A Lesson on Greatness



Willie speaks.

Is it wrong, the wish to be great,
For I do wish it so?
I have asked already my sister Kate;
She says she does not know.

Yestereve at the gate I stood
Watching the sun in the west;
When I saw him look so grand and good
It swelled up in my breast.

Next from the rising moon
It stole like a silver dart;
In the night when the wind began his tune
It woke with a sudden start.

This morning a trumpet blast
Made all the cottage quake;
It came so sudden and shook so fast
It blew me wide awake.

It told me I must make haste,
And some great glory win,
For every day was running to waste,
And at once I must begin.

I want to be great and strong,
I want to begin to-day;
But if you think it very wrong
I will send the wish away.


The Father answers.

Wrong to wish to be great?
No, Willie; it is not wrong:
The child who stands at the high closed gate
Must wish to be tall and strong!

If you did not wish to grow
I should be a sorry man;
I should think my boy was dull and slow,
Nor worthy of his clan.

You are bound to be great, my boy:
Wish, and get up, and do.
Were you content to be little, my joy
Would be little enough in you.

Willie speaks.

Papa, papa! I’m so glad
That what I wish is right!
I will not lose a chance to be had;
I’ll begin this very night.

I will work so hard at school!
I will waste no time in play;
At my fingers’ ends I’ll have every rule,
For knowledge is power, they say.

I would be a king and reign,
But I can’t be that, and so
Field-marshal I’ll be, I think, and gain
Sharp battles and sieges slow.

I shall gallop and shout and call,
Waving my shining sword:
Artillery, cavalry, infantry, all
Hear and obey my word.

Or admiral I will be,
Wherever the salt wave runs,
Sailing, fighting over the sea,
With flashing and roaring guns.

I will make myself hardy and strong;
I will never, never give in.
I am so glad it is not wrong!
At once I will begin.

The Father speaks.

Fighting and shining along,
All for the show of the thing!
Any puppet will mimic the grand and strong
If you pull the proper string!

Willie speaks.

But indeed I want to be great,
I should despise mere show;
The thing I want is the glory-state—
Above the rest, you know!

The Father answers.

The harder you run that race,
The farther you tread that track,
The greatness you fancy before your face
Is the farther behind your back.

To be up in the heavens afar,
Miles above all the rest,
Would make a star not the greatest star,
Only the dreariest.

That book on the highest shelf
Is not the greatest book;
If you would be great, it must be in yourself,
Neither by place nor look.

The Highest is not high
By being higher than others;
To greatness you come not a step more nigh
By getting above your brothers.


Willie speaks.

I meant the boys at school,
I did not mean my brother.
Somebody first, is there the rule—
It must be me or another.

The Father answers.

Oh, Willie, it’s all the same!
They are your brothers all;
For when you say, “Hallowed be thy name!”
Whose Father is it you call?

Could you pray for such rule to him?
Do you think that he would hear?
Must he favour one in a greedy whim
Where all are his children dear?

It is right to get up and do,
But why outstrip the rest?
Why should one of the many be one of the few?
Why should you think to be best?

Willie speaks.

Then how am I to be great?
I know no other way;
It would be folly to sit and wait,
I must up and do, you say!

The Father answers.

I do not want you to wait,
For few before they die
Have got so far as begin to be great,
The lesson is so high.

I will tell you the only plan
To climb and not to fall:
He who would rise and be greater than
He is, must be servant of all.

Turn it each way in your mind,
Try every other plan,
You may think yourself great, but at length you’ll find
You are not even a man.

Climb to the top of the trees,
Climb to the top of the hill,
Get up on the crown of the sky if you please,
You’ll be a small creature still.

Be admiral, poet, or king,
Let praises fill both your ears,
Your soul will be but a windmill thing
Blown round by its hopes and fears.


Willie speaks.

Then put me in the way,
For you, papa, are a man:
What thing shall I do this very day?—
Only be sure I can.

I want to know—I am willing,
Let me at least have a chance!
Shall I give the monkey-boy my shilling?—
I want to serve at once.

The Father answers.

Give all your shillings you might
And hurt your brothers the more;
He only can serve his fellows aright
Who goes in at the little door.

We must do the thing we must
Before the thing we may;
We are unfit for any trust
Till we can and do obey.

Willie speaks.

I will try more and more;
I have nothing now to ask;
Obedience I know is the little door:
Now set me some hard task.

The Father answers.

No, Willie; the father of all,
Teacher and master high,
Has set your task beyond recall,
Nothing can set it by.

Willie speaks.

What is it, father dear,
That he would have me do?
I’d ask himself, but he’s not near,
And so I must ask you!

The Father answers.

Me ’tis no use to ask,
I too am one of his boys!
But he tells each boy his own plain task;
Listen, and hear his voice.

Willie speaks.

Father, I’m listening so
To hear him if I may!
His voice must either be very low,
Or very far away!

The Father answers.

It is neither hard to hear,
Nor hard to understand;
It is very low, but very near,
A still, small, strong command.

Willie answers.

I do not hear it at all;
I am only hearing you!

The Father speaks.

Think: is there nothing, great or small,
You ought to go and do?

Willie answers.

Let me think:—I ought to feed
My rabbits. I went away
In such a hurry this morning! Indeed
They’ve not had enough to-day!

The Father speaks.

That is his whisper low!
That is his very word!
You had only to stop and listen, and so
Very plainly you heard!

That duty’s the little door:
You must open it and go in;
There is nothing else to do before,
There is nowhere else to begin.

Willie speaks.

But that’s so easily done!
It’s such a trifling affair!
So nearly over as soon as begun.
For that he can hardly care!

The Father answers.

You are turning from his call
If you let that duty wait;
You would not think any duty small
If you yourself were great.

The nearest is at life’s core;
With the first, you all begin:
What matter how little the little door
If it only let you in?


Willie speaks.

Papa, I am come again:
It is now three months and more
That I’ve tried to do the thing that was plain,
And I feel as small as before.

The Father answers.

Your honour comes too slow?
How much then have you done?
One foot on a mole-heap, would you crow
As if you had reached the sun?

Willie speaks.

But I cannot help a doubt
Whether this way be the true:
The more I do to work it out
The more there comes to do;

And yet, were all done and past,
I should feel just as small,
For when I had tried to the very last—
‘Twas my duty, after all!

It is only much the same
As not being liar or thief!

The Father answers.

One who tried it found even, with shame,
That of sinners he was the chief!

My boy, I am glad indeed
You have been finding the truth!

Willie speaks.

But where’s the good? I shall never speed—
Be one whit greater, in sooth!

If duty itself must fail,
And that be the only plan,
How shall my scarce begun duty prevail
To make me a mighty man?

The Father answers.

Ah, Willie! what if it were
Quite another way to fall?
What if the greatness itself lie there—
In knowing that you are small?

In seeing the good so good
That you feel poor, weak, and low;
And hungrily long for it as for food,
With an endless need to grow?

The man who was lord of fate,
Born in an ox’s stall,
Was great because he was much too great
To care about greatness at all.

Ever and only he sought
The will of his Father good;
Never of what was high he thought,
But of what his Father would.

You long to be great; you try;
You feel yourself smaller still:
In the name of God let ambition die;
Let him make you what he will.

Who does the truth, is one
With the living Truth above:
Be God’s obedient little son,
Let ambition die in love.

~By George MacDonald

Photo credit: http://www.deviantart.com/art/Rabbit-of-Pushistik-212261204

1 thought on “A Lesson on Greatness

  1. Amen, amen, amen ~! 🙂

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