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Bliss Carman, et al., eds. The World’s Best Poetry. 1904.

Poems of Sentiment: II. Life

To a Skeleton


  • [The MS. of this poem, which appeared in 1820, was said to have been found in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, in London, near a perfect human skeleton. It was published in the Morning Chronicle. The author was never discovered, although a reward of fifty guineas was offered.]

  • BEHOLD this ruin! ’T was a skull

    Once of ethereal spirit full.

    This narrow cell was Life’s retreat;

    This space was Thought’s mysterious seat.

    What beauteous visions filled this spot!

    What dreams of pleasure long forgot!

    Nor hope, nor joy, nor love, nor fear

    Has left one trace of record here.

    Beneath this moldering canopy

    Once shone the bright and busy eye:

    But start not at the dismal void,—

    If social love that eye employed,

    If with no lawless fire it gleamed,

    But through the dews of kindness beamed,

    That eye shall be forever bright

    When stars and sun are sunk in night.

    Within this hollow cavern hung

    The ready, swift, and tuneful tongue:

    If Falsehood’s honey it disdained,

    And when it could not praise was chained;

    If bold in Virtue’s cause it spoke,

    Yet gentle concord never broke,—

    This silent tongue shall plead for thee

    When Time unveils Eternity!

    Say, did these fingers delve the mine,

    Or with the envied rubies shine?

    To hew the rock, or wear a gem,

    Can little now avail to them;

    But if the page of Truth they sought,

    Or comfort to the mourner brought,

    These hands a richer meed shall claim

    Than all that wait on Wealth and Fame.

    Avails it whether bare or shod

    These feet the paths of duty trod?

    If from the bowers of Ease they fled,

    To seek Affliction’s humble shed;

    If Grandeur’s guilty bribe they spurned,

    And home to Virtue’s cot returned,—

    These feet with angel wings shall vie,

    And tread the palace of the sky!