Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, RETROSPECTION, by JOHN CHALK CLARIS

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RETROSPECTION, by            
First Line: The bleakest pinnacle to him who long
Last Line: Finis.
Alternate Author Name(s): Brooke, Arthur
Subject(s): Death; Past; Dead, The

THE bleakest pinnacle to him who long
With bleeding feet hath toiled to gain the height
Of some huge mountain, is a blessed spot;
The luxury of repose can compensate
To him for its unjoyous solitude,
And as his languid limbs he stretches there,
To him the hardness of his flinty couch
Is sweeter than the most delicious bower
That ever soothed a lover's noon-day dream.

So rests my spirit now upon a point
Unenviable indeed to those who ne'er
Have felt the torture of unresting steps
Up the ascent of life, who never knew
The agony of him who while he strove
With every outward ill, yet bore within
The sightless load of unexpressed despair.
The intermitted pang of pausing pain—
Not pleasure,—that may hardly bloom again
In bosoms that have borne a blight like mine,
Is all of joy that I may claim on earth:
Yet that is much to me, for whom to have deemed
Though for a moment of deliverance or
Exemption from the excruciating throbs
That wasted my young heart, to have allowed
The faintest ray from Hope's remotest star
To fall upon the midnight of my grief,
Would once have been such madness as before
Ne'er prompted self-delusion's fond deceit.
There seemed no refuge—there is none e'en now—
So sure as the oblivion of the grave,
The undisturbed—senseless—eternal grave.
For mine were never the delirious dreams
Caught from the slave's or bigot's vengeful creed
Who feign a Heaven to find their foes a hell;
I hoped no ecstasies in other worlds,
Feeling myself by Nature's primal law
An undisseverable part of this,
Where though the scale of good doubtless out-weighs,
It is small solace for the sufferer's pang
To think, when present being is decayed,
And individual consciousness is o'er,
The atoms which made up his painful frame
In happier combinations may exist
Through circling ages of uncounted time.

Oft in seclusion's meditative hour,—
For by a lacerated spirit Man
And his vain ways and his slow sympathies
Are met with measureless disgust and hate,—
In the still night when happier hearts reposed
Mine held communion with the mournful Muse
Who taught my sighs to take the shape of song;
And it became to me a sad delight
To memorize in unenduring verse,
And to the music of no tuneful lyre,
The varying passions of each passing day.
These simple strains not all-unheeded fell;
Some kindred souls by suffering made quick
To comprehend—share—soothe—another's pain,
Or framed of those benignant elements
Which lend a beauty to their earthly mould,
And walk the world as female loveliness,
Caught on responding chords the notes of woe,
And gave that echo which I pined to hear.

O Love!—not that blind instinct, misapplied,
Which flings the stripling's inexperienced heart
In base subjection at the haughty feet
Of its unworthy idol—not the tame
Depravity of soul which licks the dust
Groveling before a tyrant who disdains,
And justly, the vile homage she exacts,—
But thou, ethereal Spirit, Effluence bland,
Soul of the universe, essential Good,
Godhead of many names, centre divine
Of divine attributes!—Wisdom, Nature, Life,
Pleasure or Virtue, what are they but thee?—
Thou Love that laughest at the petty sway
The worldling's fiat would prescribe, thou Love
That in thy wide capacity enfoldest
All that is lovely! when the answering eye
To asking Kindness tells the mutual tale,
When undeceiving Nature blends two hearts
Into one being, when the mingling pulse
Of sympathy pervades two melting frames,
Whene'er—wherever—ofttimes or but once—
For one or many—oh, unerring Love,
Say is it not fidelity to thee
To grant—to give all that such hour demands?

The selfish sensualist who dares profane
With his polluting presence the cold charms
Of purchased Beauty, loathing his embrace
Though sanctioned by the mockery of a rite
Called holy by his hireling priest; or he
Who lures young Innocence to trust her love
To his false bosom, till his brutal sense
Is sated, and then flings the flower away
Himself had spoiled, joining the savage cry
Of hypocrites who execrate aloud
A crime their odious privacy enjoys
With the she-saints perhaps who o'er her fall
Exulting, drive her to the loathsome haunts
Of shame or to a broken-hearted grave,
Because her gentle bosom was the seat
Of kindliest impulses, because her blood
Rolled its bland tide of genial influence
Dispensing love like life through her warmed veins,
Because when nature languished with the load
Of sweet sensations her fond spirit drooped,
(So balmy dews weigh down the lily's bell)
And the dear weakness of affection sought
Support, alas! in all-unworthy arms.
Yes, on these haters of the holiest ties,
These worst infractors of great Nature's law,
The soul-less libertine—the sense-less prude—
Those framers of unfeeling institutes
Which hold half human kind in vice or woe,
Be visited the sorrow and the shame
Which shroud too oft the noblest and the best
For having heard, and hearing dared obey,
The voice of Reason, Nature, and of Love.

Sweet friends! whose smiles upon my frozen heart
Beamed long in vain, but whose untiring love
Forgave and pitied the despairing chill
That mocked awhile the warmth of your kind eyes,
Which shining like the sun in vernal hours
Upon the bosom of reviving earth,
Wakened at last the pleasurable pulse
That told me life had yet a charm for me.
Dear ones! who when I stood upon the verge
Of the great gulf, and more in doubt than dread
Forbore to plunge, won me with Beauty's deep
Resistless magic to the world again:
As the fond mother who beheld her babe
Play on destruction's brink, bared her sweet breast
And lured him back to safety in her arms.
Ye who have poured into my cup of life
Whatever sweetness made that bitter draught
Endurable, forgive, if o'er my soul
Thoughts that ye cannot share should sometimes rise
And cloud that hour which should be only Joy's.

I loved; yet not alone to such delights
(When from my spirit rolled the stifling cloud
Which blinded it to all but its own woes)
Were the freed faculties of thought applied.
That Muse who stamped upon my youthful mind
The magic of her undissolving spell
Till Poesy became a passion twined
With every changeful impulse of my heart,
Pointed my aspirations to the height
Where Fame's illusive meteor mocks the toil
Of its vain votaries struggling up the steep
With painful and ridiculous essay;
While Genius soaring on majestic wing
Gathers a lambent glory for his brow;
Marking his flight, unhoping to attain
That proud pre-eminence, I not the less
Yet wooed the strings of my unheeded lyre;
To leave some record howsoever rude
Of what I felt, thought, suffered or enjoyed,
To those to whom my memory might be dear,
Was my sole aim, and the applause of some
Few friendly hearts was fame enough for me.

Wandering in those fair regions of the mind,
Which not unaptly minstrels of old time
Have pictured as a valley of sweet shades
Where the bright Nine and their presiding God,
Golden-haired Phœbus, tune with voice and string,
Or soft pipe thrilling with melodious breath
Songs of celestial harmony, amid
Parnassian laurels and Castalian streams;
In a remoter bower where bloomed indeed
Scantly the flowers which Poesy delights
To scatter o'er the pleasant path she treads,
But where thick foliage of unfading green
Clad the perennial boughs which sheltered her
From every idle and unhallowed eye,
Pale with profoundest thought, majestical
As Pallas' self, PHILOSOPHY I found,
Severer Sister but no less divine
Of her whom now I worshipped not alone.

Then were the hidden stores of knowledge spread
Before me, and to my permitted steps
The Temple where the Intelligences watch
Their treasures, opened; and the awful veil
A moment from its burning shrine withdrawn:
Brief space! but mortal eye sustained no more
The blinding splendors of that Glory intense.

Nature, Great Parent, Arbitress supreme,
Pervading Spirit of unnumbered worlds
That weave their music in harmonious orbs
Through inconceivable Eternity,
All-comprehending and sole Deity
That art at once the adorer and his God,
Pardon thy feeble creature, if the might
Of wonders pressed on my unequal sense
Surpassed its weak perceptions; if I saw
But little, and that little not aright
Interpreted, forgive; this gain at least
Was mine, which lightly I shall not forego,—
Error to hate, and, loving, seek thy Truth.
I speak to thee who hearest not, my voice
Is vainly poured on the deaf air, yet thus
I take some weight from an o'erlabouring heart
That faints not seldom with the fearful load
Of thy mysterious immensities.

Yet though it was not granted to explore
The abstruser depths of Science, nor ascend
Those altitudes from which the soul might glance
At once through wide creation and trace up
All forms of being to the primal fount
Till the Great Cause of Causes shone revealed,
Still was the knowledge of some simpler truths
Closelier bound, more intimately linked
With the brief interests of mortal man
And his perturbed existence, not denied.

I saw the green and beauteous earth o'erspread
With miserable multitudes who groaned
Beneath the weight of self-inflicted woes,
Locked in vile bonds from which to free themselves
Only to will their freedom might suffice.
What guards the sceptre in the despot's hand
But acquiescing millions who revere
A name triumphant by their tears and blood?
What desolates their bosoms with vain dread
Of vengeful gods and everlasting flame,
But the paid priest themselves suborn to swear
His fables fetched from the degraded Heavens?
Who sanctioned Tyranny and rightly bears
Its worst infliction?—Man, the ready slave!
Who throned fell Superstition and endures
Its terrors justly?—Man, the willing dupe!—
Oh blind perversion of his boasted gift
Of Reason, thus not barely to subject
That proud prerogative of act and thought
To these all-evil Names, (best type of those
Less hideous fiends that people their feigned hell,)
Content to crawl to his allotted grave
The wretched tool that shapes his own despair;
But, as if only plunging to the depth
Of self-debasement could complete his shame,
Be ever armed and eager to inflict
With folly's bigot and ferocious zeal
Vengeance upon the nobler few who strive
To tear the veil from his deluded eyes
And teach him Freedom, Happiness, and Truth!
Bear witness He, the lofty and the pure
Admonitor, who willing to unbar
For man the gates of his domestic hell,
Straightway was greeted by the obstreperous howl
Of curses from the slanderous crew within!
Bear witness ye whom every age has seen
For like endeavour like requital find,
Contempt, or calumny, or chains, or death,—
Pain measured by the largeness of your love
And its kind daring for your torturers' weal.
Does not the dungeon and the scaffold boast
Names brighter than e'er graced the gaudy throne?
Did not the Athenian drain the envenomed cup
And Christ despairing on the cross expire?

And hence, alas! how many an ardent heart
And generous spirit whose exalted aim
Was once to free their fellows from the yoke
That bowed them lower than the enduring brute,
Have turned disgusted from the thankless task
Of liberating things that would be slaves.
Yet not for this should they whose breasts are touched,
Touched truly by the flame of human love
By sacred Genius heightened and refined,
They to whose hands the mighty that have passed
Entrust the still transmitted torch of Truth
Which must not be extinguished, they should not
"Abate one jot of heart or hope," nor faint
To see the temporary triumphs gained
By strong-armed Evil o'er the wise and good.
They should proceed in their unswerving course
Through "good report and ill," scattering the seeds
Of Knowledge wide o'er the receiving soil;
And what shall be the harvest, ages now
Labouring for birth in time's dark womb shall tell.
This consciousness, for their prophetic glance
Pierces futurity's dim veil, should cheer
The labourers at their glorious toil and be,
Whate'er meanwhile befal, their high reward;
In this assurance, which, unless the frame
Of the dissolving globe with ruin dire
Rush into formless chaos, cannot fail,—
In the prospection of that hastening hour
When Freedom—Virtue—Wisdom—shall be one,
They can endure, ye tyrants! more than you
In your despairing wrath have power to inflict!

On earthly ground I tread with waking sense:
This is no vision rising to beguile
The lone enthusiast at his evening dream
Or Poet wooing the fantastic Muse;
This hope is built on the unshaken base
Of Reason, and abides her sternest test.
Heed not the querulous mistrust of Age,
Who shaking his grey locks with brain infirm
As the weak limbs that lead him to his grave,
Laments the lapse of these degenerate days
And fancies with himself the world outworn.
Turn back the historic page, survey the flood
Of time where issuing from the misty depths
Of far antiquity the curious eye
Tracks unimpeded its recorded course.

Scarce peering through the obscurity of years
Pass we the records of the earlier East
(Though intellectual day rose with its sun);
The mystic annals of old Egypt leave
(Though of our later lore Parent confessed);
And on the classic boast,—immortal Greece,
Gaze, if we may, undazzled by the lights
That live along the story of her fame,
Bards—sages—chiefs—matchless in arts or arms!
Then turn and mark her mighty rival—She
Whose empire was a world—all-conquering Rome!
Weigh well their claims, with scrutiny severe
Their proud pretensions sift, their institutes,
Habits, opinions, passions, feelings, all
That learning gleans of those who are no more,
Dispassionately judge, compare with what
Is round us now, and joy in the result.
Joy in the knowledge that e'en we with all
Our errors are o'er them advanced as far
As those to come we trust o'er us shall be.—
Not that the growth of individual powers
Was then less vigorous or luxuriant, no,
Genius and Virtue ever are the same,
And none surpass, or shall, the giant names
Which tower above their else-forgotten age;
But that a juster feeling of the rights,
Duties and dignity of social Man,—
In its diviner sense, Humanity,
More widely spread and better understood,
Aided by all that Science has achieved,
Shaming the miracles of saints and gods
In folly's legends,—to the mass of mind
Have given an impulse which has lifted it
To heights that leave past efforts far below,
And shall conduct it with progression sure
And gradual elevation till it reach
Its lofty station in Perfection's heaven.

If such from the beginning has not been
The consequential tendency of things,
Subject alone to temporary check
From accident of mortal chance and change;
If every day's experience did not add
Momentum to improvement's onward roll,
Yet to what causes are in later times
Its more immediate energies resolved,
Is scarce a question to the sceptic's doubt.

Greece and her glories were no more: Great Rome
Dragged from the pinnacle of power, o'erwhelmed
By her own majesty, in ruin sighed:
Freedom and Wisdom wandered homeless; while
The Genius of the World despairing slept:
Dark brooded Superstition's blighting cloud
O'er Europe and benumbed the souls of men.
When like the Sun that magic art arose,
Which multiplying all that wisest minds
Had meditated, every sacred spark
Which knowledge shed from her uplifted torch
Reflecting with innumerable lights
Through the astonished nations, rent the veil
Which Ignorance had wrapped around her prey.
Man in the mirror of another's thoughts
Beheld his own deformity; beheld
The hideous impress ages of blind faith
And slavery had stamped upon his brow.
This was no false enchanter's juggling spell,
This was that veritable wand of power
Which tyranny in all her spectral shapes,
By Error and Ill custom sanctified,
Still dreads the most, and must at last obey.
This, wielded by the bold and vigorous hand
Of Luther, struck Imposture's grosser mask
From the curst Hierarchy of King-like priests,
Pampered and bloody and rapacious:—Woe,
That yet, though shorn of half its powers of ill
And hasting to its end, the monster lives!
The spirit thus awakened o'er the earth
Spread like infectious fire, with secret train,
Through hearts that inly burned with the keen sense
Of wrongs inflicted and of rights withheld,
Now waiting but the hour, the atoning hour,
When with volcanic burst their gathered wrath
Should shower destruction on the oppressor's head.—
This England felt; and shrines and thrones have bowed
Before an outraged people's just rebuke.

The tide of time rolled on: War and its woes
Wasted the nations at each despot's will:—
War, the barbarian and bloody game,
The sport of princely homicides who dupe
Their miserable victims with the tale
Of Glory gained from all that most degrades
And dare to call the brutal butchery fame!
Man groaned and bled; the wretched pittance wrung
From life-consuming toil was snatched to swell
The treasures and supply the boundless lusts
And luxuries of his imperious lord,—
Monarch or priest or courtly parasite!
He murmured not nor dared:—but in his soul
Treasured each pang.—The tide of time rolled on.

But whence that wild and multitudinous shout
That like an earthquake rocked the astounded world,
While "Freedom! Freedom!" echoed back from heaven?
Lo, France upspringing like a tigress lashed
To madness, turned upon her tyrants; rage
Rolled through her veins its liquid fires:—Who speaks
Of mercy or forbearance? Bid him stop
The rushing of the headlong cataract
Or bind the lightning as it cleaves the storm!
Deep as her wrongs, so ruthless her revenge,
While centuries of recollected shame
And suffering goaded on her blind career.
Dire were the deeds as retribution filled
Her cup to overflowing! Draw the veil
Lest the heart sicken at the tragic scene.

For many a mournful tale of woes and death
Pity demanded tears, and tears were given,
While curses on the workers of such woes
Exhausted execration.—Be it so:
All must deplore such errors, all be touched
Wherever lights affliction; but avaunt
The sycophantic whine of those who feel
No sympathies but such as flatter pomp
And its exclusive privilege to wreak
Applauded vengeance on its humbler foes.
They can affect fit horror when the stern
Tribunal of successful treason dooms
Once in an age some tyrant to the block,
But not a tear have they, no pity find
For all who perished to uphold the pride
Which girt him long on his ancestral throne,
For all who rotting in the dungeon's damp
Or stretched upon the agonizing wheel,
Paid the dread penalty which Kings exact
From such as question their paternal sway.

I stood triumphant on the ruined site
Of Slavery's citadel—the dread Bastile!
I stood triumphant, for the cause was mine—
Was man's, which won its first bright Victory here.
Hallowed for ever be the auspicious hour
That saw its frowning battlements decline
In dust, its massy walls, groan-proof, fall flat
Before the rending blast of Freedom's trump;
O ye her pilgrims! here behold the shrine
Where Liberty, divinest Liberty,
As on a throne sits smiling o'er the wreck
Of the fallen fortress of her despot foe!
These scattered stones the trophies of the might
She ever breathes in her united sons;
A monument that shall not pass away
Of what when she leads on they dare and do!

What though upon these ruins should arise
Another dungeon, as the increasing fears
Of other despots urge them to o'erstep
The limits of a power restricted now
By wisdom gained in the reverseful years
Which taught unwilling Tyranny its claims
No more might pass unquestioned or unchecked
By those whom once it well might call—its slaves.
Let them intrench their tolerated thrones
With palaces and prisons (in the eye
Of Liberty twin structures); let the dream
Of past supremacy delude their pride
To exercise once more its sanguine will.
Lo, with a breath Opinion, which has felt,
And made them feel too, its omnipotence,
Can dissipate in dust the ponderous piles
Of cruelty and pomp, while crowns and chains
Crushed into nothing shall be known no more.

Small triumph for the "mighty of the earth,"
(Those petty men that plod for ever in
The narrow round of their contracted souls)
Small triumph that their banded horde of slaves
And savages in "holy" league, hath thrust
The bloated carcass of Legitimacy,
The dregs of an exploded dynasty,
Upon a nation wasted and outworn
By the gigantic errors of their chief,
Before whose frown these pigmies crouched and wore
In all humility the crowns he spared—
Spared to his own destruction!—He has passed,
Not blameless, from the earth; but he has left
A spirit that survives him in all lands
In which his name was known (and where not known?)
That yet will make his baffled conquerors bow
E'en lower than so oft to him they bowed.
Spite of the weakness into which his heart
Was led by false ambition, till he stooped
To raise up toys himself had trampled down;
Spite of the kingly vices into which
His after years declined, he was the Child
And Champion of that which stripped from Kings
The awe and attributes of Majesty,
And shewed them naked to the scoffing world.
He was the chosen instrument to dart
The lightnings of o'er-mastering Intellect
Against the gross pretensions of the dull
Tyrants who lord it o'er the indignant earth
By right—his lessons taught how far—divine!
He has departed with his evil deeds
As King or conqueror,—but the blows he struck
For Freedom are a blessing that endures.
He has departed—but where'er the steps
Of him and his have been, a feeling lives,
Breathes, moves, and kindles, ever and anon,
Into a flame that frights, with no vain dread,
The despot of the soil, expecting still
The moment when the united minds of men
Shall like the lava flood sweep down all trace
Of his oppression and their own despair.

And Spain has shaken off the shame of years!
Waked to new life by thoughts and deeds which not
The Pyrenees could shut from her; and thou
Too, Italy, all beauteous Italy,
Whose very name comes o'er the enamoured ear
Sweetly as that of some fair mistress loved
E'en from our boyhood, in thy bosom beats
A heart which soon shall vindicate thy claim
Of wedding freedom to thy loveliness!
Far through the North myriads adore thy name,
O Liberty!—and Ocean's Island-queen,
Fair Albion, shall not be the last to rear
Thy altars o'er the ruined shrines, where yet
Habitually idolatrous she bows.
America—itself a world—is free!
What shall retard the advent of that hour
Which pale enthusiasts, whose prophetic hearts
Pined at the long delay, derided still
By the blind vulgar, saw, and having told
Their beauteous vision, undespairing died!
Knowledge, by which alone Man shall attam
Freedom and Virtue, Happiness and Power,
And without which all other benefits
Are, and must be, baseless and insecure;—
Knowledge the mighty change is working! Lo!
The consummation hastens, and the clouds
Of error tremble, while her glorious beams
With irresistible increase from mind
To mind leap on, like sunrise o'er the hills,
Till the whole world will bask in her broad light
And earth roll happy through the eternal heavens.—

To think, to feel, to utter, and to act
As unsophisticated Nature prompts
Or Reason dictates, is to brave the laugh
Of the more kindly followers in the train
Of customary ill, to tempt the scorn
Of the hard worldling, to inflame the rage,
The quenchless hatred of the bigot slaves
Of interested error, to make life
Itself a warfare till the Truth prevail—
(Which it shall do and at no distant day):
Such struggle not declining, let me meet
The sneers or frowns, neglect or obloquy
Of those to whom the current of my life
And thoughts, all humble as it is, may yet
Oppose itself, as I have met them long:
Met with, I trust, no arrogant unconcern,
But patient confidence in impulses
Of heart and brain, suffered to rise unchecked
By cold conventional decrees of men
Whose minds are but the mirror of what lies
Upon the surface of their daily walk
Along the beaten paths of habitude.
A creed,—not gathered in the formal schools
Where venal sophists in starched phrase dole out
Their measured morsels of such lore as may
Be safely spared to the restricted use
Of the starved student, duly watched and warned
Lest the keen appetite of Truth should lead
Beyond the limits of convenient search;—
A creed—a code of thought, collected not
In academic or monastic gloom
Shut from the sun-light of humanity,
But in each aspect of the shifting scene
That moved before me, in the busy haunts
Of selfish gain, or studious midnight cell,
At Pleasure's banquet, or in Beauty's bower,
By passion, action, meditation, gleaned,
And as this verse in part reveals, applied,—
Hath been my guide and my support, and shall
Direct me and sustain, whatever term
May yet belong to my protracted doom.
But if the strife is closing—if the flame
Is flickering in the exhausted lamp of life,
If soon must cease the throbbings of this heart
That glows, even now, with many sympathies
Which suffering might obscure, but could not quench,
If after a brief interval of pain
The grave must close over my many griefs,
O be my tomb in some sequestered spot
Nigh where the music of autumnal winds
Shall murmur through a melancholy grove,
And may the dear ones whom in life I loved,
When the high grass is gilded by the rays
Of the declining sun, with pensive step—
The pilgrims of affection—sometimes come,—
I know that they will come!—and bending o'er
The place of my repose give one kind thought,
A sigh, a tear, to him who sleeps below.


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