The Sphinx

By Andrew Downing

There is in Egypt, near the Pyramids,
Fronting the placid Nile, a monolith–
A sculptured legacy from aeons, old
Ere yet the Pharaohs lived, or Carthage was,
Or Cæsar wore the purple.

Grim and vast,
In hermit loneliness, it sits and broods
Above the Nubian desert. Its dull eyes,
Stony and lidless, stare across the sands;
And the colossal, parted, marble lips
Are marble-mute and marble-cold, as when
The gnawing chisel of the sculptor wrought
Their curving outlines; and they answer not
The immemorial question: “What art thou?”

Its origin, or meaning, no man knows;
Inscription there is none, nor hieroglyph,
On wood, or stone, or gray papyrus-roll,
In all the moldy crypts, and mummy cells,
And buried temples of the antique world–
Nor any word of Chaldean seer, or sage,
That ever may the mystery unfold.

So, fronting every man that lives, there is
A dark enigma that he may not solve–
A mute and stony Sphinx whose riddle deep
Is never wholly guessed, though all the lore,
And wisdom of the ages, help the quest.

It is the Future, wide and limitless,
Of life that is, and that which is to be.
Whence came we? Whither do our footsteps tend?
And what shall be the life that follows this
When we shall pass beyond the sunset hills
Into the land of shadows? Who can make
Unto himself an answer–honest, true,
Sufficient, not conjectural alone?
The unreturning dead send back no word
Of greeting from that unseen, distant world,
Nor babble of its secrets.

It is Faith
Alone, that gives us aught of warrant here
To wear the badge of Immortality.
And Faith, not Knowledge, builds for every man,
In his own spiritual consciousness,
The ultimate, bright Heaven of his hope,
The realm of joy, the goal of his desire.
No weaker hand can lead the errant soul
From Doubt’s dark labyrinth into the light,
And up the starry heights whereon is God.
All else–amid the strife of sects diverse,
The ceaseless dissonance of warring creeds,
The blight of superstitions, centuries old–
Is vain–uncertain as the shifting sands
That drift forever round the rocky base
Of that old image on the Gizeh plain.

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