Robert Jocelyn Alexander

Ishmael

An angel's voice—and lo! on Hagar's ears,
Sitting in Zophar by the well forlorn,
Four words—the future of a life unborn;
Four words—the story of four thousand years!
Here in this West, the land of onward wills,
Our restless history moves, and all things change;
But there they stand unmoved, as is the range
And steadfast front of the eternal hills.
And as the man for ever, so the race,
Wearing about it through the changeless years
The selfsame laughters and the selfsame tears,
The selfsame lights and shadows on the face!

So Ishmael yet can rein his battle steeds
Over the burning stretches vast and wide,
The country from the Red Sea's western side
To where Euphrates moans among his reeds;
Then back and back, o'er miles of desert sand,
Till over-wearied horse and rider rest
Beneath some Pyramid, whose lofty crest
Welcomes them nobly to their mother-land.
Shall there be music for them? any cry?
Yes! Memnon, rousing when the dawn is near,
Shall wake a strain so desolate and drear,
It suits the wanderer's children riding by.
A race not wholly cursed, not wholly blest,
Countless as sands—into the desert vast
Plump after plump of spears before me past,
Seeking, it seem'd in vain, for any rest.
I thought the centuries were rolling back,
And those wild horsemen as they rode apace
Might meet the wandering father of their race,
And comfort Hagar on her lonely track;
And they might come ere the quick evening fell—
Future and past together strangely met,—
And find the mother, and with lips still wet
The boy reviving by that charmèd well.
Round them a space of yellow sand unroll'd
Lies weltering in the evening's purple light—
His heritage and theirs—before the night
Sweeps the red sunlight from that cloth of gold.
Vain fancy; for no thought the poet weaves,
Clothing his figures with a mortal toil,
Can add aught nobler—nay, would rather spoil
The simple truth on God's immortal leaves,
Which, undestroy'd, lives on divinely yet.
For whensoe'er an Ishmael is born,
Then are the lips of Hagar wreath'd in scorn,
And Sarah's bitter heart can not forget.
Its streams shall fail not, for in every clime
Hagars and Ishmaels of years to be,
Lifting up sudden eyes of hope, shall see
The fountain love amid the sands of time;
And God be with them, coming as He came—
Not Isaac's only, but the Lord of all;
Softly on overburden'd hearts shall fall
The music of His universal Name.

Short glimpse of heaven, and brief respite from pain;
For all the future, with its heavy cost
Of progress unattain'd, and blessings lost,
Of tears and triumphs, calls us back again.
Thou shalt not set thy city on a hill,
There to hold festival, and royal state,
Girdled with walls, and buckled with a gate,
And fondly thinking to abide there still,—
Like some grey king, upon his head a crown,
Dreaming in some grey castle, unaware
Of Time's fell feet upon the marble stair,
Stealing right on to shake his greatness down.
Thou, too, art but a mortal! yet thy roof
Is builded up of air, and lit with stars;
Thy pillars are the fluted sunrise bars,
Thy walls of rock are time and tempest-proof.

There thou shalt dwell, in more than kingly power,
Beneath some palm; and when the hills show brown
At even, with the shadows bowing down,
Shalt bow and worship in that holy hour.
Oh, the poor mother that was never wife!
The twice-pathetic anguish of the slave;
Turning away from that she could not save,
Fainting so fast beside the streams of life.

Yet her wild son some earthly blessing wins—
Children, the earnest of a countless race,
With sunrise on the dying archer's face,
Fallen amid his twelve stout Paladins:
And reconciliation, it may be,
When to the silence of Machpelah's cave,
Owning the greatness of the truce death gave,
Isaac and Ishmael came heavily
To lay their father in his rocky bed.
How should they not put all contention by!
He found it such a gentle thing to die—
And there is peace amid the mighty dead.
There let them linger for a little while—
Those brothers sunder'd long and far away,—
Merging in sacred tears, what space they may,
The heavenly laughter and the mocking smile.
So that old story—mingled joy and strife,
Divine and human—through a mist of tears
Speaks to men's hearts across a sea of years,
True as the imperfections of our life.
Bards thou shalt have, importunate to sing
Of gorgeous love, and how the fights were fought;
Bright songs, with no deep undertone of thought—
Rich jewels sparkling round a meaner thing.

Ah! how unlike the melody he found,
The shepherd, when his waves of music broke
Upon the ringing shores of souls, and woke
A twofold poetry of thought, and sound!
Thy minstrels shall pass out into the dark,
The flowers of language change 'neath other skies—
On alien tongues their delicacy dies—
God only stamps a universal mark.
No son of thine, a flush upon his brow,
Shall sink with many sunsets to the West;
No travell'd breezes give him far-off rest,
No virgin waters sing around his prow.
Lay we such triumph by, 'tis none of thine!
Thou drinkest not from any peaceful cup;
When the wild tribes are out, and standards up,
Of blood—blood red, the colour of thy wine:
From distant mountains, from the lone hill ledge,
The Arabs sweep to battle thro' the night,
Their snowy caftans—a fell line of white—
Showing along the swarthy battle edge;
As on that impious day when, neck to neck
In one array 'gainst Israel, were seen
The sons of Moab, with the Hagarene;
Gebal was there, Ammon, and Amalek.

And still the picture darkens, till we see
Only that wondrous contrast, which the pen
Of Paul has set before the eyes of men,—
The offspring of the bondmaid, and the free.
Not thine, O Ishmael, the gain and loss,
The gloom and gleam of type o'er Isaac's race,
That brighten'd on to an immortal Face,
And deepen'd to the shadow of the Cross.

For thee no recompense the ages hold,
No God Incarnate springing from thy line;
On earth no Virgin with a Son Divine;
In heaven no eastern star's prophetic gold.
Oh, ‘wild, not free,’ the slave-born's deepest brand,
Imprison'd in a changeless mould of mind,
With passions shifting like the shifting wind,
And hand still lifted 'gainst the lifted hand.
If less the height of grace, then less the fall,
Less gifted, having wander'd less away.
Thou hast no brightest and no darkest day,
No Bethlehem, no Pilate's judgment-hall.
If, for thy fault, the outcast Hagar trod
Lone paths of grief, how is it not the worst,
The drearest fate, and more than twice accurst
To be the Hagar of the Church of God!
Still Isaac wanders over land and sea,
Stopping betimes with men a little while;
There is unfathom'd sadness in his smile,
As one who looks for what has been to be.

Still, in that thirsty land where it befell
That one for mortal streams who thirsted sore,
But needing the immortal waters more,
Found, Hagar-like, her Lord beside the well;
Oh, still by Sion, and where Jordan runs,
Over against his waterfalls dark gray
The Arabs pitch their nomad tents to-day
Upon the land that knoweth not her sons.
But not for ever—it shall yet be well;
And when this tyranny is overpast,
Deep respite from unquiet find at last
Alike God's Isaac and His Ishmael.
Enough of fret and fever—he is gone;
Long ages since he yielded up his breath;
Why should he live so sadly after death?
Leave him to sleep, and let the world pass on.
Seek not to raise again the broken psalm,
So strangely utter'd to the desert sky;
After quick throbbing, it is sweet to die,
And take a deep exchange of awful calm.
Freely, as one not having aught to hide,
Before his brethren's faces to the last,
Softly and gallantly the wild soul pass'd;
Homelike and hero-like the death he died.

So rest in death's dark tent beyond thy wars,
Where noise of battle doth for ever cease,
Nor earthly weeping break upon thy peace,
Under the brimm'd eyes of the Eastern stars.
Dear is the boon that much oblivion gave;
Not monumental marble for the head,
But kindly gloom around the quiet dead,—
The requiescat of an unknown grave.
And I, upon the wings of thought would bear
Thy body from the noise of busy men,
Into the heart of some untrodden glen,
Far off amid the lustrous mountain air;
There to be buried when the night shall fall,
In Sinai, a bowshot from the crest,
Caught like a child, into its mother's breast—
The bosom of the Hagar of St. Paul.



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