Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE HALCYON BIRDS, by WILLIAM ROSE BENET

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Classic and Contemporary Poetry

THE HALCYON BIRDS, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: It was a city rare
Last Line: And the daughter of the winds!


It was a city rare,
A stately, stainless city:
Trachinae, known of old
By soft-voiced folk and kind.
Poets, that build of air
And cloud high realms of joy and pity,
Ne'er may your eyes behold
Such streets as those did climb and wind
Up through the golden haze
That hung about that city's towers
And misted all its days
To dreams but rich-eyed flowers may know
That nod in fullest noon
With vision's heavy swoon.
This was the great gods' fateful boon
To Cyix long ago!

"There is a mountain fastness
Where dwelleth one but half a god.
He broods within a valley
No winged espial finds.
Lone in its desert vastness
All day he broods with weary nod,
Till sunset brings a sally
Therein of rushing, roaring winds.

"They stoop to him in full career,
And soar with new abandon.
They cry within his deafened ear,
And round him flaunt their ways.
Then godlike forms they take,
While all the echoing mountains shake
As Jove had laid his hand on
Their buttressed heights for praise.

"He binds them to his nod,
That ancient, daylong sleeper.
Aye, though but half a god,
Aeolus, the assigned
By Jove to be for ay
The four winds' faithful keeper,
Calms them at close of day
To hush, before his master mind."

Thus spake Halcyone
One noon within the garden
Of white Trachinae's palace
Above the glimmering sea;
For Cyix' bride was she,
And daughter of the warden
Of winds, whose love or scorn or malice,
Bound them or loosed tumultuously.

But Cyix, oh, Cyix, son of Hesper,
What have you heard?
Through the beat of the sea an ancient whisper?
In noon a word?

"Claros claims me now. I have heard my warning.
Love, weep not so!
Fate's priestess calls me by night and morning,
And I must go.

"The portents that brook no light transgression
Crowd round my sleep.
By my couch all night in a grim procession
They pass, and keep

"In the noon-day my heart from your heart withholden
And tasks of state.
Though the days of our love grow long and golden
I may not wait!"

He loosed her hand on the high, bright terrace
And turned away.
In her vision, a storm off the coast of Claros
Drew o'er the bay

As she stood alone. The bright sea darkened.
Swift lightnings played
Through the shriek of the fancied blast. She harkened
And fell afraid.

The ship they fitted with purple sail.
From the ship-house her gleaming length they drew.
"Like a hawk she will drive before the gale!"
Said the shipmen leal and true.
The ship they fitted with flashing oars
And her poop they spread with a carpet fine.
"Like a swan she will ride when the storm-cloud pours!"
Said the rowers thirty and nine.

Trachinae's walls gave cheer on cheer
As the long oars swirled the foam.
All white Trachinae's townsfolk cheer,
But one upon the walls doth hear
The roaring winds of her ancient home,
Like hounds that are loosed on the wild hart's track
Giving tongue in a fierce and howling pack,
Now scudding low with wings that gloom
Broad heaven with portents dire,
Now streaming, rising, spreading doom.
Fierce laughters, lit like fire,
Wrinkle and crackle through their cloud
On the sea, and lightnings, flashing loud,
Whip the wild waves to foam.
Thus heard Halcyone, terror-bowed,
The hissing sneer to the waters cowed,
The whine and snarl round mast and shroud
Of the winds from her father's home.

But lift to sea thine eyes,
Oh, weeping daughter!
Swift the Sea Bird flies
'Mid shouts that spread and rise
Across the water.

And lift to sky thy gaze,
Oh, wife of wailing!
From high azure ways
A glad sun bends at gaze
To speed this sailing.

Then like her heart's last hope it died
From sight against the distant blue,
That far-off sail. The sea lay wide
And calm. Her heart seemed stricken through.
Those vanished oars no longer took
A flickering glint from foam or sky.
White lilies, 'neath the reaper's hook,
Fall as she fell without a cry.

They came and took her sleeping,
And through the palace cool and dim
Carried her to her chamber high.
Toward morn she woke to weeping,
And by her window sobbed for him
Sad prayers to pierce a sadder sky.


Hail the rowers, who lift their proud ship through the languorous surges
As she rides, like a swan with the sunset's red gold on its wings,
Through the streaked, beryl-glimmering
Sea, all one shimmering
Sweep of soft hues to its verges, --
Rides the heave of its bosom, and forth from its blossoming billows trium-phantly flings!

How the gleaming backs bend to the rippling light lunge and recover!
And, when sun strikes the length of the deck to illustrious blaze,
Glisten muscle and tendon
That flow as they bend on
Their oars, and the blades glitter over,
And with showering brilliance of spray-dripping dalliance the stroke shuttles home for a space.

And again and again and again -- till, like swords to the scabbard
Simultaneous slipped, flash the oar-lengths shipped in at command,
And the sail, its bright breast
Stirred to eagle unrest,
Swells and fills as the hull lists to larboard,
And she dips to the trough of the sunset-filled deep and is lost to all sight of the land!
But hark, the sky-harriers, loosed
On the track of vainglorious ships,
Where through storm-wrack the lightnings are sluiced
Give tongue in eclipse!

And see the dark press of their wings,
As was warned, winnow down from the sky
As in torment the wild ocean flings
Its protest on high!

Hear you voices, oh, Cyix, all blent,
Through this smother of furious foam,
In supreme and assuageless lament
For the shaken Haemonian home?

The furies have found you! They rend
The stout decks with their taloned attack,
And the thick timbers buckle and bend
And the masts double back?

As through Babel the thin voice of Fate
Conquered tumult, now Nemesis finds
Words of woe for who takes for his mate
The Daughter of Winds.

"For Hesper still lightens serene
Life's wild sea for all hearts and all minds;
But dark passion and anguish and threne
Is the love of the winds.

"Choose to leap unrestrained like a flame
To that love that abandon unbinds;
Utter bliss, utter loss with the same,
Is the word of the winds.

"Choose to flash unocculted across
Life's sad tumult, a meteor men cry
For the freest; Love's law of your loss
Makes silent reply.

"Only see, though the hills interlock
And in fury the world rend apart,
That sure love that is lit for a mock
In the sky's quiet heart!

"And the tempests arouse, rock and veer
As Aeolus these loosens or binds,
But the Day-star sheds light down the year
Unstirred of the winds!

"See its flush on each bud that is born
In calm beauty ere hands of the hinds
Pluck them passion-disheveled and torn,
Anguish-stained by the winds.

"Yet apparel the soul may not doff,
Though your whims weave rich robes of all kinds,
Is this calm that we doubt of and scoff!"
Say the travailing winds.

"For there mingled, amerced, fuller-shown
In one light, every hue is Mankind's.
In the light of one star, peace alone!
Know us not!" cry the winds.

Now with that cry in his soul
See, while the deeps draw about,
Thunder and threaten and spout,
And the ship like a spent horse reels,
Foundering deep through the dark, --
Withheld he stands and stark,
Flung to that whelming rout
With no frantic last appeals!

Salt and deep and cold
That breast that heaves in mountainous mirth!
Beryl and black with doom tosses that titan breast!
Oh, glutted maw, as of old
Starved for a teeming Earth,
Devour him deep in gloom
That a warrior heart have a warrior rest!

Deep in the streaming twilight that lightens under the sea,
Silver and coral they veer to him, fish-finned, with breasts of rose;
But his breast heaves full with despair for the home where he fain would be
And his head drips up through the dark ere their wet arms clasp and close.

"Halcyone!" heard the darkness from the hero adrift with death.
"Halcyone!" heard the poising swells ere they broke in a bursting bath
Of darks shot through with the dreams of the drowned, but Cyix recalled his breath,
And again "Halcyone!" heart-rent, soared o'er the sea's white wrath.

Only the Day-star heard it, muffling his stricken face, --
Only that high-held Hesper, pacing his star-dust rounds!
And that night, eclipsed in sorrow, he waned from his ancient place,
And his woe went across the heavens in a shudder of starred profounds!

And down from that rabid night,
Down to a strange sea dawn
Of eerie and flickered light,
Clasped in the arms of his streaming guides
Deep-drowned is Cyix drawn
To rest in the perilous Infinite
Where drift through grotto and samphire lawn
The glimmering undertides.

So "Under the swell," each sea thing sang,
"Clasped to the swell of our lulling breasts,
Cool and deep,
Cool and deep,
Where the curtained deeps in darkness hang
In the soul of an emerald Cyix rests!

"Leander and more in like marvel lie,
For whom our mothering voices called.
Lucent laid,
Lucent laid,
Oh, find them, each green eternity,
Hushed in the soul of an emerald!

"Soulless the deeps that so draw men.
Soulless but long to love are we;
And we give all --
Gladly all --
Nor our love of body and soul dies when
The audit sounds of eternity!"


Now wakes the breeze o'er Thessaly
Where uplands stir and sigh
With summer dawn
When that the fawn
Breaks covert by the pool!
Now stirs the dawn o'er Thessaly;
Break bivouac the stars on high;
Flush up the Eastern sky
Previsionings of rosy rule!

When that the sun is risen --
When that the sun is risen --
Now, now his golden sinews shake the
dark bars of his prison!
Not yet earth's flowers fete their lord,
But multitudinous in accord
Burgeons the east, one glorious hanging bower
Of crocus, rose, and violet in flower!
Thither by mounting values the adored
Climbs clashing to his sway,
Swift sunlight from his girt and golden sword
Raying upon the world stupendous day!

Ah, but the long-watched window, with the dawn
Paling as hopeless as a prison wall
Where one with fear from all the world withdrawn
Clings to that shade, nor notes the east at all
Build up of hues; for ever rise and fall
Within her breast the tides of doubt and dread!
"For if he come at all -- oh, if he come at all,
He floats ooze-tangled, drifted chill and dead;
Dank seaweeds be his pall;
Sea jewels only bind the locks of that immortal head."

Nor she descended all that morning through,
Halcyone the peerless, pearl of price,
But, when the afternoon to evening grew,
At last upon the gates of Paradise
Prevailed her soaring prayers, and gentle eyes
Bent Juno on the moaning speech of them,
And Iris, in this wise (Iris of rainbow guise)
She charged, saying, "Fly thou to the farthest hem
Of earth, where vast doth rise
Somnus' dark cave that leagues about doth to rich sleep condemn!

"From his Cimmerian stupor Somnus rouse
And bid him of his henchmen choose that one
Who best in dream, at the Haemonian house.
May person Cyix to his woebegone
Halcyone! Dispatch!" And so 'tis done.
Violet-veined webs spreads Iris, dropping light
Flushed cirrus clouds upon -- fades through, and so is
gone --
A rainbow flicker lost in infinite
Abysms coerulean:
Then swirls through swimming sunlit wastes her dipping dartling flight!


Breathed from the brain of the Sleeper
Here hangs noonday hush it seems.
Lethe murmurs mazeful dreams,
Murmuring, mazing deeper, deeper
Down through shadowy silences.
Clouds upon the mountain's breast
Like sea-birds spent with roving rest.
Meadowed poppies mock the reaper.

Breathed from meads Cimmerian
Clouds and shadows mingle wanly.
Never night, nor dawn,
Ever twilight only
O'er this country bends and blesses.
And the light, as from a lute
Laid aside still music whispers --
Whispers and caresses --
Glimmers musing mute;
Glimmers shaken, overtaken
By its spirit, wishing vespers!

Here a cave hung high
In that cryptic mountain keeping
Ward across the meads of sleeping,
Like a blinded eye
Deep and dark secures
Peace from all allures;
Those whereafter men run weeping,
Wailing, 'neath the smileless, smiling,
Delphic, bluely-wiling sky!

Drowsed and dully angried,
Crimson, gold, in heavy masses
Poppies stain the seamed crevasses
Level with that tunnelled gloom.
Lax, luxuriant in bloom
Droop they rich and languid,
And the Sleeper's breathing passes
Light across them from the largeness
Of his glooming inner room.

From far dusk fell Iris,
Twirling like a butterfly,
From on high
Circling as the eagle's gyre is, --
All the splendid stolen hues
Of her kirtle fluttered loose;
And her bow made glittered quiver,
Flashing like a falling river,
Slim and silvern, sprayed of color!
Where she passed the clouds closed duller
As when dartling hope is lost.
Her approach the clouds uptost
In a surf of spreading blaze.
Swift and shot through prismy haze
Dropped she dripping, stood and sheathed
Wing before that murmurous cave.
As the wave
Breathes before the dawn she breathed.

A little only lingering, she took
Within there paces three;
Felt how the dense dark shook
With heavy curtained mystery;
Then, as her straining eyes grew used, and dim
Huge details compassed, on his high vague bed
Of sprawled Atlantean limb
Ere sight she knew of him:
Somnus the Sleeper! Dreams like flowers shed,
In formless strange transparencies did swim
The valance round, and dusky folds dream-broidered swathed his head.

A little in that twilight-grown gloom
She stood; then raised her arms.
Like dayspring through the room
Flooded at once in light alarms
The thousand-hued effulgence of her soul.
Thick protest murmured from those swarms apress
Blindly from Day made whole;
And rumbled mutterings roll
From the god canopied of weariness.
He moves, he heaves, his heavy eyes ache with such light's excess.

At last, "Speak, Goddess, what your errand is,
Only abate this flagellating light!"
He said in words like heavy silences,
Heaving his length upright;
And by him, of one height
Enormous in the dusk that closed on them,
Icelos, Phantasos and Morpheus, dight
In robes rich-shadowed, heavy to the hem
With stuff of dreams -- his sons by deep-wombed Night --
Swayed as they stood, like great rich blooms sleep-weighted from the stem.

The first it is familiars every shape
Of bird, beast, reptile, to the sleeping eye.
Patterned upon his muffling wonder-cape
In shifting phantasy
Of lit or darkling dye,
As gathered is that garb or smoothly hangs,
The mind may mark all preyers that prowl or fly,
Couchant or rampant, -- all fierce lives, of fangs
Or claws, and tamed to domesticity
All dumb and restless creature lives fettered to frets and pangs.

The second into water, tree or hill
Transforms himself. Oh, to such purposes
Of peace would Man might turn himself at will!
What bubble shows be these
To which we bend our knees?
Field, mountain, shore and leaping cataract
Woo to no venerance. Yet majesties --
Awful eternal words to teach the fact --
Are instant from them. Gaze! The hour flees.
Still rains the bridegroom light that lulls low plain and mountainous tract!

Meet Phantasos by noon, when that the ways
Of men too sternly din, and wounds and galls
Oppress the soul, and through a blood-shot haze
Close in the iron walls
Of Custom. Sudden falls
Death's quiet cool on that Caligulan shame.
Through sweet-souled meads and high tremendous halls
Pine-pillared, their voice the breathing of One name
Move thou where such free, simple faith appalls!
From such unshaken Future gaze -- and go the ways of Fame!

Iris spake then. The Slumberer heard and turned
To Morpheus, the last, who persons Man.
Swaying, he bowed, in all disguises learned,
Shrank like a folded fan,
And, in a second's span,
Stood forth as Cyix. Ah! But strange was this
Stark dripping shade of Cyix, ghostly wan!
His beard weed-meshed, the stroke of Nemesis
Plain in his port, and, where the ooze downran
His limbs like ivory glimmering forth, sapped of the sea's last kiss!

Moved, the bright messenger of Juno gazed,
Doubting, yet unamazed.
Lustre that instant languished from her wings,
And fearful shadowings
Forth from the walls once more, as now she stepped,
Clambered and softly crept.

Pooling the dark with glimmer followed he
His guide that was to be.
Again narcotic darkness filled the cave
Upswelling wave on wave.
Again about that ebon bed in gleams
Swam the transparent dreams.

Breathed from the brain of the Sleeper,
Once more noonday hush it seemed
Clothed that country. Lethe dreamed
Murmuring, mazing deeper, deeper
Down through shadowy silences.
Clouds and shadows mingled wanly.
Twilight -- twilight only
Lingered weak with weariness.
Evening bent
From the blurring firmament,
Bent to bless
All that waste of weariness
Where the star-crowned hills stood lonely.


"Dreams, dreams! If you wake it may be,
(Oh, kind dream, blind dream, dream I hope to hold!)
That we fade down the dark through that silent silver sea
On our splendid ship, our wonder-ship, our ship of faerie
With its masts of eerie gold?

"Dreams, dreams! Oh, tell me can it be
(Oh, sweet dream, fleet dream, dream I hope to hold!)
I shall wake to the dawn with the heartache still in me
Nor the barren light, the barren light will bring him back from sea
Save drifted still and cold?"

So o'er Halcyone sleep passed that tossing night,
Drifting pure and bright, drifting great and grim,
Till the dream god stole to her couch at start of light
And stood remote and dim.

Woke she first to the horror? Only this she knew:
Her love, torn from terrors, had triumphed to her there!
Nor now did she note on his brow the deathly dew
Nor his weed-meshed hair.

Her arms reached to him, as lily-like she lay,
And the spirit's voice was like silence to the blind.
"Deep drowned, deep drowned where the tides drift gray
Lies he you hope to find!"

Then swiftly by dream was the tale of terror told.
Groped she sobbing toward her waking as the god made haste to fly.
"Deep drowned! Deep drowned!" through her lifting slumber rolled
As she woke with stricken cry.

Too well, too well,
Oh, Morpheus, molder
Of Fate's disguises
In human form;
Too well, too well
On this sweet beholder
You pressed surprises
Of shock and storm!

Too ill, too ill,
Oh, man-unmaker,
By talking spirits
Of artless art;
Too ill, too ill
Were your spells to wake her,
That she inherits
A broken heart!

Her wail through the chamber rings.
Lights move by porch and stair.
To the breast of her bent old nurse she clings
And sobs like a wood-dove her soft despair.
And the dawn grows up in gray
Through the casement, wide to the sea;
"'Tis down to the sands today, today;
For my love drifts home to me!"

They have striven to hold her there
But she slips to the open door,
Like light drifts down the stair,
Like light is across the entrance floor!
Through the open portico
Drives the keen blue smoke of the sea.
"To the sands -- to the sands -- for this day I know
That my love drifts home to me!"

And at last, in the drenching, stinging
Wet breath of an ocean dawn,
On the sands they heard her singing,
That huddled folk on the palace lawn;
Her hair like a maenad's blown
To the wind as the east grew light
And her arms o'er her head in a fury thrown
And stretched to the Infinite.

And now as the east was builded
Shade on shade to surprising hue;
As the sun's ascendance gilded
Flushed turrets where windy banners blew;
A speck on the sea-line only,
A fleck on the gray sea-blur,
Weed-palled and supreme and lonely
Her love drifted home to her!

Out of the night and the weeping,
Out of the deep vast dark,
Back from abysses keeping
Their secrets stern and stark,
Into the glorious morning
Sent from his sepulchre,
In splendid and solemn warning
Her love drifted home to her!

Oh, dream more divine and thrilling
Than the sky's full radiance then
When love to supreme love's willing
Returned from the graves of men!
Oh, triumphant human sorrow
Resurrecting what fates inter!
For a light to mankind's tomorrow
Her love drifted home to her.

Then surges shimmered before him
And waves were a way for him.
The sky bent low to adore him.
The sea-line's light grew dim.
And there on a shoal outstanding
Beat round by the laughing sea,
Those immortal deeps commanding,
She waited -- Halcyone!

Pale and proud and stricken
In through the blue he came;
And, feeling her pulses quicken,
On her lips her lover's name,
Swift from the shoal, and spurning
Its sand, all her being stirred,
She leapt in anguish turning
To a skimming and crying bird!

To his breast! And they rose together
Miraculous and bright,
Up through the fierce blue weather
Wing to wing in their flight,
Their golden, golden crying
Athrob with their pinions' surge,
Glorying, waning, and dying
O'er the shaken sea's dim verge!

Oh, light that no night hath taken
From the wailing and crying sea!
Oh, miraculous anthem shaken
From a heaven of harmony!
Still that light from heaven is pouring
Beyond speech or the reach of words
As it blazed round their stricken soaring --
The joy of the Halcyon Birds!

For a period sent of heaven
Aeolus the surges binds
With halcyon days and seven
Untroubled of waves or winds.
Then softly that high-held Hesper,
With the sea dawn raying low
Tells in a starlight whisper
This tale of the long ago.

Then her sweet wild name goes thrilling
With its woe o'er the glimmered sea,
And the soul of the deep swells filling
With its wonder -- Halcyone!
And ray on effulgent ray, star
On star, with a blaze that blinds,
Chants the song of the son of the Day-star
And the daughter of the winds!

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