Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, RHEIMS, by ROBERT UNDERWOOD JOHNSON



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RHEIMS, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: O fortress of the spirit, and thyself
Last Line: And, grieving, mingle pity with their blame.
Subject(s): Rheims, France; World War I; First World War


I

O FORTRESS of the Spirit, and thyself
But yesterday a soul! What art thou now
But walls and memory? Thou art than Man
Not more immortal, though from dawn to dawn
Of seven centuries thou heardst the tread
Of swarming generations plodding by.
Precinct of Peace, -- now torn by wanton War;
Altar where Morning might her matins say
Or Evening chant her vespers, -- now o'erthrown;
Refuge for ages to the unconsoled
By all but God forsaken: who hath dared
Thy sanctuary now to violate?
Thou that wert pride and cynosure of Art,
Trumpet of History, a nation's shrine,
Christener of Kings, a yearning world's delight, --
Thy mellow voice from out the faded Past
Is silent as thy belfry's sunken choir.

For this it is, although we nightly bear
The daily burden of mankind's distress
Till the vast anguish numbs the wearied sense,
Still heavier are our heavy hearts to-day.

II

How, with cold stone and scant and loveless toil,
Shall be rebuilt the spirit of this fane?
Who shall recloud its aisles with mystery,
Till the beholder views himself with awe?
How shall spilled wine, treasure of time and sun,
Be from the ground regathered? Who shall invent
The arts here lost, the accent of their speech?
Who shall replant the race, and then await
Its centuried ripening? Mourn, oh, mourn, mourn, mourn
The brave that fall beneath this harvest moon
When Death's swift sickle flies -- each in his calm
A ruined temple of the Living God!
They, too, are gone, but not as thou art gone,
For, though Love doubt, still clings our faith to this:
'T is but their bodies have been slain; but here,
Here, where the mortal craves celestial life,
Man has been able to destroy a soul!

III

OF what avail to find the vandal hands,
The few barbarians, by whose feeblest touch
This deed was wrought from far? They witness well
The paradox of life that frights our peace:
The weak is stronger than the strong! For who
To-day so built in greatness as to be
Armored against a whim? A paltry match
By malice struck, or mischief, and the town
Rushes to sky and earth in ruin!
Yet --
Shall we absolve the nameless for the known,
Who, choosing war, chose aught that war might bring
And murdered all this hoarded beauty? No,
Though they should vaunt a thousand victories
This is their dire defeat. Here have they reached
All that ambition coveted, reversed.
Thinking on Rheims hereafter, and on them,
The world's heart shall grow leaden with dismay,
And age to age the shame reverberate
So loud, so far, that legions yet unborn,
Learning their loss, shall execrate the crime
And, grieving, mingle pity with their blame.





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