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"A Rhapsody of Life's Progress" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The following is the complete text of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "A Rhapsody of Life's Progress." Our presentation of this classic poem comes from The Complete Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1900). To see all available titles by other authors, drop by our index of free books alphabetized by author or arranged alphabetically by title.


Visit these other works by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
"Bertha in the Lane"
"Christmas Gifts"
Short poems and sonnets
"The Complaint of Annelida to False Arcite"
"Crowned and Buried"
"The Dead Pan"
"Earth and her Praisers"
"An Island"
"The Lay of the Brown Rosary"
"A Lay of the Early Rose"

"The Lost Bower"
"Napoleon III in Italy"
"Night and the Merry Man"
"Rhyme of the Duchess May"
"A Romance of the Ganges"
"The Romaunt of the Page"
"The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point"
"The Virgin Mary to the Child Jesus"
"A Vision of Poets"


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"A Rhapsody of Life's Progress" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

A RHAPSODY OF LIFE'S PROGRESS

by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

'Fill all the stops of life with tuneful breath.'
--
Poems on Man, by Cornelius Mathews.


I

We are born into life -- it is sweet, it is strange.
We lie still on the knee of a mild Mystery,
Which smiles with a change;
But we doubt not of changes, we know not of spaces,
The Heavens seem as near as our own mother's face is,
And we think we could touch all the stars that we see;
And the milk of our mother is white on our mouth;
And, with small childish hands, we are turning around
The apple of Life which another has found;
It is warm with our touch, not with sun of the south,
And we count, as we turn it, the red side for four.
O Life, O Beyond,
Thou art sweet, thou art strange evermore!

II

Then all things look strange in the pure golden aether;
We walk through the gardens with hands linked together,
And the lilies look large as the trees;
And, as loud as the birds, sing the bloom-loving bees,
And the birds sing like angels, so mystical-fine,
And the cedars are brushing the archangels' feet,
And time is eternity, love is divine,
And the world is complete.
Now, God bless the child, -- father, mother, respond!
O Life, O Beyond,
Thou art strange, thou art sweet.

III

Then we leap on the earth with the armor of youth,
And the earth rings again;
And we breathe out, 'O Beauty!' we cry out, 'O truth!'
And the bloom of our lips drops with wine,
And our blood runs amazed 'neath the calm hyaline;
The earth cleaves to the foot, the sun burns to the brain, --
What is this exultation? and what this despair? --
The strong pleasure is smiting the nerves into pain,
And we drop from the Fair as we climb to the Fair,
And we lie in a trance at its feet;
And the breath of an angel cold-piercing the air
Breathes fresh on our faces in swoon,
And we think him so near he is this side the sun,
And we wake to a whisper self-murmured and fond,
O Life, O Beyond,
Thou art strange, thou art sweet!

IV

And the winds and the waters in pastoral measures
Go winding around us, with roll upon roll,
Till the soul lies within in a circle of pleasures
Which hideth the soul:
And we run with the stag, and we leap with the horse,
And we swim with the fish through the broad watercourse,
And we strike with the falcon, and hunt with the hound,
And the joy which is in us flies out by a wound.
And we shout so aloud, 'We exult, we rejoice,'
That we lose the low moan of our brothers around:
And we shout so adeep down creation's profound,
We are deaf to God's voice.
And we bind the rose-garland on forehead and ears
Yet we are not ashamed,
And the dew of the roses that runneth unblamed
Down our cheeks, is not taken for tears.
Help us, God! trust us, man! love us, woman! 'I hold
Thy small head in my hands, -- with its grapelets of gold
Growing bright through my fingers, -- like altar for oath,
'Neath the vast golden spaces like witnessing faces
That watch the eternity strong in the troth --
I love thee, I leave thee,
Live for thee, die for thee!
I prove thee, deceive thee,
Undo evermore thee!
Help me, God! slay me, man! -- one is mourning for both.'
And we stand up, though young, near the funeral-sheet
Which covers old Caesar and old Pharamond,
And death is so nigh us, life cools from its heat.
O Life, O Beyond,
Art thou fair, art thou sweet?

V

Then we act to a purpose, we spring up erect:
We will tame the wild mouths of the wilderness-steeds,
We will plough up the deep in the ships double-decked,
We will build the great cities, and do the great deeds,
Strike the steel upon steel, strike the soul upon soul,
Strike the dole on the weal, overcoming the dole.
Let the cloud meet the cloud in a grand thunder-roll!
'While the eagle of Thought rides the tempest in scorn,
Who cares if the lightning is burning the corn?
Let us sit on the thrones
In a purple sublimity,
And grind down men's bones
To a pale unanimity.
Speed me, God! -- serve me, man! -- I am god over men;
When I speak in my cloud, none shall answer again;
'Neath the stripe and the bond,
Lie and mourn at my feet!'
O Life, O Beyond,
Thou art strange, thou art sweet!

VI

Then we grow into thought, and with inward ascensions
Touch the bounds of our Being.
We lie in the dark here, swathed doubly around
With our sensual relations and social conventions,
Yet are 'ware of a sight, yet are 'ware of a sound
Beyond Hearing and Seeing, --
Are aware that a Hades rolls deep on all sides
With its infinite tides
About and above us, -- until the strong arch
Of our life creaks and bends as if ready for falling,
And through the dim rolling we hear the sweet calling
Of spirits that speak in a soft under-tongue
The sense of the mystical march:
And we cry to them softly, 'Come nearer, come nearer.
And lift up the lap of this dark, and speak clearer,
And teach us the song that ye sung!'
And we smile in our thought as they answer or no,
For to dream of a sweetness is sweet as to know.
Wonders breathe in our face
And we ask not their name;
Love takes all the blame
Of the world's prison-place;
And we sing back the songs as we guess them, aloud,
And we send up the lark of our music that cuts
Untired through the cloud
To beat with its wings at the lattice Heaven shuts;
Yet the angels look down and the mortals look up
As the little wings beat,
And the poet is blessed with their pity or hope.
'Twixt the heavens and the earth
can a poet despond?
O Life, O Beyond,
Thou art strange, thou art sweet!

VII

Then we wring from our souls their applicative strength,
And bend to the cord the strong bow of our ken,
And bringing our lives to the level of others,
Hold the cup we have filled, to their uses at length.
'Help me, God! love me, man! I am
man among men,
And my life is a pledge
Of the ease of another's!'
From the fire and the water we drive out the steam
With a rush and a roar and the speed of a dream;
And the car without horses, the car without wings,
Roars onward and flies
On its gray iron edge
'Neath the heat of a Thought sitting still in our eyes:
And our hand knots in air, with the bridge that it flings,
Two peaks far disrupted by ocean and skies,
And, lifting a fold of the smooth-flowing Thames,
Draws under the world with its turmoils and pothers,
While the swans float on softly, untouched in their calms
By humanity's hum at the root of the springs.
And with reachings of Thought we reach down to the deeps
Of the souls of our brothers,
We teach them full words with our slow-moving lips,
'God,' 'Liberty,' 'Truth,' -- which they hearken and think
And work into harmony, link upon link,
Till the silver meets round the earth gelid and dense,
Shedding sparks of electric responding intense
On the dark of eclipse.
Then we hear through the silence and glory afar,
As from shores of a star
In aphelion, the new generations that cry
Disenthralled by our voice to harmonious reply,
'God,' 'Liberty,' 'Truth!'
We are glorious forsooth,
And our name has a seat,
Though the shroud should be donned.
O Life, O Beyond,
Thou art strange, thou art sweet!

VIII

Help me, God! help me, man! I am low, I am weak:
Death loosens my sinews and creeps in my veins;
My body is cleft by these wedges of pains
From my spirit's serene,
And I feel the externe and insensate creep in
On my organized clay;
I sob not, nor shriek,
Yet I faint fast away:
I am strong in the spirit, -- deep-thoughted, clear-eyed, --
I could walk, step for step, with an angel beside,
On the heaven-heights of truth.
Oh, the soul keeps its youth,
But the body faints sore, it is tired in the race,
It sinks from the chariot ere reaching the goal,
It is weak, it is cold,
The rein drops from its hold,
It sinks back, with the death in its face.
On, chariot! on, soul!
Ye are all the more fleet --
Be alone at the goal
Of the strange and the sweet!

IX

Love us, God! love us, man! we believe, we achieve:
Let us love, let us live,
For the acts correspond;
We are glorious- -- and DIE:
And again on the knee of a mild Mystery
That smiles with a change,
Here we lie.
O DEATH, O BEYOND,
Thou art sweet, thou art strange!



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