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Poem by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Is It all Vanity?

  Doubting of life, my spirit paused perplext
    Let fall its fardell of laborious care,
  And the sharp cry of my great trouble vext
                  Unsympathizing air.

  Out on this choice of unrewarded toil,
    This upward path into the realm of snow!
  Oh for one glimpse of the old happy soil
                  Fragrant with flowers below!

  For what false gold, like alchemists, we yearn,
    Wasting the wealth we never can recall,
  Joy and life's lavish prime;--and our return?
                  Ashes, cold ashes, all!

  Could youth but dream what narrow burial-urns
    Hopes that went forth to conquer worlds should hold,
  How in a tomb the lamp Experience burns
                  Amidst the dust of old!--

  Look back, how all the beautiful Ideal,
    Sporting in doubtful moonlight, one by one
  Fade from the rising of the hard-eyed Real,
                  Like Fairies from the sun.

  Love render'd saintlike by its pure devotion;
    Knowledge exulting lone by shoreless seas
  And Feelings tremulous to each emotion,
                  As May leaves to the breeze.

  And, oh, that grand Ambition, poet-nurst,
    When boyhood's heart swells up to the Sublime,
  And on the gaze the towers of Glory first
                  Flash from the peaks of Time!

  Are they then wiser who but nurse the growth
    Of joys in life's most common element,
  Creeping from hour to hour in that calm sloth
                  Which Egoists call "Content?"

  Who freight for storms no hopeful argosy,
    Who watch no beacon wane on hilltops grey,
  Who bound their all, where from the human eye
                  The horizon fades away?

  Alas for Labour, if indeed more wise
    To drink life's tide unwitting where it flows;
  Renounce the arduous palm, and only prize
                  The Cnidian vine and rose!

  Out from the Porch the Stoic cries "For shame!"
    What hast thou left us, Stoic, in thy school?
  "That pain or pleasure is but in the name?"
                  Go, prick thy finger, fool!

  Never grave Pallas, never Muse severe
    Charm'd this hard life like the free, zoneless Grace;
  Pleasure is sweet, in spite of every sneer
                  On Zeno's wrinkled face.

  What gain'd and left ye to this age of ours
    Ye early priesthoods of the Isis, Truth,--
  When light first glimmer'd from the Cuthite's towers;
                  When Thebes was in her youth?

  When to the weird Chaldæan spoke the seer,
    When Hades open'd at Heraclean spells,
  When Fate made Nature her interpreter
                  In leaves and murmuring wells?

  When the keen Greek chased flying Science on,
    Upward and up the infinite abyss?--
  Like perish'd stars your arts themselves have gone
                  Noiseless to nothingness!

  And what is knowledge but the Wizard's ring,
    Kindling a flame to circumscribe a ground?
  The belt of light that lures the spirit's wing
                  Hems the invoker round.

  Ponder and ask again "what boots our toil?"
    Can we the Garden's wanton child gainsay,
  When from kind lips he culls their rosy spoil
                  And lives life's holiday?

  Life answers "No--if ended here be life,
    Seize what the sense can give--it is thine all;
  Disarm thee, Virtue, barren is thy strife;
                  Knowledge, thy torch let fall.

  "Seek thy lost Psyche, yearning Love, no more!
    Love is but lust, if soul be only breath;
  Who would put forth one billow from the shore
                  If the great sea be--Death?"

  But if the soul, that slow artificer
    For ends its instinct rears _from_ life hath striven,
  Feeling beneath its patient webwork stir
                  Wings only freed in Heaven,

  Then and but then to toil is to be wise;
    Solved is the riddle of the grand desire
  Which ever, ever, for the Distant sighs,
                  And must perforce aspire.

  Rise, then, my soul, take comfort from thy sorrow;
    Thou feel'st thy treasure when thou feel'st thy load;
  Life without thought, the day without the morrow,
                  God on the brute bestow'd;

  Longings obscure as for a native clime,
    Flight from what is to live in what may be,
  God gave the Soul.--Thy discontent with Time
                  Proves thine eternity.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Edward Bulwer-Lytton's other poems:
  1. The Love of Maturer Years
  2. The Desire of Fame
  3. Lost and Avenged
  4. The Loyalty of Love
  5. The Treasures by the Wayside

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