July 15, 2015
by Sir Henry James Sumner Maine
In 1843, as a third-year undergraduate at Pembroke College, Cambridge, Sir Henry, hoping to repeat his victory in the previous year’s competition, submitted “Plato” in an unsuccessful bid for the Chancellor’s English Medal.
Not harsh and crabbed, as some dull fools suppose,
But musical as is Apollo’s lute.
To words they twain did speak beneath this tree
Of things that are and things that ought to be
This place is consecrated: here the song
Of summer-drunken cicales all day long
Sounds in the plane-tree boughs that shadow wide
The sparkling cleft where emerald waters slide;
Here all the winds breathe gently, for of yore
Their ruder brother from the meadow bore
A maiden, gathering these same flowers that still
Creep down in fragrant network to the rill—
And therefore in this place ‘tis meet we set
HIS cradle, where the greensward dewy-wet
Sends up the crocus and the violet.
There came a dying cadence! Sure a swell
Of interrupted music rose and fell,
In deeper murmur mingling with the strain
Of those shrill insect singers in the plane!
It is the bee: aye nestling in the bloom
Of flowers upon his way, I see him come,
I see the long grass gleaming, as he flings
The dropping sunlight from his golden wings;
And lo! the leaves hang whispering with the din
Of cluster upon cluster floating in
To where the scented winds that steal across
Have lulled a child to sleep upon the moss.
Then stayed the murmurous hum: and then methought
Aerial gifts of crystal dew they brought,
The honey of Mount Parnes, spoiled at will
From velvet bells that shiver on the hill.
And, when in small white globes I saw them drip
The clear distilment on his crimson lip,
It seem’d, but nothing more perchance I heard
Save sudden music from some lurking bird,
That all the languid wind around did bear
The sound of voices speaking in the air.
Then long I mused of tales by poets sung.
How, when the ancient world was very young,
An infant god in Cretan cave lay sleeping,
And, where the long green swathes of ivy creeping
Muffled its mouth, the nursing bees slid through
To feed the mighty child with honey-dew.
But, ere the curtains of purple Even
Were drawn in shadow over all the heaven,
A mortal mother, who the livelong day
Had sought in sorrow, bore the boy away,
Kissing the curled forehead, till the night
Descending closed them wholly from my sight.
Again the shadow left my eyes, and lo!
The white Cecropian city shone below,
With long walls creeping to her curving bay,
And ships, and shrines, and humming streets she lay:
Within I saw the heaving crowd, and then
I saw one teaching in the throngs of men,
Old and unlovely—for the spark divine
Lay in a chrysalis, that gave no sign
How there was cabin’d in a cell so dull
The bright embodying of the Beautiful—
He spake, methought, and in mid-speaking smil’d
In gentle kindness on an earnest child,
Who listen’d wistfully; and they did pass
Out of the city gates upon the grass,
And talked among the olives: so there fell
The first dew on the flower that grew so well;
The finger on the key-note; and ere long
There rose a burst of such majestic song,
That, flowing from those ages to our own,
The mighty music still comes ebbing down
In faint low measure and strong organ tone.
Green vines, in golden glows of autumn bathed,
By gentle hands in winter-time were swathed,
And knotted to the elm, till, when the Hour
Came dancing in with dew, and sun, and shower,
They clomb, and leaving bough on bough behind,
Shook violet-coloured clusters to the wind.
So changed the boy to man, and day by day
More closely clung to his peculiar stay
The sheltering tree of Knowledge, leaving on
The gnarled trunk a beauty of his own:
And soon where’er the bark had shown before,
His genius, breathing on it, clothed it o’er
With long and lovely tendrils, peeping thro’
Perfumed fruits of delicatest blue.
With him that Truth, which still, and cold, and white,
Burns like a star-disk in surrounding night,
Seem’d deftly changed by some mysterious spell,
For on his mind as on a prism it fell,
And glinted off in colour, lovelier yet
Made by the agency that worked on it.
He sought, and seeking, found; but aye there stole
The shadowing of his spirit o’er the whole,
The effluence of that Poetry which ran
In subtlest currents thro’ the inner man:
So haply that which in itself was clear,
Seen through a many-tinted atmosphere,
Drank in these fairy hues which make it seem
Half real, and half the creature of a dream.
But the same mind mind, that would on all things throw
A falling flush that made them seem like snow
Trembling in roses from the sunset caught,
Yet bore him upward on the wings of thought
Until as from a signal-tower he saw
The poised earth sleeping in harmonious law,—
Beneath him Morning pass’d, and Evening pale,
And Night came by, and dropp’d her jewell’d veil:
The moons, the slow successive suns that flee
Across the heaven to the western sea,
And Man, and Man’s existence, circling through
A thousand different shades of change, he knew,
And all the power of number, and the sound
Of linked language to the root unwound,
And the quick spells of music; and he wove
A shadow of himself, and called it Love.
He look’d: and it was even as the birth
Of the sweet morn that stealeth on the earth,
For all the darkness parted, and between
The inner movements of all things were seen,
And thin innumerous lines before him were
Distinct as threads of sun-lit gossamer,
The subtle chains that to one centre run,
And link the order’d universe in one.
But with intensest strain of mind and eye
He probed the soul of Man that cannot die,
And show’d the delicate essence, how that blent
And mingled with a grosser element
It droops and mourns: but should one glimmer come
From that which was and shall be soon its home,
Like night-shut flowers that open to the morn,
It works and struggles toward the far-seen bourne,
The Heaven, still glass’d within it;—not to all
‘Tis given to break the fetters of their thrall,
For some are blind with sin, and some are cold
And bound too closely to the enwrapping mould,
And will not dream the dark horizon bars
A world of breaking lights and dropping stars,
A land of large-cupped flowers divine, a land
By wandering perfumes played upon, and fann’d
By keen etherial breezes, scattering round
A summer shower of fruits upon the ground;
A land of airy waves, that curling o’er
The gold sapphires strewn upon the shore
Strike yellow sparkles ceaselessly; the while
The mild-eyed gods from ivory temples smile,
And ever and anon their voices come
Whirled in soft echoes round the hollow dome,
And drop in music downwards, till they steal
Along the pavement where the suppliants kneel;
And these in such communion rapt, are they,
Who, like the boy that listened as he lay
Couched underneath that most melodious tree,
So in the long shades of the Academie
Drank in their Master’s teaching, when he spent
The crystal-pointed shafts of argument,
And moulded them to Virtue, thus to wend
Their way of life serenely to the end,
And then, beyond the sun and starry shine,
Sphered in the dark blue depths to sleep a sleep divine.
While all things else are mouldering, yet to some
There clings the freshness of their earliest bloom.
And thus he painted; and the outlines stay,
The light and shadow seems of yesterday,
On his invisible pictures; lo! on one
The mellow colouring lies in lighter tone,
A chamber—cresset-lit—with cool soft fire
Shed o’er the wine-cups and each thread-like wire
Of yonder sleeping lute, that erst was play’d
By rose-crowned men on fringèd cushions laid;
And wit, and mirth, and wisdom seem from each
To flow in action clearer than the speech
Which ever comes, but comes not:—dark, I ween,
The pencilling blackens on the sister scene,—
A calm and aged man, discoursing well
Of life and death with a prison cell,
And, looking up into his eyes, a band
Of still disciples sit on either hand;
He speaks, and they are weeping sore, and one
Leans by the window gazing at the sun,
And, where the long perspective darkens up,
There stands, half-seen, a pale man with a cup.
The least of things, like little tunes which stir
A thousand memories in a traveller,
Waken’d his spirit’s sleeping; and anon
His thought, deserting that he looked upon,
Slid to the land of dream, and wove around
A various fabric on the narrow ground.—
And yet he dream’d not: we, who every hour
Build grain by grain the mass of human power,
Must bow before our Master, who but stood
And nurs’d the juices working in the bud
And might not tend the flowering, but who fed
The stream of Science at its fountain-head.
Now spreads the flower: now roars the stream: and we
See but his hope become reality.
Sir Henry James Sumner Maine (1822-1888) was one of the foremost British legal theorists and historians of the nineteenth century. His book Ancient Law advanced the historical-anthropological theory of a movement ‘from status to contract’. There and elsewhere he argued that one way to understand the peculiar character of Modernity is that in Pre-Modern societies a person’s identity is defined by social status and the group memberships, privileges, and responsibilities that this status implied, whereas in Modern societies it is autonomously chosen contracts that define personal identity.