Sagas of Vaster Britain: Poems of the Race, the Empire and the Divinity of Man

by William Wilfred Campbell




    This poem is founded on an old legend of North Africa, related by the late R. G. Haliburton, the noted ethnologist. According to tradition the ancient races of North Africa believed the constellation of the Pleiades to be the souls of a chieftain and six warriors slain in battle, who are shut out from heaven and doomed to wander for ever through space in search of the soul of the eighth warrior, which is identified with the lost Pleiad.


BEYOND the moving mists and shadowed night,
Towered the iron mountains dark and stern,
And out of the far horizon’s sullen edge,
Over the river’s pallid, shimmering flow,
The night-winds stirred amid the lonely dead,

Grim, white, fixed faces toward the inscrutable skies,
Where, silent and cold, the unanswering stars looked down.

And Ahmet raised him from the battle-field,
Where stunned he lay, beneath a Tartar horse
Huge, stiff and dead, transfixèd by a spear;

And left the awful plateau of the dead,
And stood upon the high-raised river bank,
Beneath the white stars of the wintry heaven,
And moved himself, and beat the life-blood back
Into the death-like torpor of his veins,
And looked abroad, where all the night lay still
And dim with murk far over that lone waste.
Leagues to the north, under the mighty Bear,
Folded in fog, a fleeting silver dream,
The river moved and sang into the dark,
Under the frosty splendour of the stars.
And Ahmet stood and gazed into the night,
And lifted his face up to those watchful lights
That looked from out their lonely homes on him;
And saw the Pleiades, a tangled mist
Of moveless jewels in the sky’s blue deep,
Or pale grape-cluster in some great god’s hand.

And felt the old religion of his race—
A nomad people on the northern steppes,
Who wandered from place to place tracking their gods—

The stern, white wanderers of the trackless heaven—
Beat in the stirring pulses of his blood.
And Ahmet prayed in his heart’s agony
Unto the fathers of his race, the gods,
For his own people in their distant home,
And for himself on this lone, desolate waste,
And the great dead who, battling through that day,
Went to the gods from off their foemen’s spears.
Then rang his song of triumph to the night,
Of those his blade loosed to the land of death,
Treading the carnage on that awful field;
Then ceased, nor ever echo answered there,
Save the far moaning of some mountain beast
Haunting the jungle by some night-ward shore.
And never a sound came over that lone waste,
Where the far mountains raised their iron heads,
And the great river sang its sleep below.
Then strode he past the pallor of the night,
Like some huge shadow ’mid the shadows there,
Unto the unwaked slumber of that plain;
And moved amid the hushed and sombre dead,
Awful and stern in their last silent sleep,
With clotted blood congealed on shield and helm,
And stony faces staring at the stars,
Great blade or spear still clasped in each dead hand;
And came to where the young boy-chieftain lay,
The last grim prince of his rude southern race,
With whom he rode to battle yester morn,
Now stark and motionless beneath the stars,
With his life’s foeman, silent, face to face!

And Ahmet lifted up his sombre face
To the white heaven and the stars, his gods,
And moaned, ‘O awful rulers of my race,
Looking from out the mighty deeps on me,
Ye who on radiant thrones of splendid light,
From out your far halls gaze upon this earth;
And know, perchance, her motions through the deep,
Her changes and her seasons, and perchance
The strange, weird agony and joy of man,
Who rises from her breast as some dim mist,
Then sinks for ever on her meres again:
Know ye that unto me this night is given
The woeful part to answer for the dead
Unto you gods, who rule the afterworld.
My part it is to bury this great king,
The mighty son of a once mighty race.
Now ’tis for me to hollow his last bed,
And lay the holy earth upon his face,
His breast, and limbs, and shut him from the light,
So that ye gods, in looking from your thrones,
May see no part of what is shape of him,
And curse him, banished from your halls for ever.

‘Yea, more; in keeping with that ancient law,
Stern and relentless, given to my race,
And handed down the generations long,

And kept by us with solemn reverence,
I must this night find seven of our kin,
Who went out here upon this battle-field,
And lay their shapes of them with decent care,
Stark, side by side, in this young prince’s grave,
Ere the white god of dawning pales yon east;
Or else this prince, beloved, noble, brave,
Who hath gone out in his old foe’s embrace,
Must ever, doomèd, wander the trackless way,
Shut out from all the homes of your white splendour
And searching for ever,—like some lonesome wind
Beating about the hallow halls of night.’

Then, wresting a blade from some grim foeman’s hand,
Strode once more outward to the river’s bank,
Where the great waters moved beneath the mist,

And never a night-bird called from bank to bank
But the cold-river mists encircled him.
And there he toiled with quick, despairing will,
And made an opening in the wind-swept sands,
Red, desert-blown, adown the centuries.
The solemn night-winds crept about his toil,
Loosening the mists along the lonesome shores.
And now a slinking jackal wandered past,
Then stole to some far shadow of the field
To his weird feast upon the unburied dead.

Then with stern face, across the lonely field,
Like some great hero of the olden days
Working by night some splendid titan deed,
Or, as the shadow of some olden god
Paying by night the last sad hallowed rites
Over the form of some great chieftain slain;
With reverent duty to the spirit fled,
Bare he the dead young king with awful toil
Unto the grave that he had hallowed there,
With six men more, and laid them in that grave,
And mute, dull eyes, dumb, staring at the stars.
Then went again with agonising tread,
As a young lioness might hunt her cub
In some great slaughter of huge jungle beasts,
And circle dumb, yet never find him there;
So he in vain, amid the silent dead,
Searching the heaps, went through the haunted dark,
Praying the gods in his great, dread despair.
Then, sorrowing back, came to the high-raised bank,
And saw the lonely river and the night,
The iron mountains, and those dead men there!

And now it seemed to Ahmet, standing by,
That out of the sombre shadow of that pit
Those silent faces pleaded with him there.
And well he knew that somewhere off afar

In outer space, this side Valhalla’s gates,
These seven souls awaited heaven’s doom.
With that a bitter sorrow filled his soul
For those his warrior-comrades lying dead,
And that young prince whom he had loved so well:
That they should never see Valhalla’s doors
Wide-open to the welcome din within,
Of mighty warriors at eternal feasts,
And glorious songs of titan battle-joy
Of lofty heroes told unto the gods.
‘Nor could I enter there myself,’ he dreamed,
‘And know their joy, if that I die not here.
And did I now wend backward to my home,
And live mine after-days in earthly peace,
And turn mine aged face upward by my hearth,
Surrounded by my loved, in days to come:
Could I, a warrior, to the Warrior-gods
Go in, nor answer for those dead ones there,
And meet their hero faces without shame,
And know these poor ones wandering in the dark,
Despairing ever through the endless years.’

Whereat he rose and looked up to the stars,
And spake: ‘O Mighty Ones, it is well seen
That I must know mine olden home no more,
But I must end me here on this dread plain,

Loosening my soul, even that these poor men
May know the golden glory of the gods;
Returning never to the ones I love.’
Whereat a great sob rent his anguished frame,
And all his face, across the shadowed light,
Showed with a bitter woe, for he was young,
Scarce yet a man, and this his first of battles,
Where he had come in his fierce warrior-joy,
For that glad love wherewith he loved the king.
And far at home his agèd father sat,
And his old mother, mourning for their son;
And in the dark he saw his betrothèd’s eyes
Soften to tears at memory of his name.
Whereat deep anguish smote his strong young breast,
And looking to the sky, cried out: ‘O Gods!
Is there no way? A sign! great Gods, a sign!’
Whereat a splendid meteor blazed and fell
Across the silent wonder of the night,
Girding the horizon to the iron hills.
And then a thrill of greatness shook him there,
For now he knew for certain he must die.
And looking on the dead face of the prince,
He spake: ‘O noble soul and brave and true!
Great heart that never fled from human face,
Nor yet would go back from some wondrous doom,
Such as is laid on thy loved comrade here!
That such dread woes are fallen from the gods,
’Tis not for souls like mine to question why.
But I will follow whithersoe’er thou goest,
Thunder thy shadow-steed o’er trackless heaven,
Or to the brink of floorless night and hell.
Yet, comrade, friend, forgive thine Ahmet here,
If he finds woman’s grief for what he leaves.
Like thee, I never more will see my home,
My boyhood’s country in its golden prime:—
The happy hearths and plains we loved of yore.
No more must see the parents of my youth,
Nor guard their age, nor close their sightless eyes,
Nor know the joys of husband or of sire,
Of children’s prattle, glad about the knees,
The loved home comforts, and the wintry fire,
And all the glories of this splendid world.
All these must I forego, nor know old age,
And the last peace at golden life’s decline,
Because of some weird doom that hath been mine,
Given of old, from out the mighty gods.’
Then ceased, and, with soft hands of loving care,
Took earth and laid it on the dead young king:—
Upon his face and his still, rigid limbs;
And said: ‘I now commend thee to the gods.’
Likewise, in turn, he did unto the others,
As was the ancient custom of his race.
Then Ahmet rose and stood in his own grave,
And bearing in his hand the naked blade,
Spake: ‘Now am I resolved with conquering hand
To cleave this murky curtain of my flesh,
And hew a doorway past these walls of life
Unto the outer splendour of the gods.
And ye, white watchers of the wheeling world,
O ancient makers of my doom, behold!
O lonesome desert, wintry to the south,
O luminous stream and desolate iron hills,
Your glory will fall on Ahmet’s eye no more!
And thou, my love, whose holy love was mine,
Snatched by the fates from my too passionate grasp,
Thou wilt know sorrow when thine Ahmet’s gone.
Yea, thou wilt sit across the wintry years,
Turning thy wheel by morn or sunset door,
Brooding upon a face that comes no more!
And ye, my parents! One will hobbling go
Past the familiar haunts and quarrel with Death
Who claimed the wrong one first. The other, she,
Will croon, with grief-filled face, the fire beside,
Peopling in vain the home with olden dreams,
And all the joyous sounds that should have been.
Farewell, O glorious stars, and sun and moon,
Now I go out upon this journey dread,
I hear my charger, slain this early morn,
Neighing beyond the gates of outer dark,
Watching for the master who should come.’
Then lifting up his strong face to the skies,
Took one last look on all the wheeling worlds,
And, with glad challenge to the foeman dark,
Struck home the thirsting blade to his proud heart,
And with one mighty shout there backward fell!

Then there was heard a thunder of shadowy hoofs
That out of the deep wells of the night swept past;
And as they went a riderless steed there neighed
Joyously, to him who leaped to saddle,
With splendid mien of conqueror just returned
From some far titan battle of the gods;
Then all swept up the steep, sheer depths of heaven,
Thundering up the glorious slopes of blue,
Striking fire-hoofs upon the flinty air,
Onward to the ramparts of the skies,
Where some day through long ages they will scale,
And clang the golden gates and enter in.

But still that ancient night went wheeling round,
Beyond the murk to meet the coming day;
And over the iron mountains and the dark,

Out of the wintry radiance of the stars,
There grew a beauty of that lonely place,
That clothed those mighty dead, and came and fell,
Like on some peak that fronts the far-off dawn,
On Ahmet’s face, a silent majesty.