Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE IMPROVISATORE: LEOPOLD, by THOMAS LOVELL BEDDOES



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THE IMPROVISATORE: LEOPOLD, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: The battle is over; the dews of the fog
Last Line: The storm was hushed. Men tell not where he went.
Subject(s): Adoption; Betrayal; Blood; Clergy; Death; Despair; Evil; Loss; Love; Violence; War; Priests; Rabbis; Ministers; Bishops; Dead, The


I.
THE battle is over; the dews of the fog
The wings of the eager vultures clog;
And the souls of the dead, in many a flake,
Are winding aloft, a misty snake
From its blood-clotted lair with fresh slaughter tinged:
And the clouds of heaven, with sable fringed,
Are weeping the murder: the spirit of ill
Is snuffing the incense upon the hill,
And basking with joy in the mortal steam,
And dabbling in the blood-red stream.
The tempest is moistening its blast in the blood
Which trickles along in a scurfy flood.
The dead are all reeking, a ghastly heap,
Slippery with gore, and with crushed bones steep:
As if the flesh had been snowed on the hills,
And dribbled away in blood-clammy rills;
A swamp of distorted faces it lay,
And sweltered and bubbled in the broad day.
There was one who had fainted in battle's crash,
Now he struggled in vain with feeble spash
Under his warm tomb of motionless dead;
At last he dashed backward his bursting head,
And gasped in his hideous agony,
And ground his firm teeth, and darted his eye;
Then wriggled his lips in the last prayer of death,
And mixed with the whirlwind his foamed breath.
Another, with gold-hilted sabre girt,
Had crawled from amid the fermenting dirt,
And was creeping with torture along the ground,
Tracking his path with an opening wound;
But a plunderer, spying his failing form,
Scattered his brains as hot food for the storm.
Hard by was a smiling young infant at rest
On his death-frozen mother's chilly breast,
And he filled her deaf ears with his piteous cries;
And with tiny fingers opened her eyes,
Which spurted upon him a thick, gory, clot,
While he smiled and fingered the spreading blot.
Amongst the foul carcases slowly there went
A reverend hermit weak and bent,
Muttering prayers with a tremulous tongue,
Whilst groans of despair at his deafened ears hung.
As he slipped on the dead men they started and howled,
And the lapping dogs stirred not but angrily growled.
A carrion crow, that was whetting its bill
On a naked bone, which was reeking still,
Heavily flapped its broad wings for a flight,
But could not soar upward, so gorged all night.

II.
The holy man raised up the smiling boy,
Who laughed, and held his blood-tinged fingers up;
His lip was moist, as though he'd made a cup
Out of some foaming wound: he turned and cried
And struggled from the gentle father's side,
And played with the torn flesh as with a toy.
His kind preserver, with some pious verse,
Hymned him to sleep within his arms; the child
Breathed balmily, and in his vision smiled.
And there he lay, swathed in that hallowed rest,
Like a late blossom pillowed on the breast
Of shrivelled leaves, as on an early hearse.
The hermit was old father Hubert; he
Who dwelt alone upon the pathless hill,
The friend of man in action and in will;
From whose soft eye, beneath the silver crown
Of age, beamed a pure spirit, like fresh rain, down
Upon the weak and suffering. If there be,
As we will hope there is, benevolence,
And love of men and heaven, and charity,
That pours libations from the balmy eye,
Left in the world, his heart was the pure shrine
Of all that's beauteous, kindly, and divine.
And so his words came, as the holy scents
From altar in prayer-echoing recess,
Steaming with clemency and holiness.
He was a man would make us love mankind,
Though all the rest were worms as vile as blind.

III.
With joy, that winged his feet, kind Hubert bore
His blooming burthen onward to his cell,
A rock-walled tower, alone within the dell,
Which beaded ivy bowered, and a bright stream
Girdled, besprinkled with the sun's bright beam,
As though 'twas tracked by the golden oar
Of unseen voy'ger; on its banks there smiled
All plants of sweetness; the prim daisy, and
The studded cowslip on its slender wand,
Like a small, natural sceptre; violets too,
Dark coloured, seemed the passer's smile to woo;
And leaf-veiled lilies of the valley, wild,
Shunning the others, like a froward child:
They mottled variously old Hubert's path,
And semed to know his footstep, for they cast
Up their soft cups and quivered as he passed.
He loved them as his children, innocent
And sweet, and guiltless of unkind intent;
He moistened them when the breath-scorching dawn
Denied them dew: of these he plucked a set,
The freshest and the fairest, and most wet
And strewed them plentifully on a nest
Of moss, and laid the baby to its rest.

IV.
Oh it is sweet to watch o'er innocence
Asleep, and mark the calm breast fall and rise,
And the veined veils that casket up the eyes,
And smiles dimple the cheek, for then we know
Good thoughts sweep by upon the gales that blow.—
Hubert brought up in his benevolence
The orphan child, and called him Leopold:
It was a froward babe, and never laughed,
Nor stole a kiss by courtesy or craft,
Nor with its outstretched arms his bosom clipped,
Nor in the evening blithely round him tripped.
Its eye was leaden, motionless, and cold;
It skulked in corners, and shunned sulkily
The good man's lessons; never conned a word
Of prayer or holiness. He oft was heard,
When all was silent save the midnight wind,
Muttering the secret thoughts of his dark mind;
But lowering fled from the monk's rosary,
And howled to drown his morning hymn of joy,
So he grew on, this sullen, wayward boy,
Chaining his dismal thoughts in their birth place,
A blotting cloud in Hubert's heaven of grace.

V.
He knew no playmates but the stormy blasts,
Which seemed to whisper some dark, secret, dread
As he would sleep among them, with his head
Swathed in lank dripping tresses, and cry out
With joy to his rude playmates, while his shout,
(He thought) was written in the lightning red—
Oh! how he longed to bind his bronzed brows
With a bright snake of fire, wove from the flame
Of those swift glimpses; or to hear his name
Roared in the thunder which they gild; he raged
And bared his breast, wherein were cribbed and caged
The thoughts that seared it. Then with mops and mows
He darted through the storm, like some wild bird,
He spurned the wind, and stretched his longing arms,
Hugging the tempest and its brood of harms
With horrible delight; his whooping yell
Struggled with the hoarse blast; its striving swell
Dwelt on the clouds, and in the vales was heard.
His bursting veins seemed swollen with venomed fire;
His eye was ringed with lurid flashiness,
And to his leaping heart he seemed to press
Some fanged folded thing of fieryness,
His lips, he felt, foamed lava, and his hair,
A cluster of writhed fire-snakes, to the air
Spate out the lightnings of its scorn and ire.
After such maddest fits his eye was sunk
Deep in its socket, and his lifeless trunk
Lay, like a lump of clay, amid the rank,
Long, twisted grass that decked his chosen bank.
And, as he lay entranced, the silent breeze
Swept from his foam-bathed lips such words as these.

VI.
'Ye swiftly flitting hours of day and night,
Half dim and dusk, half sunny bright,
Like feathers moulting from the pied wing
Of breathless time, who flutters evermore
This ball of earth and ocean girdling,
Searching the crevices of sea and shore,
Which still defy his strength with billowy roar,
To spy some cranny which the light ne'er saw,
Chaotic and forgotten, wherein he
May 'scape the gulp of the sepulchral jaw
Of loitering Eternity.
Our lives still fall and fall, flake upon flake,
Like piling snow upon the waves
Of some vast lake,
And melt away into the caves,
Whilst rising bubbles waste them as they break,
Like ye, from our own substance, as ye pass
Our essence still ye pilfer, onward fleeing;
We vanish, as a thing that never was,
And become drops of the huge ever-being.
Oh tell me, if ye silent wisdom bring,
Ye smallest links of time's unravelled chain,
That join to buried first the unborn last,
The embryo future to the sunken past,
Tell me, (for ye have not been forged in vain,
And ye have seen the fountain whence we spring)
What is this life, that spins so strangely on,
That, ere we grasp and feel it, it is gone?
Is it a vision? Are we sleeping now
In the sweet sunshine of another world?
Is all that seems but a sleep-conjured ghost,
And are our blind-fold senses closely curled,
Our powerful minds pent up in this frail brow
But by our truant fancy? Are we a groping host
Of sleepers gazing in this twilight gleam,
Unconscious dupes of some thought-peopled dream?
But I will think no more, lest haply I,
If I erred on in thought's dim wilderness,
And scared myself with shadows, ne'er should die,
But my astounded soul might petrify,
And freeze into time-scoffing stoniness.'

VII.
There would he lie, aye, and there was a cave,
Hideous and dark, choaked up with thorny weeds,
Moss-shrouded, that ne'er cast around their seeds;
And the dew lay among them, where it fell,
For months and months, and then it 'gan to swell
And turned to poison, where they still would wave
Inward; where tangled knots of loathsome roots
Crept, webbed on the roof; the dusk recess
Was moistened o'er with drops of clamminess;
And 'mid rank bunches of unvenomed shrubs,
Glittering with serpents' lathered foam, and grubs
Naked and filthy, crawling on the shoots,
A stagnant well steamed out dense, stifling mists,
Whose brim was silvered with the slimy track
Of tardy snails, or toads with mottled back,
Which hundred years hatched in the chilly stone.
Around the fog-filled cave no wind was blown,
Save pantings of huge snakes, bedded in twists
Of purple night-shade, and rough hemlock's hair.
The very owls fled, screeching, from the den,
And leathern bats were stifled there; no men
Ever set foot there till mad Leopold came
And sucked the water in, to quench his flame.
Well for its murkiness he loved the lair.
There, breathless, would he stretch his limbs among
The hideous crawlers; feel the forked tongue
Of crested serpents tamely lick his hand,
And curl around his legs with sparkling band.
There would he mark discoloured damps, that crept
Cloggedly down, and listen to the sound
Of the huge drops, that pattered on the ground
From the damp, mouldy clay, and see dark shapes
Mock his deep thoughts with gibes and fiery gapes,
Whole days unmoved, until his spirit slept.

VIII.
One wretched day (he had been sleeping long)
He started from his slumber, roused again
By some sharp pang of intellectual pain;
He cast with fevered balls a shuddering glance
Upon his couch, and eager to advance
Trampled the torpid snakes he slept among,
That lashed their slimy tails, when from the gloom
Of yellow chilliness, that brooded o'er
The well in clouds, and swept along the floor,
Hatching parched blasts of poison, there upwound
To him an indistinct, word-shaping, sound,
Breathing the clammy vapour of the tomb;
It crept into his ears, and bound him there,
As though by spell-sprung roots, and thus it spake—
' Dost thou, oh human reptile, seek to slake
Thy thirst of power; to ride along the deep,
And dally with the lightning, and to sleep
Under the tempest's wing, robed in the flare
Of the fierce thunder-bolt? Answer, weak slave.'
'I do, I do,' he cried, with struggling voice.
'The thunder hears, and doth approve thy choice.
All shalt thou earn by the priest Hubert's death.
Mix with the wind this night his feeble breath,
And cast his blood into yon green-scummed wave.'
The voice was gone, the echoes all were hushed,
And, by some fiend impelled, on Leopold rushed,
He scoured along the plain, the streams he passed
Breathless, and entered Hubert's cell at last.

IX.
He entered. The old man was sleeping, prayer
Steamed murmured from his lips, a mouldered cross,
Which the moon gilt, rose on a mossy boss
Behind his pallet, strewn with leafy wreaths,
O'er which the mellow autumn colour breathes;
A swinging lamp lit up with fitful flare
The dingy cave, now grasping at the air,
With upstretched claw of fire, now sinking down,
And quivering in blue atoms; Leopold stood
And gazed upon the slumber of the good.
Tranced Hubert's soul was dallying with dreams,
Flowery and pure, that wander on the beams
Of the moon earthward, with the night-breeze blown
Into the ears of sleepers. 'Darling child,'
The old man uttered waking, 'art thou here
Again to please me?' With a guilty fear
All Leopold's limbs grew stiff: the fading spark
Expired, and left the cavern damp and dark.
And then a spirit blasted in his ear,
With syllables of fire, the unnamed deed,
The sentence of the hermit. 'Twas decreed.
The dagger trembled in the ingrate's grasp;
It fell; he heard his friend's last struggling gasp,
And felt the blood-stream bubbling warmly round
His fingers, and drop down with gushing sound;
He heard the echo startle at the groans
Half choaked with feebleness; those faultered moans
Muttered his name with blessings. Then he fled,
And left his friend and kind preserver dead.

X.
He plunged the blushing dagger in the well
Of stagnant filth, which foamed up hideous din
And grating laughter at the acted sin;
Then Leopold felt his heels winged with flame,
And scorching breezes quickly went and came,
Feathering his limbs with sparks. The earth all fell
Diminishing below him, while he strode
Among the winking stars; as there he stayed
To taste the torrents that around him played,
Athwart his path the steed of tempest passed,
Its nostrils foaming with the whirlwind blast;
And as it stumbled, with hoofs comet-shod,
Among the craggy clouds, forked lightning's spark
Tracked through the midnight its destructive course,
Whilst from his wind-lulled cave, the thunder hoarse
Echoed its snortings. The blind nightmare too,
Crawling upon a cloud of murky hue,
Strolled lazily along, ridden by dark
And grinning phantoms. Still he wandered on
Among the elements: he lay by night
Under the tempest's wing, where fogs and blight
Are cradled, or a messenger from death
Flew down with feverish dreams, and sucked the breath
Out of parched lips until the soul was gone—
Thus centuries were passed: one night of fog
When winter with his damps began to clog
The pestilential air, he issued forth
Upon a mist-winged frost, and came to earth.

XI.
Oh woman! flower among this wilderness
Of wickedness and woe, whose soul of love
Lies scent-like inmost, steaming out above
Its incense of soft words; how sweet to sip
Entranced the voice of rapture from thy lip,
And taste thy soul in kisses. Thou dost bless
Our earthly life with looks, and shinest afar,
Gilding our night of misery like the star
That beams with hope upon the mariner:
Our guardian angels, robed in lovely clouds,
Ye still attend our steps in smiling crowds,
Friends, mothers, sisters, comforters, and wives.
Darkness and sorrow blot our lonely lives
When we forget or spurn ye. If ye err
Justice should weep but frown not, lovely voice
Of angels, caught and caged in a place
Hallowed by pity, tenderness, and grace,
Echo of every better, softer thought
That man is blessed with. Vain the solace sought
From wine, that bubbles with disease and steams
With embryo riot; thine, oh thine alone
Are the soft moments, when our souls have flown
From out this crust of flesh, and tremblingly
Hang on our lips, and vainly strive to fly
On pinions of bright words, and join with thine.
Oh that the magic skill of verse were mine
For one brief moment, that in lines of gold
Thy truth might be embalmed! But I am bold,
And worthier spirits have embowered thy shrine
In wreaths of poesy, with scents that glow—
So briefly to our tale of guilt and woe.

XII.
He came to earth.—It was a hamlet rude
He entered; in the midst a building stood
Embraced by creeping plants, which murmured low
Their voice of sweetness to the evening shower.
One little casement in that humble bower
Pressed out its chequered lattice in the leaves,
And kissed them into varied blushes. Sheaves
Of buds stood bristling up; in many a row
Curving laburnum wept its golden tears
Of perfume, and the saucy jasmine tossed
Its puny blossom and its curled leaf glossed
With narrow green; they all appeared to peep
In silent joy on some fair thing asleep.
Then Leopold on his dusky charger rears
Himself among the shuddering boughs. What sight
Lay melting on that snowy couch of white?
A beauteous daughter of mankind. Her cheek
Bloomed through ethereal dust, that veiled its bliss
From the down-falling light and night-wind's kiss—
He saw—he saw and loved. Next night again
He came, but viewed the beauty racked with pain.

XIII.
. . . . . . .

His look, his breath had choaked her soul. Death's hand
Had stiffened her fair tresses, and the grasp
Of his cold clammy fingers in their clasp
Mottled her beauty with damp mildewed stains.
That eye of beams is stagnant; no more rains
The dew of pity on the buds below,
Which echoed with their sighs. A dismal band
Of mourners is around, and sable woe
Clouds every feature. Then the sullen knell
'Waked from its nest within the muffled bell,
And shadowy trains of black moved slowly on,
And priests shrouded their prayers in solemn tone.
He heard no more—away, away he flew
Over the waves that roared, the storms that blew,
The clouds that lowered, till the cave was nigh,
The fatal cave with its dun canopy
Of venomed mist. He came, the dark depths roared
To welcome him to death; a curse he poured
That made the cold stones chatter, and the toads
Crawl, withered by his shrieks, from dank abodes
Where poison hatches reptiles. Echo, bound
In mossy walls, oozed fear-drops at the sound,
But gave no answer. Still his breathing seared
The slimy snake, that on curled tail upreared,
Hissed forth its fright. The waveless, stagnant well
Sunk deep, and hid within its muddy shell.

XIV.
. . . . . . .

The cloud of doom is coming. Ocean spouts
Its depth of darkness forth, and night sweeps down
To blend her horrors with it; onward blown
Foams the palled tempest. Then upstands the sea
With all its host of waters loftily,
And bubbles shrieks of wrath, and vomits routs
Of carcases, twined round with monsters' scales
That suck the limbs down. Spiked with lightning, sails
Fire with its snaky tusks and muttering threat,
That peers into the skies; its roots are set
Far, far below the fathomless abyss
Of the deep waters. With a searing hiss
The enemies moved on. Then Leopold sent
A roar of horror up into the sky,
While the sea foamed upon his feeble cry.
. . . . . . .

The storm was hushed. Men tell not where he went.





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