Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, A BALLAD IN BLANK VERSE, by JOHN DAVIDSON

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Classic and Contemporary Poetry

A BALLAD IN BLANK VERSE, by                 Poet's Biography
First Line: His father's house looked out across a firth
Last Line: Women to love are waiting everywhere.'
Subject(s): Aphrodite; Atheism; Christianity; Death; Family Life; Fathers & Sons; Mythology - Classical; Paganism & Pagans; Parents; Pride; Dead, The; Relatives; Parenthood; Self-esteem; Self-respect

HIS father's house looked out across a firth
Broad-bosomed like a mere, beside a town
Far in the North, where Time could take his ease,
And Change hold holiday; where Old and New
Weltered upon the border of the world.

'Oh now,' he thought—a youth whose sultry eyes,
Bold brow and wanton mouth were not all lust,
But haunted from within and from without
By memories, visions, hopes, divine desires—
'Now may my life beat out upon this shore
A prouder music than the winds and waves
Can compass in their haughtiest moods. I need
No world more spacious than the region here:
The foam-embroidered firth, a purple path
For argosies that still on pinions speed,
Or fiery-hearted cleave with iron limbs
And bows precipitous the pliant sea;
The sloping shores that fringe the velvet tides
With heavy bullion and with golden lace
Of restless pebble woven and fine spun sand;
The villages that sleep the winter through,
And, wakening with the spring, keep festival
All summer and all autumn: this grey town
That pipes the morning up before the lark
With shrieking steam, and from a hundred stalks
Lacquers the sooty sky; where hammers clang
On iron hulls, and cranes in harbours creak
Rattle and swing, whole cargoes on their necks;
Where men sweat gold that others hoard or spend,
And lurk like vermin in their narrow streets:
This old grey town, this firth, the further strand
Spangled with hamlets, and the wooded steeps,
Whose rocky tops behind each other press,
Fantastically carved like antique helms
High-hung in heaven's cloudy armoury,
Is world enough for me. Here daily dawn
Burns through the smoky east; with fire-shod feet
The sun treads heaven, and steps from hill to hill
Downward before the night that still pursues
His crimson wake; here winter plies his craft,
Soldering the years with ice; here spring appears,
Caught in a leafless brake, her garland torn,
Breathless with wonder, and the tears half-dried
Upon her rosy cheek; here summer comes
And wastes his passion like a prodigal
Right royally; and here her golden gains
Free-handed as a harlot autumn spends;
And here are men to know, women to love.'
His father, woman-hearted, great of soul,
Wilful and proud, save for one little shrine
That held a pinch-beck cross, had closed and barred
The many mansions of his intellect.

'My son,' he said—to him, fresh from his firth
And dreams at evening; while his mother sat,
She also with her dingy crucifix
And feeble rushlight, praying for her boy—
'My son, have you decided for the Lord?
Your mother's heart and mine are exercised
For your salvation. Will you turn to Christ?
Now, young and strong, you hanker for the world;
But think: the longest life must end at last,
And then come Death and Judgment. Are you fit
To meet your God before the great white throne?
If on the instant Death should summon you,
What doom would the Eternal Judge pronounce—
'Depart from me,' or 'Sit on My right hand?'
In life it is your privilege to choose,
But after death you have no choice at all.
Die unbelieving, and in endless woe
You must believe throughout eternity.
My son, reject not Christ; he pleads through me;
The Holy Spirit uses my poor words.
How it would fill your mother's heart and mine,
And God's great heart with joy unspeakable,
Were you, a helpless sinner, now to cry,
'Lord I believe: help Thou mine unbelief.'
He clenched his teeth; his blood, fulfilled of brine,
Of sunset, and his dreams, boomed in his ears.
A vision rose before him; and the sound
Husky and plaintive of his father's voice
Seemed unintelligible and afar.
He saw Apollo on the Dardan beach:
The waves lay still; the winds hung motionless,
And held their breath to hear the rebel god,
Conquered and doomed, with stormy sobbing song,
And crashing discords of his golden lyre,
Reluctantly compel the walls of Troy,
Unquarried and unhewn, in supple lines
And massive strength to rise about the town.

A quavering voice shattered his fantasy:
His father's pleading done, his mother cried,
With twitching forehead, scalding tears that broke
The seal of wrinkled eyelids, mortised hands
Where knuckles jutted white: 'Almighty God!—
Almighty God!—Oh, save my foolish boy.'

He glanced about the dreary parlour, clenched
His teeth, and once again his blood, fulfilled
Of brine, of sunset, and his dreams, exhaled
A vision. While his parents clutched their hearts,
Expecting his conversion instantly,
And listened if perchance they might o'erhear
The silent heavens burst into applause
Over one lost repentant, he beheld
The Cyprian Aphrodite, all one blush
And glance of passion, from the violet sea
Step inland, fastening as she went her zone.
She reached a gulf that opened in the ground
Deep in a leafless wood and waited there,
Battling the darkness with her wistful eyes.
Then suddenly she blanched and blushed again,
And her divinely pulsing body bowed
With outstretched arms over the yawning earth.
Straightway Adonis, wonderstruck and pale,
Stole from the sepulchre, a moonbeam wraith.
But Aphrodite with a golden cry
That echoed round the world and shook the stars,
Caught him and thawed him in her warm embrace,
And murmuring kisses bore him to her bower.
Then all the trees were lit with budding flames
Of emerald, and all the meads and leas,
Coverts and shady places, glades and dells,
Odoured and dimly stained with opening flowers,
And loud with love-songs of impassioned birds,
Became the shrine and hostel of the spring.

His wanton face grew sweet and wonderful,
Beholding Aphrodite. But they thought—
His father and his mother, sick with hope—
It was the Holy Ghost's effectual call.
Entranced he rose and glided from the room;
They, undeceived, like little children sobbed.

Slowly he broke his mother's tender heart,
Until she died in anguish for his sins.
His father then besought him on his knees,
With tears and broken speech and pleading hands

'My son,' he said, 'you open all the wounds
Daily and nightly of the Lord of Heaven:
You killed your mother, you are killing me:
Is it not sin enough, poor foolish boy?'

For this was in the North, where Time stands still
And Change holds holiday, where Old and New
Welter upon the border of the world,
And savage faith works woe.

'Oh, let me be!'
The dreamer cried, and rushing from the house
He sought the outcast Aphrodite, dull,
Tawdry, unbeautiful, but still divine
Even in the dark streets of a noisome port.

At times he wrote his dreams, rebellious still
That he should be constrained to please himself
As one is eased by roaring on the rack.
Desperate he grew, and wandering by his firth,

Exclaimed against the literature he loved.
'Lies, lies!' he muttered. 'And the noblest, lies!
Why should we lie? what penalty is this—
To write, and sing, and think, and speculate,
Hag-ridden by ideas, or 'twixt the shafts
Like broken horses, blinded, bitted, reined,
And whipped about the world by steel-tagged creeds!'

Wasted and sad with wantonness, and wan
With fantasy—a furnace seven times hot,
Wherein he tried all things; and wrung with woe
To see his father dying for his sake,
And by the memory of his mother's death,
He yielded tamely and professed himself
Convinced of sin but confident in Christ.

Then to the table of the Lord he went,
Ghastly, with haunted eyes that shone, and limbs
That scarcely bore him, like a heretic
Led to the chamber where tormentors stood
Muffled and silent, earnest to explore,
With cunning flames and cords and engines dire,
The sunken wells of pain, the gloomy gulfs
Obscurely wallowing in the souls of men.

In solemn tones the grey-haired presbyter—
'This is My body which is given for you,
This do in memory of Me.'

The boy,
Whose blood within him clamoured like a storm,
Uttered a smothered cry and rose, but lo!
The happy triumph on his father's face!
'Why do I not die now? like husks of corn,
The bread, like vitriol the sip of wine!
I eat and drink damnation to myself
To give my father's troubled spirit peace.'
The stealthy elders creaked about the floor,
Guiding the cup and platter; looking down,
The children in the gallery smirked and watched
Who took the deepest draught; and ancient dames
Crumpled their folded handerchiefs, and pressed
With knuckly fingers sprays of southernwood.

Ah! down no silver beam the Holy Grail
Glided from Heaven, a crimson cup that throbbed
As throbs the heart divine; no aching sounds
Of scarce-heard music stole into the aisle,
Like disembodied pulses beating love.

But in the evening by the purple firth
He walked, and saw brown locks upon the brine,
And pale hands beckon him to come away,
Where mermaids, with their harps and golden combs,
Sit throned upon the carven antique poops
Of treasure-ships, and soft sea-dirges sing
Over the green-gilt bones of mariners.
He saw vast forms and dreadful draw aside
The flowing crimson curtains of the west
With far-off thundrous rustle, and threaten him
From heaven's porch; beneath his feet the earth
Quaked like a flame-sapped bridge that spans the wave
Of fiery Phlegethon; and in the wind
An icy voice was borne from some waste place,
Piercing him to the marrow. Night came down,
And still he wandered helpless by the firth,
That under clouded skies gleamed black and smooth
Like cooling pitch. But when the moon broke out
And poured athwart the glittering ebony
Torrents of molten silver, hurtling thoughts
Trooped forth disorderly.

'I'll have no creed,
He said. 'Though I be weakest of my kind,
I'll have no creed. Lo! there is but one creed,
The vulture-phœnix that for ever tears
The soul of man in chains of flesh and blood
Rivetted to the earth; the clime, the time,
Change but its plumage. Gluttonous bird of prey,
More fatal than all famines, plagues and wars,
I wrench you off, although my soul go too!
With bloody claws and dripping beak unfleshed,
Spread out your crackling vans that darken heaven;
Rabid and curst, fly yelping where you list!
Henceforth I shall be God; for consciousness
Is God: I suffer; I am God: this Self,
That all the universe combines to quell,
Is greater than the universe; and I
Am that I am. To think and not be God?—
It cannot be! Lo! I shall spread this news,
And gather to myself a band of Gods—
An army, and go forth against the world,
Conquering and to conquer. Snowy steppes
Of Muscovy, frost-bound Siberian plains,
And scalding sands of Ethiopia,
Where groans oppress the bosom of the wind,
And men in gangs are driven to icy graves,
Or lashed to brutish slavery under suns
Whose sheer beams scorch and flay like burning blades,
Shall ring, enfranchised, with divine delight.
At home, where millions mope, in labyrinths
Of hideous streets astray without a clue,
Unfed, unsexed, unsoulled, unhelped, I bring
Life, with the gospel, "Up, quit you like Gods!"

Possessed with this, upon his father's hour
Of new-found happiness he burst, and cried,
'Father, my father, I have news to tell!
I know the word that shall uproot the thrones
Of oldest monarchs, and for ever lay
The doting phantom with the triple crown:
A word dynamic with the power of doom
To blast conventicles and parliaments,
Unsolder federations, crumble states,
And in the fining pot cast continents.
A word that shall a new beginning be,
And out of chaos make the world again.
Behold, my father! we, who heretofore,
Fearful and weak, deep-dyed in Stygian creeds
Against the shafts of pain and woe, have walked
The throbbing earth, most vulnerable still
In every pore and nerve: we, trembling things,
Who but an hour ago in frantic dread
Burned palsied women, and with awe beheld
A shaven pate mutter a latin spell
Over a biscuit: we, even we are gods!
Nothing beneath, about us, or above
Is higher than ourselves. Henceforth degree,
Authority, religion, government,
Employer and employed are obsolete
As penal torture or astrology.
The mighty spirit of the universe,
Conscious in us, shall' ...

Suddenly aware
Of gaping horror on his father's face,
He paused; and he, the old man, white as death,
With eyes like stars upon the crack of doom,
Rose quaking; and 'The unpardonable sin!—
The unpardonable sin!' he whispered hoarse.
'This was the sin of Lucifer—to make
Himself God's equal. If I may, my son—
If it be God's will, I shall go to hell
To be beside you. I shall be there first:
I have not many hours to live. I thought—
Here as I sat beside your mother's chair—
I—my boy!—I wander somewhat. Let me—
I'll sit again.—Let me remember now
How happy I have been to-day, my son
A member of the Church of Christ, and I
Beside him at Communion, seeing him
And seeing at the window of heaven the face
Of her who bore him, sweet and glorified.
At home I sit and think that, as he lived
Most absolute in sin, he shall, like Paul
Be as insatiable in doing well.
I think how, when my time comes, I shall go
And tell his mother of his holy life
Of labour for the Lord; and then I see
My boy at last appear before the Throne.
"By what right com'st thou here?" the Judge demands.
He hangs his head; but round about him throng
A crowd of souls, who cry "He was our staff;
He led us here." "Sit thou on My right hand,"
The sentence falls; and we, my wife and I,
Awaiting you. ... There came a devil in
Wearing the likeness of my boy, and said
He was predestined for a reprobate,
A special vessel of the wrath of God.
Holy he was begotten; holy born;
With tearful prayers attended all his life;
Cherished with scrupulous love, and shown the path
To heaven by her who ne'er shall see him there;
For out of this there comes but blasphemy
And everlasting Hell. ... Ah! who are these?
My soul is hustled by a multitude
Of wild-eyed prodigals and wrenched about.
Boy, help me to blaspheme. I cannot face
Without you her that nursed you at her breast.
Let us curse God together and going forth
Plunge headlong in the waves, and be at rest
In Hell for evermore. Some end to this!—
This awful gnawing pain in every part!
Or certainty that this will never end!
This, now, is Hell! ... There was a paltry way
Of fooling God some casuists hit upon.
How went it? Yes, that God did fore-ordain
And so foreknew that those who should believe
Should enter glory of their own free-will.
Ah! pink of blasphemies that makes of God
An impotent spectator! Let us two
Believe in this, and that shall damn us best!..
I dare, but cannot; for the Lord of Hosts,
The God of my salvation, is my God:
He, ere the world began, predestined me
To life eternal: to the bitter end
Against my will I persevere, a saint;
And find my will at length the will of God.
What is my son, and what the hopes and fears
Of my dead wife and me before the flame
Of God's pure purpose, His, from whose dread eyes
The earth and heaven fled and found no place!
Beside the crystal river I shall walk
For ever with the Lord. The city of gold,
The jasper walls thereof, the gates of pearl,
The bright foundation-stones of emerald,
Of sapphire, chrysoprase, of every gem,
And the high triumph of unending day
Shall be but wildfire on a summer eve
Beside the exceeding glory of delight,
That shall entrance me with the constant thought
Of how in Hell through all eternity
My son performs the perfect will of God.
Amen. I come, Lord Jesus. If his sin
Be not to death ... Heaven opens!' ...

Thus he died;
For this was in the North where Time stands still,
And Change holds holiday; where Old and New
Welter upon the border of the world,
And savage creeds can kill.

The trembling boy
Knelt down, but dared to think, 'A dreadful death!
To die believing in so dull a God,
A useless Hell, a jewel-huckster's Heaven!'
Forthwith it flashed like light across his mind,
'If it be terrible into the hands
Of the living God to fall, how much more dire
To sicken face to face, like our sad age,
Chained to an icy corpse of deity,
Decked though it be and painted and embalmed!'

He took his father's hand and kissed his brow
And, weeping like a woman, watched him long;
Then softly rose and stepped into the night.
He stood beside the house a little space,
Hearing the wind speak low in whispers quaint,
An irresponsible and wandering voice.
But soon he hastened to the water's edge;
For from the shore there came sea-minstrelsy
Of waves that broke upon the hollow beach,
With liquid sound of pearling surges blent,
Cymbals, and muffled drums and dulcimers.

Sparse diamonds in the dead-black dome of night,
A few stars lit the moon-deserted air
And swarthy heaving of the firth obscure.
He, knowing every rock and sandy reach,
All night unfalteringly walked the shore,
While tempest after tempest rose and fell
Within his soul, that like an o'er-wrought sea
Laboured to burst its continent and hang
Some glittering trophy high among the stars.
At last the fugal music of the tide,
With cymbals, muffled drums, and dulcimers,
Into his blood a rhythmic measure beat,
And gave his passion scope and way in words.

'How unintelligent, how blind am I,
How vain!' he cried. 'A God? a mole, a worm!
An engine frail, of brittle bones conjoined;
With tissue packed; with nerves, transmitting force;
And driven by water, thick and coloured red:
That may for some few pence a day be hired
In thousands to be shot at! Oh, a God,
That lies and steals and murders! Such a God
Passionate, dissolute, incontinent!
A God that starves in thousands, and ashamed,
Or shameless in the workhouse lurks; that sweats
In mines and foundries! An enchanted God,
Whose nostrils in a palace breathe perfume,
Whose cracking shoulders hold the palace up,
Whose shoeless feet are rotting in the mire!
A God who said a little while ago,
"I'll have no creed;" and of his Godhood straight
Patched up a creed unwittingly—with which
He went and killed his father. Subtle lie
That tempts our weakness always; magical,
And magically changed to suit the time!
"Lo, ye shall be as Gods!" —the serpent's cry—
Rose up again, "Ye shall be sons of God;"
And now the glosing word is in the air,
"Thou shalt be God by simply taking thought."
And if one could, believing this, convert
A million to be upright, chaste and strong,
Gentle and tolerant, it were but to found
A new religion, bringing new offence,
Setting the child against the father still.
Some thought imprisons us; we set about
To bring the world within the woven spell:
Our ruthless creeds that bathe the earth in blood
Are moods by alchemy made dogmas of—
The petrifaction of a metaphor.
No creed for me! I am a man apart:
A mouthpiece for the creeds of all the world;
A soulless life that angels may possess
Or demons haunt, wherein the foulest things
May loll at ease beside the loveliest;
A martyr for all mundane moods to tear;
The slave of every passion; and the slave
Of heat and cold, of darkness and of light;
A trembling lyre for every wind to sound.
I am a man set by to overhear
The inner harmony, the very tune
Of Nature's heart; to be a thoroughfare
For all the pageantry of Time; to catch
The mutterings of the Spirit of the Hour
And make them known; and of the lowliest
To be the minister, and therefore reign
Prince of the powers of the air, lord of the world
And master of the sea. Within my heart
I'll gather all the universe, and sing
As sweetly as the spheres; and I shall be
The first of men to understand himself. ...
And lo! to give me courage comes the dawn,
Crimsoning the smoky east; and still the sun
With fire-shod feet shall step from hill to hill
Downward before the night; winter shall ply
His ancient craft, soldering the years with ice;
And spring appear, caught in a leafless brake,
Breathless with wonder and the tears half-dried
Upon her rosy cheek; summer shall come
And waste his passion like a prodigal
Right royally; and autumn spend her gold
Free-handed as a harlot; men to know,
Women to love are waiting everywhere.'

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