Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, INNOCENCE (2), by CONRAD AIKEN

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INNOCENCE (2), by             Poet's Biography
First Line: By the old stone bridge he met a van
Last Line: That blew away so peacefully?
Subject(s): Children; Innocence; Peace; Youth; Childhood


By the old stone bridge he met a van,
And there at last his life began.
A smoky lantern gleamed behind,
He shouted, ran toward it blind,
And a dark-eyed girl leaned out to him,
Her lovely young face shadowed dim.
She bade him in to shelter there,
And talking with him combed her hair,
While rain whirred on the canvas roof,
And they heared the tramp and plash of hoof.
As far as the second town, she said,
The van would go; she shook her head,
Making the black hair flow and fall,
And tossed it back, while sweet and small
Her mischievous face looked out through it,
Like a hidden fire, most exquisite;
And seeing her eyes burn through that dark,
Each like a golden blowing spark,
His hands grew hot, his young heart beat,
He thought this woman was strangely sweet,
A dangerous red flame fierce in smoke,
And his young voice trembled when he spoke.
Meanwhile his eyes, with hungry stare,
Fed at the miracle of her hair;
And her white hand that moved so slow,
Combing the long hair to and fro,
Drew to a rhythmical delight
His young blood innocent till that night.
Behind her head a lantern hung,
A small red flame, wherefrom were flung
Goblin shadows to spin and sprawl
On canvas roof and canvas wall;
And while she combed these shadows went
Dizzily, silently, blurred and blent,
Came out, shrank back, and swiftly fled,
At lift of her arm or toss of head.
She laughed, to watch his bashful stare:
Had he seen no woman comb her hair?—
She drew it out and coiled it then
To heap up on her head again;
Between her lips she held each pin
Till place was found to push it in,
Yet, holding them, could, every while,
Manage, in spite of them, to smile.
And when she smiled her sweetness came
Through all his flesh like gusty flame,
Rich dissolution, sharp and sweet,
Making his full heart pause, to beat,
Before it hurried to keep in time
With measured rain, a delicate chime.
Backward, it seemed, on all his days
She shed from her heart a windy blaze,
And all that once had pained him so,
Somehow, in that bewitching glow,
Grew beautiful and far and strange;
He felt his buried childhood change
And blossom in him and grow fair
As if it fed on magic air;
And all his grey fields seemed once more
Gardens by an enchanted shore,
Where dew-wet daisies gleamed in sun
And earth seemed always just begun,—
Just risen, with a laughing face,
From the great fount of stars in space ...
Life was a many-musicked dream,
A mystic woof of dust and gleam,
And on these musics came and went
Visions out of the darkness sent,
Faces and voices merged in one,
Cool green earth and blazing sun ...
Were he and she, and all their world
Only a golden dust-mote, whirled
In a shaft of fire that fell between
Two darknesses, a moment seen?
Time caught him up and fled with him,
His childhood whirled away, grew dim ...
And she, being gypsy, took his palm
To peer therein for good or harm,
In changing light, with changing eyes,
And virgin brow grown sagely wise.
Love of glory was here foretold—
Glory his hands would never hold;
His life was little and bright and brief,
Soon to be withered, like a leaf ...
He laughed, but let his hand lie there;
Feeling against his cheek her hair,
So soft; and when she stirred her head
It touched, withdrew, and touched, and spread
A luxury, like blossoming,
Smouldering rose and flashing wing,
Through all his heart: and down his veins,
Over the seething of these rains,
Golden horns in his blood were blown,
Prolonged and sweet in golden tone,
Faint and clear, and far-off laughter,
Sinister, deep, and sad; and after
A silence came in which rain fell,
In which he heard her slowly tell
Of youth, more fleeting bright than breath,
Love unfulfilled, and life, and death.
What meant she? These were word and word:
Not life, nor dream. Her voice he heard,
And that was like a music, flowing
Smooth as fire, sweetly slowing,
Subtle, persuasive, a command
Upon his heart; and still his hand
Lay in her hand, and still she sought
His web therein with puzzled thought.
He smiled. And did she, then, believe
A destiny these lines could weave
To hide such portent of disaster?
No, of his own life he was master;—
Although she called him evil-starred.
After a lightning flash came hard
The rush of rain along the roof,
Drowning the tramp and splash of hoof.
Smiling, serene, she dropped his palm,
And touched her hair again; and calm,
With half-averted musing face,
One elbow raised in conscious grace,
And vague, deep-seeing, darkened eyes
Like starless space in starred blue skies,
Fed at his soul, until it seemed
That in those depths he shrank and dreamed,
Was of her life some tiny part
Which had flowed upward from her heart ...
And pondering on her living face,
Her eyes half closed, he thought a space
That life ere this he never knew;
Only this time, this place, were true,
Only this moment was abiding;
All else illusion swiftly gliding.
Or were these eyes a dream? ... But no:
Naught could be life, more truly so;
And mirrored in him, as in a glass,
This lovely face would never pass.
The van was jolting into town,
And into the darkness he jumped down.
A smoky lantern gleamed behind,
The rain came thick, it beat him blind,
And a dark-eyed girl leaned out to him,
Her lovely young face shadowed dim.
'Good-night!' Her words were lost in rain,
He peered, but could not see her plain.
Only, a hand through lamplight came
Which touching his hand thrilled like flame;
And dark-starred eyes and shadowy cheek
So smote him he could hardly speak.
'Good-night!'—Her words were lost in rain.
And in his heart great bells of pain
Opened and beat and fell and beat
While dark he ran with eyeless feet.


Rain on the roof above him drummed;
Soft rain through all his pulses hummed;
Water returning to the sea
Out of the night's immensity.
How often had this rain been heard,
And he had understood no word!
But now like music's own self, weaving
Delicate measures past conceiving,
With sibilant whisper, windy whir,
It talked of her, it sang of her,
Mimicked her laughter, feigned her speech,
Till through the night he yearned to reach
And find if in impalpable air
His fingers might not touch her hair.
Outside his window, by the eaves,
Murmurous, glib, he heard the leaves
Drinking the raindrops gleefully
In green and secret revelry.
Strange! through all his life till now,
Watching the soil and the slow plough
That tore the matted roots apart,
He had not dreamed that earth's deep heart
In slowly sunward yearning bliss
Could send up such a rose as this!—
The soil was sweet that did such things;
This clod had sent up sunlit wings ...
He closed his eyes, and in that place
Summoned the cool light of her face,
And her cool hand beneath his own,
And her low voice's silver tone.
Sweeter than music was this voice:
Sweet as when violins rejoice
In complex mood, to single time,
And delicate concords fall and climb:
There was a plangent tremble here
Which troubled sweet the spirit's ear.
Yet was it true, what she had said,—
And were the stars so easily read,
And could his life be swayed afar
By malign lustre of some star?—
No, this was dreaming; young and strong,
He would fashion all his days so song,
And walk in sunlight with sure feet.
The rain hurried ... The warm rain beat ...
Through his veins in gusts it went.
And listening dark he thought it meant
Music bearing among earth's roots
Dreams of blossoms and of fruits,
Petals conceived in darkling sod
By which the soil might look on God.

Between his eyelids vague shapes gleamed,
A light sleep fell, he turned and dreamed.
... In sinister dusk by sea they walked,
On weeded shingle sat and talked:
The surf lunged, hissing, at their feet.
And laughing upward to him, sweet,
In mock of fear she drew away
From a sliding foam-sheet gleaming grey.
The sun broke free from clouds a space,
Warming the youngness of her face;
Across grey leagues of hurrying sea
He shot pale fire; then, ominously,
Dipped whirling into the rack again,
And night fell swiftly, scattering rain.
She laughed, put out her hand to rise,
Letting her dark eyes seek his eyes,
And for a moment, so, stood still;
And suddenly, then, youth had his will,
He kissed her mouth, she leaned to him,
Rain and the sea grew far and dim,
He only knew he touched her face,
They two alone in time and space.
He kissed her small, sweet, shutting eyes,
And felt her young breast quiver and rise,
Soft on his cheek her soft hair blew,
Sea-gulls above them cried and flew,
And over the cliffs came faintly down
Three bell-notes from the wind-blown town ...
Chaos of tone ... The bell-notes came
Flaring within his heart like flame,
Clashed and mingled and pulsed and roared,
Molten upon him fused and poured,
Opened and beat and fell and beat
While dark he ran with eyeless feet.

He woke. Faint tremble of a bell
Sang in his ears. The rain still fell.
And rising in the darkness there
It seemed he felt her blowing hair
Across his face, and still it seemed
He kissed this mouth, more real than dreamed.
Fantastic fires within him blent,
And into the night, half-dazed, he went:
Dropped down the path that led to sea,
And through the darkness, passionately,
Sought for the whiteness of her dress,
Her glimmering phantom loveliness.
This was the place—or was it this?
He heard on the sea the slow rain hiss.
She was not here ... a dream, no more.
He watched the pale surf charge the shore,
Watched the wild combers plunge and sprawl
And helpless shingle rolling crawl
Giddily down the undertow.
Into this great sea he would go,
And fight these savage waves a space,—
A song of praise for her young face.

He watched his chance, and stooped, and dove.
Darkness above him whelmed and drove.
He fought, three huge waves crashed him down;
He felt that he must breathe or drown;
Her face went past him, days and nights;
He caught at a whorl of slipping lights;
He swallowed fire, he strangled flame;
Then darkness and a swift dream came.

... He walked with loud steps on hard sand.
Bright seas foamed up on either hand,
Hissing a threat of death to him.
Before him, far, and fading dim,
A green-treed world lay low and sweet
Towards which he moved his tired feet.
Among the tall trees lights came out,
Someone was running, he heard a shout,
And a face that he had known somewhere
Leaned out beneath a lantern there.
She smiled, he reached his hands to her,
Darkness came down, he heard wings whir,
A sudden music, intense and sweet,
Broke in the air, and vanished fleet.
He hurried, he felt a creeping dread,
Hurried, and dared not turn his head.
He walked with loud steps on hard sand,
Bright seas foamed up on either hand;
He felt their cold and sparkling breath
Exhale upon him a wind of death,
The low green shore grew vague and far,
One light remained,—or was it star?—
And now the darkness drank this down,
He saw no more of shore or town,
Only this tongue of hard wet sand
And black waves foaming on either hand.
Where was the earth? It could not be
That everything was sunk in sea?
Along this darkening shore he drove
A monstrous plough, the bright share clove
A rich brown loam, a fruitful earth,
He flung fine seed, and a flame of mirth,
A fire of roses, white and red,
Wavered and shot behind his tread,
Shone and glistened and fanned and gleamed:
With time, these seas could be redeemed.
But darkness again destroyed it all,
The vast low sky began to fall,
A blackness sagged upon his brain,
Crushed, in a blood-red cloud of pain,
Flattened him down on hard cold sand
While bright seas rushed on either hand.
Remote within him a sweet voice spoke,—
Something was lost! Rich music broke,
The two seas rose and gleamed to meet,
Hissed over sand, made sea complete,
They roared together, they drowned the world,
A ghostly vapour above them whirled,
Drifted away, blew off, blew far,
Leaving a darkness without star:
Was it the world, or was it he,
That blew away so peacefully?

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