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Artemis to Actaeon and Other Verse

Edith Wharton




  LIFE 7






  GRIEF 47












  A GRAVE 81




  USES 88




  THOU couldst not look on me and live: so runs

  The mortal legend--thou that couldst not live

  Nor look on me (so the divine decree)!

  That saw'st me in the cloud, the wave, the bough,

  The clod commoved with April, and the shapes

  Lurking 'twixt lid and eye-ball in the dark.

  Mocked I thee not in every guise of life,

  Hid in girls' eyes, a naiad in her well,

  Wooed through their laughter, and like echo fled,

  Luring thee down the primal silences

  Where the heart hushes and the flesh is dumb?

  Nay, was not I the tide that drew thee out

  Relentlessly from the detaining shore,

  Forth from the home-lights and the hailing voices,

  Forth from the last faint headland's failing line,

  Till I enveloped thee from verge to verge

  And hid thee in the hollow of my being?

  And still, because between us hung the veil,

  The myriad-tinted veil of sense, thy feet

  Refused their rest, thy hands the gifts of life,

  Thy heart its losses, lest some lesser face

  Should blur mine image in thine upturned soul

  Ere death had stamped it there. This was thy thought.

  And mine?

  The gods, they say, have all: not so!

  This have they--flocks on every hill, the blue

  Spirals of incense and the amber drip

  Of lucid honey-comb on sylvan shrines,

  First-chosen weanlings, doves immaculate,

  Twin-cooing in the osier-plaited cage,

  And ivy-garlands glaucous with the dew:

  Man's wealth, man's servitude, but not himself!

  And so they pale, for lack of warmth they wane,

  Freeze to the marble of their images,

  And, pinnacled on man's subserviency,

  Through the thick sacrificial haze discern

  Unheeding lives and loves, as some cold peak

  Through icy mists may enviously descry

  Warm vales unzoned to the all-fruitful sun.

  So they along an immortality

  Of endless-envistaed homage strain their gaze,

  If haply some rash votary, empty-urned,

  But light of foot, with all-adventuring hand,

  Break rank, fling past the people and the priest,

  Up the last step, on to the inmost shrine,

  And there, the sacred curtain in his clutch,

  Drop dead of seeing--while the others prayed!

  Yes, this we wait for, this renews us, this

  Incarnates us, pale people of your dreams,

  Who are but what you make us, wood or stone,

  Or cold chryselephantine hung with gems,

  Or else the beating purpose of your life,

  Your sword, your clay, the note your pipe pursues,

  The face that haunts your pillow, or the light

  Scarce visible over leagues of labouring sea!

  O thus through use to reign again, to drink

  The cup of peradventure to the lees,

  For one dear instant disimmortalised

  In giving immortality!

  So dream the gods upon their listless thrones.

  Yet sometimes, when the votary appears,

  With death-affronting forehead and glad eyes,

  Too young, they rather muse, too frail thou art,

  And shall we rob some girl of saffron veil

  And nuptial garland for so slight a thing?

  And so to their incurious loves return.

  Not so with thee; for some indeed there are

  Who would behold the truth and then return

  To pine among the semblances--but I

  Divined in thee the questing foot that never

  Revisits the cold hearth of yesterday

  Or calls achievement home. I from afar

  Beheld thee fashioned for one hour's high use,

  Nor meant to slake oblivion drop by drop.

  Long, long hadst thou inhabited my dreams,

  Surprising me as harts surprise a pool,

  Stealing to drink at midnight; I divined

  Thee rash to reach the heart of life, and lie

  Bosom to bosom in occasion's arms.

  And said: Because I love thee thou shalt die!

  For immortality is not to range

  Unlimited through vast Olympian days,

  Or sit in dull dominion over time;

  But this--to drink fate's utmost at a draught,

  Nor feel the wine grow stale upon the lip,

  To scale the summit of some soaring moment,

  Nor know the dulness of the long descent,

  To snatch the crown of life and seal it up

  Secure forever in the vaults of death!

  And this was thine: to lose thyself in me,

  Relive in my renewal, and become

  The light of other lives, a quenchless torch

  Passed on from hand to hand, till men are dust

  And the last garland withers from my shrine.


  NAY, lift me to thy lips, Life, and once more

  Pour the wild music through me--

  I quivered in the reed-bed with my kind,

  Rooted in Lethe-bank, when at the dawn

  There came a groping shape of mystery

  Moving among us, that with random stroke

  Severed, and rapt me from my silent tribe,

  Pierced, fashioned, lipped me, sounding for a voice,

  Laughing on Lethe-bank--and in my throat

  I felt the wing-beat of the fledgeling notes,

  The bubble of godlike laughter in my throat.

  Such little songs she sang,

  Pursing her lips to fit the tiny pipe,

  They trickled from me like a slender spring

  That strings frail wood-growths on its crystal thread,

  Nor dreams of glassing cities, bearing ships.

  She sang, and bore me through the April world

  Matching the birds, doubling the insect-hum

  In the meadows, under the low-moving airs,

  And breathings of the scarce-articulate air

  When it makes mouths of grasses--but when the sky

  Burst into storm, and took great trees for pipes,

  She thrust me in her breast, and warm beneath

  Her cloudy vesture, on her terrible heart,

  I shook, and heard the battle.

  But more oft,

  Those early days, we moved in charmed woods,

  Where once, at dusk, she piped against a faun,

  And one warm dawn a tree became a nymph

nbsp; Listening; and trembled; and Life laughed and passed.

  And once we came to a great stream that bore

  The stars upon its bosom like a sea,

  And ships like stars; so to the sea we came.

  And there she raised me to her lips, and sent

  One swift pang through me; then refrained her hand,

  And whispered: "Hear--" and into my frail flanks,

  Into my bursting veins, the whole sea poured

  Its spaces and its thunder; and I feared.

  We came to cities, and Life piped on me

  Low calls to dreaming girls,

  In counting-house windows, through the chink of gold,

  Flung cries that fired the captive brain of youth,

  And made the heavy merchant at his desk

  Curse us for a cracked hurdy-gurdy; Life

  Mimicked the hurdy-gurdy, and we passed.

  We climbed the slopes of solitude, and there

  Life met a god, who challenged her and said:

  "Thy pipe against my lyre!" But "Wait!" she laughed,

  And in my live flank dug a finger-hole,

  And wrung new music from it. Ah, the pain!

  We climbed and climbed, and left the god behind.

  We saw the earth spread vaster than the sea,

  With infinite surge of mountains surfed with snow,

  And a silence that was louder than the deep;

  But on the utmost pinnacle Life again

  Hid me, and I heard the terror in her hair.

  Safe in new vales, I ached for the old pang,

  And clamoured "Play me against a god again!"

  "Poor Marsyas-mortal--he shall bleed thee yet,"

  She breathed and kissed me, stilling the dim need.

  But evermore it woke, and stabbed my flank

  With yearnings for new music and new pain.

  "Another note against another god!"

  I clamoured; and she answered: "Bide my time.

  Of every heart-wound I will make a stop,

  And drink thy life in music, pang by pang,

  But first thou must yield the notes I stored in thee

  At dawn beside the river. Take my lips."

  She kissed me like a lover, but I wept,

  Remembering that high song against the god,

  And the old songs slept in me, and I was dumb.

  We came to cavernous foul places, blind

  With harpy-wings, and sulphurous with the glare

  Of sinful furnaces--where hunger toiled,

  And pleasure gathered in a starveling prey,

  And death fed delicately on young bones.

  "Now sing!" cried Life, and set her lips to me.

  "Here are gods also. Wilt thou pipe for Dis?"

  My cry was drowned beneath the furnace roar,

  Choked by the sulphur-fumes; and beast-lipped gods

  Laughed down on me, and mouthed the flutes of hell.

  "Now sing!" said Life, reissuing to the stars;

  And wrung a new note from my wounded side.

  So came we to clear spaces, and the sea.

  And now I felt its volume in my heart,

  And my heart waxed with it, and Life played on me

  The song of the Infinite. "Now the stars," she said.

  Then from the utmost pinnacle again

  She poured me on the wild sidereal stream,

  And I grew with her great breathings, till we swept

  The interstellar spaces like new worlds

  Loosed from the fiery ruin of a star.

  Cold, cold we rested on black peaks again,

  Under black skies, under a groping wind;

  And Life, grown old, hugged me to a numb breast,

  Pressing numb lips against me. Suddenly

  A blade of silver severed the black peaks

  From the black sky, and earth was born again,

  Breathing and various, under a god's feet.

  A god! A god! I felt the heart of Life

  Leap under me, and my cold flanks shook again.

  He bore no lyre, he rang no challenge out,

  But Life warmed to him, warming me with her,

  And as he neared I felt beneath her hands

  The stab of a new wound that sucked my soul

  Forth in a new song from my throbbing throat.

  "His name--his name?" I whispered, but she shed

  The music faster, and I grew with it,

  Became a part of it, while Life and I

  Clung lip to lip, and I from her wrung song

  As she from me, one song, one ecstasy,

  In indistinguishable union blent,

  Till she became the flute and I the player.

  And lo! the song I played on her was more

  Than any she had drawn from me; it held

  The stars, the peaks, the cities, and the sea,

  The faun's catch, the nymph's tremor, and the heart

  Of dreaming girls, of toilers at the desk,

  Apollo's challenge on the sunrise slope,

  And the hiss of the night-gods mouthing flutes of hell--

  All, to the dawn-wind's whisper in the reeds,

  When Life first came, a shape of mystery,

  Moving among us, and with random stroke

  Severed, and rapt me from my silent tribe.

  All this I wrung from her in that deep hour,

  While Love stood murmuring: "Play the god, poor grass!"

  Now, by that hour, I am a mate to thee

  Forever, Life, however spent and clogged,

  And tossed back useless to my native mud!

  Yea, groping for new reeds to fashion thee

  New instruments of anguish and delight,

  Thy hand shall leap to me, thy broken reed,

  Thine ear remember me, thy bosom thrill

  With the old subjection, then when Love and I

  Held thee, and fashioned thee, and made thee dance

  Like a slave-girl to her pipers--yea, thou yet

  Shalt hear my call, and dropping all thy toys

  Thou'lt lift me to thy lips, Life, and once more

  Pour the wild music through me--



  SET wide the window. Let me drink the day.

  I loved light ever, light in eye and brain--

  No tapers mirrored in long palace floors,

  Nor dedicated depths of silent aisles,

  But just the common dusty wind-blown day

  That roofs earth's millions.

  O, too long I walked

  In that thrice-sifted air that princes breathe,

  Nor felt the heaven-wide jostling of the winds

  And all the ancient outlawry of earth!

  Now let me breathe and see.

  This pilgrimage

  They call a penance--let them call it that!

  I set my face to the East to shrive my soul

  Of mortal sin? So be it. If my blade

  Once questioned living flesh, if once I tore

  The pages of the Book in opening it,

  See what the torn page yielded ere the light

  Had paled its buried characters--and judge!

  (1) See note p. 90.

  The girl they brought me, pinioned hand and foot

  In catalepsy--say I should have known

  That trance had not yet darkened into death,

  And held my scalpel. Well, suppose I knew?

  Sum up the facts--her life against her death.

  Her life? The scum upon the pools of pleasure

  Breeds such by thousands. And her death? Perchance

  The obolus to appease the ferrying Shade,

  And waft her into immortality.

  Think what she purchased with that one heart-flutter

  That whispered its deep secret to my blade!

  For, just because her bosom fluttered still,

  It told me more than many rifled graves;

  Because I spoke t
oo soon, she answered me,

  Her vain life ripened to this bud of death

  As the whole plant is forced into one flower,

  All her blank past a scroll on which God wrote

  His word of healing--so that the poor flesh,

  Which spread death living, died to purchase life!

  Ah, no! The sin I sinned was mine, not theirs.

  Not that they sent me forth to wash away--

  None of their tariffed frailties, but a deed

  So far beyond their grasp of good or ill

  That, set to weigh it in the Church's balance,

  Scarce would they know which scale to cast it in.

  But I, I know. I sinned against my will,

  Myself, my soul--the God within the breast:

  Can any penance wash such sacrilege?

  When I was young in Venice, years ago,

  I walked the hospice with a Spanish monk,

  A solitary cloistered in high thoughts,

  The great Loyola, whom I reckoned then

  A mere refurbisher of faded creeds,

  Expert to edge anew the arms of faith,

  As who should say, a Galenist, resolved

  To hold the walls of dogma against fact,

  Experience, insight, his own self, if need be!

  Ah, how I pitied him, mine own eyes set

  Straight in the level beams of Truth, who groped

  In error's old deserted catacombs

  And lit his tapers upon empty graves!

  Ay, but he held his own, the monk--more man

  Than any laurelled cripple of the wars,

  Charles's spent shafts; for what he willed he willed,

  As those do that forerun the wheels of fate,

  Not take their dust--that force the virgin hours,

  Hew life into the likeness of themselves

  And wrest the stars from their concurrences.

  So firm his mould; but mine the ductile soul

  That wears the livery of circumstance

  And hangs obsequious on its suzerain's eye.

  For who rules now? The twilight-flitting monk,

  Or I, that took the morning like an Alp?

  He held his own, I let mine slip from me,

  The birthright that no sovereign can restore;

  And so ironic Time beholds us now

  Master and slave--he lord of half the earth,

  I ousted from my narrow heritage.

  For there's the sting! My kingdom knows me not.

  Reach me that folio--my usurper's title!

  Fallopius reigning, vice--nay, not so:

  Successor, not usurper. I am dead.

  My throne stood empty; he was heir to it.

  Ay, but who hewed his kingdom from the waste,

  Cleared, inch by inch, the acres for his sowing,

  Won back for man that ancient fief o' the Church,