Ancestors: (On Reading a Family History)

OPEN lies the book before me: in a realm obscure as dreams
I can trace the pale blue mazes of innumerable streams,
That from regions lost in distance, vales of shadow far apart,
Meet to blend their mystic forces in the torrents of my heart.
Pensively I turn the pages, pausing, curious and aghast:
What commingled, unknown currents, mighty passions of the past,
In this narrow, pulsing moment through my fragile being pour,
From the mystery behind me, to the mystery before!
I put by the book: in vision rise the gray ancestral ghosts,
Reaching back into the ages, vague, interminable hosts,
From the home of modern culture, to the cave uncouth and dim,
Where — what ’s he that gropes? a savage, naked, gibbering, and grim!
I was molded in that far-off time of ignorance and wrong,
When the world was to the crafty, to the ravenous and strong;
Tempered in the fires of struggle, of aggression and resistance:
In the prowler and the slayer I have had a preëxistence!
Wild forefathers, I salute you! Though your times were fierce and rude,
From their rugged husk of evil comes the kernel of our good.
Sweet the righteousness that follows, great the forces that foreran:
’T is the marvel still of marvels that there ’s such a thing as man!
Now I see I have exacted too much justice of my race,
Of my own heart too much wisdom, of my brothers too much grace;
Craft and greed our primal dower, wrath and hate our heritage!
Scarcely gleams as yet the crescent of the full-orbed golden age.
Man’s great passions are coeval with the vital breath he draws,
Older than all codes of custom, all religions and all laws;
Before prudence was, or justice, they were proved and justified:
We may shame them and deny them, their dominion will abide.
Still the darker age will linger in the slowly brightening present,
Still the old moon’s fading phantom in the bosom of the crescent;
The white crown of reason covers the old kingdom of unrest,
And I feel at times the stirring of the savage in my breast.
Wrong and insult find me weaponed for a more heroic strife;
In the sheath of mercy quivers the barbarian’s ready knife!
But I blame no more the givers for the rudeness of the dower:
’T was the roughness of the thistle that insured the future flower.
Somehow hidden in the slayer was the singer yet to be,
In the fiercest of my fathers lived the prophecy of me;
But the turbid rivers flowing to my heart were filtered through
Tranquil veins of honest toilers to a more cerulean hue.
O my fathers, in whose bosoms slowly dawned the later light,
In whom grew the thirst for knowledge, in whom burned the love of right,
All my heart goes out to know you! With a yearning near to pain,
I once more take up the volume, but I turn the leaves in vain.
Not a voice, of all your voices, comes to me from out the vast;
Not a thought, of all your thinking, into living form has passed: As I peer into the darkness, not a being of my name
Stands revealed against the shadows in the beacon-glare of fame.
Yet your presence, O my parents, in my inmost self I find,
Your persistent spectres haunting the dim chambers of the mind:
Old convulsions of the planet in the new earth leave their trace,
And the child’s heart is an index to the story of his race.
Each with his unuttered secret down the common road you went,
Winged with hope and exultation, bowed with toil and discontent>:
Fear and triumph and bereavement, birth and death and love and strife,
Wove the evanescent vesture of your many-colored life.
Your long-silent generations first in me have found a tongue,
And I bear the mystic burden of a thousand lives unsung:
Hence this love for all that’s human, the strange sympathies I feel,
Subtle memories and emotions which I stammer to reveal.
Now I also, in my season, walk beneath the sun and moon,
Face the hoary storms of winter, breathe the luxury of June:
Here to gaze awhile and wonder, here to weep and laugh and kiss;
Then to join the pale procession sweeping down the dark abyss.
To each little life its moment! We are sparkles of the sea:
Still the interminable billows heave and gleam, — and where are we?
Still forever rising, following, mingling with the mighty roar,
Wave on wave the generations break upon the eternal shore.
Here I joy and sing and suffer, in this moment fleeting fast,
Then become myself a phantom of the far-receding past,
When our modern shall be ancient, and the narrow times expand,
Down through ever-broadening eras, to a future vast and grand.
Clouds of ancestors, ascending from this sublunary coast,
Here am I, enrolled already in your ever-mustering host!
Here and now the rivers blended in my blood once more divide,
In the fair lad leaping yonder, in these darlings by my side.
Children’s children, I salute you! From this hour and from this land,
To your far-off generations I uplift the signal hand!
Well contented, I resign you to the vision which I see, —
O fraternity of nations! O republics yet to be!
Yours the full-blown flower of freedom, which in struggle we have sown;
Yours the spiritual science, that shall overarch our own.
You, in turn, will look with wonder, from a more enlightened time,
Upon us, your rude forefathers, in an age of war and crime!
Half our virtues will seem vices by your broader, higher right,
And the brightness of the present will be shadow in that light;
For, behold, our boasted culture is a morning cloud, unfurled
In the dawning of the ages and the twilight of the world!
J. T. Trowbridge.