What Manner of Men Ought We to Be? [poem by Agnes Neale]

[Editor: This poem by Agnes Neale was published in Shadows and Sunbeams (1890).]

What Manner of Men Ought We to Be?

“What manner of men ought we to be?”
The grand old pagan philosopher asked
Of those who in Athen’s palmiest days
In the light of her civilization basked.
“If, when the soul and the body shall part,
Death shall not be death to the spirit too;
If there should be life beyond this life,
Existence beyond the world that we view,
In the face of a chance futurity,
What manner of men ought we to be?

“Should we only think to please ourselves?
Should we live our lives as the dogs do theirs?
What do we mean by our crowd of gods?
What do we mean by our priests and our prayers?
Was life meant only for self and lust,
Or was it not meant for a higher end?
Are we not drawing upon our heads
The judgment the gods will surely send?
In the light of a world we cannot see
What manner of men ought we to be?”

He lived in a darker age than ours,
Before the dawn of the light of truth,
Ere the glorious Sun of Righteousness
Had pierced with his shining earth’s wrong and ruth.
We live in the blaze of a gospel day:
In the broad noontide of salvation’s light;
But to us there will also come the gloom,
And the silent shadows of death and night.
In the face of that awful mystery,
What manner of men ought we to be?

In the mist and dark of the early time,
Ere the dawn had scattered the shades of night,
Like the sound of a trumpet battle call
His question rang out on the side of right.
And down and down through the changing years
That question waits for our answer still,
And low in the depths of man’s secret soul
Its echoes are ling’ring and ever will.
If there is a life that we cannot see,
What manner of men ought we to be?

We live our lives of folly and sin,
We are eating husks instead of the grain;
Refusing gifts of a gracious God
That long at our doors have neglected lain.
If each day lived is one less to live,
If our human life is held by a thread;
If only one step is the distance set
Between the two worlds of the quick and dead,
In the prospect of immortality
What manner of men ought we to be?

We know there is life beyond this life;
We know there’s a future beyond us set
When the founts and streams of this mortal life
In eternity’s shoreless sea have met,
When all time’s boundaries are swept away,
When the conqueror’s wreath crowns the victor’s brow,
When past and future of time shall be
All resolved into one eternal now;
In view of that grand reality,
What manner of men ought we to be?

Pure, as the Master Himself was pure,
And true as the truth that our God has giv’n,
With hearts that are fresh as the morning dew,
And clear as the sky when the clouds are riven,
Our lives should be fair as the early day,
Our souls should be white, as the snow-flakes are;
In the face of the future every man
Should shine in earth’s moral sky as a star:
In the light of God’s great eternity,
This manner of men we ought to be!

Agnes Neale, Shadows and Sunbeams, Adelaide: Burden & Bonython, 1890, pages 12-15

Editor’s notes:
ere = before (from the Middle English “er”, itself from the Old English “aer”, meaning early or soon)

Master = in a religious context, and capitalized, a reference to Jesus or God

palmiest = superlative adjective of “palmy”: flourishing, luxurious, prosperous

riven = cleaved, split, or torn apart

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