A Manchester Poem by George MacDonald
‘Tis a poor drizzly morning, dark and sad.
The cloud has fallen, and filled with fold on fold
The chimneyed city; and the smoke is caught,
And spreads diluted in the cloud, and sinks,
A black precipitate, on miry streets.
And faces gray glide through the darkened fog.
Slave engines utter again their ugly growl,
And soon the iron bands and blocks of stone
That prison them to their task, will strain and quiver
Until the city tremble. The clamour of bells,
Importunate, keeps calling pale-faced forms
To gather and feed those Samsons’ groaning strength
With labour; and among the many come
A man and woman-the woman with her gown
Drawn over her head, the man with bended neck
Submissive to the rain. Amid the jar,
And clash, and shudder of the awful force,
They enter and part-each to a different task,
But each a soul of knowledge to brute force,
Working a will through the organized whole
Of cranks and belts and levers, pinions and screws
Wherewith small man has eked his body out,
And made himself a mighty, weary giant.
In labour close they pass the murky day,
‘Mid floating dust of swift-revolving wheels,
And filmy spoil of quick contorted threads,
Which weave a sultry chaos all about;
Until, at length, old darkness, swelling slow
Up from the caves of night to make an end,
Chokes in its tide the clanking of the looms,
The monster-engines, and the flying gear.
‘Tis Earth that draws her curtains, and calls home
Her little ones, and sets her down to nurse
Her tired children-like a mother-ghost
With her neglected darlings in the dark.
So out they walk, with sense of glad release,
And home-to a dreary place! Unfinished walls,
Earth-heaps, and broken bricks, and muddy pools
Lie round it like a rampart against the spring,
The summer, and all sieges of the year.
But, Lo, the dark has opened an eye of fire!
The room reveals a temple, witnessed by signs
Seen in the ancient place! Lo, here is light,
Yea, burning fire, with darkness on its skirts;
Pure water, ready to baptize; and bread;
And in the twilight edges of the light,
A book; and, for the cunning-woven veil,
Their faces-hiding God’s own holiest place!
Even their bed figures the would-be grave
Where One arose triumphant, slept no more!
So at their altar-table they sit down
To eat their Eucharist; for, to the heart
That reads the live will in the dead command,
is the bread, yea, all of every meal.
But as, in weary rest, they silent sit,
They gradually grow aware of light
That overcomes their lamp, and, through the blind,
Casts from the window-frame two shadow-glooms
That make a cross of darkness on the white.
The woman rises, eagerly looks out:
Lo, some fair wind has mown the earth-sprung fog,
And, far aloft, the white exultant moon,
From her blue window, curtained all with white,
Looks greeting them-God’s creatures they and she!
Smiling she turns; he understands the smile:
To-morrow will be fair-as holy, fair!
And lying down, in sleep they die till morn,
While through their night throb low aurora-gleams
Of resurrection and the coming dawn.
They wake: ’tis Sunday. Still the moon is there,
But thin and ghostly-clothed upon with light,
As if, while they were sleeping, she had died.
They dress themselves, like priests, in clean attire,
And, through their lowly door, enter God’s room.
The sun is up, the emblem on his shield.
One side the street, the windows all are moons
To light the other side that lies in shade.
See, down the sun-side, an old woman come
In a red cloak that makes the whole street glad!
A long-belated autumn-flower she seems,
Dazed by the rushing of the new-born life
Up hidden stairs to see the calling sun,
But in her cloak and smile they know the spring,
And haste to meet her through slow dissolving streets
Widening to larger glimmers of growing green.
Oh, far away the streets repel the spring!
Yet every stone in the dull pavement shares
The life that thrills anew the outworn earth,
A right Bethesda angel-for all, not some!
A street unfinished leads them forth at length
Where green fields bask, and hedgerow trees, apart,
Stand waiting in the air as for some good,
And the sky is broad and blue-and there is all!
No peaceful river meditates along
The weary flat to the less level sea!
No forest brown, on pillared stems, its boughs
Meeting in gothic arches, bears aloft
A groined vault, fretted with tremulous leaves!
No mountains lift their snows, and send their brooks
Down babbling with the news of silent things!
But love itself is commonest of all,
And loveliest of all, in all the worlds!
And he that hath not forest, brook, or hill,
Must learn to read aright what commoner books
Unfold before him. If ocean solitudes-
Then darkness dashed with glory, infinite shades,
And misty minglings of the sea and sky.
If only fields-the humble man of heart
Will revel in the grass beneath his foot,
And from the lea lift his glad eye to heaven,
God’s palette, where his careless painter-hand
Sweeps comet-clouds that net the gazing soul;
Streaks endless stairs, and blots half-sculptured blocks;
Curves filmy pallors; heaps huge mountain-crags;
Nor touches where it leaves not beauty’s mark.
To them the sun and air are feast enough,
As through field-paths and lanes they slowly walk;
But sometimes, on the far horizon dim
A veil is lifted, and they spy the hills,
Cloudlike and faint, yet sharp against the sky;
Then wakes an unknown want, which asks and looks
As for some thing forgot-loved long ago,
But on the hither verge of childhood dropt:
‘Tis but home-sickness roused in the soul by Spring!
Fresh birth and eager growth, reviving life,
, fill the world;
The very light is new-born with the grass;
The stones themselves are warm; the brown earth swells,
Filled, sponge-like, with dark beams, which nestle close
And brood unseen and shy, and potent warm
In every little corner, nest, and crack
Where buried lurks a blind and sleepy seed
Waiting the touch of the finger of the sun.
The mossy stems and boughs, where yet no life
Oozes exuberant in brown and green,
Are clad in golden splendours, crossed and lined
With shuttle-shadows weaving lovely change.
Through the tree-tops the west wind rushing goes,
Calling and rousing the dull sap within:
The fine jar down the stem sinks tremulous,
From airy root thrilling to earthy branch.
And though as yet no buddy baby dots
Sparkle the darkness of the hedgerow twigs,
The smoke-dried bark appears to spread and swell
In the soft nurture of the warm light-bath.
The sun had left behind him the keystone
Of his low arch half-way when they turned home,
Filled with pure air, and light, and operant spring:
Back, like the bees, they went to their dark house
To store their innocent spoil in honeyed thought.
But on their way, crossing a field, they chanced
Upon a spot where once had been a home,
And roots of walls still peered out, grown with moss.
‘Twas a dead cottage, mouldered quite, where yet
Lay the old shadow of a vanished care;
The little garden’s blunt, half-blotted map
Was yet discernible by thinner grass
Upon the walks. There, in the midst of dry
Bushes, dead flowers, rampant, uncomely weeds,
A single snowdrop drooped its snowy drop,
The lonely remnant of a family
That in the garden dwelt about the home-
Reviving with the spring when home was gone:
They see; its spiritual counterpart
Wakes up and blossoms white in their meek souls-
A longing, patient, waiting hopefulness,
The snowdrop of the heart; a heavenly child,
That, pale with the earthly cold, hangs its fair head
As it had nought to say ‘gainst any world;
While they in whom it dwells, nor knows itself,
Inherit in their meekness all the worlds.
I love thee, flower, as a slow lingerer
Upon the verge of my humanity.
Lo, on thine inner leaves and in thy heart
The loveliest green, acknowledging the grass-
White-minded memory of lowly friends!
But almost more I love thee for the earth
Which clings to thy transfigured radiancy,
Uplifted with thee from thine abandoned grave;
Say rather the soiling of thy garments pure
Upon thy road into the light and air,
The heaven of thy new birth. Some gentle rain
Will one day wash thee white, and send the earth
Back to the earth; but, sweet friend, while it clings,
I love the cognizance of our family.
With careful hands uprooting it, they bore
The little plant a willing captive home-
Fearless of dark abode, because secure
In its own tale of light. As once of old
The angel of the annunciation shone,
Bearing all heaven into a common house,
It brings in with it field and sky and air.
A pot of mould its one poor tie to earth,
Its heaven an ell of blue ‘twixt chimney-tops,
Its world the priests of that small temple-room,
It takes its prophet-place with fire and book,
Type of primeval spring, whose mighty arc
Hath not yet drawn the summer up the sky.
At night, when the dark shadow of the cross
Will enter, clothed in moonlight, still and wan
Like a pale mourner at its foot the flower
Will, drooping, wait the dawn. Then the dark bird
Which holds breast-caged the secret of the sun,
And therefore hangs himself a prisoner caged,
Will break into its song-Lo, God is light!
Weary and hopeful, to their sleep they go;
And all night long the snowdrop glimmers white
Thinning the dark, unknowing it, and unseen.
Out of my verse I woke, and saw my room,
My precious books, the cherub-forms above,
And rose, and walked abroad, and sought the woods;
And roving odours met me on my way.
I entered Nature’s church, a shimmering vault
Of boughs, and clouded leaves-filmy and pale
Betwixt me and the sun, while at my feet
Their shadows, dark and seeming solid, lay
Like tombstones o’er the vanished flowers of Spring.
The place was silent, save for the broken song
Of some Memnonian, glory-stricken bird
That burst into a carol and was still;
It was not lonely: golden beetles crept,
Green goblins, in the roots; and squirrel things
Ran, wild as cherubs, through the tracery;
And here and yonder a flaky butterfly
Was doubting in the air, scarlet and blue.
But ‘twixt my heart and summer’s perfect grace,
Drove a dividing wedge, and far away
It seemed, like voice heard loud yet far away
By one who, waking half, soon sleeps outright:-
Where was the snowdrop? where the flower of hope?
In me the spring was throbbing; round me lay
Resting fulfilled, the odour-breathing summer!
My heart heaved swelling like a prisoned bud,
And summer crushed it with its weight of light!
Winter is full of stings and sharp reproofs,
Healthsome, not hurtful, but yet hurting sore;
Summer is too complete for growing hearts-
Too idle its noons, its morns too triumphing,
Too full of slumberous dreams its dusky eves;
Autumn is full of ripeness and the grave;
We need a broken season, where the cloud
Is ruffled into glory, and the dark
Falls rainful o’er the sunset; need a world
Whose shadows ever point away from it;
A scheme of cones abrupt, and flattened spheres,
And circles cut, and perfect laws the while
That marvellous imperfection ever points
To higher perfectness than heart can think;
Therefore to us, a flower of harassed Spring,
Crocus, or primrose, or anemone,
Is lovely as was never rosiest rose;
A heath-bell on a waste, lonely and dry,
Says more than lily, stately in breathing white;
A window through a vaulted roof of rain
Lets in a light that comes from farther away,
And, sinking deeper, spreads a finer joy
Than cloudless noon-tide splendorous o’er the world:
Man seeks a better home than Paradise;
Therefore high hope is more than deepest joy,
A disappointment better than a feast,
And the first daisy on a wind-swept lea
Dearer than Eden-groves with rivers four.