Sagas of Vaster Britain: Poems of the Race, the Empire and the Divinity of Man

by William Wilfred Campbell


 

UNABSOLVED

(A DRAMATIC MONOLOGUE)


 

This poem is founded on the confession of a man who went with
one of the expeditions to save Sir John Franklin’s party, and who,
being sent ahead, saw signs of them, but through cowardice was
afraid to tell.

 

O FATHER, hear my tale, then pity me,
For even God His pity hath withdrawn.
O death was dread and awful in those days!
You prate of hell and punishment to come,
And endless torments made for those who sin.

5
Stern priest, put down your cross and hearken me;—
I see for ever a white glinting plain,
From night to night across the twinkling dark,
A world of cold and fear and dread and death,
And poor lost ones who starve and pinch and die;—
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I could have saved them—I—yea, even I.
You talk of hell! Is hell to see poor frames,
Wan, leathery cheeks, and dull, despairing eyes,
From whence a low-flamed madness, ebbing out,
Goes slowly deathward through the eerie hours?
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To hear for ever pitiless, icy winds
Stir in the shivering canvas of the tent,
With idle, brute curiosity nature hath,
While out around, one universe of death,
Stretches the loveless, hearthless, Arctic night?
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This is my doom, it sitteth by my side,
And never leaves me through the desolate years.
Go, take your hell to men who never lived,
Save as the slow world wendeth, sluggish, dull.
Even they must suffer also, poor bleak ones,
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Then is your feeble comfort nothing worth.
You tell me to have hope, God will forgive.
O priest, can God forgive a sin like mine?
You say He is all-loving, did He lie
With me that night amid the eyeless dark,
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And writhe with me, and whisper, ‘Save thyself,
That way to North lies cold and age and death,
And awful failure on men’s awed tongues,
To linger years hereafter; southward lies
Home, heat, and love, and sweet, blood-pulsing life,—
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Life, with its morns and eves and glad to-morrows,
And joy and hope for many days to be?’

Did He, I say, lie with me there that night,
And know that awful tragedy beyond,
And my poor tragedy enacted there?

40
Then must He feel Him since as I have felt,
And live that hideous misery in His heart.
And, knowing this, I say unto thee, priest,
He could not be a God and say, forgive.
You plead my soul’s salvation the one end
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And aim of all my thought; then hearken, priest,
For this is my sin hath made me more than wise:—
That seems to me the one great sin I sinned
In selling all to save mine evil self.

Stay, hearken, priest, and haunt me not with hopes

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As futile as those icy-fingered winds
That stirred the canvas there that Arctic night.
I bid thee hark and mumble not thy prayers
Like August bees heard in a summer room,
That drone afar, but keep them for the dead,
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The dull-eared dead who sleep and heed them not.
You say the Church absolves, you speak of peace;
You talk of what not even God can do,
Be He but what you make Him. In my light,—
And mine is light of one who knows the case,
60
The facts, the reasons, and hath weighed them too,—
There is but one absolver, the absolved.

For I, since that far, fatal Arctic night,
Have been alone in some dread, shadowy court,
Where I was judge and guilty prisoner too.

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Words, words are empty; were life built on words,
How rich the poor would grow, the weak be strong,
The hateful loving, and the scornful weak!—
The king would be a peasant, and the poor
A king in his own right; the murderer, red
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From his foul guilt, would pass to God’s own breast,
And all damned things, long damned of earth’s consent,
And some dread law much older far than we,
Would blossom righteous under heaven’s face.

Still fared we north across that frozen waste

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Of icy horror ringed with awful night,
To seek the living in a world of death;
And as we fared a terror grew and grew
About my heart like madness, till I dreamed
A vague desire to flee by night and creep,
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By steel-blue, windless plain and haunted wood,
And wizened shore and headland, once more south.
There, as we went, the days grew wan and shrunk,
And nights grew vast and weird and beautiful,
Walled with flame-glories of auroral light,
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Ringing the frozen world with myriad spears
Of awful splendour there across the night.
And ever anon a shadowy, spectral pack
Of gleaming eyes and panting, lurid tongues
Haunted the lone horizon toward the south.
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Long day by day a desolation went
Where our wan faces fared, o’er all that waste;
And I was young and filled with love of life,
And fear of ugly death as some weird black,
The enemy of love and youth and joy;
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A lonely, ruined bridge at end of night,
Fading in blackness at the outer end.
And those were cold, stern men I went with there,
Who held their lives as men do hold a gift
Not worth the keeping; men who told dread tales,
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That made a madness in me of that waste
And all its hellish, lonely solitude,
And set my heart abeating for the south,
Until that awful desolation ringed
My reason round, and shrunk my fearful heart.
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Yea, Father, I had saved them but for this;—
Why did they send me on alone, ahead,
Poor me, the only weak one of that band,
Who was too much of a coward to show my fear?
Why did life give me that mad fear of death,
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To make me selfish at the very last?
Why did God give those men into my hand,
And leave them victim to a craven fear
That walked those lonely wastes in form of man?

No, Father, take your cross, mine is a pain

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That only distant ages can outburn.
Forgiveness! No, you know not what you say;
You churchmen mumble words as charmers do,
And talk of God and love so glib and pat,
And think you reach men’s souls and give them light,
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When all the time my spirit is to you
A land unfound, a region far removed,
Where walk dim ghosts of thoughts and fears and pains
You never dreamed of. What know you of souls
Like this of mine that hath girt misery’s sum
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And found the black with which God veils his face?

Then hearken, priest, and learn thee of my woe,
For I have lain afar on northern nights,
By star-filled wastes, and conned it o’er and o’er,
And thought on God, and life, and many things,

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And all the baffling mystery of the dark.
And I have held that awful rendezvous
Of naked self with self alone and bare,
And knew myself as men have never known;—
Have fought the duel, flashing hilt to hilt,
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And blade to blade, of flesh and spirit there,
Until I lay a weak and wounded thing,
Like some poor, mangled bird the sportsman leaves
Writhing and twisting there amid the dark.

You talk of ladders leading up to light,

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Of windows bursting on the perfect day,
Of dawns grown ruddy on the blackest night.
Yea, I have groped about the muffled walls,
And beat my spirit’s prison all in vain,
Only to find them shrouded fold on fold;
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And still the cruel, icy stars look down,
And my dread memory stayeth with me still.

It was a strange, mad quest we went upon,
To seek the living in the lifeless North.
For days, and days, and long, lone, loveless nights,

150
We set our faces toward the Arctic sky,
And threaded wastes of that lone wilderness,
Beyond the lands of summer and glad spring,
Beyond the regions kind of flower and bird,
Past glint horizons of auroral gleams,
155
A haunted world of winter’s wizened sleep,
Where death, a giant, aged, and stark and wan,
Kept fast the entrance of those sunless caves
Where hides the day beyond the icy seas.

Then life ebbed lower in the bravest heart,

160
And spake the leader, ‘If in ten more days
We chance on nothing, then will we return,
And set our faces once more to the south.’
For that dread land began to close us in,
With cold and hunger, bit at our poor limbs,
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Till life grew there a feeble, flickering flame,
Amid the snows and ice-floes of that land.
Then ten days crept out shrunk and grey and wan,
With nothing but the lonely, haunted waste.
Then spake the leader, ‘If in five more days !’
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Then parcelled out those five grey, haggard days,
While life to me grew like an ebbing tide,
That surged far out from some dread death-like strand.
And horror came upon me like the night,
That seemed to gird the world in desolate walls.
175
Then spake the leader, ‘If in three more days !’

But when the third day waned we came, at last,
Unto the shores of some dread, lonely sea,
That gloomed to North and night, and far beyond,
Where ruined straits and headlands loomed and sank,

180
There seemed the awful endings of the world.

Then spake the leader, ‘Let us go not yet,
But stay a little ere we turn us south,
Perchance, poor souls, they might be somewhere here.’
And then to me, ‘You go, for you are young

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And strong, and life throbs quickest in your veins,
And you have eyes more strong to see, for ours
Are dimmed by the dread frost-mists of this land;
And creep out there beyond yon gleaming ledge,
And bring me word of what you there may see.
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And if you meet no sign of mast or sail,
Or hull or wreck, or mark of living soul,
Then we will turn our faces to the south;
For this great ocean’s vastness hems us in,
And death here nightly creeps from strand to strand,
195
And binds us with girth of black the gleaming world.’

Then, whispering ‘Madness, madness,’ to the dark,
I crept me fearful o’er that gleaming ledge,
And saw but night and awful gulfs of dark,
And weird ice-mountains looming desolate there,

200
And far beyond the vastness of that sea.
And then—O God, why died I not that hour?—
Amid the gleaming floes far up that shore,
So far it seemed that man’s foot scarce could go,
The certain, tapering outline of a mast,
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And one small patch of rag; and then I felt
No man could ever live to reach that place,
And horror seized me of that haunted world,
That I should die there and be froze for aye,
Amid the ice-core of its awful heart.
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Then crept I back, the weak ghost of a life,
A miserable, shaking, coffined fear,
And spake, ‘I saw but ice and winds and dark,
And the dread vastness of that desolate sea.’
Again he spake, ‘Creep out once more and look;
215
Perchance your sight was misled by the gleam.’
And then once more I crept out on that ledge,
And saw again the night and awful dark,
And that poor beckoning mast that haunts me yet;
And as I lay those moments seemed to grow,
220
As men have felt in looking down long years,
And there I chose ‘’twixt evil and the good,’
And took the evil; then began my hell,
And back I crept with that black lie on lips,
And spake again, ‘I only saw the night,
225
And those weird mountains and the awful deep.’
At that he moaned and spake, ‘Poor souls! poor souls!
Then they are doomed if ever men were doomed.’
Whereat a sudden, great auroral flame
Filled all the heaven, lighting wastes and sea,
230
And came a wondrous shock across the world,
Like sounds of far-off battle where hosts die,
As if God thundered back mine awful lie,
And I fell in a heap where all was black.

When next I lived, we were full three days south,

235
And two had died upon that dreadful march;
Then memory came, and I went laughing mad,
But kept mine awful secret to this hour.

No, priest, you can do nothing; pain like mine
Must smoulder out in its own agony,

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Till there be naught but ashes at the last.
But something ’mid the pauses of the dark
Doth teach me that I am not all alone;
For I have dreamed in my dread, maddest hour,
An awful shadow, blacker than my black,
245
Went ever with me. Hearken to me now:
I never felt a hand or saw a face,
I never knew a comfort more than sleep,
The winters they are only barren snows,
And age is hard, and death waits at the last.
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But I have felt in some dim, shapeless way,
As memories long remembered after youth,
That back of all there is some mighty will,
Beyond the little dreams that we are here,
Beyond the misery of our days and years,
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Beyond the outmost system’s outmost rim,
Where wrinkled suns in awful blackness swim,
A wondrous mercy that is working still.