Individuality (Lanier)

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Individuality  (1878) 
by Sidney Lanier
“Individuality” is the second poem in the four-poem set Hymns of the Marshes written by American poet Sidney Lanier. He composed the poem in 1878–79 while he was living in Baltimore, Maryland.

Sail on, sail on, fair cousin Cloud:
Oh loiter hither from the sea.
      Still-eyed and shadow-brow’d,
Steal off from yon far-drifting crowd,
And come and brood upon the marsh with me.

Yon laboring low horizon-smoke,
Yon stringent sail, toil not for thee
      Nor me; did heaven’s stroke
The whole deep with drown’d commerce choke,
No pitiless tease of risk or bottomry

Would to thy rainy office close
Thy will, or lock mine eyes from tears,
      Part wept for traders’-woes,
Part for that ventures mean as those
In issue bind such sovereign hopes and fears.

—Lo, Cloud, thy downward countenance stares
Blank on the blank-faced marsh, and thou
      Mindest of dark affairs;
Thy substance seems a warp of cares;
Like late wounds run the wrinkles on thy brow.

Well may’st thou pause, and gloom, and stare,
A visible conscience: I arraign
      Thee, criminal Cloud, of rare
Contempts on Mercy, Right, and Prayer,—
Of murders, arsons, thefts,—of nameless stain.

(Yet though life’s logic grow as gray
As thou, my soul’s not in eclipse.)
      Cold Cloud, but yesterday
Thy lightning slew a child at play,
And then a priest with prayers upon his lips

For his enemies, and then a bright
Lady that did but ope the door
      Upon the storming night
To let a beggar in,—strange spite,—
And then thy sulky rain refused to pour

Till thy quick torch a barn had burned
Where twelve months’ store of victual lay,
      A widow’s sons had earned;
Which done, thy floods with winds returned,—
The river raped their little herd away.

What myriad righteous errands high
Thy flames MIGHT run on! In that hour
      Thou slewest the child, oh why
Not rather slay Calamity,
Breeder of Pain and Doubt, infernal Power?

Or why not plunge thy blades about
Some maggot politician throng
      Swarming to parcel out
The body of a land, and rout
The maw-conventicle, and ungorge Wrong?

            What the cloud doeth
            The Lord knoweth,
            The cloud knoweth not.
            What the artist doeth,
            The Lord knoweth;
            Knoweth the artist not?

Well-answered!—O dear artists, ye
—Whether in forms of curve or hue
      Or tone your gospels be—
Say wrong ‘This work is not of me,
But God:’ it is not true, it is not true.

Awful is Art because ’tis free.
The artist trembles o’er his plan
      Where men his Self must see.
Who made a song or picture, he
Did it, and not another, God nor man.

My Lord is large, my Lord is strong:
Giving, He gave: my me is mine.
      How poor, how strange, how wrong,
To dream He wrote the little song
I made to Him with love’s unforced design!

Oh, not as clouds dim laws have plann’d
To strike down Good and fight for Ill,—
      Oh, not as harps that stand
In the wind and sound the wind’s command:
Each artist—gift of terror!—owns his will.

For thee, Cloud,—if thou spend thine all
Upon the South’s o’er-brimming sea
      That needs thee not; or crawl
To the dry provinces, and fall
Till every convert clod shall give to thee

Green worship; if thou grow or fade,
Bring on delight or misery,
      Fly east or west, be made
Snow, hail, rain, wind, grass, rose, light, shade;
What matters it to thee? There is no thee.

Pass, kinsman Cloud, now fair and mild:
Discharge the will that’s not thine own.
      I work in freedom wild,
But work, as plays a little child,
Sure of the Father, Self, and Love, alone.