Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE CRUCIFIX, by ADELBERT VON CHAMISSO



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THE CRUCIFIX, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: In hopeless contemplation of his work
Last Line: "my god, my god, thou hast not forsaken me!"
Subject(s): Cross, The


IN hopeless contemplation of his work
The master stood, a frown upon his brow,
Where shame and self-contempt appeared to lurk.

With all his art and knowledge he had now
Portrayed the suffering Savior's image there—
Yet could the marble not with life endow.

He could not make it live, for all his care—
What is not flesh knows not to suffer pain;
Cold stone can none but stone's cold likeness bear.

Beauty and due proportion though it gain,
The chisel's marks will never disappear
And nature wake, howe'er his prayer may strain:

"Ah, turn not from me, Nature! Thou most dear,
I long to raise thee to undreamed of height—
But thou art dumb * * * a sorry bungler's here!"

There entered then a loyal neophyte,
Who looked with reverence on the master's art
And stood beside him, flushed with new delight.

To the same muse was given his young heart,
The selfsame quest of beauty filled his days—
Yet must his soul with endless failure smart.

To him the master: "Scorn is in thy praise!
If so this dull, dead stone thy mind can fill,
To death, not life, thou must have turned thy face!"

Then boldly spoke the youth: "Admire I will!
What though thy Christ for death's repose prepare
So strangely silent and so strangely still,

Yet at a great thing greatly wrought I stare,
And long to match the marvel that I see;
I see what is, and thou what should be there."

The master looked upon him silently,
His youthful strength, his limbs so straight and fine,
And deemed there were no model such as he.

"A prey thou find'st me to despair malign—
How get from lifeless marble life and pain?
Here nature fails, whose secrets else are mine.

To seek a hireling's aid were all in vain;
And sought I thine, though partner of my aims,
Naught but a cold refusal should I gain."

"Nay," said the youth, "in art's and God's high names,
I would perform unwearied, unafraid,
Whate'er of me thy need transcendent claims."

He spoke, and straight his beauty disarrayed,
Showing the fair flower of his youthful grace
Within the guarded workshop's sacred shade.

Entranced the master gazed, and could not chase
A thought that rose unbidden to his mind—
If pain upon that form its lines could trace!

"The help thou off'rest if I am to find,
Thee too the cross must raise above the ground * * *"
Willing, the youth his gracious limbs resigned.

With tight cords first his prey the sculptor bound,
Then brought the hammer and the piercing nails—
A martyr's death must close the destined round!

The first sharp nail went through, and piteous wails
Burst from the youth, but no compassion woke;
An eager eye the look of suffering hails.

With restless haste redoubled, stroke on stroke
Achieved the bleeding model that he sought.
Calmly to work he went; no word he spoke.

A hideous joy upon his features wrought—
For nature now each shade of anguished woe
Upon the expiring lovely form had taught.

Unceasing worked his hands, above, below;
His heart was to all human feeling dead—
But in the marble * * * life began to show!

Whether in prayer the sufferer bowed his head,
Or in despairing torment gnashed his teeth,
Still on the sculptor's flying fingers sped.

The pale, exhausted victim, nigh to death,
As night the third long day of agony
Is ending, murmurs with his last weak breath,

"My God, my God, hast Thou forsaken me?"
The eyes, half raised, sink down, the writhings cease.
The awful crime has reached its term—and see

There, in its glory, stands a masterpiece!

II

"My God, my God, hast Thou forsaken me?"
At midnight in the minster rang the wail;
Who could have raised it? 'Twas a mystery.

At the high altar, where its radiance pale
A tiny lamp threw out, a form was found
To move, whence came the faltering accents frail.

And then it dashed itself upon the ground,
Its forehead 'gainst the stones, and wildly wept;
The vaulted roof reëchoed with the sound.

Long was the vigil that dim figure kept
That seemed by tears so strangely comforted;
None dared its tottering footsteps intercept.

At last the night's mysterious hours were sped
And day returned; but all was silent now,
And with the dawn the ghostly form had fled.

The faithful came before their God to bow,
The canons to the altar reverently.
There had been placed above it, none knew how,

A crucifix whose like none e'er did see;
Thus, only thus had God His strength put by,
Thus had He looked upon the blood-stained tree.

To Him whose suffering brought salvation nigh
Came sinners for release, a contrite band—
And "Christ have mercy!" was the general cry.

It seems not like the work of mortal hand—
Who can have set the godlike image there?
Who in the dead of night such offering planned?

It is the master's, who with anxious care
Has waited, from the public gaze withdrawn,
To show the utmost that his art can dare.

What shall we bring him for his ease foregone
And brain o'ertasked? Gold is but sorry meed—
His head a crown of laurel shall put on!—

So soon a great procession was decreed
Of priests and laymen; marching in the van
Went one who bore the recompense agreed.

They came where dwelt the venerated man—
And found an open door, an empty house;
They called his name, and naught but echoes ran.

The drums and cymbals all the neighbors rouse
And trumpets shrill their joy; but none appears
To see the grateful people pay their vows.

He is not there, the grave assemblage hears;
A neighbor, waking early, like a ghost
Saw him steal forth, a prey to nameless fears.

From room to room they went—their pains were lost;
In all the desolate chambers there was none
That answered them, or came to play the host.

They called aloud, let in the cheerful sun
Through opened windows—in their anxious round
Into the workshop entrance last they won * * *

Ah, speak not of the horror there they found!

III

They have brought a captive home, and raging told
That he is stained with foulest blasphemy,
Mocks their false prophet with his insults bold.

It is the pilgrim we were used to see
For penance roaming 'neath our palm-trees' shade,
Till at the Holy Grave he might be free.

Will he, when comes the hangman, unafraid
A Christian's courage show in face of wrong?
God strengthen him on whom he cries for aid!

Ah yes—though life is sweet, his will is strong,
His mind made up; he yields him to their hands,
Content to shed his blood in torment long.

Nay, look not yonder, where the savage bands
And merciless prepare a hideous deed—
Perchance a like dread fate before us stands!

He comes, a victim led * * * yet will he bleed?
I see a wondrous radiance in his face,
As though unlooked-for safety were decreed!

Can he have bought it * * *? No! they stride apace
Toward the blood-stained spot—it is to be.
The martyr's palm his confident brow shall grace.

"Weep not! No tears of pity flowed from me
When to the cross the tender youth I bound—
My heart of stone ignored his misery."

So, hounded by remorse, the sinner found
The path of expiation, firmly trod,
Cain's brand upon him, all the dreadful round.

"Thou who didst die for me, all-pitying God,
Wilt Thou vouchsafe my tortures now an end?
I have not asked deliverance from Thy rod,

Nor hoped Thou shouldst to me Thy mercy lend.
'Tis life, not death, that is so hard to bear * * *
Into Thy hands my spirit I commend!"

So when the ruffian captors seized him there
And bound him to the cross, he calmly smiled;
'Twas they that watched whose brows were lined with care.

And as his limbs were torn with anguish wild,
And he was lifted 'mid the throng on high,
White peace came down upon his soul defiled.

In passionate prayer the faithful watched him die
That stood beneath the cross; his lips were still—
His suffering was one long atoning cry.

The day passed, and the night; with dauntless will
He yet found strength his torment dire to face.
The third day's sun sank down behind the hill;

And as the glory of its parting rays
He strove with glazing eye once more to see,
With his last breath he cried in joyful praise

"My God, my God, Thou hast not forsaken me!"





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