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The Potter’s Wheel (A poem by Isaac Ewan)

The Potter’s Wheel, by Scottish poet Isaac Y. Ewan, paints a gripping picture of a murderer on death row contemplating being hanged “at the stroke of eight” the following morning. Sobered by the thought of eternity beyond death, the condemned man recalls his godly upbringing and, in particular, the Scripture verse that hung on his childhood bedroom’s wall. The poem’s title, The Potter’s Wheel, is taken from Jeremiah Ch 18:3-4, a Bible passage that describes a patient potter remaking a clay vessel that had failed to hold its shape on the wheel. 

The door is closed. The tale at last is told;
The final chapter written to “The End”.
Only the postscript brief has yet to come,
And that will not take long. Between the two
The prison key that sternly locked me in
Has kindly locked for me, the whole world out
And left me here to think. I am alone,
And free from interruption to review
The sorry scene I am about to leave.
The chaplain called. He came with solemn air
To play his little part and have his say,
As if he had a lawful right to it;
And seemed incensed with me because I said,
“No! Go your way and leave me to myself;
I want no paid-for prayers made for me.
I’m not afraid; the gallows at the door
Do not alarm me with their grim array.
Tomorrow morning at the stroke of eight
The liberating loop shall find a neck
All ready for its business-like embrace.
It’s what I’ve earned, and neither rope nor plank
Shall raise a flutter in this heart of stone,
By far too hard for sentiment to move.
No. Go and practise your religious art
With trem’lous tones upon a softer soul.
I’ve heard it all before. You need not think
I’ll mend my ways and be a good boy now.
I have not time for that. Why should you try
Your dry, religious platitudes on me,
A man with but a few, short hours to live?
No; leave me to myself or call again
And say your piece upon my lifeless clay.
I’m busy with realities tonight.”

And now he’s gone and horrified at that;
To leave me to my doom; and all unshriven;
A bold, bad man about to be destroyed;
A hopeless, heartless, hardened criminal.
Ah well, I have no time for him. Tonight
Professional religion is to me
The most obnoxious thing in all the earth.
I want to take one last, long, backward look
From this last, narrow ledge on which I stand,
And write my ruminations as they run.
Tomorrow at the stroke of eight I’ll step
Into the vast and unexplored beyond
That holds – I know not what, I know not what;
Oblivion, they say; but who are they
Who talk as if they know, in full conceit,
As sure as if they’d been themselves to see?
What if the wish is father to the thought?
What if the things I learned at mother’s knee
Of this short life, and that eternity,
The fall, the broken law, the grace, the truth,
The righteousness of God, the Judge of all,
The words of hope, of heaven, and of hell
Should hold more weight of wisdom in their depth
Than could be found in man’s philosophy?
What if this endless argument should be
God’s wisdom versus human cleverness?
Tomorrow at the stroke of eight I’ll know
But what if I should know I’ve known too late,
And find there more than I had bargained for?
A strange uneasiness possesses me,
The burden of the mystery of things.
It’s not that I am loth to leave behind
A scene in which there’s nothing left for me
Or that I want to turn to it for help.
The world is through with me, and I with it.
Its fashionable creeds and theories
Have lost their hold on me. I’ve tried its wares
And found the whole vain show a hollow cheat.
I’m weary of it all. I want a rest.
Yes, even though I knew my rest would be
The age-long slumber of the silent hills.
But I am not a hill, a rock, a stone.
What’s this that thinks and speaks of what’s beyond
The narrow scope of creature cognisance?
How came it so to be? The noblest beast
Can ne’er be made to grasp the thought of God,
The meanest man is found aware of Him.
It’s not the shape that shows the difference
It is a something that resides within.
Some say development accounts for it
That man is but the animal supreme
His noble aspect, mind, and gait erect
The product of a law, of life’s upsurge
That finds direction in the easiest path.
They recognise in the repulsive ape
Their own progenitor; and pride survives
When self-respect has died for very shame.
The brute dreads death, and struggles for its life,
But I, who here would brave the portals grim
Fear what’s to follow in the great beyond.

Would that I ne’er had read their theories
I had not doubted John’s good news had they
Not taught me to discredit Genesis.
But shall I turn philosopher, and preach
Myself a sermon in my closing hours,
While wisdom weeps o’er folly’s victory,
And justice stern stands waiting at the door?
Folly would laugh, and weeping wisdom say
I’m rather late with my philosophy.
No! I will leave the future grim tonight,
That will come soon enough. Tonight I take
A farewell survey of the scene behind,
The path I’ve trodden through the world of men,
Ere the last act be set, and, o’er it all
The final curtain falls and I shall make
My ignominious exodus. Tonight
Sad fancy waits to take me by the hand
And lead me back in sober silence through
The misty vale where memories abide,
Receding far into the dimming light
Where faint, familiar figures of the past
Peer out upon the retrospective soul,
Half draped in clouds of grey forgetfulness.
Tonight I want to ponder o’er the deep,
Mysterious experience of life
The calm, clear dawn of opportunity,
The rays of hope that cleft the early gloom,
The morning sun that soared amid the blue,
The flowers that bloomed, the cruel thorns that pierced
The chilling mists that crept o’er all the sky,
The clouds that loomed, the ruthless storms that raged,
The lights that died and left me desolate,
The disappointing eve that, weeping, draws
The veil o’er all the vexing might-have-beens.
Tonight I watched the sun sink ‘neath the hill
As if ’twere loth to go. The mournful wind
Came sighing sadly round the prison walls.
The gathering gloom, in soft solemnity,
Wore an unwonted aspect to the eye.
There was a show’r of rain. A few big drops
Fell heavily upon the window-pane
As if the heavens gave, when earth had none,
The only tears that shall be shed for me.
How gently shines the moon between the bars,
Into the cell, and on the dismal wall,
Regardless of the incongruity!
I always liked the moon; I know not why.
I’m glad to see it shine tonight, as if
To say goodbye. I’ll never see it more.
It shines tonight to give, when earth has none,
In unchanged gentleness, a ray to light
The sorry outcast from his fellow-men.
I always liked the moon. Its beams bestir
A host of moving memories within.
Yonder at home, when but a lad, I loved
Its silv’ry beauty on the loch that lay
Soft nestling mid the mountains big and strong,
A jewel fitly set among the rocks,
The heather, and the bracken, and the birch.
When like a mirror, calm and still and deep,
Or whipped to foaming fury in the blast,
Whate’er its mood, I loved to lie and watch
The moon-lit loch at home, yonder at home.
I see again the little garden gate,
And fain would lay my hand upon the latch.
I hear the wind soft sighing through the glen
The curlew’s haunting wail is in my soul;
I hear the grouse call, “Go, go back, go back”,
And memory responds, although I know
The little garden gate is broken down,
The border is a wilderness of weeds,
The house is still; the windows, like dead eyes,
Look out upon a sad, forsaken scene,
All desolate and dull; the ivy droops
Unchecked across the unfrequented door.
There’s nothing to go back to; all is changed.
And yet, the cherished scene death withers up
Blooms on beyond its icy fingers’ reach
In unimprisoned memory that dotes
Upon the details of the pictured past;
Pictured, yet not inanimate and still
I see it, hear it, feel it all again.
I see her sitting with her precious Book,
The old, grey shawl about her slender form,
The big, old cairngorm brooch she always wore
Fastened upon her breast, her silv’ry hair
Wound in a modest coil upon her neck.
I see the wistful furrows on her face,
The old, familiar, pensive poise of head;
I see her sitting there, the noble soul
Who gave me birth. Again tonight I hear
The tender tones that filled my infant ears,
Crooning the wayward boy she loved to rest.
I hear her tell me how to do my sums,
To form my sentences, to say my prayer
How to repeat my poetry, to read
A passage from the Scriptures every day.
Her words of admonition, firm and wise,
Are with me still in spite of what I am.
Tonight, when all is up with me, I hear
Her tones of understanding comfort when
O’er my tremendous trifles I would weep,
And break my heart because I lost my ball.
And now I’m lost myself, with none to care.
She wept and prayed, and wept and prayed again,
And laid at last her old grey head in death,
Believing still, upon the breast of Him
Who answered not. ‘Tis well she never knew
That it would come to this with me at last.
Her faith was beautiful, but all in vain
For here I am, abandoned to my fate.
Her mother-heart’s ambition for her boy
Was not for earthly honour and success.
She knew the worth of that, and asked for me
The honour that is for eternity.
Alas! The opposite is mine. To think
That I should end like this! I only wish,
For her sake that I had been different.
But O, enough! these moving memories
Will have me weeping like a girl ere long,
And men will think I’m sorry for myself.
Surely I will be man enough to show
The spartan spirit of my chieftain sires
And take my finals with a cheerful lip
My finals, did I say? Ah, what is this
That fills me with an unfamiliar fear?
What if-? but no, I will not think of that.
The grouse’s call, “Go back,” is in my ears,
And retrospection claims my thoughts tonight.
That silv’ry shaft of moonlight in my cell
Reminds me of my little room at home.
I used to lie and watch its ghostly beams
Illuminate the text upon the wall
Till slumbrous eyelids veiled it from my sight.
The gleaming letters,”It is written, ‘Cursed
Is everyone that hangeth on a tree’.”
Live in my memory.

But what is this?
There’s something fearsome in its fitness, for
These solemn words apply to me, and hang
A flaming sentence o’er my guilty head
Guilty as Cain. Yet, surely not! Cain slew
A righteous man, and wherefore slew he him?
Because his works were righteous, and his own
Were not. It was a very Cain I slew.
And yet, can I excuse the action thus?
No Abel ever slew his brother Cain,
and brought that seven-fold vengeance on his head
For ushering the Godless in his guilt
Into the presence of the Living God.
What have I done? If not the same as Cain
In motive sinister, that vengeance dread
For thus usurping God’s prerogative,
Who said,”Vengeance is Mine, I will repay”
I have incurred. He went too far with me
It was too much. Too long I had endured
The devastation of his oily tongue
That left my life to me a worthless waste.
He closed her heart and mind with cruel skill;
Poured in her ear his evil tale of me
And she believed it all, believed it all!
Something went wrong; and then cold bitterness
Closed like an icy hand upon my soul.
The wintry blasts that swept my native glen
Were tempered in their fury by a gleam
Of sunshine now and then; but not a smile
E’er reached me from the sun in which I basked.
Grey desolation filled the heavens above,
Within me dark, unhealthy rancours rose,
And bitter furies bred and slumbered there,
All ominous and still. The climax came.
That fatal taunt unleashed what surged within,
And all restraint went down before the flood.
Ten thousand seething grievances brake forth
And clamoured for revenge. Again he mocked
And it was done – with fearful emphasis.
O but I hit him, hit him, hit him hard,
Unholy joys ariot in my soul!
The flood is past, the worthless wreckage left.
Tomorrow morning at the stroke of eight
Th’ official hand shall mop up what remains,
Then all is square. And yet, what have I done?
I took the law in mine own hands, as if
I did no wrong myself and now I find
The measure I did mete, with righteous plea,
In righteousness is meted out to me.
The sentence carried out shall expiate,
With men, my sin against society.
But that is not the end of it: I go,
A guilty wretch to meet a holy God;
And, like a fool, I would forget the fact,
And use as dope the memories that please
To crowd the ugly future from my mind.
Am I at heart a coward after all,
That craves a silken cover for his eyes,
And feels the facts less fearsome out of sight?
I would stand up to anything on earth,
But what is this that challenges the mind,
That overawes me, and that makes me feel
A worm before its dread immensity?

I must stand up to it, cost what it may,
Or finish like a caitiff and a fool,
Afraid to face the facts about myself.
Alas! I’m troubled now. It is not that
I fear what men will do; tonight I am,
Frankly, afraid of God, afraid of God.
The theories of men may suit the minds
That feel a good, safe distance from the facts
I’m busy with realities arrived,
That brook no argument; realities
Of such tremendous import, they demand
Servile attention from th’ arrested mind.
Sad fancy has withdrawn her hand, and now
Stern fact has got me in its iron grasp.
I have been idly drifting in a dream
On to this cataclysmal exodus;
And now I am awake upon the brink,
Rudely aroused from sleep, with scarcely time
To look about me on the dread array
Of tow’ring facts that long appeared to me
But distant fears. I know not what to do.
And yet, for all my ignorance, I know
Too much to fight against such fearful odds
And turn upon them like a beast at bay.
When men are sick, and dull, and dazed in mind
The outline of their thoughts is all obscured.
They cannot realise things as they are.
But I’m not sick, unless, perhaps, at heart;
The vigour of my mind is unimpaired.
My thoughts are clear, and keen enough to hurt.
I feel the edge of them, piercing within.
I am perplexed; and there is none to help.
O for a friend to take me by the hand,
To tell me what to do! O for a friend
Not only kind, but also capable
To help me in my overwhelming need!
I want a friend. The sorry sort I had
Forsook me when the trouble came, for they
Could ne’er forgive unpopularity.
To them, my one unpardonable sin
Is but to be the outcast that I am.
The very clergyman who came to pray
Spoke from his lofty heights, in studied tones
Of bogus condescension, a la mode.
I bade him go his way. Why can’t he wear
His collar like an ordinary man?
That awkward badge, the button at the back,
Seems but the sign, outward and visible,
Of Christianity reversed. What could
Religion in its harness do for me?
I need a friend, a man who understands,
Who knows the road, has been this way himself,
To take me by the hand. Alas, there’s none.
‘Mong all that I have known there is not one
And I’m undone for lack of Him. I feel
A strange, unutterable loneliness.
I wanted to be left alone to dream,
To spend my last hours in the fairest fields
Of memory’s most intermixed estate,
But find that I am left alone to think
Of things too much for me a passing speck
In utter isolation on the brink
Of something so incomprehensible
It paralyses all the power of thought
With its immensity. I fear I’m lost.
I would have made a smoke-screen of my dreams,
Till through the pleasant haze of them there shot
One flash of Sina’s lightning to the mark
And left me quaking like the host of old,
Deep stricken to the core. That moonlit text
Is to my soul the writing on the wall
That intimates to me my passing out.
In that same night the Chaldean king was slain.
The gleaming letters, “It is written, ‘Cursed
Is every one that hangeth on a tree’,”
Declare the means by which I must go hence.
But that’s not all, for these are things I know.
There is a something in the simple words,
A power that I cannot understand,
That marks them out in no uncertain way
As not of human origin; as if
They had been uttered in the dateless past
Concerning men in this small span of time,
And to the dateless future must remain
A principle of truth unchangeable.
Let reason rise to her sublimest heights,
And arguments most forcible be heard
Let proud philosophy parade her views,
And haughty science say it’s all a myth,
Amid the babel of confusion still
This stands unaltered, “It is written, ‘Cursed
Is every one that hangeth on a tree’,”
With every contradicting voice ignored.
All is in vain; for it is obvious
Only perverted reason would presume
To comprehend th’ incomprehensible.
He is a fool who holds a thing untrue
Because he cannot tell the reason why.
‘Tis evident that it is but because
Men are not competent to understand
That they discredit the inscrutable.
There is a darkness in the minds of men
As if a mighty curtain had been drawn,
And all is blind conjecture, blind enough
To voice its vain opinion, and to build
A fortress based on theory, with but
Ideas of their choice, and feel secure.
But what are all such theories to me?
I want to know, to be informed, to be
Authoritatively informed, to know.
I can’t afford to, theorise tonight
On such a theme. My candle burns too low.
Be what it may, I want to know the truth.
Is there no light? no information given?
Is there no voice that’s worthy to be heard?
If such a light should shine through such a gloom
Its character were unmistakable;
And such a voice would silence argument.
Alas! I’ve seen and heard both light and voice,
And know, in face of their effect on me,
‘Twere idle to debate their origin.
Impartial and unmercifully clear,
Light, such as pains the eye used to the dark,
Has shown me what I am, just what I am
Not what I am compared with other men,
But what I am before a Holy God.
I’ve heard a voice, strangely articulate,
And louder than the thunder of the skies,
Down crashing in its stillness through the din
And noisy clamour of all earthly things,
Declaring what I am, just what I am.
I’ve heard it in my soul: “Tis written, ‘Cursed
Is every one that hangeth on a tree’.”
And I am cursed; cursed! That is what I am
In cold disdain into the distance hurled,
Immeasurably far away from God;
Unsuitable, unutterably so,
And altogether different from Him
Who gave me breath. It is not only that
There’s nought that I can do to bridge the gulf,
I do not want it bridged, for I’m afraid.
I could not love God even if I tried.
It is not in me. I have no desire
To seek His face. I’d rather far escape,
Flee from His presence and escape. But where?
Where shall I flee? Wherever shall I flee?
Religion has its sentimental hymn
That stirs the feelings and obscures the facts;
But it’s the facts I feel. I want to know
In undeceiving certainty I want to know.
At least I’m undeceived about myself.
Only too well I know myself undone.
And is this all there is for me to know?
Is there no pity in the heart of God
That he could show to me? if so He cared?
If I appealed to Him? But then, alas!
I know not how to pray; and if I did,
Why should He hear the prayer of such as I!
What reason could I plead? I’ve nought to say
And he, I fear, has nought to say to me
But that dread sentence,”It is written,’Cursed
Is every one that hangeth on a tree’.”
Is this the only word that suits my case?
They said, “May God have mercy on your soul”,
As if that were a most unlikely thing.
And it is mercy that I so much need;
Mercy from God. It is not man I fear
Not human pity that I would implore.
That mercy were amazing that could reach
Right down to me, even to me. And yet,
I feel a strong, a rising urge within
To cry, O God have mercy on my soul
Have mercy on my soul!

Am I deceived?
Of what am I aware? A ray of hope?
As if, afar, a gentle hand had lit
A solitary taper in the gloom
In answer to a lamentable cry
From out the night? I felt it once before,
Far back beyond the long, sad, sinful years,
When first I heard the story of the Cross,
A wond’ring boy, awe-struck and half afraid
Of things immense enough tonight to make
The bold transgressor like a timid child.
Would I could hear that story once again,
As when I heard it at my mother’s knee,
Yonder at home, beside the loch that lay
Nestling amid the mountains dark and still
That made me think of God. But for an hour,
Would I could be that wond’ring boy again
And listen to the story of the Cross.
How earnestly my ear would catch each word
And drink it in in clear credulity.
Would, in this closing silence, there were but
A voice to teach, for I’m a child to hear.
Only a feeble echo from the past,
Down through the years, lives in my memory:
God gave His Son, a pattern to men,
That they might learn to follow in His steps.
No. That’s not right. I have forgotten it.

Would I had listened more attentively.
That were no use to me. I am too late.
Not for a single hour could I attain
To such a lofty life, were it enough
To win the favour of a holy God.
No. That could never meet a need like mine.
It is too high for me; hopelessly so;
For He was altogether different.
His birth was different. He did not have
This strange propensity to sin within.
In Him there was no trace of sin at all.
How could I ever follow in His steps
Who trod that perfect path with flawless feet?
No. Even though I might begin again,
Compared, the best that ever I could be,
With Him would make the contrast absolute.
His life was different. His enemies
Were baffled in their search to find a flaw.
Between that perfect, spotless life and mine
There is no point of contact to be found,
From me He stands unthinkably removed,
And more remote than is yon lofty star
That greets my eye between the prison bars.
And yet, tremendous as the distance is,
The star is clear to me, and makes me feel
A strange encouragement to seek the light,
Enveloped as I am in deepest gloom.
There’s something precious in the feeblest ray
To him who sits in darkness and despair.
Earth’s bond-maid moon has crept behind the hills,
And now the independent star appears.
Amazing point of penetrating light,
Sweeping through all incalculable space
From that vast orb afar removed from men,
Unutterably far, through prison bars
Softly to rest upon the gloomy eye
Of one about to perish in his guilt!
And was He just like that, Who came to earth?
Light shining in the darkness vast and deep,
Unutterably far removed from Men?
Unique, distinct, apart in everything
But outward form and common circumstance?
O surely not! However far removed
Men were from Him yet He came near to them.
He had a sympathy for human need,
Compassion for the miseries of men.
There was a wondrous kindness in His ways,
A perfect understanding in His words
All well-meant failure found encouragement,
And proud pretence its fitting censure in
His withering scorn of all hypocrisy.
Who ever read His words with open mind
And did not see that He Himself was light;
Light far too clear to suit the heart of man,
Not tampered with and toned to human taste
Through stained glass windows pleasant to the eye,
But searching, in impartial clarity,
Through deep disguise the secrets of the soul?
For this they hated Him. Religious men
Who could not bear the beams of honest light,
With dark design religiously conspired
To put it out. Now darkness to be felt
Has settled down upon their shrouded souls,
Wherein they peer and grope, depending on
The dying candle of their reasonings,
Professing still, in intellectual pride,
To love the truth they are afraid to face.
But dare I thus detach myself and speak
As if I were not one of them? Ah well,
I am agreed with God about myself,
And willing to confess I am undone;
Not only that I did the thing I did,
But rather that I am the thing I am
Though darkness deep lies heavy on my soul,
And all my thoughts end in perplexity,
That taper light of hope amid the gloom
Still burns within. There is a change in me,
A difference I do not understand.
I am too tired but this one thing I know:
Presumptuous though it seem, I want to lay
My guilty head upon the spotless breast
Of that blest Sufferer; go out with Him;
Out from this miserable scene with Him
Whom proud, religious men, in cold disdain
Reviled, and slew, and hanged upon a tree.
Upon a tree! And hanged…!

But what is this?
AND HANGED UPON A TREE! UPON A TREE!
O what is this? Is it not written,”Cursed
Is every one that hangeth on a tree”?
And He was that! Was hanged upon a tree!
O what is this! Did He come down to that?
Cursed! With a crown of thorns upon His head,
The emblem of the curse and on a tree!
O mystery of mysteries profound!
O wonder of all things most wonderful!
O kindness all incomprehensible
That breaks my heart, and bows me in my soul
Prostrate before Him in adoring awe!
To think that He should occupy my place,
To reach me in my native element,
And meet me in my need! I am o’erwhelmed.
I did not understand. My mind was dark.
I thought it was religious sentiment
That saved the soul; but this is different.
The light has come, come hand in hand with love.
And touched my spirit with the kiss of peace.
My tears are tears of joy. O I could weep
And sob my heart out for sheer gratitude.
To think that He should be a friend to me,
And such a friend to me! To think that He
Should come between me and an angry God,
And bare His spotless bosom to the blast!
When viewed through grateful, penitential tears
How beautiful He looks! How beautiful!
In strong self-will I ran my reckless race,
And would have plunged in darkness and despair,
In all my guilt, and all that that entailed,
Into unending fixity of state.
But, in the unknown pity of His heart,
He crossed my path, and queered the course for me,
And thwarted all my hopes, and brought me here
To make me, without effort, at the end
His prisoner; a prisoner who feels
This dismal cell a hall of liberty.
In spite of walls and bars, and lock and key,
Emancipation sweet has come to me.
I am at rest, and ready to pass on
With Him Who wrote my passport in His blood.
There’s nothing wrong no, not one single thing,
The very rope is as it ought to be;
And I would like to walk these last few steps,
The last few steps that I shall walk on earth,
For His Name’s sake. I feel that I could sleep.
Why should I not lay down my care-free head
Upon my prison pillow here once more
And sleep as sound as Peter slept in gaol?
My prison pillow is the breast of God;
The very God I was afraid to meet.
There’s nothing more I need. I only want
Submissively to let His will be done.
My one desire is but to be for Him
Who took me up, a cold, sour lump of clay,
And, listening to those yet unanswered prayers,
Upon the strange, confusing wheel of life
Held me with skilful hands, to make me thus:
A vessel for His pleasure, brimming full
Of peace and praise.