Littell's Living Age/Volume 157/Issue 2028/The Land of Promise: a Fable

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Littell's Living Age
Volume 157, Issue 2028 : The Land of Promise: a Fable by Lord Lytton

Originally published in The Nineteenth Century.

A pilgrim folk, o'er leagues of pathless sand
Long journeying patiently from far away,
Lured by the promise of a fairer land,
Reach'd ere the close of one eventful day
The craggy shore of a capacious stream:
And lo! the Promised Land before them lay
All in a golden sunset, whose last gleam
Reveal'd between the rovers and their rest
No barrier save that river's bridgeless breast.

Each sufferer, sick and footsore from the waste,
Hail'd with reviving hope the blissful sight.
About the river-beach they pitch'd in haste
Their evening tents, and roam'd in dreams all night
The Land of Promise. At the dawn, however,
The signal trumpet sounded, summoning
The tribe to council. For that rock-bound river
Was broad, and deep, and rapid. The first thing
On which their pilgrim parliament decided
Was to preserve intact, to a community
Whose best opinions might be much divided,
The necessary strength of social unity.
And so it ruled that they should all agree
To recognize as final the authority
Of whatsoever plan might chance to be
Adopted by the vote of the majority.

Scarce was this salutary rule laid down,
Ere one brisk leader of the emigration
(Whose dauntless spirit was to all well known)
Sprang forward with a shout of exultation;
And, from the shoulder of the stony shore
Pointing where every gaze instinctive turn'd,
"Brothers," he cried, "procrastinate no more!
The Promised Land, long arduously earn'd,
Before us lies. Why linger, then, the brave?
What need of projects and of plans? To me
Nature hard muscles and a man's heart gave,
Nor need I more to grasp the good I see.
Forward! Who follows? Fate befriends the bold!"
Without a pause he plunged into the wave
That 'twixt the wanderers and their wishes roll'd;
And, after him, to glory or the grave,
The younger pilgrims rush'd.

                              A cry arose,
"Rash fools, restrain this mad enthusiasm!
Behold with what enthusiastic blows
The battering current grinds its granite chasm!
What to its pitiless waves can you oppose?
Your numbers? They outnumber you. Your will?
The water's will is wilder than your own.
Your energy? More energetic still
Is the tremendous drift that drags you down.
Rest in the rear when ruin's in the van,
Reflect, return, renounce. … Alas, too late!"

He who said this was an old grey-hair'd man.
His voice was answer'd by resentful cries,
"Pedant, and craven-hearted renegate,
Preach not to us thy croaking homilies!
Farewell to those who fear, and those who wait!
Progress is prudence!"
                              Save the river's roar,
The elders of the tribe (with prescient faces,
Gazing aghast, and listening) heard no more;
But saw, still saw, in the fierce stream's embraces,
Here a wild arm, and there a whirling head,
And then — the heaving of the funeral pall
By the grim, bleak, implacable river spread
Over the grave of an ideal.

Were husht with horror. In the silence said
That-old grey-headed watcher of the tide,
"Friends, let us mourn for the untimely dead;
Whom impulse fair, with precept false allied
And inexperience, to their doom hath led.
They err'd in seeking, but they sought, the truth;
And we shall miss the force their fervor caught
From full hearts glowing with the fire of youth.
That generous warmth, alas, no longer ours,
We must replace by clear, if frigid, thought,
And toil that trains for triumph temperate powers.
Yon ravenous and remorseless element
Us from nor promised rest doth still divide.
Let us, O friends, some dexterous dyke invent
To curb the current or divert the tide.
A faithless and a formidable foe
We have to deal with. No concessions vile,
No haste incautious! Grudge not labor slow.
Complete the plan ere you begin the pile.
To work!"

          These words evoked but faint applause.
A few men to the speaker's side drew near,
And grasp'd his hand, after a thoughtful pause,
In silence; scorning by a single cheer
To recognize the Passions as allies
Of Reason's coldly calculated cause.
Small was their number, but they seem'd the wise.
Meanwhile, from out the masses in the rear
A man stepp'd forward. His broad back was bow'd,
His form misshapen, like a wither'd oak
With strong limbs warp'd and naked. To the crowd,
Whence he had issued, bitterly he spoke:

"Surely enough of perils and privations,
Of trust betray'd, and labor lost, enough,
And hopes deferr'd, whose fraudulent invitations
Lengthen the road they never leave less rough!
Dupe us no more. Foot-wearied fools we are,
Worn out with unrewarded agitations
In running after rest. Still, near or far,
The land we seek our cheated search belies.
Because it was a miserable land
We left our own; yet nought but miseries
We found elsewhere, a miserable band!
And miserably here beneath our eyes
Have we seen perishing the brave, the bold,
The young, the beautiful, who sought in vain
That better land. The selfish and the old,
Who, to augment our wretchedness, remain,
Now on our faint and weaken'd faith have laid
A heavier burden. What have we to gain
By laboring longer? And what right have they
To disregard the rule themselves have made?
Let them make good their promise. To obey
'Tis now their turn, and ours to be obey'd,
For we are the majority. Whate'er
The yet unpeopled Land of Promise be,
One thing, at least, is certain: everywhere
The wretchedest are the most numerous. We
Are both: nor need we any further fare
To find a refuge from the ills we flee.
After life, death; and after labor, sleep:
They do but live to toil who toil to live.
One gift, whose promise earth is bound to keep,
This soil, tho' niggard, to the spade will give
As soon as any other, and as cheap;
Life's goal, a grave."

                    He turn'd upon his heel,
Follow'd by many. The remaining few
Began to build. In accents low and grave
"What, without us, would be the commonweal?
Mere common woe," they murmur'd. "Let us save,
In spite of its own self, society."
And slow they rear'd, with unimpetuous zeal,
Rock-shoulder'd ramparts, fencing flood-gates high,
And sluices deep.

                    "Astray is all your skill,
Nor ever will the work you do succeed!"
A meagre mocking voice exclaim'd one day.
It was a little, thin, dry, crooked man,
Who had from the assembly stolen away
When first the feud 'twixt young and old began,
And now, as furtively, return'd. "I know
That river. It is mischievous and mad:
But there's some good in it, if you knew how
To make the best of what is not all bad.
Your dyke anon the rising flood will break,
And deluge all." They answer'd, "Other dykes
If needed, other sluices, we will make:
The stream rolls where it must, not where it likes."
"'Twill roll where you will like its rolling less.
You do not understand its nature. Hark!
No longer strive to oppose it, or repress.
I know a better system: follow it."
"What is thy system?" "I will build a bark" —
"And shipwreck all! These plunging whirlpools split
Our stoutest planks to splinters. Noë's ark
With such a cataract would in vain have vied.
It is a foe to vanquish, if we can,
And not a friend to whom we can confide
Aught that we love."

                    The little crooked man
With a low laugh to this reply replied
"Ay, 'tis a foe whom, for that very reason,
You should conciliate till his forces blind
(By craft beguiled to salutary treason)
Subvert his stupid power. I have divined
The river's secret. If you try my plan,
I guarantee success — on one condition,
Make me your leader." "Impudent charlatan,"
(They laugh'd, at that presumptuous proposition,)
"We know you for a rogue in deed and word.
Make you our leader? Things are not yet there.
We'll make you nothing but one gift — a cord:
Take it, and go and hang yourself elsewhere!"

Those honest and most honorable men
In saying this said only what was true.
The man was all they said of him. But then
The man was also something more (and knew
That he was something more) which miss'd their ken,
For he was clever. Smiling, he withdrew.
Meanwhile, the dyke went forward painfully;
For, as its bulwarks broaden'd day by days
The stream's resentful waters rose more high;
And their uprisings sometimes wash'd away
The best contrivances opposed to them.

One morn the foil'd foundation-makers spied
A vessel throng'd with folk from stern to stem;
Slant was her course athwart the strenuous tide,
And sloping, tugg'd by tumid sails, she went.
Safe to the wisht-for shore the strong winds blew,
Safe to the wisht-for shore the turbulent
But trusted waters their subduer drew;
And with a shout, as on its pleasant strand
They lightly leapt, her captain and his crew
Proclaim'd their conquest of the Promised Land.

The little crooked man his word had kept.
Long in the science of deception school'd,
The subtle student proved the sage adept.
That formidable river he had fool'd
As easily as if it were mankind:
Making its strength his own, and profiting
By forces it had been his luck to find
Contending with each other to be king
While he enslaved them slily — wave and wind.
But when at last they reach'd, and overran,
The Eldorado of their lifelong dream,
Unfit for their good-fortune proved the clan
Of covetous adventurers that stream
(In turn betraying its betrayers) led
To their destruction. Vagabonds they were,
Who loved not labor and who lack'd not bread:
Each to the other grudged his lawless share
Of promised plunder, till the land was red
With its invaders' blood. Their leader sly
(True to his principles) employ'd his skill
To govern by dividing them. Thereby
He ruled and ruin'd them with ease; until
At last the sick survivors of the strife,
Taught by experience, recognized the source
Of all the shameful troubles of his life
In that shrewd trick of setting up one force
To set another down, and playing class
Forever against class. Their chief found out
That what he thought could never come to pass
He had himself contrived to bring about —
A populace united: and its mass
The populace uniting against him,
It flung him, head and heels, into the river;
Where he was lost, not knowing how to swim,
Though he knew how to sail.

                              Vain each endeavor!
They who, to reach the Promised Land, relied
On fervid impulse, passionately perish'd
At the first plunge. The wretches who denied
Its pitying promise, cheerless, and uncherish'd
Even by the lost tradition of it, died.
Some labor'd for it, and their labor lost,
Though long and patiently they labor'd. They
Perchance were those who merited it most;
But then, their way was a mistaken way,
And they persisted in it. The vile host
Of rogues and vagabonds on whom a wit
Not theirs, to serve its own ambitious schemes,
Conferr'd the Land of Promise, were unfit
(Even when it blest them with its brightest beams)
To find their promised happiness in it.

The Land of Promise rests the Land of Dreams.