Ascent of Man, The - 3 Part

And from the clash of warring Nature's strife
Man day by day wins his imperilled life;
For, goaded on by want, he hunts the roe,
Chases the deer, and lays the wild boar low.
In his rude boat made of the hollow trees
He drifts adventurous on the unoared seas,
And, as he tilts upon the rocking tide,
Catches the glistening fish that flash and glide
Innumerably through the waters wide.
He'll fire the bush whose flames shall help him fel
The trunks to prop his roof, where he may dwell
Beside the bubbling of a crystal well,
Sheltered from drenching rains or noxious glare
When the sun holds the zenith. Delving there,
His cumbered wife, whose multifarious toil
Seems never done, breaks the rich virgin soil,
And in the ashes casts the casual seeds
Of feathered grass and efflorescent weeds;
When, as with thanks, the bounteous earth one morn
Returns lush blades of life-sustaining corn.
And while the woman digs and plants, and twines
To precious use long reeds and pliant bines,
He—having hit the brown bird on the wing,
And slain the roe—returns at evening,
And gives his spoil unto her, to prepare
The succulent, wildwood scented, simmering fare,
While with impatient sniffs and eager-eyed
His bronze-limbed children gather to his side.
And, when the feast is done, all take their ease,
Lulled by the sing-song of the evening breeze
And murmuring undertones of many-foliaged trees;
While here and there through rifts of green the sky
Casts its blue glance like an all-seeing eye.
But though by stress of want and poignant need
Man tames the wolf-sprung hound and rearing steed,
Pens up the ram, and yokes the deep-horned ox,
And through wide pastures shepherds woolly flocks;
Though age by age, through discipline of toil,
Man wring a richer harvest from the soil,
And in the grim and still renewing fight
Slays loathly worms and beasts of gruesome might
By the close-knitted bondage of the clan,
Which adding up the puny strength of man
Makes thousands move with one electric thrill
Of simultaneous, energetic will;
Yet still behind the narrow borderland
Where in security he seems to stand,
His apprehensive life is compassed round
By baffling mysteries he cannot sound,
Where, big with terrors and calamities,
The future like a foe in ambush lies:
A muffled foe, that seems to watch and wait
With the Medusa eyes of stony fate.—
Great floods o'erwhelm and ruin his ripening grain,
His boat is shattered by the hurricane,
From the rent cloud the tameless lightning springs—
Heaven's flame-mouthed dragon with a roar of wings—
And fires his hut and simple household things;
Until before his horror-stricken eyes
The stored-up produce of long labour lies,
A heap of ashes smoking 'neath the skies.—
Or now the pastures where his flocks did graze,
Parched, withered, shrivelled by the imminent blaze
Of the great ball of fire that glares above,
Glow dry like iron heated in a stove;
Turning upon themselves, the tortured sheep,
With blackening tongues, drop heap on gasping heap,
Their rotting flesh sickens the wind that moans
And whistles poisoned through their chattering bones;
While the thin shepherd, staring sick and gaunt,
Will search the thorns for berries, or yet haunt
The stony channels of some river-bed
Where filtering fresh perchance a liquid thread.
Of water may run clear.—Now dark o'erhead,
Thickening with storm, the wintry clouds will loom,
And wrap the land in weeds of mournful gloom;
Shrouding the sun and every lesser light
Till earth with all her aging woods grows white,
And hurrying streams stop fettered in their flight.
Then famished beasts freeze by the frozen lakes,
And thick as leaves dead birds bestrew the brakes;
And, cowering blankly by the flickering flame,
Man feels a presence without form or name,
When by the bodies of his speechless dead
In barbarous woe he bows his stricken head.
Then in the hunger of his piteous love
He sends his thought, winged like a carrier dove—
Through the unanswering silence void and vast,
Whence from dim hollows blows an icy blast—
To bring some sign, some little sign at last,
From his lost chiefs—the beautiful, the brave—
Vanished like bubbles on a breaking wave,
Lost in the unfathomed darkness of the grave.
When, lo, behold beside him in the night,—
Softly beside him, like the noiseless light
Of moonbeams moving o'er the glimmering floor
That come unbidden through the bolted door,—
The lonely sleeper sees the lost one stand
Like one returned from some dim, distant land,
Bending towards him with his outstretched hand.
But when he fain would grasp it in his own,
He melts into thin moonshine and is gone—
A spirit now, who on the other shore
Of death hunts happily for evermore.—
A Son of Life, but dogged, while he draws breath,
By her inseparable shadow—death,
Man, feeble Man, whom unknown Fates appal,
With prayer and praise seeks to propitiate all
The spirits, who, for good or evil plight,
Bless him in victory or in sickness smite.
Those are his Dead who, wrapped in grisly shrouds,
Now ride phantasmal on the rushing clouds,
Souls of departed chiefs whose livid forms
He sees careering on the reinless storms,
Wild, spectral huntsmen who tumultuously,
With loud halloo and shrilly echoing cry,
Follow the furious chase, with the whole pack
Of shadowy hounds fierce yelping in the track
Of wolves and bears as shadowy as the hosts
Who lead once more as unsubstantial ghosts
Their lives of old as restlessly they fly
Across the wildernesses of the sky.
When the wild hunt is done, shall they not rest
Their heads upon some swan-white maiden's breast,
And quaff their honeyed mead with godlike zest
In golden-gated Halls whence they may see
The earth and marvellous secrets of the Sea
Whereon the clouds will lie with grey wings furled,
And in whose depths, voluminously curled,
The serpent looms whose girth engirds the world?
Far, far above now in supernal power
Those spirits rule the sunshine and the shower!
How shall he win their favour; yea, how move
To pity the unpitying gods above,
The Dæmon rulers of life's fitful dream,
Who sway men's destinies, and still would seem
To treat them lightly as a game of chance,
The sport of whim and blindfold circumstance—
The irresponsible, capricious gods,
So quick to please or anger; whose sharp rods
Are storms and lightnings launched from cloven skies;
Who feast upon the shuddering victim's cries,
The smell of blood, and human sacrifice.
But ever as Man grows they grow with him;
Terrific, cruel, gentle, bright, or dim,
With eyes of dove-like mercy, hands of wrath,
Procession-like, they hover o'er his path
And, changing with the gazer, borrow light
From their rapt devotee's adoring sight.
And Ormuzd, Ashtaroth, Osiris, Baal—
Love spending gods and gods of blood and wail—
Look down upon their suppliant from the skies
With his own magnified, responsive eyes.
For Man, from want and pressing hunger freed,
Begins to feel another kind of need,
And in his shaping brain and through his eyes
Nature, awakening, sees her blue-arched skies;
The Sun, his life-begetter, isled in space;
The Moon, the Measurer of his span of days;
The immemorial stars who pierce his night
With inklings of things vast and infinite.
All shows of heaven and earth that move and pass
Take form within his brain as in a glass.
The tidal thunder of the sea now roars
And breaks symphonious on a hundred shores;
The fitful flutings of the vagrant breeze
Strike gusts of sound from virgin forest trees;
White leaping waters of wild cataracts fall
From crag and jag in lapses musical,
And streams meandering amid daisied leas
Throb with the pulses of tumultuous seas.
From hills and valleys smoking mists arise,
Steeped in pale gold and amethystine dyes.
The land takes colour from him, and the flowers
Laugh in his path like sun-dyed April showers.
The moving clouds in calm or thunderstorm,
All shows of things in colour, sound, or form
Moulded mysteriously, are freshly wrought
Within the fiery furnace of his thought.
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