Verse > John Greenleaf Whittier > The Poetical Works in Four Volumes
John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892).  The Poetical Works in Four Volumes.  1892.
Narrative and Legendary Poems
The Chapel of the Hermits
          The incident upon which this poem is based is related in a note to Bernardin Henri Saint Pierre’s Etudes de la Nature.
  “We arrived at the habitation of the Hermits a little before they sat down to their table, and while they were still at church. J. J. Rousseau proposed to me to offer up our devotions. The hermits were reciting the Litanies of Providence, which are remarkably beautiful. After we had addressed our prayers to God, and the hermits were proceeding to the refectory, Rousseau said to me, with his heart overflowing, ‘At this moment I experience what is said in the gospel: Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. There is here a feeling of peace and happiness which penetrates the soul.’ I said, ‘If Fénelon had lived, you would have been a Catholic.’ He exclaimed, with tears in his eyes, ‘Oh, if Fénelon were alive, I would struggle to get into his service, even as a lackey!’”
  In my sketch of Saint Pierre, it will be seen that I have somewhat antedated the period of his old age. At that time he was not probably more than fifty. In describing him, I have by no means exaggerated his own history of his mental condition at the period of the story. In the fragmentary Sequel to his Studies of Nature, he thus speaks of himself: “The ingratitude of those of whom I had deserved kindness, unexpected family misfortunes, the total loss of my small patrimony through enterprises solely undertaken for the benefit of my country, the debts under which I lay oppressed, the blasting of all my hopes,—these combined calamities made dreadful inroads upon my health and reason…. I found it impossible to continue in a room where there was company, especially if the doors were shut. I could not even cross an alley in a public garden, if several persons had got together in it. When alone, my malady subsided. I felt myself likewise at ease in places where I saw children only. At the sight of any one walking up to the place where I was, I felt my whole frame agitated, and retired. I often said to myself, ‘My sole study has been to merit well of mankind; why do I fear them?’”
  He attributes his improved health of mind and body to the counsels of his friend, J.J. Rousseau. “I renounced,” says he, “my books. I threw my eyes upon the works of nature, which spake to all my senses a language which neither time nor nations have it in their power to alter. Thenceforth my histories and my journals were the herbage of the fields and meadows. My thoughts did not go forth painfully after them, as in the case of human systems; but their thoughts, under a thousand engaging forms, quietly sought me. In these I studied, without effort, the laws of that Universal Wisdom which had surrounded me from the cradle, but on which heretofore I had bestowed little attention.”
  Speaking of Rousseau, he says: “I derived inexpressible satisfaction from his society. What I prized still more than his genius was his probity. He was one of the few literary characters, tried in the furnace of affliction, to whom you could, with perfect security, confide your most secret thoughts…. Even when he deviated, and became the victim of himself or of others, he could forget his own misery in devotion to the welfare of mankind. He was uniformly the advocate of the miserable. There might be inscribed on his tomb these affecting words from that Book of which he carried always about him some select passages, during the last years of his life: His sins, which are many, are forgiven, for he loved much.”

“I DO believe, and yet, in grief,
I pray for help to unbelief;
For needful strength aside to lay
The daily cumberings of my way.
“I ’m sick at heart of craft and cant,        5
Sick of the crazed enthusiast’s rant,
Profession’s smooth hypocrisies,
And creeds of iron, and lives of ease.
“I ponder o’er the sacred word,
I read the record of our Lord;        10
And, weak and troubled, envy them
Who touched His seamless garment’s hem;
“Who saw the tears of love He wept
Above the grave where Lazarus slept;
And heard, amidst the shadows dim        15
Of Olivet, His evening hymn.
“How blessed the swineherd’s low estate,
The beggar crouching at the gate,
The leper loathly and abhorred,
Whose eyes of flesh beheld the Lord!        20
“O sacred soil His sandals pressed!
Sweet fountains of His noonday rest!
O light and air of Palestine,
Impregnate with His life divine!
“Oh, bear me thither! Let me look        25
On Siloa’s pool, and Kedron’s brook;
Kneel at Gethsemane, and by
Gennesaret walk, before I die!
“Methinks this cold and northern night
Would melt before that Orient light;        30
And, wet by Hermon’s dew and rain,
My childhood’s faith revive again!”
So spake my friend, one autumn day,
Where the still river slid away
Beneath us, and above the brown        35
Red curtains of the woods shut down.
Then said I,—for I could not brook
The mute appealing of his look,—
“I, too, am weak, and faith is small,
And blindness happeneth unto all.        40
“Yet, sometimes glimpses on my sight,
Through present wrong, the eternal right;
And, step by step, since time began,
I see the steady gain of man;
“That all of good the past hath had        45
Remains to make our own time glad,
Our common daily life divine,
And every land a Palestine.
“Thou weariest of thy present state;
What gain to thee time’s holiest date?        50
The doubter now perchance had been
As High Priest or as Pilate then!
“What thought Chorazin’s scribes? What faith
In Him had Nain and Nazareth?
Of the few followers whom He led        55
One sold Him,—all forsook and fled.
“O friend! we need nor rock nor sand,
Nor storied stream of Morning-Land;
The heavens are glassed in Merrimac,—
What more could Jordan render back?        60
“We lack but open eye and ear
To find the Orient’s marvels here;
The still small voice in autumn’s hush,
Yon maple wood the burning bush.
“For still the new transcends the old,        65
In signs and tokens manifold;
Slaves rise up men; the olive waves,
With roots deep set in battle graves!
“Through the harsh noises of our day
A low, sweet prelude finds its way;        70
Through clouds of doubt, and creeds of fear,
A light is breaking, calm and clear.
“That song of Love, now low and far,
Erelong shall swell from star to star!
That light, the breaking day, which tips        75
The golden-spired Apocalypse!”
Then, when my good friend shook his head,
And, sighing, sadly smiled, I said:
“Thou mind’st me of a story told
In rare Bernardin’s leaves of gold.”        80
And while the slanted sunbeams wove
The shadows of the frost-stained grove,
And, picturing all, the river ran
O’er cloud and wood, I thus began:—
*        *        *        *        *
In Mount Valerien’s chestnut wood        85
The Chapel of the Hermits stood;
And thither, at the close of day,
Came two old pilgrims, worn and gray.
One, whose impetuous youth defied
The storms of Baikal’s wintry side,        90
And mused and dreamed where tropic day
Flamed o’er his lost Virginia’s bay.
His simple tale of love and woe
All hearts had melted, high or low;—
A blissful pain, a sweet distress,        95
Immortal in its tenderness.
Yet, while above his charmëd page
Beat quick the young heart of his age,
He walked amidst the crowd unknown,
A sorrowing old man, strange and lone.        100
A homeless, troubled age,—the gray
Pale setting of a weary day;
Too dull his ear for voice of praise,
Too sadly worn his brow for bays.
Pride, lust of power and glory, slept;        105
Yet still his heart its young dream kept,
And, wandering like the deluge-dove,
Still sought the resting-place of love.
And, mateless, childless, envied more
The peasant’s welcome from his door        110
By smiling eyes at eventide,
Than kingly gifts or lettered pride.
Until, in place of wife and child,
All-pitying Nature on him smiled,
And gave to him the golden keys        115
To all her inmost sanctities.
Mild Druid of her wood-paths dim!
She laid her great heart bare to him,
Its loves and sweet accords;—he saw
The beauty of her perfect law.        120
The language of her signs he knew,
What notes her cloudy clarion blew;
The rhythm of autumn’s forest dyes,
The hymn of sunset’s painted skies.
And thus he seemed to hear the song        125
Which swept, of old, the stars along;
And to his eyes the earth once more
Its fresh and primal beauty wore.
Who sought with him, from summer air,
And field and wood, a balm for care;        130
And bathed in light of sunset skies
His tortured nerves and weary eyes?
His fame on all the winds had flown;
His words had shaken crypt and throne;
Like fire, on camp and court and cell        135
They dropped, and kindled as they fell.
Beneath the pomps of state, below
The mitred juggler’s masque and show,
A prophecy, a vague hope, ran
His burning thought from man to man.        140
For peace or rest too well he saw
The fraud of priests, the wrong of law,
And felt how hard, between the two,
Their breath of pain the millions drew.
A prophet-utterance, strong and wild,        145
The weakness of an unweaned child,
A sun-bright hope for human-kind,
And self-despair, in him combined.
He loathed the false, yet lived not true
To half the glorious truths he knew;        150
The doubt, the discord, and the sin,
He mourned without, he felt within.
Untrod by him the path he showed,
Sweet pictures on his easel glowed
Of simple faith, and loves of home,        155
And virtue’s golden days to come.
But weakness, shame, and folly made
The foil to all his pen portrayed;
Still, where his dreamy splendors shone,
The shadow of himself was thrown.        160
Lord, what is man, whose thought, at times,
Up to Thy sevenfold brightness climbs,
While still his grosser instinct clings
To earth, like other creeping things!
So rich in words, in acts so mean;        165
So high, so low; chance-swung between
The foulness of the penal pit
And Truth’s clear sky, millennium-lit!
Vain, pride of star-lent genius!—vain,
Quick fancy and creative brain,        170
Unblest by prayerful sacrifice,
Absurdly great, or weakly wise!
Midst yearnings for a truer life,
Without were fears, within was strife;
And still his wayward act denied        175
The perfect good for which he sighed.
The love he sent forth void returned;
The fame that crowned him scorched and burned,
Burning, yet cold and drear and lone,—
A fire-mount in a frozen zone!        180
Like that the gray-haired sea-king passed, 1
Seen southward from his sleety mast,
About whose brows of changeless frost
A wreath of flame the wild winds tossed.
Far round the mournful beauty played        185
Of lambent light and purple shade,
Lost on the fixed and dumb despair
Of frozen earth and sea and air!
A man apart, unknown, unloved
By those whose wrongs his soul had moved,        190
He bore the ban of Church and State,
The good man’s fear, the bigot’s hate!
Forth from the city’s noise and throng,
Its pomp and shame, its sin and wrong,
The twain that summer day had strayed        195
To Mount Valerien’s chestnut shade.
To them the green fields and the wood
Lent something of their quietude,
And golden-tinted sunset seemed
Prophetical of all they dreamed.        200
The hermits from their simple cares
The bell was calling home to prayers,
And, listening to its sound, the twain
Seemed lapped in childhood’s trust again.
Wide open stood the chapel door;        205
A sweet old music, swelling o’er
Low prayerful murmurs, issued thence,—
The Litanies of Providence!
Then Rousseau spake: “Where two or three
In His name meet, He there will be!”        210
And then, in silence, on their knees
They sank beneath the chestnut-trees.
As to the blind returning light,
As daybreak to the Arctic night,
Old faith revived; the doubts of years        215
Dissolved in reverential tears.
That gush of feeling overpast,
“Ah me!” Bernardin sighed at last,
“I would thy bitterest foes could see
Thy heart as it is seen of me!        220
“No church of God hast thou denied;
Thou hast but spurned in scorn aside
A bare and hollow counterfeit,
Profaning the pure name of it!
“With dry dead moss and marish weeds        225
His fire the western herdsman feeds,
And greener from the ashen plain
The sweet spring grasses rise again.
“Nor thunder-peal nor mighty wind
Disturb the solid sky behind;        230
And through the cloud the red bolt rends
The calm, still smile of Heaven descends!
“Thus through the world, like bolt and blast,
And scourging fire, thy words have passed.
Clouds break,—the steadfast heavens remain;        235
Weeds burn,—the ashes feed the grain!
“But whoso strives with wrong may find
Its touch pollute, its darkness blind;
And learn, as latent fraud is shown
In others’ faith, to doubt his own.        240
“With dream and falsehood, simple trust
And pious hope we tread in dust;
Lost the calm faith in goodness,—lost
The baptism of the Pentecost!
“Alas!—the blows for error meant        245
Too oft on truth itself are spent,
As through the false and vile and base
Looks forth her sad, rebuking face.
“Not ours the Theban’s charmëd life;
We come not scathless from the strife!        250
The Python’s coil about us clings,
The trampled Hydra bites and stings!
“Meanwhile, the sport of seeming chance,
The plastic shapes of circumstance,
What might have been we fondly guess,        255
If earlier born, or tempted less.
“And thou, in these wild, troubled days,
Misjudged alike in blame and praise,
Unsought and undeserved the same
The skeptic’s praise, the bigot’s blame;—        260
“I cannot doubt, if thou hadst been
Among the highly favored men
Who walked on earth with Fénelon,
He would have owned thee as his son;
“And, bright with wings of cherubim        265
Visibly waving over him,
Seen through his life, the Church had seemed
All that its old confessors dreamed.”
“I would have been,” Jean Jaques replied,
“The humblest servant at his side,        270
Obscure, unknown, content to see
How beautiful man’s life may be!
“Oh, more than thrice-blest relic, more
Than solemn rite or sacred lore,
The holy life of one who trod        275
The foot-marks of the Christ of God!
“Amidst a blinded world he saw
The oneness of the Dual law;
That Heaven’s sweet peace on Earth began,
And God was loved through love of man.        280
“He lived the Truth which reconciled
The strong man Reason, Faith the child;
In him belief and act were one,
The homilies of duty done!”
So speaking, through the twilight gray        285
The two old pilgrims went their way.
What seeds of life that day were sown,
The heavenly watchers knew alone.
Time passed, and Autumn came to fold
Green Summer in her brown and gold;        290
Time passed, and Winter’s tears of snow
Dropped on the grave-mound of Rousseau.
“The tree remaineth where it fell,
The pained on earth is pained in hell!”
So priestcraft from its altars cursed        295
The mournful doubts its falsehood nursed.
Ah! well of old the Psalmist prayed,
“Thy hand, not man’s, on me be laid!”
Earth frowns below, Heaven weeps above,
And man is hate, but God is love!        300
No Hermits now the wanderer sees,
Nor chapel with its chestnut-trees;
A morning dream, a tale that ’s told,
The wave of change o’er all has rolled.
Yet lives the lesson of that day;        305
And from its twilight cool and gray
Comes up a low, sad whisper, “Make
The truth thine own, for truth’s own sake.
“Why wait to see in thy brief span
Its perfect flower and fruit in man?        310
No saintly touch can save; no balm
Of healing hath the martyr’s palm.
“Midst soulless forms, and false pretence
Of spiritual pride and pampered sense,
A voice saith, ‘What is that to thee?        315
Be true thyself, and follow Me!’
“In days when throne and altar heard
The wanton’s wish, the bigot’s word,
And pomp of state and ritual show
Scarce hid the loathsome death below,—        320
“Midst fawning priests and courtiers foul,
The losel swarm of crown and cowl,
White-robed walked François Fénelon,
Stainless as Uriel in the sun!
“Yet in his time the stake blazed red,        325
The poor were eaten up like bread:
Men knew him not; his garment’s hem
No healing virtue had for them.
“Alas! no present saint we find;
The white cymar gleams far behind,        330
Revealed in outline vague, sublime,
Through telescopic mists of time!
“Trust not in man with passing breath,
But in the Lord, old Scripture saith;
The truth which saves thou mayst not blend        335
With false professor, faithless friend.
“Search thine own heart. What paineth thee
In others in thyself may be;
All dust is frail, all flesh is weak;
Be thou the true man thou dost seek!        340
Where now with pain thou treadest, trod
The whitest of the saints of God!
To show thee where their feet were set,
The light which led them shineth yet.
“The footprints of the life divine,        345
Which marked their path, remain in thine
And that great Life, transfused in theirs,
Awaits thy faith, thy love, thy prayers!”
A lesson which I well may heed,
A word of fitness to my need;        350
So from that twilight cool and gray
Still saith a voice, or seems to say.
*        *        *        *        *
We rose, and slowly homeward turned,
While down the west the sunset burned;
And, in its light, hill, wood, and tide,        355
And human forms seemed glorified.
The village homes transfigured stood,
And purple bluffs, whose belting wood
Across the waters leaned to hold
The yellow leaves like lamps of gold.        360
Then spake my friend: “Thy words are true;
Forever old, forever new,
These home-seen splendors are the same
Which over Eden’s sunsets came.
“To these bowed heavens let wood and hill        365
Lift voiceless praise and anthem still;
Fall, warm with blessing, over them,
Light of the New Jerusalem!
“Flow on, sweet river, like the stream
Of John’s Apocalyptic dream!        370
This mapled ridge shall Horeb be,
Yon green-banked lake our Galilee!
“Henceforth my heart shall sigh no more
For olden time and holier shore;
God’s love and blessing, then and there,        375
Are now and here and everywhere.”

Note 1. Dr. Hooker, who accompanied Sir James Ross in his expedition of 1841, thus describes the appearance of that unknown land of frost and fire which was seen in latitude 77° south,—a stupendous chain of mountains, the whole mass of which, from its highest point to the ocean, was covered with everlasting snow and ice:—
  “The water and the sky were both as blue, or rather more intensely blue, than I have ever seen them in the tropics, and all the coast was one mass of dazzlingly beautiful peaks of snow, which, when the sun approached the horizon, reflected the most brilliant tints of golden yellow and scarlett; and then, to see the dark cloud of smoke, tinged with flame, rising from the volcano in a perfect unbroken column, one side jet-black, the other giving back the colors of the sun, sometimes turning off at a right angle by some current of wind, and stretching many miles to leeward! This was a sight so surpassing everything that can be imagined, and so heightened by the consciousness that we had penetrated, under the guidance of our commander, into regions far beyond what was ever deemed practicable, that it caused a feeling of awe to steal over us at the consideration of our own comparative insignificance and helplessness, and at the same time an indescribable feeling of the greatness of the Creator in the works of his hand.” [back]

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