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The Symphony by Sidney Lanier

"O Trade! O Trade! would thou wert dead!

The age needs heart—'tis tired of head.

We're all for love," the violins said.

"Of what avail the rigorous tale

Of coin for coin and box for bale?

Grant thee, O Trade! thine uttermost hope,

Level red gold with blue sky-slope,

And base it deep as devils grope,

When all's done what hast thou won

Of the only sweet that's under the sun?

Ay, canst thou buy a single sigh

Of true love's least, least ecstasy?"

Then all the mightier strings, assembling,

Fell a-trembling, with a trembling

Bridegroom's heart-beats quick resembling;

Ranged them on the violin's side

Like a bridegroom by his bride,

And, heart in voice, together cried:

"Yea, what avail the endless tale

Of gain by cunning and plus by sale?

Look up the land, look down the land—

The poor, the poor, the poor, they stand

Wedged by the pressing of Trade's hand

Against an inward-opening door

That pressure tightens ever more:

They sigh, with a monstrous foul-air sigh,

For the outside heaven of liberty,

Where Art, sweet lark, translates the sky

Into a heavenly melody.

'Each day, all day' (these poor folks say),

'In the same old year-long, drear-long way,

We weave in the mills and heave in the kilns,

We sieve mine-meshes under the hills,

And thieve much gold from the Devil's bank tills,

To relieve, O God, what manner of ills?—

Such manner of ills as brute-flesh thrills.

The beasts, they hunger, eat, sleep, die,

And so do we, and our world's a sty;

And, fellow-swine, why nuzzle and cry?

Swinehood hath never a remedy,

The rich man says, and passes by,

And clamps his nostril and shuts his eye.

Did God say once in God's sweet tone,

Man shall not live by bread alone,

But by all that cometh from His white throne?

Yea: God said so,

But the mills say No,

And the kilns and the strong bank-tills say No:

There's plenty that can, if you can't. Go to:

Move out, if you think you're underpaid.

The poor are prolific; we re not afraid;

Business is business; a trade is a trade,

Over and over the mills have said.'"

And then these passionate hot protestings

Changed to less vehement moods, until

They sank to sad suggestings

And requestings sadder still:

"And oh, if the world might some time see

'Tis not a law of necessity

That a trade just naught but a trade must be!

Does business mean, Die, you—live, I?

Then 'business is business' phrases a lie:

'Tis only war grown miserly.

If Traffic is battle, name it so:

War-crimes less will shame it so,

And we victims less will blame it so.

But oh, for the poor to have some part

In the sweeter half of life called Art,

Is not a problem of head, but of heart.

Vainly might Plato's head revolve it:

Plainly the heart of a child could solve it."

And then, as when our words seem all too rude

We cease from speech, to take our thought and brood

Back in our heart's great dark and solitude,

So sank the strings to heartwise throbbing,

Of long chords change-marked with sobbing—

Motherly sobbing, not distinctlier heard

Than half wing-openings of the sleeping bird,

Some dream of danger to her young hath stirred.

Then stirring and demurring ceased, and lo!

Every least ripple of the strings' song flow

Died to a level with each level bow,

And made a great chord tranquil-surfaced so

As a brook beneath his curving bank doth go

To linger in the sacred dark and green

Where many boughs the still pool overlean,

And many leaves make shadow with their sheen.

But presently

A velvet flute-note fell down pleasantly

Upon the bosom of that harmony,

And sailed and sailed incessantly,

As if a petal from a wild-rose blown

Had fluttered down upon that pool of tone,

And boatwise dropped o' the convex side

And floated down the glassy tide,

And clarified and glorified

The solemn spaces where the shadows bide.

From the velvet convex of that fluted note

Somewhat, half song, half odor, forth did float—

As if God turned a rose into a throat—

"When Nature from her far-off glen

Flutes her soft messages to men,

The flute can say them o'er again;

Yea, Nature, singing sweet and lone,

Breathes through life's strident polyphone

The flute-voice in the world of tone.

Sweet friends,

Man's love ascends

To finer and diviner ends

Than man's mere thought e'er comprehends.

For I, e'en I,

As here I lie,

A petal on a harmony,

Demand of Science whence and why

Man's tender pain, man's inward cry,

When he doth gaze on earth and sky?

Behold, I grow more bold:

I hold

Full powers from Nature manifold.

I speak for each no-tonguèd tree

That, spring by spring, doth nobler be,

And dumbly and most wistfully

His mighty prayerful arms outspreads

Above men's oft-unheeding heads,

And his big blessing downward sheds.

I speak for all-shaped blooms and leaves,

Lichens on stones and moss on eaves,

Grasses and grains in ranks and sheaves;

Broad-fronded ferns and keen-leaved canes,

And briery mazes bounding lanes,

And marsh-plants, thirsty-cupped for rains,

And milky stems and sugary veins;

For every long-armed woman-vine

That round a piteous tree doth twine;

For passionate odors, and divine

Pistils, and petals crystalline;

All purities of shady springs,

All shynesses of film-winged things

That fly from tree-trunks and bark-rings;

All modesties of mountain-fawns

That leap to covert from wild lawns,

And tremble if the day but dawns;

All sparklings of small beady eyes

Of birds, and sidelong glances wise

Wherewith the jay hints tragedies;

All piquancies of prickly burs,

And smoothnesses of downs and furs

Of eiders and of minevers;

All limpid honeys that do lie

At stamen-bases, nor deny

The humming-birds' fine roguery,

Bee-thighs, nor any butterfly;

All gracious curves of slender wings,

Bark-mottlings, fibre-spiralings,

Fern-wavings and leaf-flickerings;

Each dial-marked leaf and flower-bell

Wherewith in every lonesome dell

Time to himself his hours doth tell;

All tree-sounds, rustlings of pine-cones,

Wind-sighings, doves' melodious moans,

And night's unearthly undertones;

All placid lakes and waveless deeps,

All cool reposing mountain-steeps,

Vale-calms and tranquil lotos-sleeps;

Yea, all fair forms, and sounds, and lights,

And warmths, and mysteries, and mights,

Of Nature's utmost depths and heights,—

—These doth my timid tongue present,

Their mouthpiece and lead instrument

And servant, all love-eloquent.

I heard, when 'All for love' the violins cried:

Nature through me doth take their human side.

That soul is like a groom without a bride

That ne'er by Nature in great love hath sighed.

Much time is run, and man hath changed his ways,

Since Nature, in the antique fable-days,

Was hid from man's true love by proxy fays,

False fauns and rascal gods that stole her praise.

The nymphs, cold creatures of man's colder brain,

Chilled Nature's streams till man's warm heart was fain

Never to lave its love in them again.

Later, a sweet Voice Love thy neighbor said;

Then first the bounds of neighborhood outspread

Beyond all confines of old ethnic dread.

Vainly the Jew might wag his covenant head:

'All men are neighbors,' so the sweet Voice said.

So, when man's arms had measure as man's race,

The liberal compass of his warm embrace

Stretched bigger yet in the dark bounds of space;

With hands a-grope he felt smooth Nature's grace,

Drew her to breast and kissed her sweetheart face:

His heart found neighbors in great hills and trees

And streams and clouds and suns and birds and bees,

And throbbed with neighbor-loves in loving these.

But oh, the poor! the poor! the poor!

That stand by the inward-opening door

Trade's hand doth tighten ever more,

And sigh with a monstrous foul-air sigh

For the outside heaven of liberty,

Where Nature spreads her wild blue sky

For Art to make into melody!

Thou Trade! thou king of the modern days!

Change thy ways,

Change thy ways;

Let the sweaty laborers file

A little while,

A little while,

Where Art and Nature sing and smile.

Trade! is thy heart all dead, all dead?

And hast thou nothing but a head?

I'm all for heart," the flute-voice said,

And into sudden silence fled,

Like as a blush that while 'tis red

Dies to a still, still white instead.

Thereto a thrilling calm succeeds,

Till presently the silence breeds

A little breeze among the reeds

That seems to blow by sea-marsh weeds:

Then from the gentle stir and fret

Sings out the melting clarionet,

Like as a lady sings while yet

Her eyes with salty tears are wet.

"O Trade! O Trade!" the Lady said,

"I too will wish thee utterly dead

If all thy heart is in thy head.

For O my God! and O my God!

What shameful ways have women trod

At beckoning of Trade's golden rod!

Alas when sighs are traders' lies,

And heart's-ease eyes and violet eyes

Are merchandise!

O purchased lips that kiss with pain!

O cheeks coin-spotted with smirch and stain!

O trafficked hearts that break in twain!

—And yet what wonder at my sisters' crime?

So hath Trade withered up Love's sinewy prime,

Men love not women as in olden time.

Ah, not in these cold merchantable days

Deem men their life an opal gray, where plays

The one red sweet of gracious ladies' praise.

Now comes a suitor with sharp prying eye—

Says, Here, you Lady, if you'll sell, I'll buy:

Come, heart for heart—a trade? What! weeping? why?

Shame on such wooers' dapper mercery!

I would my lover kneeling at my feet

In humble manliness should cry, O sweet!

I know not if thy heart my heart will meet:

I ask not if thy love my love can greet:

Whatever thy worshipful soft tongue shall say,

I'll kiss thine answer, be it yea or nay:

I do but know I love thee, and I pray

To be thy knight until my dying day.

Woe him that cunning trades in hearts contrives!

Base love good women to base loving drives.

If men loved larger, larger were our lives;

And wooed they nobler, won they nobler wives."

There thrust the bold straightforward horn

To battle for that lady lorn;

With heartsome voice of mellow scorn,

Like any knight in knighthood's morn.

"Now comfort thee," said he,

"Fair Ladye.

Soon shall God right thy grievous wrong,

Soon shall man sing thee a true-love song,

Voiced in act his whole life long,

Yea, all thy sweet life long,

Fair Ladye.

Where's he that craftily hath said

The day of chivalry is dead?

I'll prove that lie upon his head,

Or I will die instead,

Fair Ladye.

Is Honor gone into his grave?

Hath Faith become a caitiff knave,

And Selfhood turned into a slave

To work in Mammon's cave,

Fair Ladye?

Will Truth's long blade ne'er gleam again?

Hath Giant Trade in dungeons slain

All great contempts of mean-got gain

And hates of inward stain,

Fair Ladye?

For aye shall Name and Fame be sold,

And Place be hugged for the sake of gold,

And smirch-robed Justice feebly scold

At Crime all money-bold,

Fair Ladye?

Shall self-wrapt husbands aye forget

Kiss-pardons for the daily fret

Wherewith sweet wifely eyes are wet—

Blind to lips kiss-wise set—

Fair Ladye?

Shall lovers higgle, heart for heart,

Till wooing grows a trading mart

Where much for little, and all for part,

Make love a cheapening art,

Fair Ladye?

Shall woman scorch for a single sin

That her betrayer can revel in,

And she be burnt, and he but grin

When that the flames begin,

Fair Ladye?

Shall ne'er prevail the woman's plea,

We maids would far, far whiter be

If that our eyes might sometimes see

Men maids in purity,

Fair Ladye?

Shall Trade aye salve his conscience-aches

With jibes at Chivalry's old mistakes,

The wars that o'erhot knighthood makes

For Christ's and ladies' sakes,

Fair Ladye?

Now by each knight that e'er hath prayed

To fight like a man and love like a maid,

Since Pembroke's life, as Pembroke's blade,

I' the scabbard, death, was laid,

Fair Ladye.

I dare avouch my faith is bright

That God doth right and God hath might,

Nor time hath changed His hair to white,

Nor His dear love to spite,

Fair Ladye.

I doubt no doubts: I strive, and shrive my clay,

And fight my fight in the patient modern way

For true love and for thee—ah me! and pray

To be thy knight until my dying day,

Fair Ladye,"

Said that knightly horn, and spurred away

Into the thick of the melodious fray.

And then the hautboy played and smiled,

And sang like a little large-eyed child,

Cool-hearted and all undefiled.

"Huge Trade!" he said,

"Would thou wouldst lift me on thy head,

And run where'er my finger led!

Once said a Man—and wise was He—

Never shalt thou the heavens see,

Save as a little child thou be."

Then o'er sea-lashings of commingling tunes

The ancient wise bassoons,

Like weird


Old harpers sitting on the wild sea-dunes,

Chanted runes:

"Bright-waved gain, gray-waved loss,

The sea of all doth lash and toss,

One wave forward and one across.

But now 'twas trough, now 'tis crest,

And worst doth foam and flash to best,

And curst to blest.

"Life! Life! thou sea-fugue, writ from east to west,

Love, Love alone can pore

On thy dissolving score

Of wild half-phrasings,

Blotted ere writ,

And double erasings.

Of tunes full fit.

Yea, Love, sole music-master blest,

May read thy weltering palimpsest.

To follow Time's dying melodies through,

And never to lose the old in the new,

And ever to solve the discords true—

Love alone can do.

And ever Love hears the poor-folks' crying,

And ever Love hears the women's sighing,

And ever sweet knighthood's death-defying,

And ever wise childhood's deep implying,

And never a trader's glozing and lying.

"And yet shall Love himself be heard,

Though long deferred, though long deferred:

O'er the modern waste a dove hath whirred:

Music is Love in search of a Word."