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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
America: Vols. XXV–XXIX. 1876–79.

New England: Penikese, the Island, Mass.

The Prayer of Agassiz

By John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892)

ON the isle of Penikese,

Ringed about by sapphire seas,

Fanned by breezes salt and cool,

Stood the Master with his school.

Over sails that not in vain

Wooed the west-wind’s steady strain,

Line of coast that low and far

Stretched its undulating bar,

Wings aslant along the rim

Of the waves they stooped to skim,

Rock and isle and glistening bay,

Fell the beautiful white day.

Said the Master to the youth:

“We have come in search of truth,

Trying with uncertain key

Door by door of mystery;

We are reaching, through His laws,

To the garment-hem of Cause,

Him, the endless, unbegun,

The Unnamable, the One

Light of all our light the Source,

Life of life, and Force of force.

As with fingers of the blind,

We are groping here to find

What the hieroglyphics mean

Of the Unseen in the Seen,

What the Thought which underlies

Nature’s masking and disguise,

What it is that hides beneath

Blight and bloom and birth and death.

By past efforts unavailing,

Doubt and error, loss and failing,

Of our weakness made aware,

On the threshold of our task

Let us light and guidance ask,

Let us pause in silent prayer!”

Then the Master in his place

Bowed his head a little space,

And the leaves by soft airs stirred,

Lapse of wave and cry of bird

Left the solemn hush unbroken

Of that wordless prayer unspoken,

While its wish, on earth unsaid,

Rose to heaven interpreted.

As, in life’s best hours, we hear

By the spirit’s finer ear

His low voice within us, thus

The All-Father heareth us;

And his holy ear we pain

With our noisy words and vain.

Not for Him our violence

Storming at the gates of sense,

His the primal language, his

The eternal silences!

Even the careless heart was moved,

And the doubting gave assent,

With a gesture reverent,

To the Master well-beloved.

As thin mists are glorified

By the light they cannot hide,

All who gazed upon him saw,

Through its veil of tender awe,

How his face was still uplit

By the old sweet look of it,

Hopeful, trustful, full of cheer,

And the love that casts out fear.

Who the secret may declare

Of that brief, unuttered prayer?

Did the shade before him come

Of the inevitable doom,

Of the end of earth so near,

And Eternity’s new year?

In the lap of sheltering seas

Rests the isle of Penikese;

But the lord of the domain

Comes not to his own again:

Where the eyes that follow fail,

On a vaster sea his sail

Drifts beyond our beck and hail.

Other lips within its bound

Shall the laws of life expound;

Other eyes from rock and shell

Read the world’s old riddles well:

But when breezes light and bland

Blow from Summer’s blossomed land,

When the air is glad with wings,

And the blithe song-sparrow sings,

Many an eye with his still face

Shall the living ones displace,

Many an ear the word shall seek

He alone could fitly speak.

And one name forevermore

Shall be uttered o’er and o’er

By the waves that kiss the shore,

By the curlew’s whistle sent

Down the cool, sea-scented air;

In all voices known to her,

Nature owns her worshipper,

Half in triumph, half lament.

Thither Love shall tearful turn,

Friendship pause uncovered there,

And the wisest reverence learn

From the Master’s silent prayer.