Black Bill's Honey-Moon

The garlands of a Whitsun ale were strewn
About our rushes, the night that Raleigh brought
Bacon to sup with us. There, on that night,
I saw the singer of the Faërie Queen
Quietly spreading out his latest cantos
For Shakespeare's eye, like white sheets in the sun.
Marlowe, our morning-star, and Michael Drayton
Talked in that ingle-nook. And Ben was there,
Humming a song upon that old black settle:
"Or leave a kiss but in the cup
And I'll not ask for wine."
But, meanwhile, he drank malmsey.
Francis Bacon
Straddled before the fire; and, all at once,
He said to Shakespeare, in a voice that gripped
The Mermaid Tavern like an arctic frost:

"There are no poets in this age of ours,
Not to compare with Plautus. They are all
Dead, the men that were famous in old days."
"Why--so they are," said Will. The humming stopped.
I saw poor Spenser, a shy gentle soul,
With haunted eyes like starlit forest pools,
Smuggling his cantos under his cloak again.
"There's verse enough, no doubt," Bacon went on,
"But English is no language for the Muse.
Whom would you call our best? There's Gabriel Harvey,
And Edward, Earl of Oxford. Then there's Dyer,
And Doctor Golding; while, for tragedy,
Thomas, Lord Buckhurst, hath a lofty vein.
And, in a lighter prettier vein, why, Will,
There is thyself! But--where's Euripides?"

"Dead," echoed Ben, in a deep ghost-like voice.
And drip--drip--drip--outside we heard the rain
Miserably dropping round the Mermaid Inn.

"Thy Summer's Night--eh, Will? Midsummer's Night?--
That's a quaint fancy," Bacon droned anew,
"But--Athens was an error, Will! Not Athens!
Titania knew not Athens! Those wild elves
Of thy Midsummer's Dream--eh? Midnight's Dream?--
Are English all. Thy woods, too, smack of England;
They never grew round Athens. Bottom, too,
He is not Greek!"
"Greek?" Will said, with a chuckle,
"Bottom a Greek? Why, no, he was the son
Of Marian Hacket, the fat wife that kept
An ale-house, Wincot-way. I lodged with her
Walking from Stratford. You have never tramped
Along that countryside? By Burton Heath?
Ah, well, you would not know my fairylands.
It warms my blood to let my home-spuns play
Around your cold white Athens. There's a joy
In jumping time and space."
But, as he took
The cup of sack I proffered, solemnly
The lawyer shook his head. "Will, couldst thou use
Thy talents with discretion, and obey
Classic examples, those mightst match old Plautus,
In all except priority of the tongue.
This English tongue is only for an age,
But Latin for all time. So I propose
To embalm in Latin my philosophies.
Well seize your hour! But, ere you die, you'll sail
A British galleon to the golden courts
Of Cleopatra."
"Sail it!" Marlowe roared,
Mimicking in a fit of thunderous glee
The drums and trumpets of his Tamburlaine:
"And let her buccaneers bestride the sphinx,
And play at bowls with Pharaoh's pyramids,
And hale white Egypt with their tarry hands
Home to the Mermaid! Lift the good old song
That Rob Greene loved. Gods, how the lad would shout it!
Stand up and sing, John Davis!"
"Up!" called Raleigh,
"Lift the chanty of Black Bill's Honey-moon, Jack!
We'll keep the chorus going!"
"Silence, all!"
Ben Jonson echoed, rolling on his bench:
"This gentle lawyer hath a longing, lads,
To hear a right Homeric hymn. Now, Jack!
But wet your whistle, first! A cup of sack
For the first canto! Muscadel, the next!
Canary for the last!" I brought the cup.
John Davis emptied it at one mighty draught,
Leapt on a table, stamped with either foot,
And straight began to troll this mad sea-tale:


CANTO THE FIRST

Let Martin Parker at hawthorn-tide
Prattle in Devonshire lanes,
Let all his pedlar poets beside
Rattle their gallows-chains,
A tale like mine they never shall tell
Or a merrier ballad sing,
Till the Man in the Moon pipe up the tune
And the stars play Kiss-in-the-Ring!

Chorus: Till Philip of Spain in England reign,
And the stars play Kiss-in-the-Ring!

All in the gorgeous dawn of day
From grey old Plymouth Sound
Our galleon crashed thro' the crimson spray
To sail the world around:
Cloud i' the Sun was her white-scrolled name,--
There was never a lovelier lass
For sailing in state after pieces of eight
With her bombards all of brass.

Chorus: Culverins, robinets, iron may-be;
But her bombards all of brass!

Now, they that go down to the sea in ships,
Though piracy be their trade,
For all that they pray not much with their lips
They know where the storms are made:
With the stars above and the sharks below,
They need not parson or clerk;
But our bo'sun Bill was an atheist still,
Except--sometimes--in the dark!

Chorus: Now let Kit Marlowe mark!
Our bo'sun Bill was an atheist still,
Except--sometimes--in the dark!

All we adventured for, who shall say,
Nor yet what our port might be?--
A magical city of old Cathay,
Or a castle of Muscovy,
With our atheist bo'sun, Bill, Black Bill,
Under the swinging Bear,
Whistling at night for a seaman to light
His little poop-lanthorns there.

Chorus: On the deep, in the night, for a seaman to light
His little lost lanthorns there.

But, as over the Ocean-sea we swept,
We chanced on a strange new land
Where a valley of tall white lilies slept
With a forest on either hand;
A valley of white in a purple wood
And, behind it, faint and far,
Breathless and bright o'er the last rich height,
Floated the sunset-star.

Chorus: Fair and bright o'er the rose-red height,
Venus, the sunset-star.

'Twas a marvel to see, as we beached our boat,
Black Bill, in that peach-bloom air,
With the great white lilies that reached to his throat
Like a stained-glass bo'sun there,
And our little ship's chaplain, puffing and red,
A-starn as we onward stole,
With the disk of a lily behind his head
Like a cherubin's aureole.

Chorus: He was round and red and behind his head
He'd a cherubin's aureole.

"Hyrcania, land of honey and bees,
We have found thee at last," he said,
"Where the honey-comb swells in the hollow trees,"
(O, the lily behind his head!)
"The honey-comb swells in the purple wood!
'Tis the swette which the heavens distil,
Saith Pliny himself, on my little book-shelf!
Is the world not sweet to thee, Bill?"

Chorus: "Saith Pliny himself, on my little book-shelf!
Is the world not sweet to thee, Bill?"

Now a man may taste of the devil's hot spice,
And yet if his mind run back
To the honey of childhood's Paradise
His heart is not wholly black;
And Bill, Black Bill, from the days of his youth,
Tho' his chest was broad as an oak,
Had cherished one innocent little sweet tooth,
And it itched as our chaplain spoke.

Chorus: He had kept one perilous little tooth,
And it itched as our chaplain spoke.

All around was a mutter of bees,
And Bill 'gan muttering too,--
"If the honey-comb swells in the hollow trees,
(What else can a Didymus do?)
I'll steer to the purple woods myself
And see if this thing be so,
Which the chaplain found on his little book-shelf,
For Pliny lived long ago."

Chorus: There's a platter of delf on his little book-shelf,
And Pliny lived long ago.

Scarce had he spoken when, out of the wood,
And buffeting all around,
Rooting our sea-boots where we stood,
There rumbled a marvellous sound,
As a mountain of honey were crumbling asunder,
Or a sunset-avalanche hurled
Honey-comb boulders of golden thunder
To smother the old black world.

Chorus: Honey-comb boulders of musical thunder
To mellow this old black world.

And the chaplain he whispered--"This honey, one saith,
On my camphired cabin-shelf,
None may harvest on pain of death;
For the bee would eat it himself!
None walketh those woods but him whose voice
In the dingles you then did hear!"
"A VOICE?" growls Bill. "Ay, Bill, r-r-rejoice!
'Twas the great Hyrcanian Bear!"

Chorus: Give thanks! Re-joice! 'Twas the glor-r-r-ious Voice
Of the great Hyrcanian Bear!

But, marking that Bill looked bitter indeed,
For his sweet tooth hungered sore,
"Consider," he saith, "that the Sweet hath need
Of the Sour, as the Sea of the Shore!
As the night to the day is our grief to our joy,
And each for its brother prepares
A banquet, Bill, that would otherwise cloy.
Thus is it with honey and bears."

Chorus: Roses and honey and laughter would cloy!
Give us thorns, too, and sorrow and bears!

"Consider," he saith, "how by fretting a string
The lutanist maketh sweet moan,
And a bird ere it fly must have air for its wing
To buffet or fall like a stone:
Tho' you blacken like Pluto you make but more white
These blooms which not Enna could yield!
Consider, Black Bill, ere the coming of night,
The lilies," he saith, "of the field."

Chorus: "Consider, Black Bill, in this beautiful light,
The lilies," he saith, "of the field."

"Consider the claws of a Bear," said Bill,
"That can rip off the flesh from your bones,
While his belly could cabin the skipper and still
Accommodate Timothy Jones!
Why, that's where a seaman who cares for his grog
Perspires how this world isn't square!
If there's cause for a cow, if there's use for a dog,
By Pope John, there's no Sense in a Bear!"

Chorus: Cause for a cow, use for a dog,
By'r Lakin, no Sense in a Bear!

But our little ship's chaplain--"Sense," quoth he,
"Hath the Bear tho' his making have none;
For, my little book saith, by the sting of this bee
Would Ursus be wholly foredone,
But, or ever the hive he adventureth nigh
And its crisp gold-crusted dome,
He lardeth his nose and he greaseth his eye
With a piece of an honey-comb."

Chorus: His velvety nose and his sensitive eye
With a piece of an honey-comb.

Black Bill at the word of that golden crust
--For his ears had forgotten the roar,
And his eyes grew soft with their innocent lust--
'Gan licking his lips once more:
"Be it bound like a missal and printed as fair,
With capitals blue and red,
'Tis a lie; for what honey could comfort a bear,
Till the bear win the honey?" he said.

Chorus: "Ay, whence the first honey wherewith the first bear
First larded his nose?" he said.

"Thou first metaphysical bo'sun, Bill,"
Our chaplain quizzingly cried,
"Wilt thou riddle me redes of a dumpling still
With thy 'how came the apple inside'?"
"Nay," answered Bill, "but I quest for truth,
And I find it not on your shelf!
I will face your Hyrcanian bear, forsooth,
And look at his nose myself."

Chorus: For truth, for truth, or a little sweet tooth--
I will into the woods myself.

Breast-high thro' that foam-white ocean of bloom
With its wonderful spokes of gold,
Our sun-burnt crew in the rose-red gloom
Like buccaneer galleons rolled:
Breast-high, breast-high in the lilies we stood,
And before we could say "good-night,"
Out of the valley and into the wood
He plunged thro' the last rich light.

Chorus: Out of the lilies and into the wood,
Where the Great Bear walks all night!

And our little ship's chaplain he piped thro' the trees
As the moon rose, white and still,
"Hylas, return to thy Heracles!"
And we helped him with "Come back, Bill!"
Thrice he piped it, thrice we halloo'd,
And thrice we were dumb to hark;
But never an answer came from the wood,
So--we turned to our ship in the dark.

Chorus: Good-bye, Bill! you're a Didymus still;
But--you're all alone in the dark.

"This honey now"--as the first canto ceased,
The great young Bacon pompously began--
"Which Pliny calleth, as it were, the swette
Of heaven, or spettle of the stars, is found
In Muscovy. Now ..." "Bring the muscadel,"
Ben Jonson roared--"'Tis a more purple drink,
And suits with the next canto!"
At one draught
John Davis drained the cup, and with one hand
Beating the measure, rapidly trolled again.


CANTO THE SECOND

Now, Rabelais, art thou quite foredone,
Dan Chaucer, Drayton, Every One!
Leave we aboard our Cloud i' the Sun
This crew of pirates dreaming--
Of Angels, minted in the blue
Like golden moons, Rose-nobles, too,
As under the silver-sliding dew
Our emerald creek lay gleaming!

Chorus: Under the stars lay gleaming!

And mailed with scales of gold and green
The high star-lilied banks between,
Nosing our old black hulk unseen,
Great alligators shimmered:
Blood-red jaws i' the blue-black ooze,
Where all the long warm day they snooze,
Chewing old cuds of pirate-crews,
Around us grimly glimmered.

Chorus: Their eyes like rubies glimmered.

Let us now sing of Bill, good sirs!
Follow him, all green forestéres,
Fearless of Hyrcanian bears
As of these ghostly lilies!
For O, not Drayton there could sing
Of wild Pigwiggen and his King
So merry a jest, so jolly a thing
As this my tale of Bill is
Rate this poem: 

Reviews

No reviews yet.