In hill-towns, from San Fernando to Mayagüez,
the same sunrise stirred the feathered lances of cane
down the archipelago’s highways. The first breeze
rattled the spears and their noise was like distant rain
marching down from the hills, like a shell at your ears.
In the cool asphalt Sundays of the Antilles
the light brought the bitter history of sugar
across the squared fields, heightening towards harvest,
to the bleached flags of the Indian diaspora.
The drizzling light blew across the savannah
darkening the racehorses’ hides; mist slowly erased
the royal palms on the crests of the hills and the
hills themselves. The brown patches the horses had grazed
shone as wet as their hides. A skittish stallion
jerked at his bridle, marble-eyed at the thunder
muffling the hills, but the groom was drawing him in
like a fisherman, wrapping the slack line under
one fist, then with the other tightening the rein
and narrowing the circle. The sky cracked asunder
and a forked tree flashed, and suddenly that black rain
which can lose an entire archipelago
in broad daylight was pouring tin nails on the roof,
hammering the balcony. I closed the French window,
and thought of the horses in their stalls with one hoof
tilted, watching the ropes of rain. I lay in bed
with current gone from the bed-lamp and heard the roar
of wind shaking the windows, and I remembered
Achille on his own mattress and desperate Hector
trying to save his canoe, I thought of Helen
as my island lost in the haze, and I was sure
I’d never see her again. All of a sudden
the rain stopped and I heard the sluicing of water
down the guttering. I opened the window when
the sun came out. It replaced the tiny brooms
of palms on the ridges. On the red galvanized
roof of the paddock, the wet sparkled, then the grooms
led the horses over the new grass and exercised
them again, and there was a different brightness
in everything, in the leaves, in the horses’ eyes.
I smelt the leaves threshing at the top of the year
in green January over the orange villas
and military barracks where the Plunketts were,
the harbour flecked by the wind that comes with Christmas,
edged with the Arctic, that was christened Vent Noël;
it stayed until March and, with luck, until Easter.
It freshened the cedars, waxed the laurier-cannelle,
and hid the African swift. I smelt the drizzle
on the asphalt leaving the Morne, it was the smell
of an iron on damp cloth; I heard the sizzle
of fried jackfish in oil with their coppery skin;
I smelt ham studded with cloves, the crusted accra,
the wax in the varnished parlour: Come in. Come in,
the arm of the Morris chair sticky with lacquer;
I saw a sail going out and a sail coming in,
and a breeze so fresh it lifted the lace curtains
like a petticoat, like a sail towards Ithaca;
I smelt a dead rivulet in the clogged drains.
Ah, twin-headed January, seeing either tense:
a past, they assured us, born in degradation,
and a present that lifted us up with the wind’s
noise in the breadfruit leaves with such an elation
that it contradicts what is past! The cannonballs
of rotting breadfruit from the Battle of the Saints,
the asterisks of bulletholes in the brick walls
of the redoubt. I lived there with every sense.
I smelt with my eyes, I could see with my nostrils.
One side of the coast plunges its precipices
into the Atlantic. Turns require wide locks,
since the shoulder is sharp and the curve just misses
a long drop over the wind-bent trees and the rocks
between the trees. There is a wide view of Dennery,
with its stone church and raw ochre cliffs at whose base
the African breakers end. Across the flecked sea
whose combers veil and unveil the rocks with their lace
the next port is Dakar. The uninterrupted wind
thuds under the wings of frigates, you see them bent
from a force that has crossed the world, tilting to find
purchase in the sudden downdrafts of its current.
The breeze threshed the palms on the cool December road
where the Comet hurtled with empty leopard seats,
so fast a man on a donkey trying to read
its oncoming fiery sign heard only two thudding beats
from the up-tempo zouk that its stereo played
when it screeched round a bridge and began to ascend
away from the palm-fronds and their wickerwork shade
that left the windscreen clear as it locked round the bend,
where Hector suddenly saw the trotting piglet
and thought of Plunkett’s warning as he heard it screel
with the same sound that the tires of the Comet
made rounding the curve from the sweat-greased steering wheel.
The rear wheels spin to a dead stop, like a helm.
The piglet trots down the safer side of the road.
Lodged in their broken branches the curled letters flame.
Hector had both hands on the wheel. His head was bowed
under the swaying statue of the Madonna
of the Rocks, her smile swayed under the blue hood,
and when her fluted robe stilled, the smile stayed on her
dimpled porcelain. She saw, in the bowed man, the calm
common oval of prayer, the head’s usual angle
over the pew of the dashboard. Her lifted palm,
small as a doll’s from its cerulean mantle,
indicated that he had prayed enough to the lace
of foam round the cliff’s altar, that now, if he wished,
he could lift his head, but he stayed in the same place,
the way a man will remain when Mass is finished,
not unclenching his hands or freeing one to cross
forehead, heart, and shoulders swiftly and then kneel
facing the altar. He bowed in endless remorse,
for her mercy at what he had done to Achille,
his brother. But his arc was over, for the course
of every comet is such. The fated crescent
was printed on the road by the scorching tires.
A salt tear ran down the porcelain cheek and it went
in one slow drop to the clenched knuckle that still gripped
the wheel. On the flecked sea, the uninterrupted
wind herded the long African combers, and whipped
the small flag of the island on its silver spearhead.
Drivers leant over the rail. One seized my luggage
off the porter’s cart. The rest burst into patois,
with gestures of despair at the lost privilege
of driving me, then turned to other customers.
In the evening pastures horses grazed, their hides wet
with light that shot its lances over the combers.
I had the transport all to myself.
“You all set?
Good. A good pal of mine died in that chariot
of his called the Comet.”
He turned in the front seat,
spinning the air with his free hand. I sat, sprawled out
in the back, discouraging talk, with my crossed feet.
“You never know when, eh? I was at the airport
that day. I see him take off like a rocket.
I always said that thing have too much horsepower.
And so said, so done. The same hotel, chief, correct?”
I saw the coastal villages receding as
the highway’s tongue translated bush into forest,
the wild savannah into moderate pastures,
that other life going in its “change for the best,”
its peace paralyzed in a postcard, a concrete
future ahead of it all, in the cinder-blocks
of hotel development with the obsolete
craft of the carpenter, as I sensed, in the neat
marinas, the fisherman’s phantom. Old oarlocks
and rusting fretsaw. My craft required the same
crouching care, the same crabbed, natural devotion
of the hand that stencilled a flowered window-frame
or planed an elegant canoe; its time was gone
with the spirit in the wood, as wood grew obsolete
and plasterers smoothed the blank page of white concrete.
I watched the afternoon sea. Didn’t I want the poor
to stay in the same light so that I could transfix
them in amber, the afterglow of an empire,
preferring a shed of palm-thatch with tilted sticks
to that blue bus-stop? Didn’t I prefer a road
from which tracks climbed into the thickening syntax
of colonial travellers, the measured prose I read
as a schoolboy? That cove, with its brown shallows
there, Praslin? That heron? Had they waited for me
to develop my craft? Why hallow that pretence
of preserving what they left, the hypocrisy
of loving them from hotels, a biscuit-tin fence
smothered in love-vines, scenes to which I was attached
as blindly as Plunkett with his remorseful research?
Art is History’s nostalgia, it prefers a thatched
roof to a concrete factory, and the huge church
above a bleached village. The gap between the driver
and me increased when he said:
“The place changing, eh?”
where an old rumshop had gone, but not that river
with its clogged shadows. That would make me a stranger.
“All to the good,” he said. I said, “All to the good,”
then, “whoever they are,” to myself. I caught his eyes
in the mirror. We were climbing out of Micoud.
Hadn’t I made their poverty my paradise?
His back could have been Hector’s, ferrying tourists
in the other direction home, the leopard seat
scratching their damp backs like the fur-covered armrests.
He had driven his burnt-out cargo, tired of sweat,
who longed for snow on the moon and didn’t have to face
the heat of that sinking sun, who knew a climate
as monotonous as this one could only produce
from its unvarying vegetation flashes
of a primal insight like those red-pronged lilies
that shot from the verge, that their dried calabashes
of fake African masks for a fake Achilles
rattled with the seeds that came from other men’s minds.
So let them think that. Who needed art in this place
where even the old women strode with stiff-backed spines,
and the fishermen had such adept thumbs, such grace
these people had, but what they envied most in them
was the calypso part, the Caribbean lilt
still in the shells of their ears, like the surf’s rhythm,
until too much happiness was shadowed with guilt
like any Eden, and they sighed at the sign:
HEWANNORRA (Iounalao), the gold sea
flat as a credit-card, extending its line
to a beach that now looked just like everywhere else,
Greece or Hawaii. Now the goddamn souvenir
felt absurd, excessive. The painted gourds, the shells.
Their own faces as brown as gourds. Mine felt as strange
as those at the counter feeling their bodies change.
Change lay in our silence. We had come to that bend
where the trees are warped by wind, and the cliffs, raw,
shelve surely to foam.
“Is right here everything end,”
the driver said, and rammed open the transport door
on his side, then mine.
“Anyway, chief, the view nice.”
I joined him at the gusting edge.
“His name was Hector.”
The name was bent like the trees on the precipice
to point inland. In its echo a man-o’-war
screamed on the wind. The driver moved off for a piss,
then shouted over his shoulder:
He would drive like a madman when the power took.
He had a nice woman. Maybe he died for her.”
For her and tourism, I thought. The driver shook
himself, zipping then hoisting his crotch.
a gentle fellow anyway, with a very good brain.”
Cut to a leopard galloping on a dry plain
across Serengeti. Cut to the spraying fans
drummed by a riderless stallion, its wild mane
scaring the Scamander. Cut to a woman’s hands
clenched towards her mouth with no sound. Cut to the wheel
of a chariot’s spiked hubcap. Cut to the face
of his muscling jaw, then flashback to Achille
hurling a red tin and a cutlass. Next, a vase
with a girl’s hoarse whisper echoing “Omeros,”
as in a conch-shell. Cut to a shield of silver
rolling like a hubcap. Rewind, in slow motion,
myrmidons gathering by a village river
with lances for oars. Cut to the surpliced ocean
droning its missal. Cut. A crane hoisting a wreck.
A horse nosing the surf, then shuddering its neck.
He’d paid the penalty of giving up the sea
as graceless and as treacherous as it had seemed,
for the taxi-business; he was making money,
but all of that money was making him ashamed
of the long afternoons of shouting by the wharf
hustling passengers. He missed the uncertain sand
under his feet, he sighed for the trough of a wave,
and the jerk of the oar when it turned in his hand,
and the rose conch sunset with its low pelicans.
Castries was corrupting him with its roaring life,
its littered market, with too many transport vans
competing. Castries had been his common-law wife
who, like Helen, he had longed for from a distance,
and now he had both, but a frightening discontent
hollowed his face; to find that the sea was a love
he could never lose made every gesture violent:
ramming the side-door shut, raking the clutch. He drove
as if driven by furies, but furies paid the rent.
A man who cursed the sea had cursed his own mother.
Mer was both mother and sea. In his lost canoe
he had said his prayers. But now he was in another
kind of life that was changing him with his brand-new
stereo, its endless garages, where he could not
whip off his shirt, hearing the conch’s summoning note.
Hector was buried near the sea he had loved once.
Not too far from the shallows where he fought Achille
for a tin and Helen. He did not hear the sea-almond’s
moan over the bay when Philoctete blew the shell,
nor the one drumbeat of a wave-thud, nor a sail
rattling to rest as its day’s work was over,
and its mate, gauging depth, bent over the gunwale,
then wearily sounding the fathoms with an oar,
the same rite his shipmates would repeat soon enough
when it was their turn to lie quiet as Hector,
lowering a pitch-pine canoe in the earth’s trough,
to sleep under the piled conchs, through every weather
on the violet-wreathed mound. Crouching for his friend to hear,
Achille whispered about their ancestral river,
and those things he would recognize when he got there,
his true home, forever and ever and ever,
forever, compère. Then Philoctete limped over
and rested his hand firmly on a shaking shoulder
to anchor his sorrow. Seven Seas and Helen
did not come nearer. Achille had carried an oar
to the church and propped it outside with the red tin.
Now his voice strengthened. He said: “Mate, this is your spear,”
and laid the oar slowly, the same way he had placed
the parallel oars in the hull of the gommier
the day the African swift and its shadow raced.
And this was the prayer that Achille could not utter:
“The spear that I give you, my friend, is only wood.
Vexation is past. I know how well you treat her.
You never know my admiration, when you stood
crossing the sun at the bow of the long canoe
with the plates of your chest like a shield; I would say
any enemy so was a compliment. ’Cause no
African ever hurled his wide seine at the bay
by which he was born with such beauty. You hear me? Men
did not know you like me. All right. Sleep good. Good night.”
Achille moved Philoctete’s hand, then he saw Helen
standing alone and veiled in the widowing light.
Then he reached down to the grave and lifted the tin
to her. Helen nodded. A wind blew out the sun.
Pride set in Helen’s face after this, like a stone
bracketed with Hector’s name; her lips were incised
by its dates in parenthesis. She seemed more stern,
more ennobled by distance as she slowly crossed
the hot street of the village like a distant sail
on the horizon. Grief heightened her. When she smiled
it was with such distance that it was hard to tell
if she had heard your condolence. It was the child,
Ma Kilman told them, that made her more beautiful.
The rites of the island were simplified by its elements,
which changed places. The grooved sea was Achille’s garden,
the ridged plot of rattling plantains carried their sense
of the sea, and Philoctete, on his height, often heard, in
a wind that suddenly churned the rage of deep gorges,
the leafy sound of far breakers plunging with smoke,
and for smoke there were the bonfires which the sun catches
on the blue heights at sunrise, doing the same work
as Philoctete clearing his plot, just as, at sunset,
smoke came from the glowing rim of the horizon as if
from his enamel pot. The woodsmoke smelt of a regret
that men cannot name. On the charred field, the massive
sawn trunks burnt slowly like towers, and the great
indigo dusk slowly plumed down, devouring the still leaves,
igniting the firefly huts, lifting the panicky egret
to beat its lagoon and shelve in the cage of the mangroves,
take in the spars of its sails, then with quick-pricking head
anchor itself shiftingly, and lift its question again.
At night, the island reversed its elements, the heron
of a quarter-moon floated from Hector’s grave, rain
rose upwards from the sea, and the corrugated iron
of the sea glittered with nailheads. Ragged
plantains bent and stepped with their rustling powers
over the furrows of Philoctete’s garden, a chorus of aged
ancestors and straw, and, rustling, surrounded every house
in the village with its back garden, with its rank midden
of rusted chamber pots, rotting nets, and the moon’s cold basin.
They sounded, when they shook, after the moonlit meridian
of their crossing, like the night-surf; they gazed in
silence at the shadows of their lamplit children.
At Philoctete, groaning and soaking the flower on his shin
with hot sulphur, cleaning its edges with yellow Vaseline,
and, gripping his knee, squeezing rags from the basin.
At night, when yards are asleep, and the broken line
of the surf hisses like Philo, “Bon Dieu, aie, waie, my sin
is this sore?” the old plantains suffer and shine.
Islands of bay leaves in the medicinal bath
of a cauldron, a sibylline cure. The citron
sprig of a lime-tree dividing the sky in half
dipped its divining rod. The white spray of the thorn,
which the swift bends lightly, waited for a black hand
to break it in bits and boil its leaves for the wound
from the pronged anchor rusting in clean bottom-sand.
Ma Kilman, in a black hat with its berried fringe,
eased herself sideways down the broken concrete step
of the rumshop’s back door, closed it, and rammed the hinge
tight. The bolt caught a finger and with that her instep
arch twisted and she let out a soft Catholic
curse, then crossed herself. She closed the gate. The asphalt
sweated with the heat, the limp breadfruit leaves were thick
over the fence. Her spectacles swam in their sweat.
She plucked an armpit. The damn wig was badly made.
She was going to five o’clock Mass, to la Messe,
and sometimes she had to straighten it as she prayed
until the wafer dissolved her with tenderness,
the way a raindrop melts on the tongue of a breeze.
In the church’s cool cave the sweat dried from her eyes.
She rolled down the elastic bands below the knees
of her swollen stockings. It was then that their vise
round her calves reminded her of Philoctete. Then,
numbering her beads, she began her own litany
of berries, Hail Mary marigolds that stiffen
their aureoles in the heights, mild anemone
and clear watercress, the sacred heart of Jesus
pierced like the anthurium, the thorns of logwood,
called the tree of life, the aloe good for seizures,
the hole in the daisy’s palm, with its drying blood
that was the hole in the fisherman’s shin since he was
pierced by a hook; there was the pale, roadside tisane
of her malarial childhood. There was this one
for easing a birth-breach, that one for a love-bath,
before the buds of green sugar-apples in the sun
ripened like her nipples in girlhood. But what path
led through nettles to the cure, the furious sibyl
couldn’t remember. Mimosa winced from her fingers,
shutting like jalousies at some passing evil
when she reached for them. The smell of incense lingers
in her clothes. Inside, the candle-flames are erect
round the bier of the altar while she and her friends
old-talk on the steps, but the plant keeps its secret
when her memory reaches, shuttering in its fronds.
The dew had not yet dried on the white-ribbed awnings
and the nodding palanquins of umbrella yams
where the dark grove had not heat but early mornings
of perpetual freshness, in which the bearded arms
of a cedar held council. Between its gnarled toes
grew the reek of an unknown weed; its pronged flower
sprang like a buried anchor; its windborne odours
diverted the bee from its pollen, but its power,
rooted in bitterness, drew her bowed head by the nose
as a spike does a circling bull. To approach it
Ma Kilman lowered her head to one side and screened
the stench with a cologned handkerchief. The mulch it
was rooted in carried the smell, when it gangrened,
of Philoctete’s cut. In her black dress, her berried
black hat, she climbed a goat-path up from the village,
past the stones with dried palms and conchs, where the buried
suffer the sun all day Sunday, while goats forage
the new wreaths. Once more she pulled at the itch in her
armpits, nearly dropping her purse. Then she climbed hard
up the rain-cracked path, the bay closing behind her
like a wound, and rested. Everything that echoed
repeated its outline: a goat’s doddering bleat,
a hammer multiplying a roof, and, through the back yards,
a mother cursing a boy too nimble to beat.
Ma Kilman picked up her purse and sighed on upwards
to the thread of the smell, one arm behind her back,
passing the cactus, the thorn trees, and then the wood
appeared over her, thick green, the green almost black
as her dress in its shade, its border of flowers
flecking the pasture with spray. Then she staggered back
from the line of ants at her feet. She saw the course
they had kept behind her, following her from church,
signalling a language she could not recognize.
A swift had carried the strong seed in its stomach
centuries ago from its antipodal shore,
skimming the sea-troughs, outdarting ospreys, her luck
held to its shadow. She aimed to carry the cure
that precedes every wound; the reversible Bight
of Benin was her bow, her target the ringed haze
of a circling horizon. The star-grains at night
made her hungrier; the leafless sea with no house
for her weariness. Sometimes she dozed in her flight
for a swift’s second, closing the seeds of her stare,
then ruddering straight. The dry sea-flakes whitened her
breast, her feathers thinned. Then, one dawn the day-star
rose slowly from the wrong place and it frightened her
because all the breakers were blowing from the wrong
east. She saw the horned island and uncurled her claws
with one frail cry, since swifts are not given to song,
and fluttered down to a beach, ejecting the seed
in grass near the sand. She nestled in dry seaweed.
In a year she was bleached bone. All of that motion
a pile of fragile ash from the fire of her will,
but the vine grew its own wings, out of the ocean
it climbed like the ants, the ancestors of Achille,
the women carrying coals after the dark door
slid over the hold. As the weed grew in odour
so did its strength at the damp root of the cedar,
where the flower was anchored at the mottled root
as a lizard crawled upwards, foot by sallow foot.
In a far country, and a distant age,
Ere sprites and fays had bade farewell to earth,
A boy was born of humble parentage;
The stars that shone upon his lonely birth
Did seem to promise sovereignty and fame—
Yet no tradition hath preserved his name.
’T is said that on the night when he was born,
A beauteous shape swept slowly through the room;
Its eyes broke on the infant like a morn,
And his cheek brightened like a rose in bloom;
But as it passed away there followed after
A sigh of pain, and sounds of elvish laughter.
And so his parents deemed him to be blest
Beyond the lot of mortals; they were poor
As the most timid bird that stored its nest
With the stray gleanings at their cottage-door:
Yet they contrived to rear their little dove,
And he repaid them with the tenderest love.
The child was very beautiful in sooth,
And as he waxed in years grew lovelier still;
On his fair brow the aureole of truth
Beamed, and the purest maidens, with a thrill,
Looked in his eyes, and from their heaven of blue
Saw thoughts like sinless Angels peering through.
Need there was none of censure or of praise
To mould him to the kind parental hand;
Yet there was ever something in his ways,
Which those about him could not understand;
A self-withdrawn and independent bliss,
Beside the father’s love, the mother’s kiss.
For oft, when he believed himself alone,
They caught brief snatches of mysterious rhymes,
Which he would murmur in an undertone,
Like a pleased bee’s in summer; and at times
A strange far look would come into his eyes,
As if he saw a vision in the skies.
And he upon a simple leaf would pore
As if its very texture unto him
Had some deep meaning; sometimes by the door,
From noon until a summer-day grew dim,
He lay and watched the clouds; and to his thought
Night with her stars but fitful slumbers brought.
In the long hours of twilight, when the breeze
Talked in low tones along the woodland rills,
Or the loud North its stormy minstrelsies
Blent with wild noises from the distant hills,
The boy—his rosy hand against his ear
Curved like a sea-shell—hushed as some rapt seer,
Followed the sounds, and ever and again,
As the wind came, and went, in storm or play,
He seemed to hearken as to some far strain
Of mingled voices calling him away;
And they who watched him held their breath to trace
The still and fixed attention in his face.
Once, on a cold and loud-voiced winter night,
The three were seated by their cottage-fire—
The mother watching by its flickering light
The wakeful urchin, and the dozing sire;
There was a brief, quick motion like a bird’s,
And the boy’s thought thus rippled into words:
“O mother! thou hast taught me many things,
But none I think more beautiful than speech—
A nobler power than even those broad wings
I used to pray for, when I longed to reach
That distant peak which on our vale looks down,
And wears the star of evening for a crown.
“But, mother, while our human words are rife
To us with meaning, other sounds there be
Which seem, and are, the language of a life
Around, yet unlike ours: winds talk; the sea
Murmurs articulately, and the sky
Listens, and answers, though inaudibly.
“By stream and spring, in glades and woodlands lone,
Beside our very cot, I’ve gathered flowers
Inscribed with signs and characters unknown;
But the frail scrolls still baffle all my powers:
What is this language and where is the key
That opes its weird and wondrous mystery?
“The forests know it, and the mountains know,
And it is written in the sunset’s dyes;
A revelation to the world below
Is daily going on before our eyes;
And, but for sinful thoughts, I do not doubt
That we could spell the thrilling secret out.
“O mother! somewhere on this lovely earth
I lived, and understood that mystic tongue,
But, for some reason, to my second birth
Only the dullest memories have clung,
Like that fair tree that even while blossoming
Keeps the dead berries of a former spring.
“Who shall put life in these?—my nightly dreams
Some teacher of supernal powers foretell;
A fair and stately shape appears, which seems
Bright with all truth; and once, in a dark dell
Within the forest, unto me there came
A voice that must be hers, which called my name.”
Puzzled and frightened, wondering more and more,
The mother heard, but did not comprehend;
“So early dallying with forbidden lore!
Oh, what will chance, and wherein will it end?
My child! my child!” she caught him to her breast,
“Oh, let me kiss these wildering thoughts to rest!
“They cannot come from God, who freely gives
All that we need to have, or ought to know;
Beware, my son! some evil influence strives
To grieve thy parents, and to work thee woe;
Alas! the vision I misunderstood!
It could not be an angel fair and good.”
And then, in low and tremulous tones, she told
The story of his birth-night; the boy’s eyes,
As the wild tale went on, were bright and bold,
With a weird look that did not seem surprise:
“Perhaps,” he said, “this lady and her elves
Will one day come, and take me to themselves.”
“And would’st thou leave us?” “Dearest mother, no!
Hush! I will check these thoughts that give thee pain;
Or, if they flow, as they perchance must flow,
At least I will not utter them again;
Hark! didst thou hear a voice like many streams?
Mother! it is the spirit of my dreams!”
Thenceforth, whatever impulse stirred below,
In the deep heart beneath that childish breast,
Those lips were sealed, and though the eye would glow,
Yet the brow wore an air of perfect rest;
Cheerful, content, with calm though strong control,
He shut the temple-portals of his soul.
And when too restlessly the mighty throng
Of fancies woke within his teeming mind,
All silently they formed in glorious song,
And floated off unheard, and undivined,
Perchance not lost—with many a voiceless prayer
They reached the sky, and found some record there.
Softly and swiftly sped the quiet days;
The thoughtful boy has blossomed into youth,
And still no maiden would have feared his gaze,
And still his brow was noble with the truth:
Yet though he masks the pain with pious art
There burns a restless fever in his heart.
A childish dream is now a deathless need
Which drives him to far hills and distant wilds;
The solemn faith and fervor of his creed
Bold as a martyr’s, simple as a child’s;
The eagle knew him as she knew the blast,
And the deer did not flee him as he passed.
But gentle even in his wildest mood,
Always, and most, he loved the bluest weather,
And in some soft and sunny solitude
Couched like a milder sunshine on the heather,
He communed with the winds, and with the birds,
As if they might have answered him in words.
Deep buried in the forest was a nook,
Remote and quiet as its quiet skies;
He knew it, sought it, loved it as a book
Full of his own sweet thoughts and memories;
Dark oaks and fluted chestnuts gathering round,
Pillared and greenly domed a sloping mound,
Whereof—white, purple, azure, golden, red,
Confused like hues of sunset—the wild flowers
Wove a rich dais; through crosslights overhead
Glanced the clear sunshine, fell the fruitful showers,
And here the shyest bird would fold her wings;
Here fled the fairest and the gentlest things.
Thither, one night of mist and moonlight, came
The youth, with nothing deeper in his thoughts
Than to behold beneath the silver flame
New aspects of his fair and favorite spot;
A single ray attained the ground, and shed
Just light enough to guide the wanderer’s tread.
And high and hushed arose the stately trees,
Yet shut within themselves, like dungeons, where
Lay fettered all the secrets of the breeze;
Silent, but not as slumbering, all things there
Wore to the youth’s aroused imagination
An air of deep and solemn expectation.
“Hath Heaven,” the youth exclaimed, “a sweeter spot,
Or Earth another like it?—yet even here
The old mystery dwells! and though I read it not,
Here most I hope—it is, or seems so near;
So many hints come to me, but, alas!
I cannot grasp the shadows as they pass.
“Here, from the very turf beneath me, I
Catch, but just catch, I know not what faint sound,
And darkly guess that from yon silent sky
Float starry emanations to the ground;
These ears are deaf, these human eyes are blind,
I want a purer heart, a subtler mind.
“Sometimes—could it be fancy?—I have felt
The presence of a spirit who might speak;
As down in lowly reverence I knelt,
Its very breath has kissed my burning cheek;
But I in vain have hushed my own to hear
A wing or whisper stir the silent air!”
Is not the breeze articulate? Hark! Oh, hark!
A distant murmur, like a voice of floods;
And onward sweeping slowly through the dark,
Bursts like a call the night-wind from the woods!
Low bow the flowers, the trees fling loose their dreams,
And through the waving roof a fresher moonlight streams.
“Mortal!”—the word crept slowly round the place
As if that wind had breathed it! From no star
Streams that soft lustre on the dreamer’s face.
Again a hushing calm! while faint and far
The breeze goes calling onward through the night.
Dear God! what vision chains that wide-strained sight?
Over the grass and flowers, and up the slope
Glides a white cloud of mist, self-moved and slow,
That, pausing at the hillock’s moonlit cope,
Swayed like a flame of silver; from below
The breathless youth with beating heart beholds
A mystic motion in its argent folds.
Yet his young soul is bold, and hope grows warm,
As flashing through that cloud of shadowy crape,
With sweep of robes, and then a gleaming arm,
Slowly developing, at last took shape
A face and form unutterably bright,
That cast a golden glamour on the night.
But for the glory round it it would seem
Almost a mortal maiden; and the boy,
Unto whom love was yet an innocent dream,
Shivered and crimsoned with an unknown joy;
As to the young Spring bounds the passionate South,
He could have clasped and kissed her mouth to mouth.
Yet something checked, that was and was not dread,
Till in a low sweet voice the maiden spake;
She was the Fairy of his dreams, she said,
And loved him simply for his human sake;
And that in heaven, wherefrom she took her birth,
They called her Poesy, the angel of the earth.
“And ever since that immemorial hour,
When the glad morning-stars together sung,
My task hath been, beneath a mightier Power,
To keep the world forever fresh and young;
I give it not its fruitage and its green,
But clothe it with a glory all unseen.
“I sow the germ which buds in human art,
And, with my sister, Science, I explore
With light the dark recesses of the heart,
And nerve the will, and teach the wish to soar;
I touch with grace the body’s meanest clay,
While noble souls are nobler for my sway.
“Before my power the kings of earth have bowed;
I am the voice of Freedom, and the sword
Leaps from its scabbard when I call aloud;
Wherever life in sacrifice is poured,
Wherever martyrs die or patriots bleed,
I weave the chaplet and award the meed.
“Where Passion stoops, or strays, is cold, or dead,
I lift from error, or to action thrill!
Or if it rage too madly in its bed,
The tempest hushes at my ‘peace! be still!’
I know how far its tides should sink or swell,
And they obey my sceptre and my spell.
“All lovely things, and gentle—the sweet laugh
Of children, Girlhood’s kiss, and Friendship’s clasp,
The boy that sporteth with the old man’s staff,
The baby, and the breast its fingers grasp—
All that exalts the grounds of happiness,
All griefs that hallow, and all joys that bless,
“To me are sacred; at my holy shrine
Love breathes its latest dreams, its earliest hints;
I turn life’s tasteless waters into wine,
And flush them through and through with purple tints.
Wherever Earth is fair, and Heaven looks down,
I rear my altars, and I wear my crown.
“I am the unseen spirit thou hast sought,
I woke those shadowy questionings that vex
Thy young mind, lost in its own cloud of thought,
And rouse the soul they trouble and perplex;
I filled thy days with visions, and thy nights
Blessed with all sweetest sounds and fairy sights.
“Not here, not in this world, may I disclose
The mysteries in which this life is hearsed;
Some doubts there be that, with some earthly woes,
By Death alone shall wholly be dispersed;
Yet on those very doubts from this low sod
Thy soul shall pass beyond the stars to God.
“And so to knowledge, climbing grade by grade,
Thou shalt attain whatever mortals can,
And what thou may’st discover by my aid
Thou shalt translate unto thy brother man;
And men shall bless the power that flings a ray
Into their night from thy diviner day.
“For from thy lofty height, thy words shall fall
Upon their spirits, like bright cataracts
That front a sunrise; thou shalt hear them call
Amid their endless waste of arid facts,
As wearily they plod their way along,
Upon the rhythmic zephyrs of thy song.
“All this is in thy reach, but much depends
Upon thyself—thy future I await;
I give the genius, point the proper ends,
But the true bard is his own only Fate;
Into thy soul my soul have I infused;
Take care thy lofty powers be wisely used.
“The Poet owes a high and holy debt,
Which, if he feel, he craves not to be heard
For the poor boon of praise, or place, nor yet
Does the mere joy of song, as with the bird
Of many voices, prompt the choral lay
That cheers that gentle pilgrim on his way.
“Nor may he always sweep the passionate lyre,
Which is his heart, only for such relief
As an impatient spirit may desire,
Lest, from the grave which hides a private grief,
The spells of song call up some pallid wraith
To blast or ban a mortal hope or faith.
“Yet over his deep soul, with all its crowd
Of varying hopes and fears, he still must brood;
As from its azure height a tranquil cloud
Watches its own bright changes in the flood;
Self-reading, not self-loving—they are twain—
And sounding, while he mourns, the depths of pain.
“Thus shall his songs attain the common breast,
Dyed in his own life’s blood, the sign and seal,
Even as the thorns which are the martyr’s crest,
That do attest his office, and appeal
Unto the universal human heart
In sanction of his mission and his art.
“Much yet remains unsaid—pure must he be;
Oh, blessed are the pure! for they shall hear
Where others hear not, see where others see
With a dazed vision: who have drawn most near
My shrine, have ever brought a spirit cased
And mailed in a body clean and chaste.
“The Poet to the whole wide world belongs,
Even as the teacher is the child’s—I said
No selfish aim should ever mar his songs,
But self wears many guises; men may wed
Self in another, and the soul may be
Self to its centre, all unconsciously.
“And therefore must the Poet watch, lest he,
In the dark struggle of this life, should take
Stains which he might not notice; he must flee
Falsehood, however winsome, and forsake
All for the Truth, assured that Truth alone
Is Beauty, and can make him all my own.
“And he must be as armed warrior strong,
And he must be as gentle as a girl,
And he must front, and sometimes suffer wrong,
With brow unbent, and lip untaught to curl;
For wrath, and scorn, and pride, however just,
Fill the clear spirit’s eyes with earthly dust.”
The story came to me—it recks not whence—
In fragments. Oh! if I could tell it all,
If human speech indeed could tell it all,
’T were not a whit less wondrous, than if I
Should find, untouched in leaf and stem, and bright
As when it bloomed three thousand years ago
On some Idalian slope, a perfect rose.
Alas! a leaf or two, and they perchance
Scarce worth the hiving, one or two dead leaves
Are the sole harvest of a summer’s toil.
There was a moment, ne’er to be recalled,
When to the Poet’s hope within my heart,
They wore a tint like life’s, but in my hand,
I know not why, they withered. I have heard
Somewhere, of some dead monarch, from the tomb
Where he had slept a century and more,
Brought forth, that when the coffin was laid bare,
Albeit the body in its mouldering robes
Was fleshless, yet one feature still remained
Perfect, or perfect seemed at least; the eyes
Gleamed for a second on the startled crowd,
And then went out in ashes. Even thus
The story, when I drew it from the grave
Where it had lain so long, did seem, I thought,
Not wholly lifeless; but even while I gazed
To fix its features on my heart, and called
The world to wonder with me, lo! it proved
I looked upon a corpse!
What further fell
In that lone forest nook, how much was taught,
How much was only hinted, what the youth
Promised, if promise were required, to do
Or strive for, what the gifts he bore away—
Or added powers or blessings—how at last,
The vision ended and he sought his home,
How lived there, and how long, and when he passed
Into the busy world to seek his fate,
I know not, and if any ever knew,
The tale hath perished from the earth; for here
The slender thread on which my song is strung
Breaks off, and many after-years of life
Are lost to sight, the life to reappear
Only toward its close—as of a dream
We catch the end, and opening, but forget
That which had joined them in the dreaming brain;
Or as a mountain with a belt of mist
That shows his base, and far above, a peak
With a blue plume of pines.
But turn the page
And read the only hints that yet remain.
It is not winter yet, but that sweet time
In autumn when the first cool days are past;
A week ago, the leaves were hoar with rime,
And some have dropped before the North wind’s blast;
But the mild hours are back, and at mid-noon,
The day hath all the genial warmth of June.
What slender form lies stretched along the mound?
Can it be his, the Wanderer’s, with that brow
Gray in its prime, those eyes that wander round
Listlessly, with a jaded glance that now
Seems to see nothing where it rests, and then
Pores on each trivial object in its ken?
See how a gentle maid’s wan fingers clasp
The last fond love-notes of some faithless hand;
Thus with a transient interest, his weak grasp
Holds a few leaves as when of old he scanned
The meaning in their gold and crimson streaks,
But the sweet dream has vanished! hush! he speaks!
“Once more, once more, after long pain and toil,
And yet not long, if I should count by years,
I breathe my native air, and tread the soil
I trod in childhood; if I shed no tears,
No happy tears, ’t is that their fount is dry,
And joy that cannot weep must sigh, must sigh.
“These leaves, my boyish books in days of yore,
When, as the weeks sped by, I seemed to stand
Ever upon the brink of some wild lore,
These leaves shall make my bed, and—for the hand
Of God is on me, chilling brain and breath—
I shall not ask a softer couch in death.
“Here was it that I saw, or dreamed I saw,
I know not which, that shape of love and light.
Spirit of Song! have I not owned thy law?
Have I not taught, or striven to teach the right,
And kept my heart as clean, my life as sweet,
As mortals may, when mortals mortals meet?
“Thou know’st how I went forth, my youthful breast
On fire with thee, amid the paths of men;
Once in my wanderings, my lone footsteps pressed
A mountain forest; in a sombre glen,
Down which its thunderous boom a cataract flung,
A little bird, unheeded, built and sung.
“So fell my voice amid the whirl and rush
Of human passions; if unto my art
Sorrow hath sometimes owed a gentler gush,
I know it not; if any Poet-heart
Hath kindled at my songs its light divine,
I know it not; no ray came back to mine.
“Alone in crowds, once more I sought to make
Of senseless things my friends; the clouds that burn
Above the sunset, and the flowers that shake
Their odors in the wind—these would not turn
Their faces from me; far from cities, I
Forgot the scornful world that passed me by.
“Yet even the world’s cold slights I might have borne,
Nor fled, though sorrowing; but I shrank at last
When one sweet face, too sweet, I thought, for scorn,
Looked scornfully upon me; then I passed
From all that youth had dreamed or manhood planned,
Into the self that none would understand.
“She was—I never wronged her womanhood
By crowning it with praises not her own—
She was all earth’s, and earth’s, too, in that mood
When she brings forth her fairest; I atone
Now, in this fading brow and failing frame,
That such a soul such soul as mine could tame.
“Clay to its kindred clay! I loved in sooth
Too deeply and too purely to be blest;
With something more of lust and less of truth
She would have sunk all blushes on my breast,
And—but I must not blame her—in my ear
Death whispers! and the end, thank God! draws near!”
Hist! on the perfect silence of the place
Comes and dies off a sound like far-off rain
With voices mingled; on the Poet’s face
A shadow, where no shadow should have lain,
Falls the next moment: nothing meets his sight,
Yet something moves betwixt him and the light.
And a voice murmurs, “Wonder not, but hear!
Me to behold again thou need’st not seek;
Yet by the dim-felt influence on the air,
And by the mystic shadow on thy cheek,
Know, though thou may’st not touch with fleshly hands,
The genius of thy life beside thee stands!
“Unto no fault, O weary-hearted one!
Unto no fault of man’s thou ow’st thy fate;
All human hearts that beat this earth upon,
All human thoughts and human passions wait
Upon the genuine bard, to him belong,
And help in their own way the Poet’s song.
“How blame the world? for the world hast thou wrought?
Or wast thou but as one who aims to fling
The weight of some unutterable thought
Down like a burden? what from questioning
Too subtly thy own spirit, and to speech
But half subduing themes beyond the reach
“Of mortal reason; what from living much
In that dark world of shadows, where the soul
Wanders bewildered, striving still to clutch,
Yet never clutching once, a shadowy goal,
Which always flies, and while it flies seems near,
Thy songs were riddles hard to mortal ear.
“This was the hidden selfishness that marred
Thy teachings ever; this the false key-note
That on such souls as might have loved thee jarred
Like an unearthly language; thou did’st float
On a strange water; those who stood on land
Gazed, but they could not leave their beaten strand.
“Your elements were different, and apart—
The world’s and thine—and even in those intense
And watchful broodings o’er thy inmost heart,
It was thy own peculiar difference
That thou did’st seek; nor did’st thou care to find
Aught that would bring thee nearer to thy kind.
“Not thus the Poet, who in blood and brain
Would represent his race and speak for all,
Weaves the bright woof of that impassioned strain
Which drapes, as if for some high festival
Of pure delights—whence few of human birth
May rightly be shut out—the common earth.
“As the same law that moulds a planet, rounds
A drop of dew, so the great Poet spheres
Worlds in himself; no selfish limit bounds
A sympathy that folds all characters,
All ranks, all passions, and all life almost
In its wide circle. Like some noble host,
“He spreads the riches of his soul, and bids
Partake who will. Age has its saws of truth,
And love is for the maiden’s drooping lids,
And words of passion for the earnest youth;
Wisdom for all; and when it seeks relief,
Tears, and their solace for the heart of grief.
“Nor less on him than thee, the mysteries
Within him and about him ever weigh—
The meanings in the stars, and in the breeze,
All the weird wonders of the common day,
Truths that the merest point removes from reach,
And thoughts that pause upon the brink of speech;
“But on the surface of his song, these lie
As shadows, not as darkness; and alway,
Even though it breathe the secrets of the sky,
There is a human purpose in the lay;
As some tall fir that whispers to the stars
Shields at its base a cotter’s lattice-bars.
“Even such my Poet! for thou still art mine!
Thou might’st have been, and now have calmly died,
A priest, and not a victim at the shrine;
Alas! yet was it all thy fault? I chide,
Perchance, myself within thee, and the fate
To which thy power was solely consecrate.
“Thy life hath not been wholly without use,
Albeit that use is partly hidden now;
In thy unmingled scorn of any truce
With this world’s specious falsehoods, often thou
Hast uttered, through some all unworldly song,
Truths that for man might else have slumbered long.
“And these not always vainly on the crowd
Have fallen; some are cherished now, and some,
In mystic phrases wrapped as in a shroud,
Wait the diviner, who as yet is dumb
Upon the breast of God—the gate of birth
Closed on a dreamless ignorance of earth.
“And therefore, though thy name shall pass away,
Even as a cloud that hath wept all its showers,
Yet as that cloud shall live again one day
In the glad grass, and in the happy flowers,
So in thy thoughts, though clothed in sweeter rhymes,
Thy life shall bear its flowers in future times.”
Currently this poetry engine looks a set of features about the poems and chooses a poem with the most similar set of features. Below you can see the features of each poem. Right now "most similar" is a simple Euclidean distance. Further work includes adding more sophisticated features and determining similarity differently. I talk about the features and similarity metric more on the about page.
|Feature||from Omeros||A Vision of Poesy|