Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, ROMANCE, by CONRAD AIKEN



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ROMANCE, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: The last farewells were said, friends hurried ashore
Last Line: Ere it goes down to darkness, whence it came! . . .
Subject(s): Betrayal; Boats; Death; Happiness; Lies; Love; New York City; Youth; Dead, The; Joy; Delight; Manhattan; New York, New York; The Big Apple


The last farewells were said, friends hurried ashore, —
The screw threshed foam, and jarred; the pier slid by;
Hands went to ears to still the siren's roar,
Handkerchiefs waved, and there was call and cry;
Over it all, austere and pure and high,
Glittering snow and gold, the towers looked down, —
Serene and cold, regardless of the town.

The wind blew north; and gravely on it came
The trolling of the Metropolitan bells,
First the four chimes, softly as puffs of flame,
Then the deep five . . . Slow, gentle gleaming swells
Came glancing in the sun, with ocean smells,
Up from the harbor and the further sea;
Over the stern poised white gulls, giddily.

Over the stern they poised and dipped and glanced,
Now dull in shade, now shining in bright sun,
And one youth watched them as they whirled and danced,
And noticed how they circled, one by one;
To have those wings, that freedom, — God, what fun! —
And watching them he felt youth in him, strong,
Wings in his blood, and in his heart a song.

Autumn! Already now the keen wind nipped,
The skies arched cold bright blue, the leaves were turning;
Whitely over the waves the cold squalls whipped;
Scarlet and pale, the maple trees were burning,
Tossing in gusts, and whirling and returning,
On Staten Island, wonderfully afire;
In bacchic song they flamed, with mad desire.

Autumn! bringing to old adventures death,
Sadness at all things past, things passing still,
Touching all earth with strange and mystic breath,
Veiling all earth in fire ere winter kill;
Even this youth felt now his deep heart fill
With a grey tide of mystery and sadness,
Poignant sorrow for all past hours of gladness . . .

Those times — would others come as keen as they?
Was life to come as living as life past? —
Ah, he was youth, life could not say him nay, —
The blood sang swift in him, doubt could not last;
Let all life dead beneath his feet be cast
And he would trample it, divinely singing:
Life lay before, more rapturous music bringing!

More lusts, more shining eyes, more dizzy laughter,
More, madder music, flute and violin,
With drums before and roses showered after,
Always in new bliss drowning his old sin;
Sin? — Was it that? — And straight in merry din
Of song and shout and laugh this thought was lost;
It was no sin to live, whate'er the cost! . . .

High overhead the Brooklyn bridges passed,
Span upon span and rumorous with cars,
Their shadows on the deck a moment cast,
With dizzy thunder from their traffic's wars;
Those grey stone piers would soon be crowned with stars, —
Even now their brows were soft with waning sun;
The homeward march of armies was begun.

Good-bye, old bridges! And New York, good-bye!
Northward the engines took him; now no more
His gaze hung here; he watched the western sky
Blazing with vision-isles and faery shore;
Northward the vibrant ship beneath him bore;
The Sound spread out before them, wide and blue,
Clean came the wind whereon the sea-gulls flew . . .

Soft fields, the flaming trees, a twilight farm . . .
New York was gone. He drew deep breaths of air,
Keen as keen fire it was; then slow and calm,
He turned to walk . . . when lo, a girl came there,
Deep sunset in her eyes and on her hair,
Her white dress clinging to her knees, one hand
Rising to shade her blue eyes; as she scanned

The swiftly gliding shore, the passing ships,
The bell-buoys, bobbing and tolling in the tide . . .
A moment, breath hung lifeless on his lips,
His heart froze quiet; no one was at her side;
Faintly, he smiled; he thought her eyes replied,
Remote lights meeting in them, — quickening;
He passed, and all his body seemed to sing . . .

He passed, then turned; and, as he turned, she turned, —
Her eyes met his eyes shyly, then again
She looked away, and all her soft face burned,
And all her virgin heart was big with pain.
From the saloon below came soft a strain
Of some new rag-time, bidding feet to move,
Imploring hands to cling, young hearts to love . . .

Sweetly it came, seductive, soft bizarre,
Huddled and breathless now, now note by note
Crying its separate pain . . . now near, now far . . .
Mingled with all the throbbing of the boat.
How beautiful! the first star came, to float
Impalpable in dusk, low in the east;
It seemed to sing on when the music ceased.

Herald of love, lo, love itself it seemed,
Singing into the twilight of her soul . . .
How beautiful! . . . across dark waters gleamed
Red lights and green, she heard a bell-buoy toll
Suddenly caught in the after-wash's roll;
A smell of autumn fires came down the wind;
Beauty so keen it seemed it must have sinned . . .

What was this night, what did it bring to her,
What flower unfolded in its darkness now?
She was this night; she felt her deep soul stir,
The slow strange stir of blossoms in the bough . . .
How beautiful! She watched the forefoot plough
Sheer through the foaming black, the white waves gliding
Dizzily past, now swelling, now subsiding . . .

O Youth, O music, O sweet wizardy
Of young life sung like fire through beating veins!
O covering darkness and persuasive sea!
O night of stars, of blisses and of pains!
But most, O Youth, that but an hour remains, —
Be fierce, be sweet with us before you go;
For, knowing you, the best of life we know.

Enchanted so she watched dark waters slipping
Swiftly and dizzily past the sheer black side,
Watched the fierce wind in sudden flurries whipping
The torn spray from the waves, against the tide;
High among stars she saw the mast-head glide, —
Steadily now, now swinging slowly, slightly,
There the high mast-head lantern burning brightly . . .

O Youth, O music, O sweet wizardy, —
O covering darkness of mysterious night! —
She turned; along the dark deck, quietly,
He came again; an open door shed light
Strongly across him for a space, then fright
Suddenly set her wild heart beating, beating, —
Suddenly set her endlessly repeating

"I mustn't speak! I mustn't speak!" — And then
He stood beside her, close and warm and strong,
And she knew sudden the beauty that's in men,
And all her blood flew musical with song . . .
" — Beautiful isn't it? — Have you known it long?" —
Calmly he looked at her, and gently spoke.
She nodded, lightly; then the warm words broke

Easily, quickly, fervently from her heart,
All the restraint of all her youth was gone,
She felt a thousand warm new instincts start
Out of her soul, birds taking wings with dawn,
Singing their hearts out . . . With a deep breath drawn,
"Yes! I've known it for years, and loved it, too;
Beautiful! — This — is this the first for you?"

They talked, in low tones; and the sound of sea,
Falling of foam and swish of dropping spray,
Encircled them with song, incessantly; —
They felt alone, the world seemed far away.
They two! they two! so seemed the night to say;
A darkness and a stealing fragrance came
Spreading through all their souls, silent as flame . . .

O beauty of being a living thing, she thought, —
Of drawing breath beneath these stars, this sky! —
O beautiful fire that from his eyes she caught,
That made her breath rise quick, her lips burn dry!
What was this thing? Dread came, she scarce knew why, —
Impulsively she went; yet she had given
Her word to dine with him, her earth was heaven.

He watched her go, and smiled, — her white dress blowing,
Softly in dark, — so young, so sweet, so brave!
She was so pure! by God, there was no knowing, —
And he had half a mind, still, to behave . . .
No, though: far better take what fortune gave, —
Dance to the music that was played for him;
Smiling he mused of her, his eyes grew dim, —

And he could feel her warmness by his side,
And all his body flushed with sweet desire
To take her shining loveliness for bride,
To kiss, to fuse with her in single fire . . .
O youth, O young heart musical as a lyre!
O covering darkness of mysterious night!
He knew these things; his heart was filled with light . . .

What was one more? Pah, how he scorned this qualm!
Innocent? Such girls seem — but never are.
No, he was not her first . . . And cold and calm
He turned and sought the brightly-lighted bar . . .
The music rose, through shut doors, faint and far,
Wailful . . . Down in her stateroom mirror there
A young girl eyed herself, with frightened stare.

II

She eyed herself with quick breath, frightened stare,
The fingers of one hand caught at her throat,
And half unconsciously she smoothed her hair . . .
The music called to her, bizarre, remote . . .
On a vast hurrying tide she seemed afloat,
Hurrying through a darkness downward ever,
Starless, along some subterranean river . . .

Where was she going? Where was the current taking?
Vaguely she knew that it would lead to pain,
To a dark endless pain her deep heart breaking,
To a grey world forever dulled with rain . . .
And yet she knew this would not come again,
And all the sweet bliss came imploring, pleading,
Melting her soul, bruising her heart to bleeding . . .

O God, she did not know! — Yet future sorrow
Seemed somehow paid for by this instant bliss,
A brief to-day was worth a long to-morrow;
O youth, O night, — this joy she dared not miss!
Her whole soul yearned for this young lover's kiss,
Though it be paid for through eternity.
O, had not God designed this thing to be?

Was not her mouth for this young mouth intended,
Since all her living body told her so?
Was it not preordained that so be ended
A girlhood colder than December snow?
A starlight kiss — she need no further go — :
His warm hands touching hers: O was this sin?
Just this? — She shut her eyes to fires within . . .

To those fierce central fires she closed her eyes,
Yet dimly of their passion was aware,
And felt their flames like drunkenness arise
Whirling her soul, making life strangely fair . . .
She eyed herself with held breath, frightened stare . . .
Alas, was it the alchemy of sin
That made her lovelier far than e'er she'd been?

Plausibly sweet the music came to her,
Through many doors, most plausible and sweet,
Setting some subtle pulse in her astir,
Smoothing in song her heart's erratic beat.
Dizziness came, unstrung her knees, her feet,
And she sank down a space upon her bed,
Shutting her eyes, mad reelings in her head.

How would this end? And would her whole life change,
Swayed by this mastering sun as sways the moon?
Would all her way of life be new and strange,
Her friends be lost, her kin desert her soon?
Passion surged up in her, and in its swoon
These doubts were swept aside, obscure and fleeting;
Somewhere she heard a beating . . . beating . . . beating . . .

Was it her heart, the loud pulse in her ear,
Or music, some recurring undertone? —
The drums perhaps . . . She raised her head to hear,
The beating ceased . . . Only the tireless drone
Of toiling engines, and the sea's hushed moan
Soft through the fast-shut port . . . and that was all.
Steps passed and re-passed down the muffled hall.

Steps passed and re-passed on the deck above
Ringing like iron . . . The curtains by her bed
Quivered forever to the engine's move,
And from the lamp a quivering light was shed.
These senseless things, when all her life was dead,
Would still go on: steps pass, the curtains quiver,
These things or others, — they would last forever.

Quickly she rose, and in the mirror's shine
Looked at herself a quiet moment's space;
It was as if the earth's autumnal wine
Had touched her soul, — her body had a grace
That passing life has, lovely was her face
With a strange loveliness, and in her eyes
Was the deep glory of October skies.

She was alive! her blood flew warm and young;
No more than this she knew, that she was fair;
And happiness through her deep heart was sung;
Passionate joy as light as flame in air;
O youth! O love, oblivious of all care!
O lithe swift-blooded youth, O rose of earth,
O warm-eyed loveliness of fragrant mirth! —

Giddy, with whirling thoughts, she left her room;
And down the corridor, with fainting feet,
Lightly she went, caught onward to sweet doom,
And only heard her heart's loud tremulous beat;
Through opening doors, most plausible, most sweet,
The music rose to her; and he stood there,
Smiling, in all that noise and whir and glare . . .

Over the shining silver, sparkling glass,
The smooth white table-cloth, he leaned and smiled;
The whole world vanished, they were lad and lass,
In love, and face to face, hearts running wild.
Deep in her eyes he looked: O what a child!
Her soft breast rose and fell, her throat's pure white
Beat with a little pulse of joy and fright.

No need to talk . . . For in their eyes they met,
Treading an air so soft, so light, so fine,
That they were speechless, words they could forget;
They only smiled, and shyly sipped their wine,
And smiled again, and felt their full hearts shine,
Talked breathlessly a little, and longed to lean
Nearer, more near, — till no mote lay between, —

Not light or darkness, world or heaven or star,
Not wind, nor warm, nor cold . . . but just they two
Meeting at last, two spirits come from far,
Face raised to face, white flowers made sweet with dew, —
Shining and passionate, and young and new, —
Their two warm bodies singing each to each,
Mingling at last in love's harmonious speech . . .

The lights, the noise, the tumult passed away;
As in a dream without a sound they passed;
She only knew that it was wildly gay,
And shy, and bliss unbearable . . . At last
Under the high dark starward-gliding mast
In grateful night they sat, he brought her coat
And trembling wrapped the scarf around her throat;

Letting his fingers linger there a space,
Longer than there was need, so sweet she smiled,
So close they were to that soft wistful face . . .
The stars looked down upon them, clear and mild . . .
Woman and maiden, girl, and little child, —
She was all these . . . A moment, he was shaken, —
Lest he do wrong, lest he might prove mistaken . . .

Only a moment . . . passion rose again,
Quiet he took her hand and held it long,
And all her virgin heart grew big with pain,
And all her new-born body ached with song.
Blindly she prayed to God to make her strong, —
More blindly cried to earth to make her weak;
And looked at him, near tears, and could not speak.

He was a loveliness she could not bear . . .
Like a fierce furnace seemed his beauty now . . .
A fire that caught her throat, her lips, her hair,
Her parching eyes, her pained and beating brow.
Only to give herself, — she cared not how —
Into the flame, body and soul to fling;
To have him hurt her, — ah, divinest thing! . . .

Four bells were struck: 'twas ten o'clock he said;
And still the sea rushed past, under the night.
The engines toiled and the great steamer sped;
And they could see the bow-wash, dimly white,
Fall into darkness; the mast-head light
Quivered among the stars, and in its fire
A span of fore-stay shone like golden wire . . .

Little by little they were left alone,
The decks were emptied; only, from the bar,
Came shouts and laughter, and a drunkard's groan,
The glasses clinking, and a strummed guitar,
The door shut, and the sounds grew faint and far,
And all the deck was dark; only the sea
Lifted its great voice, like infinity.

O youth, O music, O sweet wizardy
Of young love sung like fire through beating veins!
O covering darkness and persuasive sea!
O night of stars, of blisses and of pains!
But most, O youth that but an hour remains, —
Be fierce, be sweet with us, before you go;
For knowing you the best of life we know!

Beneath his kiss her mouth rose soft and warm,
And dewy soft as rose-leaves were her eyes,
Under his hands, shaken as with a storm
He felt her soft breast fall and shudder and rise,
Torn with impassioned breath, unuttered cries,
Quivering, straining breast against his breast,
She clung to him, her mouth on his mouth pressed . . .

And only knew that this was life at last,
Forgot all else in agony of bliss;
Into this fire of love all earth was cast;
The stars, the sea, were mingled in this kiss.
And through her heart the blood, with sing and hiss,
Poured a red madness, surged a riotous pain, —
Unbearable music cried out in her brain . . .

"O love," he said, "O let me come with you!
I love you so! This night, — O let me come!"
Ah, God have pity! she knew not what to do,
But sat all quiet, — frozen, shrinking, dumb;
And only heard the toiling engines hum,
The rush of sea, the swish of dropping spray,
Her clamorous heart; and all that she could say

Was a quick "yes," and then a broken breath
That quivered like a sob; and then she rose,
Dizzy and weak and pale, like one near death,
And now her heart was fire, and now it froze . . .
Faint in her room she stood; the door to close, —
She might still turn the key . . . She cried a space, —
Long in the glass stared at her pallid face . . .

And heard a step tramp over the deck above,
Ringing like iron . . . The curtains by her bed
Quivered forever to the engine's move,
And from the lamp a quivering light was shed . . .
These things would all go on when she was dead . . .
Trembling, with misty eyes, she loosed the pin
Under her throat . . . mad fires whirled up within . . .

Mad fires whirled up, ungulfing all her soul;
Beyond the sun and stars, across all space,
Power that earth nor heaven could now control,
She heard her lover come, with quickening pace;
Nowhere to hide! Alas, his shining face,
Though she hid under seas would find her there,
Though she hid under mountains lay her bare!

Across the stars, nearer, more near it came,
And now earth shook with it, and now the sea,
And her white body, tremulous with shame,
From its sheer anguish knew that it was he, —
Yearned for this wonder that was soon to be;
And all her heart made music for his feet,
All of the world re-echoed to their beat . . .

Marriage of youth! And quick a darkness fell,
And time and space went down, consumed in fire;
Through that dark space, only one breath, to tell
That here was youth, and love, and wild desire:
One heart that to itself sang ever higher,
Tremulous, passionate, despite all pain, —
"How wonderful! — how wonderful!" — again.

III

October earth, with scarlet maple-leaf,
With oak-leaves brown, with flaming leaves and pale;
Mysterious autumn, symbol of all grief,
Symbol of lives that die and hopes that fail:
Now on the threshing-floor has fallen the flail,
The hands are elsewhere that have stored the grain;
Now comes the season of snows and bitter rain.

Weeks passed . . . And then one day there came a note
To New York for this youth . . . he tore and read.
It was that girl he played with on the boat . . .
Scarcely three shaky lines . . . in which she said,
That she was sick with typhoid, nearly dead, —
Wanted to say she loved him; then she cried,
O God, if he would come before she died! —

Loved him! . . . a blackness fell; and in his eyes,
So long unused, and even now ashamed,
He felt the warm tears quickening to rise . . .
Loved him! — he had not known . . . Could he be blamed? —
Then a great light of sorrow in him flamed, —
And bitterness, his sight swam quickly dim, —
Thinking how little it had meant to him!

Scarce knowing why, he packed his things and went . . .
He was surprised, on seeing her, to find how lovely she had been, though pale
and spent . . .
He sat beside her, striving to be kind,
Stroking her forehead . . . Yet, she had divined,
And known too bitterly, before she died,
This man had never loved her, but had lied. . . .

And he knew this: he knew that she had known;
In her dark eyes he saw the mastered yearning,
All the unspoken love that died in moan,
Shrunk on itself, through all her body burning . . .
And many days the memory came returning
Of her last kiss, — quivering, wet with tears, —
Her clinging hands, her brimmed eyes dark with fears . . .

Until at times a sudden terror came
Lest, through great pity, he should love one dead, —
So burning sweet recurred in him this shame,
So haunted him those eyes, that fallen head;
The lips that pleaded so, the words she said, —
Pathetic words! — these haunted him a space;
Then, in the dark of time he lost her face . . .

O Autumn! bringing to old adventures death,
Sadness at all things past, things passing still, —
You touched this love with strange and dreadful breath;
Easy as leaf is human love to chill, —
Easy as leaf is human to kill;
Yet beautiful is that death with sudden flame,
Ere it goes down to darkness, whence it came! . . .





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