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

by William Wilfred Campbell




I, PHAETHON, dwelling in that golden house
Which Hephaistos did build for my great sire,
Old Helios, king of glowing heaven and day,
Knowing this life but mortal in its span,
Hedged in by puling youth and palsied age,
Where poor men crawl like insects, knowing pain
And mighty sorrow to the gates of death,
Besought the god my father by his love
To grant me that which I did long for most
Of all things great in earth and heaven and sea,
The which he granting in his mighty love,—
Of all things splendid under the splendid sky
Built of old by toil of ancient gods,
To me the dearest: for one round golden day
To stand in his great chariot built of fire,
And chase the rosy hours from dawn to dusk,
Guiding his fleeting steeds o’er heaven’s floors.
He gave to me. —No god yet brake his word.
Speaking to me in sorrow: ‘O my son,
Know what my foolish pride hath made for thee.
That mortal life which is to men a span,
From childhood unto youth, and manhood’s prime,
Reaching on out to happy olden age,
For thee must shrink into one woeful day.
For, O my son, impetuous in thy pride,
Who would be as the gods and ape their ways,
And sacrilegious leave thy mortal bounds,—
Know thou must die upon that baleful day,
That terrible day of days thou mountest up
To ride that chariot never mortal rode,
And drive those steeds that never man hath driven.’
Then I: ‘My father, know me, thine own son.
Better to me to live one day a god,
Going out in some great flame of death,
Than live this weary life of common men,
Misunderstood, misunderstanding still,
Half wakeful, moving dimly in a dream,
Confused, phantasmic, miscalled history;
Chasing the circles of the perishing suns,
The summers and dim winters, hating all,
Heart-eaten for a longing ne’er attained,
Despising all things named of earth or heaven,
Or mortal birth that they should ever be;
Knowing within this mystery of my being,
This curbed heredity, lies a latent dream
Of some old vanished, banished, lease of being,
When life was life and man’s soul lived its hour,
Uncurbed, uncabined, like the mighty gods,
Vast, splendid, capable, and heraclean,
To drain the golden beaker of his days.’
Thus I: ‘My father, I am over weary,
Chained in this summer-plot of circumstance,
Beaten by fearful custom, childish, chidden,
Hounded of cruel wolves of superstition,
And rounded by a petty wall of time,
Plodding the dreary years that wend their round,
Aping the sleeping, sensual life of beasts,
Fearful of all things, dreading mostly death,
Past pain and age and all their miseried end,
Where all must rot, who smile and weep and sleep,
And be part of all this grim corruption.
Nay, better to me than the long-measured draught,
Trickling out through many anxious years,
Iron-eaten, haggard, to the place of death—
To drain my flagon of life in one glad draught,—
To live, to love, aspire, and dare all things;
Be all I am and others ought to be,
Real man or demi-god, to blossom my rose,
To scale my heights, to live my vastest dream,
To climb, to be, and then, if chance my fate,
To greatly fall.’
                              Then my great father, laden
With woe divine: ‘My son, take thou thy way;
As thou hast chosen, thus ’twill be to thee’;
And passing, darkened down his godlike face
And shadowed splendour thence for evermore.

’Twas night ambrosial down the orient meads,
With stars like winking pearls, far-studding heaven,
And dews all-glorious on the bending stem,
Odorous, passionate as the rose of sleep

Half-budded on the throbbing heart of night;
And in the east a glowing sapphire gloomed,
When I awoke and lifted up mine eyes,
And saw through rose and gold and vermeil dyes,
And splendid mists of azure hung with pearl,
Half-hid, half-seen, as life would apprehend,
As in a sleep, the presence of dim death
And fate and terrible gods, the car of day.

Like morn within the morning glad it hung,
Light hid in light, swift blinding all who saw,

Dazzled, its presence; motionless though vibrate,
Where it did swing athwart the deep-welled night,
The heart of morning in the folds of dark,
Pulsating sleep, and conquering death with life;
So glowed its glory, folded cloud in cloud,
Gold within azure, purple shut in gold,
The bud of morning pulsing ere it break
And spill its splendours many vermeil-dyed,
Reddening Ocean to his outmost rim.

Here charmèd dreams and drowsed magic hung,

And wingèd hopes and rosy joys afloat
Filled all the air, and I was short aware
That this was life, and this mine hour supreme,
To seize and act and be one with the gods.
So dreamed I, reckless when to think, to act,
And moved elate, with quick life-flaming step,
Athwart the meadow’s budding asphodels,
Song on my lip and life at heart and eye,
Exultant, breathing flame of pride and power.
Joy rose and sang, a bird, across the fields,
Hope’s rosy wings shot trembling to the blue,
And courage with dauntless steps before me went,
Brushing the veils of fierce cobwebby fires.
And there, before me, sprawled grim ancient power,
A hideous Ethiop, huge in sodden sleep,
The golden reins clutched in his titan hands.
I snatched, leaped, shouted; morning rose in flame,
And ashweed paled to lily, lily blushed
To ruddy crocus, crocus flamed to rose,
And out of all, borne on the floors of light,
I floated, gloried, up the orient walls,
And all things woke and sang of conquering day.

Higher yet higher, out of fiery mists,
Filling those meadows of the dew-built dawn,
Gloried and glorying, power clutched in my hand,

Wreathed about in terrible splendours, I drave,
Glowing, the dawn’s gold coursers champing steam
Of snow and pearly foam from golden bridles
Forged in blue eidolon forges of the night,
Beaten on steely anvils of the stars.
These, champing, reared their fetlocks; breathing flame,
In red, dew-draining lances, thundered on,
’Whelming night, as golden stair by stair
They climbed the glimmering bridgeway of the day.

Far under, wreathed in mists, old ocean swayed;

And, cyclops-like, the bearded mountains hung.
Vast shining rivers with their brimming floors
And broad curved courses gleamed and glanced and shone,
And loneliness and gloom and grey despair
With sombre hauntings fled to shuddering night,
Hidden in caves and coral glooms of seas.
Low down the east the morn’s ambrosial meads
Sank in soft splendours. Sphering out below,
Gilded in morning, anchored the patient earth,
Mountain and valley, ocean and wide plain,
Opening to dawn’s young footsteps where we wheeled,
And blossomed wide the rosebud of the day.
Glory was mine, but greater, sense of power,
Nor marred by fear, as loftier we climbed,
With glinting hoofs that clanged the azure bridge
That arched from dawning up to flaming noon.
Dauntless my soul, and fiery-glad my heart,
And ‘vastness,’ ‘vastness,’ sang through all my being,
As gloved with adamant I guided on
The day’s red coursers up their flaming hill,
To reach the mighty keystone of the day.

All things conspired to build my upward road:
The fitful winds of morning, the soft clouds
That fleece-like swept my cheek, the azure glint
Of ocean swaying, restless, on his rim,

Where slept the continents like a serpent curled
In sleep, leviathan, huge, about the world.

Then sudden all my waking turned to dream,
A madness wherein hideous all things hung.
Thought fled confused, and awful apprehension

Shadowed my spirit, power and reason fled;
And, maddening, day’s red coursers thundered on,
Uncurbed, unguided by my palsied hand,
Then with loud ruin, blundering from the bridge,
Through space went swaying, now high up, now down,
Scattering conflagration and fierce death
O’er earth’s shrunk verges where their scorchings scarred.
Time fled in terror, forests shrivelled up,
Ocean drew back in shudderings to his caves,
Huge mountains shook and rumbled to their base,
Great streams dried up, old cities smoked and fell,
And all life met confusion and despair
And dread annihilation.
                                             Then the gods,
Pitying wrecked nature, in their sudden vengeance,
Me, impious, hurled from out my dizzying height.
Time vanished, reason swooned, then left her throne,
And darkness wrapt me as I shuddering fell,
Oblivion-clouded, to the plunging seas.
Ocean received me, folding in his deeps,
Cooling and emerald. Here in coral dreams
I rest and cure me, never wholly waking,
Filled with one splendour, fumbling in a dream,
As waves do fumble all about a cave,
For one clear memory of that one high day.

I failed, was mortal; where I climbed I fell.
But all else little matters; life was mine,
I dreamed, I dared, I grappled with, I fell;
And here I live it over in my dreams.
All things may pass, decline, and come to naught,
Death ’whelm life as day engulfed in dark;
But I have greatly lived, have greatly dared,
And death will never wholly wrap me round
And black me in its terrors. I am made
One with the future, dwelling in the dreams
And memories dread of envious god and men.