Eighteen Sonnets About Jesus

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I.

If Thou hadst been a sculptor, what a race
Of forms divine had ever preached to men!
Lo, I behold thy brow, all glorious then,
(Its reflex dawning on the statue's face)
Bringing its Thought to birth in human grace,
The soul of the grand form, upstarting, when
Thou openest thus thy mysteries to our ken,
Striking a marble window through blind space.
But God, who mouldeth in life-plastic clay,
Flashing his thoughts from men with living eyes,
Not from still marble forms, changeless alway,
Breathed forth his human self in human guise:
Thou didst appear, walking unknown abroad,
The son of man, the human, subject God.


II.

"There, Buonarotti, stands thy statue. Take
Possession of the form; inherit it;
Go forth upon the earth in likeness fit;
As with a trumpet-cry at morning, wake
The sleeping nations; with light's terror, shake
The slumber from their hearts; and, where they sit,
Let them leap up aghast, as at a pit
Agape beneath." I hear him answer make:
"Alas! I dare not; I could not inform
That image; I revered as I did trace;
I will not dim the glory of its grace,
Nor with a feeble spirit mock the enorm
Strength on its brow." Thou cam'st, God's thought thy form,
Living the large significance of thy face.


III.

Some men I have beheld with wonderment,
Noble in form and feature, God's design,
In whom the thought must search, as in a mine,
For that live soul of theirs, by which they went
Thus walking on the earth. And I have bent
Frequent regard on women, who gave sign
That God willed Beauty, when He drew the line
That shaped each float and fold of Beauty's tent;
But the soul, drawing up in little space,
Thus left the form all staring, self-dismayed,
A vacant sign of what might be the grace
If mind swelled up, and filled the plan displayed:
Each curve and shade of thy pure form were Thine,
Thy very hair replete with the divine.


IV.

If Thou hadst been a painter, what fresh looks,
What shining of pent glories, what new grace
Had burst upon us from the great Earth's face!
How had we read, as in new-languaged books,
Clear love of God in lone retreating nooks!
A lily, as thy hand its form would trace,
Were plainly seen God's child, of lower race;
And, O my heart, blue hills! and grassy brooks!
Thy soul lay to all undulations bare,
Answering in waves. Each morn the sun did rise,
And God's world woke beneath life-giving skies,
Thou sawest clear thy Father's meanings there;
'Mid Earth's Ideal, and expressions rare,
The ideal Man, with the eternal eyes.


V.

But I have looked on pictures made by man,
Wherein, at first, appeared but chaos wild;
So high the art transcended, it beguiled
The eye as formless, and without a plan;
Until the spirit, brooding o'er, began
To see a purpose rise, like mountains piled,
When God said: Let the dry earth, undefiled,
Rise from the waves: it rose in twilight wan.
And so I fear thy pictures were too strange
For us to pierce beyond their outmost look;
A vapour and a darkness; a sealed book;
An atmosphere too high for wings to range:
At God's designs our spirits pale and change,
Trembling as at a void, thought cannot brook.


VI.

And is not Earth thy living picture, where
Thou utterest beauty, simple and profound,
In the same form by wondrous union bound;
Where one may see the first step of the stair,
And not the next, for brooding vapours there?
And God is well content the starry round
Should wake the infant's inarticulate sound,
Or lofty song from bursting heart of prayer.
And so all men of low or lofty mind,
Who in their hearts hear thy unspoken word,
Have lessons low or lofty, to their kind,
In these thy living shows of beauty, Lord;
While the child's heart that simply childlike is,
Knows that the Father's face looks full in his.


VII.

If Thou hadst been a Poet! On my heart
The thought dashed. It recoiled, as, with the gift,
Light-blinded, and joy-saddened, so bereft.
And the hot fountain-tears, with sudden start,
Thronged to mine eyes, as if with that same smart
The husk of vision had in twain been cleft,
Its hidden soul in naked beauty left,
And we beheld thee, Nature, as thou art.
O Poet, Poet, Poet! at thy feet
I should have lien, sainted with listening;
My pulses answering aye, in rhythmic beat,
Each parting word that with melodious wing
Moved on, creating still my being sweet;
My soul thy harp, thy word the quivering string.


VIII.

Thou wouldst have led us through the twilight land
Where spirit shows by form, form is refined
Away to spirit by transfiguring mind,
Till they are one, and in the morn we stand;
Treading thy footsteps, children, hand in hand,
With sense divinely growing, till, combined,
We heard the music of the planets wind
In harmony with billows on the strand;
Till, one with Earth and all God's utterance,
We hardly knew whether the sun outspake,
Or a glad sunshine from our spirits brake;
Whether we think, or windy leaflets dance:
Alas, O Poet Leader! for this good,
Thou wert God's tragedy, writ in tears and blood.


IX.

So if Thou hadst been scorned in human eyes,
Too bright and near to be a glory then;
If as Truth's artist, Thou hadst been to men
A setter forth of strange divinities;
To after times, Thou, born in midday skies,
A sun, high up, out-blazing sudden, when
Its light had had its centuries eight and ten
To travel through the wretched void that lies
'Twixt souls and truth, hadst been a Love and Fear,
Worshipped on high from Magian's mountain-crest,
And all night long symbol'd by lamp-flames clear;
Thy sign, a star upon thy people's breast,
Where now a strange mysterious shape doth lie,
That once barred out the sun in noontide sky.


X.

But as Thou earnest forth to bring the Poor,
Whose hearts were nearer faith and verity,
Spiritual childhood, thy philosophy,--
So taught'st the A, B, C of heavenly lore;
Because Thou sat'st not, lonely evermore,
With mighty thoughts informing language high;
But, walking in thy poem continually,
Didst utter acts, of all true forms the core;
Instead of parchment, writing on the soul
High thoughts and aspirations, being so
Thine own ideal; Poet and Poem, lo!
One indivisible; Thou didst reach thy goal
Triumphant, but with little of acclaim,
Even from thine own, escaping not their blame.


XI.

The eye was shut in men; the hearing ear
Dull unto deafness; nought but earthly things
Had credence; and no highest art that flings
A spirit radiance from it, like the spear
Of the ice-pointed mountain, lifted clear
In the nigh sunrise, had made skyey springs
Of light in the clouds of dull imaginings:
Vain were the painter or the sculptor here.
Give man the listening heart, the seeing eye;
Give life; let sea-derived fountain well,
Within his spirit, infant waves, to tell
Of the far ocean-mysteries that lie
Silent upon the horizon,--evermore
Falling in voices on the human shore.


XII.

So highest poets, painters, owe to Thee
Their being and disciples; none were there,
Hadst Thou not been; Thou art the centre where
The Truth did find an infinite form; and she
Left not the earth again, but made it be
One of her robing rooms, where she doth wear
All forms of revelation. Artists bear
Tapers in acolyte humility.
O Poet! Painter! soul of all! thy art
Went forth in making artists. Pictures? No;
But painters, who in love should ever show
To earnest men glad secrets from God's heart.
So, in the desert, grass and wild flowers start,
When through the sand the living waters go.


XIII.

So, as Thou wert the seed and not the flower,
Having no form or comeliness, in chief
Sharing thy thoughts with thine acquaintance Grief;
Thou wert despised, rejected in thine hour
Of loneliness and God-triumphant power.
Oh, not three days alone, glad slumber brief,
That from thy travail brought Thee sweet relief,
Lay'st Thou, outworn, beneath thy stony bower;
But three and thirty years, a living seed,
Thy body lay as in a grave indeed;
A heavenly germ dropt in a desert wide;
Buried in fallow soil of grief and need;
'Mid earthquake-storms of fiercest hate and pride,
By woman's tears bedewed and glorified.


XIV.

All divine artists, humble, filial,
Turn therefore unto Thee, the poet's sun;
First-born of God's creation, only done
When from Thee, centre-form, the veil did fall,
And Thou, symbol of all, heart, coronal,
The highest Life with noblest Form made one,
To do thy Father's bidding hadst begun;
The living germ in this strange planet-ball,
Even as thy form in mind of striving saint.
So, as the one Ideal, beyond taint,
Thy radiance unto all some shade doth yield,
In every splendour shadowy revealed:
But when, by word or hand, Thee one would paint,
Power falls down straightway, speechless, dim-eyed, faint.


XV.

Men may pursue the Beautiful, while they
Love not the Good, the life of all the Fair;
Keen-eyed for beauty, they will find it where
The darkness of their eyes hath power to slay
The vision of the good in beauty's ray,
Though fruits the same life-giving branches bear.
So in a statue they will see the rare
Beauty of thought moulded of dull crude clay,
While loving joys nor prayer their souls expand.
So Thou didst mould thy thoughts in Life not Art;
Teaching with human voice, and eye, and hand,
That none the beauty from the truth might part:
Their oneness in thy flesh we joyous hail--
The Holy of Holies' cloud-illumined veil!


XVI.

And yet I fear lest men who read these lines,
Should judge of them as if they wholly spake
The love I bear Thee and thy holy sake;
Saying: "He doth the high name wrong who twines
Earth's highest aim with Him, and thus combines
Jesus and Art." But I my refuge make
In what the Word said: "Man his life shall take
From every word:" in Art God first designs,--
He spoke the word. And let me humbly speak
My faith, that Art is nothing to the act,
Lowliest, that to the Truth bears witness meek,
Renownless, even unknown, but yet a fact:
The glory of thy childhood and thy youth,
Was not that Thou didst show, but didst the Truth.


XVII

The highest marble Sorrow vanishes
Before a weeping child.* The one doth seem,
The other is. And wherefore do we dream,
But that we live? So I rejoice in this,
That Thou didst cast Thyself, in all the bliss
Of conscious strength, into Life's torrent stream,
(Thy deeds fresh life-springs that with blessings teem)
Acting, not painting rainbows o'er its hiss.
Forgive me, Lord, if in these verses lie
Mean thoughts, and stains of my infirmity;
Full well I know that if they were as high
In holy song as prophet's ecstasy,
'Tis more to Thee than this, if I, ah me!
Speak gently to a child for love of Thee.

[* John Sterling.]


XVIII.

Thou art before me, and I see no more
Pilate or soldiers, but the purple flung
Around the naked form the scourge had wrung,
To naked Truth thus witnessing, before
The False and trembling True. As on the shore
Of infinite Love and Truth, I kneel among
Thy footprints on that pavement; and my tongue
Would, but for reverence, cry: "If Thou set'st store
By feeble homage, Witness to the Truth,
Thou art the King, crowned by thy witnessing!"
I die in soul, and fall down worshipping.
Art glories vanish, vapours of the morn.
Never but Thee was there a man in sooth,
Never a true crown but thy crown of thorn.





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