Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, A POET'S CENTENARY, by SAMUEL VALENTINE COLE

Poetry Explorer

Classic and Contemporary Poetry

A POET'S CENTENARY, by                
First Line: We were a busy people; axes rang
Last Line: Breaks from beyond the sunset and the stars!
Subject(s): Anniversaries; Art & Artists; Poetry & Poets


WE were a busy people; axes rang
And anvils; when amid the day's turmoil
A melody crept; a master came, and sang,
And charmed the workers, sweetening all the toil
As Orpheus did, who once, with flute to lip,
Helped mightily at the launching of the ship.

And in and out among us many a day
He went, this singer, with his happy strain;
Greeted the little children at their play,
Was present at the hanging of the crane;
Blessed maidenhood and manhood; blessed the birds;—
His life beat like the sunshine through his words.

At last he said upon occasion high,
The light of seventy summers in his face,
"O Cæsar, we who are about to die
Salute you," and he said it from this place,
With aged comrades round him who should all
So soon restore life's armor to the wall.

Those men have passed into the Silent Land,
Their earthly battles ended; many a change
Has crept on us beneath time's moulding hand,
And on these scenes with faces new and strange;
But not on him: the magic of his art
Still penetrates the citadel of the heart!

And where he once has entered to delight,
And cheer, and strengthen, linger he must and will;
Oft mingling with the voices of the night
Some fragment of his song to haunt us still,
Or lure to far-off realms, and unawares
Scatter in flight an Arab host of cares.

A hundred years—how old he would have been!
And yet how young; for, as we turn his page,
We mark the throbbings of a life within
Old as the world and new to every age.
Beauty and love and sorrow—from such themes
Uprose the golden fabric of his dreams.


"God sent his singers upon earth," he said;
What were the earth without them? what were life
We call so glorious but games and bread,
Sordid existence or ignoble strife,
Were there no voices crying to the soul,
Nor any vision of life's path and goal?

The truth we need and wait for may at times
Break suddenly on us like a cannon's roar,
But oftener comes in faintest elfin chimes
Blown o'er the border line from some dim shore;
Or yet, as blind and heedless as we are,
It comes in perfect stillness like a star.

Ay, even invisible as the air that rolls,
Stand great unproven truths which, as we must,
We build our lives upon, and stake our souls,
Outweighing knowledge with our hope and trust,—
Truths which keen Science, labor as she may,
Can never explain—and never explain away!

Science may guide o'er many a hill and plain,
Revealing how the pathways meet and part;
But for life's pathless and uncharted main,
Whereon our surest pilot is the heart,
We need their vision unto whom belong
The mastery and the mystery of song!

"Listen! behold! believe!" are tones that fill
The poets' signs and symbols manifold,—
Those fables of the ever-singing Hill,
Isles of the Blest, cities with streets of gold,
Enchanted castles, youth-restoring streams,
And all the El Dorados of our dreams!

For song, indeed, is truth full-winged with power;
A faithful voice that calls us from afar;
An impulse from some land where every hour
God's truth reigns sovereign; some hope-bringing star;
Some sword that stirs the spirit, as were stirred
The Prophets and Apostles of the Word!

The poets go before us; they discern,
Across these spaces of life's gloom and glow,
The great ideals that ever live and burn;
They break all pathways without fear, and, lo!
They travel onward, keeping still in sight
Some pillar of cloud by day, of fire by night.

The blessed poets save us—not the kings,
And not the warriors; no great human wrongs
Have they e'er stood for; no great rightful things
But they have loved and cherished; by their songs
We march and prosper; by their torches' rays
The world moves forward into nobler ways.

And in their hands for gracious use they bear
The crowning gift of immortality;
The songless cities perish; in thin air
Empires dissolve; old customs cease to be;
But aught that is, though flung by others by,
The poets touch it and it can not die!

Still Homer's heroes live and talk and fight;
The old men chirp of Helen; beacons flare
From Ilium on to Argos in the night;
Penelope does not of her lord despair,
But ravels still the day's work with her hands,
And still Nausicaa by the pillar stands.

How marvelous time's world-structure named of Song,
With masonry of dream-stuff, and with halls
Of golden music! yet secure and strong;
Whereon decay's dark shadow never falls;
A miracle of the masters from all lands
And from all times—this house not made with hands!


Ah! silently there sweeps before my eyes
A vision of three poets dear to all
Who feel the touch of beauty, and who prize
The nobler voices that around us fall;
Each from a different land, but all the three
Facing the morning of a world to be.

Lo, Roman Virgil! at whose wizard name
Things lost their power to change and pass away;
Troy burns and does not vanish in the flame;
A great queen greets the exiles; still to-day
Men hear, as by the Tiber's side they stroll,
The funeral hymn of young Marcellus roll.

Lo, also, England's Virgil! Arthur reigns
Forever in the halls of Camelot;
Fair women sacrifice for noble gains,
Who never will grow old or be forgot;
And those three Queens that helped are helping still
The men who help to banish human ill.

And, pray, why lingers Hiawatha so?
Why must Priscilla and John Alden stand
Telling the old, old tale, and never go?
Wherefore this many a year throughout the land
Keeps sad Evangeline her unwearied quest?
The answer is—our Virgil of the West!

Three Laureates of three great peoples! Each,
In golden phrase and music-laden words,
Moulded to sweetest use his country's speech;
Loved simple things, touched ever the common chords,
Winning the people's heart, and lived to hear
The praises of the world sound in his ear.

The realm of books each ever loved to roam,
Finding new glories for the song he wove;
Sang childhood, the affections of the home,
And the dear constancy of woman's love;
Found tears in human things, and evermore
Stretched yearning hands out toward the farther shore.

They sang that men should faint not, but endure,
Follow the gleam, and wear the fadeless flower
Of hope forever; that the goal is sure
For those who strive and trust the Heavenly Power.
They lived pure lives and gentle, nor through all
Uttered a word they ever need recall.

So like in their unlikeness, that I dare
(As else I dare not) name them side by side;
Swayed by one mood and spirit; as they fare,
The spaces close between them, else so wide;
While their immortal echoes strike across
All tumults hitherward, nor suffer loss.


Bowdoin, dear Mother, to thy listening ear
His step falls on these pathways as of yore;
Again the "boy's will is the wind's will" here,
And his the "long, long thoughts" of youth once more;
For thine he was when first the vision came
To him of the alluring face of fame.

He caught the pathos from thy murmuring pines,
The melody from thy river, sweetness and light
From the fair sky above thee where the signs,
Thick with white worlds, roll solemnly by night;
Thy son, and master in the art divine,
All this he wrought into his lustrous line.

But chiefly—for he knew what springs had fed
His youthful spirit in its purpose high—
Did he remember—on the day he said
That he was old and was about to die—
With gracious words of tenderness and truth,
The faces of the teachers of his youth.

Thrice happy are such teachers, with the dower
Of knowledge and of counsel in their hand!
They sit forever at the springs of power,
And, from these quiet places of the land,
No trumpet blowing and no flag unfurled,
They shape the forces that will shape the world.

Ah! as once more we walk these shades among,
What visions from the bygone years arise!
The faces, oh, the faces, how they throng,
And pass, and come again, with friendly eyes,
And fill, for each of us, with life more vast
That other present which we call the past!

And he is of them! Lo, the hearts that brim
With hope and courage, and do not grow old,
Have somewhere, somehow, learned to love like him
The nobler things that are not bought and sold,
Remembering the light that through life's bars
Breaks from beyond the sunset and the stars!

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