Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, A LAST WILL, by LEWIS MORRIS (1833-1907)



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A LAST WILL, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: I, francois fonteney, coming to die
Last Line: Not with them, yet not far!
Subject(s): Wills


I, FRANCOIS FONTENEY, coming to die,
After long life expended in the cure
Of suffering men, through that which I have learnt
Of healing medicine, do hereby make
This my last Will and Testament, and die
At peace with God and all except myself,
As you shall find hereunder when you read.

For always since my first-remembered years
Such quenchless thirst for knowledge occupied
My soul, that never with the vulgar herd
Of full-fed youths, who game and drink and worse,
Yet take no shame, I dwelt, but studious days,
Through the dead night prolonged, till the cold dawn
Found me with fires burnt out.
Thus thro' long years
Of vigils and a chaste, unsullied youth,
I came at last to manhood and the fruit
Of full enfranchised life, my boyish thirst
To know, unsatisfied still. I found scant time
For friendship or for love; yet not the less
The irrepressible longing of the youth
For hearth and home was mine. One woman only
I worshipped from afar, lifting shy eyes
That scarcely dared to love. I hardly think
She knew that she was loved, so shrunk my soul
From utterance, tho' I worshipped her indeed.
And when she chose her mate, I schooled my heart
With doubly jealous care. No spoken word
Nor look betrayed me; tho' full well I know
What little tell-tale signs reveal the god
To the keen sight of maids. Yet tho' I loved
I think she never knew it, maid or wife.

But friendship for her and her husband cheered
My solitary hours. His work it was
To minister to souls diseased, as mine
To bodily ills. So day by happy day
We lived in union, soul with kindred soul
Working in harmony, and Love, unseen,
Binding three lives in one. The friendless youth,
Friendless no longer, up the rugged path
Of knowledge with swift paces climbed, nor ceased
Till the rough path grew smoother, and success
Was his and modest wealth; but still he kept
His boyish friendship and his eager thirst
For knowledge. Wellnigh thirty years have fled
Since those bright days, and still in age I keep
Their memory undimmed -- the blameless life,
Which strove for God; the young and gracious woman;
With pure affection beaming from her eyes --
Wife, mother, friend -- a Trinity of love
And beauty, vanished long, deceased and dead!

What piteous tale is mine? Think ye I fell
Into the Tempter's net, which your own youth,
Past now, my children, spread for you in vain?
The base, disloyal wickedness which wrecks
A stainless woman's troth, a husband's honour,
The happiness of children, hearth, and home,
For one base appetite, when to succeed
Is treachery and dishonour; the vile wrong
Which in our splendid sinful sister France
Pollutes a nation's fealty, yet inspires,
As from the dung-heap springs the perfumed rose,
A myriad hectic life-tales fancy bred?
Nay, nay; no thought of this was mine, nor peril,
I loved them both too well, even in thought
To sully those I loved, and most of all
I loved my art, and gave my soul to it;
My noble art, which stays the power of Pain
And Death, engrossed my mind, my heart, my soul,
My toiling day, my studious nights, and left me
Virgin in act and thought.

Ah, happy days
Of honest labour, with their added sum
Of knowledge hour by hour! I could not fall
From such high conversation as they fall
Into black nothingness of Faith and God,
Whom narrower knowledge and the purblind quest
Of lens and scalpel blind to the Divine;
I kept my faith undimmed. Love day by day,
A good man's words, and more, a good man's life,
Expended on compassion, shielded me
Till prosperous manhood crowned my studious youth.

Ah, happy, fleeting days! too fair to last;
For soon a gradual shadow settled down
On that bright home. The gracious mother came
To grow a little graver, then to droop
With some immedicable ill. Long months
I strove to save her, pitying her pain
And his who loved her; but I strove in vain,
For day by day she suffered, every day
Her pitiful weakness grew. I searched the lore
Of healing far and wide; I did consult
The foremost teachers of my art in vain;
For still the quick, sharp stab around the heart,
The difficult, laboured breath grew worse, and I
Knew myself impotent to save or aid,
For all my useless skill; while he, her husband,
Was half distraught. So passed the unhappy days,
The hopeless days, till last the labouring heart
Beat slow and slower yet, and then stood still.

Shall I forget the blank, the nothingness,
Which, when her life was done, and the white corpse
Lay in its shroud, came on that wretched house,
The dull, deep pain; till on the weary sense
There dawned again the old desire to know
The unsatisfied, quenchless thirst? If I might solve
The secret of her ill, and aid a little
The suffering Race of men! One rapid stroke
Of the keen knife might in a moment bare
The secret, and enlarge the bounds of knowledge!
A hundred times my hand had done this thing,
Hardened by use; but how to violate
That pure, cold calm? Surely 'twere sacrilege!
And well I knew my friend who worshipped her
Would shudder at the thought. Yet still it came;
The o'ermastering thought oppressed me day and night,
The inarticulate voice unceasing called,
Till came the last sad day when she was laid
Within her narrow bed, and he and I
Followed and wept together, and awhile
The muttering voice was hushed, and I had peace.

But when I left the house of grief, and night
Had fallen, through the darkling hours the thought
And voice renewed themselves, and seemed to fill
My brain, and arm my hand, and urge my feet,
Bearing some flickering lantern thro' the gloom,
Scarce conscious that I went, or with what end,
Whither I knew not, till the midnight hour
Tolled from the darkness downward, and behold!
The pile of heaped-up mould still undisturbed,
Beside the new-made grave, by which that day
I stood and wept, and strewn around it still
The spade, the mattock -- all the dreadful tools
Which render earth to earth. Then as mused,
As one who part mislays the thread of thought,
Forgetting why I came, the same cold voice
In tones of thunder bade me tread the path
Of Duty, sweeping all aside but this --
Love, friendship -- all but this. "Do this, and see
What gain of knowledge for our hapless race
Awaits thee. This poor vesture of decay,
Which, like the chrysalis, the ascending soul
Leaves with its load of pain; this thou hast pierced
So oft for others, pierce once more, and know
The secret which thy skill suspects lies hid
Beyond that clay-cold flesh."

Then with a cry
I seized the spade and leapt into the grave,
And, delving, in a frenzy, flung aside
The new-fallen mould, till with a groaning sound
I struck the coffin lid, and prised away
The nails with bleeding hands, scarce owning yet
What thing it was I would.

But when I saw
By my dim lantern's light the pale, cold face
I loved and lost, a sudden trembling shook
My limbs and stayed my hand and froze my blood,
So fair she seemed and pure, wrapt in her shroud
And decked with drooping lilies. Then I braced
My nerves, determined now to do the deed,
And carefully with reverent hand disclosed
That wasted bosom. But before I drew
The thin, keen blade, and while I paused in doubt,
With paralysed will, loathing to violate
The sanctity of Death, a crushing blow
Assailed me from above, and, ere I turned,
Another, and I saw in the dim light
The fierce, distracted visage of my friend,
Frenzied with grief. Then, knowing 'twas in vain
To appease his fury, staggering to the spade,
I struck him with it once, in hope to stun him
And fly, but on his temple the sharp edge
Descending crushed his brain, and he fell dead
Upon his dead wife's grave.

Then when I saw
The wound, and knew my hapless hands' mischance,
I swooned beside the dead.

But when at length
My life returned, 'twas dead of night; no sound
Awoke the dreadful silence where they lay,
Two corpses side by side. The lamp still burned
Faint with a dying flame. There lay my friend,
And I, his murderer, gazed on him. There lay
The woman of my blameless love, and I
Bent o'er her in her shroud. Then rose again
The half-dead love of life, and bade me take
Some swift resolve. I smoothed the stiffening limbs
Of him I slew, and where his wife had lain
Laid him at rest, and closed the coffinlid,
And piled the mould again as 'twas before
And levelled it, and as the feeble light
Died, 'mid the pitchy darkness stooped and took
The shrouded corpse of her I loved, and bore her --
Thankful to Heaven I could not see her face --
Slowly with faltering paces to my home.

Ah me, how light she was -- the wasted form
Which in my arms I bore! I seemed to move
In some weird dream, as thro' the little town,
Where no light burned, I stole. No horror now
Assailed me, knowing I was innocent
Of what had been, in will if not in act,
And that the wish to know and aid the Race
Alone -- nought else -- impelled me. All the way
I went came no belated wayfarer,
For from the rayless heavens dense sheets of rain
Fell, and a great wind rising and the roll
Of crashing thunder hindered sight and sound,
As, by the lurid lightning-flashes led,
Thro' the dark ways I bore the shrouded dead.

Till when I gained my home (so like to this
It well might be the same) I struck a light
Softly, and to the lonely vault below
Bore the dear corpse, and then the precious gain
For which I dared so much was mine. I breathed
A prayer, and three times essayed to commence
The task I loathed; but long time the skilled hand
Which duty nerved, trembling, refused to hold
The keen, dividing blade. At last I braced
My desperate will, and bared with one swift stroke
The painless heart, and soon the mystery
Of all the evil and its cure was mine,
And power to heal and triumph over Pain
And Death; and suddenly my o'erwrought soul
Was filled with such consuming ecstasy
As wellnigh blotted out the night's sad work
And that which I did then.

Last, with dim eyes
I toiled the livelong night and hollowed out
A narrow grave. There, wrapt within her shroud,
With one sad, reverent kiss -- the first and last --
Upon her clay-cold brow, I laid my love --
('Tis wellnigh thirty years since that dread night) --
I laid my love at rest. There she lies still.

I think I hardly knew a sense of grief
Nor fear, when with the noon my weary eyes
Woke to another day. The furious storm
Blotted the trampling footmarks from the mould
Around the grave, and all the tell-tale signs
Of that fierce struggle. It was noised abroad
How the slain man who lay for ever still
By his own church, distraught with grief and pain,
Had flung his life away. No faintest trace
They found of him, and then the piteous tale
Faded from out the careless minds of men.

But their two orphaned infants, girl and boy --
Scarce older than yourselves -- I took awhile
To my own home, and cherished as my own,
And loved as I love you (you, too, have lost
A mother, if a father you have still,
And are part orphans); and I think they loved me,
And love me still. But now the flying years
Have left them man and woman, as are ye,
And brought new precious cares to fill their hearts,
As they have yours.

My life since that sad night
Seemed not unhappy. I have reaped the fruit
Of that successful quest. Power and fame
And wealth are mine; and you have shared with me
All that I had to give. But more than all
I prize, and plead for pardon of my wrong,
The thousands whom my skill, gained at what price
You know, has cured, and shall while life's slow wain
Groans on its painful way. I had no thought
In life but this; and yet a sudden impulse,
The mischance of a moment, this has left me
A middle-age of sorrow, when the man,
All loved and honoured, loathed himself in pain,
And healing others, might not heal the wound
Hid deep within his breast. Surely, my children,
You will not spurn me when you read, nor curse me
Whatever comes to light? I gave you love --
A father's love -- and now I leave to you
All my skill earned -- lands, houses, riches; all
That makes life smooth.
But I am not your father.
Your father lies slain in your mother's grave;
She in the dark vault here. I conjure you,
Bury her with her husband. I rejoice
You are not children now, but man and woman,
Grown sadly wise and tolerant of ill,
Knowing this tangled world and all its sin.
So may you pardon unintended wrong,
Since God, who knows all, pardons, as I hope,
And he, and she. I pray you let her lie
Beside her love; and me, too, of your pity,
Not with them, yet not far!





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