Rubens, Child with Bird, 1616
Grey, ancient abbeys, you may see them yet,
In that high plain above the western sea:
A broken arch or two, a few worn stones
Piled one upon another, and for paving
Uneven fragments with tall grass between:
Grass that is always green, winter and summer,
The grass that grows on long-forgotten graves.
It was a springtime morning long ago,
A morning of blue skies and whitest clouds,
And singing birds, and singing streams, and woods
That shone like silver, yet untouched with green:
The brethren of an abbey of the plain
—Whereof what now is ruin yet was whole—
Were labouring as holy brethren must,
Quietly, and in peace: and elder ones
Paced in the cloister, and some, older still,
Too old to work or dream, sat in the sunlight,
The sunlight which they soon should see no more.
And there came from the wood upon the hill
One clothed in the sere habit of a monk,
That passed in at the portal of the abbey:
Brighter his face than is the face of spring,
And joy was in his tread, as in his soul.
And some that paced the cloister paused to glance
And one that went upon an errand stayed,
And some that laboured left their work, and came
Gathering round him, and he spake, and said:
“Very fair the golden morning
As in yonder wood I strayed,
And I heard diviner music
Than the greatest harpers made,
For a sweet bird sang before me
Songs of laughter, and of tears.
All that I have loved and longed for,
As I measured out my years.
Sang of blessed shores and golden
Where the old, dim heroes be,
Distant isles of sunset glory,
Set beyond the western sea.
Sang of Christ and Mary Mother
Hearkening unto angels seven
Playing on their golden harp-strings
In the far courts of high Heaven.”
So they stood by, and listened to his speech,
Rhythmic, for that great joy was in his soul:
But while they wondered whence he was, and who,
He cast his eyes around, and, shuddering, cried:
“Who are ye, that I thought to be my brothers?
Strangers and sons of strangers! Where are they
I left behind me but an hour ago?”
Then was there whispering among the throng,
And wonder not a little, and some scorn;
Till he that spake, with anguish in his eye,
Cried: “Take me to a cell, that I may pray.”
’Twas done, and in the golden afternoon
A brother entered, and found none within,
Only a sere monk’s habit, and much dust,
As of a body crumbled in the grave.
And while they wondered what these things might be,
At last spake forth the oldest of them all,
Burdened with hundred winters in his soul:
“I can remember, when my years were young,
Hearing the old monks say, one went from here
When spring was on the earth, as it is now,
Some five-score years ago, and was not seen
Again, though search was made in all the land.”
And some believed this was the same, and all
Forgot it in a sennight’s silent toil.
Save one, that saw, and seeing understood,
And for the greater glory of High God
Wrote down the story in a mighty book,
And limned the old saint hearkening to the bird
With bright hues, and you still may read and see.
Geoffrey Bache Smith