A Word From the Psalmist

A poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne

Ps. xciv. 8.

I.
‘Take heed, ye unwise among the people:
O ye fools, when will ye understand?’
From pulpit or choir beneath the steeple,
Though the words be fierce, the tones are bland.
But a louder than the Church’s echo thunders
In the ears of men who may not choose but hear,
And the heart in him that hears it leaps and wonders,
With triumphant hope astonished, or with fear
For the names whose sound was power awaken
Neither love nor reverence now nor dread;
Their strongholds and shrines are stormed and taken,
Their kingdom and all its works are dead.

II.
Take heed: for the tide of time is risen:
It is full not yet, though now so high
That spirits and hopes long pent in prison
Feel round them a sense of freedom nigh,
And a savour keen and sweet of brine and billow,
And a murmur deep and strong of deepening strength.
Though the watchman dream, with sloth or pride for pillow,
And the night be long, not endless is its length.
From the springs of dawn, from clouds that sever
From the equal heavens and the eastward sea,
The witness comes that endures for ever,
Till men be brethren and thralls be free.

III.
But the wind of the wings of dawn expanding
Strikes chill on your hearts as change and death.
Ye are old, but ye have not understanding,
And proud, but your pride is a dead man’s breath.
And your wise men, toward whose words and signs ye hearken,
And your strong men, in whose hands ye put your trust,
Strain eyes to behold but clouds and dreams that darken,
Stretch hands that can find but weapons red with rust.
Their watchword rings, and the night rejoices,
But the lark’s note laughs at the night-bird’s notes—
‘Is virtue verily found in voices?
Or is wisdom won when all win votes?

IV.
‘Take heed, ye unwise indeed, who listen
When the wind’s wings beat and shift and change;
Whose hearts are uplift, whose eyeballs glisten,
With desire of new things great and strange.
Let not dreams misguide nor any visions wrong you:
That which has been, it is now as it was then.
Is not Compromise of old a god among you?
Is not Precedent indeed a king of men?
But the windy hopes that lead mislead you,
And the sounds ye hear are void and vain.
Is a vote a coat? will franchise feed you,
Or words be a roof against the rain?

V.
‘Eight ages are gone since kingship entered,
With knights and peers at its harnessed back,
And the land, no more in its own strength centred,
Was cast for a prey to the princely pack.
But we pared the fangs and clipped the ravening claws of it,
And good was in time brought forth of an evil thing,
And the land’s high name waxed lordlier in war because of it,
When chartered Right had bridled and curbed the king.
And what so fair has the world beholden,
And what so firm has withstood the years,
As Monarchy bound in chains all golden,
And Freedom guarded about with peers?

VI.
‘How think ye? know not your lords and masters
What collars are meet for brawling throats?
Is change not mother of strange disasters?
Shall plague or peril be stayed by votes?
Out of precedent and privilege and order
Have we plucked the flower of compromise, whose root
Bears blossoms that shine from border again to border,
And the mouths of many are fed with its temperate fruit.
Your masters are wiser than ye, their henchmen:
Your lords know surely whereof ye have need.
Equality? Fools, would you fain be Frenchmen?
Is equity more than a word indeed?

VII.
‘Your voices, forsooth, your most sweet voices,
Your worthy voices, your love, your hate,
Your choice, who know not whereof your choice is,
What stays are these for a stable state?
Inconstancy, blind and deaf with its own fierce babble,
Swells ever your throats with storm of uncertain cheers:
He leans on straws who leans on a light-souled rabble;
His trust is frail who puts not his trust in peers.’
So shrills the message whose word convinces
Of righteousness knaves, of wisdom fools;
That serfs may boast them because of princes,
And the weak rejoice that the strong man rules.

VIII.
True friends, ye people, are these, the faction
Full-mouthed that flatters and snails and bays,
That fawns and foams with alternate action,
And mocks the names that it soils with praise.
As from fraud and force their power had fast beginning,
So by righteousness and peace it may not stand,
But by craft of state and nets of secret spinning,
Words that weave and unweave wiles like ropes of sand
Form, custom, and gold, and laws grown hoary,
And strong tradition that guards the gate:
To these, O people, to these give glory,
That your name among nations may be great.

IX.
How long—for haply not now much longer—
Shall fear put faith in a faithless creed,
And shapes and shadows of truths be stronger
In strong men’s eyes than the truth indeed?
If freedom be not a word that dies when spoken,
If justice be not a dream whence men must wake,
How shall not the bonds of the thraldom of old be broken,
And right put might in the hands of them that break?
For clear as a tocsin from the steeple
Is the cry gone forth along the land,
Take heed, ye unwise among the people:
O ye fools, when will ye understand?

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