The Leading of Sorrow

Through a twilight land, a moaning region,
Thick with sighs that shook the trembling air,
Land of shadows whose dim crew was legion,
Lost I hurried, hunted by despair.
Quailed my heart like an expiring splendour,
Fitful flicker of a faltering fire,
Smitten chords which tempest-stricken render
Rhythms of anguish from a breaking lyre.

Love had left me in a land of shadows,
Lonely on the ruins of delight,
And I grieved with tearless grief of widows,
Moaned as orphans homeless in the night.
Love had left me knocking at Death's portal—
Shone his star and vanished from my sky—
And I cried: “Since Love, even Love, is mortal,
Take, unmake, and break me; let me die.”

Then, the twilight's grisly veils dividing,
Phantom-like there stole one o'er the plain,
Wavering mists for ever round it gliding
Hid the face I strove to scan in vain.
Spake the veiled one: “Solitary weeper,
'Mid the myriad mourners thou'rt but one:
Come, and thou shalt see the awful reaper,
Evil, reaping all beneath the sun.”

On my hand the clay-cold hand did fasten
As it murmured—“Up and follow me;
O'er the thickly peopled earth we'll hasten,
Yet more thickly packed with misery.”
And I followed: ever in the shadow
Of that looming form I fared along;
Now o'er mountains, now through wood and meadow,
Or through cities with their surging throng.

With none other for a friend or fellow
Those relentless footsteps were my guide
To the sea-caves echoing with the hollow
Immemorial moaning of the tide.
Laughed the sunlight on the living ocean,
Danced and rocked itself upon the spray,
And its shivered beams in twinkling motion
Gleamed like star-motes in the Milky Way.

Lo, beneath those waters surging, flowing,
I beheld the Deep's fantastic bowers;
Shapes which seemed alive and yet were growing
On their stalks like animated flowers,
Sentient flowers which seemed to glow and glimmer
Soft as ocean blush of Indian shells,
White as foam-drift in the moony shimmer
Of those sea-lit, wave-pavilioned dells.

Yet even here, as in the fire-eyed panther,
In disguise the eternal hunger lay,
For each feathery, velvet-tufted anther
Lay in ambush waiting for its prey.
Tiniest jewelled fish that flashed like lightning,
Blindly drawn, came darting through the wave,
When, a stifling sack above them tightening,
Closed the ocean-blossom's living grave.

Now we fared through forest glooms primeval
Through whose leaves the light but rarely shone,
Where the buttressed tree-trunks looked coeval
With the time-worn, ocean-fretted stone;
Where, from stem to stem their tendrils looping,
Coiled the lithe lianas fold on fold,
Or, in cataracts of verdure drooping,
From on high their billowy leafage rolled.

Where beneath the dusky woodland cover,
While the noon-hush holds all living things,
Butterflies of tropic splendour hover
In a maze of rainbow-coloured wings:
Some like stars light up their own green heaven
Some are spangled like a golden toy,
Or like flowers from their foliage driven
In the fiery ecstasy of joy.

But, the forest slumber rudely breaking,
Through the silence rings a piercing yell;
At the cry unnumbered beasts, awaking,
With their howls the loud confusion swell.
'Tis the cry of some frail creature panting
In the tiger's lacerating grip;
In its flesh carnivorous teeth implanting,
While the blood smokes round his-wrinkled lip.

'Tis the scream some bird in terror utters,
With its wings weighed down by leaden fears,
As from bough to downward bough it flutters
Where the snake its glistening crest uprears:
Eyes of sluggish greed through rank weeds stealing,
Breath whose venomous fumes mount through the air,
Till benumbed the helpless victim, reeling,
Drops convulsed into the reptile snare.

Now we fared o'er sweltering wastes whose steaming
Clouds of tawny sand the wanderer blind.
Herds of horses with their long manes streaming
Snorted thirstily against the wind;
O'er the waste they scoured in shadowy numbers,
Gasped for springs their raging thirst to cool,
And, like sick men mocked in fevered slumbers,
Stoop to drink—and find a phantom pool.

What of antelopes crunched by the leopard?
What if hounds run down the timid hare?
What though sheep, strayed from the faithful shepherd,
Perish helpless in the lion's lair?
The all-seeing sun shines on unheeding,
In the night shines the unruffled moon,
Though on earth brute myriads, preying, bleeding,
Put creation harshly out of tune.

Cried I, turning to the shrouded figure—
“Oh, in mercy veil this cruel strife!
Sanguinary orgies which disfigure
The green ways of labyrinthine life.
From the needs and greeds of primal passion,
From the serpent's track and lion's den,
To the world our human hands did fashion,
Lead me to the kindly haunts of men.”

And through fields of corn we passed together,
Orange golden in the brooding heat,
Where brown reapers in the harvest weather
Cut ripe swathes of downward rustling wheat.
In the orchards dangling red and yellow,
Clustered fruit weighed down the bending sprays;
On a hundred hills the vines grew mellow
In the warmth of fostering autumn days.

Through the air the shrilly twittering swallows
Flashed their nimble shadows on the leas;
Red-flecked cows were glassed in golden shallows,
Purple clover hummed with restless bees.
Herdsmen drove the cattle from the mountain,
To the fold the shepherd drove his flocks,
Village girls drew water from the fountain,
Village yokels piled the full-eared shocks.

From the white town dozing in the valley,
Round its vast Cathedral's solemn shade,
Citizens strolled down the walnut alley
Where youth courted and glad childhood played.
“Peace on earth,” I murmured; “let us linger—
Here the wage of life seems good at least:”
As I spake the veiled One raised a finger
Where the moon broke flowering in the east.

Faintly muttering from deep mountain ranges,
Muffled sounds rose hoarsely on the night,
As the crash of foundering avalanches
Wakes hoarse echoes in each Alpine height,
Near and nearer sounds the roaring—thunder,
Mortal thunder, crashes through the vale;
Lightning flash of muskets breaks from under
Groves once haunted by the nightingale.

Men clutch madly at each weapon—women,
Children crouch in cellars, under roofs,
For the town is circled by their foemen—
Shakes the ground with clang of trampling hoofs.
Shot on shot the volleys hiss and rattle,
Shrilly whistling fly the murderous balls,
Fiercely roars the tumult of the battle
Round the hard-contested, dear-bought walls.

Horror, horror! The fair town is burning,
Flames burst forth, wild sparks and ashes fly;
With her children's blood the green earth's turning
Blood-red—blood-red, too, the cloud-winged sky.
Crackling flare the streets: from the lone steeple
The great clock booms forth its ancient chime,
And its dolorous quarters warn the people
Of the conquering troops that march with time.

Fallen lies the fair old town, its houses
Charred and ruined gape in smoking heaps;
Here with shouts a ruffian band carouses,
There an outraged woman vainly weeps.
In the fields where the ripe corn lies mangled,
Where the wounded groan beneath the dead,
Friend and foe, now helplessly entangled,
Stain red poppies with a guiltier red.

There the dog howls o'er his perished master,
There the crow comes circling from afar;
All vile things that batten on disaster
Follow feasting in the wake of war.
Famine follows—what they ploughed and planted
The unhappy peasants shall not reap;
Sickening of strange meats and fever haunted,
To their graves they prematurely creep.

“Hence”—I cried in unavailing pity—
“Let us flee these scenes of monstrous strife,
Seek the pale of some imperial city
Where the law rules starlike o'er man's life.”
Straightway floating o'er blue sea and river,
We were plunged into a roaring cloud,
Wherethrough lamps in ague fits did shiver
O'er the surging multitudinous crowd.

Piles of stone, their cliff-like walls uprearing,
Flashed in luminous lines along the night;
Jets of flame, spasmodically flaring,
Splashed black pavements with a sickly light;
Fabulous gems shone here, and glowing coral,
Shimmering stuffs from many an Eastern loom,
And vast piles of tropic fruits and floral
Marvels seemed to mock November's gloom.

But what prowls near princely mart and dwelling,
Whence through many a thundering thoroughfare
Rich folk roll on cushions softly swelling
To the week-day feast and Sunday prayer?
Yea, who prowl there, hunger-nipped and pallid,
Breathing nightmares limned upon the gloom?
'Tis but human rubbish, gaunt and squalid,
Whom their country spurns for lack of room.

In their devious track we mutely follow,
Mutely climb dim flights of oozy stairs,
Where through gap-toothed, mizzling roof the yellow
Pestilent fog blends with the fetid air.
Through the unhinged door's discordant slamming
Ring the gruesome sounds of savage strife—
Howls of babes, the drunken father's damning,
Counter-cursing of the shrill-tongued wife.

Children feebly crying on their mother
In a wailful chorus—“Give us food!”
Man and woman glaring at each other
Like two gaunt wolves with a famished brood.
Till he snatched a stick, and, madly staring,
Struck her blow on blow upon the head;
And she, reeling back, gasped, hardly caring—
“Ah, you've done it now, Jim”—and was dead.

Dead—dead—dead—the miserable creature—
Never to feel hunger's cruel fang
Wring the bowels of rebellious nature
That her infants might be spared the pang.
“Dead! Good luck to her!” The man's teeth chattered,
Stone-still stared he with blank eyes and hard,
Then, his frame with one big sob nigh shattered,
Fled—and cut his throat down in the yard.

Dark the night—the children wail forsaken,
Crane their wrinkled necks and cry for food,
Drop off into fitful sleep, or waken
Trembling like a sparrow's ravished brood.
Dark the night—the rain falls on the ashes,
Feebly hissing on the feeble heat,
Filters through the ceiling, drops in splashes
On the little children's naked feet.

Dark the night—the children wail forsaken—
Is there none, ah, none, to heed their moan?
Yea, at dawn one little one is taken,
Four poor souls are left, but one is gone.
Gone—escaped—flown from the shame and sorrow
Waiting for them at life's sombre gate,
But the hand of merciless to-morrow
Drags the others shuddering to their fate.

But one came—a girlish thing—a creature
Flung by wanton hands 'mid lust and crime—
A poor outcast, yet by right of nature
Sweet as odour of the upland thyme.
Scapegoat of a people's sins, and hunted,
Howled at, hooted to the wilderness,
To that wilderness of deaf hearts, blunted
To the depths of woman's dumb distress.

Jetsam, flotsam of the monster city,
Spurned, defiled, reviled, that outcast came
To those babes that whined for love and pity,
Gave them bread bought with the wage of shame.
Gave them bread, and gave them warm, maternal
Kisses not on sale for any price:
Yea, a spark, a flash of some eternal
Sympathy shone through those haunted eyes.

Ah, perchance through her dark life's confusion,
Through the haste and taste of fevered hours,
Gusts of memory on her youth's pollution
Blew forgotten scents of faded flowers.
And she saw the cottage near the wild wood,
With its lichened roof and latticed panes,
Strayed once more through golden fields of childhood,
Hyacinth dells and hawthorn-scented lanes.

Heard once more the song of nesting thrushes
And the blackbird's long mellifluous note,
Felt once more the glow of maiden blushes
Burn through rosy cheek and milkwhite throat
In that orchard where the apple blossom
Lightly shaken fluttered on her hair,
As the heart was fluttering in her bosom
When her sweetheart came and kissed her there.

Often came he in the lilac-laden
Moonlit twilight, often pledged his word;
But she was a simple country-maiden,
He the offspring of a noble lord.
Fading lilacs May's farewell betoken,
Fledglings fly and soon forget the nest;
Lightly may a young man's vows be broken,
And the heart break in a woman's breast.

Gathered like a sprig of summer roses
In the dewy morn and flung away,
To the girl the father's door now closes,
Let her shelter henceforth how she may.
Who will house the miserable mother
With her child, a helpless castaway!
“I, am I the keeper of my brother?”
Asks smug virtue as it turns to pray!

Lovely are the earliest Lenten lilies,
Primrose pleiads, hyacinthine sheets;
Stripped and rifled from their pastoral valleys,
See them sold now in the public streets!
Other flowers are sold there besides posies—
Eyes may have the hyacinth's glowing blue.
Rounded cheeks the velvet bloom of roses,
Taper necks the rain-washed lily's hue.

But a rustic blossom! Love and duty
Bound up in a child whom hunger slays!
Ah! but one thing still is left her—beauty
Fresh, untarnished yet—and beauty pays.
Beauty keeps her child alive a little,
Then it dies—her woman's love with it—
Beauty's brilliant sceptre, ah, how brittle,
Drags her daily deeper down the pit.

Ruin closes o'er her—hideous, nameless;
Each fresh morning marks a deeper fall;
Till at twenty—callous, cankered, shameless,
She lies dying at the hospital.
Drink, more drink, she calls for—her harsh laughter
Grates upon the meekly praying nurse,
Eloquent about her soul's hereafter:
“Souls be blowed!” she sings out with a curse.

And so dies, an unrepenting sinner—
Pitched into her pauper's grave what time
That most noble lord rides by to dinner
Who had wooed her in her innocent prime.
And in after-dinner talk he preaches
Resignation—o'er his burgundy—
Till a grateful public dubs his speeches
Oracles of true philanthropy.

Peace-ye call this? Call this justice, meted
Equally to rich and poor alike?
Better than this peace the battle's heated
Cannon-balls that ask not whom they strike!
Better than this masquerade of culture
Hiding strange hyæna appetites,
The frank ravening of the raw-necked vulture
As its beak the senseless carrion smites.

What of men in bondage, toiling blunted
In the roaring factory's lurid gloom?
What of cradled infants starved and stunted?
What of woman's nameless martyrdom?
The all-seeing sun shines on unheeding,
Shines by night the calm, unruffled moon,
Though the human myriads, preying, bleeding,
Put creation harshly out of tune.

“Hence, ah, hence”—I sobbed in quivering passion—
“From these fearful haunts of fiendish men!
Better far the plain, carnivorous fashion
Which is practised in the lion's den.”
And I fled—yet staggering still did follow
In the footprints of my shrouded guide—
To the sea-caves echoing with the hollow
Immemorial moaning of the tide.

Sinking, swelling roared the wintry ocean,
Pitch-black chasms struck with flying blaze,
As the cloud-winged storm-sky's sheer commotion
Showed the blank Moon's mute Medusa face
White o'er wastes of water—surges crashing
Over surges in the formless gloom,
And a mastless hulk, with great seas washing
Her scourged flanks, pitched toppling to her doom.

Through the crash of wave on wave gigantic,
Through the thunder of the hurricane,
My wild heart in breaking shrilled with frantic
Exultation—“Chaos come again!
Yea, let earth be split and cloven asunder
With man's still accumulating curse—
Life is but a momentary blunder
In the cycle of the Universe.

“Yea, let earth with forest-belted mountains,
Hills and valleys, cataracts and plains,
With her clouds and storms and fires and fountains,
Pass with all her rolling sphere contains,
Melt, dissolve again into the ocean,
Ocean fade into a nebulous haze!”
And I sank back without sense or motion
'Neath the blank Moon's mute Medusa face.

Moments, years, or ages passed, when, lifting
Freezing lids, I felt the heavens on high,
And, innumerable as the sea-sands drifting,
Stars unnumbered drifted thr
Rate this poem: 


No reviews yet.