Thursday, January 23, 2014

Back I Return to the World

IV. The Return Home
by William Whewell

Once has the pallid Moon replenisht her shadowy circle
Since the Belov'd in my arms breath’d her pure spirit away:
Moon of desolate thoughts and tears unceasingly springing
E'en at the welcome of friends, e'en at the smiling of love.
For how could I forget for whose sake that love was first giv’n me ;
Hers, the magnet of love, pole of affection to all.
Now perforce driv'n forth from companionship dear and consoling
Back I return to the World, back to the turmoil of life.
Yea once more I seek the haunts of men and their bus'ness,
And before me the face stands of my desolate home.
Lo! placed high on the wall, vain pomp! the Badge of the Herald
Tells of a funeral train recently sent from that door.
Ah! and back to my thoughts that dreary morn is recalled,
Morn of the open grave, morn of the funeral voice.
Sadly we follow’d the form which once contained the Lov'd One;
Brothers and sisters in heart, brothers and sisters in woe.
Woe! for to give that much-lov'd form to the grave and its darkness
Seem'd the abyss of grief, seem'd as a parting for aye.
Nay, but recall,’ O soul! the voices that broke on thy hearing,
Voices of faith and of hope, soothing the depth of thy woe:
Voices as if some Comforting Angel had sounded his trumpet,
Piercing the ether above, raising our thoughts from the earth.

William Whewell, Master of Trinity, is one of the great historians and philosophers of science. It was famously joked of him that "science was his forte and omniscience was his foible" -- he was very much an overachiever, writing a major history of science, developing a new approach to the philosophy of science, giving lectures in moral philosophy (in which he held a chair), helping George Airy with his scientific experiments, contributing to the Gothic revival with notes on Gothic architecture, translating poems from the German, writing science fiction before there was a definite science fiction genre (alas, his story about a visitor from another world was never finished, although what we have of it can be found in Todhunter's biography), reforming the university system, and writing some of the most popular physics textbooks in nineteenth-century England on a wide variety of physical topics. This poem, however, is Whewell in a different light, after the death of his first wife. He wrote a cycle of poems, of which this is the fourth, about dealing with her death and learning how to hold on to hope in the face of it, and distributed it among friends. There are more polished poems on the theme, but it would probably be difficult to find more heartfelt ones. You can find the full cycle of poems in the Appendix of Janet Stair Douglas's The Life and Selections from the Correspondence of William Whewell, D.D.

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