Abram Joseph Ryan Poems >>
Fragments From An Epic Poem

A Mystery

His face was sad; some shadow must have hung
Above his soul; its folds, now falling dark,
Now almost bright; but dark or not so dark,
Like cloud upon a mount, 'twas always there --
A shadow; and his face was always sad.

His eyes were changeful; for the gloom of gray
Within them met and blended with the blue,
And when they gazed they seemed almost to dream
They looked beyond you into far-away,
And often drooped; his face was always sad.

His eyes were deep; I often saw them dim,
As if the edges of a cloud of tears
Had gathered there, and only left a mist
That made them moist and kept them ever moist.
He never wept; his face was always sad.

I mean, not many saw him ever weep,
And yet he seemed as one who often wept,
Or always, tears that were too proud to flow
In outer streams, but shrunk within and froze --
Froze down into himself; his face was sad.

And yet sometimes he smiled -- a sudden smile,
As if some far-gone joy came back again,
Surprised his heart, and flashed across his face
A moment like a light through rifts in clouds,
Which falls upon an unforgotten grave;
He rarely laughed; his face was ever sad.

And when he spoke his words were sad as wails,
And strange as stories of an unknown land,
And full of meanings as the sea of moans.
At times he was so still that silence seemed
To sentinel his lips; and not a word
Would leave his heart; his face was strangely sad.

But then at times his speech flowed like a stream --
A deep and dreamy stream through lonely dells
Of lofty mountain-thoughts, and o'er its waves
Hung mysteries of gloom; and in its flow
It rippled on lone shores fair-fringed with flowers,
And deepened as it flowed; his face was sad.

He had his moods of silence and of speech.
I asked him once the reason, and he said:
"When I speak much, my words are only words,
When I speak least, my words are more than words,
When I speak not, I then reveal myself!"
It was his way of saying things -- he spoke
In quaintest riddles; and his face was sad.

And, when he wished, he wove around his words
A nameless spell that marvelously thrilled
The dullest ear.  'Twas strange that he so cold
Could warm the coldest heart; that he so hard
Could soften hardest soul; that he so still
Could rouse the stillest mind:  his face was sad.

He spoke of death as if it were a toy
For thought to play with; and of life he spoke
As of a toy not worth the play of thought;
And of this world he spoke as captives speak
Of prisons where they pine; he spoke of men
As one who found pure gold in each of them.
He spoke of women just as if he dreamed
About his mother; and he spoke of God
As if he walked with Him and knew His heart --
But he was weary, and his face was sad.

He had a weary way in all he did,
As if he dragged a chain, or bore a cross;
And yet the weary went to him for rest.
His heart seemed scarce to know an earthly joy,
And yet the joyless were rejoiced by him.
He seemed to have two selves -- his outer self
Was free to any passer-by, and kind to all,
And gentle as a child's; that outer self
Kept open all its gates, that who so wished
Might enter them and find therein a place;
And many entered; but his face was sad.

The inner self he guarded from approach,
He kept it sealed and sacred as a shrine;
He guarded it with silence and reserve;
Its gates were locked and watched, and none might pass
Beyond the portals; and his face was sad.
But whoso entered there -- and few were they --
So very few -- so very, very few,
They never did forget; they said:  "How strange!"
They murmured still:  "How strange! how strangely strange!"
They went their ways, but wore a lifted look,
And higher meanings came to common words,
And lowly thoughts took on the grandest tones;
And, near or far, they never did forget
The "Shadow and the Shrine"; his face was sad.

He was not young nor old -- yet he was both;
Nor both by turns, but always both at once;
For youth and age commingled in his ways,
His words, his feelings, and his thoughts and acts.
At times the "old man" tottered in his thoughts,
The child played thro' his words; his face was sad.

I one day asked his age; he smiled and said:
"The rose that sleeps upon yon valley's breast,
Just born to-day, is not as young as I;
The moss-robed oak of twice a thousand storms --
An acorn cradled ages long ago --
Is old, in sooth, but not as old as I."
It was his way -- he always answered thus,
But when he did his face was very sad.

    *    *    *    *    *

    Spirit Song

Thou wert once the purest wave
Where the tempests roar;
Thou art now a golden wave
On the golden shore --
  Ever -- ever -- evermore!

Thou wert once the bluest wave
Shadows e'er hung o'er;
Thou art now the brightest wave
On the brightest shore --
  Ever -- ever -- evermore!

Thou wert once the gentlest wave
Ocean ever bore;
Thou art now the fairest wave
On the fairest shore --
  Ever -- ever -- evermore!

Whiter foam than thine, O wave,
Wavelet never wore,
Stainless wave; and now you lave
The far and stormless shore --
  Ever -- ever -- evermore!

Who bade thee go, O bluest wave,
Beyond the tempest's roar?
Who bade thee flow, O fairest wave,
Unto the golden shore,
  Ever -- ever -- evermore?

Who waved a hand, O purest wave?
A hand that blessings bore,
And wafted thee, O whitest wave,
Unto the fairest shore,
  Ever -- ever -- evermore?

Who winged thy way, O holy wave,
In days and days of yore?
And wept the words:  "O winsome wave,
This earth is not thy shore!"
  Ever -- ever -- evermore?

Who gave thee strength, O snowy wave --
The strength a great soul wore --
And said:  "Float up to God! my wave,
His heart shall be thy shore!"
  Ever -- ever -- evermore?

Who said to thee, O poor, weak wave:
"Thy wail shall soon be o'er,
Float on to God, and leave me, wave,
Upon this rugged shore!"
  Ever -- ever -- evermore?

And thou hast reached His feet!  Glad wave,
Dost dream of days of yore?
Dost yearn that we shall meet, pure wave,
Upon the golden shore,
  Ever -- ever -- evermore?

Thou sleepest in the calm, calm wave,
Beyond the wild storm's roar!
I watch amid the storm, bright wave,
Like rock upon the shore;
  Ever -- ever -- evermore!

Sing at the feet of God, white wave,
Song sweet as one of yore!
I would not bring thee back, heart wave,
To break upon this shore,
  Ever -- ever -- evermore!

    *    *    *    *    *

"No, no," he gently spoke:  "You know me not;
My mind is like a temple, dim, vast, lone;
Just like a temple when the priest has gone,
And all the hymns that rolled along the vaults
Are buried deep in silence; when the lights
That flashed on altars died away in dark,
And when the flowers, with all their perfumed breath
And beauteous bloom, lie withered on the shrine.
My mind is like a temple, solemn, still,
Untenanted save by the ghosts of gloom
Which seem to linger in the holy place --
The shadows of the sinners who passed there,
And wept, and spirit-shriven left upon
The marble floor memorials of their tears."

And while he spake, his words sank low and low,
Until they hid themselves in some still depth
He would not open; and his face was sad.

When he spoke thus, his very gentleness
Passed slowly from him, and his look, so mild,
Grew marble cold; a pallor as of death
Whitened his lips, and clouds rose to his eyes,
Dry, rainless clouds, where lightnings seemed to sleep.
His words, as tender as a rose's smile,
Slow-hardened into thorns, but seemed to sting
Himself the most; his brow, at such times, bent
Most lowly down, and wore such look of pain
As though it bore an unseen crown of thorns.
Who knows? perhaps it did!

                            But he would pass
His hand upon his brow, or touch his eyes,
And then the olden gentleness, like light
Which seems transfigured by the touch of dark,
Would tremble on his face, and he would look
More gentle then than ever, and his tone
Would sweeten, like the winds when storms have passed.

I saw him, one day, thus most deeply moved
And darkened; ah! his face was like a tomb
That hid the dust of dead and buried smiles,
But, suddenly, his face flashed like a throne,
And all the smiles arose as from the dead,
And wore the glory of an Easter morn;
And passed beneath the sceptre of a hope
Which came from some far region of his heart,
Came up into his eyes, and reigned a queen.
I marveled much; he answered to my look
With all his own, and wafted me these words:

"There are transitions in the lives of all.
There are transcendent moments when we stand
In Thabor's glory with the chosen three,
And weak with very strength of human love
We fain would build our tabernacles there;
And, Peter-like, for very human joy
We cry aloud:  `'Tis good that we are here;'
Swift are these moments, like the smile of God,
Which glorifies a shadow and is gone.

"And then we stand upon another mount --
Dark, rugged Calvary; and God keeps us there
For awful hours, to make us there His own
In Crucifixion's tortures; 'tis His way.
We wish to cling to Thabor; He says:  `No.'
And what He says is best because most true.
We fain would fly from Calvary; He says:  `No.'
And it is true because it is the best.
And yet, my friend, these two mounts are the same.

"They lie apart, distinct and separate,
And yet -- strange mystery! -- they are the same.
For Calvary is a Thabor in the dark,
And Thabor is a Calvary in the light.
It is the mystery of Holy Christ!
It is the mystery of you and me!
Earth's shadows move, as moves far-heaven's sun,
And, like the shadows of a dial, we
Tell, darkly, in the vale the very hours
The sun tells brightly in the sinless skies.
Dost understand?"  I did not understand --
Or only half; his face was very sad.
"Dost thou not understand me?  Then your life
Is shallow as a brook that brawls along
Between two narrow shores; you never wept --
You never wore great clouds upon your brow
As mountains wear them; and you never wore
Strange glories in your eyes, as sunset skies
Oft wear them; and your lips -- they never sighed
Grand sighs which bear the weight of all the soul;
You never reached your arms a-broad -- a-high --
To grasp far-worlds, or to enclasp the sky.
Life, only life, can understand a life;
Depth, only depth, can understand the deep.
The dewdrop glist'ning on the lily's face
Can never learn the story of the sea."

    *    *    *    *    *

One day we strolled together to the sea.
Gray evening and the night had almost met,
We walked between them, silent, to the shore.
The feet of weird faced waves ran up the beach
Like children in mad play, then back again
As if the spirit of the land pursued;
Then up again -- and farther -- and they flung
White, foamy arms around each other's neck;
Then back again with sudden rush and shout,
As if the sea, their mother, called them home;
Then leaned upon her breast, as if so tired,
But swiftly tore themselves away and rushed
Away, and farther up the beach, and fell
For utter weariness; and loudly sobbed
For strength to rise and flow back to the deep.
But all in vain, for other waves swept on
And trampled them; the sea cried out in grief,
The gray beach laughed and clasped them to the sands.
It was the flood-tide and the even-tide --
Between the evening and the night we walked --
We walked between the billows and the beach,
We walked between the future and the past,
Down to the sea we twain had strolled -- to part.

The shore was low, with just the faintest rise
Of many-colored sands and shreds of shells,
Until about a stone's far throw they met
A fringe of faded grass, with here and there
A pale-green shrub; and farther into land --
Another stone's throw farther -- there were trees --
Tall, dark, wild trees, with intertwining arms,
Each almost touching each, as if they feared
To stand alone and look upon the sea.
The night was in the trees -- the evening on the shore.
We walked between the evening and the night --
Between the trees and tide we silent strolled.
There lies between man's silence and his speech
A shadowy valley, where thro' those who pass
Are never silent, tho' they may not speak;
And yet they more than breathe.  It is the vale
Of wordless sighs, half uttered and half-heard.
It is the vale of the unutterable.
We walked between our silence and our speech,
And sighed between the sunset and the stars,
One hour beside the sea.

                          There was a cloud
Far o'er the reach of waters, hanging low
'Tween sea and sky -- the banner of the storm,
Its edges faintly bright, as if the rays
That fled far down the West had rested there
And slumbered, and had left a dream of light.
Its inner folds were dark -- its central, more.
It did not flutter; there it hung, as calm
As banner in a temple o'er a shrine.
Its shadow only fell upon the sea,
Above the shore the heavens bended blue.
We walked between the cloudless and the cloud,
That hour, beside the sea.

                            But, quick as thought,
There gleamed a sword of wild, terrific light --
Its hilt in heaven, its point hissed in the sea,
Its scabbard in the darkness -- and it tore
The bannered cloud into a thousand shreds,
Then quivered far away, and bent and broke
In flashing fragments;

                      And there came a peal
That shook the mighty sea from shore to shore,
But did not stir a sand-grain on the beach;
Then silence fell, and where the low cloud hung
Clouds darker gathered -- and they proudly waved
Like flags before a battle.

                            We twain walked --
We walked between the lightning's parted gleams,
We walked between the thunders of the skies,
We walked between the wavings of the clouds,
We walked between the tremblings of the sea,
We walked between the stillnesses and roars
Of frightened billows; and we walked between
The coming tempest and the dying calm --
Between the tranquil and the terrible --
That hour beside the sea.

                          There was a rock
Far up the winding beach that jutted in
The sea, and broke the heart of every wave
That struck its breast; not steep enough nor high
To be a cliff, nor yet sufficient rough
To be a crag; a simple, low, lone rock;
Yet not so low as that its brow was laved
By highest tide, yet not sufficient high
To rise beyond the reach of silver spray
That rained up from the waves -- their tears that fell
Upon its face, when they died at its feet.
Around its sides damp seaweed hung in long,
Sad tresses, dripping down into the sea.
A tuft or two of grass did green the rock,
A patch or so of moss; the rest was bare.

Adown the shore we walked 'tween eve and night;
But when we reached the rock the eve and night
Had met; light died; we sat down in the dark
Upon the rock.

                Meantime a thousand clouds
Careered and clashed in air -- a thousand waves
Whirled wildly on in wrath -- a thousand winds
Howled hoarsely on the main, and down the skies
Into the hollow seas the fierce rain rushed,
As if its ev'ry drop were hot with wrath;
And, like a thousand serpents intercoiled,
The lightnings glared and hissed, and hissed and glared,
And all the horror shrank in horror back
Before the maddest peals that ever leaped
Out from the thunder's throat.

                                Within the dark
We silent sat.  No rain fell on the rock,
Nor in on land, nor shore; only on sea
The upper and the lower waters met
In wild delirium, like a thousand hearts
Far parted -- parted long -- which meet to break,
Which rush into each other's arms and break
In terror and in tempests wild of tears.
No rain fell on the rock; but flakes of foam
Swept cold against our faces, where we sat
Between the hush and howling of the winds,
Between the swells and sinking of the waves,
Between the stormy sea and stilly shore,
Between the rushings of the maddened rains,
Between the dark beneath and dark above.

We sat within the dread heart of the night:
One, pale with terror; one, as calm and still
And stern and moveless as the lone, low rock.