Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, SELLA, by WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT

Poetry Explorer

Classic and Contemporary Poetry

SELLA, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Hear now a legend of the days of old
Last Line: The stone engraved with sella's honored name.
Subject(s): Shoes; Mothers; Brides; Travel; Boots; Sneakers; Shoemakers; Journeys; Trips

HEAR now a legend of the days of old--
The days when there were goodly marvels yet.
When man to man gave willing faith, and loved
A tale the better that 'twas wild and strange.
Beside a pleasant dwelling ran a brook
Scudding along a narrow channel, paved
With green and yellow pebbles; yet full clear
Its waters were, and colorless and cool,
As fresh from granite rocks. A maiden oft
Stood at the open window, leaning out,
And listening to the sound the water made,
A sweet, eternal murmur, still the same,
And not the same; and oft, as spring came on,
She gathered violets from its fresh moist bank,
To place within her bower, and when the herbs
Of summer drooped beneath the mid-day sun
She sat within the shade of a great rock,
Dreamily listening to the streamlet's song.
Ripe were the maiden's years; her stature showed
Womanly beauty, and her clear, calm eye
Was bright with venturous spirit, yet her face
Was passionless, like those by sculptor graved
For niches in a temple. Lovers oft
Had wooed her, but she only laughed at love,
And wondered at the silly things they said.
'Twas her delight to wander where wild-vines
O'erhang the river's brim, to climb the path
Of woodland streamlet to its mountain-springs,
To sit by gleaming wells and mark below
The image of the rushes on its edge,
And, deep beyond, the trailing clouds that slid
Across the fair blue space. No little fount
Stole forth from hanging rock, or in the side
Of hollow dell, or under roots of oak;
No rill came trickling, with a stripe of green,
Down the bare hill, that to this maiden's eye
Was not familiar. Often did the banks
Of river or of sylvan lakelet hear
The dip of oars with which the maiden rowed
Her shallop, pushing ever from the prow
A crowd of long, light ripples toward the shore.
Two brothers had the maiden, and she thought,
Within herself: "I would I were like them;
For then I might go forth alone, to trace
The mighty rivers downward to the sea,
And upward to the brooks that, through the year,
Prattle to the cool valleys. I would know
What races drink their waters; how their chiefs
Bear rule, and how men worship there, and how
They build, and to what quaint device they frame,
Where sea and river meet, their stately ships;
What flowers are in their gardens, and what trees
Bear fruit within their orchards; in what garb
Their bowmen meet on holidays, and how
Their maidens bind the waist and braid the hair.
Here, on these hills, my father's house o'erlooks
Broad pastures grazed by flocks and herds, but there
I hear they sprinkle the great plains with corn
And watch its springing up, and when the green
Is changed to gold, they cut the stems and bring
The harvest in, and give the nations bread.
And there they hew the quarry into shafts,
And pile up glorious temples from the rock,
And chisel the rude stones to shapes of men.
All this I pine to see, and would have seen,
But that I am a woman, long ago."
Thus in her wanderings did the maiden dream,
Until, at length, one morn in early spring,
When all the glistening fields lay white with frost,
She came half breathless where her mother sat:
"See, mother dear," she said, "what I have found,
Upon our rivulet's bank; two slippers, white
As the midwinter snow, and spangled o'er
With twinkling points, like stars, and on the edge
My name is wrought in silver; read, I pray,
Sella, the name thy mother, now in heaven,
Gave at my birth; and sure, they fit my feet!"
"A dainty pair," the prudent matron said,
"But thine they are not. We must lay them by
For those whose careless hands have left them here;
Or haply they were placed beside the brook
To be a snare. I cannot see thy name
Upon the border--only characters
Of mystic look and dim are there, like signs
Of some strange art; nay, daughter, wear them not."
Then Sella hung the slippers in the porch
Of that broad rustic lodge, and all who passed
Admired their fair contexture, but none knew
Who left them by the brook. And now, at length,
May, with her flowers and singing birds, had gone,
And on bright streams and into deep wells shone
The high, midsummer sun. One day, at noon,
Sella was missed from the accustomed meal.
They sought her in her favorite haunts, they looked
By the great rock and far along the stream,
And shouted in the sounding woods her name.
Night came, and forth the sorrowing household went
With torches over the wide pasture-grounds,
To pool and thicket, marsh and briery dell,
And solitary valley far away.
The morning came, and Sella was not found.
The sun climbed high; they sought her still; the noon,
The hot and silent noon, heard Sella's name,
Uttered with a despairing cry, to wastes
O'er which the eagle hovered. As the sun
Stooped toward the amber west to bring the close
Of that sad second day, and, with red eyes,
The mother sat within her home alone,
Sella was at her side. A shriek of joy
Broke the sad silence; glad, warm tears were shed,
And words of gladness uttered. "Oh, forgive,"
The maiden said, "that I could e'er forget
Thy wishes for I moment. I just tried
The slippers on, amazed to see them shaped
So fairly to my feet, when, all at once,
I felt my steps upborne and hurried on
Almost as if with wings. A strange delight,
Blent with a thrill of fear, o'ermastered me,
And, ere I knew, my splashing steps were set
Within the rivulet's pebbly bed, and I
Was rushing down the current. By my side
Tripped one as beautiful as ever looked
From white clouds in a dream; and, as we ran,
She talked with musical voice and sweetly laughed.
Gayly we leaped the crag and swam the pool.
And swept with dimpling eddies round the rock,
And glided between shady meadow-banks.
The streamlet, broadening as we went, became
A swelling river, and we shot along
By stately towns, and under leaning masts
Of gallant barks, nor lingered by the shore
Of blooming gardens; onward, onward still,
The same strong impulse bore me, till, at last,
We entered the great deep, and passed below
His billows, into boundless spaces, lit
With a green sunshine. Here were mighty groves
Far down the ocean-valleys, and between
Lay what might seem fair meadows, softly tinged
With orange and with crimson. Here arose
Tall stems, that, rooted in the depths below,
Swung idly with the motions of the sea;
And here were shrubberies in whose mazy screen
The creatures of the deep made haunt. My friend
Named the strange growths, the pretty coralline,
The dulse with crimson leaves, and, streaming far,
Sea-thong and sea-lace. Here the tangle spread
Its broad, thick fronds, with pleasant bowers beneath
And oft we trod a waste of pearly sands,
Spotted with rosy shells, and thence looked in
At caverns of the sea whose rock-roofed halls
Lay in blue twilight. As we moved along,
The dwellers of the deep, in mighty herds,
Passed by us, reverently they passed us by,
Long trains of dolphins rolling through the brine,
Huge whales, that drew the waters after them,
A torrent-stream, and hideous hammer-sharks,
Chasing their prey. I shuddered as they came;
Gently they turned aside and gave us room."
Hereat broke in the mother: "Sella dear,
This is a dream, the idlest, vainest dream,"
"Nay, mother, nay; behold this sea-green scarf,
Woven of such threads as never human hand
Twined from the distaff. She who led my way
Through the great waters, bade me wear it home,
A token that my tale is true. 'And keep,'
She said, 'the slippers thou hast found, for thou,
When shod with them, shalt be like one of us,
With power to walk at will the ocean-floor,
Among its monstrous creatures, unafraid,
And feel no longing for the air of heaven
To fill thy lungs, and send the warm, red blood
Along thy veins. But thou shalt pass the hours
In dances with the sea-nymphs, or go forth,
To look into the mysteries of the abyss
Where never plummet reached. And thou shalt sleep
Thy weariness away on downy banks
Of sea-moss, where the pulses of the tide
Shall gently lift thy hair, or thou shalt float
On the soft currents that go forth and wind
From isle to isle, and wander through the sea.'
"So spake my fellow-voyager, her words
Sounding like wavelets on a summer shore,
And then we stopped beside a hanging rock,
With a smooth beach of white sands at its foot,
Where three fair creatures like herself were set
At their sea-banquet, crisp and juicy stalks,
Culled from the ocean's meadows, and the sweet
Midrib of pleasant leaves, and golden fruits
Dropped from the trees that edge the southern isles,
And gathered on the waves. Kindly they prayed
That I would share their meal, and I partook
With eager appetite, for long had been
My journey, and I left the spot refreshed.
"And then we wandered off amid the groves
Of coral loftier than the growths of earth;
The mightiest cedar lifts no trunk like theirs,
So huge, so high toward heaven, nor overhangs
Alleys and bowers so dim. We moved between
Pinnacles of black rock, which, from beneath,
Molten by inner fires, so said my guide,
Gushed long ago into the hissing brine,
That quenched and hardened them, and now they stand
Motionless in the currents of the sea
That part and flow around them. As we went,
We looked into the hollows of the abyss,
To which the never-resting waters sweep
The skeletons of sharks, the long white spines
Of narwhal and of dolphin, bones of men
Shipwrecked, and mighty ribs of foundered barks,
Down the blue pits we looked, and hastened on.
"But beautiful the fountains of the sea
Sprang upward from its bed: the silvery jets
Shot branching far into the azure brine,
And where they mingled with it, the great deep
Quivered and shook, as shakes the glimmering air
Above a furnace. So we wandered through
The mighty world of waters, till at length
I wearied of its wonders, and my heart
Began to yearn for my dear mountain-home.
I prayed my gentle guide to lead me back
To the upper air. 'A glorious realm,' I said,
'Is this thou openest to me; but I stray
Bewildered in its vastness; these strange sights
And this strange light oppress me. I must see
The faces that I love, or I shall die.'
"She took my hand, and, darting through the waves
Brought me to where the stream, by which we came,
Rushed into the main ocean. Then began
A slower journey upward. Wearily
We breasted the strong current, climbing through
The rapids, tossing high their foam. The night
Came down, and in the clear depth of a pool,
Edged with o'erhanging rock, we took our rest
Till morning; and I slept, and dreamed of home
And thee. A pleasant sight the morning showed;
The green fields of this upper world, the herds
That grazed the bank, the light on the red clouds,
The trees, with all their host of trembling leaves,
Lifting and lowering to the restless wind
Their branches. As I woke, I saw whem all
From the clear stream; yet strangely was my heart
Parted between the watery world and this,
And as we journeyed upward, oft I thought
Of marvels I had seen, and stopped and turned,
And lingered, till I thought of thee again;
And then again I turned and clambered up
The rivulet's murmuring path, until we came
Beside the cottage-door. There tenderly
My fair conductor kissed me, and I saw
Her face no more. I took the slippers off.
Oh! with what deep delight my lungs drew in
The air of heaven again, and with what joy
I felt my blood bound with its former glow;
And now I never leave thy side again!"
So spoke the maiden Sella, with large tears
Standing in her mild eyes, and in the porch
Replaced the slippers. Autumn came and went;
The winter passed; another summer warmed
The quiet pools; another autumn tinged
The grape with red, yet while it hung unplucked,
The mother ere her time was carried forth
To sleep among the solitary hills.
A long, still sadness settled on that home
Among the mountains. The stern father there
Wept with his children, and grew soft of heart,
And Sella, and the brothers twain, and one
Younger than they, a sister fair and shy,
Strewed the new grave with flowers, and round it set
Shrubs that all winter held their lively green.
Time passed; the grief with which their hearts were wrung
Waned to a gentle sorrow. Sella, now,
Was often absent from the patriarch's board;
The slippers hung no longer in the porch;
And sometimes after summer nights her couch
Was found unpressed at dawn, and well they knew
That she was wandering with the race who make
Their dwelling in the waters. Oft her looks
Fixed on blank space, and oft the ill-suited word
Told that her thoughts were far away. In vain
Her brothers reasoned with her tenderly:
"Oh leave not thus thy kindred!" so they prayed;
"Dear Sella, now that she who gave us birth
Is in her grave, oh go not hence, to seek
Companions in that strange cold realm below,
For which God made not us nor thee, but stay
To be the grace and glory of our home."
She looked at them with those mild eyes and wept,
But said no word in answer, nor refrained
From those mysterious wanderings that filled
Their loving hearts with a perpetual pain.
And now the younger sister, fair and shy,
Had grown to early womanhood, and one
Who loved her well had wooed her for his bride,
And she had named the wedding-day. The herd
Had given its fatlings for the marriage-feast;
The roadside garden and the secret glen
Were rifled of their sweetest flowers to twine
The door-posts, and to lie among the locks
Of maids, the wedding-guests, and from the boughs
Of mountain-orchards had the fairest fruit
Been plucked to glisten in the canisters.
Then, trooping over hill and valley, came
Matron and maid, grave men and smiling youths,
Like swallows gathering for their autumn flight,
In costumes of that simpler age they came,
That gave the limbs large play, and wrapped the form
In easy folds, yet bright with glowing hues
As suited holidays. All hastened on
To that glad bridal. There already stood
The priest prepared to say the spousal rite,
And there the harpers in due order sat,
And there the singers. Sella, midst them all,
Moved strangely and serenely beautiful,
With clear blue eyes, fair locks, and brow and cheek
Colorless as the lily of the lakes,
Yet moulded to such shape as artists give
To beings of immortal youth. Her hands
Had decked her sister for the bridal hour
With chosen flowers, and lawn whose delicate threads
Vied with the spider's spinning. There she stood
With such a gentle pleasure in her looks
As might beseem a river-nymph's soft eyes
Gracing a bridal of the race whose flocks
Were pastured on the borders of her stream.
She smiled, but from that calm sweet face the smile
Was soon to pass away. That very morn
The elder of the brothers, as he stood
Upon the hillside, had beheld the maid,
Emerging from the channel of the brook,
With three fresh water-lilies in her hand,
Wring dry her dripping locks, and in a cleft
Of hanging rock, beside a screen of boughs,
Bestow the spangled slippers. None before
Had known where Sella hid them. Then she laid
The light-brown tresses smooth, and in them twined
The lily-buds, and hastily drew forth
And threw across her shoulders a light robe
Wrought for the bridal, and with bounding steps
Ran toward the lodge. The youth beheld and marked
The spot and slowly followed from afar.
Now had the marriage-rite been said; the bride
Stood in the blush that from her burning cheek
Glowed down the alabaster neck, as morn
Crimsons the pearly heaven half-way to the west.
At once the harpers struck their chords; a gush
Of music broke upon the air; the youths
All started to the dance. Among them moved
The queenly Sella with a grace that seemed
Caught from the swaying of the summer sea.
The young drew forth the elders to the dance,
Who joined it half abashed, but when they felt
The joyous music tingling in their veins,
They called for quaint old measures, which they trod
As gayly as in youth, and far abroad
Came through the open windows cheerful shouts
And bursts of laughter. They who heard the sound
Upon the mountain footpaths paused and said,
"A merry wedding." Lovers stole away
That sunny afternoon to bowers that edged
The garden-walks, and what was whispered there
The lovers of these later times can guess.
Meanwhile the brothers, when the merry din
Was loudest, stole to where the slippers lay,
And took them thence, and followed down the brook
To where a little rapid rushed between
Its borders of smooth rock, and dropped them in.
The rivulet, as they touched its face, flung up
Its small bright waves like hands, and seemed to take
The prize with eagerness and draw it down.
They, gleaming through the waters as they went,
And striking with light sound the shining stones,
Slid down the stream. The brothers looked and watched
And listened with full beating hearts, till now
The sight and sound had passed, and silently
And half repentant hastened to the lodge.
The sun was near his set; the music rang
Within the dwelling still, but the mirth waned;
For groups of guests were sauntering toward their homes
Across the fields, and far, on hillside paths,
Gleamed the white robes of maidens. Sella grew
Weary of the long merriment; she thought
Of her still haunts beneath the soundless sea,
And all unseen withdrew and sought the cleft
Where she had laid the slippers. They were gone!
She searched the brookside near, yet found them not.
Then her heart sank within her, and she ran
Wildly from place to place, and once again
She searched the secret cleft, and next she stooped
And with spread palms felt carefully beneath
The tufted herbs and bushes, and again,
And yet again, she searched the rocky cleft.
"Who could have taken them?" That question cleared
The mystery. She remembered suddenly
That when the dance was in its gayest whirl,
Her brothers were not seen, and when, at length,
They reappeared, the elder joined the sports
With shouts of boisterous mirth, and from her eye
The younger shrank in silence. "Now, I know
The guilty ones," she said, and left the spot,
And stood before the youths with such a look
Of anguish and reproach that well they knew
Her thought, and almost wished the deed undone.
Frankly they owned the charge: "And pardon us;
We did it all in love; we could not bear
That the cold world of waters and the strange
Beings that dwell within it should beguile
Our sister from us." Then they told her all;
How they had seen her stealthily bestow
The slippers in the cleft, and how by stealth
They took them thence and bore them down the brook,
And dropped them in, and how the eager waves
Gathered and drew them down; but at that word
The maiden shrieked--a broken-hearted shriek--
And all who heard it shuddered and turned pale
At the despairing cry, and "They are gone,"
She said, "gone--gone forever! Cruel ones!
'Tis you who shut me out eternally
From that serener world which I had learned
To love so well. Why took ye not my life?
Ye cannot know what ye have done!" She spake
And hurried to her chamber, and the guests
Who yet had lingered silently withdrew.
The brothers followed to the maiden's bower,
But with a calm demeanor, as they came,
She met them at the door. "The wrong is great,"
She said, "that ye have done me, but no power
Have ye to make it less, nor yet to soothe
My sorrow; I shall bear it as I may,
The better for the hours that I have passed
In the calm region of the middle sea.
Go, then. I need you not." They, overawed,
Withdrew from that grave presence. Then her tears
Broke forth a flood, as when the August cloud,
Darkening beside the mountain, suddenly
Melts into streams of rain. That weary night
She paced her chamber, murmuring as she walked,
"O peaceful region of the middle sea!
O azure bowers and grots, in which I loved
To roam and rest! Am I to long for you,
And think how strangely beautiful ye are,
Yet never see you more? And dearer yet,
Ye gentle ones in whose sweet company
I trod the shelly pavements of the deep,
And swam its currents, creatures with calm eyes
Looking the tenderest love, and voices soft
As ripple of light waves along the shore,
Uttering the tenderest words! Oh! ne'er again
Shall I, in your mild aspects, read the peace
That dwells within, and vainly shall I pine
To hear your sweet low voices. Haply now
Ye miss me in your deep-sea home, and think
Of me with pity, as of one condemned
To haunt this upper world, with its harsh sounds
And glaring lights, its withering heats, its frosts,
Cruel and killing, its delirious strifes,
And all its feverish passions, till I die."
So mourned she the long night, and when the morn
Brightened the mountains, from her lattice looked
The maiden on a world that was to her
A desolate and dreary waste. That day
She passed in wandering by the brook that oft
Had been her pathway to the sea, and still
Seemed, with its cheerful murmur, to invite
Her footsteps thither. "Well mayst thou rejoice,
Fortunate stream!" she said, "and dance along
Thy bed, and make thy course one ceaseless strain
Of music, for thou journeyest toward the deep,
To which I shall return no more." The night
Brought her to her lone chamber, and she knelt
And prayed, with many tears, to Him whose hand
Touches the wounded heart and it is healed.
With prayer there came new thoughts and new desires
She asked for patience and a deeper love
For those with whom her lot was henceforth cast,
And that in acts of mercy she might lose
The sense of her own sorrow. When she rose
A weight was lifted from her heart. She sought
Her couch, and slept a long and peaceful sleep.
At morn she woke to a new life. Her days
Henceforth were grven to quiet tasks of good
In the great world. Men hearkened to her words,
And wondered at their wisdom and obeyed,
And saw how beautiful the law of love
Can make the cares and toils of daily life.
Still did she love to haunt the springs and brooks
As in her cheerful childhood, and she taught
The skill to pierce the soil and meet the veins
Of clear cold water winding underneath,
And call them forth to daylight. From afar
She bade men bring the rivers on long rows
Of pillared arches to the sultry town,
And on the hot air of the summer fling
The spray of dashing fountains. To relieve
Their weary hands, she showed them how to tame
The rushing stream, and make him drive the wheel
That whirls the humming millstone and that wields
The ponderous sledge. The waters of the cloud,
That drench the hillside in the time of rains,
Were gathered, at her bidding, into pools,
And in the months of drought led forth again,
in glimmering rivulets, to refresh the vales,
Till the sky darkened with returning showers.
So passed her life, a long and blameless life,
And far and near her name was named with love
And reverence. Still she kept, as age came on,
Her stately presence; still her eyes looked forth
From under their calm brows as brightly clear
As the transparent wells by which she sat
So oft in childhood. Still she kept her fair
Unwrinkled features, though her locks were white.
A hundred times had summer, since her birth,
Opened the water-lily on the lakes,
So old traditions tell, before she died.
A hundred cities mourned her, and her death
Saddened the pastoral valleys. By the brook,
That bickering ran beside the cottage-door
Where she was born, they reared her monument.
Ere long the current parted and flowed round
The marble base, forming a little isle,
And there the flowers that love the running stream,
Iris and orchis, and the cardinal-flower,
Crowded and hung caressingly around
The stone engraved with Sella's honored name.

Other Poems of Interest...

Home: PoetryExplorer.net