Muriel Stuart (1889-1967 / England)
Christ at Carnival
THE hand of carnival was at my door,
I listened to its knocking, and sped down:
Faith was forgotten, Duty led no more:
I heard a wonton revelry in the town;
The Carnival ran in my veins like fire!
And some unfrustrable desire
Goaded me on to catch the roses thrown
From breast to breast, and with my own
Fugitive kiss to snatch the fugitive kiss;
I broke all faith for this
One wild and worthless hour,
To dance, to run, to beckon, as a flower
Maddens the bee with half-surrendering,
Then flies back in the air with petals shut.
Fainting with laughter and pursuit
I heard shrill winds leap out and sink again,
Tracking the green bed where the Spring hath lain,
And vanished from, whose feet made audible
Music among the tall trees on the hill.
Above me leaned a nightingale
Burdened and big with song, whose throat let fall
Long notes, so poignant and so musical,
I deemed his young mate, listening,
Heard him less passionately sing
Than I a-foot at Carnival!
Above the town, swart Night came rolling in
Upon her couch of heliotrope:
A new Moon, young and thin,
Lay like a Columbine
Teasing the spent hill, her old Harlequin,
She, who of late waned on the bitter sky,
Furtive and old, a woman without hope,
Begging in long-familiar streets, where Sin
Once seeking her, now shuddered and went by.
Caught in the meshes of a merry throng,
I stumbled through the lighted Market Place;
The lanterns swung an undetermined rose
In Night's convulsive face
As we were swept along
In crazy dance and song,--
On through the mirth-mad alleys of the town,
With shrill loud laughter tumbled roughly down,
Whirled up in swift embrace.
All, all went swinging, swaying in the revel,
Laughing and reeling, kissing each and all--
A crowd that wildest jesting did dishevel--
O mad night of Carnival!
Racing along the last mean street that goes
From house to house to find the mountain track,
I loosed their hands to catch a rose
Flung from some casement; swiftly they turned back
With gusty laughter their wild mates to greet,
Swift as the footless wind along the wheat!
Fainter and fainter grew their revelling,
Deserted of a sudden, lay the street,
Silence fell on me like a famished thing,
Making my soul aware of one who stood
Beside me--one who wore a monkish hood.
I stared, as one who sees
Beneath the thin and settled sheet
Over still mysteries
Faint outline of belovèd hands and feet,
Too little loved and now too dead to care,
And suddenly becomes aware
That more than Death lies there,
That from this piteous and submissive change
Something has risen, terrible and strange.
Why fell my roses? What fear drove me, then,
To question him: "Who art thou, citizen?
Fainter and fainter grows the Carnival.
Wilt thou lock hands and turn with me again?"
He answered not, but let the hood half-fall,
Showing a thorn-plait on a forehead marred;
Trembling I cried: "Who art thou, Lord?"
"As thou sayest, I am He!
How long upn my cross am I to bleed
For thee still to deny me utterly?
Is not the hour yet come that I be freed,
How long am I to listen at thy door?"
Stricken in soul, I fell against his feet,
In rose-disorderd street,
Weeping: "I have not heard Thy foot before."
He answered: "He who hears
Loud noise of Carnival about his ears,
How shall he heed the foot with silence shod,
Or listen for the small still voice of God?
What is thy life?
Is thy sword stained in any splended strife?
Hast thou, in all thy safe, unshaken years,
Once thrown thyself upon Night's ambushed spears,
Or broken with thy tears
Thy heart against the Dawn's feet any day?
Hast thou spurned
Any earthly perishable sweet thing
To bear another's burden? Hast thou learned
At any knee but Folly's, trafficing
With every sweet delight that said thee 'yea'?
Oft hast thy goaded men to kiss thy mouth,
The flower of thy youth
Thou hast rendered up to any wind that's fleet,
But hast thou ever hastened to the Cross
To kiss My saving feet?"
"Thou knowest, Lord, thou knowest, I have not striven,
I made life easy, profitable, sweet,
I have not loved much or been much forgiven;
Of all a woman's vows the holiest--
To children that were posies at my breast--
I have forsworn, to-night, forsaking all
The ways of God to dance at Carnival.
What have I now to offer Thee Who deignest
To seek for grape on such unfruitful vine;
Who with such sinful head Thy bosom stainest!"
He said: "The last allegiance will be Mine,
Leave all and follow Me."
"Nay but my little children sleep at home
Beside their father, I would say good-bye."
He answered: "Was there any time for Me
To make My farewells in Gethsemane,
Or any lips to take last kisses from?
Knowest thou not that I can satisfy
All creatures I make Mine, shall I not be
Thy priest, blessing for thee the common bread,
Till the white flesh divine
Quicken against thy lip, and hallowèd,
The blood beat through the wine?
I would have all thou hast,
Be all thou art,
I would claim all thy present, future, past,
For My dispisèd heart;
For Me thou shalt all other creatures hate,
My seven wounds thou shalt assuage
With mouth inviolate."
"O pardoning love," I wept, "O love divine,
That such as thou shouldst ask of such!--
I am Thine, all Thine,
Casting here at Thy feet, despisèd Thou,
All other loves that used to mean so much,
All other hopes that mean so little now."
From a side-alley dumb to revelry,
Came the low sound of weeping, then my name:
A beggar came
Out of the heaving dark and spake to me:
"How knowest thou Christ?" I answered: "By the thorn";
"Nay, but the thorn tree grows in every wood
For any brow forsworn!"
The other whispered: "Thou art tempted here
For my sake," but the beggar's voice came fleet
As pain: "Three crosses did that hillside bear,
Not Christ alone hath wounded hands and feet;
Dost thou believe
That every pierced hand stretched to thee is Christ?
Shall not some thief inpenitent deceive,
At some strange shrine wilt thou be sacrificed?"
The other whispered: "Shall thy faith be led
So soon a traitor, child? For such as he
Trample me every day." The beggar said:
"Nay, wast thou spit upon in Galilee?"
Wildly I cried: "Oh, from this hallowed street
Go thy way, beggar, take thine apostate feet
From this poor temple on whose pinnacle
Christ in His Love doth not disdain to dwell,
Who doth confer
Glory on things inglorious, nor doth shun,
But bids an angel to Him minister,
Albeit a fallen one;
And if thou canst not pray,
Leave me my prayer at least and go thy way!"
Swift were Christ's feet the mountain road along;
A swift as they my soul beside them fled,
Keeping fleet measure to the strong
Unshatterable music of His words,
That in my hard heart made
Exquisite wounds that sang the while they bled,
Like little tamèd birds;
"O Holy One, I break here at Thy feet
The perfume of my soul like Magdalen's sweet
Spilled ointment; knewest Thou who gatherèd
Those holy spices? What dishevelled night,
What lust, profaning every temple-rite
To toss the gold of her sweet shameless head,
Had eased from priestly hands the spikenard
That made her soiled garments smell of God?
Thou did accept that sweetness when she kneeled,--
That holy myrrh, spilled from the soul and shard!
Nor didst disdain by her to be unshod,
Nay, Thy world-wounded feet her tresses healed.
"So here I gather sweets of all my life,
Treasure for which sin waged unworthy strife,
Holding as one who guilty pleasure wins--
Yea, even all my sins, my little sins--
My loves and penitences, foes no more
At strife with Thee for me. Oh, bid me pour
My spirit's perfume! I have wept and kissed
Those feet grown weary following what men
Caught up so easily; upon this brow
Be shed the glory of Love's pardon now,
As once the tresses of a Magdalen
became an aureole at the feet of Christ!"
Only the silence shook as we went on;
Soon the last watching window-light was gone;
No least star gleamed,
And trembling-still it seemed,
As if the mountain held its breath
For fear that it should weep;
A stopped stream smelled of Death;
The moon was out, blown by God's breath asleep;
The heavens turned
Plunging and livid, choked with thunder-spume,
Black driven clouds beneath whose eyelids burned
A dreadful light, rushed forward in the gloom;
There was no wind, but something seemed to stir
In the thin grass, as if unquiet head
On sleepless pillow moved--a listener
To hideous word unsaid; until at last
The narrow track was passed.
Below us empty and wide
The world was flung; the hill-top shivered bare,
While fretful lightning dug a viscious spear
Into her sweating side
As she flinched, blind and stark . . .
A thin hail ravened against the door of dark.
Against His feet I trembled, but no word
Of peace or pity heard;
The darkness shook as a dry leaf about,
The world seemed to go out
With a great groan along the sea . . .
Silence . . . then words to me . . .
"Child, what is it thou fearest?"
I stared up: Oh, strange words did that implore! . . .
His brow was no more wounded, and no more
Were the hands, still outstretched to me, pierced.
"Lord, with this vision art thou tempting me,
To show how poor a thing my worship is?
Yet oh, be Christ, be Christ! I have for Thee
Forsaken all my loved, my lovely ones,
As a wild stream breaks from maternal hill,
Escaping the sweet fingers of the sedge
Whose stinging hair doth all his bosom fill,
Listens to some great voice far off, and runs
To find the sea, the calling, crying sea . . .
I ran to Thee!"
Then I heard human accents answering:
"I am a god, made god by all thy prayers;
Wach stone becomes a god by worshipping;
I am a man who loves thee: in thy town
Many have loved thee, I am one of these."
At those few words of horror Faith fell down,
Yet scarcely understood such blasphemies;
"What didst thou need?" I wept, still at his feet;
"Thyself, thou lovely thing!"
"Does thou yet love me as Christ loves albeit
Thou are not He--some message thou dost bring?"
"Nay, but I love thee as a night of Spring!
I saw thee dance to-night at Carnival,
I saw thee laugh, and spurn thy lovers all,
And dreamed, 'No man's desire she will heed,
Her lips are over-sworn and over-kissed,
But she will shurely list
If God but seem to speak, will list indeed.
I will not weave, as other lovers weave,
her garlands, she shall find, and grieve
For the one last thorn found tangled in my hair;
She shall forsake the world, she shall forswear,
Gather the honey of her being sweet
Into a vase of prayer
To break here at my feet.'
Since at the Carnival all men may wear
What guise they will, I chose the holiest;
Yea, when thy voice persuaded: 'Turn again'
I dreamed to woo thee, not as other men--
What faith hadst thou in any reveller?
It seemed thy soul was brimmed for God to stir.
Delight was impotent, and joy was old.
Of Christ I made a travesty of sin,
Thy loveliness to win--
To run my miser fingers through the gold,
The shuddering sweetness of thy rebel hair,
To sense the conflict of refusing lips,
The slow surrender from thy finger tips
Till thou wert all mine, utterly possessed,
Mine as the Moon
Is captive on a night's triumphant breast,
Mine as May's burning bowl is full of June!"
I shrank away, the thin words fell like blood
From my torn lips, I shuddered where I stood,
Muttering: "Christ may come in stranger's guise
To poor men's houses, may go humbly shod,
Begging for broken meats, nor shall despise
Those who give thus, knowing the cloak hides God.
But I and all my soul are sacrificed
To a thief that hath put on the garb of Christ.
Oh, at sin's feet to break my spirit's vase!
Oh, that I dreamed to lie upon His breast
While over me He brake the bread and blessed;--
To feel the mighty stars
Streaming to meet me; to have compassed all,
Reached, overtaken, passed, Eternity,
In one hour's glory, then to fall
To Hell, at least with thee!
Ah God, that Thou couldst let such horror be,
Could let that veritable image HE--
Travesty of Thy Son,
Tear my weak soul in tatters, yea, that Thou
Couldst lead Sin by Thy hand and by Thy brow
To Thy poor foolish helpless little one!"
Then horror laid her hands on me--I fled:
It seemed the world-end could not be too far
For such a fugitive,
Nor ramparts of the outer darkness give
Shelter for such a head.
The hideous night, with lips of a lazar,
With a shrill scream pursued,
Till Dawn in seamless sky a tatter rent
That oozing long lines of blood,
Smearing the grey breast of the firmarment . . .
The whole world closed upon me, o'er my face
Flinging an inescapable black hood.
As one half-drowned may feel above his head
(After all sense of dread,
And desperate fight for breath have died away),
The heavy waters part, and sound and space
And cold sky stare about him, which make melt
Green water-worlds into familiar day.
The light came groping to me, and I felt
The morning on my brow, while over me
An unaccostomed face leaned patiently,
Until it grew to be
The beggar I had scorned at Carnival.
"O Child," the voice of pity spake: "for all
Thy faith, Christ was not in those hands, that brow."
"Nay a thief took my soul, but comest thou
Beggar, to taunt me, as I taunted thee?"
"I come to none to chide or spurn:
I come to plead with thee that thou return
To thy forsaken Christ, rebellious one.
God long hath sat beside thee in the sun,
Thou knowing not." I said: "If thou be He,
Trouble me not, I have nought left to give;
I am drained utterly
Of faith and worship. Can these dead bones live?
What rose shall spread wing from this stricken tree?
All, all is waste and scattered to the wind,
All, all is dead and strangled in the dust!
And no dew lies
In the dead Morning's eyes;
The sheeted Moon, unsepulchred, is thrust
On the bare Night, another tomb to find!
Earth, heaven, have passed away."
"These are built up again." "But not for me."
He answered: "Yea,
Even for such as thou; oh, seek and find!
Go back, thou hast two children in thy house;
Breaking thy holy vows,
Didst think to find thy God in mummeries,
Finding it not with whom Christ said: 'Of these'
A child is but a shell upon Life's shore,
Fragile, rose-kissed, yet holding for thine ears
Raging of seas, and roaring of the spheres.
Thou hadst no need too heavenward to look up,
Thou discontented soul.
Behold Christ's milky mouth in the china cup,
Christ's hand that tips the blue-rimmed porrige bowl!"
"Ah, Lord, can such as I return
To the grey paths of peace--re-live, re-learn?
How can I feel my children's hands like flowers
Anout my face? Assign me grimmer hours,
Not the familiar stair, the to and fro
Of duties slow,
The little, dreadful paths of every day!"
"Am I not broken in the commonest bread,
And spilled in the unconsecrated wine?
Is not each man who loves, a priest,
Albeit men lock Me in a sunless shrine,
Spreading a special feast?
Yet am I outside in the lilac-tree,
beneath their feet, around them everywhere.
Thou canst not chain Christ to a chapel-bell.
From brothels thinkest thou I hear no prayer?
Doth not the choking gutter sing Me well?
Is not the whole sweet world my Sanctuary?
Do they despise My feet, who do but lave
The feet of strangers, in their bosoms nursed?
Am I not fed on orphan's lips, My thirst
Quenched in the beggar's platter? They who save
One shipwrecked soul, or seek some heart forgot,
Are Mine and love Me, though they know it not.
They are too noble for escape of Me:
Their lives more sing Me than a thousand psalms!
They thrust aside My Everlasting Arms,
Yet they are still beneath them--them and thee.
"What need hast thou of vows?
Go back, thou hast two children in thy house."
I went by wood and waste toward the town:
The whole world lay, a quiet emerald
Set in a golden ring
Upon God's finger, against His bosom thralled;
Elusive airs were blown
On elfin horns of Spring;
Through the thin mist pale hawthorn trees peered out
Like a dim, sick face from its frilled cap
Upon infirmary pillow, turned about--
Caught creatures in some vast, predestined trap.
But with each step I took, the morning grew
Gayer and younger, a full-throated thrush
Woke, and from hidden bush
Dimpled a note or two,
Set the wood's side a-shake, as if it knew
Answer to impudent jest; already bees
Sought the dell's bosom all a-heave with blue,
And girdeled with the goldenest primroses.
From every fold
The young lamb's cough came softly down the lane;
The cuckoo told
His first few notes--as miser tells his gold,
And counted them again.
I pased along the unchanged, quiet street,
At my own door unlatched I entered in
Upon an atmosphere that seemed too sweet
For me and all my sin.
I felt no agony of hope or loss,
Treading the old paths that beside me lay;
For me no one great lifting on the Cross,
But small, slow crucifixions every day.
I brought no prayers, I made no conscious vows,
And though it seemed God never could confer
Duty so simle, such a humble faith,
And that no further life my soul could stir,
I went back, meekly, trusting what he saith:
"Go back, thou hast two children in thy house."
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