Verse > Anthologies > The World’s Best Poetry > Vol. IV. The Higher Life
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Bliss Carman, et al., eds.  The World’s Best Poetry.
Volume IV. The Higher Life.  1904.
 
II. Prayer and Aspiration
Prayer and Repentance
William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
 
From “Hamlet,” Act III. Sc. 3.

  The King.  O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon ’t,
A brother’s murder. Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will:
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent;        5
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. What if this cursèd hand
Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens        10
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offence?
And what ’s in prayer but this twofold force,
To be forestallèd ere we come to fall,
Or pardoned being down? Then I ’ll look up;        15
My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? “Forgive me my foul murder?”
That cannot be: since I am still possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.        20
May one be pardoned and retain the offence?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ’t is seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law: but ’t is not so above;        25
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature; and we ourselves compelled,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence. What then? what rests?
Try what repentance can: what can it not?        30
Yet what can it when one cannot repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limèd soul, that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged! Help, angels! Make assay!
Bow, stubborn knees; and heart with strings of steel,        35
Be soft as sinews of the new-born babe!
All may be well.                [Retires and kneels.]
*        *        *        *        *
  King  (rising).  My words fly up, my thoughts remain below;
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
 
 
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