When man first walked upright and soberly
Reflecting as he paced to and fro,
And no more swinging from wide tree to tree,
Or sheltered by vast boles from sheltered foe,
Or crouched within some deep cave by the sea
Stared at the noisy waste of water’s woe
Where the earth ended, and far lightning died
Splintered upon the rigid tideless tide;
When man above Time’s cloud lifted his head
And speech knew, and the company of speech,
And from his alien presence wild beasts fled
And birds flew wary from his arrow’s reach,
And cattle trampling the long meadow weed
Did sentry in the wind’s path set; when each
Horn, hoof, claw, sting and sinew against man
Was turned, and the old enmity began;
When, following, beneath the hand of kings
Moved men their parting ways, and some passed on
To forest refuge, some by dark-browed springs,
And some to high remoter pastures won,
And some o’er yellow deserts spread their wings,
Thinning with time and thirst and so were gone
Forgotten; when between each wandered host
The seldom travellers faltered and were lost;–
In those old days, upon the soft dew’d sward
That held its green between the thicket’s cloud,
Walked two men musing ere the wide moon poured
Her full-girthed weightless flood. And one was bowed
With years past knowledge, and his face was scored
Where light or deep had every long year ploughed–
Pain, labour, present peril, distant dread
Scored in his brow and bending his shagged head.
Palsy his frame shook as a harsh wind shakes
Complaining reeds fringing a frozen river;
His eye the aspect had of frozen lakes
Whereunder the foiled waters swirl and quiver;
His voice the deep note that the north wind takes
Drawn through bare beechwoods where forlorn birds shiver–
Deep and unfaltering. A younger man
Listened, while warmer currents in him ran.
“Was not my son even as myself to me,
As you to him showed his own life again?
Now he is dead, and all I looked to see
In him removes to you–less near and plain,
Confused with other blood; and what will be
I groping cannot tell, and grope in vain.
For men have turned to other ways than mine:
Yourself are less fulfilment than a sign,
“Sign of a changing world. And change I fear.
I have seen old and young like brief gnats die,
And have faced death by plague and flood and spear:
I have seen mine own familiar people lie
In generations reaped; and near and near
Age leads on Death–I hear his husky sigh.
Yet Death I fear not, but these clouds of change
Sweeping the old firm world with new and strange.
“Son of my son, to whom the world shines new,
You are strange to me for whom the world is old.
Your thoughts are not my thoughts, and unto you
The past, sole warmth for me, is void and cold.
Another passion pours your spirit through,
Another faith has leapt upon the fold
And wrestles with the ancient faith. ‘And lo!’
Lightly men say, ‘Even the gods come and go!'”
He paused awhile in pacing and hung still,
Amid the thickening shades a darker shade.
Down the steep valley from the barren hill
A herd of deer with antlered leader made
Brief apparition. Mist brimmed up until
Only the great round heights yet solid stayed–
Then they too changed to spectral, and upon
The changing mist wavered, and were gone….
“Standing to-day your father’s grave beside,
I knew my heart with his was covered there;
O, more than flesh did in the cold earth hide–
My past, his promise. There was none to care
Save for the body of a prince that died
As princes die; there was none whispered, ‘Where
Moves now among us his unburied part?
What breast beats with the pulses of his heart?’
“–Vain thoughts are these that but a dying man
Searches among the dark caves of his mind!
But as I stood, the very wind that ran
Between the files breathed more than common wind,
As though the gods of men when Time began,
Fathers of fathers of old humankind,
Startled, heard now the changeful future knock;
And their lament it was from rock to rock
“Tossed with the wind’s long echo … O, speak not,
Nor tell me with my loss I am so dazed,
That my tongue speaks unfaithfully my thought;
That you, you too, within his shadow raised,
Stand bare now, wanting all you held or thought,
By aimless love or prisoned grief amazed.
Tell me not: let me out of silence speak,
Or let me still my thoughts in silence break.”
And so both stood, and not a word to say,
By silence overborne, until at last
The young man breathed, “Look how the end of day
Falls heavily, as though the earth were cast
Into a shapeless soundless pit, where ray
Of heavenly light never the verge has past.
Yet will the late moon’s light anon shine here,
And then gray light, and then the sun’s light clear.
“Sire, ’twas my father died, and like night’s pit
Soundless and shapeless yawn my orphaned years.
And yet I know morn comes and brings with it
Old tasks again, and new joys, hopes and fears.
Or sword or plough these fingers will find fit,
And morrows end with other cries and tears,
With women’s arms and children’s voices and
The sacred gods blessing the new-sown land.
“But look, upon your beard the dew is bright,
Chill is the winter fall: let us go in.”
Then moved they slowly downward till a light
Shining the door-post and thonged door between
Showed the square Prince’s House. Out of the night
They passed the sudden rubied warmth within.
Curled shadowy by the wall a servant slept:
A sleepy hound from the same corner crept.
Soon were they couched. The young man fell asleep;
While the old Prince drowsing uneasily,
Tossing on the crest of agitations deep,
Dreamed waking, waking dreamed. Then memory
The unseen hound, did from her corner creep
Into his bosom and stirred him with her sigh
Soundless. And he arose and answering pressed
Her beloved head yet closer to his breast….
Happy those years returned when first he strode
Beside his father’s knees, or climbed and felt
The warm strength of those arms, or singing rode
High on his shoulders; or in winter pelt
Of dread beasts wrapt, set as his father showed
Snares in the frosty grass, and at dawn knelt
Beside the snares, and shouting homeward tore,
Winged with such pride as seldom manhood wore.
–How many, many, many years ago!
There was no older man now walked the earth.
Had all those years sunk to a bitter glow,
Like the fire lingering yet upon the hearth?
Ah, he might warm his hands there still, and so
Must warm his heart now in this wintry dearth,
Till the reluming sunken fire should give
Warmth to his ageing wits and bid him live.
Even this house! It was his father told
How in the days half lost in icy time
Men first forsook their wormy caves and cold
To build where the wind-footed cattle climb;
And noise of labour broke the silence old
By such unbroken since the sparkling prime
Of the world’s spring. And so the house arose,
A builded cave, perpetual as the snows
On the remotest summits of the range
Hemming the north. Then house by house appeared
‘Neath valley-eaves, and change following on change
Unnoted tamed earth’s shaggy front. Men heard
Strange voices syllabling with accents strange,
By travellers breathed who, startled, paused and feared
Seeing the smoke of habitations curled
Above this hollow of an unrumoured world.
Startled, they paused and spoke by doubtful sign,
Answered by hesitating sign, until
Moved one with aspect fearless and benign,
And met one fearless, while all else hung still.
And then was welcome, rest, and meat and wine
And intercourse of uncouth word, as shrill
Voice with deep voice was mingled. So they stayed
And to astonished eyes strange arts betrayed.
By them the oarage of the wind was taught,
And how the quick tail steered the cockled boat.
They netted fruitful streams, and smiling brought
Their breaking wickers home, too full to float.
And opening the earth’s rich womb they wrought
Arms from the sullied ore; and labouring smote
The mountain’s bosom, till a path was seen
Stony amid the flushed snow and flushed green.
Then first upon earth’s wave the silver share
Floated, by the teamed oxen drawn; then first
Were seed-time rites, and harvest rites when bare
The cropped fields lay, and gathered tumult–nurst
Long in the breasts of men that laboured there–
Now in the broad ease of fulfilment burst;
And when the winter tasks failed in days chill,
Weaving of bright-hued yarn, and chattering shrill;
And the loved tones of music sounded sweet
Unwonted, when the new-stopped pipe was heard
Rising and falling, and the falling feet
Of sudden dancers. And old men were stirred
With old men’s memories of ancient heat
When youth sang in their bosoms like a bird….
Sweet that divine musician, Memory,
Fingering her many-reeded melody.
Then as he stared into the wasting glow
And watched the fire faint in the whitening wood,
Came starker shadows moving vast and slow,
And echoes of wild strife and smell of blood,
Twitching of slain men, cries of parting woe,
Bruised bodies ghastly in the mountain flood;
Burials and burnings, triumph with terrors blent,
And widowed languors and night-long lament.
Like seeds long buried, these dead memories
Upthrust in their new green and spread to flower:
An eager child against his father’s knees
Leaning, he had listened many an evening hour.
Now these remote reworded histories
Entangled with his own renewed their power,
Breathing an antique virtue through his mind,
As through dense yew boughs breathes the undying wind.
Sighing, he rose up softly. On the wall
A dark shape shambled aimless to and fro;
Head bent, eyes inward-seeing, rugged, tall,
Himself a shadow moved with musings slow
Amid his cumbered past, and heard sweet call
Of mother voice, and mother folk, and flow
Of gentle and proud speech and tender laughter,
Story and song, fault and forgiveness after;
And a voice graver, gentler than a man
Might hear from any but a woman beloved,
Stilling and awakening the blood that ran
Like ocean tide, as neared she or removed …
Faded that music. Then a voice began
Paining within his heart, yet unreproved;
For dear the anguish is that steals upon
A father’s spirit lamenting his lost son.
–The latest born and latest lost of those
Of his strong and her gentle being born.
By earthquake, pestilence, by human foes
Long were they dead; and yet not all forlorn
He grieved, for at his side the youngest rose
Bright as a willow gilded by dewy morn….
Felled now the tree, silent that music, still
The motion that did all the vale-air fill.
Once more they bore the body from the hunt
Where he alone had died. Once more he heard
The wail and sigh, and saw once more their front
Of drooping grief; once more the wailing stirred
Old hounds to baying wilder than was wont;
Fell once more like slow, sullen rain each word
Reluctant, telling to his senses strayed,
How while the gods drowsed and men hung afraid.
Slain was the Prince unwary by the paw
Of a springing beast that died in giving death.
Again the featureless torn face he saw,
The ribboned bosom emptied of warm breath;
Again the circle sudden hush’d with awe,
And smothered moaning heard the hush beneath.
Again, again, and every night again,
Vision renewed and voice recalled in vain.
Again those dear and lamentable rites
Within the winter stems of forest shade,
The pile, the smokeless flame, the thousand lights,
The one light that in all the thousand played;
Deep burthened voices while, around the heights
Lifting, young trebles their wild echo made;
Then the returning torches at the pyre
Lit, when the eye glowed faint within the fire.
* * * * *
Even as a man that by slow steps may climb
An unknown mountain path with tired tread
By ice-fringed brook and close herb white with rime,
Sees sudden far below a strange land spread
Immense; so from his lonely crag of Time
The Prince, his eye bewildered and adread,
Gazed at the vast, with mist and storm confused,
Cloud-racked, and changing even while he mused.
Ending were the old wise and stable ways.
Adventurers into distant lands had fared,
From distant lands adventurers with gaze
Proud and unenvying on his kingdom stared,
And sojourning had shaken quiet days
With restless knowledge, and strange worship reared
Of foreign altars, idols, prayers and songs
And sacrifice as to such gods belongs.
And all unsatisfied his people grown
Would move from this rejected mountain range
By yearlong valley journeys slowly down,
Sun-following, till surfeited with change,
Mid idle pastures pitched or fabled town,
Subdued to climes and kings and customs strange,
At length their very name should die away
And all their remnant be a vague “Men say.”
“Men say!” he sighed, and from that lofty verge
Of inward seeing drooped his doubtful sight.
Sweet was it from such reverie to emerge
And breathe once more the thoughtless air of night,
And watch the fire-slave through fresh billets urge
The sleeping flame, until the vivid light
And toothed shadows wearied…. And then crept
The hounds a little nearer, and all slept.
* * * * *
But the young man still lay in quiet sleep,
Or half-sleep, and a dream-born cloud enwreathed
With memories, hopes and longings hidden deep
In his flown mind. Another air he breathed,
Saw from an unsubstantial mountain sweep
In purest light, soon in low shadow sheathed,
Semblance of faint-known faces, or beloved
Daily-acquainted still, or long removed.
Even as sacred fire in fennel stalks
Through windy ways is borne and densest night,
Till where the outpost shivering sentry walks
Beating the minutes into hours, the light
Touches the guarded pile and, flaring, balks
Beasts padding near and each unvisioned sprite
By old dread apprehended; and new gladness
Shakes in the village prone in winter sadness:–
So through the young man’s dream the kingly flame
In his own breast was undiminished borne.
And other peoples catching from his fame
A noble heat, in neighbouring lands forlorn,
Would glow with new power and the ancient name
Bless, that had brightened through their narrow morn.
And purer yet and steadier would pass on
The sacred flame to son and son and son.
Or with contracting mind he saw the host
Of mountain warriors banded, moving down
Untrodden ways, as on young buds a frost
Falls, and the spring lies stiff. The air was sown
With strife, the fields with blood, the night with ghost
Wandering by ghost, and wounded men were strown
Surprised, unweaponed; and chill air congealed
Each hurt, and with the blood their breath was sealed.
And the loved tones of music sounded fierce
When the returning files with aspect proud
Approached, and brandished their rich trophied spears.
Sweet the pipes’ spearlike music, sweet and loud,
And music of smitten arms was sweet to tears;
Sweet the dance unto smiling gods new vowed,
Sweet the recounting song and choral cries,
And age’s quaverings and girls’ envious sighs.
–So of himself, a father-king, he dreamed,
Holding an equal nation in his eye.
O with what golden points the future gleamed!
Rustled the years like laden mule-trains by,
Each with its burthen of old time redeemed….
Splendour on splendour poured, and so would lie
Unnoted and unmeasured:–metals, herds,
Distant-sought wonders, strange growths, beasts and birds.
Within the summer of that splendid shade
Might men live happy and nought left to fear,
Or if an antique restless spirit played
Fretful within their bones, and change drew near
Drumming wild airs, and another music made,
A father-king, speaking assured and clear,
Bidding them follow he would lead them forth
Through the yet undiscovered frowning north.
And the last fire on the warm stones would burn,
And the smoke linger on the mountain skies.
And seeing, they would muse yet of return
And then forget their sadness in the cries
Confused of the great caravan; and so turn
Towards the next sun-setting and the next sunrise
Many and many a day and wind and wind
Through foreign earth, as a dream through the mind.
Flowing on with the changes of its thought.
And doubtful kings entreating them to stay
Would sleep the easier when they lingered not;
And sullen tribes menacing would make way,
And broad slow rivers in their tide be caught,
And the long caravan o’er the ford all day
And all day and all day pass; while the tide slept
In sluggish shallows, or through marsh-reeds crept.
So would they on and on, with death and birth
For wayfellows and nightly stars for guide,
While seasons bloomed and faded on the earth,
And jealous gods their wandering gods would chide.
Until, weary of endless going forth
Dark-locust-like, the old fret would subside,
And young men with aged men and women cry,
“In this full-rivered pasture let us lie!
“Here let us lie, and wanderings be at rest!”
Midmost a cedar grove high sacrifice
Needs then be made, that gods be manifest;
And while the smoke spread in long twilit skies,
“Here let us lie, and wanderings be at rest,”
Would old men breathe repeated between sighs.
“In this green world and cool,” would mothers say,
“Rest we, nor with thin babes yet longer stray.”
–So stealing from the mind of the old King
Exhausted, into the sleeping young man’s brain
Crept the same dream and lifted on new wing
And took from his swift passions a new stain,
Sanguine and azure, and first fluttering
Rose then on easy vans that bore again
The sleeper past his common thought’s confine:–
So borne, so soaring, in that air divine,
He saw his people stayed, their journeys ended….
There should they, no more fretful, dwell for ever
In the full-nourished pasture where untended
Herds multiplied, and famine threatened never,
And where high border-hills glittered with splendid
Sparse-covered veins washed by the hill-born river.
So stead by stead arose, and men there moved
Satisfied, and no more vain longings roved.
Again the silver plough gleamed in the sod,
And seed from old fields slept in furrows new.
Then when Spring’s rain and sun together trod
And interweaved swift steps the meadow through,
Old rites revived; they bore the shapen god
With green stalks and first-budded boughs, and drew
Together youth and age. And sowers leapt
High o’er the seed in earth’s cold bosom wrapt:–
So in the golden-hued and burning hours
Of harvest, leapt on high the full-eared corn.
Friendly to pious hands those imaged Powers
Of rain and sun. And when the grain was borne
By oxen trailing tangled straws and flowers,
With leaves and dying blossoms on each horn,
Friendly the gods commingling in the shades
Of moon and torch and smoke-delaying glades.
Fell slowly sunset; the starred evening cool
Drooped round as mid his people the king rode,
Blessing and blessed, and in the faithful pool
Of their old loves his clear reflection glowed
Like summer’s golden moon:–in wise and fool,
Noble and mean, accustomed reverence showed
Clear-shining; so he reached the unbarred hall
Where lamps, lords, servitors flashed festival,
Remembering old journeys and their end.
Bright-throned he sat there, with those lords around
Snow-polled, co-eval, as with friends their friend
Feasting. Arose at length the awaited sound
Of bardic chanting, bidding their thoughts descend
Into the chamber where the Past lay bound,
Wanting but music’s finger; so upspringing,
The Past stormed all their minds in that loud singing.
And strangers, furred and tawny, seated there,
Far travellers from the sunrise, looking on
The feasting and the splendour, and with ear
Uncertain listening to the solemn tone
Of most dear Memory, envied all and sware
A sudden fealty. But the bard sang on
While silver beakers brimmed untouched; and darkened
The proud remembering eyes of men that hearkened.
Then came once more those strangers leading long
Migration of their subject folk. They stayed
And medley’d and were mingled, and their throng
Melted in his like snows, and so were made
One with them, and forgot their useless tongue,
Nor now their ancient bloody worship paid
To painted gods:–name, language, story died
When their last faithless exile parting sighed.
So year on year, century on century
In his imagination of delight
Followed, in a new world all innocency
And simpleness, and made for beings bright,
Where man to man was friend, unfearful, free,
And natural griefs alone darkened their night,
And natural joys as the wide air were common,
And kindness was the bond of all kin human.
* * * * *
–When the loved reeds of music sounded clear
From birds’ breasts quivering in tall woodland trees
That rustled leafless in the winter air,
And with morn’s new voice shrilled the western breeze:
Folding her wings the dream crept from his ear
To hang where bats drowse until daylight dies.
Then he from sleep’s dear vanity awaking
Watched a sole sunbeam the roof-shadows raking.
More Poetry from John Freeman:John Freeman Poems based on Topics: Light, Night, Mind, Nature, Thought & Thinking, Love, Cry, Sleep, Birds, Man, Sadness
- Beechwood (John Freeman Poems)
- The Human Music (John Freeman Poems)
- Presage To Victory (John Freeman Poems)
- The Pigeons (John Freeman Poems)
- The Undying (John Freeman Poems)
- The Song Of The Forest (John Freeman Poems)
Readers Who Like This Poem Also Like:Based on Topics: Love Poems, Man Poems, God Poems, World Poems, Night Poems, Light Poems, Mind Poems, Sadness Poems, Time Poems, Death & Dying Poems, Nature Poems
Based on Keywords: billets, padding, undiminished, simpleness, migration, toothed, contracting, recounting, unreproved, smokeless, apprehended