Theology in Extremis: Or a soliloquy that may have been delivered in India, June, 1857

Original Text: 
Sir Alfred Lyall, Verses Written in India (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., 1889): 9-17. British Library.
"They would have spared life to any of their English prisoners who should consent to profess Mahometanism, by repeating the usual short formula; but only one half-caste cared to save himself in that way." --Extract from an Indian newspaper.
2   Reading the tales of days bygone,
3I have mused on the story of human tears,
4   All that man unto man had done,
5Massacre, torture, and black despair;
6Reading it all in my easy-chair.
7Passionate prayer for a minute's life;
8   Tortured crying for death as rest;
9Husband pleading for child or wife,
10   Pitiless stroke upon tender breast.
11Was it all real as that I lay there
12Lazily stretched on my easy-chair?
13Could I believe in those hard old times,
14   Here in this safe luxurious age?
15Were the horrors invented to season rhymes,
16   Or truly is man so fierce in his rage?
17What could I suffer, and what could I dare?
18I who was bred to that easy-chair.
19They were my fathers, the men of yore,
20   Little they recked of a cruel death;
21They would dip their hands in a heretic's gore,
22   They stood and burnt for a rule of faith.
23What would I burn for, and whom not spare?
24I, who had faith in an easy-chair.
25Now do I see old tales are true,
26   Here in the clutch of a savage foe;
27Now shall I know what my fathers knew,
28   Bodily anguish and bitter woe,
29Naked and bound in the strong sun's glare,
30Far from my civilized easy-chair.
31Now have I tasted and understood
32   That old world feeling of mortal hate;
33For the eyes all round us are hot with blood;
34   They will kill us coolly -- they do but wait;
35While I, I would sell ten lives, at least,
36For one fair stroke at that devilish priest
37Just in return for the kick he gave,
38   Bidding me call on the prophet's name;
39Even a dog by this may save
40   Skin from the knife, and soul from the flame;
41My soul! if he can let the prophet burn it,
42But life is sweet if a word may earn it.
44   Just one phrase, and a man gets off it;
45Look at that mongrel clerk in his tears
46   Whining aloud the name of the prophet;
47Only a formula easy to patter,
48And, God Almighty, what can it matter?
49"Matter enough," will my conrade say
50   Praying aloud here close at my side,
51"Whether you mourn in despair alway,
52   Cursed for ever by Christ denied;
53Or whether you suffer a minute's pain
54All the reward of Heaven to gain."
55Not for a moment faltereth he,
56   Sure of the promise and pardon of sin;
57Thus did the martyrs die, I see,
59Death means Heaven, he longs to receive it,
60But what shall I do if I don't believe it?
61Life is pleasant, and friends may be nigh,
62   Fain would I speak one word and be spared;
63Yet I could be silent and cheerfully die,
64   If I were only sure God cared;
65If I had faith, and were only certain
66That light is behind that terrible curtain.
67But what if He listeth nothing at all
68   Of words a poor wretch in his terror may say?
69That mighty God who created all
70   To labour and live their appointed day;
71Who stoops not either to bless or ban,
73He is the Reaper, and binds the sheaf,
74   Shall not the season its order keep?
75Can it be changed by a man's belief?
76   Millions of harvests still to reap;
77Will God reward, if I die for a creed,
78Or will He but pity, and sow more seed?
79Surely He pities who made the brain,
80   When breaks that mirror of memories sweet,
81When the hard blow falleth, and never again
82   Nerve shall quiver nor pulse shall beat;
83Bitter the vision of vanishing joys;
84Surely He pities when man destroys.
85Here stand I on the ocean's brink,
86   Who hath brought news of the further shore?
87How shall I cross it? Sail or sink,
88   One thing is sure, I return no more;
89Shall I find haven, or aye shall I be
90Tossed in the depths of a shoreless sea?
91They tell fair tales of a far-off land,
92   Of love rekindled, of forms renewed;
93There may I only touch one hand
94   Here life's ruin will little be rued;
95But the hand I have pressed and the voice I have heard,
96To lose them for ever, and all for a word?
97Now do I feel that my heart must break
98   All for one glimpse of a woman's face;
99Swiftly the slumbering memories wake
100   Odour and shadow of hour and place;
101One bright ray through the darkening past
102Leaps from the lamp as it brightens last,
103Showing me summer in western land
104   Now, as the cool breeze murmureth
105In leaf and flower -- And here I stand
106   In this plain all bare save the shadow of death;
107Leaving my life in its full noonday,
108And no one to know why I flung it away.
109Why? Am I bidding for glory's roll?
110   I shall be murdered and clean forgot;
111Is it a bargain to save my soul?
112   God, whom I trust in, bargains not;
113Yet for the honour of English race,
114May I not live or endure disgrace.
115Ay, but the word, if I could have said it,
116   I by no terrors of hell perplext;
117Hard to be silent and have no credit
118   From man in this world, or reward in the next;
119None to bear witness and reckon the cost
120Of the name that is saved by the life that is lost.
121I must be gone to the crowd untold
122   Of men by the cause which they served unknown,
123Who moulder in myriad graves of old;
124   Never a story and never a stone
125Tells of the martyrs who die like me,
126Just for the pride of the old countree.


1] MORITURUS LOQUITUR: "we who are about to die speak."
In 1857 Lyall came under fire and fought against rebels in the Mutiny near Meerut. Back to Line
43] bullock: young steer. Back to Line
58] muckle: much. Back to Line
72] woof: threads or yarn. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 2001