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Poem by William Wordsworth
Suggested in a Steamboat off St. Bees Heads, on the Coast of Cumberland IF life were slumber on a bed of down, Toil unimposed, vicissitude unknown, Sad were our lot: no hunter of the hare Exults like him whose javelin from the lair Has roused the lion; no one plucks the rose, Whose proffered beauty in safe shelter blows Mid a trim garden’s summer luxuries, With joy like his who climbs, on hands and knees, For some rare plant, yon headland of St. Bees. This independence upon oar and sail, This new indifference to breeze or gale, This straight-lined progress, furrowing a flat lea, And regular as if locked in certainty, Depress the hours. Up, spirit of the storm! That courage may find something to perform; That fortitude, whose blood disdains to freeze At danger’s bidding, may confront the seas, Firm as the towering headlands of St. Bees. Dread cliff of Baruth! that wild wish may sleep, Bold as if men and creatures of the deep Breathed the same element; too many wrecks Have struck thy sides, too many ghastly decks Hast thou looked down upon, that such a thought Should here be welcome, and in verse enwrought: With thy stern aspect better far agrees Utterance of thanks, that we have past with ease, As millions thus shall do, the headlands of St. Bees. Yet, while each useful art augments her store, What boots the gain if nature should lose more? And wisdom, as she holds a Christian place In man’s intelligence sublimed by grace? When Bega sought of yore the Cumbrian coast, Tempestuous winds her holy errand crossed: She knelt in prayer,—the waves their wrath appease; And from her vow, well weighed in Heaven’s decrees, Rose, where she touched the strand, the Chantry of St. Bees. “Cruel of heart were they, bloody of hand,” Who in these wilds then struggled for command; The strong were merciless, without hope the weak; Till this bright stranger came, fair as daybreak, And as a cresset true that darts its length Of beamy lustre from a tower of strength; Guiding the mariner through troubled seas, And cheering oft his peaceful reveries, Like the fixed light that crowns yon headland of St. Bees. To aid the votaress, miracles believed Wrought in men’s minds, like miracles achieved; So piety took root; and song might tell What humanizing virtues near her cell Sprang up, and spread their fragrance wide around; How savage bosoms melted at the sound Of gospel truth enchained in harmonies Wafted o’er waves, or creeping through close trees, From her religious mansion of St. Bees. When her sweet voice, that instrument of love, Was glorified, and took its place, above The silent stars, among the angelic choir, Her Chantry blazed with sacrilegious fire, And perished utterly; but her good deeds Had sown the spot that witnessed them with seeds Which lay in earth expectant, till a breeze With quickening impulse answered their mute pleas, And lo! a statelier pile, the Abbey of St. Bees. There are the naked clothed, the hungry fed; And Charity extendeth to the dead Her intercessions made for the soul’s rest Of tardy penitents; or for the best Among the good (when love might else have slept, Sickened, or died) in pious memory kept. Thanks to the austere and simple devotees, Who, to that service bound by venial fees, Keep watch before the altars of St. Bees. Are not, in sooth, their requiems sacred ties Woven out of passion’s sharpest agonies, Subdued, composed, and formalized by art, To fix a wiser sorrow in the heart? The prayer for them whose hour is past away Says to the living, Profit while ye may! A little part, and that the worst, he sees, Who thinks that priestly cunning holds the keys That best unlock the secrets of St. Bees. Conscience, the timid being’s inmost light, Hope of the dawn and solace of the night, Cheers these recluses with a steady ray In many an hour when judgment goes astray. Ah! scorn not hastily their rule who try Earth to despise and flesh to mortify, Consume with zeal, in wingéd ecstasies Of prayer and praise forget their rosaries, Nor hear the loudest surges of St. Bees. Yet none so prompt to succor and protect The forlorn traveller, or sailor wrecked On the bare coast; nor do they grudge the boon Which staff and cockle hat and sandal shoon Claim for the pilgrim: and, though chidings sharp May sometimes greet the strolling minstrel’s harp, It is not then when, swept with sportive ease, It charms a feast-day throng of all degrees, Brightening the archway of revered St. Bees. How did the cliffs and echoing hills rejoice What time the Benedictine Brethren’s voice, Imploring, or commanding with meet pride, Summoned the chiefs to lay their feuds aside, And under one blest ensign serve the Lord In Palestine. Advance, indignant Sword! Flaming till thou from Painim hands release That tomb, dread centre of all sanctities Nursed in the quiet Abbey of St. Bees. But look we now to them whose minds from far Follow the fortunes which they may not share. While in Judæa fancy loves to roam, She helps to make a Holy Land at home: The Star of Bethlehem from its sphere invites To sound the crystal depth of maiden rights; And wedded life, through Scriptural mysteries, Heavenward ascends with all her charities, Taught by the hooded celibates of St. Bees. Nor be it e’er forgotten how by skill Of cloistered architects, free their souls to fill With love of God, throughout the land were raised Churches, on whose symbolic beauty gazed Peasant and mail-clad chief with pious awe; As at this day men seeing what they saw, Or the bare wreck of faith’s solemnities, Aspire to more than earthly destinies; Witness yon pile that greets us from St. Bees. Yet more; around those churches gathered towns Safe from the feudal castle’s haughty frowns; Peaceful abodes, where justice might uphold Her scales with even hand, and culture mould The heart to pity, train the mind in care For rules of life, sound as the time could bear. Nor dost thou fail, through abject love of ease, Or hindrance raised by sordid purposes, To bear thy part in this good work, St. Bees. Who with the ploughshare clove the barren moors, And to green meadows changed the swampy shores? Thinned the rank woods; and for the cheerful grange Made room where wolf and boar were used to range? Who taught, and showed by deeds, that gentler chains Should bind the vassal to his lord’s domains? The thoughtful monks, intent their God to please, For Christ’s dear sake, by human sympathies Poured from the bosom of thy church, St. Bees! But all availed not; by a mandate given Through lawless will, the brotherhood was driven Forth from their cells; their ancient house laid low In Reformation’s sweeping overthrow. But now once more the local heart revives, The inextinguishable spirit strives. O, may that Power who hushed the stormy seas, And cleared a way for the first votaries, Prosper the new-born College of St. Bees! Alas! the genius of our age from schools Less humble draws her lessons, aims, and rules. To prowess guided by her insight keen Matter and spirit are as one machine; Boastful idolatress of formal skill, She in her own would merge the Eternal Will: Better, if reason’s triumphs match with these, Her flight before the bold credulities That furthered the first teaching of St. Bees.
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