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Littell's Living Age/Volume 144/Issue 1861/Justinian

<poem>
     “The world is weary of idolatries: 

Pan and Apollo and great Zeus are dead, And Jesus Christ hangs cold upon the cross. Nay more, the light of science newly born Hath slain the night of the divine idea, So that, for calm assurance of our souls, We mathematically demonstrate Infinite God as infinitely false To infinite impossibility. Henceforth a grievous shadow quits the earth, While man, the fruitage and the flower of things, Walks fetterless and free.” Thus much and more, With many hints of cell and protoplasm, And of the dusk beginnings of the brain, The mild professor said.

                             Professor Day,

A little gentleman with soft gray eyes, Whose spectacles had faced the very Sphinx And read the cosmic riddle wrought therein, He, having lived to thirty years of age, Had hate for nought but ambiguity; Knew all that science and the schools could teach, Lived for truth only, and, had these been days Of any necessary martyrdom, Would cheerfully have given his life for truth. Meantime, he served her cause. How wrathfully He rose his height, while angry pulpits wail'd, And from the platforms of the great reviews Demolish'd the theistic fallacy, Pluck'd the bright mantle from the verbal form And show'd the syllogistic skeleton! Dear gentle heart, he who could be so fierce In hating what he did not deem to be, Was full of love for all the things that are; Wherefore God loved him for his unbelief And sent a ministering angel down. . . .

     He often thought, “If I should have a child,

If ever life should issue out of mine, I shall uprear it on the gracious food Of knowledge only. Superstition haunts Our very cradles: in our nurses' hands Dangle the fetish and the crucifix That darken us forever till we die. No child of mine, if I should have a child, Shall know the legend of the lie divine, Or lisp the words of folly that profane The wish of wisdom. Prayer is cowardice: No child of mine shall pray. Worship is fear: My child shall never know the name of fear. But when its eyes are ready to behold, Its ears to hear, my child shall wander forth, Fearlessly leaning on its father's strength, Serene in innocence and mastery.”

     And so he wedded, hoping for a child, 

A tender toy to cut his creed upon, And wedded wisely: a virgin not too young, And not too good, and not too beautiful, But gently reared, and of a learned race Who held that over-learning suits but ill The creed and need of women. To his side She came not trembling, trusting in his strength, And wise enough to dimly comprehend Her gentle lords superiority. Two years they grew together, as two trees Blending their branches; then a child was born, Which, flickering like a taper thro' the night, Went out ere dawn; but when the mother wept, And reach'd her thin hands down the darkness, whither The little life had fallen like a spark, The pale Professor (though his eyes were dim) Sat by the bedside presently, and proved — As gently as a poor man praying to God — That what had never known potential life, In all its qualities and faculties, Had never absolutely lived at all. Nay, 'twere as wise, perchance, he thought, to mourn Some faint albuminous product of the deep, As weep for something which had ne'er achieved The motions and the mysteries of mind, Which things are life itself. The mother moaned: And creeping thence to his laboratory, The wise man wiped away a foolish dew That shamed the gloss of his philosophy.

     But comfort came a little later on; 

Another crying life arose and bloom'd, And faded not upon the mother's breast, But drew its milk with feeble lips, and breathed, It was a boy, and when they brought him down, And placed him in the pale professors arms, He laugh'd and reached his little rosy hands To greet his father; and the wise man said, Holding the babe and blushing awkwardly, “How naturally mammals love their young! Thus, even thus, the archetypal ape Dandled its rough first-born! Whereat the nurse Exclaim'd, — not comprehending, pious soul, — “Thank God for sending you so fine a boy!” And when the wise man thro' his spectacles Look'd lightnings of philosophy and scorn, She took the babe and murmur'd, kissing it, “Now God Almighty grant the pretty dear A long and merry life!”

                             The wise mans cheek

Grew pallid, for already, ere he knew, It seem'd that Superstition's skinny hand Was clutching at his pearl of innocence. He fled into his study, and therein Added a fragment to a fierce review Upholding Haeckel, proving Tyndall tame, And rating Virchow and Agnosticism. And having thus refreshed his learned soul, He sat by the bedside of his pale wife, Holding her hand in silence for an hour, Feeling a nameless fear upon his heart, Blent with a sense of blessing one less wise Might have mistaken for a sense of prayer.

     Thenceforward, with a curious scrutiny, 

Such as he brought to bear on things minute Dredged from the fishpond or the rivers bed, He watch'd the tiny life expand and grow, Stretching sensorial tendrils softly forth, Sucking its mothers milk with rosy lips, As tiny creatures of albumen suck Their nurture from the tidal ooze and foam. Then with a span he measured the small head, And watch'd the soft pink circle, where the skin Closed on the milk-white matter of the brain, Hardening slowly into skull and bone; And all the while the little azure orbs Look'd upward meaningless as flowers or stars Full of a faint flame issuing from within. Then thought he, “It is well; a goodly child; A brain of weight above the average, And phrenologically excellent! And yet how helpless in their dim beginnings The higher mammals seem, this babe of mine Nor less nor more; a feeble crying thing, Feeling with blind progressions like a plant To the full sunshine of potential life. Prick the grey cells, it dies, and has not lived; Deny it nurture, as of sun and rain, And even as a leaf it withers up, Without a sign that it hath ever been. Yea, what we bring it, it absorbs, and turns To highest use and issue; as we train Its tendrils, so it grows and if denied Such nurture as the nobler species need, Would surely, slowly, dwindle back to beast, As is the wont of many human types Stunted and starven in their infancy. But this one, bone of mine and flesh of mine, This will I watch with ministering care, Till it rewards my patience and becomes Perfect in knowledge and in mastery, The living apex and the crown of things.”

     A little later, when the mother rose, 

And with the consecration of her pain Clothed softly still, sat pallid by the fire, She, after resting silent for a time And casting many a hesitating glance, Said softly, “Dear, have you reflected yet How we shall christen him?” Stung by the word, The wise man murmur'd, Christen? — christen him?” Then, flush'd with wrath, “The very word is rank With superstition and idolatry: Do not repeat it, as you love the child.” Whereat the mother, timorously firm, Said, smiling, “But the child must have a name! What shall we call him?” Puzzled for the time, The wise man pursed his lips and shook his head, And scrutinized the little rosy face, As if for inspiration and for help. Then one by one they named the names of men, From Adam down to Peter, Paul, and John, And scorning these as over-scriptural, They counted o'er the legion heathen names But found them fraught with superstition too. “Our infant,” the professor moralized, “Heathen no more than Christian, shall receive No gift from heathendom or Christendom, Not even that slightest of all shades, a name. Could I invent? — but no, invented names Ever sound barbarous — I will rack my books, And find one fitting; there is time to spare; Take thought, and wait!” So many a quiet night They talk'd it o'er, and after hovering long O'er Thales (Evolution's Morning Star,” The wise man styled him, while the mother's ear Was shock'd at the mere sound of Thales Day), Rejecting Bruno and Galileo, They found the thing they sought upon their shelves, And pausing at the famous “Institutes,” They chose the learned name — Justinian.

     Not at the font with painted windows round, 

Not through the office of a priest in lawn Sprinkling with white hands the baptismal dew, The infant took his name; but quietly One Sunday morn, in the laboratory, With casts and fœtal forms around about, The wise man, kissing him upon the brow, Named him Justinian; and the mothers voice Echo'd “Justinian;” and the naming him Would have been wholly joyful and complete, But for a jangling sound of bells that rang Suddenly from the churches round about, Calling the folk of Christendom to prayer! Pass o'er the seasons when with baby lips The infant drew its nurture from the breast, And when with tottering steps he first began To walk erect upon the ground, and shape The first faint sounds, to mimic human speech. Behold him, then, at five years old, a child Large-eyed, large-brow'd, and somewhat pale, of cheek, Clutching a thin forefinger as he ran And prattled at the pale professor's side. Companions now they grew from day to day, For while within his study 'mong his books The wise man sat, the infant at his feet Sat looking up; or, on the table perch'd, Blinkd like a pretty gnome; and every morn When for a hurried constitutional The father trotted over Hampstead Heath, The little one would toddle by his side, Happy and garrulous, and looking up With question after question. — Thus the child Heard, at an age when other children feed On nursery rhymes and tales of fairyland, The wondrous song of science; how at first The nebulæ cohered, how this round orb Rose out of chaos, how it lay in space Eyeless and dark until the sun's red hand Touch'd it upon the heart, and made it live, And how the first faint protoplasmic forms, Amœbæ, infusoria, stirred and moved In troubled depths of some primeval ooze. All this, and more, translated tenderly Into soft words of just one syllable, Justinian heard, not understanding yet, But turning all the solemn cosmic fact To pretty fancy such as children love. What solemn truth, what sad solemnity, May not an infant turn to poesy? Instead of Gorgon and Chimæra dire, His fancy saw the monstrous mastodon; Instead of fairies of the moonlight wood, Strange shapes that lurk in strata or disport In some green waterdrop; instead of myths, He read the faery story of the world.

     From childhood upward, till the end, he knew 

No teacher save his father, and, indeed, Since never teacher could be tenderer, He did not miss the lore of love itself. As patient as a woman, firm yet fond, Hoarding his very heart up in the boy, The father tended, taught him, watch'd him grow. At eight years old Justinian lisped in Greek, And readily construed Lucretius; Had read the great stone book whereon is writ The riddle of the world from age to age; Knew the fair marvels of the Zodiac, The stars and their processions; had by heart The elemental truths of chemistry. . . . And zealously, within a mental maze, As dense as that which covered Rosamond, His teacher guarded him against the creeds. For gospel, he had knowledge, and for God, His gentle human father; and indeed No child that lisps a heavenly Father's name Could lisp it with a fonder, fairer faith Than fill'd him when he named his earthly one.

     Now when the boy was scarcely ten years old, 

Wise far beyond the wisdom of his years, The mother, wasting of a long disease, Died, leaving a great void within his heart Only the father's larger love could fill. The wise man sorrow'd little, having view'd His helpmate with a calm superior care, Approving her, but hoarded in his boy; And thenceforth, sire and son were all in all To one another. Oft the pair were seen Seated in scientific lecture-halls, The wise man blinking thro' his spectacles, The boy, his little image, by his side, Like small by greater owl; and evermore When, hastening home, they pass'd some shadowy shrine The father drew his treasure closer to him, Lest some dark phantom from within the porch Should mar the crystal mirror of his soul.

     The seasons sped; at sixteen years of age

Justinian was famous in the haunts Where wise men gather, and in deep debate Could hold his own among gray honor'd heads And pass with pedants for a prodigy. At seventeen, he wrote that bold review, Attributed for several weeks to Mill, Denuding Buckle and his theory Of history's four stages. How men smiled, When some one blabb'd and the strange truth was told, To find the grown man's pompous periods Dissected into folly by a boy!

     Now for the first time on the father's heart 

There fell the shadow of a nameless fear Lest all this building of a noble mind Should fail and perilously come to nought. For lo! despite the glow of happy pride, Justinians cheek was pale, his gentle eyes Deep sunken, and he stoop'd beneath the weight Of too much wisdom; oftentimes his face, Tho' firm in faith and beautiful resolve, Seem'd set in silent sorrow. At last, one night, After a crowded meeting of the learned, A great physician and his father's friend Took him apart and whispered in his ear, — “Take care, my dear professor, of your boy! — I do not like that cough — he works too hard — His life is very precious to us all — Be sure to watch him well.”

                             From that day forth 

The father's heart was burthen'd with a dread He never phrased to any human ear. Hungrily, with sick hunger of the soul, He watched his treasure, sleepless ev'n by night, Like some wan miser who forever hears The robbers foot upon the creaking stair Coming to take his gold. He watch'd and watch'd, Hiding his terror with a cheerless smile, Each light or shade that softly chased itself On the sweet boyish face. Was it a dream? — Or did Death pass, and with a finger-point Leave one deep crimson spot on either cheek As signal of decay? No, no, not Death! Not Death, but Life, now made the blue eyes gleam So marvellously bright; the small hands grow Thin and blue vein'd, with pink blood glimmering thro' Like light thro' alabaster; the brave brow So marble-cold and clear! — Yet presently He led him to the great physicians house And asked for counsel. “Take him to the sea,” Said the physician; keep away all books; Let brain and body rest for three months space — Then, when we know what sun and sea can do To make him rosy, come to me again.”

     They went together to the sea, and there, 

Fann'd by the potent breath, the young mans cheek Grew brighter, and the father's heart took cheer. But one day, as they sat upon the beach, Watching the great smooth billows break themselves With solemn lapse upon the shell and sand, Justinian said, not loudly, in a voice As if communing softly with himself, “Father, if I should die!

                             The very word 

Seem'd sad and terrible and fraught with fear. And starting at the sound, the wise man cried, “Die? and so young! — that is a foolish thought! You cannot, will not, die!”

                             But with his eyes 

Fix'd on the ever-breaking line of foam, Justinian answer'd, Soon or late, death comes — A little earlier, or a little later, What matter? In the end we falter back Into the nothingness from which we rose. Well have you taught me, father, that our life Is but the climbing and the falling wave. I do not fear to die. No foolish tale Of priest or pope affrights me; I have read The secret of the world, and know indeed That death is silence and an end of all.”

“But you will live!”

                             “For what? To read again 

A tale thrice told; to hear a few more years The same cold answer to my questionings; To be a little wiser possibly, And being so, a little sadder? Nay! I am weary of it all I — have lived my life!”

     “Lived? cried the wise man holding the thin hand,

Lived? you, a stripling still, not yet a man — You know not what you say. When you are well (And 'twill be soon) you'll laugh at these sad moods And gather up your force to face anew For many a merry year the shocks of time. Have comfort! — I am sixty years of age, And am not weary yet!”

                             The young man smiled, 

And press'd the gentle hand that held his own. “Dear father, since we do not measure time Merely by seasons past, 'tis I am old, And you that are the boy! How cheerfully You con the lesson you have learned by heart So many a busy year. Why were we born? To come into the sunlight and demand Whence come we, whither go we, then to pass Back into silence and to nothingness. You say that life is long—alas! that life Which ends at all, is far too brief for me. Sixty years hence, if I could live till then, I should be no less bitter to depart, To pass into a silence and a sleep, Than this day, or to-morrow. Dearest father, My faith is firm as yours. I know full well There is no God or gods, as mad folk dream, Beyond these echoes: that with man’s last breath All individual being ends for ever, And with the chemic crystals of the brain Dries up that gas the preachers christen soul. Were I to live an hundred years and ten, To realise old wives’ and prophets’ tales Of man’s longevity, what could I learn Not taught already? I could hear no more Than I have heard; than you have taught me, father, Almost with my first breath.”

                             Then, in a voice

Broken and thick with tears, the wise man cried, “I have taught you over-much! — My son, my son, Forgive me for my love and over-zeal! I have been too cruel, placing on your strength, Too slight to bear it, such a weight of work As pales the cheek and rusts the wholesome blood. But you shall rest! throwing all books aside, We two will seek the breezes on the sea And on the mountains! Then you will be strong, And casting off these sad distemper’d fears, Become a man indeed!”

                             From that day forth 

The silken thread of love, that ran unseen Between the hearts of father and of son, Tighten’d with many a pang of hope and dread. Now for the first the father realized Parting was possible, and with sick suspense He watch’d the shadow and the sunbeam fight For victory on the pallid patient face. When winter came they flitted to the south, And there, amid a land of pine and vine, Under a sapphire sky, Justinian seem’d To gather strength and walk about renewed. Then ever in that fair land they heard the sound Of soft church-bells, and ever in their walks They came on rudely painted images Of Jesus and Madonna, and beheld At every step the shaven face of priests. Among these signs of blind and ignorant faith They walk’d like strangers in an alien clime, Wondering and pitying, pitied in their turn By all who saw them slowly pass along; The tall boy leaning on the father’s arm, The old man with a woman’s tender care Uplooking in his face, with sleepless eyes Watching his pearl of pearls.

                             At last they came

Unto a place most peaceful and most fair, Upon the margin of a crystal lake Set in the hollow of Italian hills. There an eternal summer seem’d to dwell, In an eternal calm. On every side The purple mountains rose, with filmy lights And slender scarfs of white and melting mist, While down below were happy orange groves And gleaming emerald slopes, and crimson crags Upon whose sides hung chalets white as snow Just peeping from deep fringe of flower and fern. And all, the crag and chalet, grove and wood, With snow-white gleams of silent cataracts For ever frozen in the act to fall, Were imaged, to the tiniest flower or leaf, In the cerulean mirror of the lake, — Save when across the stillness crystalline A gondola with purple shade crawl’d slowly And blurr’d the picture with its silvern trail.

Here then they rested, in a cottage set Upon the green edge of a promontory, Where, sitting side by side, with images Reflected in the azure sleeping lake, They often heard the boatman’s even-song Come from the distance like a sound in sleep; And often faintly from the crags o’erhead Tinkled the chapel bell. But day by day The young man felt the life-blood in his heart Fail more and more, till oftentimes his life Would seem as sad and faint and indistinct As those soft sounds. Once, as they linger’d there, A gentle Lutheran priest whose home was near Came, hearing that the youth was sick to death, And sought to give them comfort; but the sire, With something of a learned anger left, Tho’ gently, warn’d him from the sufferer’s side. Then coming to his son, “How far these priests Scent sorrow! — they would make the merry world A charnel-house to do their office in! I sent the preacher packing; he seemed vex’d To hear that you were growing strong and well And did not need his prayers;” and with a smile Of sad entreaty, “Yes, you are growing strong! And you will soon be well!”

                             Divinely blue

The heavens were bending o’er the young man’s head, Blue lay the peaceful lake, and in its breast Another heaven as divinely blue Throbb’d through its own soft sunlight rapturously. Propp’d in his chair Justinian gazed around. “Father,” he said, “dear father, hold my hand — In all the world there is no comfort left Like feeling your kind touch. Now listen to me! I know I shall not leave this place alive — My time has almost come!” —

                   “No, no!”
                             “Dear father!

When the faint flame of life is flickering low, They say that even mindless beasts and birds Know that the end is near; and lo, I know it, For all my sense grows dim. A little while, And I shall be a part of that soft sleep Upon the lake and on the purple hills And in the quiet grave where no shape stirs. But now it does not seem so hard to go, Since all life seems a dream within a dream And I myself the strangest dream of all. To those fair elements whence first I came — Water and earth and air — I shall return; And see! how tranquil and how beautiful They wait for me, the immortal ministers Of man and all that shares mortality!”

     Then in a voice that seemed the very sound

Of his own rending heart, the father cried, “My son! Justinian! child of mine old age! Sole comfort of my dark and dreary days! You cannot go! you cannot fade away! No, no, you must not die! How shall I live Bereft of you? Where shall my soul find rest, When all I cherish, all the loving mind That I have nurtured so, depart so soon? No, I will hold you — I will clasp you to me — Nothing shall part us, nay, not death itself; For if you die, my only boy, my pride, I will die too!” Then, as he clasped his son, And looked into the thin and tearful eyes, And felt the slight frame tremble through and through As if with chill of some cold blighting breath, He suddenly raised up his face to heaven And unaware, with a great gush of tears, Moaned “God! God! God!”

                             Startled at that strange cry,

Justinian murmur’d, “Father!” — and the two Clung close to one another tremulously In pain too quick for speech; but when the storm Of sudden agony had passed away, There came a pause — a long and tearful pause — And each could feel the other’s beating heart And the quick coming of the other’s breath. Then presently their eyes met, and a light Of some new wonder fill’d Justinian’s eyes, While softly, quietly, he said, “My father! Since I was but a babe upon the breast, And ever upward through the happy years, Your eyes have been the source of all my seeing, Your mind the living font of all my thoughts. Tell me, dear father — now, before we part — And tell me firmly, with no thought of fear, Is it forever? Have I read, indeed, My lesson truly? Tell me, am I right? For you have taught me truth is best of all — Is this the utter end of all our love, And shall we never meet and know each other Again, as we have known each other here?”

Then sobbing like a child the old man cried, “Ask me not! — Pity me, and ask no more! For lo, I seem as one whose house has fallen About his feet in ruins, and who stands Living, aghast, with ashes on his head, Clouded with horror, half awaked from sleep. I know there is no God — Nature herself, More mighty and more terrible than God, Hath taught me that — but till this piteous hour I never craved for God or named his name. I asked not for him, craved no alms of heaven, Nor hunger’d for another better life Than this we live; all that I sought on earth Was you, my child, my son. Stay with me here, Let us remain a little more together — And I shall be content.”

                             Then with a smile

Angelically sad, Justinian said: “It is enough — torture your heart no more. Hold to our faith — be strong — for though I die Fairer than I shall live. Now, read to me That sweet preamble of Lucretius I always loved so much, — because it brought The very breath of fields and happy flocks, With that great animal content and joy Which fills the earth to which we all return.”

     Then trembling, in a voice made thick with tears,

The old man at the bidding of the boy Read the rich periods of the only bard Who faced with fearless front unconquerable That shape so many see, — a Skeleton Standing amid the universal snow Of seeds atomic, pointing dimly down.

“For of the mighty scheme of heaven and gods I now shall sing, unfolding to thy gaze The everlasting principles of things Whence Nature forms, increases, and sustains All forms that are, and whither as they die She evermore dissolves each form again. These principles we in our human speech Call matter or the generative seeds, Bodies primordial whence all things that be Were marvellously fashioned from the first.” [1]

With eyes half closed, his face suffused with sunlight, The pale boy listen’d, while the verse flow’d on.

“This darkness, this deep shadow of the mind, Neither the sunrise nor the darts of day Have power to scatter; but it shall dissolve Before the light of reason and the face Of Nature’s self. First, for exordium, Lay thou to heart this first great principle — Nought e’er is form’d from nought by power divine . . . But when we have studied deep and comprehend That power divine can ne’er make nought from nought, Then shall we know that which we seek to know — How everything is fashion’d first and last, And all things wrought without the help of God!” [2]

     So far he read, and paused; and as he paused

A change came o’er the face he gazed upon, As if a finger touch’d the brow and eyes. The father shriek’d and shudder’d, shrinking back In nameless awe, for in a moment’s space, Though all the air was sunny overhead, And all the lake was golden at their feet, The twain were cover’d with a shadow cast By some dark shape unseen.

                             “Hold my hand, father,

For I am dying!”

                   Then the white face flash’d

To one wild look of passionate farewell, And silently, without another word, The last sad breath was drawn.

                             They bore him in —

How and by whom the gentle deed was done The father knew not, being dazed and stunn’d, But follow’d moaning, while upon his bed They placed him down; and when that afternoon A pallid sister from the convent came To do the last sad offices of death, The old man only watch’d her in a trance And made no sign; but when, her kind task done, She touch’d him, saying in her own soft speech, “Signor, I trust he died in the full faith Of Christ our Lord!” he gave a laugh so strange, So terrible and yet so pitiful, She thought his wits were gone.

                             Fair as a star,

Justinian lay upon his bed of death, And seeing him so young and beautiful The sister gathered lilies in the garden And strew’d them on his breast; then reverently She bless’d him; and the old man look’d at her, Trembling as in a trance; but suddenly Uprising, in a hollow voice he cried, Pointing her to the door with quivering hands, “Begone! profane him not! from life to death I kept him safe from Superstition’s touch! My boy! you shall not take him from me now!

__________

The following is the original text of the passages of Lucretius translated in the text and printed in italics: —

^  Nam tibi de summa coeli ratione deûmque Disserere incipiam, et rerum primordia pandam; Unde omnes natura creet res, auctet alatque; Quove eadem rursum natura perempta resolvat; Quæ nos materiem, et genitalia corpora rebus Reddenda in ratione vocare, et semina rerum Appellare suëmus, et hæc eadem usurpare Corpora prima, quod ex illis sunt omnia primis.

                             De Rer. Nat., Book i. 54-62.

^  Hunc igitur terrorem animi tenebrasque necesse est Non radii solis, neque lucida tela diei Discutiant, sed naturæ species, ratioque: Principium hinc cujus nobis exordia sumet, Nullam rem e nihilo gigni divinitus unquam. . . . Quas ob res, ubi viderimus nil posse creari De nihilo, tum, quod sequimur, jam rectius inde Perspiciemus, et unde queat res quæque creari, Et quo quæque modo fiant opera sine divûm.

                             De Rer. Nat., Book i. 147-151, 155-159.