A Ballad in Blank Verse

His father's house looked out across a firth

Broad-bosomed like a mere, beside a town

Far in the North, where Time could take his ease,

And Change hold holiday; where Old and New

Weltered upon the border of the world.

" Oh now," he thought — a youth whose sultry eyes,

Bold brow and wanton mouth were not all lust,

But haunted from within and from without

By memories, visions, hopes, divine desires —

" Now may my life beat out upon this shore

A prouder music than the winds and waves

Can compass in their haughtiest moods. I need

No world more spacious than the region here:

The foam-embroidered firth, a purple path

For argosies that still on pinions speed,

Or fiery-hearted cleave with iron limbs

And bows precipitous the pliant sea;

The sloping shores that fringe the velvet tides

With heavy bullion and with golden lace

Of restless pebble woven and fine spun sand;

The villages that sleep the winter through,

And, wakening with the spring, keep festival

All summer and all autumn: this grey town

That pipes the morning up before the lark

With shrieking steam, and from a hundred stalks

Lacquers the sooty sky; where hammers clang

On iron hulls, and cranes in harbours creak

Rattle and swing, whole cargoes on their necks;

Where men sweat gold that others hoard or spend,

And lurk like vermin in their narrow streets:

This old grey town, this firth, the further strand

Spangled with hamlets, and the wooded steeps,

Whose rocky tops behind each other press,

Fantastically carved like antique helms

High-hung in heaven's cloudy armoury,

Is world enough for me. Here daily dawn

Burns through the smoky east; with fire-shod feet

The sun treads heaven, and steps from hill to hill

Downward before the night that still pursues

His crimson wake; here winter plies his craft,

Soldering the years with ice; here spring appears,

Caught in a leafless brake, her garland torn,

Breathless with wonder, and the tears half-dried

Upon her rosy cheek; here summer comes

And wastes his passion like a prodigal

Right royally; and here her golden gains

Free-handed as a harlot autumn spends;

And here are men to know, women to love."

His father, woman-hearted, great of soul,

Wilful and proud, save for one little shrine

That held a pinch-beck cross, had closed and barred

The many mansions of his intellect.

" My son," he said — to him, fresh from his firth

And dreams at evening; while his mother sat,

She also with her dingy crucifix

And feeble rushlight, praying for her boy —

" My son, have you decided for the Lord?

Your mother's heart and mine are exercised

For your salvation. Will you turn to Christ?

Now, young and strong, you hanker for the world;

But think: the longest life must end at last,

And then come Death and Judgment. Are you fit

To meet your God before the great white throne?

If on the instant Death should summon you,

What doom would the Eternal Judge pronounce —

" Depart from me," or " Sit on My right hand?"

In life it is your privilege to choose,

But after death you have no choice at all.

Die unbelieving, and in endless woe

You must believe throughout eternity.

My son, reject not Christ; he pleads through me;

The Holy Spirit uses my poor words.

How it would fill your mother's heart and mine,

And God's great heart with joy unspeakable,

Were you, a helpless sinner, now to cry,

" Lord I believe: help Thou mine unbelief."

He clenched his teeth; his blood, fulfilled of brine,

Of sunset, and his dreams, boomed in his ears.

A vision rose before him; and the sound

Husky and plaintive of his father's voice

Seemed unintelligible and afar.

He saw Apollo on the Dardan beach:

The waves lay still; the winds hung motionless,

And held their breath to hear the rebel god,

Conquered and doomed, with stormy sobbing song,

And crashing discords of his golden lyre,

Reluctantly compel the walls of Troy,

Unquarried and unhewn, in supple lines

And massive strength to rise about the town.

A quavering voice shattered his fantasy:

His father's pleading done, his mother cried,

With twitching forehead, scalding tears that broke

The seal of wrinkled eyelids, mortised hands

Where knuckles jutted white: " Almighty God! —

Almighty God! — Oh, save my foolish boy."

He glanced about the dreary parlour, clenched

His teeth, and once again his blood, fulfilled

Of brine, of sunset, and his dreams, exhaled

A vision. While his parents clutched their hearts,

Expecting his conversion instantly,

And listened if perchance they might o'erhear

The silent heavens burst into applause

Over one lost repentant, he beheld

The Cyprian Aphrodite, all one blush

And glance of passion, from the violet sea

Step inland, fastening as she went her zone.

She reached a gulf that opened in the ground

Deep in a leafless wood and waited there,

Battling the darkness with her wistful eyes.

Then suddenly she blanched and blushed again,

And her divinely pulsing body bowed

With outstretched arms over the yawning earth.

Straightway Adonis, wonderstruck and pale,

Stole from the sepulchre, a moonbeam wraith.

But Aphrodite with a golden cry

That echoed round the world and shook the stars,

Caught him and thawed him in her warm embrace,

And murmuring kisses bore him to her bower.

Then all the trees were lit with budding flames

Of emerald, and all the meads and leas,

Coverts and shady places, glades and dells,

Odoured and dimly stained with opening flowers,

And loud with love-songs of impassioned birds,

Became the shrine and hostel of the spring.

His wanton face grew sweet and wonderful,

Beholding Aphrodite. But they thought —

His father and his mother, sick with hope —

It was the Holy Ghost's effectual call.

Entranced he rose and glided from the room;

They, undeceived, like little children sobbed.

Slowly he broke his mother's tender heart,

Until she died in anguish for his sins.

His father then besought him on his knees,

With tears and broken speech and pleading hands

" My son," he said, " you open all the wounds

Daily and nightly of the Lord of Heaven:

You killed your mother, you are killing me:

Is it not sin enough, poor foolish boy?"

For this was in the North, where Time stands still

And Change holds holiday, where Old and New

Welter upon the border of the world,

And savage faith works woe.

" Oh, let me be!"

The dreamer cried, and rushing from the house

He sought the outcast Aphrodite, dull,

Tawdry, unbeautiful, but still divine

Even in the dark streets of a noisome port.

At times he wrote his dreams, rebellious still

That he should be constrained to please himself

As one is eased by roaring on the rack.

Desperate he grew, and wandering by his firth,

Exclaimed against the literature he loved.

" Lies, lies!" he muttered. " And the noblest, lies!

Why should we lie? what penalty is this —

To write, and sing, and think, and speculate,

Hag-ridden by ideas, or 'twixt the shafts

Like broken horses, blinded, bitted, reined,

And whipped about the world by steel-tagged creeds!"

Wasted and sad with wantonness, and wan

With fantasy — a furnace seven times hot,

Wherein he tried all things; and wrung with woe

To see his father dying for his sake,

And by the memory of his mother's death,

He yielded tamely and professed himself

Convinced of sin but confident in Christ.

Then to the table of the Lord he went,

Ghastly, with haunted eyes that shone, and limbs

That scarcely bore him, like a heretic

Led to the chamber where tormentors stood

Muffled and silent, earnest to explore,

With cunning flames and cords and engines dire,

The sunken wells of pain, the gloomy gulfs

Obscurely wallowing in the souls of men.

In solemn tones the grey-haired presbyter —

" This is My body whicHis given for you,

This do in memory of Me."

The boy,

Whose blood within him clamoured like a storm,

Uttered a smothered cry and rose, but lo!

The happy triumph on his father's face!

" Why do I not die now? like husks of corn,

The bread, like vitriol the sip of wine!

I eat and drink damnation to myself

To give my father's troubled spirit peace."

The stealthy elders creaked about the floor,

Guiding the cup and platter; looking down,

The children in the gallery smirked and watched

Who took the deepest draught; and ancient dames

Crumpled their folded handerchiefs, and pressed

With knuckly fingers sprays of southernwood.

Ah! down no silver beam the Holy Grail

Glided from Heaven, a crimson cup that throbbed

As throbs the heart divine; no aching sounds

Of scarce-heard music stole into the aisle,

Like disembodied pulses beating love.

But in the evening by the purple firth

He walked, and saw brown locks upon the brine,

And pale hands beckon him to come away,

Where mermaids, with their harps and golden combs,

Sit throned upon the carven antique poops

Of treasure-ships, and soft sea-dirges sing

Over the green-gilt bones of mariners.

He saw vast forms and dreadful draw aside

The flowing crimson curtains of the west

With far-off thundrous rustle, and threaten him

From heaven's porch; beneath his feet the earth

Quaked like a flame-sapped bridge that spans the wave

Of fiery Phlegethon; and in the wind

An icy voice was borne from some waste place,

Piercing him to the marrow. Night came down,

And still he wandered helpless by the firth,

That under clouded skies gleamed black and smooth

Like cooling pitch. But when the moon broke out

And poured athwart the glittering ebony

Torrents of molten silver, hurtling thoughts

Trooped forth disorderly.

" I'll have no creed,

He said. " Though I be weakest of my kind,

I'll have no creed. Lo! there is but one creed,

The vulture-phaenix that for ever tears

The soul of man in chains of flesh and blood

Rivetted to the earth; the clime, the time,

Change but its plumage. Gluttonous bird of prey,

More fatal than all famines, plagues and wars,

I wrench you off, although my soul go too!

With bloody claws and dripping beak unfleshed,

Spread out your crackling vans that darken heaven;

Rabid and curst, fly yelping where you list!

Henceforth I shall be God; for consciousness

Is God: I suffer; I am God: this Self,

That all the universe combines to quell,

Is greater than the universe; and I

Am that I am. To think and not be God? —

It cannot be! Lo! I shall spread this news,

And gather to myself a band of Gods —

An army, and go forth against the world,

Conquering and to conquer. Snowy steppes

Of Muscovy, frost-bound Siberian plains,

And scalding sands of Ethiopia,

Where groans oppress the bosom of the wind,

And men in gangs are driven to icy graves,

Or lashed to brutish slavery under suns

Whose sheer beams scorch and flay like burning blades,

Shall ring, enfranchised, with divine delight.

At home, where millions mope, in labyrinths

Of hideous streets astray without a clue,

Unfed, unsexed, unsoulled, unhelped, I bring

Life, with the gospel, " Up, quit you like Gods! "

Possessed with this, upon his father's hour

Of new-found happiness he burst, and cried,

" Father, my father, I have news to tell!

I know the word that shall uproot the thrones

Of oldest monarchs, and for ever lay

The doting phantom with the triple crown:

A word dynamic with the power of doom

To blast conventicles and parliaments,

Unsolder federations, crumble states,

And in the fining pot cast continents.

A word that shall a new beginning be,

And out of chaos make the world again.

Behold, my father! we, who heretofore,

Fearful and weak, deep-dyed in Stygian creeds

Against the shafts of pain and woe, have walked

The throbbing earth, most vulnerable still

In every pore and nerve: we, trembling things,

Who but an hour ago in frantic dread

Burned palsied women, and with awe beheld

A shaven pate mutter a latin spell

Over a biscuit: we, even we are Gods!

Nothing beneath, about us, or above

Is higher than ourselves. Henceforth degree,

Authority, religion, government,

Employer and employed are obsolete

As penal torture or astrology.

The mighty spirit of the universe,

Conscious in us, shall" . . .

Suddenly aware

Of gaping horror on his father's face,

He paused; and he, the old man, white as death,

With eyes like stars upon the crack of doom,

Rose quaking; and " The unpardonable sin! —

The unpardonable sin!" he whispered hoarse.

" This was the sin of Lucifer — to make

Himself God's equal. If I may, my son —

If it be God's will, I shall go to hell

To be beside you. I shall be there first:

I have not many hours to live. I thought —

Here as I sat beside your mother's chair —

I — my boy! — I wander somewhat. Let me —

I'll sit again. — Let me remember now

How happy I have been to-day, my son

A member of the Church of Christ, and I

Beside him at Communion, seeing him

And seeing at the window of heaven the face

Of her who bore him, sweet and glorified.

At home I sit and think that, as he lived

Most absolute in sin, he shall, like Paul

Be as insatiable in doing well.

I think how, when my time comes, I shall go

And tell his mother of his holy life

Of labour for the Lord; and then I see

My boy at last appear before the Throne.

" By what right com'st thou here? " the Judge demands.

He hangs his head; but round about him throng

A crowd of souls, who cry " He was our staff;

He led us here. " " Sit thou on My right hand, "

The sentence falls; and we, my wife and I,

Awaiting you. . . . There came a devil in

Wearing the likeness of my boy, and said

He was predestined for a reprobate,

A special vessel of the wrath of God.

Holy he was begotten; holy born;

With tearful prayers attended all his life;

Cherished with scrupulous love, and shown the path

To heaven by her who ne'er shall see him there;

For out of this there comes but blasphemy

And everlasting Hell. . . . Ah! who are these?

My soul is hustled by a multitude

Of wild-eyed prodigals and wrenched about.

Boy, help me to blaspheme. I cannot face

Without you her that nursed you at her breast.

Let us curse God together and going forth

Plunge headlong in the waves, and be at rest

In Hell for evermore. Some end to this! —

This awful gnawing pain in every part!

Or certainty that this will never end!

This, now, is Hell! . . . There was a paltry way

Of fooling God some casuists hit upon.

How went it? Yes, that God did fore-ordain

And so foreknew that those who should believe

Should enter glory of their own free-will.

Ah! pink of blasphemies that makes of God

An impotent spectator! Let us two

Believe in this, and that shall damn us best! . .

I dare, but cannot; for the Lord of Hosts,

The God of my salvation, is my God:

He, ere the world began, predestined me

To life eternal: to the bitter end

Against my will I persevere, a saint;

And find my will at length the will of God.

What is my son, and what the hopes and fears

Of my dead wife and me before the flame

Of God's pure purpose, His, from whose dread eyes

The earth and heaven fled and found no place!

Beside the crystal river I shall walk

For ever with the Lord. The city of gold,

The jasper walls thereof, the gates of pearl,

The bright foundation-stones of emerald,

Of sapphire, chrysoprase, of every gem,

And the high triumph of unending day

Shall be but wildfire on a summer eve

Beside the exceeding glory of delight,

That shall entrance me with the constant thought

Of how in Hell through all eternity

My son performs the perfect will of God.

Amen. I come, Lord Jesus. If his sin

Be not to death . . . Heaven opens!" . . .

Thus he died;

For this was in the North where Time stands still,

And Change holds holiday; where Old and New

Welter upon the border of the world,

And savage creeds can kill.

The trembling boy

Knelt down, but dared to think, " A dreadful death!

To die believing in so dull a God,

A useless Hell, a jewel-huckster's Heaven!"

Forthwith it flashed like light across his mind,

" If it be terrible into the hands

Of the living God to fall, how much more dire

To sicken face to face, like our sad age,

Chained to an icy corpse of deity,

Decked though it be and painted and embalmed!"

He took his father's hand and kissed his brow

And, weeping like a woman, watched him long;

Then softly rose and stepped into the night.

He stood beside the house a little space,

Hearing the wind speak low in whispers quaint,

An irresponsible and wandering voice.

But soon he hastened to the water's edge;

For from the shore there came sea-minstrelsy

Of waves that broke upon the hollow beach,

With liquid sound of pearling surges blent,

Cymbals, and muffled drums and dulcimers.

Sparse diamonds in the dead-black dome of night,

A few stars lit the moon-deserted air

And swarthy heaving of the firth obscure.

He, knowing every rock and sandy reach,

All night unfalteringly walked the shore,

While tempest after tempest rose and fell

Within his soul, that like an o'er-wrought sea

Laboured to burst its continent and hang

Some glittering trophy high among the stars.

At last the fugal music of the tide,

With cymbals, muffled drums, and dulcimers,

Into his blood a rhythmic measure beat,

And gave his passion scope and way in words.

" How unintelligent, how blind am I,

How vain!" he cried. " A God? a mole, a worm!

An engine frail, of brittle bones conjoined;

With tissue packed; with nerves, transmitting force;

And driven by water, thick and coloured red:

That may for some few pence a day be hired

In thousands to be shot at! Oh, a God,

That lies and steals and murders! Such a God

Passionate, dissolute, incontinent!

A God that starves in thousands, and ashamed,

Or shameless in the workhouse lurks; that sweats

In mines and foundries! An enchanted God,

Whose nostrils in a palace breathe perfume,

Whose cracking shoulders hold the palace up,

Whose shoeless feet are rotting in the mire!

A God who said a little while ago,

" I'll have no creed; " and of his Godhood straight

Patched up a creed unwittingly — with which

He went and killed his father. Subtle lie

That tempts our weakness always; magical,

And magically changed to suit the time!

" Lo, ye shall be as Gods! " — the serpent's cry — ,

Rose up again, " Ye shall be sons of God; "

And now the glosing word is in the air,

" Thou shalt be God by simply taking thought. "

And if one could, believing this, convert

A million to be upright, chaste and strong,

Gentle and tolerant, it were but to found

A new religion, bringing new offence,

Setting the child against the father still.

Some thought imprisons us; we set about

To bring the world within the woven spell:

Our ruthless creeds that bathe the earth in blood

Are moods by alchemy made dogmas of —

The petrifaction of a metaphor.

No creed for me! I am a man apart:

A mouthpiece for the creeds of all the world;

A soulless life that angels may possess

Or demons haunt, wherein the foulest things

May loll at ease beside the loveliest;

A martyr for all mundane moods to tear;

The slave of every passion; and the slave

Of heat and cold, of darkness and of light;

A trembling lyre for every wind to sound.

I am a man set by to overhear

The inner harmony, the very tune

Of Nature's heart; to be a thoroughfare

For all the pageantry of Time; to catch

The mutterings of the Spirit of the Hour

And make them known; and of the lowliest

To be the minister, and therefore reign

Prince of the powers of the air, lord of the world

And master of the sea. Within my heart

I'll gather all the universe, and sing

As sweetly as the spheres; and I shall be

The first of men to understand himself. . . .

And lo! to give me courage comes the dawn,

Crimsoning the smoky east; and still the sun

With fire-shod feet shall step from hill to hill

Downward before the night; winter shall ply

His ancient craft, soldering the years with ice;

And spring appear, caught in a leafless brake,

Breathless with wonder and the tears half-dried

Upon her rosy cheek; summer shall come

And waste his passion like a prodigal

Right royally; and autumn spend her gold

Free-handed as a harlot; men to know,

Women to love are waiting everywhere."

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