Actaeon

Fair bloomed the happy world, fair bloomed the May,
But over Lethe came no bloom nor change,
Only the ancient languor; soft and smooth,
Save where a slumbrous poppy, nodding low,
Trailed into ripples, Lethe slipped away;
And there the dead, fresh from the bright world, came,
And drank forgetfulness—one cup for all,
Whether their crown of life were flower or thorn,
Their draught of life proved sweet or bitter wine.
There statesmen, soldiers, leaders of their times,
Heart-worn with blazing out new paths for truth,
Drank with their meanest follower, side by side;
Two lovers there, one with the passionate kiss
Of sweet lips clinging, one in patient love
Of those same lips, which never might be his,
Together drank, and equally forgot;
Thither came joy and sorrow ceaselessly,
And straight passed over, levelled unto peace.
But with them came a spirit not for peace;
Violently, as one half crazed, he came
Down to the banks of Lethe. There he stood;
As a true arrow, springing from the bow,
Cleaves a long arch, then quivers in the gold,
So fled the spirit to the banks and stood.
A moment so; then to the dead cried out:
“What drink ye here?” And one is answer told,
Stammering for amazement, of the stream
That stills the love of life, and sweetens death
With pure forgetfulness. Then rang that land
And loud re-echoed with the strangest voice.
The strangest cry, that ever startled hell:
“Better a life of torture, death of shame,
And sorrow lasting on to many deaths,
Than peace for me, bought by forgetfulness!”
He stood erect, the rough wild hair blown back,
As from swift running; at his heart one hand.
The other raised as if to warn the dead
From Lethe; and his face—more than the light
Of life and youth and May burned in that brow
And flushed those lips, pain-set; his eyes seemed blind
Of glory, as from gazing on the sun.
As when a tree falls prone across a brook,
And gathers up its waters to a pool,
So rose the startled dead around him there,
And wondered at him.
Then a woman spoke:
“Wouldst thou remember now? When the light goes,
Why lay another shadow on the dark?
Has sorrow met thee? There are double scars
For wounds remembered; here no memory lives;
No more thy thought shall cling to what is gone—
How can the ivy climb when the house falls?”
He almost smiled, for pity; then there flamed
Fire in his eyes, and his heart filled his voice.
“Oft as I hunted through the summer woods,
The wind would fly with me and spur me on,
The low pine-sweetness urge me, fern and flower
Lean to my flight, and whisper after me,
Till the wide forest fell to murmuring
Of sounds that echoed clearer than the pack,
And followed something swifter than the deer.
But when I rested breathless, at the noon,
The whole world came to silence suddenly,
With one refrain still lasting on to haunt me
Of what the woods sang:
‘Every flower of the world
Waits to be gazed on; all the honey of the earth
Waits to be gathered; no forbidden sweets,
And no forbidden beauty.’
So befell
This morning, that I hunted till the noon,
And thirsting, came upon a forest pool,
A silver mirror where the sun looked in.
I came a-tiptoe, for the forest song
Was on me—‘All the honey of the earth’—when, hark!
A whirl of laughter never brook could sing,
Though silver pebbles teased it into song.
O perilous music! Marvelling I stood
For one dear moment, dreaming not at all
To break the age-long privacy of gods;
But then the breeze stirred—‘Every flower of the world’—
O the music, O the wild refrain
That rapt my soul! I drew the leaves apart—
I looked on Dian!
Knee-deep in the pool,
So white against the forest; all her hair
Falling in tangles, dark against the white,
And dripping silver in the noonday sun.
She raised her eyes, the swift blush covered her,
One divine rose burning with terrible fire.
Lightly she dipped her fingers in the pool,
And lightly flung the silver in my eyes,
And I, amazed to be so gently used,
Still poring on her beauty—all at once
I felt the bow and quiver slip my fingers;
My hand was as the hoof of a great stag;
A hairy covering fringed my eyes, and clothed
My limbs with awful change; then keen I felt
The branching antlers cleave my brow, and knew
A sudden trembling, not like human fear,
Bite at my heart.
She watched me, still as death,
Nor longer cared to screen herself; the blush
Fell from her face like the deep set of sun,
That brings the stars out cold; but as I looked,
Her beauty grew and kindled in the cold,
Until my heart broke into fire before it,
And the fear passed away.
I heard the pack
Crying; deep pity changed her look. I knew,
But left her not, so marvellous the pity
That drew her eyes to mine. They slew me there,
My own poor hounds, but, ere I fell, I saw
Her face grow sorrowful. How can I forget
That divine face? Ye may forget, but I
Gazed once on beauty till her glance grew kind,
Suffered the cost of it, drank of the bliss,
And evermore remember.”
High the voice
Rang o'er that dismal country, triumphing,
And a great glory flushed Actæon's face.
But ere the silence half resumed itself
Back from the echo, turned the spirit band
Incredulous, forth to their flight again.
As when strong rising waters burst the dam,
Sweep clear the river-bed, and only leave
One stubborn buttress stiff against the flood,
So stood Actæon while the dead rushed by.
“One draught of Lethe for a world of pain?
An easy bargain; yet I keep the thorn,
To keep the rose. I will remember Dian;
If I forget, who shall remain to tell
What beauty was? Perchance the gods have kept.
Some unillumined corner of deep hell
To brighten with this memory. This I know:
They have no power to take her from me, more
Than she could keep me from her in the world,
Nor death could keep me!”
Slowly turned he then
Where the dark country sleeps beneath the gloom;
And as he went, the glory of his face
Spread gleams before him, like the coming dawn—
Trailed brightness after, like the fading day;
And when he passed, the quiet gloom returned.
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