Christmas Eve at Chartres

STRAIGHT runs the road to Chartres, and
sharply flutes
That span of frozen plain where poplars grow
In spiring file like sconces sown to mark
The way, parting the drifted fields to show
My passage. Chiming through the frozen roots,
Glassed over from the sky the river flows
To the Cathedral sailing like an ark
At livelong anchor on the snowy tide.
But not for beasts men built her, nor the race
Of one man chosen — bells and turrets ride
The air to toll her blessing to the blind;
The deaf may see her steeples rock, and trace
Upon these porches every tale of grace,
And every year may find
That on this roof a ranging dove will light
To share the hopeful harvest of his flight.
Under the western arch, where saints and kings
Shoulder to shoulder keep their watch, I stand
Deep in the carven cave; the falling snow
Darkens the afternoon and folds the land
In drifted silence. Standing here I know
The streets surround me, though the ancient town
Is shrouded from my sight; I know the wings
Of two stone archangels still brood and beat
Upon the turrets where they stood to greet
Saint-Louis’and the Maid. My roots run down
To buried depths of time — there in the gloom
The dust of missals shines in sunken rooms.
Let buried Queens and nuns be with me now
Who set these windows on the sky to show
A Virgin’s glory, and the men that raised
These branching columns — still I see them build;
Between the piers the art of every guild
Is mullioned up in glass to sign their praise.
High-shining in the dimness Jesse’s tree
Springs to the seat of Jesus; far above
He sits, but straining downward in his love
As if he knew the ardent agony
Of his own birth
Stretches his arms toward the waiting earth.
“Lonely as God” — I knew not till that face
Pale on the burning sapphires of his sky
Flowered in sorrow fabulous, more fierce
Than all his suffering—O proud men that pierce
His heart, fathom the blackness of his eyes
Who down the blind and hollow darkness hurled
Shining his soul’s own plummet for the world
And struck the soundless fountainhead of grace.
Saints glowing in their jeweled and vaulted tombs,
Embalmed in rubies, treading on emeralds, stand
Each holding up a veined and amber hand
To shed his blessing on the sapphire gloom,
His men of lead and light
Casting their golden shafts upon the night.
Now softly fall the fires of gems that burned
By day to phoenix embers in the air,
But Christ’s pale brow under the sable hair
Still looms upon the dark, for he returns
Each year, who leaves us never. Now his stare
Falls on the Virgin of the Belle-Verrière
And luminous with innocence he turns
His light with her to share.
Now, like a prism dropping from the night
A dove descends and stoops upon his brow,
Down flashing clasps in crystal plumed flight
The final brightness — lo, his feathered light
Cleaves down the darkness like a winged plow
To sow upon his wake the star foretold!
Sheer through the winter sky above the world
Towers the shining furrow of his trail.
Immortal diamond falling to us! Hail
His passage as the hurtling pinions fold
And plunge their rush of radiance in the head
Of Christ. Now darkness spreads,.
Shadows surround him, and the shining bough
Fades from us as the qua trefoils furl
Into the sky their curling leaves of gold.
The parables of rose and lance are done,
Hooded in long arcades at setting sun,
And now his forehead white
As crystal wings is shaded into night.
One candle in a cup of ruby glass
Flutters against the darkness at t he feet
Of Mary Belle-Verrière, where pilgrims meet,
Their flickering entreaties in a mass
Of wicks to her entrusted. She is near
And holds to them upon her azure knees
All day the solemn Christ Child have no fear
Who from the world and all its weathers flee
To seek her shelter, kneeling in the lee
Of prisms kindled to a burning spear
Crimson and cobalt, streaming on the hair
Of children—through her body strikes the sun;
Motes from her mantle slanting down the air
With blooming sapphires stroke the veils of
She bends to every prayer,
Her pity touched by every taper: keeps
Her vigil through the night while pilgrims sleep.
This night in Bethlehem how long ago
Before the years of glory and the light
Of windows set to burn in shadowed heights,
She wandered in the sleeping town below
This very star first-born—Then was there snow
Whirling above the desert? when she crept
Slow through the frozen streets, by Joseph’s arm
Upheld, and was the stable rank and warm
When stumbling to the lantern held, she stepped
Over the threshold? Was the breathing dark
CentIe around her, and did Joseph kneel
And hollow out the straw and draw her down
Heavy with double pulse, and did she feel
With joy the thrusting head, as bursting sparks
Of pain beat through her belly, and he knelt
And held her head and kissed the clenched hands
And shuddered at her straining, till the furled
Godhead, the child in fierce fulfillment broke
From virgin womb upon the winter world —
Did Joseph count the crown,
Or did he catch him in rough-wov en cloak
And tear that cloak to make his swaddling bands?
That was her time of triumph, when she lay
In musty straw and watched the lantern sway.
Perhaps a cobweb spun across the beam
That braced the manger shimmered in her dream
As if the star descended. Joseph bent
Over the manger, watched while Mary slept:
Musing above the miracle he kept
The first and wondering worship of this day.
Now to the hushed cathedral pilgrims come.
Kneeling to light their candles here below
The darkened window, light to her the hum
Of many hundred prayers until the glow
Sheds down a tapestry upon the snow
Spread to the town under the drifted walls
Of Notre-Dame de Chartres, as if she calls
Us to her with the shepherds and the kings,
For now he travails toward us, as the light
Leaps in the window in a thrust of wings
Up from her head a crystal dove takes flight
Toward new Pontecosts across t hi’ night;
Hodie Christus natus est.
The Child is gathered to the virgin breast.
Now at the stroke of midnight I am rung
Back to the present as the angels bring
Tidings to shepherds far ago; I sing
Now — in the tower seven bells are bung,
The sky is hallowed with the heavy sound
That wakes bone voices from the swaying ground
And beats a pulse into the holy stone.
I cannot see but know that all around
The world men kneel with me, and I am swung
Into the falling sky as seven-tongued
The bell-spire rocks—a hail of frozen stars
Rings on my mouth—as sailing high and far
The fiying ranks of arches trembling soar
Michael is poised upon the buttressed keel
Trumpeting to the turrets as they reel
Above the carven saints, and Gabriel’s horn
Of granite from the shrouded steeple peals
Their molten music: Wake, the Christ is born
Sounds from the sailing ark
That men may find the stable in the dark.