Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, MICHELANGELO, by RHYS CARPENTER

Poetry Explorer

Classic and Contemporary Poetry

MICHELANGELO, by                 Poet's Biography
First Line: Stern and grim-visaged, gaunt, and dark of gaze
Last Line: Into unfurrowed fields of light.
Subject(s): Art & Artists; Decay; Genius; History; Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564); Paintings & Painters; Sculpture & Sculptors; Sistine Chapel; Time; Rot; Decadence; Historians


STERN and grim-visaged, gaunt, and dark of gaze,
Time crouches in the outer-world of night
Amid the shifting and entangled maze
Of dusk and star-shine and half-lightless light,
And with strong fingers moulds the unformed clay,
Ruling the refluence of night and day
With shape of sun and satellite.

All men he fashions and all living things,
All aspiration and all great desire,
The might of conquerors, the strength of kings,
The universal forces, good or dire,
The star dust blown through windy heights of space,
The glimmer from the utmost bounds of place,
The thunderous comet flight of fire.

One dream he holds for ever in his eyes
And vainly strives to fashion with his hands,
A wonder world of storm unclouded skies
And mystically Spring encompassed lands,
A vision of all men become as Gods,
Unbroken with despair, unbowed by rods,
Freed of all tyrants' subtle bands.

Ever his hands are set within the clay
To mould therein some flawless masterpiece,
Some image strong and perfect for alway;
Yet ever, when creative fingers cease
Their toil at length and Time beholds the deed,
He knows it faulty, as a rotted reed
Whereon no lips shall ever play.

Therefore all things are shattered by Time's will,
And dust, made clay, crumbles again to dust,
And naught endures for ever, good or ill,
Not joy nor pain, not love nor bitter lust,
But all things pass and are forgotten all,
Like brown and sear frost-stricken leaves that fall
Before the winter wind's first gust.

Yet is not all in vain, for oftenwhile
Beneath the hands of Time some soul more fair
Fulfils existence without taint or guile
And sets his feet upon the upward Stair.
These are the artists of the world, whose breath
Blows on the spark of shifting life and death
Until the beacon fires upflare.

So wrought the hands of Time and fashioned One
And bade him live and move among mankind
And gave him sight of star and moon and sun
And cognizance of passion strong and blind,
Of visions high and fearless, and of dreams
More strange and fair than glimpse of sunless streams
Or phantom voices of the wind.

Gazing upon this child of his dim brain
Time saw him toiling on the earth below
Through pain to splendid hope, through hope to pain,
Beheld strange wonders from his dreaming grow,
Beheld men marvel at him when they saw,
Fearless and naked, without stain or flaw,
The works of Michelangelo.


We gaze on life as one who holds a glass
Across whose surface hasten restless gleams,
Where dim processionals half hidden pass
Through lands where no full-flooded daylight streams.
We know not what we see nor by what breath
The mirror's face is clouded as with death;
All is but as a world of dreams.

We are engirt with mystery; our way
Is fraught with shadow: from amazèd eyes
We watch life's ocean with its flux and sway
And of its hidden depths have no surmise.
All men alike are brought forth frail and weak,
With limbs that fail them, lips that cannot speak,
And strength that serves but sorry wise,

Yet each man moveth into solitude
And none shall know what thoughts his hands obey,
Nor with what might his visions are imbued,
Nor on what height his feet tread out their way.
Imperishable thought, immortal will
Their unknown course foreorder and fulfil
And no man sees what path they stray.

How shall we know, then, with what ardour's heat
Lived, grew and laboured Michelangelo,
Upon what upward hills he set his feet,
How thought and dreamed? Alas, how shall we know?
For he that stoopeth at the deep stream's brink
May only from the idle surface drink
And knoweth not the hidden flow.

And with what thoughts did he at table sit
Within the house of that de Medici
Among whose praises foremost it is writ
That he foreknew the sculptor that should be;
How strove he with the visions that assailed
His growing power, how triumphed and how failed,
How prospered in his artistry?

Waste places and great silence, barren hills,
Storm winds that rage through black chaotic deep,
Caverns unsunned, and seas which no light fills,
Gloom-darkened mountain-tops where never creep
The day's wan glimmerings, the might of fire,
Strange dreams of conquest and unknown desire,
Dark underworlds where Titans sleep,

These are the musings of colossal minds,
The touchstones of a true and noblest worth;
No lesser men may know what vision binds
Art's brows nor with what thoughts she moves on earth;
Men only see the children of her hands
And know not in what dream-encircled lands
These were conceived and given birth.

In such a world moved Michelangelo
With thoughts enpeopled by gigantic forms
And ceaseless phantoms that must come and go,
Hurled hitherward and thither by fierce storms;
And naught too harsh or hard there was on earth
Of all things unto which the sun gives birth
Or with conceptive sunlight warms.


Ghiberti, Donatello dead,
There came to Florence one who strove
To hew his life where these had led;
(But lo, his eager spirit clove
A way that loosed all portal bars,
A path that brought him to the stars
And into heaven's fierce light updrove.)

With faultless eyes he viewed his fellows' task
And with sure skill and strong, unwavering hand
Set fault aright if ever these might ask;
Men say that his own master's labours, scanned
By his stern eye, were forced to yield some flaw
Which his firm brush could better, since it saw
A fairer line at its command.

Florence, unwilling, gave him unto Rome
To rear and cherish. There he strove and wrought
And with strong footsteps ever higher upclomb
Till from the sun unearthly flame he caught.
There Rome approached with wondering, awestruck face
His fair Madonna with her virgin grace
Above the dead Christ sorrow fraught.

Before the might of manhood, to him came
Art with her girdle, whereon hung the keys
Wherewith his hands should open doors of Fame
And enter to those hidden mysteries
Whereof no man may tell save he whose soul
Is set unwearied toward that far-off goal
Which lightens on the utmost seas:

In Florence old a mass of marble stood,
Huge and unwieldy, which no hand might tame,
Wherefrom no skill of art's full multitude
Could fashion aught of beauty, till there came
This Florentine who held no task too high
And from this shapeless stone wrought symmetry
And beauty and immortal fame.

Within the Sistine Chapel, set apart
From all companionship, he strove and wrought,
Searching the utmost depths and heights of art
And seeking that which no man's hand had sought;
Vast mysteries of man created into pain,
The agony of evil, the world's bane,
Man's happiness that came to naught.

And when the years had sunken and his life
Turned downwards toward the waters of the West,
In that same chapel he wrought out the strife
Of good and evil, and the last behest,
The last stern judgement, which none might forfend,
The final outcome, the Titanic End,
The inexpressible expressed.


How shall a poet play the subtle reed?
How shall a painter weave the web of song
With words for woof? How shall the dreamer lead
Great armies into battle? From what thong
Shall warrior loose the shaft of wisdom's bow?
Yet unto praise of Michelangelo
Not one, but many arts belong.

His hands that cut new wonders out of stone
Could paint the Sistine's triumph and could set
Thought's imagery within the subtle tone
Of rhyme and rhythms such as none forget;
And he who built St. Peter's dome was he
Who guarded his loved city's liberty
And in war's grimmest council met.

Great visions were indwellers of his mind,
Eternal passions which transcend the years,
The laughter and the grief of humankind,
The exaltation and the bitter tears,
The love that strikes the stars beneath its feet,
Delight, for whom all utmost praise is sweet,
Despair, thorn-girdled, and black fears.

False lights beguiled him never, in the day
He saw the sun and knew no lesser beam,
Within the night glittered the stars alway
With steadfast and unalterable gleam.
What need to follow marsh-lights of the earth?
Across the heaven's immeasurable girth
The vast eternal starways stream.

No lanterns of the deep, unlighted fen,
No faithless lure across the floorless sedge
Led him within the kingdom of lost men
Where rules the Marsh-king. At the pool's black edge
He stood unmoved and watched the shifting light
That strove to draw him down to endless night
In depths where no man's net may dredge.

False passions held him not, nor stain of lust;
He knew not envy and he kept unknown
The sight of them who ceaselessly upthrust
Hate's Gorgon head, turning the world to stone.
He lived in silence, seeking no man's praise,
And none might turn him from his changeless ways,
He wrought unresting, and alone.

All Italy was darkened when he died
And Florence was a city without light;
All men laid from them jealousy and pride
To praise this man departed from their sight;
And ever one unto another said,
'The last great sculptor of the world is dead,
The last great soul hath taken flight.'


Beyond all worlds within the thought of man,
Time sits before his ceaseless task and turns
The stars that, too, endure but for a span,
The light that but for some short cycle burns.
His hands destroy all things, his hands create
All things but to destruction: not in hate
But sorrow, each new toil he spurns.

St. Peter's dome shall one day be no more,
The ceilings of the Sistine Chapel fade
And all its splendour with dim mould run o'er
And all its lights be darkened into shade,
The David shall be stricken and the tomb
Of San Lorenzo visited with gloom,
Marble and dust be equal made;

And men of some strange other race than ours
Shall wander in the alien hills of Rome,
And where St. Peter's was shall blossom flowers
To hide the ruins of a shattered dome;
Then fame of Michelangelo shall be
As far-off clamour of an unknown sea,
As whisper of the wind-swept foam.

Peace! peace! against immutable decree
Strive not in idle battle, for thy sword
Shall shiver into shards, and Destiny
O'errun the world plain with her phantom horde.
What knowledge hast thou of the Faultless Plan,
What vision of the purposes of man,
That thou shouldst turn against thy lord?

Thou canst not say unto what final end,
What triumph or what sorrowful despair,
Thine own life moves and thy poor efforts tend,
Or whether thine own deeds are false or fair.
And if of this man's toil no stone remain,
Canst thou yet say that he has wrought in vain
With visions woven out of air?

For genius is not as the lightless spheres
That move for ever round one central sun
In changeless motion through unchanging years
And must alway return whence they begun,
But as some splendid flame-enveloped star
Drawn inward from dusk outer-worlds afar,
Whose coming is foreseen of none:

And if the sun grow cold and earths that move
For ever in one steadfast orbit's reign
Be lost in shadow, shalt thou therefor prove
No limit to the shadowland's domain,
Or say there is no space transcending space?
Nay; set no mournful issue to thy race;
Genius has never been in vain;

Through thronging pathways where dull planets turn
It moves upon the fierce wings of its flight
Till full against the sun its passions burn,
Then wheels and thunders outward into night,
Beyond the furthest planetary spheres,
Beyond the cycles of the changing years,
Into unfurrowed fields of light.

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