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Matthew Arnold (1822–88). The Poems of Matthew Arnold, 1840–1867. 1909.

New Poems, 1867

Rugby Chapel


[First published 1867.]

COLDLY, sadly descends

The autumn evening. The Field

Strewn with its dank yellow drifts

Of wither’d leaves, and the elms,

Fade into dimness apace,

Silent;—hardly a shout

From a few boys late at their play!

The lights come out in the street,

In the school-room windows; but cold,

Solemn, unlighted, austere,

Through the gathering darkness, arise

The Chapel walls, in whose bound

Thou, my father! art laid.

There thou dost lie, in the gloom

Of the autumn evening. But ah!

That word, gloom, to my mind

Brings thee back in the light

Of thy radiant vigour again!

In the gloom of November we pass’d

Days not of gloom at thy side;

Seasons impair’d not the ray

Of thine even cheerfulness clear.

Such thou wast; and I stand

In the autumn evening, and think

Of bygone autumns with thee.

Fifteen years have gone round

Since thou arosest to tread,

In the summer morning, the road

Of death, at a call unforeseen,

Sudden. For fifteen years,

We who till then in thy shade

Rested as under the boughs

Of a mighty oak, have endured

Sunshine and rain as we might,

Bare, unshaded, alone,

Lacking the shelter of thee.

O strong soul, by what shore

Tarriest thou now? For that force,

Surely, has not been left vain!

Somewhere, surely, afar,

In the sounding labour-house vast

Of being, is practised that strength,

Zealous, beneficent, firm!

Yes, in some far-shining sphere,

Conscious or not of the past,

Still thou performest the word

Of the Spirit in whom thou dost live,

Prompt, unwearied, as here!

Still thou upraisest with zeal

The humble good from the ground,

Sternly repressest the bad.

Still, like a trumpet, dost rouse

Those who with half-open eyes

Tread the border-land dim

’Twixt vice and virtue; reviv’st,

Succourest;—this was thy work,

This was thy life upon earth.

What is the course of the life

Of mortal men on the earth?—

Most men eddy about

Here and there—eat and drink,

Chatter and love and hate,

Gather and squander, are raised

Aloft, are hurl’d in the dust,

Striving blindly, achieving

Nothing; and, then they die—

Perish; and no one asks

Who or what they have been,

More than he asks what waves

In the moonlit solitudes mild

Of the midmost Ocean, have swell’d,

Foam’d for a moment, and gone.

And there are some, whom a thirst

Ardent, unquenchable, fires,

Not with the crowd to be spent,

Not without aim to go round

In an eddy of purposeless dust,

Effort unmeaning and vain.

Ah yes, some of us strive

Not without action to die

Fruitless, but something to snatch

From dull oblivion, nor all

Glut the devouring grave!

We, we have chosen our path—

Path to a clear-purposed goal,

Path of advance! but it leads

A long, steep journey, through sunk

Gorges, o’er mountains in snow!

Cheerful, with friends, we set forth;

Then, on the height, comes the storm!

Thunder crashes from rock

To rock, the cataracts reply;

Lightnings dazzle our eyes;

Roaring torrents have breach’d

The track, the stream-bed descends

In the place where the wayfarer once

Planted his footstep—the spray

Boils o’er its borders; aloft,

The unseen snow-beds dislodge

Their hanging ruin;—alas,

Havoc is made in our train!

Friends who set forth at our side

Falter, are lost in the storm!

We, we only, are left!

With frowning foreheads, with lips

Sternly compress’d, we strain on,

On—and at nightfall, at last,

Come to the end of our way,

To the lonely inn ’mid the rocks;

Where the gaunt and taciturn Host

Stands on the threshold, the wind

Shaking his thin white hairs—

Holds his lantern to scan

Our storm-beat figures, and asks:

Whom in our party we bring?

Whom we have left in the snow?

Sadly we answer: We bring

Only ourselves; we lost

Sight of the rest in the storm.

Hardly ourselves we fought through,

Stripp’d, without friends, as we are.

Friends, companions, and train

The avalanche swept from our side.

But thou would’st not alone

Be saved, my father! alone

Conquer and come to thy goal,

Leaving the rest in the wild.

We were weary, and we

Fearful, and we, in our march,

Fain to drop down and to die.

Still thou turnedst, and still

Beckonedst the trembler, and still

Gavest the weary thy hand!

If, in the paths of the world,

Stones might have wounded thy feet,

Toil or dejection have tried

Thy spirit, of that we saw

Nothing! to us thou were still

Cheerful, and helpful, and firm.

Therefore to thee it was given

Many to save with thyself;

And, at the end of thy day,

O faithful shepherd! to come,

Bringing thy sheep in thy hand.

And through thee I believe

In the noble and great who are gone;

Pure souls honour’d and blest

By former ages, who else—

Such, so soulless, so poor,

Is the race of men whom I see—

Seem’d but a dream of the heart,

Seem’d but a cry of desire.

Yes! I believe that there lived

Others like thee in the past,

Not like the men of the crowd

Who all round me to-day

Bluster or cringe, and make life

Hideous, and arid, and vile;

But souls temper’d with fire,

Fervent, heroic, and good,

Helpers and friends of mankind.

Servants of God!—or sons

Shall I not call you? because

Not as servants ye knew

Your Father’s innermost mind,

His, who unwillingly sees

One of his little ones lost—

Yours is the praise, if mankind

Hath not as yet in its march

Fainted, and fallen, and died!

See! in the rocks of the world

Marches the host of mankind,

A feeble, wavering line.

Where are they tending?—A God

Marshall’d them, gave them their goal.—

Ah, but the way is so long!

Years they have been in the wild!

Sore thirst plagues them; the rocks,

Rising all round, overawe.

Factions divide them; their host

Threatens to break, to dissolve.

Ah, keep, keep them combined!

Else, of the myriads who fill

That army, not one shall arrive!

Sole they shall stray; in the rocks

Labour for ever in vain,

Die one by one in the waste.

Then, in such hour of need

Of your fainting, dispirited race,

Ye, like angels, appear,

Radiant with ardour divine.

Beacons of hope, ye appear!

Languor is not in your heart,

Weakness is not in your word,

Weariness not on your brow.

Ye alight in our van; at your voice,

Panic, despair, flee away.

Ye move through the ranks, recall

The stragglers, refresh the outworn,

Praise, re-inspire the brave.

Order, courage, return.

Eyes rekindling, and prayers,

Follow your steps as ye go.

Ye fill up the gaps in our files,

Strengthen the wavering line,

Stablish, continue our march,

On, to the bound of the waste,

On, to the City of God.