Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE BIRTHDAY, by RHYS CARPENTER



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THE BIRTHDAY, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: The trees were dripping, dank and still
Last Line: And thoughts to linger in.
Subject(s): Birthdays; Children; Cities; Fire; Rites & Ceremonies; Childhood; Urban Life


THE trees were dripping, dank and still,
And shadows moved across the sky.
We rode from out the courtyard grey,
And turned our bridles toward the way
That leads above the southern hill
To plains wherein the cities lie.
The wind of early morning stirred
Through leaf and branch, and half unheard
Came drowsy note of waking bird
To greet us, riding by.

It was my birthday: twelve short years
Had shed their blossoms over me
In fragrant dreams and happiness,
Far from the city's dull distress,
Whose clouded course of jest and tears
Long since mine eyes have learned to see;
But glad of heart was I that day
When up we rode, by climbing way,
By meadow dank and poplar grey,—
Ah, sweet festivity!

Upon our left, the heavy shrouds
And glowing curtains of the dawn
Were shot with purple and with red
Like garments for a king new dead,
Where deep within the eastern clouds
The arrows of the light had gone:
And as we rode, the great sun's shield
Half shone within the misty field,
And phantom drifts of fog revealed
Fled past like hunted fawn.

There, steep upon the headland's crest,
Through quarried cleft and stony break
The highway wound, till from the flank
Of ridgèd hills the valleys sank
Deep down to quiet farms at rest
On sleeping marge of wood and lake.
And there, beyond the fields of grain,
Within the vast and shadowed plain,
Like giant in half-slumber lain,
The city, scarce awake!

The cocks were crowing; bird and beast
Had roused from slumber. As we passed,
The peasant-folk in garment gay
From hut and hovel on the way
In ceaseless confluence increased;
And now the multitude amassed
To hide the shortening road from view
Till scarce our horses laboured through;
Yet rod by rod we nigher drew,
And won the gates at last.

And now the narrow city-street
Beneath the roofs and towered walls
With endless vision bound my gaze.
My senses spun in strange amaze;
The trampling of a thousand feet
Amid the wooden booths and stalls
Fell like a storm about my ears
And filled my brain with shapeless fears,
As when a nightmare shadow nears
Through terror-stricken halls.

Above the swaying market square
From open window we surveyed,
Like watchers over beaten shores,
The surge of people nigh the doors
Of that dark council-chamber where
The final sentence had been laid.
My lips were caught as in a spell;
Within my ears a funeral-bell
Tolled on, with slow and heavy knell,
Deep shuddering and afraid.

'Twas stroke of noon: the heavy gate
Swung outward from the palace-yard;
Black-gowned, and hooded deep with gloom,
They came from inner council-room
In sullen pomp and priestly state.
Like shattered crystal's fallen shard
There gleamed a figure garbed in white;
And slow they came, and strange the sight,
Like wrack of cloud on stormy night
O'er heaven single-starred.

I saw the pale and weary face
Like wan and troubled winter-moon:
I saw her body sway and shake
Like reed within a windy lake.
Rough fingers girded her in place.
I saw her droop as though to swoon
Above the faggots piled on high:
I shivered at her dreadful cry.—
'Twas still: the bells against the sky
Had ceased to toll for noon.

And three there came with lighted brands
And tossed them on the faggots' rim;
I saw the hungry tongues and lips
Leap upward in a fierce eclipse
Across her helpless maiden hands.
I felt the tear-drops rise and brim
Mine eyes, till roof and market square,
Her ashen face, her golden hair,
And all the evil shifting glare
Grew shadowy and dim.

And up and up the twisted flame
Ran red and yellow, till her form
Was hid with fire, and whirling smoke
Above her head and shoulders broke;
A wind of passion without name
Encompassed her in raging storm
Of pillared flame that lightened higher
Than sloping roof and gilded spire;
My hands could feel the leaping fire,
The very stones were warm.

O God, that eyes of mine should see
Black counsel and dark hatred win
A golden life for murderous fire
To glut its limitless desire!
And this was that festivity
Wherewith my birthday should begin:—
An ashen circle, charred and grey,
Whereon the winds might hold their play,
A ghastly place for feet to stray
And thoughts to linger in.





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