The Priceless Thing
THOSE are vulgar things we pay for, be they stones for crowns of kings;
While the precious and the peerless are unpriced symbolic things.
Common debts are scored and canceled, weighed and measured out for gold;
But the debts from men to ages, their account is never told.
Always see, the noblest nations keep their highest prize unknown;
Clueronea's deathless lion frowned above unlettered stone.
Ah, the Greeks knew! Come their victors honored from the sacred games,
Under arches red with roses, flushed to hear their shouted names;
See their native cities take them, breach the wall to make a gate!
What supreme reward is theirs who bring such honors to their state?
In the forum stand they proudly, take their prizes from the priest:
Little wreaths of pine and parsley on their naked temples pressed!
We in later days are lower? When a manful stroke is made,
We must raise a purse to pay it—making manliness a trade,
Sacrifice itself grows venal—surely Midas will subscribe;
And the shallow souls are gratified when worth accepts the bribe.
But e'en here, amidst the markets, there are things they dare not prize;
Dollars hide their sordid faces when they meet anointed eyes.
Lovers do not speak with jewels—flowers alone can plead for them;
And one fragrant memory cherished is far dearer than a gem.
Statesmen steer the nation safely; artists pass the burning test;
And their country pays them proudly with a ribbon at the breast.
When the soldier saves the battle, wraps the flag around his heart,
Who shall desecrate his honor with the values of the mart?
From his guns of bronze we hew a piece, and carve it as a cross;
For the gain he gave was priceless, as unpriced would be the loss.
When the poet sings the love-song, or the song of life and death,
Till the workers cease their toiling with abated wondering breath;
When he gilds the mill and mine, inspires the slave to rise and dare;
Lights with love the cheerless garret, bids the tyrant to beware;
When he steals the pang from poverty with meanings new and clear,
Reconciling pain and peace, and bringing blissful visions near;—
His reward? Nor cross nor ribbon, but all others high above;
They have won their glittering symbols—he has earned the people's love!