Orion, and Other Poems

by Charles G.D. Roberts




TWO mighty arms of thunder-cloven rock
Stretched ever westward toward the setting sun,
And took into their ancient scarred embrace
A laughing valley and a crooning bay.
The gods had stilled them in their primal throes,
And broken down their writhed extremities
Sheer to the open sea. And now pine-belts
And strayed fir-copses lined their shaggy sides;
And inland toward the island’s quiet heart
White torrents cleft the screens, and answered each
To other from the high cliffs closer drawn,
Kept ever brimming from eternal caves
In azure deeps of snow, and feeding full
A strong, swift river. And the river flowed
With tumult, till it caught the mighty speech
Rolled upward from the ocean, when it paused,
And hushed its rapid song in reverence,
And wound slow-footed through the summer vale,
And met its sovereign with majestic calm.
The sunset with its red and purple skirts
Hung softly o’er the bay, whose rippled breast
Flushed crimson, and the froth-streaks round the beach
Were glowing pink. The sands burned ruddy gold,
And foot-marks crossing them lay sharp and black.
A flood of purple glory swept the shores,
And spread upon the vineyards, and the groves
Of olives round the river-banks, and clothed
The further matted jungles; whence it climbed
The ragged scaurs and jagg’d ravines, until
It lay a splendor on the endless snow.

Where the slow swirls were swallowed in the tide,
Some stone-throws from the stream’s mouth, there the sward
Stretched thick and starry from the ridge’s foot
Down to the waves’ wet limits, scattering off
Across the red sand level stunted tufts

Of yellow beach-grass, whose brown panicles
Wore garlands of blown foam. Amidst the slope
Three sacred laurels drooped their dark-green boughs
About a high-piled altar. There the king,
Œnopion, to whose sceptre bowed with awe
The people dwellers in the steep-shored Chios,
Stood praying westward; in his outstretched hand
The griding knife, well whetted, clothed with dread.
The royal priest’s dark tresses, made aware
Of coming winter by some autumn snows,
Hung down his blue-dyed mantle, which he girt
Up seemly for the sacrifice; a beard,
Short, black, and silken, clothed his lips and chin ;
Beneath deep brows his keen eyes lurked half hid,
And never rested: now they drank the stream
Poured from the fiery sunset’s sunken springs.
A supplication moved his silent lips,
Swift-winged to seek Apollo, and beseech
Regard unto the rites e’en now begun.
Anon he dropped his arm; and straight the youths,
Chosen of Chios’ fairest race, upbore
The victim to the pile,—a tawny wolf,
Blood-stained, fast bound in pliant withes, fed fat
On many a bleating spoil of careless folds,
His red tongue lolling from his fangéd jaws,

His eyes, inflamed, shrinking with terror and hate,
His writhen sinews strained convulsively.

Meanwhile from out a neighbor gorge, which spake
Rough torrent-thunders through its cloak of pines,
Along the shore came one who seemed to wear

The grandeur of the mountains for a robe,
The torrent’s strength for girdle, and for crown
The sea’s calm for dread fury capable,—
A Hunter laden with the spotted pride
Of kingly beasts before not dared of men,—
And stood without the laurels’ sacred shade,
Which his large presence deepened. When the knife
Let blood well-pleasing to Apollo forth
The victim’s gasping throat,—who yet cried not,
But glared still hate upon his murderers
And died uncraven,—then the Hunter bent
His godlike head with awe unto the gods,
And so kept bowed, the while the King drew forth
Wine from a full skin-bottle nigh and poured
A beaded, dark libation. Then he raised
His head again,—like a tall pine that bends
Unto a sudden blast, and so keeps bent
Some moments, till the tempest passes by,—
And cast his burden down before the King,
And said,—
               "With skins of lions, leopards, bears,
Lynxes, and wolves, I come, O King, fulfilling
My pledge, and seeking the delayed fulfilling
Of some long hopes. For now the mountain lairs
Are empty, and the valley folds secure.
The inland jungles shall be vexed no more
With muffled roarings through the cloudy night,
And heavy splashings in the misty pools.
The echo-peopled crags shall howl no more
With hungry yelpings ’mid the hoary firs.
The breeding ewe in the thicket will not wake
With wolves’ teeth at her throat, nor drinking bull
Bellow in vain beneath the leopard’s paw.
Your maidens will not fear to quit by night
Their cottages to meet their shepherd lads;
And these shall leave safe flocks, and have no need
Of blazing fagots. Nor without some toils
Are these things so. For mighty beasts did yield
Their ornament up most reluctantly;
And some did grievous battle. But the pledge
And surety of a blissful harborage,
Whither through buffets rude I needs must fare,
Made heavy labors light. And if, hard pressed,
My knees perchance waxed faint, or mine eyes dim,
The strong earth stayed me, and the unbowed hills,
The wide air, and the ever-joyous sun,
And free sea leaping up beneath the sun,—
All were to me for kindly ministrants,
And lent glad service to their last-born,—man,
Whom, reverent, the gods, too, favored well.
And if to me, sleepless, alone, by night
Came phantoms from polluted spots, and shades
Unfettered, wavering round my cliff-edged couch,
Fain to aghast me; them I heeded not,
As not worth heed. For there the deep-eyed Night
Looked down on me; unflagging voices called
From unpent waters falling; tireless wings
Of long winds bare me tongueless messages
From star-consulting, silent pinnacles ;
And breadth, and depth, and stillness fathered me.
But now, O King, seeing I have at cost
Of no slight labor done thy rugged hest,
And seeing hard strife should win sweet favors, grant
The good long wrought for, that amid the groves
And sunny vineyards I may drink deep draughts
Of Love’s skilled mixing, and of sweet mouth’s gift

Of maiden-lipped, snow-breasted Merope."

So sped the wingéd words. And thus the King,
Œnopion, to whose sceptre bowed with awe
The people, dwellers in the steep-shored Chios :
"Great honor hast thou won and shalt possess,

And I will pay thee to the uttermost.
Thy couch this night be softer, and more blest
Thy visions,"—but in subtlety he spake,
And went apart a little from the place,
And filled with sullen wine two cups, well wrought.
But one he tinctured with a Colchian drug
And gave his guest to drink, with honeyed words,
But crooked, serpent-smooth,—"Drink this, in pledge
Of those deep draughts for which thou art athirst.
And now I go to bid the maid be glad
And make all ready. Rest thee here with these,
And I will come and fetch thee." And he went
Up from the shore and in among the vines,
Until his mantle gleamed athwart the lanes
Of sunset through the far, gray olive-groves.

The Hunter turned, and heeded not the men,
But went apart close by the sleepless sea
And sat him down, because his eyes were dim,
And his head heavy, and his sinews faint.

And now it was about the set of sun,

And the west sea-line with its quivering rim
Had hid the sun-god’s curls. A sanguine mist
Crept up, and to the Hunter’s heavy eyes
Became as if his eyes were filled with blood.
He guessed the traitorous cup, and his great heart
Was hot, his throat was hot; but heavier grew
His head, and he sank back upon the sand,
Nor saw the light go out across the sea,
Nor heard the eagle scream among the crags,
Nor stealthy laughter echo up the shore,

Nor the slow ripple break about his feet.

The deep-eyed Night drew down to comfort him,
And lifted her great lids and mourned for him,
Foreknowing all his woe, and herself weak
To bend for him the indomitable fates;

And heavier dews wet all the trees and fields;
And sighs cool-drawn from infinite wells of space
Breathed round him; and from forth the unbowed hills
Came strength, and from the ocean essences
And influences to commune with him,

But found his spirit blind, and dumb, and deaf,
Not eager and expectant, as of old,
At every portal of the sleepless mind.

But hark ! what feet are these that stir the vines
Beneath the big, sweet-smelling grape-clusters?

What feet are these that leave the muffling grass
And crush the shingle sharply up the beach?
Out of the foamless sea a heavy fog
Steamed up, rolled in on all the island shores,
But heavier, denser, like a cloak, where lay
The Hunter; and the darkness gathered thick,
More thick the fog and darkness where he lay,—
Like as a mother folds more close her child
At night when sudden street-brawl jars her dreams.
But now the folding vapors veiled him not,
The ineffectual darkness hid him not,
For one came with the King and bare a torch,
And stood beside the Hunter where he lay;
And all the darkness shuddered and fled back
Sullenly into the grim-visaged crags,
Beneath their battered foreheads; and the fog
Crept up a chilly horror round the King,
Made huge the writhed and frowning mountain-brows,
Till cliff, and cloud, and chaos of thick night
Toppled about the place, and each small sound
Of footstep or of stealthy whisper rang
Tortured and shrill within the cavernous hollows.
Before the King, before the torch-bearer,
Stood one beside the Hunter’s head,—a slave
Beside the god-begotten,—and he bare
Back with one arm his cloak, and in his hand
He bare a cup—with suchlike juice in it
As slew Alcmena’s son—above the face,
The strong, white, godlike face, more deathly white
Even than death; then into each close lid
He dropped the poison with a loathing hand,
While he whose light made manifest the deed
Winced in his eyes and saw not, would not see,
Those eyes that knew not of their light gone out.
And heavy drops stood forth on all the rocks,
And ocean moaned unseen beneath the fog ;
But the King laughed—not loud—and drew his cloak
Closer about him, and went up the beach,
And they two with him.
                                        Now the fog rolled back
And a low moon came out across the sea,
And o’er the sea flocked out the pasturing stars,
And still he lay upon the trodden sand,
And still the ripple brake about his feet.
So moved the burdened hours toward the dawn;
But suddenly their burden was forgot,
For music welled from out the throbbing waves,
And melody filled all the silver air.
And silver shoulders under wondrous gold
Of dripping tresses brake the shining waste
Whence came the maids beloved of Doris, fair
As stars and lovely for the stars to see,
And stood and mourned about the Hunter there,—
And curséd were his eyes that could not see.
And had he seen as grievous were his case,
Blinded with love and stricken with delight.
So came they weeping, and their yellow hair
Fell round them, while they smote their lyres, and sang:
"O god-begotten
Strophe A.
         And dear to all the gods!
                For thee quick-dropping tears
                       Make heavy our eyes and hot.
  Be he of gods forgotten
         That smote thee, their gifts as rods
                To scourge him all his years,
                       Sparing him not.
 "For thee the long-heaving
Antistrophe A.
          Ocean, fruitful of foam,
                Groaned in his depths and was sore
                       Troubled, grieving for thee.
  Grew Clotho sick of her weaving,
          And the fury of storms that come
                Out of the wilderness hoar
                       Went pitying thee.
 "For thee the all-bearing
Strophe B.
          Mother, the bountiful Earth,
                 Who hath borne no fairer son
                       In her kindly bosom and broad,
  Will not be comforted, wearing
         Thy pain like her labor of birth,
                And hath veiled her in vapors as one
                        Stricken down, overawed.

 "For thee the all-covering
Antistrophe B.
         Night, the comforting mother,
                Wept round thee pitifully
                       Nor withheld her compassionate hands;

  And sleep from her wings low-hovering
         Fell kindly and sweet to no other
                Between the unharvested sky
                       And the harvested lands.

"We all are made heavy of heart, we weep with thee, sore with thy                          sorrow,—

The Sea to its uttermost part, the Night from the dusk to the morrow,
The unplumbed spaces of Air, the unharnessed might of the Wind,
The Sun that outshaketh his hair before his incoming, behind His outgoing, and laughs, seeing all that is, or hath been, or shall be,
The unflagging Waters that fall from their well-heads soon to the sea,
The high Rocks barren at even, at morning clothed with the rime;
The strong Hills propping up heaven, made fast in their place for all time;
Withal the abiding Earth, the fruitful mother and kindly,
Who apportions plenty and dearth, nor withholds from the least thing blindly,
With suchlike pity would hide thy reverent eyes indeed
Wherewith the twin Aloides fain she would hide at their need:
But they withstood not Apollo, they brake through to Hades, o’erthrown ;
But thee the high gods follow with favor, kind to their own;
For of thee they have lacked not vows, nor yellow honey, nor oil,
Nor the first fruit red on the boughs, nor white meal sifted with toil,
Nor gladdening wine, nor savor of thighs with the fat burned pure,—
Therefore now of their favor this ill thing shall not endure;
It endures but a little, seeing the gods make ready their mercy,
Giving for thy well-being a skilfuller goddess than Circe,
For the putting away of thy trouble, the setting far off of thy pain,
And she shall repay thee double, making thy loss thy gain.
But come, for the night fulfils, the gray in the sky gives warning;—
Then get thee up to the hills and thou shalt behold the MORNING."
The Hunter stirred; and all the long gray shore
Lay empty, and the ripple whispered not,
Awed by the wide-spread silence. Then he rose,
Groping, and strove to put aside the night
That clung beneath his eyelids,—till he knew,
And his whole heart sank, knowing. Then his voice
Brake thus from out his utter misery
(The while a sound went,—"Get thee up to the hills;
Thou shalt behold the morning;" but he heard not):
"Oh, black night, black forever! No light forever!
Oh, long, long night, just fallen to hang forever,
Never to break nor lighten! Whose the heart
That dared it? Whose the hateful thought? What hand
Wrought me this curse, dealt me this ruin, this woe
Unutterable, pitiless, unmeasured,—
Put out my light, portioned me night forever?
Oh ye that die not, ye that suffer not,
Gods that are mindful, seeing good and evil!
If ever unto you have risen a savor
Acceptable, of honey, and oil, and wine,
Me offering; and if a frequent smoke
Have circled up to heaven from me to you
Acceptable, of spotless hecatombs ;
And if from vows fulfilled and reverence
Be favor in your sight,—then hear my prayer,
And soon be it accomplished: let the hand
Wither that wrought me this, the brain that planned
Rave and henceforth be mocked and plagued of devils,
Let every good be turned for him to gall,
And those his heart most cherishes become
A horror, till he flee from them as fiends.
But is this pain forever, this my night
Eternal? Thou that mad’st the day and night,
Make thou a day for me! O Earth, my mother,
All bountiful, all pitiful, take heed
Into what evil on thy breast hath fallen
Thy son! O sleepless sea, behold my woe!
O air all-folding, stars immovable,
With everlasting contemplation wise,
Know ye no remedy? Forests and fields,
Tempests untiring, streams, and steadfast hills,
Flame-riven caverns, hear me, for ye know me!
Tell me; I hearken." And his bended head
Besought the rocks.
                                "Thou shalt behold the morning,"
Brake clearly on the ample-bosomed silence,
And straight begot as many widening waves
As doth a pebble on a resting lake.
The echoes hurtled inland, startling all
The olive-groves and vineyards, rippling up
The green foot-hills, and lapping faint and low
About the low fir-copses; then they reached
The upper gorges, dying in that region,—
Region of sounding pines and cataracts
Impregnable to silence. Then, again,
Even in the lifting of his head, and making
Thanksgiving with mute lips, clear, far, and fine,
Out of the vaporous raiment round their tops
Came comfort from the hills:
                                                "Up to the hills;
Thou shalt behold the morning!"
                                                      Then he bowed
With godlike reverence, reverencing the gods
And ancient powers that watched him, and made quick
His sense to their communion.
                                                  Now a sound
Of hammers rose behind a jagged cape
Not many paces hence, with windy roar
Of new-awakened fire. With pain and toil,
Groping and staggering, hands, and knees, and feet
Bruised with the crags, and faint, he came where men
Wrought arms and forged the glowing bronze for war.
There one came forth to meet him; him he took
Upon his kingly shoulder, and him bade
Of courtesy to be to him for eyes,
To guide his feet that quickly he might fare
To the hill-crests, or ere the fiery flower
Of dawn bloomed fully.
                                     So they two went thus
Up from the sombre, bitter-breathing sea,
Beside the river, o’er the slumbrous sward
Gossamer-spread, dew-drenched, and in among
The vineyards and the olives. The fresh earth
Heavy about his feet, the bursting wealth
Of big grape-bunches, and the cool, green coils
Of dripping vines breathed richly. Swift they moved
’Mid gnarléd trunks and still, gray stretch of leaves,
Without a sound save of wet twigs snapped dully
Or flit of startled bird. And now their way
They kept with toil, fallen on toilsome ways,—
Up shattered slopes half-clothed with juniper,
Through ragged-floored ravines, whose blasted scars
Held mighty pines root-fast in their black depths,
Still climbing, till a keen wind met them full
From eastward breathed, free-scented from the brine.
His laboring feet stood still, and while his lips
Drank the clear wind, his guide, descending home,

Left him alone facing the gates of dawn.

The cliffs are rent, and through the eternal chasm
A far-heard moan of many cataracts,
With nearer, ceaseless murmur of the pines,
Came with the east wind, whilst the herald gold

From cloven pinnacles on either hand
On gradual wings sank to that airy glen;
And many-echoed dash of many waves
Rose dimly from the cliff-base where they brake,
Far down, unseen; and the wide sea spread wan

In the pale dawn-tide, limitless, unportioned—
Aye sentinelled by these vast rocky brows
Defaced and stern with unforgotten fires.

But he, intent, leaned toward the gates of dawn
With suppliant face, unseeing, and the wind

Blew back from either brow his hair and cooled
His eyes that burned with that so foul dishonor
Late wrought upon them, whispering many things
Into his inmost soul. Sudden the day
Brake full. The healing of its radiance fell
Upon his eyes, and straight his sightless eyes
Were opened. All the morning’s majesty
And mystery of loveliness lay bare
Before him; all the limitless blue sea
Brightening with laughter many a league around,
Wind-wrinkled, keel-uncloven, far below;
And far above the bright sky-neighboring peaks;
And all around the broken precipices,
Cleft-rooted pines swung over falling foam,
And silver vapors flushed with the wide flood
Of crimson slanted from the opening east
Well ranked, the vanguard of the day,—all these
Invited him, but these he heeded not.
For there beside him, veiléd in a mist
Where—through the enfolded splendor issued forth,—
As delicate music unto one asleep
Through mist of dreams flows softly,—all her hair
A mist of gold flung down about her feet,
Her dewy, cool, pink fingers parting it
Till glowing lips, and half-seen snowy curves
Like Parian stone, unnerved him, waited SHE,—
Than Circe skilfuller to put away
His pain, to set his sorrow afar off,—
Eos, with warm heart warm for him. His toils
Endured in vain, his great deeds wrought in vain,

His bitter pain, Œnopion’s house accurst,
And even his sweet revenge, he recked not of ;
But gave his heart up straightway unto love.

Now Delos lay a great way off, and thither
They two rejoicing went across the sea.

And under their swift feet, which the wave kissed
But wet not,—for Poseidon willed it so,
Honoring his son,—and all along their way
Was spread a perfect calm. And every being
Of beauty or of mirth left his abode
Under the populous flood and journeyed with them.
Out of their deep green caves the Nereids came
Again to do him honor; shining limbs
And shining bosoms cleaving waked the main
All into sapphire ripples eachwhere crowned
With yellow tresses streaming. Triton came
And all his goodly company, with shells
Pink-whorled and purple, many-formed, and made
Tumultuous music. Ocean’s tawny floor
They all left vacant, empty every bower,
And solitary the remotest courts.
Following in the midst of the array
Their mistress, her white horses paced along
Over the unaccustomed element,
Submissive, with the wonted chariot
Pillowed in vapors silver, pink, and gold,
Itself of pearl and fire. And so they reached
Delos, and went together hand in hand
Up from the water and their company,
And the green wood received them out of sight.