Breton Faith.

A summer nightfall on a summer sea !1
From sandy ridges wildering o’er the deep,2
The wind’s familiar under-song recalls3
The fishermen to duty, though that eve4
To unversed eyes their embarkation seem’d5
Rather a work of festival than toil.6
Women were there in gay precise attire,7
Girls at their skirts, and boys before at play,8
And many an infant sweet asleep on arm.9
Emulous which the first shall set his boat10
Free-floating from the clutches of deep sand,11
Men lean and strive ; till one, and two, and all,12
Poised in descent, receive the leaping crews :13
And following close, where leads the ripply way,14
One craft of heavier freight and larger sail.15
Serene and silent as th’ horizon moon,16
That fair flotilla seeks the open main.17
Some little room of waters sever’d now18
Those seeming sons of peaceful industry19
From their diseased and desperate fatherland,20
That France, where reign’d and raged for many a year21
Madness, (the fearful reservoir of strength22
Which God will open, at his own high will,23
In men and nations,) so that very babes24
Would tear the mother-breast of ancient Faith25
To suck the bloody milk of Liberty.26
The Christian name was outcast there and then ;27
For Power and Passion were the people’s gods,28
And every one that worshipp’d not must die.29
The shore extended one thin glittering line,30
When, at the watch’d-for tinkling of a bell,31
Fast fall the sails, and round their captain-boat,32
Which rested steady as the waters would,33
Each other bent its own obedient prow,34
Making imperfect rays about a sun :35
Nor paused they long before great change of form36
Came o’er that centre. From the uncouth deck37
Rose a tall altar, ’broider’d curiously,38
With clear outcarven crucifix i’ th’ midst39
Of tapers, lambent in the gentle gale :40
Before it stood the reverend-robed Priest,41
Late a rude fisherman—an awful head,42
Veteran in griefs and dangers more than years ;43
Perchance not finely moulded, but as seen44
There upright to the illuminating moon,45
With silver halo rather than white hair,46
Beauteous exceedingly !
So seem’d to feel 47
The tender eyes then fix’d on him, while slow48
And quiet, as when he perform’d the rites49
Of his old village church on Sabbath morn,50
He set all things in order and began51
That Litany, which, gathering voice on voice,52
Made vocal with the names of God and Christ,53
And the communion of the blest in heaven,54
Space that had lain long silent of all sound55
Save the chance greetings of some parting ships,56
And elemental utterances confused.57
Oh ! never in high Roman basilie,58
Prime dome of Art, or elder Lateran,59
Mother of churches ! never at the shrine60
That sprang the freshest from pure martyr-blood,61
Or held within its clasp a nation’s heart62
By San lago or Saint Denys blest,—63
Never in that least earthly place of earth,64
The Tomb where Death himself lay down and died,65
The Temple of Man’s new Jerusalen—66
Descended effluence more indeed divine,67
More total energy of Faith and Hope,68
And Charity for wrongs unspeakable,69
Than on that humble scantling of the flock,70
That midnight congregation of the Sea.71
Rise not, good Sun ! hold back unwelcome Light72
That shall but veil the nations in new crime !73
Or hide thy coming ; yet some little while74
Prolong the stupor of exhausted sin,75
Nor with thy tainted rays disturb this peace,76
These hard-won fragmentary hours of peace,77
That soon must sink before the warring world !78
He hears them not ; beneath his splendour fades79
That darkness luminous of Love and Joy ;80
Quickly its aspect of base daily life81
The little fleet recovering, plied in haste82
Its usual labour, lest suspicious foes83
Might catch suspicion in those empty nets ;84
But every one there toiling, in his heart85
Was liken’d to those other Fishermen,86
Who on their inland waters saw the form87
Of Jesus, toward them walking firm and free.88
One moment yet, ere the religious Muse89
Fold up these earnest memories in her breast,90
Nor leave unutter’d that one Breton name91
Which is itself a History—Quiberon !92
Was it not heinous ? was it not a shame93
Which goes beyond its actors, that those men,94
Simply adventuring to redeem their own—95
Their ravish’d homes, and shrines, and fathers’ graves96
Meeting that rampant and adulterous power97
On its own level of brute force, that they,98
Crush’d by sheer numbers, should be made exempt99
From each humane and generous privilege,100
With which the civil use of later times101
Has smooth’d the bristling fierceness of old war,102
And perish armless—one by one laid low103
By the cold sanction’d executioner !104
Nor this alone ; for fervid love may say,105
That death to them, beneath the foulest hood,106
Would wear an aureole crown; and martyr palms107
Have grown as freely from dry felon dust,108
As e’er from field enrich’d with fame and song.109
But when they ask’d the only boon brave men110
Could from inclement conquerors humbly pray—111
To die as men, and not fall blankly down112
Into steep death like butcher’d animals,113
But to receive from consecrated hands114
Those seals and sureties which the Christian soul115
Demands as covenants of eternal bliss—116
They were encounter’d by contemptuous hate,117
And mockery, bitter as the crown of thorns.118
Thus pass’d that night, their farewell night to earth,119
Grave, even sad,—that should have been so full120
Of faith nigh realized, of young and old,121
Met hand in hand, indifferent of all time,122
On the bright shores of immortality !123
Till ’mid the throng about their prison-door,124
In the grey dawn, a rustic voice convey’d125
Some broken message to a captive’s ear,126
Low, and by cruel gaolers unperceived ;127
Which whisper, flitting fast from man to man,128
Was like a current of electric joy,129
Awakening smiles, and radiant upward looks,130
And interchange of symbols spiritual,131
Leaving unearthly peace.
So when soon came132
The hour of doom, and through the palsied crowd133
Pass’d the long file without a word or sound,134
The image, gait, and bearing of each man,135
In those his bonds, in that his sorry dress,136
Defiled with dust and blood, perchance his own,137
A squalid shape of famine and unrest,138
Was that of some full-sail’d, magnificent ship,139
That takes the whole expanse of sea and air140
For its own service, dignifying both141
As accessories of its single pride.142
To read the sense and secret of this change,143
Look where beside the winding path that leads144
These noble warriors to ignoble death,145
Rises a knoll of white, grass-tufted sand,146
Upon whose top, against the brightening sky,147
Stands a mean peasant, tending with one hand148
A heifer browsing on that scanty food.149
To the slow-moving line below he turns150
An indistinet, almost incurious gaze,151
While with a long right arm upraised in air152
He makes strange gestures, source of ribald mirth153
To some, but unregarded by the most.154
Yet could a mortal vision penetrate155
Each motion of that scene, it might perceive156
How every prisoner, filing by that spot,157
Bows his bold head, and walks with Mighter steps158
Onward to rest but once and move no more :159
For in that peasant stands the yearned-for-Priest,160
Periling life by this last act of love,161
And in those gestures are the absolving signs162
Which send the heroes to their morning graves163
Happy as parents’ kisses duly speed164
Day-weary children to their careless beds.165
Such are memorials, and a hundred more,166
Which by the pious traveller haply caught,167
Falling from lowly lips and lofty hearts,168
Regenerate outward nature, and adorn169
With blossoms brighter than the Orient rose,170
And verdure fresher than an English spring,171
The dull sand-hillocks of the Morbihan.172