Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE LAST OF HELEN, by GORDON BOTTOMLEY



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THE LAST OF HELEN, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Spring. A hid land of sodden sickly sleep
Last Line: Her heart that is both present and forgotten.
Subject(s): Helen Of Troy; Mythology - Classical


SPRING. A hid land of sodden sickly sleep,
Torpor, exhaustion, breathless heaviness,
Closed to the world by mouse-soft mist and stillness
That made earth's freshness into a shut maze
Subtracted from the earth like a veiled chamber
Where ancient queens did terrible things by twilight;
And, if at some chance sunset's passionate reach
(As of shorn space that would regain its own)
Through one tired sinking in the thunder-haze
Slipped an elation of suffused light,
Nought came of it -- the mist closed afterward.

The rain-sunk furrows of neglected fallows
Seemed ridgy with long, shallow-buried limbs;
The mildewed straw of past, ungarnered crops
Was combed by lean rain-fingers into manes
Tumbled and lying over the marshy corn-lands,
While the peaked self-sown wheat blaked up between;
The rivers had no banks, but washed across
From holm to toft as though on flat grass poured.

A mill-pond shrank in mallows and branchy cresses,
Crusted with crepitant scum worn in one place
To oil-green night where single bubbles broke
Hinting an old gross fat hoar purblind pike
Waiting to feel a minnow flick past above him;
The empty race was lined with dripping fungus
And fathomed by evening-primrose lights deep-seeded;
Though all was windless, yet the small millorchard
Was still more void and ignorant of breath,
So that dead leaves, being stirred by draggled flies,
Spun on the branches where corroded blossom
Of apple and pear and young wan leaves curled up;
The unsought former fruit lay nibbled and rusty
About the boles, spent plums were lifting pulp,
The old high grass rustled like delicate bones
As the hushed rabbits hunched unhurried through it;
Flowers white in the thunder-light chocked the garden,
Erect as though for warm grey-veiling rain,
While thrushes ran like rats among the larkspurs,
Stopping to listen for the worms beneath
(Worms make some oozing noise that birds can hear):
A purposeless wayfarer sped indoors
The moist warm silence to forget and hide from.

Because the moon was nearer than the sun
The moon-days were the paler, and thereafter
Limpid and lucent seemed the equal night.
Then, when weak suns drew up the mist no more
It felt to part in unknown wind o'erhead,
Till pools saw in an aged, wrinkled sky
Troubled and hoary stars come out rheum-filmed,
Startling one life with ages of decay.
This was nigh Lacedaemon in old days,
When Helen was sole Queen in Lacedaemon;
Though earth forgot its name was Lacedaemon.

It all began when Menelaos died.
Do you remember Troy? Ay, the old tale
Of how the gaunt Laconian ships slid down;
Of all the godlikeness man's earth could know;
Of the shrieky night the wooden mare unbellied,
When a piled town was litten for a candle
To shew one man his way to bed again.
Well, then there waxed blithe days, for Menelaos
Loved ever more the Queen of terrible days
Who made him be the master and so famous;
Until he grew most grateful for her sin
That brought him in the end the nations' envy
Of fame and Helen, and dread and Helen, and Helen.
Yea, he would laugh "My brother Agamemnon
Left his tall wife at home and fought for mine;
Yet his was none the better for home-biding,
While he was somewhat worse on't in the end.
When Paris died I thought to touch my own,
Love having passed I was the most remaining;
Men would have deemed there was no more to fight for,
But Helen knew 'twas best to fight for her."
Then he would ask her how those others kissed.
And Helen? 'Twas ever the strongest Helen loved:
Paris who mustered all the earth for her;
Deiphobus because his captaining
Could feed the woman's joy of deep witholding;
Then Menelaos who undid all this,
Sweetly despising as he proudly watched her
Nestle contentedly and feel so safe
With that last Troy-light ever in her face.
So that when Menelaos came to die
He set her up as his incarnate rule
To be his inmost regent in her queendom,
Knowing that to affirm her on his throne
Would be to make her his rare monument,
Perpetuation and continuous life,
Because each thought of her would keep his deeds
Topmost and make her but a shape of him
To express his height by her renown for ever
And hold her his for ever and for ever:
Wherefore he went with the grave effortless cry
"This is the eternal Helen in her halls."

'Twas then she grew sole Queen in Lacedaemon
And swayed men by her quiet longing ways
That moved elusive thoughts outside their minds,
As when you tread unknown glebe-paths at nightfall
And hear the pheasants withdrawing through the corn.
I speak as if I'd seen her? How is that strange?
Be told I've seen her many and many's the time.
What was the like of her? How should I say it?
I never wondered if she was beautiful.
A memory and a desire made her face,
With satisfied sleepy pity that forgot you
Even as she looked in hopeless, clear remoteness:
She could well make you know her choice and meaning
The reaching way she lifted up to meet you
So that she seemed to give herself to you,
Yet in the end the whole was still to give
And her inscrutability bewildered
The possibilities of mortality.

And so she was sole Queen in Lacedaemon
And huddled dumbly in contemptuous ease,
Longing for all the old unhappy days.
It was so good being fought for when the fight
Heaved this way and that like her own heart and mind:
It was so good being mastered three times over,
And now she was outside all mastery
And knew not what to live for, so estranged.
Old pain and dread, mourning and eagerness,
Wistful terrible anticipations,
Shrinking and shamefast forwardness, new kindling,
Ever had meant unheard-of luminous growth;
But stale past wisdom made her soul stand still --
The thing learnt matters not, only the learning.
Do you remember how young folk together
Will strive in hardship into the longest night,
Eager and earnest in unnoticed happiness
Because they are together, the world shut out,
Glad in their work, poignantly sensitive
By most sharp sympathy of passionate effort,
Lit by the comfort of joint loneliness?
Do not the creeping years soften the strife
Yet keep it vivid by thought's cherishing,
Withdraw the hardship into dear romance
That happened in a place of clear remoteness,
An inner intimate glow of mellow rareness;
So that they are desired and needed still
Because one feels the fellowship again,
And the fair comrades with their hands on yours,
And ever and ever the joy of being together?
Do you remember? Helen remembered too,
And ached for fights to watch and deaths to weep.

But still the antique customary awe
Showed the Laconians their twilight Queen
In the brave, sinking light of all she stood for;
Till, as she made one half-unheeded progress
Down Lacedaemon street, she heard a moan
"Is that the lass of Troy" and turned and saw
A lean brown shipman weeping to distortion.
Then Helen knew she must have grown quite old.
Her pain was such as draws the nipples inward
And blurs the breasts to girlish hollowness;
So that she watched the land with eyes intolerant,
Turned home and shut her palace-doors for ever,
Yea, shut her harbours and her mountain passes
To hide herself from knowledge and from change.

No one again saw her once dangerous face
Under the black perpetual veil that clouded
Her body to dim hints of distant things
When she appeared among the indifferent wrack
That kept a moonlight court with her and windled
In chambers perfumed by too much old incense
(Spent kinds no man remembered how to make),
Or paced her gardens of the ravelled blooms
And grey old peacocks whose moth-dusty tails
Tarnished and dimmed as though beneath her breath.
Nay, not a body-woman ever saw her:
But when she loosed her heavy hair for combing
One Summer bedtime in an empty chamber,
A gardener waiting for a kitchen-girl
Among the rose-espaliers far below
Looked at her casement as a night-breeze passed
And blew spread tresses up among low rafters,
Revealing a spare something which had been
The loneliest discomfort men should know --
Though all great beauty must be very lonely,
Being fruitful of uneasiness to men
With something equal to it in their minds:
But while the gardener looked the kitchen-girl
Kissed him, and he forgot to look again.

Ever she was the goddess of all death
And exile and high grief, and now was these.
What could her thoughts be but new-visioned thoughts
Of Paris lost, Deiphobus betrayed,
And Menelaos tricked beginning and end,
All uselessly because she made their strength,
Their beauty, joy, and agony feed her life
That now she could not use without their worship?
Yea, and of these men wondered which she needed
When, passing some walled pleasance ere the dawn,
They heard her voice, the last of their long greatness.

"Love, ere the ending I am cold.
Would I had given all I sold;
For my desires are satisfied,
I know no pleasure to abide,
My world is mine and used and grey --
There is nought left but going away.
I wish I might have loved you more,
To let you give me all your store;
I wish I might have loved like you,
Deep-quickened to remembering woe.
I am not sorry for my weal --
Ah, come to me and make me feel.
There is nought left but going away.

"I brood on you and cannot pray --
If I could clasp you back to me
I might live fully all I see;
Surely I should not grow so old
Nor watch my endless lapsed play told
Unpassionedly. Love, I am cold.
I long to hear none bids me stay;
There is nought left but going away."

One day, in Spring, a woman said to me
"Surely I know that women and men have souls,
Because I have once watched a man's soul die:
But until then I never had believed it."
Well, and this Helen here so went away,
Leaving her body to do its aimless errand:
I know not any mark of when that ceased.

The sun's place changes slowly in the heavens,
So that the holies reared to hold the dawn
On the god's day three thousand years ago
Lag cold and dark -- the light is gone from them:
And Helen's still aglow her first fair way,
But we can read even less than all her lovers
Her heart that is both present and forgotten.





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