“Opportunity” by Walter Malone
As you might observe from some of my previous posts, I like to keep things in context; so, before addressing your question about the last two lines of this poem, I find it prudent to unpack the previous lines first for sake of continuity.
They do me wrong who say I come no more
When once I knock and fail to find you in;
For every day I stand outside your door,
And bid you wake, and rise to fight and win
The structure of the poem follows a “traditional” pattern of four-line stanzas consisting of abab rhyme scheme and each line having a “regular” ten syllable beat (iambic pentameter). Iambic pentameter—following the beat of a heart—is a fitting formula for themes of life. The first stanza with language such as “I come” (line 1) and “once I knock” (line 2) and “stand outside your door” (line 3) clearly alludes to the Revelation 3:30 which reads: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (KJV). If this is the case, it would essentially make Christ the narrator/persona of this poem. This establishes the themes of redemption, spiritual renewal, and “spiritual warfare” against the theme of remorse or regret for the rest of the poem.
The kinetic imagery of “wak[ing]” in the last line such as “fight[ing]” allude to 1 Timothy 6:12 “Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses” (KJV); and Joel “Prepare war, wake up the mighty men” (3:9, KJV) and depict life (especially the Christian life) as a battle (presumably against sin or against the sin nature—or temptation—or even the Devil). And a second allusion might be from 1 Thessalonians 5:10 which reads: “Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him” (KJV). The Greek word for ‘wake’ here is γρηγορέω grēgoreō denoting: “to watch; metaphorically, give strict attention to, be cautious, active to take heed lest through remission and indolence some destructive calamity suddenly overtake one” (Perschbacher 83), in keeping with one of the themes of the poem—spiritual warfare.
Wail not for precious chances passed away,
Weep not for golden ages on the wane!
Each night I burn the records of the day-
At sunrise every soul is born again!
In the second stanza, the archaic, sonic imagery of the synonymous words “Wail” (line 1) and “Weep” (line 2)—denoting and emphasizing great remorse or sorrow— registers with biblical piquancy bringing a sorrowful tone of regret for missing “precious chances” (line 1) and the wan[ing] (i.e. diminishing opportunities of the “golden ages” (line 2) of the past) that is countered with the last phrase of the stanza “born again” (line 4)—biblical imagery denoting resurrection, new life, salvation, or a second chance, (see John 3:3: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (KJV)).
Laugh like a boy at splendors that have sped,
To vanished joys be blind and deaf and dumb;
My judgements seal the dead past with its dead,
But never bind a moment yet to come.
The theme of redemption or spiritual renewal continues the sonic imagery of “Laugh like a boy” (Stanza 3, line 1) conveys the notion a “youthful” or “childlike” response to those “missed opportunities” long gone to which the narrator encourages us to be “blind and deaf and dumb” (line 2) signifying—(without much of a stretch)—forgetting about it—as if we cannot see, or hear, or speak—they are now beyond our senses. The “past” (line 3) is so far gone or dismissed with “My (probably Christ/God) judgment” as they are “sealed”—that is to say locked and so far beyond reach and in fact “dead” (line 3) signifying beyond recovery. It is God in his mercy who makes the final ruling “judgment” (line 3) (ruling or decision) about the past (our past) and does not want us to be bound to the past, nor “bind a moment yet to come” (line 4). The word “bind” denotes being tied up; so that is to say, do not ruin the future, the “moment yet to come”, by being bound up (like a prisoner) to the past.
Though deep in mire, wring not your hands and weep;
I lend my arm to all who say "I Can!"
No shame-faced outcast ever sank so deep,
But yet might rise and be again a man.
The negatively charged visual, kinetic, and sonic imagery of “mire” and “wring[ing]” of “hands” and “weep[ing]” (Stanza 4, line 1) further advances the waxing and waning tone of regret and remorse is again countered by Christ “lend[ing]” his “arm” (line 2) (giving aid) to anyone who “say I Can!” (line 2). The words “I Can” denotes the free agency of humankind—the God given ability to freely reach out for aid, succor, redemption. With reference to “Christian theology”, the gift of salvation is free, but is not forced upon us. The idea is captured in the Greek word for ‘receive’ which is Λαμβάνω (lambano) meaning: “to take; to take with the hand, lay hold of, any person or thing in order to use it”; as found in verses such as “John answered and said, A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven” (John 3:27, KJV). The point is that while the work of salvation is completed by Christ, and is a free gift (see Jn 3:16; Jn 4:10; Rm 5:15, et. al.), it is still left to us to accept it (i.e. receive it).
Even the worst of people (or those in the worst condition) the “shamed-faced outcast[s]” (line 3) are redeemable and “might rise” and “be again a man.” The word “rise” again alludes to Christ’s resurrection in which we too might “rise” (that is, be reborn or “born again”). And “be again a man” denotes, in our “rebirth” realizing true humanity through Christ. Again, with reference to Christian theology, it is to say, Christ is the second Adam (the second man) and where the first Adam failed (succumbed to temptation; see Genesis 3) the second Adam succeeds (triumphs over temptation (see Matthew 4:1-11, cf Luke 4:1-13) and thus sets the example of true humanity realizing for us “to be a man again” like the second Adam—the perfect Adam—the quintessential, complete, or archetypical human being.
Dost thou behold thy lost youth all aghast?
Dost reel from righteous Retribution's blow?
Then turn from blotted archives of the past,
And find the future's pages white as snow.
The pair of rhetorical questions in the fifth stanza again propel the theme of regret and remorse about the past “lost youth” (line 1) which in reflection of the penitent heart one is “aghast” denoting shock and horror (presumably from one’s sins). The term “blotted” (line 3) is replete in the Bible (King James Version) and is often found in context of biblical themes such as spiritual depravation and salvation in passages such as: “And the LORD said unto Moses, Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book” (Exodus 32:33, KJV); or “He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels” (Revelation 3:5, KJV). Together with the word “archives” (line 3) (similar to “book”) carries the notion of a tome in which sins are recorded (or a list of the elect to be saved) and serves to solidify the biblical imagery of spiritual depravity and salvation. The final line of the stanza “pages white as snow” (line 4) also gives us significant visual biblical imagery and allusions hard to miss from passages such as: “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:18, KJV) and perpetuates the salvific theme of the poem.
Art thou a mourner? Rouse thee from thy spell;
Art thou a sinner? Sins may be forgiven;
Each morning gives thee wings to flee from hell,
Each night a star to guide thy feet to heaven.
The final stanza also begins with two rhetorical questions which nearly register as a sort of liturgical “call and response” in which the negatively charged, rhetorical questions “Art thou a mourner?” and “Art thou a sinner? are answered by the positive imperative “Rouse thee” (stanza 6, line 1) and the redemptive “Sins may be forgiven” (line 2) respectively. To be in mourn[ing] is to be in a state of grief and thus void of joy and is to like being under a “spell” (line 1) denoting under the influence of a curse—that is to say the oppression of sin—and decidedly not a state for one “born again” (i.e. a Christian) to remain. The “spell” is broken or remedied by the forgiveness of “Sins” (line 2) and this forgiveness is like “wings to flee from “hell” (line 3); and a guiding “star.” The significance of the “star” (line 4) is pregnant with biblical allusion. It is the wisemen (the μάγοι magoi) who follow the star to Christ (Mt 2:1) and “worship him” (Mt. 2:2)—and this star which “guide[s] thy feet to heaven” (line 6). Additionally, the “morning” and the “night” complete the cycle of a day (cf Genesis 1:5 “And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day” (KJV). We have the notion of completion—salvation is complete.
Furthermore 'star' (in Hebrew: כּוֹכָב ko-kawb') conveys: of Messiah, brothers, youth, numerous progeny, personification, God's omniscience (fig.) (Botterweck 7: 75-85). Metaphorically, in the Old Testament, a star represents eternal life awaiting faithful Jews who are “wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever” (Daniel 12:3, KJV) (Botterweck 7: 82). Arguably this blessing is also transferred to Christians as well who are adopted into the family of God.
In another sense, since star is light, it is also holy. In Genesis “God divided the light from the darkness” (1:4, KJV). The Hebrew word for divide here is בָּדַל baw-dal' and signifies “to separate; set apart” (Davidson 66). The notion of “set apart” in Hebrew is from the word קֹדֶשׁ ko'-desh denoting holiness (Davidson 674)—hence the light (the star) is made holy by being separated and could be symbolic of Christ (the Holy One) who “guide(s) our feet to heaven.”
Bauer, Walter, et. al. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. University of Chicago Press, 1979.
Botterweck, G. Johannes. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (16 volumes). William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.
Davidson, Benjamin. Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon. Hendrickson Publishers, 1981.
Perschbacher, Wesley. The Analytical Greek Lexicon. Hendrickson Publishers, 1990.
The Holy Bible, Authorized King James Version, Thomas Nelson, 1972.