Christ at Carnival
and Other Poems (1916)

Muriel Stuart

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Muriel Stuart

And Other Poems
by Muriel Stuart



Thou who hast loved and striven
So much, so many times,
Given me and forgiven,
Take this poor wreath of rhymes.

Christ at Carnival

    THE hand of carnival was at my door,
    I listened to its knocking, and sped down:
    Faith was forgotten, Duty led no more:
    I heard a wonton revelry in the town;
    The Carnival ran in my veins like fire!
    And some unfrustrable desire
    Goaded me on to catch the roses thrown
    From breast to breast, and with my own
    Fugitive kiss to snatch the fugitive kiss;
    I broke all faith for this
    One wild and worthless hour,
    To dance, to run, to beckon, as a flower
    Maddens the bee with half-surrendering,
    Then flies back in the air with petals shut.

    Fainting with laughter and pursuit
    I heard shrill winds leap out and sink again,
    Tracking the green bed where the Spring hath lain,
    And vanished from, whose feet made audible
    Music among the tall trees on the hill.
    Above me leaned a nightingale
    Burdened and big with song, whose throat let fall
    Long notes, so poignant and so musical,
    I deemed his young mate, listening,
    Heard him less passionately sing
    Than I a-foot at Carnival!

    Above the town, swart Night came rolling in
    Upon her couch of heliotrope:
    A new Moon, young and thin,
    Lay like a Columbine
    Teasing the spent hill, her old Harlequin,
    She, who of late waned on the bitter sky,
    Furtive and old, a woman without hope,
    Begging in long-familiar streets, where Sin
    Once seeking her, now shuddered and went by.

    Caught in the meshes of a merry throng,
    I stumbled through the lighted Market Place;
    The lanterns swung an undetermined rose
    In Night's convulsive face
    As we were swept along
    In crazy dance and song,--
    On through the mirth-mad alleys of the town,
    With shrill loud laughter tumbled roughly down,
    Whirled up in swift embrace.
    All, all went swinging, swaying in the revel,
    Laughing and reeling, kissing each and all--
    A crowd that wildest jesting did dishevel--
    O mad night of Carnival!

    Racing along the last mean street that goes
    From house to house to find the mountain track,
    I loosed their hands to catch a rose
    Flung from some casement; swiftly they turned back
    With gusty laughter their wild mates to greet,
    Swift as the footless wind along the wheat!
    Fainter and fainter grew their revelling,
    Deserted of a sudden, lay the street,
    Silence fell on me like a famished thing,
    Making my soul aware of one who stood
    Beside me--one who wore a monkish hood.
    I stared, as one who sees
    Beneath the thin and settled sheet
    Over still mysteries
    Faint outline of belovèd hands and feet,
    Too little loved and now too dead to care,
    And suddenly becomes aware
    That more than Death lies there,
    That from this piteous and submissive change
    Something has risen, terrible and strange.

    Why fell my roses? What fear drove me, then,
    To question him: "Who art thou, citizen?
    Fainter and fainter grows the Carnival.
    Wilt thou lock hands and turn with me again?"
    He answered not, but let the hood half-fall,
    Showing a thorn-plait on a forehead marred;
    Trembling I cried: "Who art thou, Lord?"
    "As thou sayest, I am He!
    How long upn my cross am I to bleed
    For thee still to deny me utterly?
    Is not the hour yet come that I be freed,
    How long am I to listen at thy door?"

    Stricken in soul, I fell against his feet,
    In rose-disorderd street,
    Weeping: "I have not heard Thy foot before."
    He answered: "He who hears
    Loud noise of Carnival about his ears,
    How shall he heed the foot with silence shod,
    Or listen for the small still voice of God?
    What is thy life?
    Is thy sword stained in any splended strife?
    Hast thou, in all thy safe, unshaken years,
    Once thrown thyself upon Night's ambushed spears,
    Or broken with thy tears
    Thy heart against the Dawn's feet any day?
    Hast thou spurned
    Any earthly perishable sweet thing
    To bear another's burden? Hast thou learned
    At any knee but Folly's, trafficing
    With every sweet delight that said thee 'yea'?
    Oft hast thy goaded men to kiss thy mouth,
    The flower of thy youth
    Thou hast rendered up to any wind that's fleet,
    But hast thou ever hastened to the Cross
    To kiss My saving feet?"

    "Thou knowest, Lord, thou knowest, I have not striven,
    I made life easy, profitable, sweet,
    I have not loved much or been much forgiven;
    Of all a woman's vows the holiest--
    To children that were posies at my breast--
    I have forsworn, to-night, forsaking all
    The ways of God to dance at Carnival.
    What have I now to offer Thee Who deignest
    To seek for grape on such unfruitful vine;
    Who with such sinful head Thy bosom stainest!"
    He said: "The last allegiance will be Mine,
    Leave all and follow Me."

    "Nay but my little children sleep at home
    Beside their father, I would say good-bye."
    He answered: "Was there any time for Me
    To make My farewells in Gethsemane,
    Or any lips to take last kisses from?
    Knowest thou not that I can satisfy
    All creatures I make Mine, shall I not be
    Thy priest, blessing for thee the common bread,
    Till the white flesh divine
    Quicken against thy lip, and hallowèd,
    The blood beat through the wine?
    I would have all thou hast,
    Be all thou art,
    I would claim all thy present, future, past,
    For My dispisèd heart;
    For Me thou shalt all other creatures hate,
    My seven wounds thou shalt assuage
    With mouth inviolate."
    "O pardoning love," I wept, "O love divine,
    That such as thou shouldst ask of such!--
    I am Thine, all Thine,
    Casting here at Thy feet, despisèd Thou,
    All other loves that used to mean so much,
    All other hopes that mean so little now."

    From a side-alley dumb to revelry,
    Came the low sound of weeping, then my name:
    A beggar came
    Out of the heaving dark and spake to me:
    "How knowest thou Christ?" I answered: "By the thorn";
    "Nay, but the thorn tree grows in every wood
    For any brow forsworn!"
    The other whispered: "Thou art tempted here
    For my sake," but the beggar's voice came fleet
    As pain: "Three crosses did that hillside bear,
    Not Christ alone hath wounded hands and feet;
    Dost thou believe
    That every pierced hand stretched to thee is Christ?
    Shall not some thief inpenitent deceive,
    At some strange shrine wilt thou be sacrificed?"
    The other whispered: "Shall thy faith be led
    So soon a traitor, child? For such as he
    Trample me every day." The beggar said:
    "Nay, wast thou spit upon in Galilee?"

    Wildly I cried: "Oh, from this hallowed street
    Go thy way, beggar, take thine apostate feet
    From this poor temple on whose pinnacle
    Christ in His Love doth not disdain to dwell,
    Who doth confer
    Glory on things inglorious, nor doth shun,
    But bids an angel to Him minister,
    Albeit a fallen one;
    And if thou canst not pray,
    Leave me my prayer at least and go thy way!"

    Swift were Christ's feet the mountain road along;
    A swift as they my soul beside them fled,
    Keeping fleet measure to the strong
    Unshatterable music of His words,
    That in my hard heart made
    Exquisite wounds that sang the while they bled,
    Like little tamèd birds;
    "O Holy One, I break here at Thy feet
    The perfume of my soul like Magdalen's sweet
    Spilled ointment; knewest Thou who gatherèd
    Those holy spices? What dishevelled night,
    What lust, profaning every temple-rite
    To toss the gold of her sweet shameless head,
    Had eased from priestly hands the spikenard
    That made her soiled garments smell of God?
    Thou did accept that sweetness when she kneeled,--
    That holy myrrh, spilled from the soul and shard!
    Nor didst disdain by her to be unshod,
    Nay, Thy world-wounded feet her tresses healed.

    "So here I gather sweets of all my life,
    Treasure for which sin waged unworthy strife,
    Holding as one who guilty pleasure wins--
    Yea, even all my sins, my little sins--
    My loves and penitences, foes no more
    At strife with Thee for me. Oh, bid me pour
    My spirit's perfume! I have wept and kissed
    Those feet grown weary following what men
    Caught up so easily; upon this brow
    Be shed the glory of Love's pardon now,
    As once the tresses of a Magdalen
    became an aureole at the feet of Christ!"

    Only the silence shook as we went on;
    Soon the last watching window-light was gone;
    No least star gleamed,
    And trembling-still it seemed,
    As if the mountain held its breath
    For fear that it should weep;
    A stopped stream smelled of Death;
    The moon was out, blown by God's breath asleep;
    The heavens turned
    Plunging and livid, choked with thunder-spume,
    Black driven clouds beneath whose eyelids burned
    A dreadful light, rushed forward in the gloom;
    There was no wind, but something seemed to stir
    In the thin grass, as if unquiet head
    On sleepless pillow moved--a listener
    To hideous word unsaid; until at last
    The narrow track was passed.
    Below us empty and wide
    The world was flung; the hill-top shivered bare,
    While fretful lightning dug a viscious spear
    Into her sweating side
    As she flinched, blind and stark . . .
    A thin hail ravened against the door of dark.

    Against His feet I trembled, but no word
    Of peace or pity heard;
    The darkness shook as a dry leaf about,
    The world seemed to go out
    With a great groan along the sea . . .
    Silence . . . then words to me . . .
    "Child, what is it thou fearest?"
    I stared up: Oh, strange words did that implore! . . .
    His brow was no more wounded, and no more
    Were the hands, still outstretched to me, pierced.

    "Lord, with this vision art thou tempting me,
    To show how poor a thing my worship is?
    Yet oh, be Christ, be Christ! I have for Thee
    Forsaken all my loved, my lovely ones,
    As a wild stream breaks from maternal hill,
    Escaping the sweet fingers of the sedge
    Whose stinging hair doth all his bosom fill,
    Listens to some great voice far off, and runs
    To find the sea, the calling, crying sea . . .
    I ran to Thee!"

    Then I heard human accents answering:
    "I am a god, made god by all thy prayers;
    Wach stone becomes a god by worshipping;
    I am a man who loves thee: in thy town
    Many have loved thee, I am one of these."

    At those few words of horror Faith fell down,
    Yet scarcely understood such blasphemies;
    "What didst thou need?" I wept, still at his feet;
    "Thyself, thou lovely thing!"
    "Does thou yet love me as Christ loves albeit
    Thou are not He--some message thou dost bring?"
    "Nay, but I love thee as a night of Spring!
    I saw thee dance to-night at Carnival,
    I saw thee laugh, and spurn thy lovers all,
    And dreamed, 'No man's desire she will heed,
    Her lips are over-sworn and over-kissed,
    But she will shurely list
    If God but seem to speak, will list indeed.
    I will not weave, as other lovers weave,
    her garlands, she shall find, and grieve
    For the one last thorn found tangled in my hair;
    She shall forsake the world, she shall forswear,
    Gather the honey of her being sweet
    Into a vase of prayer
    To break here at my feet.'
    Since at the Carnival all men may wear
    What guise they will, I chose the holiest;
    Yea, when thy voice persuaded: 'Turn again'
    I dreamed to woo thee, not as other men--
    What faith hadst thou in any reveller?
    It seemed thy soul was brimmed for God to stir.
    Delight was impotent, and joy was old.

    Of Christ I made a travesty of sin,
    Thy loveliness to win--
    To run my miser fingers through the gold,
    The shuddering sweetness of thy rebel hair,
    To sense the conflict of refusing lips,
    The slow surrender from thy finger tips
    Till thou wert all mine, utterly possessed,
    Mine as the Moon
    Is captive on a night's triumphant breast,
    Mine as May's burning bowl is full of June!"

    I shrank away, the thin words fell like blood
    From my torn lips, I shuddered where I stood,
    Muttering: "Christ may come in stranger's guise
    To poor men's houses, may go humbly shod,
    Begging for broken meats, nor shall despise
    Those who give thus, knowing the cloak hides God.

    But I and all my soul are sacrificed
    To a thief that hath put on the garb of Christ.
    Oh, at sin's feet to break my spirit's vase!
    Oh, that I dreamed to lie upon His breast
    While over me He brake the bread and blessed;--
    To feel the mighty stars
    Streaming to meet me; to have compassed all,
    Reached, overtaken, passed, Eternity,
    In one hour's glory, then to fall
    To Hell, at least with thee!
    Ah God, that Thou couldst let such horror be,
    Could let that veritable image HE--
    Travesty of Thy Son,
    Tear my weak soul in tatters, yea, that Thou
    Couldst lead Sin by Thy hand and by Thy brow
    To Thy poor foolish helpless little one!"

    Then horror laid her hands on me--I fled:
    It seemed the world-end could not be too far
    For such a fugitive,
    Nor ramparts of the outer darkness give
    Shelter for such a head.
    The hideous night, with lips of a lazar,
    With a shrill scream pursued,
    Till Dawn in seamless sky a tatter rent
    That oozing long lines of blood,
    Smearing the grey breast of the firmarment . . .
    The whole world closed upon me, o'er my face
    Flinging an inescapable black hood.

    As one half-drowned may feel above his head
    (After all sense of dread,
    And desperate fight for breath have died away),
    The heavy waters part, and sound and space
    And cold sky stare about him, which make melt
    Green water-worlds into familiar day.
    The light came groping to me, and I felt
    The morning on my brow, while over me
    An unaccostomed face leaned patiently,
    Until it grew to be
    The beggar I had scorned at Carnival.
    "O Child," the voice of pity spake: "for all
    Thy faith, Christ was not in those hands, that brow."
    "Nay a thief took my soul, but comest thou
    Beggar, to taunt me, as I taunted thee?"

    "I come to none to chide or spurn:
    I come to plead with thee that thou return
    To thy forsaken Christ, rebellious one.
    God long hath sat beside thee in the sun,
    Thou knowing not." I said: "If thou be He,
    Trouble me not, I have nought left to give;
    I am drained utterly
    Of faith and worship. Can these dead bones live?
    What rose shall spread wing from this stricken tree?
    All, all is waste and scattered to the wind,
    All, all is dead and strangled in the dust!
    And no dew lies
    In the dead Morning's eyes;
    The sheeted Moon, unsepulchred, is thrust
    On the bare Night, another tomb to find!
    Earth, heaven, have passed away."
    "These are built up again." "But not for me."
    He answered: "Yea,
    Even for such as thou; oh, seek and find!
    Go back, thou hast two children in thy house;
    Breaking thy holy vows,
    Didst think to find thy God in mummeries,
    Finding it not with whom Christ said: 'Of these'
    A child is but a shell upon Life's shore,
    Fragile, rose-kissed, yet holding for thine ears
    Raging of seas, and roaring of the spheres.
    Thou hadst no need too heavenward to look up,
    Thou discontented soul.
    Behold Christ's milky mouth in the china cup,
    Christ's hand that tips the blue-rimmed porrige bowl!"

    "Ah, Lord, can such as I return
    To the grey paths of peace--re-live, re-learn?
    How can I feel my children's hands like flowers
    Anout my face? Assign me grimmer hours,
    Not the familiar stair, the to and fro
    Of duties slow,
    The little, dreadful paths of every day!"

    "Am I not broken in the commonest bread,
    And spilled in the unconsecrated wine?
    Is not each man who loves, a priest,
    Albeit men lock Me in a sunless shrine,
    Spreading a special feast?
    Yet am I outside in the lilac-tree,
    beneath their feet, around them everywhere.
    Thou canst not chain Christ to a chapel-bell.
    From brothels thinkest thou I hear no prayer?
    Doth not the choking gutter sing Me well?
    Is not the whole sweet world my Sanctuary?
    Do they despise My feet, who do but lave
    The feet of strangers, in their bosoms nursed?
    Am I not fed on orphan's lips, My thirst
    Quenched in the beggar's platter? They who save
    One shipwrecked soul, or seek some heart forgot,
    Are Mine and love Me, though they know it not.
    They are too noble for escape of Me:
    Their lives more sing Me than a thousand psalms!
    They thrust aside My Everlasting Arms,
    Yet they are still beneath them--them and thee.

    "What need hast thou of vows?
    Go back, thou hast two children in thy house."

    I went by wood and waste toward the town:
    The whole world lay, a quiet emerald
    Set in a golden ring
    Upon God's finger, against His bosom thralled;
    Elusive airs were blown
    On elfin horns of Spring;
    Through the thin mist pale hawthorn trees peered out
    Like a dim, sick face from its frilled cap
    Upon infirmary pillow, turned about--
    Caught creatures in some vast, predestined trap.
    But with each step I took, the morning grew
    Gayer and younger, a full-throated thrush
    Woke, and from hidden bush
    Dimpled a note or two,
    Set the wood's side a-shake, as if it knew
    Answer to impudent jest; already bees
    Sought the dell's bosom all a-heave with blue,
    And girdeled with the goldenest primroses.
    From every fold
    The young lamb's cough came softly down the lane;
    The cuckoo told
    His first few notes--as miser tells his gold,
    And counted them again.
    I pased along the unchanged, quiet street,
    At my own door unlatched I entered in
    Upon an atmosphere that seemed too sweet
    For me and all my sin.

    I felt no agony of hope or loss,
    Treading the old paths that beside me lay;
    For me no one great lifting on the Cross,
    But small, slow crucifixions every day.
    I brought no prayers, I made no conscious vows,
    And though it seemed God never could confer
    Duty so simle, such a humble faith,
    And that no further life my soul could stir,
    I went back, meekly, trusting what he saith:
    "Go back, thou hast two children in thy house."

On to the next poem.

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