The Two Voices

Original Text: 

Poems. 2 vols.  Edward Moxon, 1842.  Vol 2, pp. 116-147.

1A still small voice spake unto me,
2“Thou art so full of misery,
3Were it not better not to be?”
4Then to the still small voice I said;
5“Let me not cast in endless shade
6What is so wonderfully made.”
7To which the voice did urge reply;
8“To-day I saw the dragon-fly
9Come from the wells where he did lie.
10“An inner impulse rent the veil
11Of his old husk: from head to tail
12Came out clear plates of sapphire mail.
13“He dried his wings: like gauze they grew:
14Through crofts and pastures wet with dew
15A living flash of light he flew.”
16I said, “When first the world began,
17Young Nature through five cycles ran,
18And in the sixth she moulded man.
19“She gave him mind, the lordliest
20Proportion, and, above the rest,
21Dominion in the head and breast.”
22Thereto the silent voice replied;
23“Self-blinded are you by your pride:
24Look up through night: the world is wide.
25“This truth within thy mind rehearse,
26That in a boundless universe
27Is boundless better, boundless worse.
28“Think you this mould of hopes and fears
29Could find no statelier than his peers
30In yonder hundred million spheres?”
31It spake, moreover, in my mind:
32“Though thou wert scattered to the wind,
33Yet is there plenty of the kind.”
34Then did my response clearer fall:
35“No compound of this earthly ball
36Is like another, all in all.”
37To which he answered scoffingly;
38“Good soul! suppose I grant it thee,
39Who’ll weep for thy deficiency?
40“Or will one beam be less intense,
41When thy peculiar difference
42Is cancelled in the world of sense?”
43I would have said, “Thou canst not know,”
44But my full heart, that worked below,
45Rained through my sight its overflow.
46Again the voice spake unto me:
47“Thou art so steeped in misery,
48Surely ’twere better not to be.
49“Thine anguish will not let thee sleep,
50Nor any train of reason keep:
51Thou canst not think, but thou wilt weep.”
52I said, “The years with change advance:
53If I make dark my countenance,
54I shut my life from happier chance.
55“Some turn this sickness yet might take,
56E’en yet.” But he: “What drug can make
57A withered palsy cease to shake?”
58I wept, “Though I should die, I know
59That all about the thorn will blow
60In tufts of rosy-tinted snow;
61“And men, through novel spheres of thought
62Still moving after truth long sought,
63Will learn new things when I am not.”
64“Yet,” said the secret voice, “some time,
65Sooner or later, will gray prime
66Make thy grass hoar with early rime.
67“Not less swift souls that yearn for light,
68Rapt after heaven’s starry flight,
69Would sweep the tracts of day and night.
70“Not less the bee would range her cells,
71The furzy prickle fire the dells,
72The foxglove cluster dappled bells.”
73I said that “all the years invent;
74Each month is various to present
75The world with some development.
76“Were this not well, to bide mine hour,
77Though watching from a ruined tower
78How grows the day of human power?”
79“The highest-mounted mind,” he said,
80“Still sees the sacred morning spread
81The silent summit overhead.
82“Will thirty seasons render plain
83Those lonely lights that still remain,
84Just breaking over land and main?
85“Or make that morn, from his cold crown
86And crystal silence creeping down,
87Flood with full daylight glebe and town?
88“Forerun thy peers, thy time, and let
89Thy feet, millenniums hence, be set
90In midst of knowledge, dreamed not yet.
91“Thou hast not gained a real height,
92Nor art thou nearer to the light,
93Because the scale is infinite.
94“’Twere better not to breathe or speak,
95Than cry for strength, remaining weak,
96And seem to find, but still to seek.
97“Moreover, but to seem to find
98Asks what thou lackest, thought resigned,
99A healthy frame, a quiet mind.”
100I said, “When I am gone away,
101‘He dared not tarry,’ men will say,
102Doing dishonour to my clay.”
103“This is more vile,” he made reply,
104“To breathe and loathe, to live and sigh,
105Than once from dread of pain to die.
106“Sick art thou——a divided will
107Still heaping on the fear of ill
108The fear of men, a coward still.
109“Do men love thee? Art thou so bound
110To men, that how thy name may sound
111Will vex thee lying underground?
112“The memory of the withered leaf
113In endless time is scarce more brief
114Than of the garnered Autumn-sheaf.
115“Go, vexed Spirit, sleep in trust;
116The right ear, that is filled with dust,
117Hears little of the false or just.”
118“Hard task, to pluck resolve,” I cried,
119“From emptiness and the waste wide
120Of that abyss, or scornful pride!
121“Nay——rather yet that I could raise
122One hope that warmed me in the days
123While still I yearned for human praise.
124“When, wide in soul and bold of tongue,
125Among the tents I paused and sung,
126The distant battle flashed and rung.
127“I sung the joyful Pæan clear,
128And, sitting, burnished without fear
129The brand, the buckler, and the spear——
130“Waiting to strive a happy strife,
131To war with falsehood to the knife,
132And not to lose the good of life——
133“Some hidden principle to move,
134To put together, part and prove,
135And mete the bounds of hate and love——
136“As far as might be, to carve out
137Free space for every human doubt,
138That the whole mind might orb about——
139“To search through all I felt or saw,
140The springs of life, the depths of awe,
141And reach the law within the law:
142“At least, not rotting like a weed,
143But, having sown some generous seed,
144Fruitful of further thought and deed,
145“To pass, when Life her light withdraws,
146Not void of righteous self-applause,
147Nor in a merely selfish cause——
148“In some good cause, not in mine own,
149To perish, wept for, honoured, known,
150And like a warrior overthrown;
151“Whose eyes are dim with glorious tears,
152When, soiled with noble dust, he hears
153His country’s war-song thrill his ears:
154“Then dying of a mortal stroke,
155What time the foeman’s line is broke,
156And all the war is rolled in smoke.”
157“Yea!” said the voice, “thy dream was good,
158While thou abodest in the bud.
159It was the stirring of the blood.
160“If Nature put not forth her power
161About the opening of the flower,
162Who is it that could live an hour?
163“Then comes the check, the change, the fall.
164Pain rises up, old pleasures pall.
165There is one remedy for all.
166“Yet hadst thou, through enduring pain,
167Linked month to month with such a chain
168Of knitted purport, all were vain.
169“Thou hadst not between death and birth
170Dissolved the riddle of the earth.
171So were thy labour little-worth.
172“That men with knowledge merely played,
173I told thee——hardly nigher made,
174Though scaling slow from grade to grade;
175“Much less this dreamer, deaf and blind,
176Named man, may hope some truth to find,
177That bears relation to the mind.
178“For every worm beneath the moon
179Draws different threads, and late and soon
180Spins, toiling out his own cocoon.
181“Cry, faint not: either Truth is born
182Beyond the polar gleam forlorn,
183Or in the gateways of the morn.
184“Cry, faint not, climb: the summits slope
185Beyond the furthest flights of hope,
186Wrapt in dense cloud from base to cope.
187“Sometimes a little corner shines,
188As over rainy mist inclines
189A gleaming crag with belts of pines.
190“I will go forward, sayest thou,
191I shall not fail to find her now.
192Look up, the fold is on her brow.
193“If straight thy track, or if oblique,
194Thou know’st not. Shadows thou dost strike,
195Embracing cloud, Ixion-like;
196“And owning but a little more
197Than beasts, abidest lame and poor,
198Calling thyself a little lower
199“Than angels. Cease to wail and brawl!
200Why inch by inch to darkness crawl?
201There is one remedy for all.”
202“O dull, one-sided voice,” said I,
203“Wilt thou make everything a lie,
204To flatter me that I may die?
205“I know that age to age succeeds,
206Blowing a noise of tongues and deeds,
207A dust of systems and of creeds.
208“I cannot hide that some have striven,
209Achieving calm, to whom was given
210The joy that mixes man with Heaven:
211“Who, rowing hard against the stream,
212Saw distant gates of Eden gleam,
213And did not dream it was a dream;
214“But heard, by secret transport led,
215Ev’n in the charnels of the dead,
216The murmur of the fountain-head——
217“Which did accomplish their desire,
218Bore and forebore, and did not tire,
219Like Stephen, an unquenched fire.
220“He heeded not reviling tones,
221Nor sold his heart to idle moans,
222Though cursed and scorned, and bruised with stones:
223“But looking upward, full of grace,
224He prayed, and from a happy place
225God’s glory smote him on the face.”
226The sullen answer slid betwixt:
227“Not that the grounds of hope were fixed,
228The elements were kindlier mixed.”
229I said, “I toil beneath the curse,
230But, knowing not the universe,
231I fear to slide from bad to worse.
232“And that, in seeking to undo
233One riddle, and to find the true,
234I knit a hundred others new:
235“Or that this anguish fleeting hence,
236Unmanacled from bonds of sense,
237Be fixed and froz’n to permanence:
238“For I go, weak from suffering here:
239Naked I go, and void of cheer:
240What is it that I may not fear?”
241“Consider well,” the voice replied,
242“His face, that two hours since hath died;
243Wilt thou find passion, pain or pride?
244“Will he obey when one commands?
245Or answer should one press his hands?
246He answers not, nor understands.
247“His palms are folded on his breast:
248There is no other thing expressed
249But long disquiet merged in rest.
250“His lips are very mild and meek:
251Though one should smite him on the cheek,
252And on the mouth, he will not speak.
253“His little daughter, whose sweet face
254He kissed, taking his last embrace,
255Becomes dishonour to her race——
256“His sons grow up that bear his name,
257Some grow to honour, some to shame,——
258But he is chill to praise or blame.
259“He will not hear the north-wind rave,
260Nor, moaning, household shelter crave
261From winter rains that beat his grave.
262“High up the vapours fold and swim:
263About him broods the twilight dim:
264The place he knew forgetteth him.”
265“If all be dark, vague voice,” I said,
266“These things are wrapt in doubt and dread,
267Nor canst thou show the dead are dead.
268“The sap dries up: the plant declines.
269A deeper tale my heart divines.
270Know I not Death? the outward signs?
271“I found him when my years were few;
272A shadow on the graves I knew,
273And darkness in the village yew.
274“From grave to grave the shadow crept:
275In her still place the morning wept:
276Touched by his feet the daisy slept.
277“The simple senses crowned his head:
278‘Omega! thou art Lord,’ they said,
279‘We find no motion in the dead.’
280“Why, if man rot in dreamless ease,
281Should that plain fact, as taught by these,
282Not make him sure that he shall cease?
283“Who forged that other influence,
284That heat of inward evidence,
285By which he doubts against the sense?
286“He owns the fatal gift of eyes,
287That read his spirit blindly wise,
288Not simple as a thing that dies.
289“Here sits he shaping wings to fly:
290His heart forebodes a mystery:
291He names the name Eternity.
292“That type of Perfect in his mind
293In Nature can he nowhere find.
294He sows himself on every wind.
295“He seems to hear a Heavenly Friend,
296And through thick veils to apprehend
297A labour working to an end.
298“The end and the beginning vex
299His reason: many things perplex,
300With motions, checks, and counterchecks.
301“He knows a baseness in his blood
302At such strange war with something good,
303He may not do the thing he would.
304“Heaven opens inward, chasms yawn,
305Vast images in glimmering dawn,
306Half shown, are broken and withdrawn.
307“Ah! sure within him and without,
308Could his dark wisdom find it out,
309There must be answer to his doubt,
310“But thou canst answer not again.
311With thine own weapon art thou slain,
312Or thou wilt answer but in vain.
313“The doubt would rest, I dare not solve.
314In the same circle we revolve.
315Assurance only breeds resolve.”
316As when a billow, blown against,
317Falls back, the voice with which I fenced
318A little ceased, but recommenced.
319“Where wert thou when thy father played
320In his free field, and pastime made,
321A merry boy in sun and shade?
322“A merry boy they called him then,
323He sat upon the knees of men
324In days that never come again.
325“Before the little ducts began
326To feed thy bones with lime, and ran
327Their course, till thou wert also man:
328“Who took a wife, who reared his race,
329Whose wrinkles gathered on his face,
330Whose troubles number with his days:
331“A life of nothings, nothing-worth,
332From that first nothing ere his birth
333To that last nothing under earth!”
334“These words,” I said, “are like the rest,
335No certain clearness, but at best
336A vague suspicion of the breast:
337“But if I grant, thou might’st defend
338The thesis which thy words intend——
339That to begin implies to end;
340“Yet how should I for certain hold,
341Because my memory is so cold,
342That I first was in human mould?
343“I cannot make this matter plain,
344But I would shoot, howe’er in vain,
345A random arrow from the brain.
346“It may be that no life is found,
347Which only to one engine bound
348Falls off, but cycles always round.
349“As old mythologies relate,
350Some draught of Lethe might await
351The slipping through from state to state.
352“As here we find in trances, men
353Forget the dream that happens then,
354Until they fall in trance again.
355“So might we, if our state were such
356As one before, remember much,
357For those two likes might meet and touch.
358“But, if I lapsed from nobler place,
359Some legend of a fallen race
360Alone might hint of my disgrace;
361“Some vague emotion of delight
362In gazing up an Alpine height,
363Some yeaming toward the lamps of night.
364“Or if through lower lives I came——
365Though all experience past became
366Consolidate in mind and frame——
367“I might forget my weaker lot;
368For is not our first year forgot?
369The haunts of memory echo not.
370“And men, whose reason long was blind,
371From cells of madness unconfined,
372Oft lose whole years of darker mind.
373“Much more, if first I floated free,
374As naked essence, must I be
375Incompetent of memory:
376“For memory dealing but with time,
377And he with matter, could she climb
378Beyond her own material prime?
379“Moreover, something is or seems,
380That touches me with mystic gleams,
381Like glimpses of forgotten dreams——
382“Of something felt, like something here;
383Of something done, I know not where;
384Such as no language may declare.”
385The still voice laughed. “I talk,” said he,
386“Not with thy dreams. Suffice it thee
387Thy pain is a reality.”
388“But thou,” said I, “hast missed thy mark,
389Who sought’st to wreck my mortal ark,
390By making all the horizon dark.
391“Why not set forth, if I should do
392This rashness, that which might ensue
393With this old soul in organs new?
394“Whatever crazy sorrow saith,
395No life that breathes with human breath
396Has ever truly longed for death.
397“’Tis life, whereof our nerves are scant,
398Oh life, not death, for which we pant;
399More life, and fuller, that I want.”
400I ceased, and sat as one forlorn.
401Then said the voice, in quiet scorn,
402“Behold, it is the Sabbath morn.”
403And I arose, and I released
404The casement, and the light increased
405With freshness in the dawning east.
406Like softened airs that blowing steal,
407When meres begin to uncongeal,
408The sweet church bells began to peal.
409On to God’s house the people prest.
410Passing the place where each must rest,
411Each entered like a welcome guest.
412One walked between his wife and child,
413With measured footfall firm and mild,
414And now and then he gravely smiled.
415The prudent partner of his blood
416Leaned on him, faithful, gentle, good,
417Wearing the rose of womanhood.
418And in their double love secure,
419The little maiden walked demure,
420Pacing with downward eyelids pure.
421These three made unity so sweet,
422My frozen heart began to beat,
423Remembering its ancient heat.
424I blest them, and they wandered on:
425I spoke, but answer came there none:
426The dull and bitter voice was gone.
427A second voice was at mine ear,
428A little whisper silver-clear,
429A murmur, “Be of better cheer.”
430As from some blissful neighbourhood,
431A notice faintly understood,
432“I see the end, and know the good.”
433A little hint to solace woe,
434A hint, a whisper breathing low,
435“I may not speak of what I know.”
436Like an Æolian harp that wakes
437No certain air, but overtakes
438Far thought with music that it makes:
439Such seemed the whisper at my side:
440“What is it thou knowest, sweet voice?” I cried.
441“A hidden hope,” the voice replied:
442So heavenly-toned, that in that hour
443From out my sullen heart a power
444Broke, like the rainbow from the shower,
445To feel, although no tongue can prove,
446That every cloud, that spreads above
447And veileth love, itself is love.
448And forth into the fields I went,
449And Nature’s living motion lent
450The pulse of hope to discontent.
451I wondered at the bounteous hours,
452The slow result of winter showers:
453You scarce could see the grass for flowers.
454I wondered, while I paced along.
455The woods were filled so full with song,
456There seemed no room for sense of wrong.
458I marvelled how the mind was brought
459To anchor by one gloomy thought;
460And wherefore rather I made choice
461To commune with that barren voice,
462Than him that said, “Rejoice! rejoice!”

Notes

457] Editions prior to 1884 include the following line instead: "So variously seemed all things wrought," Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
1842
RPO poem Editors: 
Marc R Plamondon
RPO Edition: 
2017
Rhyme: 
Form: