A Soul in Prison

(The Doubter lays aside his book.)

"Answered a score of times." Oh, looked for teacher,
is this all you will teach me? I in the dark
reaching my hand for you to help me forth
to the happy sunshine where you stand, "Oh shame,
to be in the dark there, prisoned!" answer you;
"there are ledges somewhere there by which strong feet
might scale to daylight: I would lift you out
with just a touch, but that your need's so slight;
for there are ledges." And I grope and strain,
think I've found footing, and slip baffled back,
slip, maybe, deeper downwards. "Oh, my guide,
I find no ledges: help me: say at least
where they are placed, that I may know to seek."
But you in anger, "Nay, wild wilful soul,
thou will rot in the dark, God's sunshine here
at thy prison's very lip: blame not the guide;
have I not told thee there is footing for thee?"
and so you leave me, and with even tread
guide men along the highway ... where, I think,
they need you less.

Say 'twas my wanton haste,
or my drowsed languor, my too earthward eyes
watching for hedge flowers, or my too rapt gaze
it the mock sunshine of a sky-born cloud,
that led me, blindling, here: say the black walls
grew round me while I slept, or that I built
with ignorant hands a temple for my soul
to pray in to herself, and that, for want
of a window heavenwards, a loathsome night
of mildew and decay festered upon it,
till the rotted pillars fell and tombed me in:
let it so be my fault, whichever way,
must I be left to die? A murderer
is helped by holy hands to the byway road
that comes at God through shame; a thief is helped;
A harlot; a sleek cozener that prays,
swindles his customers, and gives God thanks,
and so to bed with prayers. Let them repent,
lay let them not repent, you'll say "These souls
may yet be saved, and make a joy in heaven:"
you are thankful you have found them, you whose charge
is healing sin. But I, hundreds as I,
whose sorrow 'tis only to long to know,
and know too plainly that we know not yet,
we are beyond your mercies. You pass by
and note the moral of our fate: 'twill point
a Sunday's sermon ... for we have our use,
boggarts to placid Christians in their pews--
"Question not, prove not, lest you grow like these:"
and then you tell them how we daze ourselves
on problems now so many times resolved
that you'll not re-resolve them, how we crave
new proofs, as once an evil race desired
new signs and could not see, for stubbornness,
signs given already.

Proofs enough, you say,
quote precedent, "Hear Moses and the prophets."
I know the answer given across the gulf,
but I know too what Christ did: there were proofs,
enough for John and Peter, yet He taught
new proofs and meanings to those doubting two
who sorrowing walked forth to Emmaus
and came back joyful.

"They," you'd answer me,
if you owned my instance, "sorrowed in their doubt,
and did not wholly doubt, and loved."

Oh, men
who read the age's heart in library books
writ by our fathers, this is how you know it!
Do we say "The old faith is obsolete,
the world wags all the better, let us laugh,"
we of to-day? Why will you not divine
the fathomless sorrow of doubt? why not divine
the yearning to be lost from it in love?
And who doubts wholly? That were not to doubt.
Doubt's to be ignorant, not to deny:
doubt's to be wistful after perfect faith.
You will not think that: you come not to us
to ask of us, who know doubt, what doubt is,
but one by one you pass the echoes on,
each of his own pulpit, each of all the pulpits,
and in the swelling sound can never catch
the tremulous voice of doubt that wails in the cold:
you make sham thunder for it, to outpeal
with your own better thunders.

You wise man
and worthy, utter honest in your will,
I love you and I trust you: so I thought
"Here's one whose love keeps measure to belief
with onward vigorous feet, one quick of sight
to catch the clue in scholars' puzzle-knots,
deft to unweave the coil to one straight thread,
one strong to grapple vague Protean faith
and keep her to his heart in one fixed shape
and living; he comes forward in his strength,
as to a battlefield to answer challenge,
as in a storm to buffet with the waves
for shipwrecked men clutching the frothy crests
and sinking; he is stalwart on my side--
mine, who, untrai
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Submitted on May 13, 2011

Modified on March 05, 2023

4:06 min read

Quick analysis:

Closest metre Iambic pentameter
Characters 4,249
Words 819
Stanzas 7
Stanza Lengths 1, 20, 35, 8, 3, 19, 15

Augusta Davies Webster

Augusta Webster born in Poole, Dorset as Julia Augusta Davies, was an English poet, dramatist, essayist, and translator. The daughter of Vice-admiral George Davies and Julia Hume, she spent her younger years on board the ship he was stationed, the Griper. She studied Greek at home, taking a particular interest in Greek drama, and went on to study at the Cambridge School of Art. She published her first volume of poetry in 1860 under the pen name Cecil Homes. In 1863, she married Thomas Webster, a fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. They had a daughter, Augusta Georgiana, who married Reverend George Theobald Bourke, a younger son of the Joseph Bourke, 3rd Earl of Mayo. Much of Webster's writing explored the condition of women, and she was a strong advocate of women's right to vote, working for the London branch of the National Committee for Women's Suffrage. She was the first female writer to hold elective office, having been elected to the London School Board in 1879 and 1885. In 1885 she travelled to Italy in an attempt to improve her failing health. She died on 5 September 1894, aged 57. During her lifetime her writing was acclaimed and she was considered by some the successor to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. After her death, however, her reputation quickly declined. Since the mid-1990s she has gained increasing critical attention from scholars such as Isobel Armstrong, Angela Leighton, and Christine Sutphin. Her best-known poems include three long dramatic monologues spoken by women: A Castaway, Circe, and The Happiest Girl In The World, as well as a posthumously published sonnet-sequence, "Mother and Daughter". more…

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