Extreme Unction

A poem by James Russell Lowell

Go! leave me, Priest; my soul would be
Alone with the consoler, Death;
Far sadder eyes than thine will see
This crumbling clay yield up its breath;
These shrivelled hands have deeper stains
Than holy oil can cleanse away,
Hands that have plucked the world's coarse gains
As erst they plucked the flowers of May.

Call, if thou canst, to these gray eyes
Some faith from youth's traditions wrung;
This fruitless husk which dustward dries
Hath been a heart once, hath been young;
On this bowed head the awful Past
Once laid its consecrating hands;
The Future in its purpose vast
Paused, waiting my supreme commands.

But look! whose shadows block the door?
Who are those two that stand aloof?
See! on my hands this freshening gore
Writes o'er again its crimson proof!
My looked-for death-bed guests are met;
There my dead Youth doth wring its hands,
And there, with eyes that goad me yet,
The ghost of my Ideal stands!

God bends from out the deep and says,
'I gave thee the great gift of life;
Wast thou not called in many ways?
Are not my earth and heaven at strife?
I gave thee of my seed to sow,
Bringest thou me my hundredfold?'
Can I look up with face aglow,
And answer, 'Father, here is gold'?

I have been innocent; God knows
When first this wasted life began,
Not grape with grape more kindly grows,
Than I with every brother-man:
Now here I gasp; what lose my kind,
When this fast ebbing breath shall part?
What bands of love and service bind
This being to a brother heart?

Christ still was wandering o'er the earth
Without a place to lay his head;
He found free welcome at my hearth,
He shared my cup and broke my bread:
Now, when I hear those steps sublime,
That bring the other world to this,
My snake-turned nature, sunk in slime,
Starts sideway with defiant hiss.

Upon the hour when I was born,
God said, 'Another man shall be,'
And the great Maker did not scorn
Out of himself to fashion me:
He sunned me with his ripening looks,
And Heaven's rich instincts in me grew,
As effortless as woodland nooks
Send violets up and paint them blue.

Yes, I who now, with angry tears,
Am exiled back to brutish clod,
Have borne unqueached for fourscore years
A spark of the eternal God;
And to what end? How yield I back
The trust for such high uses given?
Heaven's light hath but revealed a track
Whereby to crawl away from heaven.

Men think it is an awful sight
To see a soul just set adrift
On that drear voyage from whose night
The ominous shadows never lift;
But 'tis more awful to behold
A helpless infant newly born,
Whose little hands unconscious hold
The keys of darkness and of morn.

Mine held them once; I flung away
Those keys that might have open set
The golden sluices of the day,
But clutch the keys of darkness yet;
I hear the reapers singing go
Into God's harvest; I, that might
With them have chosen, here below
Grope shuddering at the gates of night.

O glorious Youth, that once wast mine!
O high Ideal! all in vain
Ye enter at this ruined shrine
Whence worship ne'er shall rise again;
The bat and owl inhabit here,
The snake nests in the altar-stone,
The sacred vessels moulder near,
The image of the God is gone.

Reader Comments

Tell us what you think of 'Extreme Unction' by James Russell Lowell

comments powered by Disqus

Home | Search | About this website | Contact | Privacy Policy