Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, WHITE NOCTURNE, by CONRAD AIKEN



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WHITE NOCTURNE, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: The first soft snowflakes hovering down the night
Last Line: Wait far off in the undisturbing night.
Subject(s): Absence; Death; Ghosts; Love; Memory; Supernatural; Separation; Isolation; Dead, The


I.

The first soft snowflakes hovering down the night,
From one white cloud that hurries beneath the stars,—
Whispering over the black unfrozen pool,
Silently falling on withered leaves,
Eddying slowly among bare boughs of trees,—
The music you are to me is as ghostly as these,
Softly falling, softly passing;
The first soft snowflakes slanting down this night
Melt on the lifted palms of your hands;
One of them finds your lip, and you quietly laugh,
A laugh that means to say
'This was the kiss you gave me yesterday,
Or the ghost of it—ah yes, the ghost of it,
For the ghost of it is all we have to-day.'
The first slow snowflakes pass
Leaving a sprinkled whiteness on leaves and grass,
The cloud turns ghostlike against the cold bright stars,
Over the long black boughs that seem to reach
Forlornly after it,
And now it is gone, and suddenly we seem
To walk in silence where before we walked in speech.
But the silence itself is exquisite,
Like a pause in music, ghostly with overtones,
And, silent, we seem to hear
The echoes of words we spoke and heard last year.
Clearly our footsteps sound on the moistened stones,
Clearly the lamplit hill-street gleams before us;
And silently we climb,
Climbing our tragic destiny together,
From lamp to lamp up the bright street of time.

II.

You sit beneath the lamp and talk to me,
With dark hair somehow turned to fire,
Your white hands lie in your lap, or touch your lips,
And your talk, like music, weaving intricately,
Plays upon me. It is a magic of white
Touching and changing all familiar things;
It flows in the windy night,
It quietly opens secret doors, it sings,
It returns upon itself, repeats, denies,
Or takes sweet pleasure in silence. And all the while
You sit beneath the lamp, and smile,
Or turn away your eyes.
'We remember,' you seem to say,—
Choosing strange words to say it, in another way,—
'How slowly and how inevitably we change,
How what was then familiar now grows strange.'
White valleys fall between us,
Your words become a wind, and heavily blow,
We seem to be crying across a chasm of snow,
Trying to hear the half-remembered words,
Trying to guess what we no longer know.
Yes, life changes, we are never the same.
Your eyes grow dark with a tiny flame,
You say the words, and wait;
And a terror seizes me, for I fear
That you have divined the things that I have forgotten,
Things that still shine before you white and clear.
Yes, it is strange. You sigh, your talk flows on,
You touch your hair with your hands, and sigh,
And suddenly it seems to me that this word,
This word so quietly said, was a terrible cry.
And I am confused, I desire to touch your hand,
But again white chasms open, the night flows chill,
And something freezes within me, and I am still.

III.

The snowflakes tick the frosted windowpane,
The night is mad with the senseless dance of flakes,
The coal fire sinks and shakes;
I wait by the window, and look along the street,
To where in the snow, beneath a lamp,
A man and a woman stand:
He is leaning close to her face, he takes her hand,
He pleads with her, she tries to turn away.
What is it he leans to say?
What is the savage music he plays upon her?
What chords profound with memories?
She lifts her face in the sombre light,
And together, slowly, they walk away
Whirled about by the mad dance of snow;
Down the white silent street from lamp to lamp they go,
Into the immortal night.
Where have they gone? Where will the white streets lead them?
To what tempestuous or ignoble end?
To what faint peace, or dazzling pain?
The snowflakes whirl and madden my brain,
They whirl in patterns before my eyes.
And I see them at last in a small and sombre room,
In the yellow lamplight I see them rise;
She smiles, and lifts white hands to touch her hair:
And he waits wearily in the eternal chair.

IV.

I would like to touch this snow with the wind of a dream,
And turn it all
To petals of roses. Why is it that I recall
Your two pale hands holding a bowl of roses,
Wide open like lotos flowers, floating in water?
I would like to touch this snow with the wind of a dream;
To hold the world in my hands and let it fall.
We have walked together through snow for a long long way,
We have walked among the hills immortally white,
Golden by noon and blue by night.
I would like to touch this snow with the wind of a dream:
And hear you singing again by a starlight wall.

V.

You talk to me—what is it that you are saying?
April ... April ... the soft sun falls between,
The deep white chasm, the gorge of the frozen river,
Flashes with white and green;
And we are walking there by the blue river,
By the blue river scaled with golden fire,
Our feet move pace for pace through the tall grasses,
And the earth is light with desire.
A great cloud crosses the sky,
Wind shakes the leaves, you fall in the grass and cry;
Crying silently, hiding your face with your hands;
And you are crying, I know,
Because this day, this youth, this beauty, must go,
Go down into the dust.
The golden river is dark with a sudden gust,
The green of the willows is ruffled grey,
A great cloud crosses the sky,
Wind shakes the leaves, you fall in the grass and cry.
Youth ... April ... we clamour to them to stay,
And a shadow is on us, for we know that love must die.
And rising, then, we see white peaks in the distance.
White peaks. Quiet. Peace. Eternity.

VI.

Yes, we have changed, slowly and silently changed;
We are the hungry ghosts of the selves we knew;
We sit on each other's tombs and stare at death,
We scarcely believe it true,—
And only then with a pang that is almost a cry,—
That once, long ago, we were the 'I' and the 'you'
Who stood bewildered under an April sky.
White night of snow, and a thousand nights like this;
Snow on our lips like the ghost of a kiss;
And a thousand nights in a hollow second of time
We will return again,
Silently, or with trivial speech, to climb
From lamp to lamp up the white street of pain.
Yet, is it better, (you say,
Painfully turning your darkened eyes away,)
To lend our souls to a quieter music at last,—
Remembering, when we will,
The sudden and gorgeous clashings of the past? ....
Snow falls about us, the hills immortally white
Wait far off in the undisturbing night.





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