The Sceptic.

By James Boyd.

And is it so — is this the way —
And this the place — by brutal knife
Shorn of a limb — is this the day
In which perforce I part from life?

Life! Is it life? Why talk I thus,
As though I knew what secret lies
Concealed behind the veil from us,
Beyond the loosing of the ties

Which bind us in one fellowship
Of blind existence with the beast,
Shut up to legends wild, which drip
From lip of poet, sage and priest?

Can I be confident, indeed,
That life and I shall ever part?
Forth from the shed down-trodden seed
I've seen the forest giant start.

But man goes down, and in the vault
Leaves hope for evermore behind;
And therefore reason calls a halt
To speculations of the mind.

For from the carcase nothing springs,
As far as human eye can see;
Man dies, and we know nothing rings
The knell of all philosophy.

Yet sweet is life, and death to me
Repulsive is, and black as night;
But were I dead, then death might be
A state of infinite delight;

And I might find a larger life
Beyond the grave than here is known,
And endless joy might spring from strife
And envy so profusely sown.

But kind brings ever forth its kind,
And backward I am tossed again,
To grope in darkness like the blind,
My labour profitless and vain;

And turn again, and on the floor
Of this vast universe lie prone,
And feel about for hidden lore
Where disappointed spirits moan;

And rising toss my helpless hands
Toward the milky way, and cry
"Where art Thou?" But unmoved withstands
My quest the silence of the sky.

I see Him not, nor have I hope
That things exist which crafty priests
Have plagued our lives with. Who can ope
The door of knowledge? We are beasts

Which toil and sweat, and this is all:
Race treads upon the heels of race.
We look abroad from this round ball
At others glittering in space,

And think that one of these at least,
Resplendent on the brow of night,
The secret holds that makes the beast
A demi-god; and kindly light

We fain would woo; but there they burn,
And prisoners here, and blind, we feel
Our way along, till old and worn
Death treads us underneath his heel.
But why should I so fondly cling
To life, and shudder at the grave?
Or who hath armed with venomed sting
Death, which I do not dare to brave?

And what is death? And what am I?
Have I a soul which can be sped?
What is the soul? Who can reply,
And voice the secret of the dead?

Is death the everlasting pause
Of all the organs of this frame,
Responsive to mysterious laws,
And life the motion of the same?

I of my members speak as of
The garments worn but yesterday,
Which at my pleasure I may doff,
But are they I? Or am I they?

I think of hand and foot and head,
And mine each separate member call;
But what am I when one is shed,
Who am the aggregate of all?

One limb already I have lost,
And now I feel if all were slain
And blown about as desert dust,
Myself entire would still remain.

A wild alarm is creeping o'er
My mind that when this shell is shed,
If shell it is, and there be more
Of me that lives when flesh is dead,

All may not in that hour be well,
Therefore I pray on bended knee: —
Annihilation ring my knell
And take eternal charge of me!

If there be that which will not bow
To make repasture for the worm,
But bears on an immortal brow
A mark forbidding death to harm;

If somewhere in this mortal frame
Dwells deathless that one thing I call
Myself, and it should scorn the claim
Of mother earth and Lethe's thrall;

And like the bird that from the shell
Soars on a strong pulsating wing
From the dark house where it doth dwell
Into a wild wood wildering;

Or up above the fleecy clouds
Beyond the reach of human ken,
Where the deep blue for ever shrouds
The secret from the gaze of men;

And if instead of nature's laws,
I should discover in that place
A God, of all things source and cause,
Despot to kill and to create:

Then this than death were more unkind,
Better no longer to exist,
Than fleeing forth from flesh to find
My Maker mine antagonist.
The wild wolf dashing out at dusk
To ravin till the morning light,
And falling lies till claw and tusk
Are bleached by sun and tempest white,

I envy. Let my carcase be
Like compost cast upon the soil,
Till he who takes and buries me
Has been rewarded for his toil;

Till where the sapless thorn arose,
The waving corn above my head
Shall down before the man who mows
In heavy golden sheaves be shed.

There, dust and ashes, let me lie,
My life a bubble burst and gone;
A spark like meteor from the sky,
On earth a clot of ashes thrown.
Bring in the light! Bring in the light!
My feet are slipping on the slope
Which dips towards eternal night
Uncheered by living ray of hope;

A night more gloomy than the caves
Which hold the grim bemouldering dead,
The stifling horrors of the graves
Are but the smallest things I dread.

The dew upon my pallid face
Bears witness to my nameless fear,
My labouring heart faints in its race
As dissolution draweth near.
Where are the vaunted theories now
Which used to give my mind support?
How false to leave me in this slough,
Of every horrid fear the sport.

I would recall what I have read,
What used to calm my anxious heart,
But terrors wrathful rise instead
Each hurling at my head a dart;

About my bed they darkly glide,
Forth from my hot brain to the floor
Like serpents noiselessly they slide,
The walls I see them crawling o'er.
Like felon bound upon a rock
Beneath the glare of tropic sun,
Who feels through heart and brain the stroke
Of every ray relentless run,

And lifts his hands to copper skies
Where hangs the burning ball of flame
Which floods the vault with fire and dries
The moisture in his fevered frame;

So on this bed I toss and turn,
With throbbing brain and nerves on fire,
And the dark day when I was born
I load with curses dread and dire;

So to lift up my hands to heaven
Blind speculation would assay,
But bolts of doubt through darkness driven,
My best attempts in ashes lay.
On the sad morn I bade adieu
To home, and caught the fatal train
Which dashed with deafening clamour through
Thick clouds of mist and drizzling rain,

I felt so strangely ill at ease
In nothing could I pleasure find,
A wail was on the moistened breeze,
A cloud was hanging o'er my mind.

I watched each traveller take his place
I still can see them as they sat,
The ruddy cheek, the wrinkled face,
And hear their ceaseless changeful chat.

I hear the roar of boisterous mirth,
The warm political debate,
The boast of travel round the earth,
The venture made on faith and fate.

A crash! As if the world had gone
To atoms! And in ruin piled
Car upon car, while dying groan
And cry and shriek rose dread and wild.

They bore me here a mangled heap,
One limb removed, and what remains
Torn with forebodings, ceaseless, deep,
Of merited unending pains.
Spite of my boasting, long I've feared
That death was not the end of all,
Though for my help no power appeared
When groaning in my darksome thrall;

But now that this my suffering frame
Is breaking up, there is, I feel,
Another life but bliss or blame —
For light to whom shall I appeal?

Who has beyond the frontier past?
Who has gone through the mystic veil?
Who has within that harbour cast
The anchor of his spirit frail?

Who has the land that lies beyond
The boundary of our vision seen?
On whose benighted mind has dawned
That secret sphere's unearthly sheen?

Who from its bourne has back again
Returned its secrets to declare,
And tell to weary heart and brain
The things that we shall meet with there?

Around me cruel nature shows
Her fangs with savage slaughter red;
Swarm o'er the wide world ruthless woes;
And who can tell how fare the dead?

This may be heaven to what awaits
The soul when it has left the clay,
When it has passed those frowning gates
Through which we all must find our way.
As when the sailor fast asleep
Amid the tempest dreams of land;
In happy haunts far from the deep
His spirit moves unfettered, and

Within the theatre he views
The pictures which the artist draws,
Doth virtue praise, doth vice accuse,
And joins the thunder of applause;

But waked with cruel grinding sound,
His ship is shivered to the stern,
And but the brawling deep around
Through splintered boards he doth discern;

Thus have I been the willing slave
Of dreams on life's tempestuous seas,
Till at the threshold of the grave
I wake to stern realities.
If God exist, and he be just,
And will not in His presence bide
The sight of sin, when flesh is dust
Where shall my sullied spirit hide?

Unless when wrapt in mystic sleep
It filters like the turbid tide,
Which through the charcoal bed doth creep
To sparkle on the other side.

But this I more than doubt, nor would
I wish to be a sighing saint,
I shall be honest, bad or good,
Apart from pharisaic paint.
Three nights ago I dreamed a dream,
I thought in gallant ship I swept
Adown a broad expansive stream
Which through deep verdant valleys crept.

Sweet was the balmy evening air
Which from ambrosial woodlands blew;
To right and left, like sharp ploughshare,
Her bows foam-crested wavelets threw.

The laugh and song, the noise of feet
In merry dance, broke o'er the tide,
And music ravishingly sweet
The echoes woke on either side.

The sorrows of my life were all
Quenched in the transport of that hour;
My spirit worshipped in the thrall
Of pleasure's fascinating power.

Then, like the lightning's fiery gleam,
In heaven I saw an angel stand,
Who pointed down the flowing stream
With brightly furbished flaming brand,

And cried, with awful voice which tore
Through the ethereal depths beneath,
And shook creation with its roar: —
"That way is death! That way is death!

The voice was heard, but heeded not;
When sudden black as night became
The heavens, and tide with tempest fought,
And earth's broad bosom burst aflame.

The cyclone through the welkin howled,
Down steeps the liquid lava raced
Into the surging stream, which growled
And hissed as flood the fire embraced.

But still with more terrific woe
Must every soul on board be racked,
For caught within the rapid flow
We heard the roar of cataract.

Hundreds fell prone upon the deck,
Or madly sprang into the wave,
But boiling billows bore them back,
Scorning petitions for a grave.

We plow the river's murky tide,
The fiery tempests round us roar,
Our anchors o'er the bottom slide,
Groans the great ship from stern to prore.

A moment on the brink she stands
O'er which eternal torrents fell,
Then like a toy from giant hands
Is hurled into the brawling hell.

I felt as though about my head
A thousand swelling oceans broke,
And shivering to the soul with dread
And speechless horror I awoke.
From cooling fount my head was bathed,
I drank the soothing drugs prepared;
In medicated bands was swathed
My head which had so sadly erred,

Until again I slept; but, lo,
Returned the visions of my head;
Horrors of everlasting woe
Crept over me, and I was dead.

Dead, yet much more alive than when
Within a mortal body bound
I moved among my fellow men,
With health and happy fortune crowned.

And now the dream that troubled sleep
Was but a sequel to the first,
For I was in that brawling deep
O'er which the waste of waters burst.

In vain I spread my hands to rise,
Masses of floating tangle bound
The limbs, that fear did energise,
A thousand wildering cords around.

Unnumbered horrors of the worst
Thou couldst conceive in type or kind
Matched with my miseries accursed
Were but as pastime of the mind.

A dreadful sound mine ears abused,
My misspent life before me rose,
My guilty conscience me accused.
Upon my brain fell wrathful blows.

I lifted up my hands to cry,
I framed my lips to utter prayer —
The echoes only made reply,
I sank more deeply in despair.

For through the rayless gloom there came
Hot thunderbolts shot forth in ire,
Which set the seething deep aflame,
And changed the tide to liquid fire.

Alas, the agony I felt
Within that ocean of despair
Was only equalled by the guilt
Which seemed like lead to crush me there.

The slimy monsters of the deep
Like serpents hissed around my head;
While brimstone fumes did darkly creep,
And dense their smothering odours spread.

I heard the voices of the lost
Mingle in sad accord with mine,
And groan of an infernal host
Fettered with chains in concert join.

Then cried a shining one aloud
Unto his fellow clothed in white: —
"Thus perish all the rebel proud
For ever far from heavenly light!"

I heard the clang of bolt and bar,
The thunder of the closing gate,
Which waked the waves to fiercer war,
And shut the lost up to their fate.

And in that hour I woke, and found
I had so struggled in my dread,
Strong hands had mercifully bound
Me firmly down upon my bed.

The surgeon held my hand to count
The quick pulsations of my blood,
And one from cooling icy fount
Bathed my hot temples with the flood.
Bid me not hold my peace, thou knowest
I've but another hour to live;
And if there be a God, my ghost
May He receive and all forgive.

But bend thine ear for I am faint,
And thou who me with care hast nursed
Must hear me utter my complaint,
Or else my burning brain shall burst.

Thou bidst me Jesus' love regard?
I must confess my heart would fain,
But doubt like a great spotted pard
Guards the red threshold of my brain.

And who on earth can make me sure
That God or Christ or heaven exists?
Like one benighted on a moor
I struggle through the gathering mists,

And hear around unearthly cries,
And fearful lift mine eyes to where
A vaporous sea across the skies
Rolls huge waves through the murky air;

And down again to where my feet
Are sinking in the soft morass.
My cries for help, the driving sleet
Drowns, ere my pallid lips they pass.

And faint and worn and sick at heart
I stagger in the night, and prone
Feel at the narrow house and start
As one who touched a skeleton.

My woes through dreams my soul pursue,
But what are dismal dreams? No more
Than memory half awake which through
My sleep doth toss my life's leaves o'er;

And like a child, or drunken man,
Who gathers scraps up here and there,
The fragments of a picture plan
And fain would place them as they were,

But hideous contortions leer
From every corner that you scan,
A man's head on a wild beast here
And here a beast's upon a man.

Such are my visions: let them go,
Or come like hungry dogs of prey,
To rend me in my nights of woe,
And vanish at the break of day.
Yes, yes, I know thou wouldst say,
God speaks in visions of the night;
But I would have Him speak by day,
And plain that I may hear aright.

In truth mine ears like not His words,
Nor have I mind for Bible lore;
Bound in this night by carnal cords,
I wait for light till life be o'er.

Then doubtless I shall fully know
The secret hidden from the wise;
If thou art right, then mine the woe;
If wrong, no worse can me surprise.
Pained to my heart, I look around
And see creation swathed in gloom,
And in my front the greedy ground
Gapes wide my carcase to entomb.

Across this woeful world I've passed
Through darkness such as one may feel;
Along my life the bitter blast
Of sorrow tore with teeth of steel.

I curse the luckless hour that flung
Me on the highway of this world;
Alive, by nervous fancies stung;
Dead, in the ditch like carrion hurled.

I've passed like an abortion ere
The light hath broke upon my brain
To that devouring vortex, where
None know if I shall lose or gain.
Thy Christ is not for me! How fleet
The memory o'er decades will move!
My mother's voice I hear repeat
The story of a Saviour's love.

Her faith was firm. I would that I
Had such belief in holy writ;
False though it be, if gold could buy,
And I had gold I'd purchase it.

I see her face — the look she wore,
Enshrined within my heart of hearts,
Shall live till memory is no more,
And my last feeble breath departs.

How oft she held me at her knee,
Her face with heavenly light aflame,
Seeking to make my blind eye see
What bright before her vision came.

And my both hands held firm in those
Soft fingers warm with deathless love,
While with unearthly fervour rose
Her prayer that heaven my heart would move.

But underneath her great desire
That I should love her Saviour's name,
I could detect a smouldering fire
Of hope to see me rise to fame;

And o'er the future of my life
Her fancy roamed, and still would see
My bark amid the roar and strife,
Of this world, riding prosperously;

And borne along upon the breast
Of zephyrs, pass the hostile port,
And richly laden from the quest
Return with honours into port.

This made me more than half suspect,
The future even to the best
Uncertain is, and to neglect
The present were a serious jest.

The world for me was not refused,
Though for herself her thoughts, the while
Like phantom ships for ever cruised
Around her spectral heavenly isle.

If there be such a heaven to win
And hell to shun as ye believe,
Why to this world befouled by sin
With both hands thus so fondly cleave?

If that be true which in thy Book
Recorded is, why hanker still
After the world with longing look,
Like Lot's wife turning from the hill?
Before me glooms the prospect dread,
My fevered brain is wrung with fear;
Like aspen leaf, upon my bed
I tremble as the end draws near.

O that beneath huge mountains crushed
I might have license to remain,
My passed career for ever hushed,
Not to be mentioned more again.

But, grief or happiness, shall I
Turn craven at the eleventh hour?
Before a spectre shall I fly
When brain-sick fears my soul devour?

My mind is fixed, and I shall die
As I have lived; no power exists
Which can compel the clouds to fly,
Which steep my soul in doubtful mists.
Hark! Loud I hear from heaven's height,
The shout of victory arise;
And, than a thousand suns more bright,
A city flames before mine eyes.

I see the citizens enrolled,
All princes, children of the King,
And crowned with diadems of gold,
Which blinding rays of glory fling.

Come, let us enter! Ah that light
Blinds with its brightness, and the way
Is barred by guards in armour bright,
Whose thunders fierce my footsteps stay.

They speak: — "Without are dogs!"
Abashed I fly the tempest of their ire.
The ground beneath my feet is lashed
By wrathful waves of liquid fire.

I slip upon the sloping steep
Of that horrific precipice,
Which hangs above the abyss as deep
As is the sun's height measured thrice.

"Yet there is room." 'Tis false: I hear
The stern command to guard the gate.
"Thou fool!" comes crashing on mine ear —
The day of grace is past — too late!

I stagger through the darkest pass
That ever mortal man was in;
Repentant all too late, alas!
I sink beneath my load of sin.

O for the respite of a day!
But no, I sink in depths of gloom;
My spirit must from earth away,
My body moulder in the tomb.

No hell, they told me; I believed;
Fool that I was, by fools befooled;
Madman, by maniacs deceived;
By fiends in lore infernal schooled.

Hide me away from God! I dread
His presence! Let the yawning ground
Receive me whole! In granite bed
Be body, soul, and spirit bound!

Vain wish! My feeble heart gives way.
I cry for help — no voice replies.
"Jesus." Nay not for me! My day
Is past! My sun sinks, not to rise

For evermore! The fogs — the plague
Of an eternal night drops down
Upon my sick brain — all is vague —
Shapes noisome glare at me and frown.

Begone! Ah! Press thy both hands, nurse,
Firm o'er my heart — that viper fell
Hath stung me with a lying curse —
My soul is passing — hear that solemn knell!

I cross the frontier — looms the land of shades
Before my vision — heaven — far away —
Horrors approach — the daylight fades —
Black moonless — starless — hopeless night holds sway.