Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THESEUS, by THOMAS STURGE MOORE



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THESEUS, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: What am I? O thou sea, with all thy noise
Last Line: "ask for king aegeus, and bring with thee these."
Alternate Author Name(s): Moore, T. Sturge
Subject(s): Theseus


"WHAT am I? O thou sea, with all thy noise,
Thou tell'st me not: -- and thou great sun, that leavest
Once more thy ruby red on little clouds
Where thou hast dived from sight, art mute and art
No parent of an answer to my prayer,
My daily prayer to thee. Those clouds, are they
As I am? and shall I, as they will, lose
What fastens now the eyes of men on me?
Youth, as they say, is that but as yon red
Which dims while I gaze on it, dims and fails
Before the breath of all-disabling night?
It makes me shudder: is there such a cave
That breathes on youth and freezes manhood's glow?
A gulf to swallow hope as night those tints?
And shall I scurry as the storm-chased cloud,
Darkling and teased to tears, and torn with groans?
Ah, must it come upon me to be spent
And no more heard of? Will blank replace me?

Yea, even the old man, who has lived well
Whose smile of fortitude has blessed and blessed,
Day after day, his friends through fifty years,
When his knees totter and his arm grows weak,
Though the gods love him, yet, to please Fate, he
Must be content to palter and lose all;
'Neath cover of a smile, be quite undone,
Yea, steal away, stand by, and let the grand
Converging circumstances tempt in vain
To some exploit worthy his life laid down,
Needed by all the world, but which weak hands
And knees that shake can now forbid him bring
To masterful fruition. Yea, Fate's fool,
Amidst the dearth of younger men endowed
With spirit and resources like his own,
He must sit down, give counsel, then unsay;
Even as I have had to fume 'mid men
Who lacked my heart, yet own'd the strength I lacked
And watch the chance go by -- feeling it fleet,
The unseized moment when a god cried 'Dare!'
'Tis sullen Fate thus thwarts the hopeful god,
Thus ends the good man, thus begins with me.

It is so! comes upon me! I shall fail;
For I have failed before; each year have failed
To roll this stone aside, which hides the proof,
The sign of whether I am no man's son,
Begotten of a man who wore a sword,
Or of some rascal whose long tongue deceived
A woman's heart. Shame hounds me when I think
That I have cheeks which flush to hear men's praise,
Who cannot say that I am such an one,
And add thereto 'my father sails afar'
Or 'fetcheth golden apples from the tree
That the sweet women sit beneath and sing,'
Or 'is in Cyprus, where he works a mine,'
Or 'followeth wars in Thrace,' or 'seeks a cure
At Delphi for some strange unkind disease.'
Thus other lads can vaunt and need not come, --
What day the sun behind yon little isle,
Each autumn sets for one who standeth here, --
They need not come down to this lonely beach
And tug at this dull stone, till they are faint;
Nor as their limbs grow cold ache with despair,
To hope and craven fear not slaves by turns;
And, if they oftener bear defeat in speed
Or when we wrestle, fence, or hurl the quoit,
A father teacheth what there lacked, and how
With greatest likelihood to compass it.
While I
Visit my mother where she sits and works,
As women work, weaving in wall-cloths wide
Figures of men and gods, and hear her talk
As women talk, with smiles and hopeful words.
Oft will she bid me stand in such a way
As Heracles or Jason rightly stand,
Then silently doth bend her to her task,
That she may fill their pictures out from mine;
While I forget her and that busy room,
Watching those heroes lay the red fir poles
Before the prow of Argo on the grass,
High up some glade, high in the forest hills,
Whence the vast Ister and Absyrtus draw
Their waters, and where stags, of huger build
Than horses, stand forth on the brows of cliffs
And bell at man's intrusion, ere they turn
With long quick strides to seek yet virgin wilds.
From morn to eve, before the Argo there,
They laid the poles, then dragged her over them;
And on they toiled, week after week, right up;
Then rigged as 'twere a second keel of plank,
And sledded her across the fields of snow,
And to encircling ocean brought her down.
They did this: I, who helped them in my thought,
Have heard my mother laugh, and waked to know
She could not tell me who my father was."
Thus far the lad with many a heart-drawn sigh;
Then eased his shoulders of their short grey cloak,
And tossed his hat of straw upon the ground.
Firm in vague twilight, naked, fleckless, blond --
Save that a sandal strap still laced each foot
And that his head was dark with clustered curls --
He stood as those whose prayer bestirs mute lips;
Then gravely did approach a sea-worn rock
Half buried in the shingle, wan; for sand,
With which the scouring wind its slatey hue
Had scored, was lodged in all its hollows, wan
With livid marblings, lonely, rounded, smooth,
Planted as for a bourne unto that sea
Whose hoarse waves gnawed the grating beach hard by
While, back from there, in dry and yellow reeds
Which belted the cove round, wind rattled bleak.
Beyond, dark hills rose, tranquil as the sky.
Suddenly his curls shook, he felt both arms,
Searched with his feet for purchase, then bent down
And digging with both hands in the loose beach
Obtained a thorough grip. His foothold gave
And gave beneath each crooked and straddled leg;
Their knees touched to the beach, pressed in, dug down,
While sinews on broad thighs, his hollowed loins,
And curved back hardened, knotted, and showed up:
Sweat, from a streaming forehead, dripped into
Those dangling curls which bounced before his eyes
And teased that burning furnace of his face:
But the stone gave, and his subsiding effort
Sank down upon it shifted in its bed.
Some time he sobbed, then knelt and sucked his hands
Bleeding and numb, and pinched between salt stones:
Rose then; his knees were raw; his chin was rasped,
For he had ground it on that sullen block;
With deep-drawn breaths he poised his limbs in the
air,
Relaxed their o'er-strained joints, and chafed their
thews;
And, having mopped his hot brow with his cloak,
Sat down and smiled because the stone had moved.

Yet soon, alas, a fear began to tease:
Then grew, and grew till it bedinned his brain,
Making all life seem madness, and the gods
Unhearing scorns at distances extreme.
-- If he should roll the stone back from a blank,
An empty bed! His heart stood still! There was
No future; such a moment ought to be
The last! Yet, far within,
He saw all time succeed,
No consonancy in it with the days --
Those days of sterling effort, gone before.
He thought it best almost to now give up.
But then the all-conquering hope to find a god,
A hero at the least had been his sire,
Brought him upon his feet and cleared his mind:
That which was raised from good must go to good;
But from a lie the fair thing sprung at first
Would be reduced and end in utter waste.

Choosing such larger stones as gave foothold,
He banked them up where he his feet would rest;
And, having scooped quite clear sufficient grip
For his sore-smarting hands, a second time
He bowed his back and worked down with his knees,
And heeded not annoy from clammy curls,
But put his soul into his boyish arms,
And hugged and raised the stone, then rolled it over,
Dragged by sheer weight himself, dragged sideways
down; --

Not long to lie, for he had seen! now saw! --
For into heaven, lo! the moon had glid,
Between their woods the dewy hills were grey,
And 'mid the reeds lagoons were path'd with light,
While countless silver patines danced at sea, --
Saw! saw! in sheath of inlay capped with gold
A sword, its baldrick, and beneath, a shield
Cased in a leathern bag, but printed through,
And on the bag large words, "My son, my Theseus,
That worthy of thy sire now hast proved,
Come to me, come to Attica, in Athens,
Ask for King AEgeus, and bring with thee these."




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