The Bird of Passage: An Ode to Instrumental Music


THERE is a time o mellowed fruit and ear,
Long after violet and rose,
When the meditative year
Harvests the months and seasons, ere it goes
To join the elders in that land where they repose.
All the long day, like one in waking dreams
Who counts his gains and toils, it also seems
To pause, to linger in its own warm sun,
Surveying labors done
And trophies won.
Spring and Summer does it gather
Into its gentler, broader lap of weather.


Forever it perceives fulfilled
The promise of the trees ;
In open page of garden, vale, and mead,
Abundance it can read,
Sheaves, roots, and spices from the furrows tilled,
And honey from the hiving bees.
All is there,
To Beauty gathered, and to Use ;
Yea, all is there
Save this alone: when blows the breeze,
Shaking the Summer from the branches loose,
The empty nests are bare.
The vanished song of Spring hath left behind
No ripened melody, which should remind
The quiet and bereavèd air
Of those orchestral dawns when May was young and fair.
Each wistful day doth almost seem to stand
And listen, but throughout the hazy land
No harvest note of sound
Wakens the teeming stillness from its dream profound.


So runs the story of the ages old,
So does it run to-day;
Each thrifty year has treasures manifold
To count and leave ; but they
Contain no voice ; and Autumn’s bell has tolled,
And Song is flown away.
Thus once from mortals did their Song escape,
Unharvested by Art;
From age to age a migratory shape,
Born only to depart.
Music ! where wert thou, till Cremona’s call
Lured thee from air, or sky, or Heaven, to fall ?


From oldest time
The human heart has throbbed,
Full of great angels breathing messages sublime,
Whereat it laughed or sobbed.
And some it understood, and forthwith spoke
In divers tongues, or shaped in stone,
Or told in colors with a stroke ;
But some
Made it to shudder only, or to kneel
Smitten to ecstasy : still it was dumb,
It could not yet intone,
It could but feel
These raptures and despairs which deep within it broke.


Beyond all language did this ocean lie,
Beyond the jutting shores and capes of speech ;
Around the isles of thought its tides swam by ;
Blue and ineffable they lapped its beach,
And beat against the shore
With ripple now, and now with roar,
Glowing or glooming to horizon’s reach.
By things familiar could its calm be stirred,
Familiar things could smooth its foaming crest Prayers, loves, and battles, or some silver word
Sung by a star above the fading west;
The round, full hunter’s moon.
The silence of the golden noon,
Troubled its deep with omens ne’er expressed.
Never a wave, never one little wave
Broke into Art and from this ocean sang
A sound beyond its day, or gave
Prophetic tone which down the centuries rang.
Over the weaving flow,
The ebb and flood
Of the heart’s unfathomed mood,
Music! with wild, sweet cry
Untaught, beneath the sky,
Like wingèd petrel didst thou come, and go.


The graven image of the Past, —
How awful is its silence, first and last!
How motionless its pictures, words, and forms,
Begotten once ’mid spiritual storms!
We crave a voice that something more should tell
Of those congealed dreams of Heaven and Hell.
Dumb does it stare and hold before our eyes
The written tablets of its centuries.
Through its vast hall
Of voiceless heirlooms do we pass,
By myrtle and ’neath cypress tall,
Down the wide steps where still the fountains fall
Wetting the margin-grass.
In triremes to Ægean shores
We cross, like Argonauts with muffled oars,
And on to ancient time and land,
Where pyramids arise above the sand;
Never a sound, as still we tread
Yon gardens, temples, deserts of the dead!


The shepherd sang the pastures of the Lord,
The heathen’s rages, and the temple’s calm;
He sang how sun and moon and stars adored, —
We only read his Psalm.
Cedars of Lebanon, and mountains sharp,
Waters of Babylon, we know full well;
Where are those hymns that swept the tingling harp
Of royal Israel ?
By the white marbles and green bays of Greece,
Apollo smote his lyre through vale and hill;
Music! thou fleddest by the golden fleece,
Thou wert a wild-bird still.
The sculptured god, the tale of Troy, remain,
The priestess by her tripod in the dawn;
But, delphic nightingale, where is thy strain ?
That is forever gone!
And where is thine, that melted Tuscan groves
Till amorous branches were together blown,
While silken boys and girls kissed out their loves
Until the night was flown ?
Those fluted intervals have passed the reeds
Of Echo’s stream, and now in fields remote,
Autumns of memory, ’mid old names and deeds,
Like thin, light leaves they float.
In parchment pale the lovers still survive;
On palace walls their eyes, their lips, still bloom
With hues undying, but yet not alive,
And silent as the tomb.


Within that circle where the Arts had long
Sat like a crown of stars, since ancient day,
One space there was of empty night,
One vacant chair remained for Song,
While all the rest was light;
Yet ever down the pathless way
The wild-bird fled along,
Restless, ethereal, perverse, and fond,
Until at length Cremona raised a master wand.
It was the body calling for its soul
In tones that had not been;
Beyond the shores of speech,
Beyond thought’s utmost reach,
The heart’s deep ocean waves began to roll
Forth from Cremona’s violin.
The wild-bird listened, trembled, stopped,
And then with folded wings deep in those waves she dropped.
In shell of wreathed melody she rose,
The goddess that was now a bird no more ;
Dripping with song she floated to the shore,
To Beauty’s long-abiding sands,
The new-born one, the youngest one of those
Her sisters, clustering sweet to take her by the hands.
Then, as Cremona’s wand was drawn
More potent through the orchestral dawn,
The untamed sounds of Time made haste to come ;
Beneath the weaving spell
Did this new Orpheus compel
Grim War to follow with his elemental drum.
And Riot hushed her cymbals there,
Submissive in the charmèd air,
And Victory with her trump was captive borne ;
Dance her triangle did bestow;
And, as the spell began to glow
Into the warmer fullness of its morn,
The gypsy fauns their timbrels gave,
Pan from his forest brought his pipes to blow,
And basking Triton from his sapphire wave
Held out the gift of his resounding horn.


Thus did they
From the firm earth, and from the tidal foam,
From cave and mountain, field and coast,
Gather to their appointed home, —
These voices that were used to roam
Over the old world in a straggling host;
Or else in menial state
To serve the occasion of the great,
'Mid temples, rites, and ceremonies lost.
Thus did they —
These rude and separate voices — now obey
Their goddess, queen, and angel, and at length
Dissolve in oracles of sweetness and of strength.
Who shall say
Why she remained long-while a wandering bird,
What secret cause gave her delay,
By what deep law her coming was deferred
Until our later day ?
What miracle, what magic deed of earth,
Surpasses her most wondrous birth ?
Where strings and reeds and metals give
Out of their mystic natures forth
Delight that grows not in an outward clime,
Concord that is not born of creed or time,
Nor thoughts nor things of South or North,
Nor voices in the air that live,
But tongues that never were on sea or land,
A Pentecost of sound the soul can understand.


Then, Music ! sweep
Thy harp which hath a thousand strings,
At whose unearthly bidding leap
To life celestial visions of those things
Which sometimes are with us in sleep.
A province new is thine;
For when the wind blows through the mountain pine,
Thou givest our responding sigh.
Thy darkening tones contain the spirit’s sky,
When gliding night doth with the eve entwine.
Thy magic harp can call
Whatever lives within the waterfall,
Whatever moves among the trees above,
Or hideth in the earth beneath ;
Thine is the voice of many springs
Which no poet ever sings;
No one has told like thee of love,
And none like thee can tell of death.
A province new is thine :
Most bountiful the harvest that it yields !
Keep it, nor trespass on thy sisters’ fields,
Nor seek to utter what themselves have spoken ;
For so, and only so, thy light shall shine
Unclouded, and thy perfect utterance be unbroken.


Yea, sweep thy harp which hath a thousand strings!
The joy that sometimes is in darkest night,
And the strange sadness which the sunshine brings,
The splendors and the shadows of our inward sight, —
All these within thy weaving harmonies unite.
In thee we hear our uttermost despair,
And Faith through thee sends up her deepest prayer.
Thou dost control
The moods antiphonal that chant within the soul;
And when thou liftest us upon thy wings,
From the shores of speech we rise,
Beyond the isles of thought we go,
Over an unfathomed flow,
Where great waves forever surge
Beneath almost remembered skies,
And on to that horizon’s verge
Where stand the gates of Paradise.
On thy wings we pass within,
But summoned back, must we return
Across those heaving ocean streams,
With memories, regrets, unutterable dreams,
Having seen what somewhere must have been,
A light, a day, for which we yearn,
And there, beneath the beams
Of the revealing, central sun,
That Greater Self who bides in every one,
Into whose eyes we look sometimes, and learn
The reason for our Faith that still shall ceaseless burn.
Owen Wister

(Read at the dedication of the new Symphony Hall, Boston, October 15, 1900.)