Poems and Prose Remains, Vol II

Seven Sonnets on the Thought of Death 1

Arthur Hugh Clough

THAT children in their loveliness should die
Before the dawning beauty, which we know
Cannot remain, has yet begun to go;
That when a certain period has passed by,
People of genius and of faculty,
Leaving behind them some result to show,
Having performed some function, should forego
The task which younger hands can better ply,
Appears entirely natural. But that one
Whose perfectness did not at all consist
In things towards forming which time can have done
Anything,—whose sole office was to exist,
Should suddenly dissolve and cease to be
Is the extreme of all perplexity.

THAT there are better things within the womb
Of Nature than to our unworthy view
She grants for a possession, may be true:
The cycle of the birthplace and the tomb
Fulfils at least the order and the doom
Of earth, that has not ordinance to do
More than to withdraw and to renew,
To show one moment and the next resume:
The law that we return from whence we came,
May for the flowers, beasts, and most men remain;
If for ourselves, we ask not nor complain:
But for a being that demands the name
We highest deem—a Person and a Soul—
It troubles us that this should be the whole.

TO see the rich autumnal tint depart,
And view the fading of the roseate glow
That veils some Alpine altitude of snow,
To hear of some great masterpiece of art
Lost or destroyed, may to the adult heart
Impatient of the transitory show
Of lovelinesses that but come and go,
A positive strange thankfulness impart.
When human pure perfections disappear,
Not at the first, but at some later day,
The buoyancy of such reaction may
With strong assurance conquer blank dismay.

BUT whether in the uncoloured light of truth,
This inward strong assurance be, indeed,
More than the self-willed arbitrary creed,
Manhood’s inheritor to the dream of youth;
Whether to shut out fact because forsooth
To live were insupportable unfreed,
Be not or be the service of untruth:
Whether this vital confidence be more
Than his, who upon death’s immediate brink,
Knowing, perforce determines to ignore;
Or than the bird’s, that when the hunter’s near,
Burying her eyesight, can forget her fear;
Who about this shall tell us what to think?

IF it is thou whose casual hand withdraws
What it at first as casually did make,
Say what amount of ages it will take
With tardy rare concurrences of laws,
And subtle multiplicities of cause,
The thing they once had made us to remake;
May hopes dead slumbering dare to reawake,
E’en after utmost interval of pause,
What revolutions must have passed, before
The great celestial cycles shall restore
The starry sign whose present hour is gone;
What worse than dubious chances interpose,
With cloud and sunny gleam to recompose
The skiey picture we had gazed upon.

BUT if as not by that the soul desired
Swayed in the judgment, wisest men have thought,
And furnishing the evidence it sought,
Man’s heart hath ever fervently required,
And story, for that reason deemed inspired,
To every clime, in every age, hath taught;
If in this human complex there be aught
Not lost in death, as not in birth acquired,
O then, though cold the lips that did convey
Rich freights of meaning, dead each living sphere.
Where thought abode, and fancy loved to play,
Thou yet, we think, somewhere somehow still art,
And satisfied with that the patient heart
The where and how doth not desire to hear.

SHALL I decide it by a random shot?
Our happy hopes, so happy and so good,
Are not mere idle motions of the blood;
And when they seem most baseless, most are not.
A seed there must have been upon the spot
Where the flowers grow, without it ne’er they could;
The confidence of growth least understood
Of some deep intuition was begot.
What if despair and hope alike be true?
The heart, ’tis manifest, is free to do
Whichever Nature and itself suggest,
And always ’tis a fact that we are here,
And with being here, doth palsy-giving fear
(Whoe’er can ask or hope) accord the best?

1. These Sonnets have been brought together from very imperfect MSS. It is not to be supposed that their author would have given them to the public in their present state; but they are in parts so characteristic of his thought and style, that they will not be without interest to the readers of his poems.

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