William Alexander


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Addressed to the Earl of Derby and recited in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford,
at his installation as Chancellor of the University, June 1, 1853.

I had been thinking of the antique masque
Before high peers and peeresses at Court,
Of the strong gracefulness of Milton's task,
‘Rare Ben's’ gigantic sport—
Those delicate creations, full of strange
And perilous stuff, wherein the silver flood
And crownèd city suffer'd human change
Like things of flesh and blood.
And I was longing for a hand like those
Somewhere in bower of learning's fine retreat,
That it might fling immortally one rose
At Stanley's honour'd feet.

Fair as that woman whom the Prophet old
In Ardath
met, lamenting for her dead,
With sackcloth cast above the tiar of gold,
And ashes on her head.
Methought I met a lady yester-even;
A passionless grief, that had nor tear nor wail,
Sat on her pure proud face, that gleam'd to Heav'n,
White as a moonlit sail.
She spake. ‘On this pale brow are looks of youth,
Yet angels, listening on the argent floor,
Know that these lips have been proclaiming truth
Nine hundred years and more.
‘And Isis knows what time-grey towers rear'd up,
Gardens and groves and cloister'd halls are mine,
Where quaff my sons from many a myrrhine cup
Draughts of ambrosial wine.

‘He knows how night by night my lamps are lit,
How day by day my bells are ringing clear,
Mother of ancient lore, and Attic wit,
And discipline severe.
‘It may be long ago my dizzied brain
Enchanted swam beneath Rome's wondrous spell,
Till like light tinctured by the painted pane
Thought in her colours fell.
‘Yet when the great old tongue with strong effect
Woke from its sepulchre across the sea,
The subtler spell of Grecian intellect
Work'd mightily in me.
‘Time pass'd—my groves were full of warlike stirs;
The student's heart was with the merry spears,
Or keeping measure to the clanking spurs
Of Rupert's Cavaliers.

‘All those long ages, like a holy mother,
I rear'd my children to a lore sublime,
Picking up fairer shells than any other
Along the shores of Time.
‘And must I speak at last of sensual sleep,
The dull forgetfulness of aimless years?
Oh, let me turn away my head, and weep
Than Rachel's bitterer tears—
‘Tears for the passionate hearts I might have won,
Tears for the age with which I might have striven,
Tears for a hundred years of work undone,
Crying like blood to Heaven.
‘I have repented—and my glorious name
Stands scutcheon'd round with blazonry more bright.
The wither'd rod, the emblem of my shame,
Bloom'd blossoms in a night.

‘And I have led my children on steep mountains,
By fine attraction of my spirit brought
Up to the dark inexplicable fountains
That are the springs of thought,—
‘Led them, where on the old poetic shore
The flowers that change not with the changing moon
Breathe round young hearts, as breathes the sycamore
About the bees in June.
‘And I will bear them, as on eagle wings,
To leave them bow'd before the sapphire throne,
High o'er the haunts where dying pleasure sings
With sweet and swanlike tone.
‘And I will lead the age's great expansions,
Progressive circles toward thought's Sabbath rest,
And point beyond them to the many mansions
Where Christ is with the blest.

‘Am I not pledged who gave my bridal ring
To that old man heroic, strong, and true,
Whose grey-hair'd virtue was a nobler thing
Than even Waterloo?
‘Surely that spousal morn my chosen ones
Felt their hearts moving to mysterious calls,
And the old pictures of my sainted sons
Look'd brighter from the walls.
‘He sleeps at last—no wind's tempestuous breath
Play'd a dead march upon the moaning billow,
What time God's angel visited with death
The old Field Marshal's pillow.
‘There was no omen of a great disaster
Where castled Walmer stands beside the shore;
The evening clouds, like pillar'd alabaster,
Hung huge and silent o'er.

‘The moon in brightness walk'd the fleecy rack,
Walk'd up and down among the starry fires;
Heaven's great cathedral was not hung with black
Up to its topmost spires.
‘But mine own Isis kept a solemn chiming,
A silver requiescat all night long,
And mine old trees with all their leaves were timing
The sorrow of the song.
‘And through mine angel-haunted aisles of beauty,
From the grand organs gush'd a music dim,
Lauds for a champion who had done his duty,
I knew they were for him!
‘But night is fading—I must deck my hair
For the high pageant of the gladsome morn;
I would not meet my chosen Stanley there
In sorrow, or in scorn.

‘I know him nobler than his noble blood,
Seeking for wisdom as the earth's best pearl,
And bring my brightest jewelry to stud
The baldrick of mine Earl.
‘I, and my children, with our fairest gift,
With song will meet him, and with music's swell:
The coronal a king might love to lift,
It will beseem him well.
‘And when the influx of the perilous fight
Shall be around us as a troubled sea,
He will remember, like a red-cross knight,
God, and this day, and me.’

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