Via Dolorosa

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Via Dolorosa
by Algernon Charles Swinburne
This poem is from the collection Astrophel and Other Poems, Book I of The Collected Poetical Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne, Vol. VI.


     The days of a man are threescore years and ten.
       The days of his life were half a man's, whom we
       Lament, and would yet not bid him back, to be
     Partaker of all the woes and ways of men.
     Life sent him enough of sorrow: not again
       Would anguish of love, beholding him set free,
       Bring back the beloved to suffer life and see
     No light but the fire of grief that scathed him then.

     We know not at all: we hope, and do not fear.
     We shall not again behold him, late so near,
       Who now from afar above, with eyes alight
     And spirit enkindled, haply toward us here
       Looks down unforgetful yet of days like night
       And love that has yet his sightless face in sight.

February 15, 1887.


     I

Transfiguration[edit]

     But half a man's days--and his days were nights.
       What hearts were ours who loved him, should we pray
       That night would yield him back to darkling day,
     Sweet death that soothes, to life that spoils and smites?
     For now, perchance, life lovelier than the light's
       That shed no comfort on his weary way
       Shows him what none may dream to see or say
     Ere yet the soul may scale those topless heights
     Where death lies dead, and triumph. Haply there
       Already may his kindling eyesight find
     Faces of friends--no face than his more fair--
       And first among them found of all his kind
     Milton, with crowns from Eden on his hair,
       And eyes that meet a brother's now not blind.


     II

Deliverance[edit]

     O Death, fair Death, sole comforter and sweet,
       Nor Love nor Hope can give such gifts as thine.
       Sleep hardly shows us round thy shadowy shrine
     What roses hang, what music floats, what feet
     Pass and what wings of angels. We repeat
       Wild words or mild, disastrous or divine,
       Blind prayer, blind imprecation, seeing no sign
     Nor hearing aught of thee not faint and fleet
     As words of men or snowflakes on the wind.
     But if we chide thee, saying "Thou hast sinned, thou hast sinned,
     Dark Death, to take so sweet a light away
       As shone but late, though shadowed, in our skies,"
     We hear thine answer--"Night has given what day
       Denied him: darkness hath unsealed his eyes."


     III

Thanksgiving[edit]

     Could love give strength to thank thee! Love can give
       Strong sorrow heart to suffer: what we bear
       We would not put away, albeit this were
     A burden love might cast aside and live.
     Love chooses rather pain than palliative,
       Sharp thought than soft oblivion. May we dare
       So trample down our passion and our prayer
     That fain would cling round feet now fugitive
     And stay them--so remember, so forget,
     What joy we had who had his presence yet,
     What griefs were his while joy in him was ours
       And grief made weary music of his breath,
     As even to hail his best and last of hours
       With love grown strong enough to thank thee, Death?


     IV

Libitina Verticordia[edit]

     Sister of sleep, healer of life, divine
       As rest and strong as very love may be,
       To set the soul that love could set not free,
     To bid the skies that day could bid not shine,
     To give the gift that life withheld was thine.
       With all my heart I loved one borne from me:
       And all my heart bows down and praises thee,
     Death, that hast now made grief not his but mine.

     O Changer of men's hearts, we would not bid thee
       Turn back our hearts from sorrow: this alone
       We bid, we pray thee, from thy sovereign throne
     And sanctuary sublime where heaven has hid thee,
       Give: grace to know of those for whom we weep
       That if they wake their life is sweet as sleep.


     V

The Order of Release[edit]

     Thou canst not give it. Grace enough is ours
       To know that pain for him has fallen on rest.
       The worst we know was his on earth: the best,
     We fain would think,--a thought no fear deflowers--
     Is his, released from bonds of rayless hours.
       Ah, turn our hearts from longing; bid our quest
       Cease, as content with failure. This thy guest
     Sleeps, vexed no more of time's imperious powers,
     The spirit of hope, the spirit of change and loss,
     The spirit of love bowed down beneath his cross,
       Nor now needs comfort from the strength of song.
     Love, should he wake, bears now no cross for him:
     Dead hope, whose living eyes like his were dim,
       Has brought forth better comfort, strength more strong.


     VI

Psychagogos[edit]

     As Greece of old acclaimed thee God and man,
       So, Death, our tongue acclaims thee: yet wast thou
       Hailed of old Rome as Romans hail thee now,
     Goddess and woman. Since the sands first ran
     That told when first man's life and death began,
       The shadows round thy blind ambiguous brow
       Have mocked the votive plea, the pleading vow
     That sought thee sorrowing, fain to bless or ban.

     But stronger than a father's love is thine,
       And gentler than a mother's. Lord and God,
       Thy staff is surer than the wizard rod
     That Hermes bare as priest before thy shrine
       And herald of thy mercies. We could give
       Nought, when we would have given: thou bidst him live.


     VII

The Last Word[edit]

     So many a dream and hope that went and came,
       So many and sweet, that love thought like to be,
       Of hours as bright and soft as those for me
     That made our hearts for song's sweet love the same,
     Lie now struck dead, that hope seems one with shame.
       O Death, thy name is Love: we know it, and see
       The witness: yet for very love's sake we
     Can hardly bear to mix with thine his name.

     Philip, how hard it is to bid thee part
     Thou knowest, if aught thou knowest where now thou art
       Of us that loved and love thee. None may tell
     What none but knows--how hard it is to say
     The word that seals up sorrow, darkens day,
       And bids fare forth the soul it bids farewell.