A Christmas Chant

A poem by Abram Joseph Ryan

They ask me to sing them a Christmas song
That with musical mirth shall ring;
How know I that the world's great throng
Will care for the words I sing?

Let the young and the gay chant the Christmas lay,
Their voices and hearts are glad;
But I -- I am old, and my locks are gray,
And they tell me my voice is sad.

Ah! once I could sing, when my heart beat warm
With hopes, bright as life's first spring;
But the spring hath fled, and the golden charm
Hath gone from the songs I sing.

I have lost the spell that my verse could weave
O'er the souls of the old and young,
And never again -- how it makes me grieve --
Shall I sing as once I sung.

Why ask a song? ah! perchance you believe,
Since my days are so nearly past,
That the song you'll hear on this Christmas eve
Is the old man's best and last.

Do you want the jingle of rhythm and rhyme?
Art's sweet but meaningless notes?
Or the music of thought, that, like the chime
Of a grand cathedral, floats

Out of each word, and along each line,
Into the spirit's ear,
Lifting it up and making it pine
For a something far from here;

Bearing the wings of the soul aloft
From earth and its shadows dim;
Soothing the breast with a sound as soft
As a dream, or a seraph's hymn;

Evoking the solemnest hopes and fears
From our being's higher part;
Dimming the eyes with radiant tears
That flow from a spell bound heart?

Do they want a song that is only a song,
With no mystical meanings rife?
Or a music that solemnly moves along --
The undertone of a life!

Well, then, I'll sing, though I know no art,
Nor the poet's rhymes nor rules --
A melody moves through my aged heart
Not learned from the books or schools:

A music I learned in the days long gone --
I cannot tell where or how --
But no matter where, it still sounds on
Back of this wrinkled brow.

And down in my heart I hear it still,
Like the echoes of far-off bells;
Like the dreamy sound of a summer rill
Flowing through fairy dells.

But what shall I sing for the world's gay throng,
And what the words of the old man's song?

The world they tell me, is so giddy grown
That thought is rare;
And thoughtless minds and shallow hearts alone
Hold empire there;

That fools have prestige, place and power and fame;
Can it be true
That wisdom is a scorn, a hissing shame,
And wise are few?

They tell me, too, that all is venal, vain,
With high and low;
That truth and honor are the slaves of gain;
Can it be so?

That lofty principle hath long been dead
And in a shroud;
That virtue walks ashamed, with downcast head,
Amid the crowd.

They tell me, too, that few they are who own
God's law and love;
That thousands, living for this earth alone,
Look not above;

That daily, hourly, from the bad to worse,
Men tread the path,
Blaspheming God, and careless of the curse
Of his dead wrath.

And must I sing for slaves of sordid gain,
Or to the few
Shall I not dedicate this Christmas strain
Who still are true?

No; not for the false shall I strike the strings
Of the lyre that was mute so long;
If I sing at all, the gray bard sings
For the few and the true his song.

And ah! there is many a changeful mood
That over my spirit steals;
Beneath their spell, and in verses rude,
Whatever he dreams or feels.

Whatever the fancies this Christmas eve
Are haunting the lonely man,
Whether they gladden, or whether they grieve,
He'll sing them as best he can.

Though some of the strings of his lyre are broke
This holiest night of the year,
Who knows how its melody may wake
A Christmas smile or a tear?

So on with the mystic song,
With its meaning manifold --
Two tones in every word,
Two thoughts in every tone;
In the measured words that move along
One meaning shall be heard,
One thought to all be told;
But under it all, to be alone --
And under it all, to all unknown --
As safe as under a coffin-lid,
Deep meanings shall be hid.
Find them out who can!
The thoughts concealed and unrevealed
In the song of the lonely man.

* * * * *

I'm sitting alone in my silent room
This long December night,
Watching the fire-flame fill the gloom
With many a picture bright.
Ah! how the fire can paint!
Its magic skill, how strange!
How every spark
On the canvas dark
Draws figures and forms so quaint!
And how the pictures change!
One moment how they smile!
And in less than a little while,
In the twinkling of an eye,
Like the gleam of a summer sky,
The beaming smiles all die.

From gay to grave -- from grave to gay --
The faces change in the shadows gray;
And just as I wonder who they are,
Over them all,
Like a funeral pall,
The folds of the shadows droop and fall,
And the charm is gone,
And every one
Of the pictures fade away.

Ah! the fire within my grate
Hath more than Raphael's power,
Is more than Raphael's peer;
It paints for me in a little hour
More than he in a year;
And the pictures hanging 'round me here
This holy Christmas eve
No artist's pencil could create --
No painter's art conceive;

Ah! those cheerful faces,
Wearing youthful graces!
I gaze on them until I seem
Half awake and half in dream.
There are brows without a mark,
Features bright without a shade;
There are eyes without a tear;
There are lips unused to sigh.
Ah! never mind -- you soon shall die!
All those faces soon shall fade,
Fade into the dreary dark
Like their pictures hanging here.
-- Lo! those tearful faces,
Bearing age's traces!

I gaze on them, and they on me,
Until I feel a sorrow steal
Through my heart so drearily;
There are faces furrowed deep;
There are eyes that used to weep;
There are brows beneath a cloud;
There are hearts that want to sleep;
Never mind! the shadows creep
From the death-land; and a shroud,
Tenderly as mother's arm,
Soon shall shield the old from harm,
Soon shall wrap its robe of rest
Round each sorrow-haunted breast
Ah! that face of mother's,
Sister's, too, and brother's --
And so many others,
Dear is every name --
And Ethel! Thou art there,
With thy child-face sweet and fair,
And thy heart so bright
In its shroud so white;
Just as I saw you last
In the golden, happy past;
And you seem to wear
Upon your hair --
Your waving, golden hair --
The smile of the setting sun.
Ah! me, how years will run!
But all the years cannot efface
Your purest name, your sweetest grace,
From the heart that still is true
Of all the world to you;
The other faces shine,
But none so fair as thine;
And wherever they are to-night, I know
They look the very same
As in their pictures hanging here
This night, to memory dear,
And painted by the flames,
With tombstones in the background,
And shadows for their frames.

And thus with my pictures only,
And the fancies they unweave,
Alone, and yet not lonely,
I keep my Christmas eve.
I'm sitting alone in my pictured room --
But, no! they have vanished all --
I'm watching the fire-glow fade into gloom,
I'm watching the ashes fall.
And far away back of the cheerful blaze
The beautiful visions of by-gone days
Are rising before my raptured gaze.
Ah! Christmas fire, so bright and warm,
Hast thou a wizard's magic charm
To bring those far-off scenes so near
And make my past days meet me here?

Tell me -- tell me -- how is it?
The past is past, and here I sit,
And there, lo! there before me rise,
Beyond yon glowing flame,
The summer suns of childhood's skies,
Yes -- yes -- the very same!
I saw them rise long, long ago;
I played beneath their golden glow;
And I remember yet,
I often cried with strange regret
When in the west I saw them set
And there they are again;
The suns, the skies, the very days
Of childhood, just beyond that blaze!
But, ah! such visions almost craze
The old man's puzzled brain!
I thought the past was past!
But, no! it cannot be;
'Tis here to-night with me!

How is it, then? the past of men
Is part of one eternity --
The days of yore we so deplore,
They are not dead -- they are not fled,
They live and live for evermore.
And thus my past comes back to me
With all its visions fair.

O past! could I go back to thee,
And live forever there!
But, no! there's frost upon my hair;
My feet have trod a path of care;
And worn and wearied here I sit
I am too tired to go to it.

And thus with visions only,
And the fancies they unweave,
Alone, and yet not lonely,
I keep my Christmas eve.

I am sitting alone in my fire-lit room;
But, no! the fire is dying,
And the weary-voiced winds, in the outer gloom,
Are sad, and I hear them sighing.
The wind hath a voice to pine --
Plaintive, and pensive and low;
Hath it a heart like mine or thine?
Knoweth it weal or woe?
How it wails in a ghost-like strain,
Just against that window pane!
As if it were tired of its long, cold flight,
And wanted to rest with me to-night.
Cease! night-winds, cease!
Why should you be sad?
This is a night of joy and peace,
And heaven and earth are glad!
But still the wind's voice grieves!
Perchance o'er the fallen leaves,
Which, in their summer bloom,
Danced to the music of bird and breeze,
But, torn from the arms of their parent trees,
Lie now in their wintry tomb --
Mute types of man's own doom.

And thus with the night winds only,
And the fancies they unweave,
Alone, and yet not lonely,
I keep my Christmas eve.

How long have I been dreaming here?
Or have I dreamed at all?
My fire is dead -- my pictures fled --
There's nothing left but shadows drear --
Shadows on the wall:

Shifting, flitting,
Round me sitting
In my old arm chair --
Rising, sinking
Round me, thinking,
Till, in the maze of many a dream,
I'm not myself; and I almost seem
Like one of the shadows there.
Well, let the shadows stay!
I wonder who are they?
I cannot say; but I almost believe
They know to-night is Christmas eve,
And to-morrow Christmas day.

Ah! there's nothing like a Christmas eve
To change life's bitter gall to sweet,
And change the sweet to gall again;
To take the thorns from out our feet --
The thorns and all their dreary pain,
Only to put them back again.

To take old stings from out our heart --
Old stings that made them bleed and smart --
Only to sharpen them the more,
And press them back to the heart's own core.

Ah! no eve is like the Christmas eve!
Fears and hopes, and hopes and fears,
Tears and smiles, and smiles and tears,
Cheers and sighs, and sighs and cheers,
Sweet and bitter, bitter, sweet,
Bright and dark, and dark and bright.
All these mingle, all these meet,
In this great and solemn night.

Ah! there's nothing like a Christmas eve
To melt, with kindly glowing heat,
From off our souls the snow and sleet,
The dreary drift of wintry years,
Only to make the cold winds blow,
Only to make a colder snow;
And make it drift, and drift, and drift,
In flakes so icy-cold and swift,
Until the heart that lies below
Is cold and colder than the snow.

And thus with the shadows only,
And the dreamings they unweave,
Alone, and yet not lonely,
I keep my Christmas eve.

'Tis passing fast!
My fireless, lampless room
Is a mass of moveless gloom;
And without -- a darkness vast,
Solemn -- starless -- still!
Heaven and earth doth fill.

But list! there soundeth a bell,
With a mystical ding, dong, dell!
Is it, say, is it a funeral knell?
Solemn and slow,
Now loud -- now low;
Pealing the notes of human woe
Over the graves lying under the snow!
Ah! that pitiless ding, dong, dell!
Trembling along the gale,
Under the stars and over the snow.
Why is it? whence is it sounding so?
Is it a toll of a burial bell?

Or is it a spirit's wail?
Solemnly, mournfully,
Sad -- and how lornfully!
Ding, dong, dell!
Whence is it? who can tell?
And the marvelous notes they sink and swell,
Sadder, and sadder, and sadder still!
How the sounds tremble! how they thrill!
Every tone
So like a moan;
As if the strange bell's stranger clang
Throbbed with a terrible human pang.

Ding, dong, dell!
Dismally, drearily,
Ever so wearily.
Far off and faint as a requiem plaint
Floats the deep-toned voice of the mystic bell
Piercingly -- thrillingly,
Icily -- chillingly,
Near -- and more near,
Drearer -- and more drear,
Soundeth the wild, weird, ding, dong, dell!

Now sinking lower,
It tolleth slower!
I list, and I hear its sound no more.
And now, methinks, I know that bell,
Know it well -- know its knell --
For I often heard it sound before.

It is a bell -- yet not a bell
Whose sound may reach the ear!
It tolls a knell -- yet not a knell
Which earthly sense may hear.
In every soul a bell of dole
Hangs ready to be tolled;
And from that bell a funeral knell
Is often outward rolled;
And memory is the sexton gray
Who tolls the dreary knell;
And nights like this he loves to sway
And swing his mystic bell.
'Twas that I heard and nothing more,
This lonely Christmas eve;
Then, for the dead I'll meet no more,
At Christmas let me grieve.

Night, be a priest! put your star-stole on
And murmur a holy prayer
Over each grave, and for every one
Lying down lifeless there!

And over the dead stands the high priest, Night,
Robed in his shadowy stole;
And beside him I kneel as his acolyte,
To respond to his prayer of dole.

And list! he begins
That psalm for sins,
The first of the mournful seven;
Plaintive and soft
It rises aloft,
Begging the mercy of Heaven
To pity and forgive,
For the sake of those who live,
The dead who have died unshriven.
Miserere! Miserere!
Still your heart and hush your breath!
The voices of despair and death
Are shuddering through the psalm!
Miserere! Miserere!
Lift your hearts! the terror dies!
Up in yonder sinless skies
The psalms sound sweet and calm!
Miserere! Miserere!
Very low, in tender tones,
The music pleads, the music moans,
"I forgive and have forgiven,
The dead whose hearts were shriven."
De profundis! De profundis!
Psalm of the dead and disconsolate!
Thou hast sounded through a thousand years,
And pealed above ten thousand biers;
And still, sad psalm, you mourn the fate
Of sinners and of just,
When their souls are going up to God,
Their bodies down to dust.
Dread hymn! you wring the saddest tears
From mortal eyes that fall,
And your notes evoke the darkest fears
That human hearts appall!
You sound o'er the good, you sound o'er the bad,
And ever your music is sad, so sad,
We seem to hear murmured in every tone,
For the saintly a blessing; for sinners a curse.
Psalm, sad psalm! you must pray and grieve
Over our dead on this Christmas eve.
De profundis! De profundis!
And the night chants the psalm o'er the mortal clay,
And the spirits immortal from far away,
To the music of hope sing this sweet-toned lay.

You think of the dead on Christmas eve,
Wherever the dead are sleeping,
And we from a land where we may not grieve
Look tenderly down on your weeping.
You think us far, we are very near,
From you and the earth, though parted;
We sing to-night to console and cheer
The hearts of the broken-hearted.
The earth watches over the lifeless clay
Of each of its countless sleepers,
And the sleepless spirits that passed away
Watch over all earth's weepers.
We shall meet again in a brighter land,
Where farewell is never spoken;
We shall clasp each other in hand,
And the clasp shall not be broken;
We shall meet again, in a bright, calm clime,
Where we'll never know a sadness,
And our lives shall be filled, like a Christmas chime,
With rapture and with gladness.
The snows shall pass from our graves away,
And you from the earth, remember;
And the flowers of a bright, eternal May,
Shall follow earth's December.
When you think of us think not of the tomb
Where you laid us down in sorrow;
But look aloft, and beyond earth's gloom,
And wait for the great to-morrow.
And the pontiff, Night, with his star-stole on,
Whispereth soft and low:
Requiescat! Requiescat!

Peace! Peace! to every one
For whom we grieve this Christmas eve,
In their graves beneath the snow.

The stars in the far-off heaven
Have long since struck eleven!
And hark! from temple and from tower,
Soundeth time's grandest midnight hour,
Blessed by the Saviour's birth,
And night putteth off the sable stole,
Symbol of sorrow and sign of dole,
For one with many a starry gem,
To honor the Babe of Bethlehem,
Who comes to men the King of them,
Yet comes without robe or diadem,
And all turn towards the holy east,
To hear the song of the Christmas feast.

Four thousand years earth waited,
Four thousand years men prayed,
Four thousand years the nations sighed,
That their King so long delayed.

The prophets told His coming,
The saintly for Him sighed,
And the star of the Babe of Bethlehem
Shone o'er them when they died.

Their faces towards the future,
They longed to hail the light
That in the after centuries
Would rise on Christmas night.

But still the Saviour tarried,
Within His father's home
And the nations wept and wondered why
The promised had not come.

At last earth's hope was granted,
And God was a child of earth;
And a thousand angels chanted
The lowly midnight birth.

Ah! Bethlehem was grander
That hour than Paradise;
And the light of earth that night eclipsed
The splendors of the skies.

Then let us sing the anthem
The angels once did sing;
Until the music of love and praise,
O'er whole wide world will ring.

Gloria in excelsis!
Sound the thrilling song;
In excelsis Deo!
Roll the hymn along.
Gloria in excelsis!
Let the heavens ring;
In excelsis Deo!
Welcome, new-born King
Gloria in excelsis!
Over the sea and land,
In excelsis Deo!
Chant the anthem grand.
Gloria in excelsis!
Let us all rejoice;
In excelsis Deo!
Lift each heart and voice.
Gloria in excelsis!
Swell the hymn on high;
In excelsis Deo!
Sound it to the sky.
Gloria in excelsis!
Sing it, sinful earth,
In excelsis Deo!
For the Saviour's birth.

Thus joyfully and victoriously,
Glad and ever so gloriously,
High as the heavens, wide as the earth,
Swelleth the hymn of the Saviour's birth.

Lo! the day is waking
In the east afar;
Dawn is faintly breaking,
Sunk in every star.

Christmas eve has vanished
With its shadows gray;
All its griefs are banished
By bright Christmas day.

Joyful chimes are ringing
O'er the land and seas,
And there comes glad singing,
Borne on every breeze.

Little ones so merry
Bed-clothes coyly lift,
And, in such a hurry,
Prattle "Christmas gift!"

Little heads so curly,
Knowing Christmas laws,
Peep out very early
For old "Santa Claus".

Little eyes are laughing
O'er their Christmas toys,
Older ones are quaffing
Cups of Christmas joys.

Hearts are joyous, cheerful,
Faces all are gay;
None are sad and tearful
On bright Christmas day.

Hearts are light and bounding,
All from care are free;
Homes are all resounding
With the sounds of glee.

Feet with feet are meeting,
Bent on pleasure's way;
Souls to souls give greeting
Warm on Christmas day.

Gifts are kept a-going
Fast from hand to hand;
Blessings are a-flowing
Over every land.

One vast wave of gladness
Sweeps its world-wide way,
Drowning every sadness
On this Christmas day.

Merry, merry Christmas,
Haste around the earth;
Merry, merry Christmas,
Scatter smiles and mirth.

Merry, merry Christmas,
Be to one and all!
Merry, merry Christmas,
Enter hut and hall.

Merry, merry Christmas,
Be to rich and poor!
Merry, merry Christmas
Stop at every door.

Merry, merry Christmas,
Fill each heart with joy!
Merry, merry Christmas
To each girl and boy.

Merry, merry Christmas,
Better gifts than gold;
Merry, merry Christmas
To the young and old.

Merry, merry Christmas,
May the coming year
Bring as merry a Christmas
And as bright a cheer.

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