The following is a repentance sermon preached by the devil in Philip James Bailey’s Festus. In my forthcoming edition, it takes place in scene 7. Lucifer here has just found out the the world is going to end; not someday, but in the next month or so, and is trying his hand at warning people, knowing, through long experience, that they will do nothing to change their lives.
As with everything else in this Spasmodic epic, I just find this passage brilliant, both linguistically and theologically. His appeals, his challenges, the sheer force of oratory! This Lucifer is a terribly likable figure, but there is no irony here, no reason to think he isn’t saying the truth exactly as he understands it. No wonder the Victorians were so fond of this poem: they ranked him equal to Blake and Wordsworth, in the company of Milton and Shakespeare. Though that may be taking the admiration a bit far, one can see, at least, what they mean.
LUCIFER . I am a preacher come to tell ye truth.
I tell ye too there is no time to be lost;
So fold your souls up neatly, while ye may;
Direct to God in Heaven; or some one else
May seize them, seal them, send them — you know where.
The world must end. I weep to think of it.
But you, you laugh! I knew ye would. I know
Men never will be wise till they are fools
For ever. Laugh away! The time will come.
When tears of fire are trickling from your eyes,
Ye will blame yourselves for having laughed at me.
I warn ye, men: prepare! repent! be saved!
I warn ye, not because I love, but know ye.
God will dissolve the world, as she of old
Her pearl, within His cup and swallow ye
In wrath: although to taste ye would be poison,
And death and suicide to aught but God.
Again I warn ye. Save himself who can!
Do ye not oft begin to seek salvation?
You? you? and fail, as oft, to find? Sink? Cease?
And shall I tell ye, brethren, why ye fail
Once and for ever? why, there is no past;
And the future is the fiction of a fiction;
The present moment is eternity;
It is that ye have sucked corruption from the world
Like milk from your own mothers: it is in
Your soul-blood and your soul-bones. Earth does not
Wean one out of a thousand sons to Heaven.
Beginnings are alike: it is ends which differ.
One drop falls, lasts, and dries up — but a drop;
Another begins a river: and one thought
Settles a life, an immortality:
And that one thought ye will not take to good.
Now I will tell ye just one other truth:
Ye hate the truth as snails salt — it dissolves ye,
Body and soul — but I don't mind. So, now:
Up to this moment ye are all, each, damned.
What are ye now? still damned! It will be the same
To-morrow — and the next day — and the next:
Till some fine morning ye will wake in fire.
Ye see I do not mince the truth for ye.
Belike ye think your lives will dribble out
As brooks in summer dry up. Let us see!
Try: dike them up: they stagnate — thicken — scum.
That would make life worse than death. Well, let go!
Where are ye then? for life, like water, will
Find its last level: what level? The grave.
It is but a fall of five feet after all;
That cannot hurt ye; it is but just enough
To work the wheel of life; so work away!
Ye may think that I do not know the terms
And treasures whereupon ye live so high.
But I know more than most men, modestly
Speaking. I know I am lost, and ye too. God
Could only save me by destroying me;
So that I have no advantage over you.
And therefore think ye will the rather bear
One of your own state to advise for ye
Now don't you envy me, good folks, I pray, —
Envy's a coal comes hissing hot from hell.
Twill be such coals will burn ye by the way.
Your other preachers first think they are safe.
Now I say, broadly, I am the worst among ye;
And God knows I have no need to wrong myself,
Nor you. I boast not of it, but as truth:
It is little to be proud of, credit me.
What is salvation? What is safety? Think!
Who wants to know? Does any?
THE CROWD. All of us.
LUCIFER. Then I will not tell ye. You shall wait until
Some angel come and stir your stagnant souls:
Then plunge into yourselves and rise redeemed.
Come, I’ll unroll your hearts and read them to ye.
To say ye live is but to say ye have souls,
That ye have paid for them and mean to play them,
Till some brave pleasure wins the golden stake,
And rakes it up to death as to a bank.
Ye live and die on what your souls will fetch;
And all are of different prices: therefore Hell
Cannot well bargain for mankind in gross;
But each soul must be purchased, one by one.
This it is makes men rate themselves so high:
While truly ye are worth little; but to God
Ye are worth more than to yourselves. By sin
Ye wreak your spite against God — that ye know:
And knowing, will it. But I pray, I beg,
Act with some smack of justice to your Maker,
If not unto yourselves. Do! It is enough
To make the very Devil chide mankind —
Such baseness, such unthankfulness! Why he
Thanks God he is no worse. You don't do that.
I say be just to God. Leave off these airs
Know your place — speak to God — and say, for once,
Go first, Lord! Take your finger off your eye!
It blocks the universe and God from sight.
Think ye your souls are worth nothing to God?
Are they so small? What can be great with God?
What will ye weigh against the Lord? Yourselves?
Bring out your balance: get in, man by man:
Add earth, heaven, hell, the universe; that's all
God puts his finger in the other scale,
And up we bounce, a bubble. Nought is great
Nor small with God — for none but He can make
The atom indivisible, and none
But He can make a world: He counts the orbs,
He counts the atoms of the universe.
And makes both equal — both are infinite.
Giving God honor, never underrate
Yourselves: after Him ye are everything.
But mind I God 's more than everything; He is God.
And what of me? No, us? no! I mean the Devil?
Why see ye not he goes before both you
And God? Men say — as proud as Lucifer —
Pray who would not be proud with such a train?
Hath he not all the honor of the earth?
Why Mammon sits before a million hearths
Where God is bolted out from every house.
Well might He say He cometh as a thief;
For He will break your bars and burst your doors
Which slammed against Him once, and turn ye out,
Roofless and shivering, 'neath the doom-storm; Heaven
Shall crack above ye like a bell in fire,
And bury all beneath its shining shards.
He calls: ye hear not. Lo! he comes — ye see not.
No; ye are deaf as a dead adder's ear:
No; ye are blind as never bat was blind,
With a burning bloodshot blindness of the heart;
A swimming, swollen senselessness of soul.
Listen! Whom love ye most? Why him to whom
Ye in your turn are dearest. Need I name?
Oh no! But all are devils to themselves;
And every man his own great foe. Hell gets
Only the gleanings; earth hath the full wain;
And hell is merry at its harvest home.
But ye are generous to sin and grudge
The gleaners nothing; ask them, push them in.
Let not an ear, a grain of sin be lost;
Gather it, grind it up; it is our bread:
We should be ashamed to waste the gifts of God.
Why is the world so mad? Why runs it thus
Raving and howling round the universe?
Because the Devil bit it from the birth!
The fault is all with him. Fear nothing, friends!
It is fear which beds the far to-come with fire
As the sun does the west: but the sun sets;
Well; still ye tremble — tremble, first at light,
Then darkness. Tremble! ye dare not believe.
No, cowards! sooner than believe ye would die;
Die with the black lie flapping on your lips
Like the soot-flake upon a burning bar.
Be merry, happy if ye can: think never
Of him who slays your souls, nor Him who saves.
There is time enough for that when ye are a-dying.
Keep your old ways! It matters not this once.
Be brave! Ye are not men whom meat and wine
Serve to remind but of the sacrament;
To whom sweet shapes and tantalizing smiles
Bring up the Devil and the ten commandments —
And so on — but I said the world must end.
I am sorry; it is such a pleasant world:
With all its faults it is perfect — to a fault:
And you, of course, end with it. Now how long
Will the world take to die? I know ye place
Great faith upon death-bed repentances;
The suddener the better. I know ye often
Begin to think of praying and repenting;
But second thoughts come and ye are worse than ever;
As over new white snow a filthy thaw.
Ye do amaze me verily. How long
Will ye take heart on your own wickedness,
And God's forbearance? Have ye cast it up?
Come now; the year and month, day, hour and minute,
Sin's golden cycle. Do ye know how long
Exactly Heaven will grant ye? how long God, —
Who when he had slain the world and wasted it,
Hung up His bow in Heaven, as in his hall
A warrior after battle — will yet bear
Your contumely and scorn of His best gifts, —
Man's mockery of man? But never mind!
Some of us are magnificently good,
And hold the head up high like a giraffe;
You, in particular, and you — and you.
Good men are here and there, I know; but then, —
You must excuse me if I mention this —
My duty is to tell it you — the world,
Like a black block of marble, jagged with white,
As with a vein of lightning petrified,
Looks blacker than without such; looks in truth,
So gross the heathen, gross the Christian too —
Like the original darkness of void space,
Hardened. Instead of justice, love and grace,
Each worth to man the mission of a God,
Injustice, hate, uncharitableness,
Triequal reign round earth, a Trinity of Hell.
Ye think ye never can be bad enough:
And as ye sink in sin, ye rise in hope.
And let the worst come to the worsts you say,
There always will be time to turn ourselves,
And cry for half an hour or so to God:
Salvation, sure, is not so very hard —
It need not take one long; and half an hour
Is quite as much as we can spare for it.
We have no time for pleasures. Business! business!
No! ye shall perish sudden and unsaved.
The priest shall, dipping, die. Can man save man?
Is water God? The counsellor, wise fool!
Drop down amid his quirks and sacred lies —
The judge, while dooming unto death some wretch,
Shall meet at once his own death, doom, and judge.
The doctor, watch in hand, and patient's pulse,
Shall feel his own heart cease its beats — and fall:
Professors shall spin out, and students strain
Their brains no more; art, science, toil shall cease.
The world shall stand still with a rending jar,
As though it struck at sea. The halls where sit
The heads of nations shall be dumb with death.
The ship shall after her own plummet sink,
And sound the sea herself and depths of death.
At the first turn Death shall cut off the thief,
And dash the gold bag in his yellow brain.
The gambler, reckoning gains, shall drop a piece;
Stoop down and there see death; — look up, there God.
The wanton, temporizing with decay,
And qualifying every line which vice
Writes bluntly on the brow, inviting scorn,
Shall pale through plastered red: and the loose, low sot
See clear, for once, through his misty, o'erbrimmed eye.
The just, if there be any, die in prayer.
Death shall be every where among your marts,
And giving bills which no man may decline —
Drafts upon Hell one moment after date.
Then shall your outcries tremble amid the stars:
Terrors shall be about ye like a wind:
And fears come down upon ye like a house.
FESTUS. Yon man looks frightened.
LUCIFER. Then it is time to stop.