Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, DAUGHTERS OF JEPHTHA, by LOUIS UNTERMEYER



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DAUGHTERS OF JEPHTHA, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Dance! / dance the crumbling world's expanse
Last Line: Dance!
Alternate Author Name(s): Lewis, Michael
Subject(s): Dancing & Dancers; Daughters


Dance!
Dance the crumbling world's expanse,
Dance the rhythms of this water,
Lift your arms in a wind of joy!
Which among you is Jephthah's daughter,
Dancing to destroy
Fears of sacrifice and slaughter,
Treading down death's arrogance?
Dance!
Dance the flaming heights of living,
Dance the broken depths of suffering!
Make your body sing the chants
Of love and lonely hunger, giving
All you are as offering!
Never spare yourselves; uncover
All that you have hushed and hidden,
Free as to an unforbidden
And awaited lover.
Whip the fires within you, burn
In a holy unconcern!
Purged of time and circumstance,
Dance!

Jephthah was judge and chief in Israel;
His arm was iron, his voice a great bronze bell.
Alone, in passionate prayer upon the heights,
He saw the leagues of armored Ammonites,
Flash in the sun like a malignant sword,
And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the Lord:
"If You will grant me life and victory
And bring proud Ammon down, then shall it be
That whatsoever comes from out my doors,
The first to greet my glad return, is Yours;
It shall be God's, a gift from chief to King,
And I will burn it as an offering."
So Jephthah slept, and in the morning woke
To find new strength. The Lord's red trumpets spoke
In Jephthah's battle-cry; he whirled and broke
The glittering line beneath his army's heel.
He saw the massive columns bend and reel
From Gilead and Minnith; saw them fly
Through twenty towns, his own troops rushing by
Like storm on spray, like rain pursuing foam.
So Jephthah came to Mizpeh, to his home.

Knotting her hair in two black braids,
Jephthah's daughter dismissed her maids;
The kiss of flute and dulcimer,
Voicing their pretty pains, the stir
Of passions neither high nor rude,
Smirched the white marble of her mood.
"What is this love that I must hear
In swooning notes from year to year
But an elaborate pretense
To rouse the tired play of sense;
A set of modulated sighs
Seeking to bring a new surprise
To jaded nerves and heavy eyes.
Silence! I will not have it so!
I want a wind of love to blow
Its passions with so great a breath
That, swept and tossed, I shall not know
If it be charged with life or death.
I want to stand in such a gale
Until my blood beats with the cries
Of all the wounded: those who fail
With victory in their grasp, the songs
Of outcasts quivering with their wrongs,
The leper's dirge beyond the pale;
The clang of bolts, the creak of thongs,
The drums of all defeat, the ecstasy
Of losing all and giving utterly --
Lord, let such music ring through me!"

As if in answer to her cry,
A word ran through the halls, a high
Murmur of sudden victory.
The rumor blazed. She sprang to it
With swifter flames. "Lord, can this be
The windy fire to set me free?
Girls, let the holy lights be lit!
Bring drums and torches! Scatter flowers
On the dark earth in brilliant showers!
Arouse the singers! Let the bands
Strike the harp with bolder hands!
Let light and air run through the house!
Put brighter fillets on your brows,
So that the dusty saviors meet
Rejoicing arms and laughing feet!
Shiver the cymbals! Let us dance
The dance of our deliverance!"

Between the crouching hills they came.
She saw their banners' snapping flame;
She knew her father's buoyant stride,
And was the first to reach his side.

Jephthah felt suddenly old and alone;
His bones were water, his face was stone.
"Sheilah I called you; Sheilah, the one
Who is demanded," and, undone,
He told her of his vow.

And Sheilah spoke:
"Why should you grieve for me, now that the yoke
Is lifted? Do you not recall the price
Asked of a patriarch for sacrifice?
I know whose anguish found triumphant voice:
Not the rapt father's, but the offered boy's.
Such rapture will be mine, and I grieve now
Only because my father made his vow
Without me in his mind. I was not meant
To serve as pathos for an accident.
Look at me, Father, smile, and let me go
Up to the hills awhile, so I may know
How to prepare myself, how to award
My spirit's ecstasy unto the Lord."

This was the chant that Sheilah raised,
Pacing the hills with solemn steps:

"Hearken, ye mountains, to my last communion,
Ye hills, ye listening rocks, when I am gone,
Testify to my need, my deathless hunger.
My pain will be another star in heaven,
My tears will glisten on the firmament.
Now that the hour of my bethrothal dawns
And my dark lover waits with stormy hands,
Ye trees, incline your branches on these breasts
Grown heavy suddenly, as April pools
Swell with the weight of rainy rivulets.
Beasts of the hills and demons of the night,
Unite me with the flames that leap in you.
So, to a mystic marriage I may come
Not like a child, half coy, half curious,
But proud and passionate, with burning arms,
Hair flying like a flag of victory,
And all the blood within me singing hymns.
So shall ye help me dance my way to death."

Dance!
Dance the soul's exuberance!
Dance, and as you bow and bend,
Be the instruments that blend
Consonance and dissonance!
Dance the fertile exultation,
Drooping but to reascend!
Dance the final consecration,
Which is beauty's end!
With each radiant tread and turn
Spurn the pallid life, the water
In the veins of sick romance!
Turn to this rejuvenation!
Never spare yourselves, but learn,
In a quickening immolation,
What it is to burn!
Learn what inner fires taught her
Laughter and deliverance!
Jephthah's daughter, Jephthah's daughter,
Dance!





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