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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Non Sine Dolore

By Richard Watson Gilder (1844–1909)

WHAT, then, is Life,—what Death?

Thus the Answerer saith;

O faithless mortal, bend thy head and listen:

Down o’er the vibrant strings,

That thrill, and moan, and mourn, and glisten,

The Master draws his bow.

A voiceless pause: then upward, see, it springs,

Free as a bird with unimprisoned wings!

In twain the chord was cloven,

While, shaken with woe,

With breaks of instant joy all interwoven,

Piercing the heart with lyric knife,

On, on the ceaseless music sings,

Restless, intense, serene;—

Life is the downward stroke; the upward, Life;

Death but the pause between.

Then spake the Questioner: If ’t were only this,

Ah, who could face the abyss

That plunges steep athwart each human breath?

If the new birth of Death

Meant only more of Life as mortals know it,

What priestly balm, what song of highest poet,

Could heal one sentient soul’s immitigable pain?

All, all were vain!

If, having soared pure spirit at the last,

Free from the impertinence and warp of flesh

We find half joy, half pain, on every blast;

Are caught again in closer-woven mesh—

Ah! who would care to die

From out these fields and hills, and this familiar sky;

These firm, sure hands that compass us, this dear humanity?

Again the Answerer saith:—

O ye of little faith,

Shall then the spirit prove craven,

And Death’s divine deliverance but give

A summer rest and haven?

By all most noble in us, by the light that streams

Into our waking dreams,

Ah, we who know what Life is, let us live!

Clearer and freer, who shall doubt?

Something of dust and darkness cast forever out;

But Life, still Life, that leads to higher Life,

Even though the highest be not free from immortal strife.

The highest! Soul of man, oh be thou bold,

And to the brink of thought draw near, behold!

Where, on the earth’s green sod,

Where, where in all the universe of God,

Hath strife forever ceased?

When hath not some great orb flashed into space

The terror of its doom? When hath no human face

Turned earthward in despair,

For that some horrid sin had stamped its image there?

If at our passing Life be Life increased,

And we ourselves flame pure unfettered soul,

Like the Eternal Power that made the whole

And lives in all he made

From shore of matter to the unknown spirit shore;

If, sire to son, and tree to limb,

Cycle on countless cycle more and more

We grow to be like him;

If he lives on, serene and unafraid,

Through all his light, his love, his living thought,

One with the sufferer, be it soul or star;

If he escape not pain, what beings that are

Can e’er escape while Life leads on and up the unseen way and far?

If he escape not, by whom all was wrought,

Then shall not we,

Whate’er of godlike solace still may be,—

For in all worlds there is no Life without a pang, and can be naught.

No Life without a pang! It were not Life,

If ended were the strife—

Man were not man, nor God were truly God!

See from the sod

The lark thrill skyward in an arrow of song:

Even so from pain and wrong

Upsprings the exultant spirit, wild and free.

He knows not all the joy of liberty

Who never yet was crushed ’neath heavy woe.

He doth not know,

Nor can, the bliss of being brave

Who never hath faced death, nor with unquailing eye

Hath measured his own grave.

Courage, and pity, and divinest scorn—

Self-scorn, self-pity, and high courage of the soul;

The passion for the goal;

The strength to never yield though all be lost—

All these are born

Of endless strife; this is the eternal cost

Of every lovely thought that through the portal

Of human minds doth pass with following light.

Blanch not, O trembling mortal!

But with extreme and terrible delight

Know thou the truth,

Nor let thy heart be heavy with false ruth.

No passing burden is our earthly sorrow,

That shall depart in some mysterious morrow.

’Tis His one universe where’er we are—

One changeless law from sun to viewless star.

Were sorrow evil here, evil it were forever,

Beyond the scope and help of our most keen endeavor

God doth not dote,

His everlasting purpose shall not fail.

Here where our ears are weary with the wail

And weeping of the sufferers; there where the Pleiads float—

Here, there, forever, pain most dread and dire

Doth bring the intensest bliss, the dearest and most sure.

’Tis not from Life aside, it doth endure

Deep in the secret heart of all existence.

It is the inward fire,

The heavenly urge, and the divine insistence.

Uplift thine eyes, O Questioner, from the sod!

It were no longer Life,

If ended were the strife;

Man were not man, God were not truly God.