James Brunton Stephens Poems >>
Convict Once - Part Second.

EVEN as water to him who thirsts wayfaring, dust-dry and burning,
After sore heat and long stumbling in courses with never a rill,
Weary with counting of ridges, and barren result of much turning,
Tempted to curse God and die, let the afterward be what it will;
Even as the brimming delight of the wine-cup by fair hands commended
Unto hot lips that are sanguine from onslaught and stiff-set from ire,
With the undoing of baldrick and panoply heavy and splendid,
Changed for a girth of white arms, and the softness of silken attire;
Even as pressure of ministering hands on the fevered and aching
Brow of the sorrowful, morrow-full sire and provider of bread,
Wherein is grace of sweet solace and peace, and a virtue awaking
Unexplained hope, and discernment of bliss all around and o'erhead;
Even as green rivage with homestead, rose-garden, and grass-lawn trimshaven,
Unto eyes weary with wide waste of waters and seething sea-foam,
Changing the spirit of heaviness into the joy of the haven,
And the long vigils of storm to the rest and observance of home;
Even as the stirring of leaves on the bought after breathless unbroken
Months of dead drought, when the earth is as iron, and heaven as brass,
When the rain-argosy cometh, and sendeth a sigh for a token,
And there is hope in the flowers, and a wave on the languishing grass;
Even as the coming of dawn to the pilgrim in trackless wild places,
Lighting up landmarks of old, and confirming his face to the south
Zionward, - even to Jerusalem the Golden, where rest is and grace is,
Whither he toils, angel-tended, with Songs of Degrees in his mouth;
Even as the coming of night to the premature children of labour,
Smit to the heart of their youth with the curse of the iron and steel -
Night with re-unions of home, or sweet converse of neighbour with neighbour,
Proffering the peace of her stars for the wildering whirl of the wheel;
Even as all golden moments, all joyance of welcome transition,
Gathered from all the wide circuit of life and concluded in one; -
So to Love's fever and fret, its sore travail and thirsting ambition,
Comes what my lips and my heart knew to-day at the set of the sun!

HE is not faithless or fickle, and had he all shamelessly yielded
At the first stroke, I had spurned him, and left him ignobly to die:
Or I had dallied a little, and played with the potence I wielded -
Kissed him perchance, and then loathed him, and branded his love with a lie.
I might have gazed on his eyes till the light of allurement had quenched them;
Suffered a violent brief little bondage of manly embrace;
This way and that way have parted his hair with my fingers, then clenched them,
And with the scorn of a woman have smitten him full on the face.
But he is noble and virtuous, patient of evil appearance;
Charity in him is sovereign; it suffereth long and is kind.
"She may seem wholly estranged; all is darkness; but time bringeth clearance,
And I will grope in my darkness, content for her sake to be blind."
Long months of silence, and agonized waiting, and ever-increasing
Substance of wonder still found him believing the message would come:
Yet not as mine could his suffering be, a hid torture unceasing,
Knowing the cause, yea, and being the cause, and yet wilfully dumb.
Ah, those poor letters of his and of hers! Like things murdered they haunt me.
Dead things have power on me, though with the quick I be fearless and brave.
Surely the fire would consume them! But how if the sight of them daunt me?
And should I open my desk, it would seem as I opened a grave.
There are some things even I cannot do. False I could not declare her;
Nor could I ruthlessly slander a living love never withdrawn.
How could I rail at poor Hyacinth, knowing her purer and fairer
In the well-springs of her soul than the opaline deeps of the dawn?
Thanks to her father, her blundering father, who spoke of her marriage,
Right in the hearing of Raymond, as something quite fixed and at hand:
Vulgarly boasted of fortune in store for her, "servants and carriage,"
And of the change of her name to a name that is known in the land.
Thanks to her father, who knows not the obstacle, knows not the wayward
Heart of a girl that no arbiter brooks in the gift of her youth;
Sees not, gold-dazzled, the scorn of the would when December looks Mayward;
Thanks to her father mistaking his easy consent for the truth.
Hyacinth seen, and admired, and desired - this I knew, and concealed it;
Fain would have shaped it to something, and profited somehow thereby;
Made it available, made her seem saleable, subtly revealed it:
Thanks to the old man again, who has saved me the crime of a lie.
This was the spark. It was not of my lighting. Mine only to breathe on it.
Ready the fuel, long-dried by suspense, to flame into a hell!
Mine but to watch the dark cauldron of agony bubble and seethe on it,
Then to sing soft incantations that loosen and alter the spell.
Wherefore record them: the wiles and the low-whispered counsel, the honeyed
Words of feigned comfort, the maxims of wisdom, the fanning of pride,
Praises disguised as dispraise of alliances landed and moneyed -
Damning excuses, replete with exposure, while seeming to hide?
Wherefore? There are, and myself am of such, who are slaves to an inward
Devil of self-contemplation that drinks its own blood and own breath,
Lapping insatiate at all streams alike be they Godward or sinward;
Making good evil, bad worse: self-consuming, yet frugal of death.
Even as the shedder of blood ever fleeing the dread scene of slaughter,
Yet by centripetal charm ever drawn to the spot where the hand
Points from the shuddering earth, or the sodden white face on the water
Stares its unsinking appeal till his days be cut off from the land, -
So do I circle and hover, so flee, and yet circle and hover
Round my past deeds, and past purpose, and central arcana of sin.
When shall I know the great sigh of relief, the "Thank God, it is over"?
Ah, could I think death were better, how soon should I slumber therein!
Strange I should love to record what, already too luridly lettered,
Burns on the tablets within me in lines of unquenchable fire.
Strange there is respite in singing of self, that the Demon sleeps fettered,
When of my passion-strained heart-strings I make me and wake me a lyre.
Even as I've seen in fair Italy, where the weird mystical mountain
Travailing mightily foams with red ruin from summit to base;
Seen there the cunning in art, ere destruction is quenched at its fountain,
Take of the lava, and make of it things of adornment and grace;
Yea, of the spume of convulsion make things to be worn on the bosom,
Out of the travail of darkness bring issue of beauty to light,
Fashion a dove in its tenderness, simulate softness of blossom,
Lips that subdued the Immortals, or brows of Olympian might;
So do I take of my sin, and my suffering, and labour of passion,
Mould them to semblance of beauty of Nature, or classic conceit,
Smooth them, and lose me the body of pain in the sense of the fashion,
Binding distress itself captive to art in the linking of feet.
Yet, to re-track all the wiles one by one - nay I cannot, I may not.
Under the web is complexity, subtle, and hopeless to trace.
Raymond is blameless. How could he be else? There are things that I say not
Which would redeem him in eyes the severest from ban of disgrace.

DID not I dream that true happiness sat in the throne of attainment,
Crowned with the crown of victorious endeavour, and sceptred with palm?
Did not I see Fate herself flower-subdued, and in rosy enchainment,
And the importunate problem of life lying stifled in balm?
Is it the way of high Heaven to mock us with tokens of favour,
Lavish of sunshine to ripen the growth of our dearest device;
Then to deceive us with harvests that nourish not, fruits without savour,
Hemlock and hebenon clothed with the semblance of balsam and spice?
Is the high God of Evangel more cruel than gods of old fable?
Tantalus only beholds, never touches, the fruit ere it slips:
But this Jehovah - He filleth our hands with it, heapeth our table;
Then laughs in heaven when it changes to ashes and fire on our lips!
Yes; turn on Heaven! Call the gods, then the God of gods, scornful and cruel!
Rail at the pitiless Triads that rule us, and mock us, and curse!
Call up thine ancient despair, challenge Nemesis' self to the duel!
Arm thee with Greek old-world blasphemies! . . . Feel'st thou then
better, or worse?
Thou hast the wish of thine heart. Would'st have more? See, 'twixt finger and finger,
Lo, how he twineth thy hair, and then lifts it to amorous lips!
See, on the yielding delight of thy breast doth the conquered head linger,
And 'neath the veil of thy tresses lies hid in enamoured eclipse!
Wherefore the fret? Is it surfeit of pleasure or surfeit of sinning?
Would'st thou have appetite grow with the feeding? the lust of the eyes
Ever renewed with the gazing? And knew'st thou not from the beginning
That, when sin hath its desire, the desirableness thereof dies?
Is it God's way that in nature He suffereth His own disappearance,
Leaves it to work to its end in the groove of immutable rule;
But that in things of the spirit He willeth direct interference,
Giving the crown to the simple, and meting out grace to the fool?
Is this His sovereign and awful prerogative: joy He retaineth
Absolute, in His own hands, to bestow, to withhold, to destroy?
What shall it profit a man that he prosper, if joy He restraineth
Who can give joy without cause, and a bounteous cause without joy?
I am a fool to indulge me in sadness of spirit-communing.
Thought is all sadness; but night is all kindness: the stars are on high.
It is the hour. I will rush to him, cling to him, revel to swooning
In the dear love of him. Eat, drink, be merry, To-morrow we die!

WHAT have I gained? One grand moment, one moment supreme and delirious.
Something hath perished from earth and from heaven since that eve when he spoke:
That one prime eve, when the moon was a sun, and the brightness of Sirius
Glowed in the tiniest star, and the palpitant firmament broke
Everywhere into confusion of glory, and sordid conditions,
Earthy and palpable, clean fell away from our feet and our eyes,
And in the mid air we seemed, ether-fed with unspeakable visions,
And there was none save us twain in the lands, or the seas, or the skies!
Now is no life at my heart save the life of the serpent that hisses,
Coiled round its roots, giving slime for all moisture, and poison for dew.
Now I but mourn o'er a grace unrenewed. All in vain do his kisses
Press on a passionless cheek, that is cold as the conscience I slew.
One supreme moment; no more. And the joy of it died with the using:
One sublime bound to the copestone of bliss, then the chilling recall:
One sudden sense of a crown, then the sting of the thorns of accusing:
One sudden draught of the nectar, that turned as I drank into gall.
What shall I curse? The poor hands that lie lifelessly lax when he takes them
Into his own? Or the arms that are flaccid and powerless to cling?
Or the set lips without fervour? The eyes whose effulgence forsakes them?
Or the thin, quavering, passionless voice that refuses to sing?
There is no good thing, I think, 'neath the sun. And yet somehow it seems to me,
When I saw her, that true happiness shone like the sun from her face
As he drew near to her. Glimpses of Hyacinth come in my dreams to me,
Radiant, elated, and clothed on with joy as an angel of grace.
All for young Raymond - my Raymond too! But there's a curse on my loving;
Curse of an inward recoiling, and curse of an outward decline;
Curse of an outward supineness, and curse of an inward reproving;
Cursed most of all in that memory of intercourse other than mine!
What shall the end be? Ah me, my wrecked reason refuseth conclusions.
Lacks there but madness to fill up my cup of reproach to the brim?
God! send me rather the sharp fires of hell than the reign of delusions!
This is the one thing I ask Thee, to slay me ere judgment grows dim!

WHY walk we softly and whisper to-day, as if one in a fever
Slept, and life lay in the stifling of sound, and the batement of breath?
Know we not well that no step can awake her, no dissonance grieve her?
Know we not well the omnipotence of the last febrifuge - Death?
Surely we know she is dead to our reverence and muffled dissembling,
Past all our little proprieties, in unprofanable spheres;
Yet we walk softly, and whisper, and do our least office with trembling,
As if the vibrating air yet made converse of sound in her ears.
This is the riddle of Death: while she lived, no such reverent seeming
Silkened our ways. She is dead, and we whisper, move softly, and
As if our delicate walking would rhyme with the peace of her dreaming,
As if the music of whispers would deepen the hush of her sleep.
Surely we know all must die: yet we cherish and hoard up our reverence,
Until the known are unknown; then subside to unechoing feet.
Were it not wiser and better to count on the moment of severance,
And pay the dues of the tomb in the house, in the mart, in the street!

HYACINTH'S mother. . . . One question appals me. When spirits are bounded
No more by straight circumscription and narrow availment of brain,
When they are done with all mediums wherewith our dull nature is rounded,
Can they then look, soul to soul, on the secrets of such as remain?
Then she knows all; and my heart like a scroll lieth open before her,
And I am read as I am in the merciless noonlight of truth,
As the high-priestess of craft, the arch-scorner, the self-god adorer,
As the contemner of innocence, and the deceiver of youth!
Hush! This is dotage of morbid timidity, fruit of long waking,
Offspring of death-bed anxieties, weak suicidal despair.
I will throw off superstition, arise when the daylight is breaking,
Look on the body, and touch it, and breathe in the death-laden air.
I will be friendly with death, and familiarly handle and think of it,
Call its deep peace a delight, and its etiolation a grace.
Surely 'tis wise now and then just to sip at the cup ere we drink of it,
Wise to strip Doom of its terror by looking it full in the face.

LO, where it lies, not yet wholly cut off from the land of the living.
What is there in it should haunt me, and thrill with mysterious awe?
Is it not matter as I am, obedient to sunlight, and giving
Even in its shadow the tenebrous token of natural law?
Yea, by the shadow it casts one might reckon the hour of the morning.
It is then subject of time, and the changing relations of space.
Is it then other than I, save the fashion of outward adorning,
Other than I, save the shroud, and the flowers, and the hue of the face?
Oh, who will read me this Death? Who will read me this stranger Lifemystery,
Pierce to its primary subtlety, seize it, and drag it to light,
Show me its essence, its fount, its transmission, its law, and its history?
Oh, who will teach me what Day is, ere yet I go down unto Night?
Ever the problem besets me, in labour, in sorrow, in laughter:
Mystery of mysteries, too wide for conception, too deep and too high!
Imbecile! What doth it profit to gaze on the mists of Hereafter?
Turn me away from them. Eat, drink, be merry, To-morrow we die!

AH, but to-morrow we die not. For morrow, and morrow on morrow,
Each with a cry of awakening, and stretching importunate hands,
Rending the garments of sleep, and unveiling new danger and sorrow,
Bursts on the soul of the schemer, and bids it take heed how it stands.
Hyacinth cometh. No delegate Fury of wrath unrelenting
Ever tracked mortal as tracks me the pallid reproach of her face.
Yet even one tear is denied me. I find me no place for repenting,
Cast forth all lawless and lonesome beyond the attraction of grace.
Oh, there are deep and dark places on earth where I fain would be lying,
Fain would be sleeping unrecked of, and hidden away from the sun,
Where is no next, and no imminent, where even death is past dying,
Where is no doing or undoing, where all is done and undone!
What have I done that the heaven frowneth o'er me, and earth reeleth
Hypocrite heaven, and hypocrite earth, as if sin were yet young,
And it behoved you to trumpet the marvel with tempest and thunder!
Ye who have smiled upon sin since the song of Creation was sung!
Have ye not smiled upon all the seven sins, yea, on seventy times seven,
That ye must blare out your wrath at my deeds with tempestuous din?
Were ye not glowing in greenness, oh earth, and in azure, oh heaven,
When the fair hand of our mother was laid on the key-note of sin?
Was your complaining thus thunderous, the hue of your vesture thus sable,
When the fell Serpent hissed hideous triumph with pestilent breath?
Were ye so fruitful of gloom when the life-blood of innocent Abel
Wrote on the flowers of the field the first line of the annals of death?
Where were your flood-gates of anger when Ammon-encompassed Uriah,
Victim of lust, in the fore-front of battle fell prone to the earth?
Hid ye your beauty with sackcloth and weeping when Queen Athaliah
Spared not the innocent souls whose one crime was the fount of their birth?
Can I not picture you glorious in verdure, and azure, and amber,
When the proud Tullia swerved not her wheels from the corse of her sire?
Can I not conjure the sunshine that gilded the porphyry chamber,
When the blind son of Irene lay moaning his eyelids of fire?
Ha, ye must flash! ye must bellow! Yet have ye no potence to scare me.
Full in the face of your fury I tell you my life is my own;
And I shall end it to-day, let your thunderous futility dare me
Even as it will. I am I - I am mine, God-forsaken, alone!
Yes, and I know it is sin, and as sin I yet dare it, and do it.
Death is a light thing, and death is your inmost, your utmost, your all!
And if the wages of sin is but death, see, I crave it, I sue it;
Sue it as wages, for worse thing than life is can never befall.
Oh for the Sea! 'Twere so easy to cease in its yielding embracement,
Caught like a rain-drop, and merged in the hugeness of infinite rest,
Only the laugh of a ripple o'erbubbling the dimpled displacement,
Then the great level of calm, and the hush of the passionless breast.
Curse on those undulous pastures, and far vista'd woods unavailing,
Scant of contiguous umbrage, unmeet for the tomb that I crave!
Oh for the dark-curtained sleep of the Sea, for her kindly, unfailing
End of all dolorous things in the bliss of the kiss of the wave!
Would that my oft-haunted river were deep as the concave of ocean,
Tideless as Euxine, and true to the secrets of final despair!
God! it would wake me, methinks, to be dragged in its libertine motion;
Stranded, perchance, to be flouted once more by the sun and the air.
I do remember that once in my wanderings I noted a lakelet,
Strangely sequestered, and high on a ridge unfrequented and steep.
Green things drank lovingly of it, and lightly in many a flakelet
Floated shed tribute of lilies thereon, a sweet refuge - and deep.
Thither I'll hie me, and lay down my burden of sin and of sorrow;
Cast me therein with one instant and ultimate thrill of release;
And the great world shall go round to renewing of days; but to-morrow
I shall be deep in the heart of the hills, at the centre of peace!