The Bastille

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SULLEN athwart the freedom of the skies
It frowned, and mocked the sun's high pageantry,
—Dawn of the cloudy hair and pleading eyes,
And the green sunset-light,—
With the dark threat of its immensity,
And sinister portent of all-shrouding night.
Round it the dead innumerable days
Clung, and the wraiths of years and seasons past,
—Spring, dancing young-eyed down the woodland ways;
Summer, the fragrant queen of long delight,
Languid with roses; Autumn, old and wan,
Wearily creeping graveward; and at last
Winter's oblivion.
So, while the silent feet of Time sped on,
It loomed tremendous, hateful in men's eyes,
Tyranny's presence. For in fear firm-set
Stood all the towers; of sorrow-laden gloom
The walls were built, and fluttering, pale, sighs;
And, darkening every life-enfolding tomb,
Passion and wild regret
And all captivity's unavailing cries.


There, through the grey monotony of years,
The grim walls held their secret. None might tell
Who drank therein the tainted cup of tears,
Blinded with memories intolerable,
Bereft of hopes and fears.
For them no passionate Spring-tide, as of yore,
Regal with hue and scent,
Flashed through the startled woods; not, ere night fell,
Blossomed the budding West to rose of flame,
And robed the plains in purple; and no more
Fair Dawn was tremulous in the Orient.
But, in the darkening cell,
Silent, upon pale feet, the shadows came;
And the wan twilight died; and there was night.
Then on the darkness to the sleepless eyes
Glimmered sad memories,
Old dreams of love, old heavens forfeited,
Poignant as those dear visions of our light
That mock the shadowy unforgetful Dead.
Night-long with bitter heart each dreamt his dream;
One, how the firelight-gleam
Played redly on a loved face far away;
Another, it may be,
Of the seething wave, the shrill-exulting gale,
And irresistable thunder of the sea.


Till the gloom quivered, and the black grew pale,
And lo! the dawn was grey.


Never to them comes Death as to the free,
—The swift unbearable horror, and the night
That shrouds the horror; no stern mystery,
Veiled in the old impenetrable gloom,
Quenches their faltering light.
Nor theirs the fear those revellers know, to whom
Sudden across Life's clamorous laughing rout
The clear inexorable voices call,
Bidding them from this luminous festival
To the dim Unknown without.
Not so look these toward our Lady Death,
But as a well-loved friend in gentle wise
She seeks them; for her cool hand comforteth,
And in the shadowy purple of her eyes
Dwells quiet healing, as an even-tide
That soothes with sleepy breath
The odorous murmur of some garden-side
Till all the roses slumber. To the brain
Sick with the gloom and silence and old pain,
Calm-eyed and thrice-desired she comes, to bring
Balm for the wound, rest for each weary thing,
To every prisoner the Great Release,
Death after life, joy after sorrowing,
And, after striving, peace.


Huge over Paris, grey and motionless,
Its shadow brooded, while, swift year on year,
Faded four centuries;
Beneath that old immutable loneliness
Men swarmed and toiled, and all their dreary cries
Moaned up unheeded; vast and unseen a Fear
Gloomed like a darkness over every heart,
And chilled their inarticulate murmurings.
Only the gay court, revelling apart,
From poverty far, and all grey-tinted things,
Wanton, and fair, and gay,
Sported like moths on glittering careless wings
Among life's fragrant buds and moon-kissed flowers,
Nor feared the slow inevitable day.
But, through the sunless hours,
France, as a sleeper, dumb, unheeding, lay;
Till a swift thunder thrilled the heavy air,
The purple gloom grew pallid; and at length
She from her slumber stirred, and woke to greet
Liberty, young and fair,
—Fair as a god, triumphant in his strength,
Shades of the night still clinging about his feet,
But the glory of the sunrise on his hair.


Strong as great winters in autumnal flood,
Wave after wave insurgent, every whence,
New-armed in Freedom's high magnificence,
The people gathered. To the red hearts aflame
All the pale streets cried wantonly for blood,
And all the resonant heavens clanged one name,
"To the Bastille!" and lo!—
Clamour of many feet on paven ways,
And voices distant-thundering, that grow,
And mount, and ring sonorous as the sea,
To break in a frenzy round the keep's dumb face,
The towers' funereal immobility.
Ever more near the tossing myriad sways;
The fire-ring narrows slowly; gate by gate,
Wall after wall, escarpment, bastion,
Bow to the tide that sweeps triumphant on,
Ravenous, hoarse, dark-menacing as Fate,.........
—Till a great cry goes crashing heavenward,
And the Bastille is won!
Then, as the sun-forsaken drowsy air
Welcometh night, beneficent, dreamy-starred,
No hand may rest till stone be torn from stone,
Each infamy laid bare,
And tyranny's ancient stronghold overthrown.
Freedom is gained! The exultant paeans rise,
Noise of great ruining, and a sudden glare,
As fire victorious storms the trembling skies.


How the bright glory of that early faith
Is faded now, and tarnished; for we know
Not by one sudden blow
Are peace and freedom won; nay, even yet
Grey Poverty, and Sin that poisoneth,
Eat out men's hearts, and tyrannous Wealth is strong,
And almost we forget
Because the night of sorrowing is long
Weary and faint we climb; still the road seems
Bitter with gloom and sorrow; still we grope,
Blind in the utter night; yet dimly gleams
The star of an infinite tremendous hope
That there shall come an ending, that at last,
Somewhere beyond our dreams,
The eternal day, the ultimate goal shall be,
All mystery revealed, the old made new;
Where, the quest over, sin and bondage past,
Men shall be Gods, and every vision true,
And Time Eternity.

R. C. B.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.