William Preston Johnston (1831-1899)
In addition to his vocation of sonneteer, Johnston was a Confederate soldier, lawyer, and educator. The son of Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston. Born in Kentucky, William Preston Johnston became a colonel in the Confederate army at the beginning of the Civil War and served on the staff of Jefferson Davis. After the war he was a professor at Washington and Lee University until November, 1880 when he became president of Louisiana State University. On the foundation of Tulane University in New Orleans in 1884, he became its first president. (Thanks to McGowan Book Company for this information.)
Seekers after God: Sonnets (1898)
- Prologue (I, II, and III)
- The Windows of Heaven
- At the Barriers
- The Eyes Unsealed: Disciples of the Lord
- Pilgrims of the Cross
TO MISS HENRIETTA PRESTON JOHNSTON
In this small book I seek the sonnet's aid,
Some pictures of the past in words to paint
And show how seekers after God essayed
To find him; patriarch and martyred saint
And spotless sage free from all selfish taint
And Christian knight and missionary mild,
And how heaven answers to the heart's wild plaint,
And wisdom cometh to the little child.
But none of those whom I on earth have known
Have sought God's will with a more strenuous quest,
With eager prayer and thought of Him alone
And anxious wish to do his least behest
Than thou, my sister, earliest, dearest friend,
To whom these autumn leaves with love I send.
THE bard who would the storied past rehearse,
What things the spirit wrought in word and deed,
Should strike a note unerring in his verse,
A cypher give that he who runs may read.
How answers then the sonnet to his need,
Its meter strained, its tangled sleave of rhyme,
The structural artifice true art must heed
Where stringent form and soaring thought should chime?
Art hath its phases; now it stands sublime
In Milton's marvellous imaginings;
Dryden's sonorous line stales not with time;
In woodnotes wild the Ayrshire ploughman sings:
So none need scorn the pipe as small for fame
By Petrarch blown and Browning's gentle dame.
I leave the trumpet and full throated horn
Of epic to the leaders of the choir,
The martial strain, the sigh of love forlorn,
To him who smites the loud resounding lyre
And chants with lips touched by the sacred fire
Imperial themes of patriot fervor born,
The joy of combat and the noble ire
That withers wrong with fierce consuming fire.
My task, to show the patriarchs of the eld
And seekers after God by nature's light
And saints who witnessed truth in suffering;
Small pictures of the past by faith beheld,
That grants dim eyes a sacred second sight;
These in the sonnet's narrow bounds I sing.
THE search of man for God, the mightiest theme
That ever can his loftiest thought engage!
Is his clear vision but an idle dream,
The mind's mirage to lure the doubting sage
With phantom waters that can not assuage
His thirst devine, or are the spires that gleam
Above Heaven's battlements from age to age
To eyes unsealed, as real as they seem?
To him who sees them not, they are not; clod
Of crudest clay by spirit uninformed,
His body, breath and reason have their day
And into nothingness would pass away,
But that, by grace regenerate and warmed
To a new being, he may grope toward God.
The Windows of Heaven
THE budding world was in its bloomstrewn prime,
And from it Nature rose, a temple vast;
Its architects, twin Titans, Space and Time,
Rested, their handiwork complete, when last
Into the pageant a new Being passed,
The one appointed in the splendid shrine
High priest, o'er all his soverein sway to cast
And fill the void with energy divine.
For all the beams from stars, moon, sun, that shine
Could not from Nature lift the dreary pall
Till on man's brow was set the imperial sign
Of the self-conscious soul that saw it all
In the clear light of reason, which to men
Came through the window opened from Heaven then.
THE mighty temple of the human soul,
Lit through one only casement by a ray
Of natural reason, saw long ages roll
While mankind mouldered to a slow decay,
Because they yielded not to reason's sway,
But let false fiends crawl to the niches high
And foul forms squat in places where men pray;
So that 't were best this race corrupt should die.
But no! man hath a loftier destiny;
Knowledge gives light, but from the sloughs of sense
In vain the struggling soul essays to fly
Unless obedience leads the spirit hence.
Another window's radiance through the gloom
To Noah showed man's path from death and doom.
FROM the broad plains where wandering herdsmen dwelt
A Prince of Ur--men call him now a sheikh--
Of the colossal type, severe, antique,
Led off his bands. The Lord had kindly dealt
With him and his; his grateful spirit felt
The trust a son unto his father feels
As in his boyhood at that knee he kneels,
While all his fervent love and passions melt
Into a faith, unquenchable, supreme.
In God he trusts; from Heaven's high battlement
A blaze of glory fills his horsehair tent
And rolling splendors o'er his spirit stream;
His vision pierces Nature's lofty dome
And treads the fields where guardian angels roam.
FROM Egypt's teeming fields the Hebrews fled,
Passed the deep waters, tracked the desert sand,
Following his steps where'er the Seer led,
And to the Mountain came, an altar grand,
Reared in the waste by an Almighty hand,
That here Earth's self should smoke, and flames arise,
While royal Moses as High Priest should stand,
The tables twain to take, and sacrifice.
Then came the Law amid a nation's cries
Of fear and mad revolt from God's command
And lurid light that, issuing from the skies,
Made all the Earth, at last, a Holy Land;
Commandments forged to fetter men from wrong
But wrought by righteousness to weapons strong.
SPIRIT Divine that o'er creation broods,
Filling with life the outer bounds of space
And thrilling further yet the amplitudes
Beyond the finite ken, Thou hast by grace
From Thy pure essence lent a spark, a trace,
Of Deity, in those benignant moods
Wherein the Infinite reveals His face
To holy men, but still their grasp eludes.
And thus to David's heaven-strung harp there came
Music that matched the worship of his song,
Remorse and penitence and words of flame;
And prophets spake with inspiration strong.
Before their eyes ages to come unroll,
And fire-touched lips recite the seraphs' scroll.
At the Barriers
GOING down through the valley of Hades,
The immemorial dim dusk of the eld,
Of my daemon I ask whose grand shade is
That presence majestic, that form unexcelled;
And then by emotions prepotent impelled,
I say, as the hem of his raiment I touch,
"Dear Master, if thou hast in silence withheld
Some part of thy wisdom, of which thou hast much,
Teach me, I pray thee, in aid of mankind."
Pythagoras answered, "One thing is sure;
Man is deaf to the rhythm of nature, and blind
To its order. Physician, this thought is his cure;
That Kosmos is justly and wisely designed,
And its harmony sounds in the ears of the pure."
IN early Hellas, clear as crystal wave
In sky, in atmosphere, in minds of men,
Whether in frolic sport or discourse grave
Its thought ran riot, or beyond the ken
Of worshippers of idols of the den
Lifted its haughty head to probe the vault
And from Olympus force reply again,
The strong winged soul found in its flight no halt,
But to the empyreal sphere soared in assault.
So Socrates through myth and mystery saw,
And Plato strove the Idea to exalt
That veiled the Maker in unchanging Law;
Seekers for truth, in which for God they sought
And won the crown for which their souls had wrought.
WHEN Socrates, he of the shabby robe,
Had earned from Athens the unjust decree
That sentenced him to death, because his probe
Had touched its self love, Pity said, "Go free,
Thy prison gates to-night unbarred shall be;
Walk forth, and in some happier clime thy fame
Will blossom yet to immortality,
Nor can detraction visit thee with blame."
"Nay , friends, have I not told you that there came
Unto mine inmost soul a potent voice
That bade me put all false conceit to shame
And place the common welfare first; no choice
Is left. For me the hemlock cup to take
Is better far than Athens' laws to break."
A THREADBARE cloak, alas, a tattered sleeve,
A smile ironical, a biting tongue,
The honied sarcasm of a bee that stung,
The arguments that puzzle and deceive,
The snares his crafty questions interweave!
And yet, O Socrates, how wise men hung
Upon thy words, those precious jewels flung
Unto a swinish multitude; it grieves
Our very souls that Plato's garnered sheaves
And worthy Xenophon's small talk is all
That from the buried past we can recall;
Small remnant of thy legacy it leaves.
One saying stays; that thou wouldst gladly die
To share with just men immortality.
THESE ceremonial forms and ancient rites,
These solemn auguries by seers made,
The sign that bodes, the portent that affrights,
The ghost of which the soldier is afraid,
The pomp of superstition's masquerade
Are passing dreams to Scipio, who delights
To climb with Plato the aerial grade
Of thought where calm Philosophy invites.
Conqueror of Carthage, there are loftier heights
To which thy soul shall rise; the captive maid
Free from all fear, the victory that excites
Nor wrath nor greed, these laurels shall not fade.
Thy clement soul in search of truth shall see
Three golden steps, to know, to do, to be.
THE foremost man of all the world! Is't true?
His was a mind that grasped the whole of life,
That gazed with equal brow on calm and strife,
Gleaned what the past bequeathed, yet seized the new,
And saw the ages march in grand review.
The stern republic of an earlier day,
Rent into fragments, mouldering to decay,
Still felt the thirst to combat and subdue,
The instinct fierce the old paths to pursue
Which led to conquest and imperial sway.
This Cæsar saw; and though his pathway lay
Across the muniments of time, he drew
Into his sovereign hand all that was old
And bade a new world from the germs unfold.
WHEN martial Rome had stretched her conquering sword
Wide o'er the lands, Philosophy held sway
Where once ancestral gods had been adored.
Then rival sects made battle in word-play;
Stoic and Epicurean had his say,
And in the clash of tongues each felt assured
That he alone stood in the light of day.
Great Tully looked on, smiling, and endured
The babble till his patience was outworn,
Then, with full measure of his talents ten
And mental sinews trained in every school
And learning copious as rich Plenty's horn,
He grasped the problem old 'twixt gods and men,
To find in nature that one God must rule.
FAVORITE of fortune, Seneca the wise,
Offspring of intelect and virtuous thought,
Possessing all things that men seek or prize,
Desiring most the things that good men ought,
And loving well the truths himself had taught;
Yet by the cruel irony of fate
Condemned to wear as chains what most men sought,
Rank, ease, power, wealth, the favor of the great,
He kept his steadfast eyes on virtue's gate,
But dared not enter it beyond retreat;
For, crouching near, envy and lynx-eyed hate
And murder foul watched his advancing feet.
His nerveless hand to cope with evil tried,
But lacking strength greatly to live,--he died.
SLAVE of the slave of taht still baser slave,
Who, having all things, worshipped self alone,
Nero, in whose foul breast, as in a grave,
Festered all infamies born of a throne,
One Epictetus, a poor cripple shone
Upon a darkened world as shines a star
Through a dim, clouded dawn, and, to the moan
Of human pain that welled up near and far,
Pointed in silence to his scourge and scar,
Or spoke to fainting hearts, "Who would be strong,--
Balm for the sores of peace, the wounds of war--
Must learn to suffer and to do no wrong."
His words, his life, to men a lesson gave
That made Aurelius pattern on the slave.