and fears, when, suddenly, a cry
Breaks on their ears—the multitude is nigh,
Who view their victim, with triumphant hate,
Led to His death outside the city's gate;
He bears His cross, and now as Mary stops,
With looks aghast, beneath its weight He drops;
While, as with lightning stroke, upon her gaze,
The whole truth flashes with consuming blaze.
"Is this the goal His life of love has won,
Death on the cross accurst?—my Son! my Son!"

We gaze and shrink, and, shrinking, still we gaze,
As with strong hands the middle cross they raise.
All things set down in Holy Writ are here—
The crown of thorns, the reed, the Roman spear,
The parted garments and the seamless vest,
The foul-mouthed rabble, with coarse jeer and jest,
The wagging heads, the rulers' boastful cry,
The sudden earthquake and the darkened sky—
Too real all; with horrors so campact
We lose the actors in the awful act;
The mimic scene recedes, the players' stage,
Before the Passion of the Gospel page:
Nailed to the cruel wood, in dying pangs,
Between two thieves, the suffering victim hangs;
Supreme in power—to him who faintly cries
"Remember me," He opens Paradise.
Supreme in love—that love His murderers share,
"Father, forgive them," is His pitying prayer.
Still beats His human heart towards Mary's breast—
"Behold Thy mother, Son"—His sole bequest.
In cruel answer to His fainting call,
"I thirst," they bring Him vinegar and gall.
The Father's face withdrawn, in brief eclipse—
"Forsaken," trembles from His quivering lips—
Then, "It is finished," with loud voice He cries,
Commends His parting soul to God, and dies.

Beneath the fatal tree, in thickest gloom,
The faithful few are grouped by Joseph's tomb;
With loving thought he begged, and Pilate gave,
The lifeless body for his rock-hewn grave;
Then on the ladder's round his aid he lends,
As from the cross the sacred form descends.
This is the sombre scene by Rubens cast
On his famed canvas, in the transept vast
Of Antwerp's great cathedral, and to-day
The tragic movement of the Passion Play
Starts into life the forms his pencil wrought,
The players' action with the painter's thought.
Then, for a little space, her Son is laid
In Mary's arms, for death's long sleep arrayed;
With burial rite of tears and fond embrace,
They bear Him gently to His resting-place.
Love can avail no more; the Crucified
Is dead and buried. In His grave abide
What vanished visions! Hope with Him has fled,
The Lord of Israel slain, Messiah dead.
The mourners pass and all is over now,
Only the spectral cross on Calvary's brow,
Brand of the world's worst shame, stands lone and bare,
Symbol of Heaven's wrath and man's despair.

This is the human ending, for the rest,
The sequel is divine and silence best.
Few scenes and simple mark the drama's close;
In the gray dawn the Easter sunlight glows;
At the grave's mouth, arisen, as He said,
The Lord appears; the Living leaves the Dead,
And at the last His radiant form is shown
In clouds ascending to the Father's throne.

We quit the place, and home returning say:
"These are strange things that we have seen to-day."
Still while we muse, one thought the most intense—
How have these men this marvellous power, and whence?
No classic Roscius taught their earlier age,
No tragic Talma trod their later stage,
Nor modern players, versed in all the schools,
Have hither brought their new dramatic rules;
And yet these peasant actors, undismayed,
In loftier parts than Shakespeare drew have played,
And not for rustic boors or mountain swains,
Or simple herdsmen on Bavarian plains.
Hither the world is drawn; from all its shores
Comes the vast throng that through these gateways pours;
Here sit the critics who with practised gaze
View each fresh triumph won when Irving plays,
Or as the maddened Moor, Salvini strides,
Or Booth unlocks the secret Hamlet hides.
How have these peasants dared this height to scale,
Where to succeed in part were but to fail,
With fearless footsteps on the dizzy edge,
Where less than full success were sacrilege?

Twofold the answer. Five times fifty years
One lofty thought possessed these mountaineers;
A generation slept, another came,
And still their purpose kept its steadfast aim,
Ran in their blood and in their pulses thrilled,
And all their life with all its spirit filled.
Nor deem it strange. What altar fires have leapt
Where by a chosen few a faith is kept;
What deeds heroic ever have been done,
Where one strong impulse sweeps from sire to son!
See where apart, in mountain wilds of Spain,
One lonely tribe in all the world retain
Their Orient, alien speech, and dwell alone;
So here the ancient Mystery claims its own,
And sets apart this far Bavarian clan
To show the Passion of the Son of Man.
Nor is this all. As on the wave, the crest,
One master spirit shines above the rest,
Whose patient labor, wrought from day to day,
Through thirty years, has made the Passion Play:
The village pastor, shepherd of his fold,
Simple of heart, but fired with courage bold,
To mould the native thought with daring skill,
And with the world its well-won fame to fill—
His touch has fashioned all; his plastic art
Shaped every scene and rounded every part;
His hand has planted on his hamlet's brow
The sparkling diadem which crowns it now.

Fair Oberammergau! to thy pure shrine
How many thoughts to-day revert with mine;
From over distant seas, from every zone,
What countless memories claim thee as their own;
To thee we flocked as birds of passage fly,
Their close-locked pinions darkening all the sky,
To pause an instant on some sunlit height,
Then part forever in their scattered flight;
From North and South, from East and West we came,
Thy loving welcome still to all the same.
Thanks to each peasant host. And shall it be
This decade ends the Passion Mystery?
Here, as of old, shall sordid greed of gain
The Temple court defile with touch profane?
Shall the world's concourse, like some mountain slide,
Choke the pure streamlet with its muddy tide?
Perchance it must be so, yet, as Time flies,
As the years roll, the waning century dies,
Haply thy sons, with purpose high and true,
In coming decades shall the vow renew,
Within the world, yet from the world apart
And with the blessing of the pure in heart,
Safe in the fastness of their mountain home,
Show forth His Passion till the Saviour come.





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