Stephen Vincent Benet
[Stephen Vincent Bene't, American Poet and shortstory writer -- 1898-1943.]
To W. R. B.
And so, to you, who always were Perseus, D'Artagnan, Lancelot To
me, I give these weedy rhymes In memory of earlier times. Now all those
careless days are not. Of all my heroes, you endure.
Words are such silly things! too rough, Too smooth, they boil up or
congeal, And neither of us likes emotion -- But I can't measure my
devotion! And you know how I really feel -- And we're together. There,
enough, . . . !
Foreword by Chauncey Brewster
In these days when the old civilisation is crumbling beneath our feet,
the thought of poetry crosses the mind like the dear memory of things that
have long since passed away. In our passionate desire for the new era, it is
difficult to refrain oneself from the commonplace practice of speculating
on the effects of warfare and of prophesying all manner of novel rebirths.
But it may be well for us to remember that the era which has recently
closed was itself marked by a mad idealisation of all novelties. In the
literary movements of the last decade -- when, indeed, any movement at
all has been perceptible -- we have witnessed a bewildering rise and fall of
methods and ideals. We were captivated for a time by the quest of the
golden phrase and the accompanying cultivation of exotic emotions; and
then, wearying of the pretty and the temperamental, we plunged into the
bloodshot brutalities of naturalism. From the smooth-flowing imitations of
Tennyson and Swinburne, we passed into a false freedom that had at its
heart a repudiation of all law and standards, for a parallel to which one
turns instinctively to certain recent developments in the political world.
We may hope that the eager search for novelty of form and subject may
have its influence in releasing us from our old bondage to the
commonplace and in broadening the scope of poetry; but we cannot blind
ourselves to the fact that it has at the same time completed that
estrangement between the poet and the general public which has been
developing for half a century. The great mass of the reading world, to
whom the arts should minister, have now forgotten that poetry is a
consolation in times of doubt and peril, a beacon, and "an ever-fixed
mark" in a crazed and shifting world. Our poetry -- and I am speaking in
particular of American poetry -- has been centrifugal; our poets have
broken up into smaller and ever smaller groups. Individualism has
To the general confusion, critics, if they may be said to have existed at
all, have added by their paltry conception of the art. They have deemed it a
sufficient denunciation of a poet to accuse him of imitating his masters; as
though the history of an art were rather a series of violent rebellions than a
growth and a progressive illumination. Not all generations are privileged
to see the working of a great creative impulse, but the want, keen though it
be, furnishes no reason for the utter rejection of A tremulous murmur from
great days long dead. But this fear of echoing the past may work us a yet
greater misfortune. In the rejection of the manner of an earlier epoch may
be implicit also the rejection of the very sources from which springs the
life of the fair art. Melody, and a love of the green earth, and a yearning
for God are of the very fabric of poetry, deny it who will. The Muses still
reign on Parnassus, wax the heathen never so furious. Poets who love
poetry better than their own fame in Grub Street will do well to remember
The flame, the noble pageant of our life; The burning seal that stamps
man's high indenture To vain attempt and most forlorn adventure;
Romance and purple seas, and toppling towns, And the wind's valiance
crying o'er the downs.
It is a poor business to find in such words only the illusions of youth
and a new enthusiasm. The desire for novelty, the passion for force and
dirt, and the hankering after freakishness of mood, which many have
attempted to substitute for the older and simpler things, are themselves the
best evidence of disillusion and jaded nerves. There is a weariness and a
disgust in our recent impatience with beauty which indicate too clearly the
exhaustion of our spiritual resources. It may well be that the rebirth of
poetry is to be manifest in a reappearance of the obvious, -- in a love of
the sea and of the beauty of clouds, in the adventure of death and the yet
more amazing adventure of living, in a vital love of colour, whether of the
Orient or the drug-shop, in childlike love of melody, and the cool
cleansing of rain, in strange faces and old memories. This, in the past, has
been poetry, and this will be poetry again. The singer who, out of a full
heart, can offer to the world his vision of its beauty, and out of a noble
mind, his conception of its destiny, will bestow upon his time the most
precious gift which we can now receive, the gift of his healing power.
C. B. T.
I.The Drug-Shop, or, Endymion in
This poem received the nineteenth award of the prize offered by
Professor Albert Stanburrough Cook to Yale University for the best
unpublished verse, the Committee of Award consisting of Professors C. F.
Tucker Brooke, of Yale University, Robert Frost, of Amherst College, and
Charles M. Gayley, of the University of California.
The Drug-Shop, or, Endymion in Edmonstoun
"Oh yes, I went over to Edmonstoun the other day and saw Johnny,
mooning around as usual! He will never make his way." Letter of George
Night falls; the great jars glow against the dark, Dark green, dusk red,
and, like a coiling snake, Writhing eternally in smoky gyres, Great ropes
of gorgeous vapor twist and turn Within them. So the Eastern fisherman
Saw the swart genie rise when the lead seal, Scribbled with charms, was
lifted from the jar; And -- well, how went the tale? Like this, like this? . . .
No herbage broke the barren flats of land, No winds dared loiter within
smiling trees, Nor were there any brooks on either hand, Only the dry,
bright sand, Naked and golden, lay before the seas.
One boat toiled noiselessly along the deep, The thirsty ripples dying
silently Upon its track. Far out the brown nets sweep, And night begins to
creep Across the intolerable mirror of the sea.
Twice the nets rise, a-trail with sea-plants brown, Distorted shells, and
rocks green-mossed with slime, Nought else. The fisher, sick at heart,
kneels down; "Prayer may appease God's frown," He thinks, then,
kneeling, casts for the third time.
And lo! an earthen jar, bound round with brass, Lies tangled in the
cordage of his net. About the bright waves gleam like shattered glass, And
where the sea's rim was The sun dips, flat and red, about to set.
The prow grates on the beach. The fisherman Stoops, tearing at the
cords that bind the seal. Shall pearls roll out, lustrous and white and wan?
Lapis? carnelian? Unheard-of stones that make the sick mind reel
With wonder of their beauty? Rubies, then? Green emeralds, glittering
like the eyes of beasts? Poisonous opals, good to madden men? Gold
bezants, ten and ten? Hard, regal diamonds, like kingly feasts?
He tugged; the seal gave way. A little smoke Curled like a feather in
the darkening sky. A blinding gush of fire burst, flamed, and broke. A
voice like a wind spoke. Armored with light, and turbaned terribly,
A genie tramped the round earth underfoot; His head sought out the
stars, his cupped right hand Made half the sky one darkness. He was mute.
The sun, a ripened fruit, Drooped lower. Scarlet eddied o'er the sand.
The genie spoke: "O miserable one! Thy prize awaits thee; come, and
hug it close! A noble crown thy draggled nets have won For this that thou
hast done. Blessed are fools! A gift remains for those!"
His hand sought out his sword, and lightnings flared Across the sky in
one great bloom of fire. Poised like a toppling mountain, it hung bared;
Suns that were jewels glared Along its hilt. The air burnt like a pyre.
Once more the genie spoke: "Something I owe To thee, thou fool, thou
fool. Come, canst thou sing? Yea? Sing then; if thy song be brave, then go
Free and released -- or no! Find first some task, some overmastering thing
I cannot do, and find it speedily, For if thou dost not thou shalt surely die!"
The sword whirled back. The fisherman uprose, And if at first his
voice was weak with fear And his limbs trembled, it was but a doze, And
at the high song's close He stood up straight. His voice rang loud and
Last night the quays were lighted; Cressets of smoking pine Glared
o'er the roaring mariners That drink the yellow wine.
Their song rolled to the rafters, It struck the high stars pale, Such
worth was in their discourse, Such wonder in their tale.
Blue borage filled the clinking cups, The murky night grew wan, Till
one rose, crowned with laurel-leaves, That was an outland man.
"Come, let us drink to war!" said he, "The torch of the sacked town!
The swan's-bath and the wolf-ships, And Harald of renown!
"Yea, while the milk was on his lips, Before the day was born, He
took the Almayne Kaiser's head To be his drinking-horn!
"Yea, while the down was on his chin, Or yet his beard was grown,
He broke the gates of Micklegarth, And stole the lion-throne!
"Drink to Harald, king of the world, Lord of the tongue and the troth!
To the bellowing horns of Ostfriesland, And the trumpets of the Goth!"
Their shouts rolled to the rafters, The drink-horns crashed and rang,
And all their talk was a clangor of war, As swords together sang!
But dimly, through the deep night, Where stars like flowers shone, A
passionate shape came gliding -- I saw one thing alone.
I only saw my young love Shining against the dark, The whiteness of
her raiment, The head that bent to hark.
I only saw my young love, Like flowers in the sun -- Her hands like
waxen petals, Where yawning poppies run.
I only felt there, chrysmal, Against my cheek her breath, Though all
the winds were baying, And the sky bright with Death.
Red sparks whirled up the chimney, A hungry flaught of flame, And a
lean man from Greece arose; Thrasyllos was his name.
"I praise all noble wines!" he cried, "Green robes of tissue fine,
Peacocks and apes and ivory, And Homer's sea-loud line,
"Statues and rings and carven gems, And the wise crawling sea; But
most of all the crowns of kings, The rule they wield thereby!
"Power, fired power, blank and bright! A fit hilt for the hand! The one
good sword for a freeman, While yet the cold stars stand!"
Their shouts rolled to the rafters, The air was thick with wine. I only
knew her deep eyes, And felt her hand in mine.
Softly as quiet water, One finger touched my cheek; Her face like
gracious moonlight -- I might not move nor speak.
I only saw that beauty, I only felt that form There, in the silken
darkness -- God wot my heart was warm!
Their shouts rolled to the rafters, Another chief began; His slit lips
showed him for a Hun; He was an evil man.
"Sing to the joys of women!" he yelled, "The hot delicious tents, The
soft couch, and the white limbs; The air a steam of scents!"
His eyes gleamed, and he wet his lips, The rafters shook with cheers,
As he sang of woman, who is man's slave For all unhonored years.
"Whether the wanton laughs amain, With one white shoulder bare, Or
in a sacked room you unbind Some crouching maiden's hair;
"This is the only good for man, Like spices of the South -- To see the
glimmering body laid As pasture to his mouth!
"To leave no lees within the cup, To see and take and rend; To lap a
girl's limbs up like wine, And laugh, knowing the end!"
Only, like low, still breathing, I heard one voice, one word; And hot
speech poured upon my lips, As my hands held a sword.
"Fools, thrice fools of lust!" I cried, "Your eyes are blind to see
Eternal beauty, moving far, More glorious than horns of war! But though
my eyes were one blind scar, That sight is shown to me!
"You nuzzle at the ivory side, You clasp the golden head; Fools, fools,
who chatter and sing, You have taken the sign of a terrible thing, You have
drunk down God with your beeswing, And broken the saints for bread!
"For God moves darkly, In silence and in storm; But in the body of
woman He shows one burning form.
"For God moves blindly, In darkness and in dread; But in the body of
woman He raises up the dead.
"Gracile and straight as birches, Swift as the questing birds, They fill
true-lovers' drink-horns up, Who speak not, having no words.
"Love is not delicate toying, A slim and shimmering mesh; It is two
souls wrenched into one, Two bodies made one flesh.
"Lust is a sprightly servant, Gallant where wines are poured; Love is
a bitter master, Love is an iron lord.
"Satin ease of the body, Fattened sloth of the hands, These and their
like he will not send, Only immortal fires to rend -- And the world's end is
your journey's end, And your stream chokes in the sands.
"Pleached calms shall not await you, Peace you shall never find;
Nought but the living moorland Scourged naked by the wind.
"Nought but the living moorland, And your love's hand in yours; The
strength more sure than surety, The mercy that endures.
"Then, though they give you to be burned, And slay you like a stoat,
You have found the world's heart in the turn of a cheek, Heaven in the lift
of a throat.
"Although they break you on the wheel, That stood so straight in the
sun, Behind you the trumpets split the sky, Where the lost and furious fight
goes by -- And God, our God, will have victory When the red day is
Their mirth rolled to the rafters, They bellowed lechery; Light as a
drifting feather My love slipped from my knee.
Within, the lights were yellow In drowsy rooms and warm; Without,
the stabbing lightning Shattered across the storm.
Within, the great logs crackled, The drink-horns emptied soon;
Without, the black cloaks of the clouds Strangled the waning moon.
My love crossed o'er the threshold -- God! but the night was murk! I
set myself against the cold, And left them to their work.
Their shouts rolled to the rafters; A bitterer way was mine, And I left
them in the tavern, Drinking the yellow wine!
The last faint echoes rang along the plains, Died, and were gone. The
genie spoke: "Thy song Serves well enough -- but yet thy task remains;
Many and rending pains Shall torture him who dares delay too long!"
His brown face hardened to a leaden mask. A bitter brine crusted the
fisher's cheek -- "Almighty God, one thing alone I ask, Show me a task, a
task!" The hard cup of the sky shone, gemmed and bleak.
"O love, whom I have sought by devious ways; O hidden beauty,
naked as a star; You whose bright hair has burned across my days, Making
them lamps of praise; O dawn-wind, breathing of Arabia!
"You have I served. Now fire has parched the vine, And Death is on
the singers and the song. No longer are there lips to cling to mine, And the
heart wearies of wine, And I am sick, for my desire is long.
"O love, soft-moving, delicate and tender! In her gold house the pipe
calls querulously, They cloud with thin green silks her body slender, They
talk to her and tend her; Come, piteous, gentle love, and set me free!"
He ceased -- and, slowly rising o'er the deep, A faint song chimed,
grew clearer, till at last A golden horn of light began to creep Where the
dumb ripples sweep, Making the sea one splendor where it passed.
A golden boat! The bright oars rested soon, And the prow met the sand.
The purple veils Misting the cabin fell. Fair as the moon When the
morning comes too soon, And all the air is silver in the dales,
A gold-robed princess stepped upon the beach. The fisher knelt and
kissed her garment's hem, And then her lips, and strove at last for speech.
The waters lapped the reach. "Here thy strength breaks, thy might is
nought to stem!"
He cried at last. Speech shook him like a flame: "Yea, though thou
plucked the stars from out the sky, Each lovely one would be a withered
shame -- Each thou couldst find or name -- To this fire-hearted beauty!"
The genie heard. A slow smile came like dawn Over his face. "Thy
task is done!" he said. A whirlwind roared, smoke shattered, he was gone;
And, like a sudden horn, The moon shone clear, no longer smoked and
They passed into the boat. The gold oars beat Loudly, then fainter,
fainter, till at last Only the quiet waters barely moved Along the
whispering sand -- till all the vast Expanse of sea began to shake with heat,
And morning brought soft airs, by sailors loved.
And after? . . . Well . . . The shop-bell clangs! Who comes? Quinine --
I pour the little bitter grains Out upon blue, glazed squares of paper. So.
And all the dusk I shall sit here alone, With many powers in my hands --
ah, see How the blurred labels run on the old jars! Opium -- and a cruel
and sleepy scent, The harsh taste of white poppies; India -- The writhing
woods a-crawl with monstrous life, Save where the deodars are set like
spears, And a calm pool is mirrored ebony; Opium -- brown and warm and
slender-breasted She rises, shaking off the cool black water, And twisting
up her hair, that ripples down, A torrent of black water, to her feet; How
the drops sparkle in the moonlight! Once I made a rhyme about it, singing
Over Damascus every star Keeps his unchanging course and cold,
The dark weighs like an iron bar, The intense and pallid night is old, Dim
the moon's scimitar.
Still the lamps blaze within those halls, Where poppies heap the
marble vats For girls to tread; the thick air palls; And shadows hang like
evil bats About the scented walls.
The girls are many, and they sing; Their white feet fall like flakes of
snow, Making a ceaseless murmuring -- Whispers of love, dead long ago,
And dear, forgotten Spring.
One alone sings not. Tiredly She sees the white blooms crushed, and
smells The heavy scent. They chatter: "See! White Zira thinks of nothing
else But the morn's jollity --
"Then Haroun takes her!" But she dreams, Unhearing, of a certain
field Of poppies, cut by many streams, Like lines across a round Turk
shield, Where now the hot sun gleams.
The field whereon they walked that day, And splendor filled her body
up, And his; and then the trampled clay, And slow smoke climbing the
sky's cup From where the village lay.
And after -- much ache of the wrists, Where the cords irked her -- till
she came, The price of many amethysts, Hither. And now the ultimate
shame Blew trumpet in the lists.
And so she trod the poppies there, Remembering other poppies, too,
And did not seem to see or care. Without, the first gray drops of dew
Sweetened the trembling air.
She trod the poppies. Hours passed Until she slept at length -- and
Time Dragged his slow sickle. When at last She woke, the moon shone,
bright as rime, And night's tide rolled on fast.
She moaned once, knowing everything; Then, bitterer than death, she
found The soft handmaidens, in a ring, Come to anoint her, all around,
That she might please the king.
Opium -- and the odor dies away, Leaving the air yet heavy -- cassia --
myrrh -- Bitter and splendid. See, the poisons come, Trooping in squat
green vials, blazoned red With grinning skulls: strychnine, a pallid dust Of
tiny grains, like bones ground fine; and next The muddy green of arsenic,
all livid, Likest the face of one long dead -- they creep Along the dusty
shelf like deadly beetles, Whose fangs are carved with runnels, that the
blood May run down easily to the blind mouth That snaps and gapes; and
high above them there, My master's pride, a cobwebbed, yellow pot Of
honey from Mount Hybla. Do the bees Still moan among the low sweet
purple clover, Endlessly many? Still in deep-hushed woods, When the
incredible silver of the moon Comes like a living wind through sleepbowed branches, Still steal dark shapes from the enchanted glens, Which
yet are purple with high dreams, and still Fronting that quiet and eternal
shield Which is much more than Peace, does there still stand One sharp
black shadow -- and the short, smooth horns Are clear against that disk? O
great Diana! I, I have praised thee, yet I do not know What moves my
mind so strangely, save that once I lay all night upon a thymy hill, And
watched the slow clouds pass like heaped-up foam Across blue marble, till
at last no speck Blotted the clear expanse, and the full moon Rose in much
light, and all night long I saw Her ordered progress, till, in midmost
heaven, There came a terrible silence, and the mice Crept to their holes,
the crickets did not chirp, All the small night-sounds stopped -- and clear
pure light Rippled like silk over the universe, Most cold and bleak; and yet
my heart beat fast, Waiting until the stillness broke. I know not For what I
waited -- something very great -- I dared not look up to the sky for fear A
brittle crackling should clash suddenly Against the quiet, and a black line
creep Across the sky, and widen like a mouth, Until the broken heavens
streamed apart, Like torn lost banners, and the immortal fires, Roaring like
lions, asked their meat from God. I lay there, a black blot upon a shield Of
quivering, watery whiteness. The hush held Until I staggered up and cried
aloud, And then it seemed that something far too great For knowledge, and
illimitable as God, Rent the dark sky like lightning, and I fell, And, falling,
heard a wild and rushing wind Of music, and saw lights that blinded me
With white, impenetrable swords, and felt A pressure of soft hands upon
my lips, Upon my eyelids -- and since then I cough At times, and have
strange thoughts about the stars, That some day -- some day -- Come, I
must be quick! My master will be back soon. Let me light Thin blue
Arabian pastilles, and sit Like a dead god incensed by chanting priests,
And watch the pungent smoke wreathe up and up, Until he comes --
though he may rage because They cost good money. Then I shall walk
home Over the moor. Already the moon climbs Above the world's edge.
By the time he comes She will be fully risen. -- There's his step!
Rain after a Vaudeville Show
The last pose flickered, failed. The screen's dead white Glared in a
sudden flooding of harsh light Stabbing the eyes; and as I stumbled out
The curtain rose. A fat girl with a pout And legs like hams, began to sing
"His Mother". Gusts of bad air rose in a choking smother; Smoke, the wet
steam of clothes, the stench of plush, Powder, cheap perfume, mingled in a
rush. I stepped into the lobby -- and stood still Struck dumb by sudden
beauty, body and will. Cleanness and rapture -- excellence made plain --
The storming, thrashing arrows of the rain! Pouring and dripping on the
roofs and rods, Smelling of woods and hills and fresh-turned sods, Black
on the sidewalks, gray in the far sky, Crashing on thirsty panes, on gutters
dry, Hurrying the crowd to shelter, making fair The streets, the houses, and
the heat-soaked air, -- Merciful, holy, charging, sweeping, flashing, It
smote the soul with a most iron clashing! . . . Like dragons' eyes the streetlamps suddenly gleamed, Yellow and round and dim-low globes of flame.
And, scarce-perceived, the clouds' tall banners streamed. Out of the petty
wars, the daily shame, Beauty strove suddenly, and rose, and flowered. . . .
I gripped my coat and plunged where awnings lowered. Made one with
hissing blackness, caught, embraced, By splendor and by striving and
swift haste -- Spring coming in with thunderings and strife -- I stamped the
ground in the strong joy of life!
The City Revisited
The grey gulls drift across the bay Softly and still as flakes of snow
Against the thinning fog. All day I sat and watched them come and go;
And now at last the sun was set, Filling the waves with colored fire Till
each seemed like a jewelled spire Thrust up from some drowned city. Soon
From peak and cliff and minaret The city's lights began to wink, Each like
a friendly word. The moon Began to broaden out her shield, Spurting with
silver. Straight before The brown hills lay like quiet beasts Stretched out
beside a well-loved door, And filling earth and sky and field With the calm
heaving of their breasts.
Nothing was gone, nothing was changed, The smallest wave was
unestranged By all the long ache of the years Since last I saw them, blind
with tears. Their welcome like the hills stood fast: And I, I had come home
So I laughed out with them aloud To think that now the sun was broad,
And climbing up the iron sky, Where the raw streets stretched sullenly
About another room I knew, In a mean house -- and soon there, too, The
smith would burst the flimsy door And find me lying on the floor. Just
where I fell the other night, After that breaking wave of pain. -- How they
will storm and rage and fight, Servants and mistress, one and all, "No
money for the funeral!"
I broke my life there. Let it stand At that. The waters are a plain,
Heaving and bright on either hand, A tremulous and lustral peace Which
shall endure though all things cease, Filling my heart as water fills A cup.
There stand the quiet hills. So, waiting for my wings to grow, I watch the
gulls sail to and fro, Rising and falling, soft and swift, Drifting along as
bubbles drift. And, though I see the face of God Hereafter -- this day have
I trod Nearer to Him than I shall tread Ever again. The night is dead. And
there's the dawn, poured out like wine Along the dim horizon-line. And
from the city comes the chimes --
We have our heaven on earth -- sometimes!
Going Back to School
The boat ploughed on. Now Alcatraz was past And all the grey waves
flamed to red again At the dead sun's last glimmer. Far and vast The
Sausalito lights burned suddenly In little dots and clumps, as if a pen Had
scrawled vague lines of gold across the hills; The sky was like a cup some
rare wine fills, And stars came as he watched -- and he was free One
splendid instant -- back in the great room, Curled in a chair with all of
them beside And the whole world a rush of happy voices, With laughter
beating in a clamorous tide. . . . Saw once again the heat of harvest fume
Up to the empty sky in threads like glass, And ran, and was a part of what
rejoices In thunderous nights of rain; lay in the grass Sun-baked and tired,
looking through a maze Of tiny stems into a new green world; Once more
knew eves of perfume, days ablaze With clear, dry heat on the brown,
rolling fields; Shuddered with fearful ecstasy in bed Over a book of
knights and bloody shields . . . The ship slowed, jarred and stopped. There,
straight ahead, Were dock and fellows. Stumbling, he was whirled Out and
away to meet them -- and his back Slumped to the old half-cringe, his
hands fell slack; A big boy's arm went round him -- and a twist Sent
shattering pain along his tortured wrist, As a voice cried, a bloated voice
and fat, "Why it's Miss Nancy! Come along, you rat!"
Perhaps we go with wind and cloud and sun, Into the free
companionship of air; Perhaps with sunsets when the day is done, All's
one to me -- I do not greatly care; So long as there are brown hills -- and a
tree Like a mad prophet in a land of dearth -- And I can lie and hear
eternally The vast monotonous breathing of the earth.
I have known hours, slow and golden-glowing, Lovely with laughter
and suffused with light, O Lord, in such a time appoint my going, When
the hands clench, and the cold face grows white, And the spark dies within
the feeble brain, Spilling its star-dust back to dust again.
"But, sir," I said, "they tell me the man is like to die!" The Canon
shook his head indulgently. "Young blood, Cousin," he boomed. "Young
blood! Youth will be served!" -- D'Hermonville's Fabliaux.
He woke up with a sick taste in his mouth And lay there heavily, while
dancing motes Whirled through his brain in endless, rippling streams, And
a grey mist weighed down upon his eyes So that they could not open fully.
Yet After some time his blurred mind stumbled back To its last ragged
memory -- a room; Air foul with wine; a shouting, reeling crowd Of
friends who dragged him, dazed and blind with drink Out to the street; a
crazy rout of cabs; The steady mutter of his neighbor's voice, Mumbling
out dull obscenity by rote; And then . . . well, they had brought him home
it seemed, Since he awoke in bed -- oh, damn the business! He had not
wanted it -- the silly jokes, "One last, great night of freedom ere you're
married!" "You'll get no fun then!" "H-ssh, don't tell that story! He'll have
a wife soon!" -- God! the sitting down To drink till you were sodden! . . .
Like great light She came into his thoughts. That was the worst. To wallow
in the mud like this because His friends were fools. . . . He was not fit to
touch, To see, oh far, far off, that silver place Where God stood manifest to
man in her. . . . Fouling himself. . . . One thing he brought to her, At least.
He had been clean; had taken it A kind of point of honor from the first . . .
Others might do it . . . but he didn't care For those things. . . . Suddenly his
vision cleared. And something seemed to grow within his mind. . . .
Something was wrong -- the color of the wall -- The queer shape of the
bedposts -- everything Was changed, somehow . . . his room. Was this his
. . . He turned his head -- and saw beside him there The sagging body's
slope, the paint-smeared face, And the loose, open mouth, lax and awry,
The breasts, the bleached and brittle hair . . . these things. . . . As if all Hell
were crushed to one bright line Of lightning for a moment. Then he sank,
Prone beneath an intolerable weight. And bitter loathing crept up all his
The Quality of Courage
Black trees against an orange sky, Trees that the wind shook terribly,
Like a harsh spume along the road, Quavering up like withered arms,
Writhing like streams, like twisted charms Of hot lead flung in snow.
Below The iron ice stung like a goad, Slashing the torn shoes from my feet,
And all the air was bitter sleet.
And all the land was cramped with snow, Steel-strong and fierce and
glimmering wan, Like pale plains of obsidian. -- And yet I strove -- and I
was fire And ice -- and fire and ice were one In one vast hunger of desire.
A dim desire, of pleasant places, And lush fields in the summer sun, And
logs aflame, and walls, and faces, -- And wine, and old ambrosial talk, A
golden ball in fountains dancing, And unforgotten hands. (Ah, God, I trod
them down where I have trod, And they remain, and they remain, Etched
in unutterable pain, Loved lips and faces now apart, That once were closer
than my heart -- In agony, in agony, And horribly a part of me. . . . For
Lethe is for no man set, And in Hell may no man forget.)
And there were flowers, and jugs, bright-glancing, And old Italian
swords -- and looks, A moment's glance of fire, of fire, Spiring, leaping,
flaming higher, Into the intense, the cloudless blue, Until two souls were
one, and flame, And very flesh, and yet the same! As if all springs were
crushed anew Into one globed drop of dew! But for the most I thought of
heat, Desiring greatly. . . . Hot white sand The lazy body lies at rest in, Or
sun-dried, scented grass to nest in, And fires, innumerable fires, Great
fagots hurling golden gyres Of sparks far up, and the red heart In sea-coals,
crashing as they part To tiny flares, and kindling snapping, Bunched sticks
that burst their string and wrapping And fall like jackstraws; green and
blue The evil flames of driftwood too, And heavy, sullen lumps of coke
With still, fierce heat and ugly smoke. . . . . . . And then the vision of his
face, And theirs, all theirs, came like a sword, Thrice, to the heart -- and as
I fell I thought I saw a light before.
I woke. My hands were blue and sore, Torn on the ice. I scarcely felt
The frozen sleet begin to melt Upon my face as I breathed deeper, But lay
there warmly, like a sleeper Who shifts his arm once, and moans low, And
then sinks back to night. Slow, slow, And still as Death, came Sleep and
Death And looked at me with quiet breath. Unbending figures, black and
stark Against the intense deeps of the dark. Tall and like trees. Like sweet
and fire Rest crept and crept along my veins, Gently. And there were no
more pains. . . .
Was it not better so to lie? The fight was done. Even gods tire Of
fighting. . . . My way was the wrong. Now I should drift and drift along To
endless quiet, golden peace . . . And let the tortured body cease.
And then a light winked like an eye. . . . And very many miles away A
girl stood at a warm, lit door, Holding a lamp. Ray upon ray It cloaked the
snow with perfect light. And where she was there was no night Nor could
be, ever. God is sure, And in his hands are things secure. It is not given me
to trace The lovely laughter of that face, Like a clear brook most full of
light, Or olives swaying on a height, So silver they have wings, almost;
Like a great word once known and lost And meaning all things. Nor her
voice A happy sound where larks rejoice, Her body, that great loveliness,
The tender fashion of her dress, I may not paint them. These I see, Blazing
through all eternity, A fire-winged sign, a glorious tree!
She stood there, and at once I knew The bitter thing that I must do.
There could be no surrender now; Though Sleep and Death were
whispering low. My way was wrong. So. Would it mend If I shrank back
before the end? And sank to death and cowardice? No, the last lees must
be drained up, Base wine from an ignoble cup; (Yet not so base as sleek
content When I had shrunk from punishment) The wretched body strain
anew! Life was a storm to wander through. I took the wrong way. Good
and well, At least my feet sought out not Hell! Though night were one
consuming flame I must go on for my base aim, And so, perhaps, make
evil grow To something clean by agony . . . And reach that light upon the
snow . . . And touch her dress at last . . . So, so, I crawled. I could not
speak or see Save dimly. The ice glared like fire, A long bright Hell of
choking cold, And each vein was a tautened wire, Throbbing with torture -
- and I crawled. My hands were wounds. So I attained The second Hell.
The snow was stained I thought, and shook my head at it How red it was!
Black tree-roots clutched And tore -- and soon the snow was smutched
Anew; and I lurched babbling on, And then fell down to rest a bit, And
came upon another Hell . . . Loose stones that ice made terrible, That
rolled and gashed men as they fell. I stumbled, slipped . . . and all was
gone That I had gained. Once more I lay Before the long bright Hell of ice.
And still the light was far away. There was red mist before my eyes Or I
could tell you how I went Across the swaying firmament, A glittering
torture of cold stars, And how I fought in Titan wars . . . And died . . . and
lived again upon The rack . . . and how the horses strain When their red
task is nearly done. . . .
I only know that there was Pain, Infinite and eternal Pain. And that I
fell -- and rose again.
So she was walking in the road. And I stood upright like a man, Once,
and fell blind, and heard her cry . . . And then there came long agony.
There was no pain when I awoke, No pain at all. Rest, like a goad, Spurred
my eyes open -- and light broke Upon them like a million swords: And she
was there. There are no words.
Heaven is for a moment's span. And ever. So I spoke and said, "My
honor stands up unbetrayed, And I have seen you. Dear . . ." Sharp pain
Closed like a cloak. . . . I moaned and died.
Here, even here, these things remain. I shall draw nearer to her side.
Oh dear and laughing, lost to me, Hidden in grey Eternity, I shall attain,
with burning feet, To you and to the mercy-seat! The ages crumble down
like dust, Dark roses, deviously thrust And scattered in sweet wine -- but I,
I shall lift up to you my cry, And kiss your wet lips presently Beneath the
This in my heart I keep for goad! Somewhere, in Heaven she walks
that road. Somewhere . . . in Heaven . . . she walks . . . that . . . road. . . .
1. Before an Examination
The little letters dance across the page, Flaunt and retire, and trick the
tired eyes; Sick of the strain, the glaring light, I rise Yawning and
stretching, full of empty rage At the dull maunderings of a long dead sage,
Fling up the windows, fling aside his lies; Choosing to breathe, not stifle
and be wise, And let the air pour in upon my cage.
The breeze blows cool and there are stars and stars Beyond the dark,
soft masses of the elms That whisper things in windy tones and light. They
seem to wheel for dim, celestial wars; And I -- I hear the clash of silver
helms Ring icy-clear from the far deeps of night.
Tobacco smoke drifts up to the dim ceiling From half a dozen pipes
and cigarettes, Curling in endless shapes, in blue rings wheeling, As
formless as our talk. Phil, drawling, bets Cornell will win the relay in a
walk, While Bob and Mac discuss the Giants' chances; Deep in a morrischair, Bill scowls at "Falk", John gives large views about the last few
And so it goes -- an idle speech and aimless, A few chance phrases; yet
I see behind The empty words the gleam of a beauty tameless, Friendship
and peace and fire to strike men blind, Till the whole world seems small
and bright to hold -- Of all our youth this hour is pure gold.
3. May Morning
I lie stretched out upon the window-seat And doze, and read a page or
two, and doze, And feel the air like water on me close, Great waves of
sunny air that lip and beat With a small noise, monotonous and sweet,
Against the window -- and the scent of cool, Frail flowers by some brown
and dew-drenched pool Possesses me from drowsy head to feet.
This is the time of all-sufficing laughter At idiotic things some one has
done, And there is neither past nor vague hereafter. And all your body
stretches in the sun And drinks the light in like a liquid thing; Filled with
the divine languor of late spring.
4. Return -- 1917
"The College will reopen Sept. --." `Catalogue'.
I was just aiming at the jagged hole Torn in the yellow sandbags of
their trench, When something threw me sideways with a wrench, And the
skies seemed to shrivel like a scroll And disappear . . . and propped against
the bole Of a big elm I lay, and watched the clouds Float through the blue,
deep sky in speckless crowds, And I was clean again, and young, and
Lord, what a dream that was! And what a doze Waiting for Bill to
come along to class! I've cut it now -- and he -- Oh, hello, Fred! Why,
what's the matter? -- here -- don't be an ass, Sit down and tell me! -- What
do you suppose? I dreamed I . . . AM I . . . wounded? "YOU ARE DEAD."
Alexander VI Dines with the
Cardinal of Capua
Next, then, the peacock, gilt With all its feathers. Look, what gorgeous
dyes Flow in the eyes! And how deep, lustrous greens are splashed and
spilt Along the back, that like a sea-wave's crest Scatters soft beauty o'er
th' emblazoned breast!
A strange fowl! But most fit For feasts like this, whereby I honor one
Pure as the sun! Yet glowing with the fiery zeal of it! Some wine? Your
goblet's empty? Let it foam! It is not often that you come to Rome!
You like the Venice glass? Rippled with lines that float like women's
curls, Neck like a girl's, Fierce-glowing as a chalice in the Mass? You start
-- 'twas artist then, not Pope who spoke! Ave Maria stella! -- ah, it broke!
'Tis said they break alone When poison writhes within. A foolish tale!
What, you look pale? Caraffa, fetch a silver cup! . . . You own A Birth of
Venus, now -- or so I've heard, Lovely as the breast-plumage of a bird.
Also a Dancing Faun, Hewn with the lithe grace of Praxiteles; Globed
pearls to please A sultan; golden veils that drop like lawn -- How happy I
could be with but a tithe Of your possessions, fortunate one! Don't writhe
But take these cushions here! Now for the fruit! Great peaches, satinskinned, Rough tamarind, Pomegranates red as lips -- oh they come dear!
But men like you we feast at any price -- A plum perhaps? They're looking
I'll cut the thing in half. There's yours! Now, with a one-side-poisoned
knife One might snuff life And leave one's friend with -- "fool" for epitaph!
An old trick? Truth! But when one has the itch For pretty things and isn't
very rich. . . .
There, eat it all or I'll Be angry! You feel giddy? Well, it's hot! This
bergamot Take home and smell -- it purges blood of bile! And when you
kiss Bianca's dimpled knee, Think of the poor Pope in his misery!
Now you may kiss my ring! Ho there, the Cardinal's litter! -- You must
dine When the new wine Is in, again with me -- hear Bice sing, Even
admire my frescoes -- though they're nought Beside the calm Greek
glories you have bought!
Godspeed, Sir Cardinal! And take a weak man's blessing! Help him
there To the cool air! . . . Lucrezia here? You're ready for the ball? -- He'll
die within ten hours, I suppose -- MhM! Kiss your poor old father, little
The Breaking Point
It was not when temptation came, Swiftly and blastingly as flame, And
seared me white with burning scars; When I stood up for age-long wars
And held the very Fiend at grips; When all my mutinous body rose To
range itself beside my foes, And, like a greyhound in the slips, The Beast
that dwells within me roared, Lunging and straining at his cord. . . . For all
the blusterings of Hell, It was not then I slipped and fell; For all the storm,
for all the hate, I kept my soul inviolate!
But when the fight was fought and won, And there was Peace as still
as Death On everything beneath the sun. Just as I started to draw breath,
And yawn, and stretch, and pat myself, -- The grass began to whisper
things -- And every tree became an elf, That grinned and chuckled
counsellings: Birds, beasts, one thing alone they said, Beating and dinning
at my head. I could not fly. I could not shun it. Slimily twisting, slow and
blind, It crept and crept into my mind. Whispered and shouted, sneered
and laughed, Screamed out until my brain was daft. . . . One snaky word,
"WHAT IF YOU'D DONE IT?"
And I began to think . . . Ah, well, What matter how I slipped and fell?
Or you, you gutter-searcher say! Tell where you found me yesterday!
There were not many at that lonely place, Where two scourged hills
met in a little plain. The wind cried loud in gusts, then low again. Three
pines strained darkly, runners in a race Unseen by any. Toward the further
woods A dim harsh noise of voices rose and ceased. -- We were most silent
in those solitudes -- Then, sudden as a flame, the black-robed priest,
The clotted earth piled roughly up about The hacked red oblong of the
new-made thing, Short words in swordlike Latin -- and a rout Of dreams
most impotent, unwearying. Then, like a blind door shut on a carouse, The
terrible bareness of the soul's last house.
Dinner in a Quick Lunch Room
Soup should be heralded with a mellow horn, Blowing clear notes of
gold against the stars; Strange entrees with a jangle of glass bars
Fantastically alive with subtle scorn; Fish, by a plopping, gurgling rush of
waters, Clear, vibrant waters, beautifully austere; Roast, with a thunder of
drums to stun the ear, A screaming fife, a voice from ancient slaughters!
Over the salad let the woodwinds moan; Then the green silence of
many watercresses; Dessert, a balalaika, strummed alone; Coffee, a slow,
low singing no passion stresses; Such are my thoughts as -- clang! crash!
bang! -- I brood And gorge the sticky mess these fools call food!
(A Virginia Legend.)
The Planting of the Hemp.
Captain Hawk scourged clean the seas (Black is the gap below the
plank) From the Great North Bank to the Caribbees (Down by the marsh
the hemp grows rank).
His fear was on the seaport towns, The weight of his hand held hard
the downs. And the merchants cursed him, bitter and black, For a red
flame in the sea-fog's wrack Was all of their ships that might come back.
For all he had one word alone, One clod of dirt in their faces thrown,
"The hemp that shall hang me is not grown!"
His name bestrode the seas like Death. The waters trembled at his
This is the tale of how he fell, Of the long sweep and the heavy swell,
And the rope that dragged him down to hell.
The fight was done, and the gutted ship, Stripped like a shark the seagulls strip,
Lurched blindly, eaten out with flame, Back to the land from where
she came, A skimming horror, an eyeless shame.
And Hawk stood upon his quarter-deck, And saw the sky and saw the
Below, a butt for sailors' jeers, White as the sky when a white squall
nears, Huddled the crowd of the prisoners.
Over the bridge of the tottering plank, Where the sea shook and the
gulf yawned blank, They shrieked and struggled and dropped and sank,
Pinioned arms and hands bound fast. One girl alone was left at last.
Sir Henry Gaunt was a mighty lord. He sat in state at the Council
board; The governors were as nought to him. From one rim to the other
Of his great plantations, flung out wide Like a purple cloak, was a full
Life and death in his white hands lay, And his only daughter stood at
bay, Trapped like a hare in the toils that day.
He sat at wine in his gold and his lace, And far away, in a bloody place,
Hawk came near, and she covered her face.
He rode in the fields, and the hunt was brave, And far away his
daughter gave A shriek that the seas cried out to hear, And he could not see
and he could not save.
Her white soul withered in the mire As paper shrivels up in fire, And
Hawk laughed, and he kissed her mouth, And her body he took for his
The Growing of the Hemp.
Sir Henry stood in the manor room, And his eyes were hard gems in
And he said, "Go dig me furrows five Where the green marsh creeps
like a thing alive -- There at its edge, where the rushes thrive."
And where the furrows rent the ground, He sowed the seed of hemp
And the blacks shrink back and are sore afraid At the furrows five that
rib the glade, And the voodoo work of the master's spade.
For a cold wind blows from the marshland near, And white things
move, and the night grows drear, And they chatter and crouch and are sick
But down by the marsh, where the gray slaves glean, The hemp
sprouts up, and the earth is seen Veiled with a tenuous mist of green.
And Hawk still scourges the Caribbees, And many men kneel at his
Sir Henry sits in his house alone, And his eyes are hard and dull like
And the waves beat, and the winds roar, And all things are as they
And the days pass, and the weeks pass, And nothing changes but the
But down where the fireflies are like eyes, And the damps shudder,
and the mists rise, The hemp-stalks stand up toward the skies.
And down from the poop of the pirate ship A body falls, and the great
Innocent, lovely, go in grace! At last there is peace upon your face.
And Hawk laughs loud as the corpse is thrown, "The hemp that shall
hang me is not grown!"
Sir Henry's face is iron to mark, And he gazes ever in the dark.
And the days pass, and the weeks pass, And the world is as it always
But down by the marsh the sickle