Posted by: Sherry Goodwin | January 21, 2014


Autobiography ! So you say,
So do I not believe !
For no men or women that live to-day,
Be they as good or as bad as they may,
Ever would dare to leave
In faintest pencil or boldest ink
All they truly and really think,
What they have said and what they have done,
What they have lived and what they have felt,
Under the stars or under the sun.
At the touch of a pen the dewdrops melt,
And the jewels are lost in the grass,
Though you count the blades as you pass.
At the touch of a pen the lightning is fixed,
An innocent streak on a broken cloud ;
And the thunder that pealed so fierce and loud,
With musical echo is softly mixed.
Autobiography ? No !
It never was written yet, I trow.
Grant that they try !
Still they must fail !
Words are too pale
For the fervour and glow of the lava-f low.
Can they paint the f lash of an eye ?
How much less the f lash of a heart,
Or its delicate ripple and glitter and gleam,
Swift and sparkling, suddenly darkling,
Crimson and gold tints, exquisite soul-tints,
Changing like dawn-f lush touching a dream !
Where is the art
That shall give the play of blending lights
From the porphyry rock on the pool below ?
Or the bird-shadow traced on the sunlit heights
Of golden rose and snow ?

You say ’tis a fact that the books exist,
Printed and published in Mudie’s list,
Some in two volumes, and some in one—
Autobiographies plenty. But look !
I will tell you what is done
By the writers, confidentially !
They cut little pieces out of their lives
And join them together,
Making them up as a readable book,
And call it an autobiography,
Though little enough of the life survives.

What if we went in the sweet May weather
To a wood that I know which hangs on a hill,
And reaches down to a tinkling brook,
That sings the f lowers to sleep at night,
And calls them again with the earliest light.
Under the delicate f lush of green,
Hardly shading the bank below,
Pale anemones peep between
The mossy stumps where the violets grow ;
Wide clouds of bluebells stretch away,
And primrose constellations rise,—
Turn where we may,
Some new loveliness meets our eyes.
The first white butterf lies f lit around,
Bees are murmuring close to the ground,
The cuckoo’s happy shout is heard.
Hark again !
Was it echo, or was it bird ?
All the air is full of song,
A carolling chorus around and above ;
From the wood-pigeon’s call so soft and long,
To merriest twitter and marvellous trill,
Every one sings at his own sweet will,
True to the key-note of joyous love.

Well, it is lovely ! is it not ?
But we must not stay on the fairy spot,
So we gather a nosegay with care :
A primrose here and a bluebell there,
And something that we have never seen,
Probably therefore a specimen rare ;
Stitchwort, with stem of transparent green,
The white-veined woodsorrel, and a spray
Of tender-leaved and budding May.
We carry home the fragrant load
In a close, warm hand, by a dusty road ;
The sun grows hotter every hour ;
Already the woodsorrel pines for the shade
We watch it fade,
And throw away the fair little f lower ;
We forgot that it could not last an hour
Away from the cool moss where it grows.
Then the stitchworts droop and close ;
There is nothing to show but a tangle of green,
For the white-rayed stars will no more be seen.
Then the anemones, can they survive ?
Even now they are hardly alive.
Ha ! where is it, our unknown spray ?
Dropped on the way !
Perhaps we shall never find one again.
At last we come in with the few that are left,
Of freshness and fragrance bereft ;
A sorry display.
Now, do we say,
‘ Here is the wood where we rambled to-day ;
See, we have brought it to you ;
Believe us, indeed it is true.
This is the wood ! ’ do we say ?

So much for the bright and pleasant side.
There is another. We did not bring
All that was hidden under the wing
Of the radiant-plumaged Spring.
We never tried
To spy, or watch, or away to bear,
Much that was just as truly there.
What have we seen ?
Hush, ah, hush !
Curled and withered fern between,
And dead leaves under the living green
Thick and damp. A clammy feather,
All that remains of a singing thrush
Killed by a weasel long ago,
In the hungry winter weather.
Nettles in unfriendly row,
And last year’s brambles, sharp and brown,
Grimly guarding a hawthorn crown.
A pale leaf trying to reach the light
By a long weak stem, but smothered down,
Dying in darkness, with none to see.
The rotting trunk of a willow tree,
Leaf less, ready to fall from the bank ;
A poisonous fungus, cold and white,
And a hemlock growing strong and rank
A tuft of fur and a ruddy stain,
Where a wounded hare has escaped the snare,
Only perhaps to be caught again.
No specimens we bring of these,
Lest they should disturb our ease,
And spoil the story of the May,
And make you think our holiday
Was far less pleasant than we say.

Ah no ! We write our lives indeed,
But in a cipher none can read,
Except the author. He may pore
The life-accumulating lore
For evermore,
And find the records strange and true,
Bring wisdom old and new.
But though he break the seal,
No power has he to give the key,
No licence to reveal.
We wait the all-declaring day,
When love shall know as it is known.
Till then, the secrets of our lives are ours and
God’s alone.

Frances Ridley Havergal from Memorials, Letters, and Biographical Works


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