Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE DEAD OF THE WILDERNESS, by CHAIM NACHMAN BIALIK



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THE DEAD OF THE WILDERNESS, by            
First Line: Yonder great shadow-that blot on the passionate glare / of the desert
Last Line: Stillness returns as of old. Desolate stretches the desert.
Alternate Author Name(s): Bialik, Hayim Nahman; Byalik, Chaim Nachman
Subject(s): Death; Legends; Dead, The


YONDER great shadow—that blot on the passionate glare of the desert—
'Tis not an army of lions couched in the sun with their young ones,
'Tis not the pride of the forests of Bashan uprooted and fallen:
Those are the Dead of the Wilderness under the sunlight recumbent.
Hard by their tents are they laid, like children of Anak for stature,
Stretched on the desolate sands like numberless lions in slumber;
Under the might of their limbs the floor of the desert is hollowed.
Armed as for battle they sleep and clad in the armor of giants;
Swords like crags at their heads and spears twixt their shoulders protruding,
Sound to their girdle the quiver and firm in the sand is the lance thrust.
Deep in the earth are their heads sunk, heavy with tangles neglected,
Matted and monstrous and vast, and uncouth as the mane of a lion;
Matted and monstrous and vast are their beards like to tangles of serpents.
Strong are their faces and burnished, and darkened to bronze are their eyelids,
Targets to arrows of sunlight and rocks to the fury of tempests.
Hard are their foreheads and grim and changeless upturned to the heavens,
Eyes that are cruel and terrible peer through the tangle of eyebrows.
Cast as of lava upthrown from volcanoes and hardened their breasts are
Lifted like anvils of iron that wait for the blow of the hammer;
Yet though the hammer of time beats long and unceasing upon them,
Like to the stone that enfolds it the strength of their hearts sleeps for ever.
Only, the faces unmoving, the breasts multitudinous, naked,
Strangely are covered, like ancient memorials, with runes of the desert
Graven by arrows and swords which the tempests have tossed and uplifted.
And when the eagle descends in his flight to behold he shall read there,
Graven on breast and on brow, the tale of unbroken endurance,
How many arrows and spears these breasts have encountered and shattered.
Sunlight and darkness revolve and cycle succeeds unto cycle,
Stormwinds awake and are stilled and the desert turns back to its silence.
Far stand the crags, as amazed in beholding the first things created,
Clothed by the silence with splendor, the proud, the eternally lonely,
Limitless, limitless stretches the wilderness, lifeless and soundless.
Lost to the end of all time is the jubilant voice of the giants,
Laid into stillness for ever the tumult that followed their footsteps;
Where they once trod are now lifted the sandhills and crags of the desert.
Silence has breathed on the mighty and cast into slumber their fierceness.
And the hot winds of the desert eaten their strength and their beauty.

Fierce burns the sun on the blades gigantic and wears them to brightness;
Blinding arrows of sunlight shot at the heads of the lances
Break into myriads of sparks that are dashed on the breasts of the sleepers
Lying there bared to the desolate sunlight for ever and ever.
Dried by the withering east-wind, dust of their bodies is lifted,
Whirled into other lands, scattered under the footsteps of pygmies;
Jackals there nuzzle with unclean snouts in the ruins of heroes.
No one remembers among them the old generation of giants
Fallen and turned into voiceless stone in the sands of the desert. ...
Sometimes a shadow is born alone on the face of the desert,
Floats on the sands till it reaches the ranks of the army of sleepers,
Trembles a moment above them and breaks into circles of motion,
Suddenly chooses a body outstretched and over it stands and is moveless;
And the body beneath it is darkened and half of its neighbor.
Suddenly quivers the air as the pinions stupendous are folded.
Full with his weight like a meteor descending he falls on his victim—
One of the eagle-kings, crag-born, crooked of beak and of talon.
Over the breast of the sleeper a granite-like talon is lifted;
Yet but an instant and granite on granite will ring in the stillness;
And in that instant he pauses and stands with his talon uplifted,
Stilled and rebuked in his pride by the loftier pride of the sleeper;
Wondering stands, then unfolds the strength of his pinions and rises,
Beating great waves through the air and screaming in stretches of sunlight,
Scales untiring the measureless heights and is lost in the splendor.
Long, long after still flutters, held fast on the point of a lancehead,
One gray feather that fell unseen and unmarked was abandoned,
Flutters and strains at the lance-head and fluttering earthwards is wafted.
Silence returns to the desert and peace to the sleep of the heroes.
Sometimes when midday is hot and the desert swoons under the sunlight,
Slides from its fastness a serpent, vast as the beam of a weaver,
Issues to warm on the sands the glistening rings of his body.
Now he shrinks on himself, coils himself moveless and breathless,
Languid with joy in the warmth and bathing in light as in waters;
Now he wakes and uncoils and stretches his length in the sunlight,
Opens the width of his jaws and his scales are like network of lightnings,
Spangled and knitted in splendor, a lonely delight in the desert.
Sudden he starts from his languor, leaps into rigid attention,
Bends and unwinds on the sand, then swiftly he glides from his station
Over the waste till he reaches the army of sleepers and stands then,
Lifted one-third in the air, like a column of bright hieroglyphics,
Raises his crown and outstretches his neck and his eyeballs green sparkle.
Swaying he broods on the slumbering army from margin to margin.
Vast is the soundless encampment and countless the dead it encloses,
Numberless, numberless faces and foreheads exposed to the heavens.

Then like a flash reawakens the hatred of dead generations,
Gleams in the start of his eyes like a brand that is sudden uncovered.
Hatred instinctive and ancient runs through the shuddering body.
Trembling he lowers his head and darts with it hither and thither,
Hangs then suspended an instant and stares in the face of a sleeper.
Under their hoods are his eyeballs twin centers of hatred and fury;
Hissing he opens his jaws and the flash of his fangs is uncovered—
And in that instant he pauses, sinks on the coils of his body,
Stilled and rebuked in his rage by the bitterer rage of the sleeper,—
Sinks and uncircles his length and turns from the visage of granite,
Moves off, a rhythm of waves till his splendor is lost in the distance.
Silence returns to the desert and peace to the sleep of the heroes.

Moonlight descends on the waste and sleeps on the measureless broadness,
Lays on the desert a garment speckled with light and with shadow.
Pallid the wilderness league after league rolls from dimness to dimness.
Broad at the foot of the towering crags are their shadows recumbent,
Couched like dragons primeval, things from the dawn of creation.
Gathered in monstrous conspiracy under the cover of darkness—
They will arise ere the morning, return to the caverns they came from.
Mournful the moon from her loneliness looks on the mystery threefold—
Wilderness, midnight and monsters crept out from the dawn of creation.
Lapped is the desert in merciless dreams of its old desolation,
Wails in its dreams, and its wailing half-uttered is broken and stifled.
But there are moments when, tortured too long by the silence eternal,
Wild with unbearable sickness of æons, the desert up-rises,
Wakens and rages for vengeance against the inhuman Creator,
Raises a column of sand to ascend to the fastness of heaven,
Once and for ever to meet Him and shatter the throne of His glory,
Once for the torture eternal to loose the floods of its fury,
Sweep his whole world into darkness and bring back the kingdom of chaos. ...
Then the Creator is stirred, and His anger envelops the heavens,
Like a great cover of iron, He bends them to blot out the desert.
Red from the blast of His breath, the flame of His anger outbreaking
Wraps the desert in fury and scatters its crags in a furnace.
Stubborn and bitter the desert responds, and new furies are loosened,
Rise from the bowels of Hell, and all earth is in fury confounded.
Seized by the madness that spins like a vehement wheel in the vastness
Tigers and lions, with manes uplifted and eyeballs aglitter,
Join in the riot infernal, and howl with the voice of the tempest,
Lifted and torn by the strength of the tempest like gossamer insect.
And in that instant—
Wakes the terrible power that slumbered in chains,
Suddenly stirs and arises the old generation of heroes
Mighty in battle: their eyes are like lightning, like blades are their faces.
Then flies the hand to the sword.
Sixty myriads of voices—a thunder of heroes—awaken,
Crash through the tempest and tear asunder the rage of the desert
Round them in wildness and blindness:
And they cry

"We are the mighty!
The last generation of slaves and the first generation of freemen!
Alone our hand in its strength
Tore from the pride of our shoulders the yoke of bondage.
We lifted our heads to the heavens and behold their broadness was narrow in the

pride of our eyes,
So we turned to the desert, we said to the Wilderness: 'Mother!'
Yea, on the tops of the crags, in the thickness of clouds,
With the eagles of heaven we drank from her fountains of freedom.
And who is lord of us?
Even now, though the God of vengeance has shut the desert upon us,
A song of strength and revolt has reached us, and we arise.
To arms! To arms! Form ranks! Forward!
Forward into the heavens and the wrath thereof.
Behold us! We will ascend
With the tempest!
Though the Lord has withdrawn His hand from us,
And the Ark stands moveless in its place,
Still we will ascend—alone!
Even under the eye of His wrath, daring the lightning of His countenance,
We will carry with storm the citadels of the hills,
And face to face in combat encounter the armed foe!
Listen!
The storm, too, calls unto us—'Courage and daring!'
To arms! To arms! Let the hills be shattered and the mountains blasted into
dust,
Or let our lifeless bodies be heaped in countless cairns.
Forward!
On to the hills!"

And in that instant the desert is wild with a fierce anger—
And who shall conquer it?
In the storm goes up a terrible voice, a mingling of cries.
It must surely
That the desert is bringing to birth a deed of evil,
A bitter thing, a cruel and a terrible. ...

Passed is the tempest. The desert is silent, and pure is the silence.
Bright is the broadness of heaven, and marvelous quiet beneath it.
Now from their terror awaking, the caravans trapped in the tempest
Rise from their crouching and call on their God and adore Him and praise Him.
Still in the sand are the sixty myriads of heroes aslumber.
Darkened their faces, for death has brought them to peace with their Maker.
No man knoweth the place of their slumber. The crags of the desert,
Split by the strength of their rising, over them closed in their falling.
Stillness returns as of old. Desolate stretches the desert.





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