before the beginning of years

In the hussle and bustle of the workplace, the marketplace, the shopping malls at Christmas, in the frenetic Everyday with it’s glitzy advertisements and distressing news reports, I find myself rereading the poem Before the beginning of years by the Romantic poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909). The last four lines I find particularly poignant:

He weaves, and is clothed with derision;                                                                     Sows, and he shall not reap;
His life is a watch or a vision
Between a sleep and a sleep.

Swinburne was the archetypal Romantic poet, “blasphemous and depraved” in the eyes of prurient Victorian society. For me, his words express something essential about the mystery of existence; the Vedic Māyā – the Illusory and Unreal – comes to mind. How is it that the profane can express divinity?

The poem in full:

Before the beginning of years
There came to the making of man
Time, with a gift of tears;
Grief, with a glass that ran;
Pleasure, with pain for leaven;
Summer, with flowers that fell;
Remembrance, fallen from heaven,
And madness risen from hell;
Strength without hands to smite;
Love that endures for a breath;
Night, the shadow of light,
And life, the shadow of death.

And the high gods took in hand
Fire, and the falling of tears,
And a measure of sliding sand
From under the feet of the years;
And froth and the drift of the sea;
And dust of the laboring earth;
And bodies of things to be
In the houses of death and of birth;
And wrought with weeping and laughter,
And fashioned with loathing and love,
With life before and after
And death beneath and above,
For a day and a night and a morrow,
That his strength might endure for a span
With travail and heavy sorrow,
The holy spirit of man.

From the winds of the north and the south,
They gathered as unto strife;
They breathed upon his mouth,
They filled his body with life;
Eyesight and speech they wrought
For the veils of the soul therein,
A time for labor and thought,
A time to serve and to sin;
They gave him light in his ways,
And love, and space for delight,
And beauty, and length of days,
And night, and sleep in the night.
His speech is a burning fire;
With his lips he travaileth;
In his heart is a blind desire,
In his eyes foreknowledge of death;
He weaves, and is clothed with derision;
Sows, and he shall not reap;
His life is a watch or a vision
Between a sleep and a sleep.

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