My history students are currently studying the late 19th century, and references to Henry Adams (1838-1918) come up time and again. I am not having them read his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, though I may use it next time. In the course of my reading I came across this interesting poem (which includes a poem within a poem - how meta!).
Prayer to the Virgin of Chartres
Simple as when I asked your aid before;
Humble as when I prayed for grace in vain
Seven hundred years ago; weak, weary, sore
In heart and hope, I ask your help again.
You, who remember all, remember me;
An English scholar of a Norman name,
I was a thousand who then crossed the sea
To wrangle in the Paris schools for fame.
When your Byzantine portal was still young
I prayed there with my master Abailard;
When Ave Maris Stella was first sung,
I helped to sing it here with Saint Bernard.
When Blanche set up your gorgeous Rose of France
I stood among the servants of the Queen;
And when Saint Louis made his penitence,
I followed barefoot where the King had been.
For centuries I brought you all my cares,
And vexed you with the murmurs of a child;
You heard the tedious burden of my prayers;
You could not grant them, but at least you smiled
If then I left you, it was not my crime,
Or if a crime, it was not mine alone.
All children wander with the truant Time.
Pardon me too! You pardoned once your Son!
For He said to you:--"Wist ye not that I
Must be about my Father’s business?" So,
Seeking his Father he pursued his way
Straight to the Cross towards which we all must go.
So I too wandered off among the host
That racked the earth to find the father’s clue.
I did not find the Father, but I lost
What now I value more, the Mother,--You!
I thought the fault was yours that foiled my search;
I turned and broke your image on its throne,
Cast down my idol, and resumed my march
To claim the father’s empire for my own.
Crossing the hostile sea, our greedy band
Saw rising hills and forests in the blue;
Our father’s kingdom in the promised land!
--We seized it, and dethroned the father too.
And now we are the Father, with our brood,
Ruling the Infinite, not Three but One;
We made our world and saw that it was good;
Ourselves we worship, and we have no Son.
Yet we have Gods, for even our strong nerve
Falters before the Energy we own.
Which shall be master? Which of us shall serve?
Which wears the fetters? Which shall bear the crown?
Brave though we be, we dread to face the Sphinx,
Or answer the old riddle she still asks.
Strong as we are, our reckless courage shrinks
To look beyond the piece-work of our tasks.
But when we must, we pray, as in the past
Before the Cross on which your Son was nailed.
Listen, dear lady! You shall hear the last
Of the strange prayers Humanity has wailed.
PRAYER TO THE DYNAMO
Mysterious Power! Gentle Friend!
Despotic Master! Tireless Force!
You and We are near the End.
Either You or We must bend
To bear the martyrs’ Cross.
We know ourselves, what we can bear
As men; our strength and weakness too;
Down to the fraction of a hair;
And know that we, with all our care
And knowledge, know not you.
You come in silence, Primal Force,
We know not whence, or when, or why;
You stay a moment in your course
To play; and, lo! you leap across
To Alpha Centauri!
We know not whether you are kind,
Or cruel in your fiercer mood;
But be you Matter, be you Mind,
We think we know that you are blind,
And we alone are good.
We know that prayer is thrown away,
For you are only force and light;
A shifting current; night and day;
We know this well, and yet we pray,
For prayer is infinite,
Like you! Within the finite sphere
That bounds the impotence of thought,
We search an outlet everywhere
But only find that we are here
And that you are--are not!
What are we then? the lords of space?
The master-mind whose tasks you do?
Jockey who rides you in the race?
Or are we atoms whirled apace,
Shaped and controlled by you?
Still silence! Still no end in sight!
No sound in answer to our cry!
Then, by the God we now hold tight,
Though we destroy soul, life and light,
Answer you shall--or die!
We are no beggars! What care we
For hopes or terrors, love or hate?
What for the universe? We see
Only our certain destiny
And the last word of Fate.
Seize, then, the Atom! rack his joints!
Tear out of him his secret spring!
Grind him to nothing!--though he points
To us, and his life-blood anoints
Me--the dead Atom-King!
A curious prayer, dear lady! is it not?
Strangely unlike the prayers I prayed to you!
Stranger because you find me at this spot,
Here, at your feet, asking your help anew.
Strangest of all, that I have ceased to strive,
Ceased even care what new coin fate shall strike.
In truth it does not matter. Fate will give
Some answer; and all answers are alike.
So, while we slowly rack and torture death
And wait for what the final void will show,
Waiting I feel the energy of faith
Not in the future science, but in you!
The man who solves the Infinite, and needs
The force of solar systems for his play,
Will not need me, nor greatly care what deeds
Made me illustrious in the dawn of day.
He will send me, dethroned, to claim my rights,
Fossil survival of an age of stone,
Among the cave-men and the troglodytes
Who carved the mammoth on the mammoth’s bone.
He will forget my thought, my acts, my fame,
As we forget the shadows of the dusk,
Or catalogue the echo of a name
As we the scratches on the mammoth’s tusk.
But when, like me, he too has trod the track
Which leads him up to power above control,
He too will have no choice but wander back
And sink in helpless hopelessness of soul,
Before your majesty of grace and love,
The purity, the beauty and the faith;
The depth of tenderness beneath; above,
The glory of the life and of the death.
When your Byzantine portal still was young,
I came here with my master Abailard;
When Ave Maris Stella was first sung,
I joined to sing it here with Saint Bernard.
When Blanche set up your glorious Rose of France,
In scholar’s robes I waited on the Queen;
When good Saint Louis did his penitence,
My prayer was deep like his: my faith as keen.
What loftier prize seven hundred years shall bring,
What deadlier struggles for a larger air,
What immortality our strength shall wring
From Time and Space, we may--or may not--care;
But years, or ages, or eternity,
Will find me still in thought before your throne,
Pondering the mystery of Maternity,
Soul within Soul,--Mother and Child in One!
Help me to see! not with my mimic sight--
With yours! which carried radiance, like the sun,
Giving the rays you saw with--light in light--
Tying all suns and stars and worlds in one.
Help me to know! not with my mocking art--
With you, who knew yourself unbound by laws;
Gave God your strength, your life, your sight, your heart,
And took from him the Thought that Is--the Cause.
Help me to feel! not with my insect sense,--
With yours that felt all life alive in you;
Infinite heart beating at your expense;
Infinite passion breathing the breath you drew!
Help me to bear! not my own baby load,
But yours; who bore the failure of the light,
The strength, the knowledge and the thought of God,--
The futile folly of the Infinite!
Text via TeachingAmericanHistory.org. Image via Wikipedia.