John Buchan


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(The Song of NEHEMIAH'S Workmen

How many miles to Babylon?
'Three score and ten.
Can I get there by candle-light?
Yes, and back again.
We are come back from Babylon,
Out of the plains and the glare,
To the little hills of our own country
And the sting of our kindred air;
To the rickle of stones on the red rock's edge
Which Kedron cleaves like a sword.
We will build the walls of Zion again,
To the glory of Zion's lord.
Now is no more of dalliance
By the reedy waters in spring,
When we sang of home, and sighed, and dreamed,
And wept on remembering.
Now we are back in our ancient hills
Out of the plains and the sun;
But before we make it a dwelling-place
There's a wonderful lot to be done.
The walls are to build from west to east,
From Gihon to Olivet,
Waters to lead and wells to clear,
And the garden furrows to set.
From the Sheep Gate to the Fish Gate
Is a welter of mire and mess;
And southward over the common lands
'Tis a dragon's wilderness.
The Courts of the Lord are a heap of dust
Where the hill winds whistle and race,
And the noble pillars of God His House
Stand in a ruined place
In the Holy of Holies foxes lair,
And owls and night-birds build.
There's a deal to do ere we patch it anew
As our father Solomon willed.
Now is the day of the ordered life
And the law which all obey.
We toil by rote and speak by note
And never a soul dare stray.
Ever among us a lean old man
Keepeth his watch and ward,
Crying, "The Lord hath set you free:
Prepare ye the way of the Lord."
A goodly task we are called unto,
A task to dream on o' nights,
--Work for Judah and Judah's God,
Setting our lands to rights;
Everything fair and all things square
And straight as a plummet string.
--Is it mortal guile, if once in a while
Our thoughts go wandering?...
We were not slaves in Babylon,
For the gate of our souls lay free,
There in that vast and sunlit land
On the edges of mystery.
Daily we wrought and daily we thought,
And we chafed not at rod and power,
For Sinim, Ssabea, and dusky Hind
Talked to us hour by hour.
The man who lives in Babylon
May poorly sup and fare,
But loves and lures from the ends of the earth
Beckon him everywhere.
Next year he too may have sailed strange seas
And conquered a diadem;
For kings are as common in Babylon
As crows in Bethlehem.
Here we are bound to the common round
In a land which knows not change
Nothing befalleth to stir the blood
Or quicken the heart to range;
Never a hope that we cannot plumb
Or a stranger visage in sight,--
At the most a sleek Samaritan
Or a ragged Amorite.
Here we are sober and staid of soul,
Working beneath the law,
Settled amid our father's dust,
Seeing the hills they saw.
All things fixed and determinate,
Chiselled and squared by rule;
Is it mortal guile once in a while
To try and escape from school?
We will go back to Babylon,
Silently one by one,
Out from the hills and the laggard brooks
To the streams that brim in the sun.
Only a moment, Lord, we crave,
To breathe and listen and see.--
Then we start anew with muscle and thew
To hammer trestles for Thee.

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John Buchan