The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

At Bethlehem

From "The Light Of The World"

Sir Edwin Arnold

Source: Harrison S. Morris, ed., In The Yule-Log Glow--Book 3; Christmas Poems from 'round the World. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1900, pp. 158-178. Project Gutenberg eText # 20586.

So many hills arising, green and gray,
On Earth's large round, and that one hill to say:
"I was his bearing-place!" On Earth's wide breast
So many maids! and she--of all most blest--
Heavily mounting Bethlehem, to be
His Mother!--Holy Maid of Galilee!
Hill, with the olives, and the little town!
If rivers from their crystal founts flow down,
If 'twas the dawn which did day's gold unbar,
Ye were beginnings of the best we are,
The most we see, the highest that we know,
The lifting heavenward of man's life below.
Therefore, though better lips ye shall not lack,
Suffer if one of modern mood steals back--
Weary and wayworn from the desert-road
Of barren thought; from Hope's Dead Sea, which glowed
With Love's fair mirage; from the poet's haunt,
The scholar's lamp, the statesman's scheme, the vaunt,
The failure, of all fond philosophies,--
Back unto Thee, back to thy olive-trees,
Thy people, and thy story, and thy Son,
Mary of Nazareth! So long agone
Bearing us Him who made our christendom,
And came to save the earth, from heav'n, His home.

So many hill-sides, crowned with rugged rocks!
So many simple shepherds keeping flocks
In many moonlit fields! but, only they--
So lone, so long ago, so far away--
On that one winter's night, at Bethlehem,
To have white angels singing lauds for them!
They only--hinds wrapped in the he-goat's skin--
To hear heaven's music, bidding peace begin!
Only for those, of countless watching eyes,
The "Glory of the Lord" glad to arise;
The skies to blaze with gold and silver light
Of seraphs by strong joy flashed into sight;
The wind, for them, with that strange song to swell,--
By too much happiness incredible--
That tender anthem of good times to be,
Then at their dawn--not daylight yet, ah me!
"Peace upon earth! Good-will!" sung to the strings
Of lutes celestial. Nay, if these things
Too blessed to believe have seemed, or seem,
Not ours the fault, dear angels! Prove the dream
Waking and true! sing once again, and make
Moonlight and starlight sweet for earth's sad sake!
Or, if heaven bids ye lock in silence still
Conquest of peace, and coming of good-will,
Till times to be, then--oh, you placid sheep!
Ah, thrice-blest shepherds! suffer if we creep
Back through the tangled thicket of the years
To graze in your fair flock, to strain our ears
With listening herdsmen, if, perchance, one note
Of such high singing in the fine air float;
If any rock thrills yet with that great strain
We did not hear, and shall not hear, again;
If any olive-leaf at Bethlehem
Lisps still one syllable vouchsafed to them;
If some stream, conscious still--some breeze--be stirred
With echo of th' immortal words ye heard.

What was it that ye heard? the wind of night
Playing in cheating tones, with touches light,
Amid the palm-plumes? or, one stop outblown
Of planetary music, so far flown
Earthwards, that to those innocent ears 'twas brought
Which bent the mighty measure to their thought?
Or, haply, from breast-shaped Beth-Haccarem,
The hill of Herod, some waft sent to them
Of storming drums and trumps, at festival
Held in the Idumaean's purple hall?
Or, it may be, some Aramaic song
Of country lovers, after partings long
Meeting anew, with much "good will" indeed,
Blown by some swain upon his Jordan reed?
Nay, nay! your abbas back ye did not fling,
From each astonished ear, for swains to sing
Their village-verses clear; for sounds well-known
Of wandering breeze, or whispering trees, or tone
Of Herod's trumpets. And ye did not gaze
Heart-startled on the stars (albeit the rays
Of that lone orb shot, sparkling, from the east
Unseen before), for these, largest and least,
Were fold-lamps, lighted nightly: and ye knew
Far differing glory in the night's dark blue
Suddenly lit with rose, and pierced with spike
Of golden spear-beam. Oh, a dream, belike!
Some far-fetched vision, new to peasant's sleep,
Of paradise stripped bare!--But, why thus keep
Secrets for them? This bar, which doth enclose
Better and nobler souls, why burst for those
Who supped on the parched pulse, and lapped the stream,
And each, at the same hour, dreams the same dream!
Or, easier still, they lied! Yet, wherefore, then
"Rise, and go up to Bethlehem," and unpen
To wolf and jackal all their hapless fold
So they might "see these things which had been told
In heaven's own voice"? And heaven, whate'er betide,
Spreads surely somewhere, on death's farther side!

And, truly, if joy's music once hath rung
Prom lips of bands invisible, if any--
(Be they the dead, or of the deathless many)--
Love and serve man, angelical befrienders,
Glad of his weal, and from his woe defenders,--
If such, in heaven, have pity on our tears,
Forever falling with the unmending years,
High cause had they, at Bethlehem, that night,
To lift the curtain of hope's hidden light,
To break decree of silence with love's cry,
Foreseeing how this Babe, born lowlily,
Should--past dispute, since now achieved is this--
Bring earth great gifts of blessing and of bliss;
Date, from that crib, the dynasty of love;
Strip his misused thunderbolts from Jove;
Bend to their knee Rome's Caesars, break the chain
From the slave's neck; set sick hearts free again
Bitterly bound by priests, and scribes, and scrolls;
And heal, with balm of pardon, sinking souls:
Should mercy to her vacant throne restore,
Teach right to kings, and patience to the poor;
Should, from that bearing-cave, outside the khan,
Amid the kneeling cattle, rise, and be
Light of all lands, and splendor of each sea,
The sun-burst of a new morn come to earth,
Not yet, alas! broad day, but day's white birth
Which promiseth; and blesseth, promising.
These from that night! What cause of wondering
If that one silence of all silences
Brake into music? if, for hopes like these
Angels, who love us, sang that song, and show
Of time's far purpose made the "great light" glow?

Wherefore, let whosoever will drink dry
His cup of faith; and think that, verily,
Not in a vision, no way otherwise
Than those poor shepherds told, there did arise
This portent. Being amidst their sheep and goats,
Lapped careless in their pasture-keeping coats,
Blind as their drowsy beasts to what drew nigh,
(Such the lulled ear, and such th' unbusied eye
Which ofttimes hears and sees hid things!) there spread
The "Glory of the Lord" around each head:
Broke, be it deemed, o'er hill and over hollow,
On the inner seeing, the sense concealed, unknown,
Of those plain hinds--glad, humble, and alone--
Flooding their minds, filling their hearts; around,
Above, below, disclosing grove and ground,
The rocks, the hill, the town, the solitude,
The wondering flocks,--agaze with grass half-chewed,--
The palm-crowns, and the path to Bethlehem,
As sight angelic spies. And, came to them
The "Angel of the Lord," visible, sure,
Known for the angel by his presence pure
Whereon was written love, and peace, and grace,
With beauty passing mortal mien and face.

So when the Angels were no more to see,
Re-entering those gates of space,--whose key
Love keeps on that side, and on this side death--
Each shepherd to the other whispering saith,
Lest he should miss some lingering symphonies
Of that departing music, "Let us rise
And go even now to Bethlehem, and spy
This which is come to pass, shewed graciously
By the Lord's angels." Therewith hasted they
By olive-yards, and old walls mossed and gray
Where, in close chinks, the lizard and the snake,
Thinking the sunlight come, stirred, half-awake:
Across the terraced levels of the vines,
Under the pillared palms, along the lines
Of lance-leaved oleanders, scented sweet,
Through the pomegranate-gardens sped their feet;
Over the causeway, up the slope, they spring,
Breast the steep path, with steps not slackening;
Past David's well, past the town-wall they ran,
Unto the House of Chimham, to the khan,
Where mark them peering in, the posts between,
Questioning--all out of breath--if birth hath been
This night, in any guest-room, high or low?
The drowsy porter at the gate saith, "No!"--
Shooting the bars; while the packed camels shake
Their bells to listen, and the sleepers wake,
And to their feet the ponderous steers slow rise,
Lifting from trampled fodder large mild eyes;--
"Nay! Brothers! no such thing! yet there is gone
Yonder, one nigh her time, a gentle one!
With him that seemed her spouse--of Galilee;
They toiled at sundown to our doors--but, see!
No nook was here! Seek at the cave instead;
We shook some barley-straw to make their bed."

Then to the cave they wended, and there spied
That which was more, if truth be testified,
Than all the pomp seen thro' proud Herod's porch
Ablaze with brass, and silk, and scented torch,
High on Beth-Haccarem; more to behold,
If men had known, than all the glory told
Of splendid Caesar in his marbled home
On the white Isle; or audience-hall at Rome
With trembling princes thronged. A clay lamp swings
By twisted camel-cords, from blackened rings,
Shewing with flickering gleams, a Child new-born
Wrapped in a cloth, laid where the beasts at morn
Will champ their bean-straw: in the lamp-ray dim
A fresh-made Mother by Him, fostering Him
With face and mien to worship, speaking naught;
Close at hand Joseph, and the ass, hath brought
That precious twofold burden to the gate;
With goats, sheep, oxen, driven to shelter late:
No mightier sight! Yet all sufficeth it--
If we will deem things be beyond our wit--
To prove heaven's music true, and show heaven's way,
How, not by famous kings, nor with array
Of brazen letters on the boastful stone,
But "by the mouth of babes," quiet, alone,
Little beginnings planning for large ends,
With other purpose than fond man attends,
Wisdom and love, in secret fellowship
Guide our world's wandering with a finger-tip;
And how, that night, as these did darkly see,
They sealed the first scrolls of earth's history,
And opened what shall run till death be dead.

Which babe they reverenced, bending low the head,
First of all worshippers; and told the things
Done in the plain, and played on angel's strings.
Then those around wondered and worshipped, too,
And Mary heard--but wondered not--anew
Hiding this in her heart, the heart which beat
With blood of Jesus Christ, holy and sweet.

Also, not marvelling, albeit they heard,
Stood certain by--those three swart ones--appeared
From climes unknown; yet, surely, on high quest
Of what that star proclaimed, bright on the breast
First of the Ram, afterwards glittering thence
Into the watery Trigon, where, intense,
It lit the Crab, and burned the Fishes pale.
Three Signiors, owning many a costly bale;
Three travelled masters, by their bearing lords
Of lands and slaves. The Indian silk affords,
With many a folded braid of white and gold,
Shade to their brows; rich goat-hair shawls did fold
Their gowns of flow'r'd white muslin, midway tied;
And ruby, turkis, emerald--stones of pride--
Blazed on their thumb-rings; and a pearl gleamed white
In every ear; and silver belts, clasped tight,
Held ink-box, reeds, and knives, in scabbards gemmed;
Curled shoes of goat-skin dyed, with seed-pearls hemmed,
Shod their brown feet; hair shorn; lids low, to think--
Eyes deep and wistful, as of those who drink
Waters of hidden wisdom, night and day,
And live twain lives, conforming as they may,
In diligence, and due observances
To ways of men; yet, not at one with these;
But ever straining past the things that seem
To that which is--the truth behind the dream.
Three princely wanderers of the Asian blood
Perchance, by Indus dwellers; or some flood,
That feeds her from Himala's icy dome;
Or, haply, to those Syrian palm-trees come
From Gunga's banks, or mounts of Malabar
Which lift the Deccan to its sun, and far--
Rampart-like--fringe the blue Arabian Sea.
True followers of the Buddh they seemed to be,
The better arm and shoulder showing bare
With each; and on the neck of each, draped fair
A scarf of saffron, patched; and, 'twixt the eyes,
In saffron stamped, the Name of mysteries
OM; and the Swastika, with secrets rife
How man may 'scape the dire deceits of life.

These three stood by, as who would entrance make;
And heard the shepherd's tale; and, hearing, spake
Strange Indian words one to another; then sent
Command. Their serving-men, obedient,
Cast loose from off the camels, kneeling nigh,
Nettings and mats, and made the fastenings fly
From belly-band, and crupper-rope, and tail;
And broke the knots, and let each dusty bale
Slide from the saddle-horns, and give to see
Long-hoarded treasure of great jewelry,
And fragrant secrets of the Indian grove,
And splendors of the Indian looms, inwove
With gold and silver flowers: "for, now," said they,
"Our eyes have seen this thing sought day by day;
By the all-conscious, silent sky well-known,
And, specially, of yon white star fore-shown
Which, bursting magically on the sight,
Beckoned us from our homes, shining aright,
The silver beacon to this holy hill:
Mark if it sparkles not, aware and still,
Over the place: The astral houses, see!
Spake truth: Our feet were guided faithfully.
'Tis the Star-Child, who was to rise, and wear
A crown than Suleiman's more royal and rare,
'King of the Jews!' Grant an approach to us
Who crave to worship Him."

Now, it fell thus
That these first to Jerusalem had passed,
And sojourned there, observing feast and fast
In the thronged city; oft of townsmen seen
In market and bazaar; and, by their mien
Noted for lordliest of all strangers there,
Much whispered of, in sooth, as who saw clear
Shadows of times to come, and secrets bright
Writ in the jewelled cipher of the night.
So that the voice of this to Herod went
Feastful and fearful; ever ill-content
Mid plots and perils; girt with singing boys,
And dancing girls of Tyre, and armored noise
Of Caesar's legionaries. Long and near,
In audience hall, each dusky wayfarer
Questioned he of their knowledge, and the star,
What message flashed it? Whether near or far
Would rise this portent of a Babe to reign
King of the Jews, and bring a crown again
To weeping Zion, and cast forth from them
The Roman scourge? And if at Bethlehem,
As, with one voice, priests, elders, scribes aver,
Then, let them thither wend, and spy the stir,
And find this Babe, and come anew to him,
Declaring where the wonder. "'Twas his whim"
Quotha "to be of fashion with the stars,
(Weary, like them, of gazing upon wars)
To shine upon this suckling, bending knee
Save unto Caesar uncrooked latterly."

Thence came it those three stood at entering
Before the door; and their rich gifts did bring,
Red gold from the Indian rocks, cunningly beat
To plate and chalice, with old fables sweet
Of Buddh's compassion, and dark Mara's powers
Round the brims glittering; and a riot of flowers
Done on the gold, with gold script to proclaim
The Noble Truths, and Threefold mystic Name
OM, and the Swastika, and how man wins
Blessed Nirvana's rest, being quit of sins,
And, day and night, reciting, "Oh, the Gem!
Upon the Lotus! Oh, the Lotus-stem!"
Also, more precious than much gold, they poured
Rare spices forth, unknitting cord on cord;
And, one by one, unwinding cloths, as though
The merchantmen had sought to shut in so
The breath of those distillings: in such kind
As when Nile's black embalming slaves would bind
Sindon o'er sindon, cere-cloth, cinglets, bands
Roll after roll, on head, breast, feet, and hands,
Round some dead king, whose cold and withered palm
Had dropped the sceptre; drenched with musk and balm,
And natron, and what keeps from perishing;
So they might save--after long wandering--
The body for the spirit, and hold fast
Life's likeness, till the dead man lived at last.
Thus, from their coats involved of leaves and silk,
Slowly they freed the odorous thorn-tree's milk,
The gray myrrh, and the cassia, and the spice,
Filling the wind with frankincense past price,
With hearts of blossoms from a hundred glens
And essence of a thousand rose-gardens,
Till the night's gloom like a royal curtain hung
Jewelled with stars, and rich with fragrance flung
Athwart the arch; and, in the cavern there
The air around was as the breathing-air
Of a queen's chamber, when she comes to bed,
And all that glad earth owns gives goodlihead.

Witness them entering,--these three from afar--
Who knew the skies, and had the strange white star
To light their nightly lamp, thro' deserts wide
Of Bactria, and the Persic wastes, and tide
Of Tigris and Euphrates; past the snow
Of Ararat, and where the sand-winds blow
O'er Ituraea; and the crimson peaks
Of Moab, and the fierce, bright, barren reeks
From Asphaltities; to this hill--to thee
Bethlehem-Ephrata! Witness these three
Gaze, hand in hand, with faces grave and mild,
Where, 'mid the gear and goats, Mother and Child
Make state and splendor for their eyes. Then lay
Each stranger on the earth, in the Indian way,
Paying the "eight prostrations;" and was heard
Saying softly, in the Indian tongue, that word
Wherewith a Prince is honored. Humbly ran,
On this, the people of their caravan
And fetch the gold, and--laid on gold--the spice,
Frankincense, myrrh: and next, with reverence nice,
Foreheads in dust, they spread the precious things
At Mary's feet, and worship Him who clings
To Mary's bosom drinking soft life so
Who shall be life and light to all below.
"For, now we see," say they, departing: "plain
The star's word comes to pass! The Buddh again
Appeareth, or some Boddhisat of might
Arising for the west, who shall set right,
And serve and reconcile; and, maybe, teach
Knowledge to those who know. We, brothers, each,
Have heard yon shepherds babbling: if the sky
Speaketh with such, heaven's mercy is drawn nigh!
Well did we counsel, journeying to this place!
Yon hour-old Babe, milking that breast of grace,
The world will praise and worship, well-content."

Then, fearing Herod, to their homes they went
Musing along the road. But he alway
Angered and troubled, bade his soldiers slay
Whatever man-child sucked in Bethlehem.
Lord! had'st Thou been all God, as pleaseth them
Who poorly see Thy godlike self, and take
True glory from Thee for false glory's sake:
Co-equal power, as these--too bold--blaspheme,
Ruler of what Thou camest to redeem;
Not Babe Divine, feeling with touch of silk
For fountains of a mortal Mother's milk
With sweet mouth buried in the warm feast thus,
And dear heart growing great to beat for us,
And soft feet waiting till the way was spread
Whereby what was true God in Thee should tread
Triumphant over woe and death to bliss,--
Thou, from Thy cradle would'st have stayed in this
Those butchers! With one angel's swift decree,
Out of the silver cohorts lackeying Thee,
Thou had'st thrust down the bitter prince who killed
Thine innocents! Would'st Thou not? Was't not willed?
Alas! "Peace and good-will" in agony
Found first fruits! Rama heard that woful cry
Of Rachel weeping for the children; lone,
Uncomforted, because her babes are gone.
Herod the King! hast thou heard Rachel's wail
Where restitution is? Did aught avail
Somewhere? at last? past life? after long stress
Of heavy shame to bring forgetfulness?
If such grace be, no hopeless sin is wrought;
Thy bloody blade missed what its vile edge sought;
Mother, and Child, and Joseph--safe from thee--
Journey to Egypt, while the eastern Three
Wind homewards, lightened of their spice and gold;
And those great days, that were to be, unfold
In the fair fields beside the shining sea
Which rolls, 'mid palms and rocks, in Galilee.

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