Selected Writings of Wm Sharp, Vol 1, Poems

PERSEPHONEIA

A FRAGMENT

1903

PROLOGUE

An ancient solitary temple of Persephoneia by the sea.
   A dull sunset, burning slowly over Hybla.
   Melkos, an old blind priest, attended by a boy.
   A brazen glow rests on Etna, whence issues
   a thin column of dusky smoke filled at times
   with a tongue of red flame.

MELKOS

The old dull whisper of the unceasing wave.
[Sighing.] The slow sound of the unceasing
    wave.
                     [Displaces a stone with his foot.
Out of these shadowy hollows of the ocean
Troop the grey dreams that plague the minds of men.
Far off Hadranos hears : Enkelados
Puts forth his hands and shapes the sound to thought :
And on her lonely Mount where the sunset burns
Hybla remoulds in pale invisible flame.
                      [The boy idly plays a note or two.
I am too old to fear these Holy Ones.
Hybla Beneficent, why should one fear
The Twilight Goddess, born where the Evening star
Hangs o'er the abyss where swims the unrisen moon.
Hadrânos loves us not, but hates us not
Though dreadful to men's ears the baying of the hounds
That night and day, a thousandfold, engird
His sacred temple with a surge of sound.
Rather the man I fear, the Titan-slave,
Who hates the sovran powers who hold him thrall,
And hugs a secret that no god doth know,
Save only her, Demeter, when the frenzy
Terribly moves her calm to dreadful storm
And him, Poseidon, when in his shell-strewn sleep
Deep in the dim green silences he moans
Remembering . . . him rather do I fear,
Enkelados, the Helot of the Gods.
          [The boy half raises himself, looks
                toward the ancient temple.

MELKOS

Why do you stir, Neanthes? Does the light
From off Hybloean hill draw near the roof?

NEANTHES

The she-goat browsing 'mid the yellow spurge
Yonder, where the lava crouches like a lizard
Nailed to a thorn, looked suddenly up and whinnied,
Her ears swung like figs in the wind, and her knees
Bent, and she shrank shivering to the ground.
             [He sinks again, and plays a few notes
                       on his reed pipe.

MELKOS

That slow sound of the unceasing wave. For ages
These watery fangs have gnawed and torn the shore.
                  [Again displaces a stone with his foot.
When I was young I sailed three days and nights,
Southward three days when the great God drowned in fire,
Southward three nights when lost amid pale stars
The half-moon waned, and never land I saw,
Nor living thing, save a shadow in the calms
Where overhead a white-winged sea-hawk flew.
And on the morrow of the fourth I heard
The stifled laughters of a hidden folk,
Hoarse murmurings, a dull tumultuous haste,
With sad sea-voices full of lamentation,
And a single voice that knew not any peace.

NEANTHES

                             [Listlessly, without looking up.
Who were these creatures of the salt south sea?

MELKOS

Out of the depths they came, I know not whence,
Or what. Poseidon's offspring, they, who made
A green and dreadful rumour through the waive.

NEANTHES

                                                 [Singing.
Fair is the falling wave, and fair
The paven green sea-halls,
And one who sleepeth sound is sleeping there.

MELKOS

And as in some old dream that swims unsought
Into the unwilling mind, I know once more
The old fear I felt, and all the horror of fear,
When out of the foam and the seas and the wind
I heard a voice of vengeance and of wrath
And heard Poseidon calling on the shade
Of that most sacred, dread, and nameless god
Who lives below the root of ancient slime
Left by forgotten seas and the most deepset fires
Enkelados hath watched, Hadranos seen,
Leaning o'er midnight chasms fill'd with flame.
Loudly he called, and billow on billow leapt
Louder, and seas rose, and fell upon seas;
Loudlier, till the shaken watery domes
That moved as a falling city on Etna moves,
Crag-slipt to gulfs of fathomless abyss,
I saw far-off steadfast stars involved,
Spun round like dust about a chariot wheel.
And all the anguish of his cry was filled
With one name only-hers, whom he begat
A thousand thousand years ago, on her
The stern implacable guardian of mankind
Demeter-Erinnys, on whose name be peace.
That name alone I heard. . . Persephoneia.
        [NEANTHES again raises himself, looking
                  towards the ancient temple.

MELKOS

Does the light fall from off the Hyblćan hill, Neanthes?

NEANTHES

     Three sea-birds dripping from the foam
Wheeled inland, yonder where the spotted snake
Has made her lair under the asphodels,
And one by one withered in fright, and flung
Heavily downward, and all three lie dead.

MELKOS

                          [Again to himself, unheeding the boy.
And when like a snowflake blindly upwhirled and borne
My frail boat sung from one gulf to another,
And I lay breathless, dead, as one long dead,
Blind, deaf, dumb, senseless, without hope or fear,
Who ploughed the furrow of my flying keel?
That thing I do not know, nor how I escaped
A peril more dire than that which waits for ships
For Cumć bound when Zankle sinks behind.
But on one desolate morrow my grey lips
Knew rain, and all my weary flesh was healed
With warmth and peace, at the coming of a calm
Leaning from heaven on the lapping waters,
And from the violet hollows heavenward risen.
And that day, in the hush of afternoon,
I heard a shoreward sighing of the sea
And in my nostrils was the blessed smell
Of grass and earth and trees: so lifting me,
And having made my prayer of thankfulness
To him, the lord Poseidon of the Deep,
I looked and saw a melancholy shore,
A long low lifeless melancholy shore,
Wherefrom, an infinite way, the world uprose,
Leaning gigantic . . . the vast womb of her,
The Mother Mountain, and, purpling in the west,
Hybla I saw, the Holy Hill: and else,
No single home wherefrom the blue smoke toiled.
But this I saw with dread, that ancient homes
Hearthless and faded stood among grey trees,
And a gaunt bridge hung broken o'er the bed
Of a great river where no water ran,
And old-time gardens all unwall'd, unkempt,
Were green with noisome growth, and fruitless, drear.
Some fallen columns lay upon the sand
Whereon the lizards fled, and in one place
I saw the image of an unknown God
Within whose cavernous ruin the adder curled.
Near by, erect, unshaken, stood a fane
Even that by which this solitary eve
I stand in these my blind and listless years
Fearing so little, with so little hope,
Yet dimly seeing in the far-off law
The shaping of divine perfected things.
Most drear and solitary it rose thereby,
The columns held the vast grey slab of roof
That still they hold, in whose wind-haunted places
The sea-crows built, with melancholy cries
Lifting black wings at sundown and at dawn.
But on that dayset, from the midmost rose
A thin and wavering column of spiced smoke
Such as from altars rise, fragrant with gums,
With wine and frankincense, where gods are known;
And even as I watched, the purple bloom
That Hybla wore, as a priestess wears a robe,
So that the woman and the robe are one,
Took fire : or rather, far below, a sea of flame
Swung from its ebb, and with a mighty sigh
From dim abysms reached a fiery crest,
The conflagration of whose soundless life
Changed Hybla to a molten brazen mass.
Therefrom a concentrated stream of light
Poured near the desolate fane ; but as the God
Sank sighing to the underworld his hand
Lingered a brief while here : and the pale smoke
Spired suddenly like the crimson breath of roses.
                     [The boy again raises himself, looking
                                towards the ancient temple.
Does the light fall from off the Hyblćan
        hill, Neanthes?

NEANTHES

                                     A little breath of smoke
Rose from the broken terrace near the fane,
No more than from the white ox idly breathes
When with wet lips he tastes the morning grass.

MELKOS

And then?

NEANTHES

                     A sudden noisy whirl of sparrows
Scattered like leaves around the seaward columns
And even as I looked, like leaves they fluttered,
Falling and fallen, and now strewn deep they lie.

MELKOS

                          [Turning his face seaward again.
And even as the curling breath of roses
Wavered again to pale aerial smoke,
Even in that moment I beheld a woman
Standing in silence on the ruin'd terrace
That downward reaches to the lifting wave
Oozy with slimy frondage of the sea.
So tall she was, so noble of mien, so great
In the perfected beauty of repose,
That for a moment all my thoughts beheld
A flawless statue simulating life.
Most pale, most terrible her awful face.
The dark hair lay adown it in great clusters,
Like to the wild vine on the ashy cliff
That on Ćtnean Inessa bears the grape
Wherefrom the grey priests of Demeter brew
A fatal juice. The sadness of the hills
Crowned the sheer lonely height that was her forehead.
The immemorial whisper of the sea
Inhabited the silence of her face :
And in the flamelit darkness of her eyes
The melancholy of forgotten things
Was like a rainy dusk in the inlands drear.
In stillness she stood there, immovable,
As Twilight stands in the passes of the hills
When the Noon lifts her blazing wing and sheers
Behind the incurring, blank, precipitous walls.
Then well I knew a goddess I beheld.

A VOICE

O bitter and terrible love of the wave for the wind,
   Of the north for the flame,
And the love and the joy and the glory half left behind
   For the mockery of a name.

MELKOS

What words were these : what bitter song from the sea,
Out of the hills, or lifted from the slain?

NEANTHES

Only the wind I heard, and a sigh from the sea.
It is gone now, and the far-off sea is still.

MELKOS

                          [Again turning his lace to the sea. 
Then I knew a goddess I beheld.
                                                      [A Pause.
But sad she was, more sad than I had dreamed
The high immortal ones could ever be.
And while I looked I saw that in one hand
A cluster of flowers she held, anemones.
Wine-dark in hue, the sunbright celandine
And poppies heavy in a downward flame,
With pale green blossoms of the yellow spurge.
But even as I looked a withering came
Like a grey bloom upon them, and that bloom
Dusked into ash, and in grey ash they fell
Making an eddy of dust before her feet.
Then a wild dove with sudden clamorous wing
Batted the still air of the dreadful peace
Circling about her, come I know not whence
But even as I looked the grey wing sank
And as a falling dust the cushat fell.
                                                        [A Pause.
Then all my soul rose up in me, and knew
Persephoneia,
                                                         [A Pause.
                       
And at that dreadful name,
Born on my lips as dawn on a moving wave,
The dark gulfs of her dreadful beautiful eyes
Turned slowly upon mine, wherefrom the light,
Ebbed, as the withdrawing gleam ebbs from a pool
On sundown sands when the seas grow suddenly pale.
From that day unto this I have not seen
Goddess nor mortal, maid nor mortal man
No, nor the grey stairs of Poseidon's home,
Nor Helios lighting torches on the hills,
Nor any queen hour laughing on the slopes
Where the watercourses are, nor almond blossom
Foaming the pools where purple iris grow.
No, never once have I beheld my kind;
Never the goatherd fluting to his flock
Black-feeted kids amid the lava blocks
Stained with old lichen, yellow with flowering spurge;
Nor the white train of sacred maids down-wending
By the fig-bordered ways of holy Inessa,
Nor the gold filleted ancient men who bow
At Hybla, nor the blue-robed youths who stand
Watching the thousand hounds of Hadranon.
Yea, all these weary years I have not seen.
In gracious places I have never heard
The chorus rave, nor the solitary hymn
Peal from the heights of Enna when the doves
Gather like flames before the Koré's fane
Nor laughter in the nightingale-haunted woods
When the moon lifts the silver from the pools
And ripples it lightly through the rippling boughs;
Never for me the chariot-race, the games,
The sounds of down-falling cars in gladsome havens,
The kiss of wife or child, the choric song
Of kings and wars and mighty kings of old,
The bubble from the wine-skin, the gay jibe
And all familiar things of the old-time day,
For I am old and blind : for years on years,
How many years I know not, have been blind.
That sorrow came to me because I saw
Divinity unveiled, and for a moment knew
The terrible life of immortality.
The high gods rule us hardly. If we fail
To seek them in their shrines and holy places
Sorrows are laid on us, and many plagues,
And the awful weight of the superhuman frown.
And, if unseen we come upon these folk,
Star-tramplers, sea-shod, kindred of the powers
That are the Eternal balance of the world,
Pitiless are they, or full of dreadful scorn,
Or mockery worse than flushing of the levin.
But I have served her faithfully, Aweful One. . . .
Yea, all these years in blindness and in pain,
In sorrow, loneliness and grievous days
I have not strayed an hour long from her shrine.
Few men come here, to this deserted land
These haste away, so dreadful is the air
Of deathless immemorial decays,
Cities that were, dis-peopled villages,
Gardens, with barren founts and fruitless trees,
Old roadways gathered to the prickly-pear,
Dry watercourses where the lizards run
With withered tongues seekingforbidden dew,
And this gaunt solitary ruined fane
Whereon is Silence, terrible and alone.
Yea, I have kept the sacred fire alit
From dusk till dawn, and quenched it at the dawn,
And every noon have gathered up the ashes
And thrown them in the grey receding wave.
Yet never has the goddess deigned to me . . .
No, not a word, no, not a little word,
Nor even guerdon given, albeit ease
Or dreamless sleep, or food, or shade, or warmth,
The visitation of unblended hours,
The gifts of song, of prophecy, of dream.
But, when I die, the crow will pick mine eyes,
And if the crawling wave discrown my tomb
The clammy fins of fish will touch my bones.
                           [Raising his arms in supplication.
O thou who in thy unknown secret power
Descendeth hither, coming as a wind
That eddies in the grass, and as an eddy
Returning when it wills, in a secret way,
O thou, Persephoneia, whom men worship
High in the holy fane of the sacred Koré
Where Enna rears her consecrated steep
In frowning flanks of basalt from the wilds
Hearken, have pity, give at least a sign. . . .
For I have served thee well, who am broken, and blind,
And now am old, and soon shall know no more,
But be a thing that was not, unrecalled.
               [The boy suddenly gives three sharp
                        calls on his reed.

MELKOS

Neanthes . . . what ?

NEANTHES

A shadow suddenly falls
Which nothing casts, where no one is! . . .
     yonder
Betwixt the columns where the sea gleams red,
As a pomegranate on a dark blue leaf.

MELKOS

Quick, boy! . . . Neanthes . . . does the
     beam of light
From off the Hyblćan hill yet reach the roof?
                      Neanthes, leaping to his feet, covers
                        his face, and turns and bounds swiftly away.

NEANTHES

It comes! It comes

MELKOS

                                     [Slowly advancing.
Hail to the Koré of Enna, hail!
                                                         [A Pause.
Persephoneia! Mother of Life and Death!
     Hail!
Hail, Unbegotten but by the dreams of the gods
Foreshaped by him, Poseidon-Hippios,
Foreknown of her, Demeter, the veiled Queen!
Hail to the Koré!    Hail, Persephoneia!
                                                         [A Pause.
Though many days have sunk and dark nights risen,
Yea, many moons have waxt and waned in vain,
And thou hast not revisited this place,
Yet art thou come again, O Holy One!
I know well by the portents, and the awe
That lies on all this breath-suspended shore.
                                                          [A Pause.
A sign, a sign, O thou whom I have served
In silent adoration all these years!

A VOICE

Go down to the dim waves and bathe thine eyes.
Maybe other gods may serve thee there
Or sleep, or dream. I knew not thou wert blind
Who have never known nor seen that worshipper
Save as a shadow flickering in the silence.
Go up to the hill-encircled mountain fane
That frowns on Enna, and then lay thee down
On the altar-step, that so, perchance, my foot
May for less than a moment burn thy lips.
Then may thy blindness quicken . . . or the dark
Drown in upon thee with a deeper night.
But trouble me no more with faithful service,
That, or unfaithful. Here I dwell alone.
          [MELKOS stands in silence, then slowly
                 moves towards the sea.  As in a dream he
                 walks slowly, through lentisk and tamarisk,
                 often looking back, hall in dread, hall in
                 expectation.

 

 

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