The Builders

by Henry van Dyke

Henry van Dyke

October 21, 1896
Into the dust of the making of man
Spirit was breathed when his life began,
Lifting him up from his low estate,
With masterful passion, the wish to create.
Out of the dust of his making, man
Fashioned his works as the ages ran;
Fortress, and palace, and temple, and tower,
Filling the world with the proof of his power.
Over the dust that awaits him, man,
Building the walls that his pride doth plan,
Dreams they will stand in the light of the sun
Bearing his name till Time is done.
The monuments of mortals
Are as the glory of the grass;
Through Time's dim portals
A voiceless, viewless wind doth pass,
The blossoms fall before it in a day,
The forest monarchs year by year decay,
And man's great buildings slowly fade away.
One after one,
They pay to that dumb breath
The tribute of their death,
And are undone.
The towers incline to dust,
The massive girders rust,
The domes dissolve in air,
The pillars that upbear
The lofty arches crumble, stone by stone,
While man the builder looks about him in despair,
For all his works of pride and power are overthrown.
A Voice came from the sky:
"Set thy desires more high.
Thy buildings fade away
Because thou buildest clay.
Now make the fabric sure
With stones that will endure!
Hewn from the spiritual rock,
The immortal towers of the soul
At Death's dissolving touch shall mock,
And stand secure while æons roll."
Well did the wise in heart rejoice
To hear the summons of that Voice,
And patiently begin
The builder's work within,
Houses not made with hands,
Nor founded on the sands.
And thou, Reverèd Mother, at whose call
We come to keep thy joyous festival,
And celebrate thy labours on the walls of Truth
Through sevenscore years and ten of thine eternal youth-
A master builder thou,
And on thy shining brow,
Like Cybele, in fadeless light dost wear
A diadem of turrets strong and fair.
I see thee standing in a lonely land,
But late and hardly won from solitude,
Unpopulous and rude,-
On that far western shore I see thee stand,
Like some young goddess from a brighter strand,
While in thine eyes a radiant thought is born,
Enkindling all thy beauty like the morn.
Sea-like the forest rolled, in waves of green,
And few the lights that glimmered, leagues between.
High in the north, for fourscore years alone
Fair Harvard's earliest beacon-tower had shone
When Yale was lighted, and an answering ray
Flashed from the meadows by New Haven Bay.
But deeper spread the forest, and more dark,
Where first Neshaminy received the spark
Of sacred learning to a woodland camp,
And Old Log College glowed with Tennant's lamp.
Thine, Alma Mater, was the larger sight,
That saw the future of that trembling light,
And thine the courage, thine the stronger will,
That built its loftier home on Princeton Hill.
"New light!" men cried, and murmured that it came
From an unsanctioned source with lawless flame;
It shone too free, for still the church and school
Must only shine according to their rule.
But Princeton answered, in her nobler mood,
"God made the light, and all the light is good.
There is no war between the old and new;
The conflict lies between the false and true.
The stars, that high in heaven their courses run,
In glory differ, but their light is one.
The beacons, gleaming o'er the sea of life,
Are rivals but in radiance, not in strife.
Shine on, ye sister-towers, across the night!
I too will build a lasting house of light."
Brave was that word of faith and bravely was it kept:
With never-wearying zeal that faltered not, nor slept,
Our Alma Mater toiled, and while she firmly laid
The deep foundation-walls, at all her toil she prayed.
And men who loved the truth because it made them free,
And clearly saw the twofold Word of God agree,
Reading from Nature's book and from the Bible's page
By the same inward ray that grows from age to age,
Were built like living stones that beacon to uplift,
And drawing light from heaven gave to the world the gift.
Nor ever, while they searched the secrets of the earth,
Or traced the stream of life through mystery to its birth,
Nor ever, while they taught the lightning-flash to bear
The messages of man in silence through the air,
Fell from their home of light one false, perfidious ray
To blind the trusting heart, or lead the life astray.
But still, while knowledge grew more luminous and broad
It lit the path of faith and showed the way to God.
Yet not for peace alone
Labour the builders.
Work that in peace has grown
Swiftly is overthrown,
When in the darkening skies
Storm-clouds of wrath arise,
And through the cannon's crash,
War's deadly lightning-flash
Smites and bewilders.
Ramparts of strength must frown
Round every placid town
And city splendid;
All that our fathers wrought
With true prophetic thought,
Must be defended!
But who could raise protecting walls for thee,
Thou young, defenceless land of liberty?
Or who could build a fortress strong enough,
Or stretch a mighty bulwark long enough
To hold thy far-extended coast
Against the overweening host
That took the open path across the sea,
And like a tempest poured
Their desolating horde,
To quench thy dawning light in gloom of tyranny?
Yet not unguarded thou wert found
When on thy shore with sullen sound
The blaring trumpets of an unjust king
Proclaimed invasion. From the ground,
In freedom's darkest hour, there seemed to spring
Unconquerable walls for her defence;
Not trembling, like those battlements of stone
That fell when Joshua's horns were blown;
But firm and stark the living rampart rose,
To meet the onset of imperious foes
With a long line of brave, unyielding men.
This was thy fortress, well-defended land,
And on these walls, the patient, building hand
Of Princeton laboured with the force of ten.
Her sons were foremost in the furious fight;
Her sons were firmest to uphold the right
In council-chambers of the new-born State,
And prove that he who would be free must first be great
In heart, and high in thought, and strong
In purpose not to do or suffer wrong.
Such were the men, impregnable to fear,
Whose souls were framed and fashioned here;
And when war shook the land with threatening shock,
The men of Princeton stood like muniments of rock.
Nor has the breath of Time
Dissolved that proud array
Of never-broken strength:
For though the rocks decay,
And all the iron bands
Of earthly strongholds are unloosed at length,
And buried deep in gray oblivion's sands;
The work that heroes' hands
Wrought in the light of freedom's natal day
Shall never fade away,
But lifts itself, sublime
Into a lucid sphere,
For ever calm and clear,
Preserving in the memory of the fathers' deed,
A never-failing fortress for their children's need.
There we confirm our hearts to-day, and read
On many a stone the signature of fame,
The builder's mark, our Alma Mater's name.
Bear with us then a moment, while we turn
From all the present splendours of this place-
The lofty towers that like a dream have grown
Where once old Nassau Hall stood all alone-
Back to that ancient time, with hearts that burn
In filial gratitude, to trace
The glory of our mother's best degree,
In that "high son of Liberty,"
Who like a granite block,
Riven from Scotland's rock,
Stood loyal here to keep Columbia free.
Born far away beyond the ocean's tide,
He found his fatherland upon this side;
And every drop of ardent blood that ran
Through his great heart, was true American.
He held no fealty to a distant throne,
But made his new-found country's cause his own.
In peril and distress,
In toil and weariness,
When darkness overcast her
With shadows of disaster,
And voices of confusion
Proclaimed her hope delusion,
Robed in his preacher's gown,
He dared the danger down;
Like some old prophet chanting an inspired rune
In freedom's councils rang the voice of Witherspoon.
And thou, my country, write it on thy heart:
Thy sons are they who nobly take thy part;
Who dedicates his manhood at thy shrine,
Wherever born, is born a son of thine.
Foreign in name, but not in soul, they come
To find in thee their long desired home;
Lovers of liberty and haters of disorder,
They shall be built in strength along thy border.
Dream not thy future foes
Will all be foreign-born!
Turn thy clear look of scorn
Upon thy children who oppose
Their passions wild and policies of shame
To wreck the righteous splendour of thy name.
Untaught and overconfident they rise,
With folly on their lips, and envy in their eyes:
Strong to destroy, but powerless to create,
And ignorant of all that made our fathers great,
Their hands would take away thy golden crown,
And shake the pillars of thy freedom down
In Anarchy's ocean, dark and desolate.
O should that storm descend,
What fortress shall defend
The land our fathers wrought for,
The liberties they fought for?
What bulwark shall secure
Her shrines of law, and keep her founts of justice pure?
Then, ah then,
As in the olden days,
The builders must upraise
A rampart of indomitable men.
And once again,
Dear Mother, if thy heart and hand be true,
There will be building work for thee to do;
Yea, more than once again,
Thou shalt win lasting praise,
And never-dying honour shall be thine,
For setting many stones in that illustrious line,
To stand unshaken in the swirling strife,
And guard their country's honour as her life.
Softly, my harp, and let me lay the touch
Of silence on these rudely clanging strings;
For he who sings
Even of noble conflicts overmuch,
Loses the inward sense of better things;
And he who makes a boast
Of knowledge, darkens that which counts the most,-
The insight of a wise humility
That reverently adores what none can see.
The glory of our life below
Comes not from what we do, or what we know,
But dwells forevermore in what we are.
There is an architecture grander far
Than all the fortresses of war,
More inextinguishably bright
Than learning's lonely towers of light.
Framing its walls of faith and hope and love
In souls of men, it lifts above
The frailty of our earthly home
An everlasting dome;
The sanctuary of the human host,
The living temple of the Holy Ghost.
If music led the builders long ago,
When Arthur planned the halls of Camelot,
And made the royal city grow,
Fair as a flower in that forsaken spot;
What sweeter music shall we bring,
To weave a harmony divine
Of prayer and holy thought
Into the labours of this loftier shrine,
This consecrated hill,
Where through so many a year
Our Alma Mater's hand hath wrought,
With toil serene and still,
And heavenly hope, to rear
Eternal dwellings for the Only King?
Here let no martial trumpets blow,
Nor instruments of pride proclaim
The loud exultant notes of fame!
But let the chords be clear and low,
And let the anthem deeper grow,
And let it move more solemnly and slow;
For only such an ode
Can seal the harmony
Of that deep masonry
Wherein the soul of man is framed for God's abode.
O Thou whose boundless love bestows
The joy of earth, the hope of Heaven,
And whose unchartered mercy flows
O'er all the blessings Thou hast given;
Thou by whose light alone we see;
And by whose truth our souls set free
Are made imperishably strong;
Hear Thou the solemn music of our song.
Grant us the knowledge that we need
To solve the questions of the mind,
And light our candle while we read,
To keep our hearts from going blind;
Enlarge our vision to behold
The wonders Thou hast wrought of old;
Reveal thyself in every law,
And gild the towers of truth with holy awe.
Be Thou our strength if war's wild gust
Shall rage around us, loud and fierce;
Confirm our souls and let our trust
Be like a shield that none can pierce;
Renew the courage that prevails,
The steady faith that never fails,
And make us stand in every fight
Firm as a fortress to defend the right.
O God, control us as Thou wilt,
And guide the labour of our hand;
Let all our work be surely built
As Thou, the architect, hast planned;
But whatso'er thy power shall make
Of these frail lives, do not forsake
Thy dwelling: let thy presence rest
For ever in the temple of our breast.

Last updated August 18, 2022