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The Sceptic, Edited by Nanora Sweet and Barbara Taylor

The Sceptic; A Poem

BY MRS. HEMANS

AUTHOR OF "THE RESTORATION OF THE WORKS OF ART TO ITALY;" "MODERN GREECE;" "TALES AND HISTORIC POEMS;" WALLACE'S INVOCATION TO BRUCE."

"Leur raison, qu'ils prennent pour guide, ne présente à leur esprit que des conjectures et des embarras; les absurdités où ils tombent en niant la Religion deviennent plus insoutenables que les verités [sic: vérités] dont la hauteur les étonne; et pour ne vouloir pas croire des mysterès [sic: mystères] incompréhensibles, ils suivent l'une après l'autre d'incompréhensibles erreurs." Bossuet, Oraisons funébres [sic: funèbres].

Translation and commentary

THE SCEPTIC.


       When the young Eagle, with Exulting eye,
       Has learn'd to dare the splendor of the sky,
       And leave the Alps beneath him in his course,
       To bathe his crest in morn's empyreal source,
    5  Will his free wing, from that majestic height,
       Descend to follow some wild meteor's light,
       Which far below, with evanescent fire,
       Shines to delude, and dazzles to expire ?

       No ! still thro' clouds he wins his upward way
  10  And proudly claims his heritage of day !
       —And shall the spirit, on whose ardent gaze,
       The day-spring from on high hath pour'd its blaze,
       Turn from that pure effulgence, to the beam
       Of earth-born light, that sheds a treacherous gleam,
  15  Luring the wanderer, from the star of faith,
       To the deep valley of the shades of death ?
       What bright exchange, what treasure shall be given,
       For the high birth-right of its hope in Heaven ?
       If lost the gem which empires could not buy,
  20  What yet remains ?— a dark eternity !

       Is earth still Eden ?—might a Seraph guest,
       Still, midst its chosen bowers delighted rest ?
       Is all so cloudless and so calm below,
       We seek no fairer scenes than life can show ?
  25  That the cold Sceptic, in his pride elate,
       Rejects the promise of a brighter state,
       And leaves the rock, no tempest shall displace,
       To rear his dwelling on the quicksand's base ?
       Votary of doubt ! then join the festal throng,
  30  Bask in the sunbeam, listen to the song,
       Spread the rich board, and fill the wine-cup high,
       And bind the wreath ere yet the roses die !
       'Tis well, thine eye is yet undimm'd by time,
       And thy heart bounds, exulting in its prime;
 35  Smile then unmov'd at Wisdom's warning voice,
       And, in the glory of thy strength, rejoice !

       But life hath sterner tasks; e'en youth's brief hours,
       Survive the beauty of their loveliest flowers;
       The founts of joy, where pilgrims rest from toil,
  40  Are few and distant on the desert soil;
       The soul's pure flame the breath of storms must fan,
       And pain and sorrow claim their nursling— Man !
       Earth's noblest sons the bitter cup have shar'd—
       Proud child of reason ! how art thou prepar'd ?
 45  When years, with silent might, thy frame have bow'd,
       And o'er thy spirit cast their wintry cloud,
       Will Memory soothe thee on thy bed of pain,
       With the bright images of pleasure's train ?      

       Yes ! as the sight of some far distant shore,
  50  Whose well-known scenes his foot shall tread no more,
       Would cheer the seaman, by the eddying wave
       Drawn, vainly struggling, to th' unfathom'd grave !
       Shall Hope, the faithful cherub, hear thy call,
       She, who like heaven's own sunbeam, smiles for all ?
  55  Will she speak comfort ?—Thou hast shorn her plume,
       That might have rais'd thee far above the tomb,
       And hush'd the only voice whose angel tone
       Soothes when all melodies of joy are flown !       

       For she was born beyond the stars to soar,
 60  And kindling at the source of life, adore;
       Thou couldst not, mortal ! rivet to the earth
       Her eye, whose beam is of celestial birth;
       She dwells with those who leave her pinion free,
       And sheds the dews of heaven on all but thee. 

65  Yet few there are, so lonely, so bereft,
       But some true heart, that beats to theirs, is left,
       And, haply, one whose strong affection's power,
       Unchang'd may triumph thro' misfortune's hour,
       Still with fond care supports thy languid head,
 70  And keeps unwearied vigils by thy bed.      

       But thou ! whose thoughts have no blest home above,
       Captive of earth ! and canst thou dare to love ?
       To nurse such feelings as delight to rest,
       Within that hallow'd shrine—a parent's breast,
  75  To fix each hope, concentrate every tie,
       On one frail idol,—destined but to die,
       Yet mock the faith that points to worlds of light,
       Where sever'd souls, made perfect, re-unite ?
       Then tremble ! cling to every passing joy,
  80  Twin'd with the life a moment may destroy !
       If there be sorrow in a parting tear,
       Still let "for ever" vibrate on thine ear !
       If some bright hour on rapture's wing hath flown,
       Find more than anguish in the thought—'tis gone !

 85  Go ! to a voice such magic influence give,
       Thou canst not lose its melody, and live;
       And make an eye the lode-star of thy soul,
       And let a glance the springs of thought controul;
       Gaze on a mortal form with fond delight,
  90  Till the fair vision mingles with thy sight;
       There seek thy blessings, there repose thy trust,
       Lean on the willow, idolize the dust !
       Then, when thy treasure best repays thy care,
       Think on that dread "for ever"—and despair !

 95  And oh ! no strange, unwonted storm there needs,
       To wreck at once thy fragile ark of reeds.
       Watch well its course—explore with anxious eye,
       Each little cloud that floats along the sky—
       Is the blue canopy serenely fair ?
100 Yet may the thunderbolt unseen be there,
       And the bark sink, when peace and sunshine sleep
       On the smooth bosom of the waveless deep !
       Yes ! ere a sound, a sign, announce thy fate,
       May the blow fall which makes thee desolate !
105 Not always heaven's destroying angel shrouds
       His awful form in tempests and in clouds,
       He fills the summer-air with latent power,
       He hides his venom in the scented flower,
       He steals upon thee in the Zephyr's breath,
110 And festal garlands veil the shafts of death !

       Where art thou then, who thus didst rashly cast
       Thine all upon the mercy of the blast,
       And vainly hope the tree of life to find
       Rooted in sands that flit before the wind ?
115 Is not that earth thy spirit lov'd so well,
       It wish'd not in a brighter sphere to dwell,
       Become a desert now, a vale of gloom,
       O'ershadow'd with the midnight of the tomb ?
       Where shalt thou turn ?—it is not thine to raise
120 To yon pure heaven, thy calm confiding gaze,
       No gleam reflected from that realm of rest,
       Steals on the darkness of thy troubled breast,
       Not for thine eye shall Faith divinely shed
       Her glory round the image of the dead;
125 And if, when slumber's lonely couch is prest,
       The form departed be thy spirit's guest,
       It bears no light from purer worlds to this;
       Thy future lends not e'en a dream of bliss.

       But who shall dare the Gate of Life to close,
130 Or say, thus far the stream of mercy flows ?
       That fount unseal'd, whose boundless waves embrace
       Each distant isle, and visit every race,
       Pours from the Throne of God its current free,
       Nor yet denies th' immortal draught to thee.
135 Oh ! while the doom impends, not yet decreed,
       While yet th' Atoner hath not ceas'd to plead,
       While still, suspended by a single hair,
       The sharp bright sword hangs quivering in the air,
       Bow down thy heart to Him, who will not break
140 The bruised reed; e'en yet, awake, awake !
       Patient, because Eternal, [1] He may hear
       Thy prayer of agony with pitying ear,
       And send his chastening spirit from above,
       O'er the deep chaos of thy soul to move.

145
 But seek thou mercy thro' His name alone,
       To whose unequall'd sorrows none was shown.
       Thro' Him, who here in mortal garb abode,
       As man to suffer, and to heal, as God;
       And, born the sons of utmost time to bless,
150 Endur'd all scorn, and aided all distress.

       Call thou on Him—for He, in human form,
       Hath walk'd the waves of Life, and still'd the storm.
       He, when her hour of lingering grace was past,
       O'er Salem wept, relenting to the last,
155 Wept with such tears as Judah's monarch pour'd
       O'er his lost child, ungrateful, yet deplor'd;
       And, offering guiltless blood that guilt might live,
       Taught from his Cross the lesson—to forgive !
       Call thou on Him—his prayer e'en then arose,
160 Breath'd in unpitied anguish, for his foes.
       And haste !—ere bursts the lightning from on high,
       Fly to the City of thy Refuge, fly ! [2]
       So shall th' Avenger turn his steps away,
       And sheath his falchion, baffled of its prey.

165
 Yet must long days roll on, ere peace shall brood,
       As the soft Halcyon, o'er thy heart subdued;
       Ere yet the dove of Heaven descend, to shed
       Inspiring influence o'er thy fallen head.
       —He, who hath pin'd in dungeons, midst the shade
170 Of such deep night as man for man hath made,
       Thro' lingering years; if call'd at length to be,
       Once more, by nature's boundless charter, free,
       Shrinks feebly back, the blaze of noon to shun,
       Fainting at day, and blasted by the sun !

175
 Thus, when the captive soul hath long remain'd
       In its own dread abyss of darkness chain'd,
       If the Deliverer, in his might, at last,
       Its fetters, born of earth, to earth should cast
       The beam of truth o'erpowers its dazzled sight,
180 Trembling it sinks, and finds no joy in light.
       But this will pass away—that spark of mind,
       Within thy frame unquenchably enshrin'd,
       Shall live to triumph in its bright'ning ray,
       Born to be foster'd with etherial day.
185 Then wilt thou bless the hour, when o'er thee pass'd,
       On wing of flame, the purifying blast,
       And sorrow's voice, thro' paths before untrod,
       Like Sinai's trumpet, call'd thee to thy God !

       But hop'st thou, in thy panoply of pride,
190 Heaven's messenger, affliction, to deride ?
       In thine own strength unaided to defy,
       With Stoic smile, the arrows of the sky ?
       Torn by the vulture, fetter'd to the rock,
       Still, Demigod ! the tempest wilt thou mock ?
195 Alas ! the tower that crests the mountain's brow,
       A thousand years may awe the vale below,
       Yet not the less be shatter'd on its height,
       By one dread moment of the earthquake's might !
       A thousand pangs thy bosom may have borne,
200 In silent fortitude, or haughty scorn,
       Till comes the one, the master-anguish, sent
       To break the mighty heart that ne'er was bent.

       Oh ! what is nature's strength ? the vacant eye,
       By mind deserted, hath a dread reply !
205 The wild delirious laughter of despair,
       The mirth of frenzy—seek an answer there !
       Turn not away, tho' pity's cheek grow pale,
       Close not thine ear against their awful tale.
       They tell thee, reason, wandering from the ray
210 Of Faith, the blazing pillar of her way,
       In the mid-darkness of the stormy wave,
       Forsook the struggling soul she could not save !
       Weep not, sad moralist ! o'er desert plains,
       Strew'd with the wrecks of grandeur—mouldering fanes
215 Arches of triumph, long with weeds o'ergrown,
       And regal cities, now the serpent's own:
       Earth has more awful ruins—one lost mind,
       Whose star is quench'd, hath lessons for mankind,
       Of deeper import than each prostrate dome,
220 Mingling its marble with the dust of Rome.

       But who with eye unshrinking shall explore
       That waste, illum'd by reason's beam no more ?
       Who pierce the deep, mysterious clouds that roll
       Around the shatter'd temple of the soul,
225 Curtain'd with midnight ?—low its columns lie,
       And dark the chambers of its imag'ry, [3]
       Sunk are its idols now—and God alone
       May rear the fabrick, by their fall o'erthrown !
       Yet, from its inmost shrine, by storms laid bare,
230 Is heard an oracle that cries—"Beware !
       Child of the dust ! but ransom'd of the skies !
       One breath of Heaven—and thus thy glory dies !
       Haste, ere the hour of doom, draw nigh to Him
       Who dwells above between the cherubim !"

235
 Spirit dethroned ! and check'd in mid career,
       Son of the morning ! exil'd from thy sphere,
       Tell us thy tale !—Perchance thy race was run
       With Science, in the chariot of the sun;
       Free as the winds the paths of space to sweep,
240 Traverse the untrodden kingdoms of the deep,
       And search the laws that Nature's springs controul,
       There tracing all—save Him who guides the whole !
       Haply thine eye its ardent glance had cast
       Thro' the dim shades, the portals of the past;
245 By the bright lamp of thought thy care had fed
       From the far beacon-lights of ages fled,
       The depths of time exploring, to retrace
       The glorious march of many a vanish'd race.

       Or did thy power pervade the living lyre,
250 Till its deep chords became instinct with fire,
       Silenced all meaner notes, and swell'd on high,
       Full and alone, their mighty harmony,
       While woke each passion from its cell profound,
       And nations started at th' electric sound ?
255 Lord of th' Ascendant ! what avails it now,
       Tho' bright the laurels wav'd upon thy brow ?
       What, tho' thy name, thro' distant empires heard,
       Bade the heart bound, as doth a battle-word ?
       Was it for this thy still unwearied eye,
260 Kept vigil with the watch-fires of the sky,
       To make the secrets of all ages thine,
       And commune with majestic thoughts that shine
       O'er Time's long shadowy pathway ?—hath thy mind
       Sever'd its lone dominions from mankind,
265 For this to woo their homage ?—Thou hast sought
       All, save the wisdom with salvation fraught,
       Won every wreath—but that which will not die,
       Nor aught neglected—save eternity !

      And did all fail thee, in the hour of wrath,
270 When burst th' o'erwhelming vials on thy path ?
       Could not the voice of Fame inspire thee then,
       O spirit ! scepter'd by the sons of men,
       With an Immortal's courage, to sustain
       The transient agonies of earthly pain ?

275
 —One, one there was, all-powerful to have sav'd,
       When the loud fury of the billow rav'd;
       But Him thou knew'st not—and the light he lent
       Hath vanished from its ruin'd tenement,
       But left thee breathing, moving, lingering yet,
280 A thing we shrink from—vainly to forget !
       —Lift the dread veil no further—hide, oh ! hide
       The bleeding form, the couch of suicide !
       The dagger, grasp'd in death—the brow, the eye,
       Lifeless, yet stamp'd with rage and agony;
285 The soul's dark traces left in many a line
       Graved on his mien, who died,—"and made no sign !"
       Approach not, gaze not—lest thy fever'd brain,
       Too deep that image of despair retain;
       Angels of slumber ! o'er the midnight hour,
290 Let not such visions claim unhallow'd power,
       Lest the mind sink with terror, and above
       See but th' Avenger's arm, forgot th' Atoner's love !

       O Thou! th' unseen, th' all-seeing !—Thou whose ways
       Mantled with darkness, mock all finite gaze,
295 Before whose eyes the creatures of Thy hand,
       Seraph and man, alike in weakness stand,
       And countless ages, trampling into clay
       Earth's empires on their march, are but a day;
       Father of worlds unknown, unnumber'd !—Thou,
300 With whom all time is one eternal now ,
       Who know'st no past, nor future—Thou whose breath
       Goes forth, and bears to myriads, life or death,
       Look on us, guide us !—wanderers of a sea
       Wild and obscure, what are we, reft of Thee ?
305 A thousand rocks, deep-hid, elude our sight,
       A star may set—and we are lost in night;
       A breeze may waft us to the whirlpool's brink,
       A treach'rous song allure us—and we sink !

       Oh ! by His love, who, veiling Godhead's light,
310 To moments circumscrib'd the Infinite,
       And Heaven and Earth disdain'd not to ally
       By that dread union—Man with Deity;
       Immortal tears o'er mortal woes who shed,
       And, ere he rais'd them, wept above the dead;
315 Save, or we perish !—let Thy word controul
       The earthquakes of that universe—the soul;
       Pervade the depths of passion—speak once more
       The mighty mandate, guard of every shore,
       "Here shall thy waves be staid"—in grief, in pain,
320 The fearful poise of reason's sphere maintain,
       Thou, by whom suns are balanced !—thus secure
       In Thee shall Faith and Fortitude endure;
       Conscious of Thee, unfaltering shall the just
       Look upward still, in high and holy trust,
325 And, by affliction guided to Thy shrine,
       The first, last thought of suffering hearts be Thine.

       And oh ! be near, when, cloth'd with conquering power
       The King of Terrors claims his own dread hour:
       When, on the edge of that unknown abyss,
330 Which darkly parts us from the realm of bliss,
       Awe struck alike the timid and the brave,
       Alike subdued the monarch and the slave,
       Must drink the cup of trembling [4] —when we see
       Nought in the universe but death and Thee,
335 Forsake us not;—if still, when life was young,
       Faith to Thy bosom, as her home, hath sprung,
       If Hope's retreat hath been, through all the past,
       The shadow by the Rock of Ages cast,
       Father, forsake us not !—when tortures urge
340 The shrinking soul to that mysterious verge,
       When from Thy justice to Thy love we fly,
       On Nature's conflict look with pitying eye,
       Bid the strong wind, the fire, the earthquake cease,
       Come in the still small voice, and whisper—peace ! [5]

345
 For oh ! 'tis awful—He that hath beheld
       The parting spirit, by its fears repell'd,
       Cling in weak terror, to its earthly chain,
       And from the dizzy brink recoil, in vain;
       He that hath seen the last convulsive throe
350 Dissolve the union form'd and clos'd in woe,
       Well knows, that hour is awful.—In the pride
       Of youth and health, by sufferings yet untried,
       We talk of Death, as something, which 'twere sweet
       In Glory's arms exultingly to meet,
355 A closing triumph, a majestic scene,
       Where gazing nations watch the hero's mien,
       As, undismay'd amidst the tears of all,
       He folds his mantle, regally to fall !

       Hush, fond enthusiast !—still, obscure, and lone,
360 Yet not less terrible because unknown,
       Is the last hour of thousands—they retire
       From life's throng'd path, unnoticed to expire,
       As the light leaf, whose fall to ruin bears
       Some trembling insect's little world of cares,
365 Descends in silence—while around waves on
       The mighty forest, reckless what is gone !
       Such is man's doom—and, ere an hour be flown,
       —Start not, thou trifler !—such may be thine own.
       But as life's current in its ebb draws near
370 The shadowy gulph, there wakes a thought of fear,
       A thrilling thought, which, haply mock'd before,
       We fain would stifle—but it sleeps no more !
       There are, who fly its murmurs midst the throng,
       That join the masque of revelry and song,
375 Yet still Death's image, by its power restor'd,
       Frowns midst the roses of the festal board,
       And, when deep shades o'er earth and ocean brood,
       And the heart owns the might of solitude,
       Is its low whisper heard :—a note profound,
380 But wild and startling as the trumpet-sound,
       That bursts, with sudden blast, the dead repose
       Of some proud city, storm'd by midnight foes !

       Oh ! vainly reason's scornful voice would prove
       That life hath nought to claim such lingering love,
385 And ask, if e'er the captive, half unchain'd,
       Clung to the links which yet his step restrain'd ?
       In vain philosophy, with tranquil pride,
       Would mock the feelings she perchance can hide,
       Call up the countless armies of the dead,
390 Point to the pathway beaten by their tread,
       And say—"What wouldst thou ? Shall the fix'd decree,
       Made for creation, be revers'd for thee ? "
       —Poor, feeble aid !—proud Stoic ! ask not why,
       It is enough, that nature shrinks to die !
395 Enough, that horror, which thy words upbraid,
       Is her dread penalty, and must be paid !
       —Search thy deep wisdom, solve the scarce defin'd
       And mystic questions of the parting mind,
       Half check'd, half utter'd—tell her, what shall burst
400 In whelming grandeur, on her vision first,
       When freed from mortal films ?—what viewless world
       Shall first receive her wing, but half unfurl'd ?
       What awful and unbodied beings guide
       Her timid flight thro' regions yet untried ?
405 Say, if at once, her final doom to hear,
       Before her God the trembler must appear,
       Or wait that day of terror, when the sea
       Shall yield its hidden dead, and heaven and earth shall flee ?

       Hast thou no answer ?—then deride no more
410 The thoughts that shrink, yet cease not to explore
       Th' unknown, th' unseen, the future—tho' the heart,
       As at unearthly sounds, before them start,
       Tho' the frame shudder, and the spirit sigh,
       They have their source in immortality !
415 Whence, then, shall strength, which reason's aid denies,
       An equal to the mortal conflict rise ?
       When, on the swift pale horse, whose lightning pace,
       Where'er we fly, still wins the dreadful race,
       The mighty rider comes—oh ! whence shall aid
420 Be drawn, to meet his rushing, undismay'd ?
       —Whence, but from thee, Messiah !—thou hast drain'd
       The bitter cup, till not the dregs remain'd,
       To thee the struggle and the pang were known,
       The mystic horror—all became thine own !

425
 But did no hand celestial succour bring,
       Till scorn and anguish haply lost their sting ?
       Came not th' Archangel, in the final hour,
       To arm thee with invulnerable power ?
       No, Son of God ! upon thy sacred head,
430 The shafts of wrath their tenfold fury shed,
       From man averted—and thy path on high,
       Pass'd thro' the strait of fiercest agony;
       For thus th' Eternal, with propitious eyes,
       Receiv'd the last, th' almighty sacrifice !

435
 But wake ! be glad, ye nations ! from the tomb,
       Is won the vict'ry, and is fled the gloom !
       The vale of death in conquest hath been trod,
       Break forth in joy, ye ransom'd ! saith your God !
       Swell ye the raptures of the song afar,
440 And hail with harps your bright and morning star.

       He rose ! the everlasting gates of day,
       Receiv'd the King of Glory on his way !
       The hope, the comforter of those who wept,
       And the first-fruits of them, in Him that slept.
445 He rose, he triumph'd ! he will yet sustain
       Frail nature sinking in the strife of pain.
       Aided by Him, around the martyr's frame
       When fiercely blaz'd a living shroud of flame,
       Hath the firm soul exulted, and the voice
450 Rais'd the victorious hymn, and cried, Rejoice !
       Aided by Him, tho' none the bed attend,
       Where the lone sufferer dies without a friend,
       He, whom the busy world shall miss no more,
       Than morn one dew-drop from her countless store,
455 Earth's most neglected child, with trusting heart,
       Call'd to the hope of glory, shall depart !

       And say, cold Sophist ! if by thee bereft
       Of that high hope, to misery what were left ?
       But for the vision of the days to be,
460 But for the Comforter, despis'd by thee,
       Should we not wither at the Chastener's look,
       Should we not sink beneath our God's rebuke,
       When o'er our heads the desolating blast,
       Fraught with inscrutable decrees, hath pass'd,
465 And the stern power who seeks the noblest prey,
       Hath call'd our fairest and our best away ?
       Should we not madden, when our eyes behold
       All that we lov'd in marble stillness cold,
       No more responsive to our smile or sigh,
470 Fix'd—frozen—silent—all mortality ?
       But for the promise, all shall yet be well,
       Would not the spirit in its pangs rebel,
       Beneath such clouds as darken'd when the hand
       Of wrath lay heavy on our prostrate land,
475 And Thou, just lent thy gladden'd isles to bless,
       Then snatch'd from earth with all thy loveliness,
       With all a nation's blessings on thy head,
       O England's flower ! wert gather'd to the dead ?
       But Thou didst teach us. Thou to every heart,
480 Faith's lofty lesson didst thyself impart !
       When fled the hope thro' all thy pangs which smil'd,
       When thy young bosom, o'er thy lifeless child,
       Yearn'd with vain longing—still thy patient eye,
       To its last light, beam'd holy constancy !
485 Torn from a lot in cloudless sunshine cast,
       Amidst those agonies—thy first and last,
       Thy pale lip, quivering with convulsive throes,
       Breath'd not a plaint—and settled in repose;
       While bow'd thy royal head to Him, whose power
490 Spoke in the fiat of that midnight hour,
       Who from the brightest vision of a throne,
       Love, glory, empire, claim'd thee for his own,
       And spread such terror o'er the sea-girt coast,
       As blasted Israel, when her Ark was lost !

495
 "It is the will of God !"—yet, yet we hear
       The words which clos'd thy beautiful career,
       Yet should we mourn thee in thy blest abode,
       But for that thought—"It is the will of God !"
       Who shall arraign th' Eternal's dark decree,
500 If not one murmur then escap'd from thee ?
       Oh ! still, tho' vanishing without a trace,
       Thou hast not left one scion of thy race,
       Still may thy memory bloom our vales among,
       Hallow'd by freedom, and enshrin'd in song !
505 Still may thy pure, majestic spirit dwell,
       Bright on the isles which lov'd thy name so well,
       E'en as an angel, with presiding care,
       To wake and guard thine own high virtues there.

       For lo ! the hour when storm-presaging skies,
510 Call on the watchers of the land to rise,
       To set the sign of fire on every height, [6]
       And o'er the mountains rear, with patriot might,
       Prepar'd, if summon'd, in its cause to die,
       The banner of our faith the Cross of victory !
515 By this hath England conquer'd—field and flood
       Have own'd her sovereignty—alone she stood,
       When chains o'er all the sceptered earth were thrown,
       In high and holy singleness, alone,
       But mighty, in her God—and shall she now
520 Forget before th'Omnipotent to bow ?
       From the bright fountain of her glory turn,
       Or bid strange fire upon his altars burn ?
       No ! sever'd land midst rocks and billows rude,
       Thron'd in thy majesty of solitude
525 Still in the deep asylum of thy breast,
       Shall the pure elements of greatness rest,
       Virtue and faith, the tutelary powers,
       Thy hearths that hallow, and defend thy towers !

       Still, where thy hamlet-vales, O chosen isle !
530 In the soft beauty of their verdure smile,
       Where yew and elm o'ershade the lowly fanes,
       That guard the peasant's records and remains,
       May the blest echos of the Sabbath-bell,
       Sweet on the quiet of the woodlands swell,
535 And from each cottage-dwelling of thy glades,
       When starlight glimmers through the deepening shades,
       Devotion's voice in choral hymns arise,
       And bear the Land's warm incense to the skies.
       There may the mother, as with anxious joy,
540 To Heaven her lessons consecrate her boy,
       Teach his young accents still th' immortal lays,
       Of Zion's bards, in inspiration's days,
       When Angels, whispering thro' the cedar's shade,
       Prophetic tones to Judah's harp convey'd;
545 And as, her soul all glistening in her eyes,
       She bids the prayer of infancy arise,
       Tell of His name, who left his Throne on high,
       Earth's lowliest lot to bear and sanctify,
       His love divine, by keenest anguish tried,
550 And fondly say—"My child, for thee He died !


Notes

MRS. HEMANS
Hemans's letter to publisher John Murray dated 18th December 1820 (John Murray Archive, London) states: "I wish to be Mrs Hemans in the title page of the poem." This is the first time she has clearly stated a preference for this title to Murray; she was listed as Felicia Hemans in her last publication, Tales and Historic Scenes (1819).

See the letter to John Murray

TRANSLATION
Text: Bossuet, [Jacques Bénique], Oraisons Funèbres, ed. Jacques Truchet (Paris: Garnier, 1961), p. 273.

Translation: Speaking of sceptics, Bossuet says, "Their reason, which they take for a guide, presents to their spirit only conjectures and difficulties; the absurdities into which they fall in denying religion become more untenable than the truths whose loftiness astonishes them; and by not wishing to believe in incomprehensible mysteries, they follow one incomprehensible error after another."

The writer: Bossuet (1627-1704), Bishop of Meaux, an apologist for French Catholicism, noted for his funeral orations and attempts to moderate the Revocation of the Edit of Nantes.

JOHN MURRAY
John Murray (1778-1843), Hemans's publisher, had made his reputation as the leading publisher of the day, following the 1812 publication of Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. He numbered Scott, Southey, Coleridge and Crabbe among his authors, and his drawing room was the meeting place for the contemporary literary world. He also published the Quarterly Review.

When the young Eagle...
Hemans's opening stanzas echo Byron's question in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (hereafter CHP) Canto 2 and invert his imagery. It is useful to place Byron's text alongside hers.

—Go to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage ~Canto 2

The young exulting eagle of this first line glances back to her 1812 poem, "The Domestic Affections," where she writes:

   On freedom's wing, that every wild explores
   Through realms of space, th'aspiring eagle soars. (Wolfson's Hemans, p.8 l.165)

This poem is a subtle exploration of contemporary gender politics.

And leave the Alps beneath him...
—Go to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage ~Canto 4, st. 27

And shall the spirit...
Hemans inverts Byron's question in CHP 2.

— Go to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage ~Canto 2, st. 4

If lost the gem...
— Go to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage ~Canto 4, st. 93

Is all so cloudless...
— See the storm scene in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage ~Canto 3, st.92-98

That the cold Sceptic...
Hartman suggests that although "Byron is the figure most behind her sceptic—but Hume is also a figure sitting behind 'the cold sceptic'."

—Refer to Hartman's "Hemans, Hume, and Philosophical Scepticism"

And leaves the rock...
Hartman relates this to Hume's despair at finding himself upon "the barren rock" while Sweet investigates the ways in which Hemans and Byron belie faith with scepticism.

—Refer to Hartman's "Hemans, Hume, and Philosophical Scepticism" and Sweet's "'A darkling plain': Hemans, Byron, and The Sceptic; A Poem"

Bask in the sunbeam...
This is reminiscent of Childe Harold who "Bask'd him in the noon-tide sun" CHP 1. 4

—Go to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage ~Canto 1, st.4

The founts of joy...
The pilgrims here may allude to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.

Will Memory soothe thee...
This recalls Byron's comment "And can I deem thee dead? When busy memory flashes on the brain?" CHP 2. 9.75-6

— Go to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage ~Canto 2, st.9

Yes !...
—See Sweet's comments on epic similes in "'A darkling plain': Hemans, Byron, and The Sceptic; A Poem"

Would cheer the seaman...
Sweet sees a suggestion of Coleridge's ancient mariner here.

—Refer to Sweet's "'A darkling plain': Hemans, Byron, and The Sceptic; A Poem"

Shall Hope...
— See here Byron's picture of Hope in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage ~Canto 4, st.72

And keeps unwearied...
Compare with Hemans's "The Domestic Affections":

   There, bending still, with fix'd and sleepless eye,
   There from her child, the mother learns—to die!
   Explores, with fearful gaze, each mournful trace
   Of ling'ring sickness in the faded face;
   Thro' the sad night, when ev'ry hope is fled,
   Keeps her lone vigil by the suff'rer's bed. (Wolfson's Hemans, p.12, l. 321-6)

Captive of earth !...
Look at the Egeria legend in CHP 4. 115-27 where for Byron "love" becomes but a "desiring phantasy" (121) and as if to reverse Hemans's preferences, reason is invoked in its stead, "our last and only place / Of refuge" (127).

Where sever'd souls...
This argument from "love" is central in Hemans's poem; characteristically an enthymeme in Walker's terms, having "heart" (thymos), driven by contrast and audience investment, and closing by "capping" its inquiry in the lines immediately following this note.

— See Childe Harold's Pilgrimage ~Canto 4, st. 115-27

Go !...
A possible reference to Thomas Edleston, friend of Byron, who died shortly before Byron returned from his first travels to Greece and the Orient.

—See Childe Harold's Pilgrimage ~Canto 2, st. 95

Lean on the willow...
See Byron's "Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte":

   Weigh'd in the balance, hero dust
   Is vile as vulgar clay;….
   But yet methought the living great
   Some higher sparks should animate. (ll.100-5)

To wreck at once...
Here and below, Hemans alludes to Byron's play on arch and ark, bark and ark, throughout CHP 4, where Petrarchan themes of triumph and the lover's frail bark (alike expressions of hope) complicate each other richly.

See also Childe Harold's Pilgrimage ~Canto 4, st. 92, which puns on the Arc de Triomphe and the biblical ark

On the smooth bosom...
Look at CHP 4. 104-05, where Byron speaks of the "dying thunder," "the floating wreck," "a little bark of hope, / Once more to battle with the ocean."

— See Childe Harold's Pilgrimage ~Canto 4, st. 104-05

And if, when slumber's lonely couch...
See Byron's CHP 2:

   ...and can I deem thee dead,
   When busy Memory flashes on my brain?
   Well—I will dream that we may meet again,
   And woo the vision to my vacant breast. CHP 2.9.74-7

— See Childe Harold's Pilgrimage ~Canto 2, st. 9

While still, suspended...
Damocles, a member of the court of Dionysius I, was forced to eat a sumptuous dinner with a sword, suspended by a single hair, hanging over his head. This gives rise to the saying "the sword of Damocles."

Patient, because Eternal...
This Augustinian citation serves as an enthymeme, the (sophistical) partial syllogism typical of rhetoric. It invites the question, Are we to take the agitated humans in the poem, the sceptic and the speaker as well, as impatient and therefore not eternal?

Hath walk'd the waves...
Reference to Christ walking upon the water, Matthew 4:48-9, and stilling the storm, Mark 4:37-41. Contrast with CHP 4.179 where humanity's "control stops with the shore."

—See Childe Harold's Pilgrimage ~Canto 4, st. 179

Taught from his Cross...
Look at CHP 4.135, where Byron says: "That curse shall be Forgiveness."

—See Childe Harold's Pilgrimage ~Canto 4, st. 135

Fly to the City...
—Refer to Sweet's introductory essay "'A darkling plain': Hemans, Byron, and The Sceptic; A Poem"

Fainting at day...
See Byron's poem The Prisoner of Chillon, especially the closing stanzas:

   And then new tears came in my eye,
   And I felt troubled—and would fain
   I had not left my recent chain,
   . . . .(st. xiii)

   My very chains and I grew friends,
   So much a long communion tends
   To make us what we are: —even I
   Regain'd my freedom with a sigh. (st. xiv)

Shall live to triumph...
See the developments of "ray" and "radiance" in Hemans's progress poem "The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy":

   As one who starting from the day,
   From dark illusions, phantoms of dismay,
   With transport heighten'd by those ills of night,
   Hails the rich glories of expanding light;
   E'en thus, awak'ning from thy dream of woe
   While Heaven's own hues in radiance round thee grow. (l. 145-52)

and

   Still, like some broken gem, whose quenchless beam,
   From each bright fragment pours its vital stream,
   'Tis thine, by fate unconquered, to dispense
   From every part, some ray of excellence! (369-74)

and elsewhere (Wolfson's Hemans, pp. 22, 27).

And reflectively, in CHP 4, see the following stanzas:

—st. 5

—st. 39

—st. 45

—st. 55

—st. 109

—st. 151

—st. 162

—st. 165

and others, including rainbow and iris imagery.

Still, Demigod !...
—See Byron's "Prometheus" l. 7 etc.:

   The rock , the vulture, and the chain,
   All that the proud can feel of pain,
   The agony they do not show,
   The suffocating sense of woe,
. . . .

And also his "Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte" st. 16:

   Or like the thief of fire from heaven,
   Wilt thou withstand the shock?
   And share with him, the unforgiven,
   His vulture and his rock!

They tell thee, reason...
For Hemans, Reason is lost without the light of faith, her lines echo Dryden's "Religio Laici" where he writes:

   Dim as the borrowed beams of moon and stars
   To lonely, weary wandering travellers,
   Is reason to the soul (1987, p. 228)

Arches of triumph...
See Childe Harold's Pilgrimage ~Canto 4, st. 92

"For this the conqueror rears/ The arch of triumph."

And dark the chambers of its imag'ry
This whole page glances at such portions of CHP 4 as the moonlight curse in the Coliseum, the "arches on arches" there, the ruins.

—See Childe Harold's Pilgrimage ~Canto 4, st. 128

These are very much the "dark. . .chambers of. . .imagery" noted by Hemans in her Note 3 from Ezekiel. She would note that, coming after st. 127, which tries to rehabilitate "reason" after the episode with Egeria, this imagery renders perverse Byron's attempt to coax a new beginning from these ruins, "Forgiveness" (st. 35).

See Hemans's original Note 3 of The Sceptic

Spirit dethroned !...
These two lines refer to Byron who was currently living in exile abroad. The reference to Lucifer highlights Byron's status as a fallen angel and therefore Satanic. See also Hemans's lyric "The Lost Pleiad," first published in New Monthly Magazine, December 1823, in Wolfson's Hemans p.432, and the discussion on the poem in McGann's The Poetics of Sensibility p.159-64. We should also note that the epigraph for "The Lost Pleiad," "Like the lost pleiad seen no more below," is taken from Byron's 1818 poem Beppo.

Tho' bright the laurels...
A further reference to Byron.

Was it for this...
"Was it for this. . .?" is an epic motif stemming from The Aeneid Bk. 4: where Aeneas struggles to renew his epic charge while entrammelled by Dido. The motif is echoed in CHP 1.54 with reference to the Maid of Saragoza (a passage that reverses Vergil by handing over the epic charge to the female lover).

—See Childe Harold's Pilgrimage ~Canto 1, st. 54

Also in Don Juan 1, satirically, in Julia's harangue; and in Hemans's "The Abencerrage" where, as in CHP 1, it is spoken by a Spanish woman warrior. Hemans's heroine Zayda says:

   Was it for this I loved thee?—Thou hast taught
   My soul all grief, all bitterness of thought!
   'Twill soon be past—I bow to Heaven's decree,
   Which bade each pang be minister'd by thee. 3.461(Wolfson's Hemans p.128)

See also The Prelude :

   Was it for this
   That one, the fairest of all rivers, loved
   To blend his murmurs with my nurse's song
   And, from his alder shades and rocky falls,
  And from his fords and shadows, sent a voice
   That flow'd along my dreams. 1.269-74.

Kept vigil...
An extended allusion to Manfred begins here. See the beginning of Act 1, scene 2 where Manfred says:

   The spirits I have raised abandon me—
   The spells which I have studied baffle me—
   The remedy I reck'd of tortured me
   I lean no more on superhuman aid
   It hath no power upon the past, and for
   The future, till the past be gulf'd in darkness,
   It is not of my search.

See also Act 2.3 where "This most steep fantastic pinnacle is sacred to our revels, or our vigils" and the beginning of Act 3.3:

   'Tis strange enough: night after night, for years,
   He hath pursued long vigils in this tower,
   Without a witness...

Later in this same scene the speakers compare Manfred to his father who: "dwelt not with books and solitude, nor made the night/ A gloomy vigil."

When burst th' o'erwhelming vials on thy path ?
See Manfred Act 1, scene 1, where Byron writes:

   And on thy head I pour the vial
   Which doth devote thee to this trial;
   Nor to slumber, nor to die,
   Shall be thy destiny;

These lines form part of an "incantation" that is evidently in the voice of a phantom Astarte. In echoing this voice, Hemans strengthens her claim on the role of sister-lover as explored by Susan Wolfson's recent essay in "Hemans and the Romance of Byron" in Felicia Hemans: Reimagining Poetry in the Nineteenth Century.

One, one there was...
Another reference to Christ's stilling of the storm, Mark 4:37-41.

The bleeding form, the couch of suicide !
—See Sweet's discussion on the allusions to Byron in "'A darkling plain': Hemans, Byron, and The Sceptic; A Poem"

The shadow by the Rock...
—Refer to the discussions in Sweet's essay "'A darkling plain': Hemans, Byron, and The Sceptic; A Poem"

Come in the still small voice...
—Refer to Sweet's essay "'A darkling plain': Hemans, Bryon and The Sceptic; A Poem"

For oh ! 'tis awful...
Compare this with Hemans's own epitaph, which forms the funeral chant for her heroine Ximena, another warrior maid, in The Siege of Valencia.

   Calm on the bosom of thy God,
   Fair spirit! Rest thee now!
   E'en while with us thy footsteps trod,
   His seal was on thy brow.

   Dust to its narrow house beneath
   Soul to its place on high!
   They that have seen they look in death,
   No more may fear to die.

Click here to see Hemans's memorial in the Gallery

He folds his mantle...
—Refer to Sweet's discussion in "'A darkling plain': Hemans, Byron, and The Sceptic; A Poem"

As the light leaf...
—Refer to Sweet's discussion on epic similes in "'A darkling plain': Hemans, Byron, and The Sceptic; A Poem," note 28.

And ask...
Hartman notes that Hemans and Hume use the same aphorism here.

—Refer to Hartman's "Hemans, Hume, and Philosophical Scepticism"

And say, cold Sophist !...
See here "And sophists, madly vain of dubious lore" in CHP 2 st.8, l.4.

— Go to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage ~Canto 2, st.8

But for the vision...
—See here the discussion on religious argument in Sweet's conference paper "Scepticism and Its Costs: Hemans's Reading of Byron"

Of wrath...
Here Hemans delivers her central enthymeme, the subject of Sweet's conference paper on Hemans, Byron, and materialism, "Scepticism and its Costs: Hemans's Reading of Byron."

O England's flower !...
See here Hemans's "Stanzas. . .on the Death of the Princess Charlotte," st. xviii, "The flower, the leaf, o'erwhelmed by winter snow." (N.B. First ed. may have "o'erwhelm'd").

—See also Byron's tribute to the princess in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage ~Canto 4. st. 167-72

Yearn'd with vain longing...
See Byron's "She clasps a babe, to whom her breast yields no relief," CHP 4.167.

—Go to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage ~Canto 4, st. 167

To set the sign of fire...
Compare with Hemans's "The Mountain-Fires" in Welsh Melodies, where beacon-fires light the vigils of Welsh forefathers (Poems of Felicia Hemans [Edinburgh and London: Blackwood, 1854], 150-51).

In high and holy...
Compare with Stanzas to the Memory of the Late King, where Hemans writes:

   Then came the noon of glory, which thy dreams
   Perchance of yore had faintly prophesied ;
   But what to thee the splendour of its beams?
   The ice-rock glows not midst the summer's pride!
   Nations leap'd up to joy—as streams that burst,
   At the warm touch of spring, their frozen chain,
   And o'er the plains, whose verdure once they nursed,
   Roll in exulting melody again;
   And bright o'er earth the long majestic line
   Of England's triumphs swept, to rouse all hearts—but thine.

   Oh! What a dazzling vision, by the veil
   That o'er thy spirit hung, was shut from thee,
   When sceptred chieftains, throng'd with palms to hail
   The crowning isle, the anointed of the sea!
   Within thy palaces the lords of earth
   Met to rejoice—rich pageants glitter'd by,
   And stately revels imaged, in their mirth,
   The old magnificence of chivalry.
   They reach'd not thee—amidst them, yet alone,
   Stillness and gloom begirt one dim and shadowy throne.
   [st. 7-8]

Still, where thy hamlet-vales...
This passage shows Hemans's fondness for Mitford's "Our Village" sketches which began appearing in Lady's Magazine in 1813. Among Hemans's late, unfulfilled wishes was to write childhood recollections similar to these sketches.

May the blest...
As in Hemans's last poem,"Sabbath Sonnet" which opens with the line: "How many blessed groups this hour are bending" (Wolfson's Hemans p.471)

Hemans's Notes for The Sceptic; A Poem

1. "He is patient, because He is eternal." St. Augustine.
[We retained Hemans's own notes numbered 1-6]

2. Then ye shall appoint you cities, to be cities of refuge for you: that the slayer may flee thither which killeth any person at unawares.—And they shall be unto you cities of refuge from the avenger.—Numbers, chap. 35 vv.1-12.

3. Every man in the chambers of his imagery.—Ezekiel, chap. 8. "And dark the chambers of its imag'ry"

4. Thou hast drunken the dregs of the cup of trembling, and wrung them out.—Isaiah, chap. 51. [51.17]

5. And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord ; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.—Kings, book 1. chap. 19. [19.11-12]

6. And set up a sign of fire.—Jeremiah, chap. 6.

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