James Brunton Stephens
A Lost Chance
[It is stated that a shepherd, who had for many years grazed his flocks in
a district in which a rich tin-mining town in Queensland now stands, went
mad on learning of the great discoveries made there.]
Just to miss it by a hair's breadth! Nay, not miss it! To have held it
In my hand, and ofttimes through my fingers run the swarthy ore!
Minus only the poor trick of Art or Science that compelled it
To unveil for others' good the hidden value, and to pour
On a thousand hearts the light of Hope, that shines for me no more!
To have held it in my hand in vacant listlessness of wonder,
Taken with its dusky lustre, all incurious of its worth—
To have trod for years upon it, I above, and Fortune under—
To have scattered it a thousand times like seed upon the earth!
Who shall say I am not justified who curse my day of birth?
To have built my hovel o'er it—to have dreamed above it nightly—
Pillowed on the weal of thousand lives, and dead unto my own!
Planning paltry profits wrung from year-long toil, and holding lightly
What lay acres wide around me, naked-bright, or grass-o'ergrown—
Holding lightly—and for that I curse—no, not myself alone!
For a youth made vain with riot, for the golden graces squandered,
Home forsaken, dear ones alienated, Love itself aggrieved,
I had sworn a full atonement, to the ends of earth had wandered,
Drunk the dregs of expiation, unbelauded, unperceived—
Heav'n alone beheld, and—mocks me with what “might have been” achieved!
All the cold suspicion of the world I took for my demerit,
Its deceit my retribution, its malignity my meed:
When Misfortune smote, unmurmuring I bowed my head to bear it,
Driven to minister to brutes in my extremity of need—
Who shall say now it delights not Heaven to break the bruised reed?
In the round of conscious being, from the rising to the setting
Of Thine imaged self, Thy merciless, unsympathizing Sun,
Was there one from hard Disaster's hand so piteously shrinking
Whom this boon had more advantaged? God, I ask Thee, was there one?
In Thy passionless immunity, Thou knowest there was none!
To the wrongs the world hath wrought me, to its coldness and disfavour,
To the wreck of every venture, to enduring unsuccess,
To the sweat of cheerless toil, the bread made bitter with the savour
Of the leaven of regret and tears of unforgetfulness,
Hadst Thou need to add Thy mockery, to perfect my distress?
For I hold it cruel mockery in man, or God, or devil,
To assign the poor his blindfold lot from weary day to day,
In the very lap of Affluence, on Fortune's highest level,
Then, upon the brink of revelation, trick his steps away,
And flash the truth upon him when the chance is gone for aye!
I had soothed repulse with hope, matched disappointment with defiance,
Or opposed a pliant meekness to the driving storms of Fate:
But—the merely “coming short!” Oh, what remedial appliance,
What demeanour of resistance shall have virtue to abate
The nameless woe that trembles in the echo of Too Late!
Oh, the might have been! the might have been! the sting of it! the madness!
What a wave of the Inexorable chokes my fitful breath!
What a rush of olden echoes voiced with manysounding sadness!
What a throng of new despairs that drive me down the path of death!
Who is there in heaven who careth? Who on earth who comforteth?
They on earth but seek their own. In eager crowds they hasten thither
Where I trod so late unconscious on futurities untold.
And I! I, whose all is gone! The curse of desolation wither—
Whom? - Myself, who, year-worn, turn again unto the sin of old?
Or the fiends who sold me poison for my little all of gold?
Both! All men! Yea, Heaven! But chiefly those who prosper where I languished!
Those who reap the ripe occasion, where in many a wandering line
The old traces of my footsteps, worn in fevered moods and anguished,
Now are paths of rich expectancy for other feet than mine!
Can I breathe without upbraiding? Shall I die without a sign?
It was mine! Is mine, by Heaven! Consecrated to me only,
By the sacred right of service, by the pledge of weary years!
By the bond of silent witness, by communion dumb and lonely,
By the seal of many sorrows, by the sacrament of tears!
Mine!—The echoes laugh, and fiends of hell are answering with jeers.
* * * * *
Where am I? and who are these?—Nay, nay. Unhand me! Let me go, sirs!
I am very very rich! I've miles on miles of priceless ore!
I will make your fortunes—all of you!—and I would have you know, sirs—
There is not a single sheep amissing—Loose me, I implore!
It is only sleep that ails me—let me sleep—for evermore!
James Brunton Stephens's Other Poems
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