Verse > Anthologies > T. H. Ward, ed. > The English Poets > Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Thomas Humphry Ward, ed.  The English Poets.  1880–1918.
Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
France, December, 1870
By George Meredith (1828–1909)
    WE look for her that sunlike stood
    Upon the forehead of our day,
An orb of nations, radiating food
    For body and for mind alway.
    Where is the Shape of glad array;        5
    The nervous hands, the front of steel,
The clarion tongue? Where is the bold proud face?
        We see a vacant place;
        We hear an iron heel.
    O she that made the brave appeal
    For manhood when our time was dark,
    And from our fetters drove the spark
    Which was as lightning to reveal
    New seasons, with the swifter play
    Of pulses, and benigner day;        15
    She that divinely shook the dead
    From living man; that stretched ahead
    Her resolute forefinger straight,
    And marched toward the gloomy gate
    Of earth’s Untried, gave note, and in        20
    The good name of Humanity
    Called forth the daring vision! she,
    She likewise half corrupt of sin,
    Angel and Wanton! can it be?
    Her star has foundered in eclipse,        25
    The shriek of madness on her lips;
    Shreds of her, and no more, we see.
  There is horrible convulsion, smothered din,
As of one that in a grave-cloth struggles to be free.
        Look not for spreading boughs
        On the riven forest tree.
  Look down where deep in blood and mire
  Black thunder plants his feet and ploughs
  The soil for ruin: that is France:
        Still thrilling like a lyre,        35
  Amazed to shivering discord from a fall
  Sudden as that the lurid hosts recall
  Who met in heaven the irreparable mischance.
        O that is France!
    The brilliant eyes to kindle bliss,        40
    The shrewd quick lips to laugh and kiss,
    Breasts that a sighing world inspire,
    And laughter-dimpled countenance
    Where soul and senses caught desire!
  Ever invoking fire from heaven, the fire
  Has grasped her, unconsumeable, but framed
  For all the ecstasies of suffering dire.
  Mother of Pride, her sanctuary shamed:
  Mother of Delicacy, and made a mark
  For outrage: Mother of Luxury, stripped stark:        50
  Mother of Heroes, bondsmen: thro’ the rains,
  Across her boundaries, lo the league-long chains!
  Fond Mother of her martial youth; they pass,
  Are spectres in her sight, are mown as grass!
  Mother of Honour, and dishonoured: Mother        55
  Of Glory, she condemned to crown with bays
  Her victor, and be fountain of his praise.
  Is there another curse? There is another:
  Compassionate her madness: is she not
  Mother of Reason? she that sees them mown        60
  Like grass, her young ones! Yea, in the low groan
  And under the fixed thunder of this hour
  Which holds the animate world in one foul blot
  Tranced circumambient while relentless Power
  Beaks at her heart and claws her limbs down-thrown,        65
  She, with the plunging lightnings overshot,
  With madness for an armour against pain,
  With milkless breasts for little ones athirst,
  And round her all her noblest dying in vain,
  Mother of Reason is she, trebly cursed,        70
  To feel, to see, to justify the blow;
  Chamber to chamber of her sequent brain
  Gives answer of the cause of her great woe,
  Inexorably echoing thro’ the vaults,
  “’Tis thus they reap in blood, in blood who sow:        75
  “This is the sum of self-absolvëd faults.”
  Doubt not that thro’ her grief, with sight supreme,
  Thro’ her delirium and despair’s last dream,
  Thro’ pride, thro’ bright illusion and the brood
  Bewildering of her various Motherhood,        80
  The high strong light within her, tho’ she bleeds,
  Traces the letters of returned misdeeds.
  She sees what seed long sown, ripened of late,
  Bears this fierce crop; and she discerns her fate
  From origin to agony, and on        85
  As far as the wave washes long and wan
  Off one disastrous impulse: for of waves
  Our life is, and our deeds are pregnant graves
  Blown rolling to the sunset from the dawn.
  Ah, what a dawn of splendour, when her sowers
  Went forth and bent the necks of populations,
  And of their terrors and humiliations
  Wove her the starry wreath that earthward lowers
  Now in the figure of a burning yoke!
  Her legions traversed North and South and East,        95
  Of triumph they enjoyed the glutton’s feast:
  They grafted the green sprig, they lopped the oak.
  They caught by the beard the tempests, by the scalp
  The icy precipices, and clove sheer through
  The heart of horror of the pinnacled Alp,        100
  Emerging not as men whom mortals knew.
  They were the earthquake and the hurricane,
  The lightnings and the locusts, plagues of blight,
  Plagues of the revel: they were Deluge rain,
  And dreaded Conflagration; lawless Might.        105
  Death writes a reeling line along the snows,
  Where under frozen mists they may be tracked,
  Who men and elements provoked to foes,
  And Gods: they were of God and Beast compact:
  Abhorred of all. Yet, how they sucked the teats        110
  Of Carnage, thirsty issue of their dam,
  Whose eagles, angrier than their oriflamme,
  Flushed the vext earth with blood, green earth forgets.
  The gay young generations mask her grief;
  Where bled her children hangs the loaded sheaf.        115
  Forgetful is green earth; the Gods alone
  Remember everlastingly: they strike
  Remorselessly, and ever like for like.
  By their great memories the Gods are known.
  They are with her now, and in her ears, and known.
  ’Tis they that cast her to the dust for Strength,
  Their slave, to feed on her fair body’s length,
  That once the sweetest and the proudest shone;
  Scoring for hideous dismemberment
  Her limbs, as were the anguish-taking breath        125
  Gone out of her in the insufferable descent
  From her high chieftainship; as were she death,
  Who hears a voice of justice, feels the knife
  Of torture, drinks all ignominy of life.
  They are with her, and the painful Gods might weep,        130
  If ever rain of tears came out of heaven
  To flatter Weakness and bid Conscience sleep,
  Viewing the woe of this Immortal, driven
  For the soul’s life to drain the maddening cup
  Of her own children’s blood implacably:        135
  Unsparing even as they to furrow up
  The yellow land to likeness of a sea:
  The bountiful fair land of vine and grain,
  Of wit and grace and ardour, and strong roots,
  Fruits perishable, imperishable fruits;        140
  Furrowed to likeness of the dim grey main
  Behind the black obliterating cyclone.
  Behold, the Gods are with her, and are known.
  Whom they abandon misery persecutes
  No more: them half-eyed apathy may loan        145
  The happiness of pitiable brutes.
  Whom the just Gods abandon have no light,
  No ruthless light of introspective eyes
  That in the midst of misery scrutinize
  The heart and its iniquities outright.        150
  They rest, they smile and rest; have earned perchance
  Of ancient service quiet for a term;
  Quiet of old men dropping to the worm;
  And so goes out the soul. But not of France.
  She cries for grief, and to the Gods she cries,        155
  For fearfully their loosened hands chastize,
  And icily they watch the rod’s caress
  Ravage her flesh from scourges merciless,
  But she, inveterate of brain, discerns
  That Pity has as little place as Joy        160
  Among their roll of gifts; for Strength she yearns,
  For Strength, her idol once, too long her toy.
  Lo, Strength is of the plain root-Virtues born:
  Strength shall ye gain by service, prove in scorn,
  Train by endurance, by devotion shape.        165
  Strength is not won by miracle or rape.
  It is the offspring of the modest years,
  The gift of sire to son, thro’ those firm laws
  Which we name Gods; which are the righteous cause,
  The cause of man, and manhood’s ministers.        170
  Could France accept the fables of her priests,
  Who blest her banners in this game of beasts,
  And now bid hope that heaven will intercede
  To violate its laws in her sore need,
  She would find comfort in their opiates:        175
  Mother of Reason! can she cheat the Fates?
  Would she, the champion of the open mind,
  The Omnipotent’s prime gift—the gift of growth—
  Consent even for a night-time to be blind,
  And sink her soul on the delusive sloth,        180
  For fruits ethereal and material, both,
  In peril of her place among mankind?
  The Mother of the many Laughters might
  Call one poor shade of laughter in the light
  Of her unwavering lamp to mark what things        185
  The world puts faith in, careless of the truth:
  What silly puppet-bodies danced on strings,
  Attached by credence, we appear in sooth,
  Demanding intercession, direct aid,
When the whole tragic tale hangs on a broken blade!        190
  She swung the sword for centuries; in a day
  It slipped her, like a stream cut off from source.
  She struck a feeble hand, and tried to pray,
  Clamoured of treachery, and had recourse
  To drunken outcries in her dream that Force        195
  Needed but hear her shouting to obey.
  Was she not formed to conquer? The bright plumes
  Of crested vanity shed graceful nods:
  Transcendent in her foundries, Arts and looms,
  Had France to fear the vengeance of the Gods?        200
  Her faith was on her battle-roll of names
  Sheathed in the records of old war; with dance
  And song she thrilled her warriors and her dames,
  Embracing her Dishonourer: gave him France
  From head to foot, France present and to come,        205
  So she might hear the trumpet and the drum—
  Bellona and Bacchante! rushing forth
  On yon stout marching Schoolmen of the North.
  Inveterate of brain, well knows she why
  Strength failed her, faithful to himself the first:        210
  Her dream is done, and she can read the sky,
  And she can take into her heart the worst
  Calamity to drug the shameful thought
  Of days that made her as the man she served,
  A name of terror, but a thing unnerved:        215
  Buying the trickster, by the trickster bought,
  She for dominion, he to patch a throne.
    Henceforth of her the Gods are known,
    Open to them her breast is laid.
    Inveterate of brain, heart-valiant,        220
      Never did fairer creature pant
      Before the altar and the blade!
    Swift fall the blows, and men upbraid,
    And friends give echo blunt and cold,
  The echo of the forest to the axe.        225
    Within her are the fires that wax
    For resurrection from the mould.
    She snatched at heaven’s flame of old,
    And kindled nations: she was weak:
  Frail sister of her heroic prototype,        230
    The Man; for sacrifice unripe,
    She too must fill a Vulture’s beak.
    Deride the vanquished, and acclaim
    The conqueror, who stains her fame,
Still the Gods love her, for that of high aim        235
Is this good France, the bleeding thing they stripe.
  She shall rise worthier of her prototype
  Thro’ her abasement deep; the pain that runs
  From nerve to nerve some victory achieves.
  They lie like circle-strewn soaked Autumn-leaves        240
  Which stain the forest scarlet, her fair sons!
  And of their death her life is: of their blood
  From many streams now urging to a flood,
  No more divided, France shall rise afresh.
  Of them she learns the lesson of the flesh:—        245
  The lesson writ in red since first Time ran,
  A hunter hunting down the beast in man:
  That till the chasing out of its last vice,
  The flesh was fashioned but for sacrifice.
  Immortal Mother of a mortal host!        250
  Thou suffering of the wounds that will not slay,
  Wounds that bring death but take not life away!—
  Stand fast and hearken while thy victors boast:
  Hearken, and loathe that music evermore.
  Slip loose thy garments woven of pride and shame:        255
  The torture lurks in them, with them the blame
  Shall pass to leave thee purer than before.
  Undo thy jewels, thinking whence they came,
  For what, and of the abominable name
  Of her who in imperial beauty wore.        260
  O Mother of a fated fleeting host
  Conceived in the past days of sin, and born
  Heirs of disease and arrogance and scorn,
  Surrender, yield the weight of thy great ghost,
  Like wings on air, to what the heavens proclaim        265
  With trumpets from the multitudinous mounds
  Where peace has filled the hearing of thy sons:
  Albeit a pang of dissolution rounds
  Each new discernment of the undying ones.
  Do thou stoop to these graves here scattered wide        270
  Along thy fields, as sunless billows roll;
  These ashes have the lesson for the soul.
  “Die to thy Vanity, and strain thy Pride,
  Strip off thy Luxury: that thou may’st live,
  Die to thyself,” they say, “as we have died        275
  From dear existence, and the foe forgive,
  Nor pray for aught save in our little space
  To warm good seed to greet the fair earth’s face.”
  O Mother! take their counsel, and so shall
  The broader world breathe in on this thy home,        280
  Light clear for thee the counter-changing dome,
  Strength give thee, like an ocean’s vast expanse
  Off mountain cliffs, the generations all,
  Not whirling in their narrow rings of foam,
  But as a river forward. Soaring France!        285
  Now is Humanity on trial in thee:
  Now may’st thou gather humankind in fee:
  Now prove that Reason is a quenchless scroll;
  Make of calamity thine aureole,
  And bleeding lead us thro’ the troubles of the sea.        290

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