The Altar of Righteousness

A poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne

I
Light and night, whose clouds and glories change and mingle and divide,
Veil the truth whereof they witness, show the truth of things they hide.
Through the darkness and the splendour of the centuries, loud or dumb,
Shines and wanes and shines the spirit, lit with love of life to come.
Man, the soul made flesh, that knows not death from life, and fain would know,
Sees the face of time change colour as its tides recoil and flow.
All his hope and fear and faith and doubt, if aught at all they be,
Live the life of clouds and sunbeams, born of heaven or earth or sea.
All are buoyed and blown and brightened by their hour's evasive breath:
All subside and quail and darken when their hour is done to death.
Yet, ere faith, a wandering water, froze and curdled into creeds,
Earth, elate as heaven, adored the light that quickens dreams to deeds.
Invisible: eye hath not seen it, and ear hath not heard as the spirit hath heard
From the shrine that is lit not of sunlight or starlight the sound of a limitless word.
And visible: none that hath eyes to behold what the spirit must perish or see
Can choose but behold it and worship: a shrine that if light were as darkness would be.
Of cloud and of change is the form of the fashion that man may behold of it wrought:
Of iron and truth is the mystic mid altar, where worship is none but of thought.
No prayer may go up to it, climbing as incense of gladness or sorrow may climb:
No rapture of music may ruffle the silence that guards it, and hears not of time.
As the winds of the wild blind ages alternate in passion of light and of cloud,
So changes the shape of the veil that enshrouds it with darkness and light for a shroud.
And the winds and the clouds and the suns fall silent, and fade out of hearing or sight,
And the shrine stands fast and is changed not, whose likeness was changed as a cloud in the night.
All the storms of time, and wrath of many winds, may carve no trace
On the viewless altar, though the veil bear many a name and face:
Many a live God's likeness woven, many a scripture dark with awe,
Bids the veil seem verier iron than the word of life's own law.
Till the might of change hath rent it with a rushing wind in twain,
Stone or steel it seems, whereon the wrath of chance is wreaked in vain:
Stone or steel, and all behind it or beyond its lifted sign
Cloud and vapour, no subsistence of a change-unstricken shrine.
God by god flits past in thunder, till his glories turn to shades:
God to god bears wondering witness how his gospel flames and fades.
More was each of these, while yet they were, than man their servant seemed:
Dead are all of these, and man survives who made them while he dreamed.
Yet haply or surely, if vision were surer than theirs who rejoiced that they saw,
Man might not but see, through the darkness of godhead, the light that is surety and law.
On the stone that the close-drawn cloud which veils it awhile makes cloudlike stands
The word of the truth everlasting, unspoken of tongues and unwritten of hands.
By the sunbeams and storms of the centuries engraven, and approved of the soul as it reads,
It endures as a token dividing the light from the darkness of dreams and of deeds.
The faces of gods on the face of it carven, or gleaming behind and above,
Star-glorified Uranus, thunderous Jehovah, for terror or worship or love,
Change, wither, and brighten as flowers that the wind of eternity sheds upon time,
All radiant and transient and awful and mortal, and leave it unmarred and sublime.
As the tides that return and recede are the fears and the hopes of the centuries that roll,
Requenched and rekindled: but strong as the sun is the sense of it shrined in the soul.

II
In the days when time was not, in the time when days were none,
Ere sorrow had life to lot, ere earth gave thanks for the sun,
Ere man in his darkness waking adored what the soul in him could,
And the manifold God of his making was manifest evil and good,
One law from the dim beginning abode and abides in the end,
In sight of him sorrowing and sinning with none but his faith for friend.
Dark were the shadows around him, and darker the glories above,
Ere light from beyond them found him, and bade him for love's sake love.
About him was darkness, and under and over him darkness: the night
That conceived him and bore him had thunder for utterance and lightning for light.
The dust of death was the dust of the ways that the tribes of him trod:
And he knew not if just or unjust were the might of the mystery of God.
Strange horror and hope, strange faith and unfaith, were his boon and his bane:
And the God of his trust was the wraith of the soul or the ghost of it slain.
A curse was on death as on birth, and a Presence that shone as a sword
Shed menace from heaven upon earth that beheld him, and hailed him her Lord.
Sublime and triumphant as fire or as lightning, he kindled the skies,
And withered with dread the desire that would look on the light of his eyes.
Earth shuddered with worship, and knew not if hell were not hot in her breath;
If birth were not sin, and the dew of the morning the sweat of her death.
The watchwords of evil and good were unspoken of men and unheard:
They were shadows that willed as he would, that were made and unmade by his word.
His word was darkness and light, and a wisdom that makes men mad
Sent blindness upon them for sight, that they saw but and heard as he bade.
Cast forth and corrupt from the birth by the crime of creation, they stood
Convicted of evil on earth by the grace of a God found good.
The grace that enkindled and quickened the darkness of hell with flame
Bade man, though the soul in him sickened, obey, and give praise to his name.
The still small voice of the spirit whose life is as plague's hot breath
Bade man shed blood, and inherit the life of the kingdom of death.
"Bring now for blood-offering thy son to mine altar, and bind him and slay,
That the sin of my bidding be done": and the soul in the slave said, "Yea."
Yea, not nay, was the word: and the sacrifice offered withal
Was neither of beast nor of bird, but the soul of a man, God's thrall.
And the word of his servant spoken was fire, and the light of a sword,
When the bondage of Israel was broken, and Sinai shrank from the Lord.
With splendour of slaughter and thunder of song as the sound of the sea
Were the foes of him stricken in sunder and silenced as storms that flee.
Terror and trust and the pride of the chosen, approved of his choice,
Saw God in the whirlwind ride, and rejoiced as the winds rejoice.
Subdued and exalted and kindled and quenched by the sense of his might,
Faith flamed and exulted and dwindled, and saw not, and clung to the sight.
The wastes of the wilderness brightened and trembled with rapture and dread
When the word of him thundered and lightened and spake through the quick and the dead.
The chant of the prophetess, louder and loftier than tempest and wave,
Rang triumph more ruthless and prouder than death, and profound as the grave.
And sweet as the moon's word spoken in smiles that the blown clouds mar
The psalmist's witness in token arose as the speech of a star.
Starlight supreme, and the tender desire of the moon, were as one
To rebuke with compassion the splendour and strength of the godlike sun.
God softened and changed: and the word of his chosen, a fire at the first,
Bade man, as a beast or a bird, now slake at the springs his thirst.
The souls that were sealed unto death as the bones of the dead lie sealed
Rose thrilled and redeemed by the breath of the dawn on the flame-lit field.
The glories of darkness, cloven with music of thunder, shrank
As the web of the word was unwoven that spake, and the soul's tide sank.
And the starshine of midnight that covered Arabia with light as a robe
Waxed fiery with utterance that hovered and flamed through the whirlwind on Job.
And prophet to prophet and vision to vision made answer sublime,
Till the valley of doom and decision was merged in the tides of time.

III
Then, soft as the dews of night,
As the star of the sundawn bright,
As the heart of the sea's hymn deep,
And sweet as the balm of sleep,
Arose on the world a light
Too pure for the skies to keep.
With music sweeter and stranger than heaven had heard
When the dark east thrilled with light from a saviour's word
And a God grew man to endure as a man and abide
The doom of the will of the Lord of the loud world's tide,
Whom thunders utter, and tempest and darkness hide,
With larger light than flamed from the peak whereon
Prometheus, bound as the sun to the world's wheel, shone,
A presence passed and abode but on earth a span,
And love's own light as a river before him ran,
And the name of God for awhile upon earth was man.
O star that wast not and wast for the world a sun,
O light that was quenched of priests, and its work undone,
O Word that wast not as man's or as God's, if God
Be Lord but of hosts whose tread was as death's that trod
On souls that felt but his wrath as an unseen rod,
What word, what praise, what passion of hopeless prayer,
May now rise up to thee, loud as in years that were,
From years that gaze on the works of thy servants wrought
While strength was in them to satiate the lust of thought
That craved in thy name for blood as the quest it sought?
From the dark high places of Rome
Far over the westward foam
God's heaven and the sun saw swell
The fires of the high priest's hell,
And shrank as they curled and clomb
And revelled and ravaged and fell.

IV
Yet was not the work of thy word all withered with wasting flame
By the sons of the priests that had slain thee, whose evil was wrought in thy name.
From the blood-sodden soil that was blasted with fires of the Church and her creed
Sprang rarely but surely, by grace of thy spirit, a flower for a weed.
Thy spirit, unfelt of thy priests who blasphemed thee, enthralled and enticed
To deathward a child that was even as the child we behold in Christ.
The Moors, they told her, beyond bright Spain and the strait brief sea,
Dwelt blind in the light that for them was as darkness, and knew not thee.
But the blood of the martyrs whose mission was witness for God, they said,
Might raise to redemption the souls that were here, in the sun's sight, dead.
And the child rose up in the night, when the stars were as friends that smiled,
And sought her brother, and wakened the younger and tenderer child.
From the heaven of a child's glad sleep to the heaven of the sight of her eyes
He woke, and brightened and hearkened, and kindled as stars that rise.
And forth they fared together to die for the stranger's sake,
For the souls of the slayers that should slay them, and turn from their sins, and wake.
And the light of the love that lit them awhile on a brief blind quest
Shines yet on the tear-lit smile that salutes them, belated and blest.
And the girl, full-grown to the stature of godhead in womanhood, spake
The word that sweetens and lightens her creed for her great love's sake.
From the godlike heart of Theresa the prayer above all prayers heard,
The cry as of God made woman, a sweet blind wonderful word,
Sprang sudden as flame, and kindled the darkness of faith with love,
And the hollow of hell from beneath shone, quickened of heaven from above.
Yea, hell at her word grew heaven, as she prayed that if God thought well
She there might stand in the gateway, that none might pass into hell.
Not Hermes, guardian and guide, God, herald, and comforter, shed
Such lustre of hope from the life of his light on the night of the dead.
Not Pallas, wiser and mightier in mercy than Rome's God shone,
Wore ever such raiment of love as the soul of a saint put on.
So blooms as a flower of the darkness a star of the midnight born,
Of the midnight's womb and the blackness of darkness, and flames like morn.
Nor yet may the dawn extinguish or hide it, when churches and creeds
Are withered and blasted with sunlight as poisonous and blossomless weeds.
So springs and strives through the soil that the legions of darkness have trod,
From the root that is man, from the soul in the body, the flower that is God.

V
Ages and creeds that drift
Through change and cloud uplift
The soul that soars and seeks her sovereign shrine,
Her faith's veiled altar, there
To find, when praise and prayer
Fall baffled, if the darkness be divine.
Lights change and shift through star and sun:
Night, clothed with might of immemorial years, is one.
Day, born and slain of night,
Hath hardly life in sight
As she that bears and slays him and survives,
And gives us back for one
Cloud-thwarted fiery sun
The myriad mysteries of the lambent lives
Whose starry soundless music saith
That light and life wax perfect even through night and death.
In vain had darkness heard
Light speak the lustrous word
That cast out faith in all save truth and love:
In vain death's quickening rod
Bade man rise up as God,
Touched as with life unknown in heaven above:
Fear turned his light of love to fire
That wasted earth, yet might not slay the soul's desire.
Though death seem life, and night
Bid fear call darkness light,
Time, faith, and hope keep trust, through sorrow and shame,
Till Christ, by Paul cast out,
Return, and all the rout
Of raging slaves whose prayer defiles his name
Rush headlong to the deep, and die,
And leave no sign to say that faith once heard them lie.

VI
Since man, with a child's pride proud, and abashed as a child and afraid,
Made God in his likeness, and bowed him to worship the Maker he made,
No faith more dire hath enticed man's trust than the saint's whose creed
Made Caiaphas one with Christ, that worms on the cross might feed.
Priests gazed upon God in the eyes of a babe new-born, and therein
Beheld not heaven, and the wise glad secret of love, but sin.
Accursed of heaven, and baptized with the baptism of hatred and hell,
They spat on the name they despised and adored as a sign and a spell.
"Lord Christ, thou art God, and a liar: they were children of wrath, not of grace,
Unbaptized, unredeemed from the fire they were born for, who smiled in thy face."
Of such is the kingdom—he said it—of heaven: and the heavenly word
Shall live when religion is dead, and when falsehood is dumb shall be heard.
And the message of James and of John was as Christ's and as love's own call:
But wrath passed sentence thereon when Annas replied in Paul.
The dark old God who had slain him grew one with the Christ he slew,
And poison was rank in the grain that with growth of his gospel grew.
And the blackness of darkness brightened: and red in the heart of the flame
Shone down, as a blessing that lightened, the curse of a new God's name.
Through centuries of burning and trembling belief as a signal it shone,
Till man, soul-sick of dissembling, bade fear and her frauds begone.
God Cerberus yelps from his throats triune: but his day, which was night,
Is quenched, with its stars and the notes of its night-birds, in silence and light.
The flames of its fires and the psalms of their psalmists are darkened and dumb:
Strong winter has withered the palms of his angels, and stricken them numb.
God, father of lies, God, son of perdition, God, spirit of ill,
Thy will that for ages was done is undone as a dead God's will.
Not Mahomet's sword could slay thee, nor Borgia's or Calvin's praise:
But the scales of the spirit that weigh thee are weighted with truth, and it slays.
The song of the day of thy fury, when nature and death shall quail,
Rings now as the thunders of Jewry, the ghost of a dead world's tale.
That day and its doom foreseen and foreshadowed on earth, when thou,
Lord God, wast lord of the keen dark season, are sport for us now.
Thy claws were clipped and thy fangs plucked out by the hands that slew
Men, lovers of man, whose pangs bore witness if truth were true.
Man crucified rose again from the sepulchre builded to be
No grave for the souls of the men who denied thee, but, Lord, for thee.
When Bruno's spirit aspired from the flames that thy servants fed,
The spirit of faith was fired to consume thee and leave thee dead.
When the light of the sunlike eyes whence laughter lightened and flamed
Bade France and the world be wise, faith saw thee naked and shamed.
When wisdom deeper and sweeter than Rabelais veiled and revealed
Found utterance diviner and meeter for truth whence anguish is healed,
Whence fear and hate and belief in thee, fed by thy grace from above,
Fall stricken, and utmost grief takes light from the lustre of love,
When Shakespeare shone into birth, and the world he beheld grew bright,
Thy kingdom was ended on earth, and the darkness it shed was light.
In him all truth and the glory thereof and the power and the pride,
The song of the soul and her story, bore witness that fear had lied.
All hope, all wonder, all trust, all doubt that knows not of fear,
The love of the body, the lust of the spirit to see and to hear,
All womanhood, fairer than love could conceive or desire or adore,
All manhood, radiant above all heights that it held of yore,
Lived by the life of his breath, with the speech of his soul's will spake,
And the light lit darkness to death whence never the dead shall wake.
For the light that lived in the sound of the song of his speech was one
With the light of the wisdom that found earth's tune in the song of the sun;
His word with the word of the lord most high of us all on earth,
Whose soul was a lyre and a sword, whose death was a deathless birth.
Him too we praise as we praise our own who as he stand strong;
Him, Æschylus, ancient of days, whose word is the perfect song.
When Caucasus showed to the sun and the sea what a God could endure,
When wisdom and light were one, and the hands of the matricide pure,
A song too subtle for psalmist or prophet of Jewry to know,
Elate and profound as the calmest or stormiest of waters that flow,
A word whose echoes were wonder and music of fears overcome,
Bade Sinai bow, and the thunder of godhead on Horeb be dumb.
The childless children of night, strong daughters of doom and dread,
The thoughts and the fears that smite the soul, and its life lies dead,
Stood still and were quelled by the sound of his word and the light of his thought,
And the God that in man lay bound was unbound from the bonds he had wrought.
Dark fear of a lord more dark than the dreams of his worshippers knew
Fell dead, and the corpse lay stark in the sunlight of truth shown true.

VII
Time, and truth his child, though terror set earth and heaven at odds,
See the light of manhood rise on the twilight of the Gods.
Light is here for souls to see, though the stars of faith be dead:
All the sea that yearned and trembled receives the sun instead.
All the shadows on the spirit when fears and dreams were strong,
All perdition, all redemption, blind rain-stars watched so long,
Love whose root was fear, thanksgiving that cowered beneath the rod,
Feel the light that heals and withers: night weeps upon her God.
All the names wherein the incarnate Lord lived his day and died
Fade from suns to stars, from stars into darkness undescried.
Christ the man lives yet, remembered of man as dreams that leave
Light on eyes that wake and know not if memory bid them grieve.
Fire sublime as lightning shines, and exults in thunder yet,
Where the battle wields the name and the sword of Mahomet.
Far above all wars and gospels, all ebb and flow of time,
Lives the soul that speaks in silence, and makes mute earth sublime.
Still for her, though years and ages be blinded and bedinned,
Mazed with lightnings, crazed with thunders, life rides and guides the wind.
Death may live or death may die, and the truth be light or night:
Not for gain of heaven may man put away the rule of right.

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