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

Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems

The Future

[First published 1852. Reprinted 1853, ’54, ’57.]

A WANDERER is man from his birth.

He was born in a ship

On the breast of the River of Time.

Brimming with wonder and joy

He spreads out his arms to the light,

Rivets his gaze on the banks of the stream.

As what he sees is, so have his thoughts been.

Whether he wakes

Where the snowy mountainous pass

Echoing the screams of the eagles

Hems in its gorges the bed

Of the new-born clear-flowing stream:

Whether he first sees light

Where the river in gleaming rings

Sluggishly winds through the plain:

Whether in sound of the swallowing sea:—

As is the world on the banks

So is the mind of the man.

Vainly does each as he glides

Fable and dream

Of the lands which the River of Time

Had left ere he woke on its breast,

Or shall reach when his eyes have been clos’d.

Only the tract where he sails

He wots of: only the thoughts,

Rais’d by the objects he passes, are his.

Who can see the green Earth any more

As she was by the sources of Time?

Who imagines her fields as they lay

In the sunshine, unworn by the plough?

Who thinks as they thought,

The tribes who then roam’d on her breast,

Her vigorous primitive sons?

What girl

Now reads in her bosom as clear

As Rebekah read, when she sate

At eve by the palm-shaded well?

Who guards in her breast

As deep, as pellucid a spring

Of feeling, as tranquil, as sure?

What girl

At the height of his vision, can deem

Of God, of the world, of the soul.

With a plainness as near,

As flashing as Moses felt,

When he lay in the night by his flock

On the starlit Arabian waste?

Can rise and obey

The beck of the Spirit like him?

This tract which the River of Time

Now flows through with us, is the Plain.

Gone is the calm of its earlier shore.

Border’d by cities and hoarse

With a thousand cries is its stream.

And we on its breast, our minds

Are confus’d as the cries which we hear,

Changing and shot as the sights which we see.

And we say that repose has fled

For ever the course of the River of Time.

That cities will crowd to its edge

In a blacker incessanter line;

That the din will be more on its banks,

Denser the trade on its stream,

Flatter the plain where it flows,

Fiercer the sun overhead.

That never will those on its breast

See an ennobling sight,

Drink of the feeling of quiet again.

But what was before us we know not,

And we know not what shall succeed.

Haply, the River of Time,

As it grows, as the towns on its marge

Fling their wavering lights

On a wider statelier stream—

May acquire, if not the calm

Of its early mountainous shore,

Yet a solemn peace of its own.

And the width of the waters, the hush

Of the grey expanse where he floats,

Freshening its current and spotted with foam

As it draws to the Ocean, may strike

Peace to the soul of the man on its breast:

As the pale Waste widens around him—

As the banks fade dimmer away—

As the stars come out, and the night-wind

Brings up the stream

Murmurs and scents of the infinite Sea.