Edith Wharton.

Artemis to Actæon, and other verse online

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Blake Reynolds Nevius







Copyright, 1909, by Charles Scribner's Sons
Published April, 1909



Part I PAQ .






Part II
























THOU couldst not look on me and live: so runs
The mortal legend thou that couldst not live
Nor look on me (so the divine decree) !
That saw'st me in the cloud, the wave, the bough,
The clod commoved with April, and the shapes
Lurking 'twixt lid and eye-ball in the dark.
Mocked I thee not in every guise of life,
Hid in girls' eyes, a naiad in her well,
Wooed through their laughter, and like echo fled,
Luring thee down the primal silences
Where the heart hushes and the flesh is dumb ?
Nay, was not I the tide that drew thee out
Relentlessly from the detaining shore,
Forth from the home-lights and the hailing voices,
Forth from the last faint headland's failing line,
Till I enveloped thee from verge to verge
And hid thee in the hollow of my being ?
And still, because between us hung the veil,
The myriad-tinted veil of sense, thy feet
Refused their rest, thy hands the gifts of life,
Thy heart its losses, lest some lesser face
Should blur mine image in thine upturned soul


Ere death had stamped it there. This was thy thought.
And mine ?

The gods, they say, have all : not so !
This have they flocks on every hill, the blue
Spirals of incense and the amber drip
Of lucid honey-comb on sylvan shrines,
First-chosen weanlings, doves immaculate,
Twin-cooing in the osier-plaited cage,
And ivy-garlands glaucous with the dew:
Man's wealth, man's servitude, but not himself!
And so they pale, for lack of warmth they wane,
Freeze to the marble of their images,
And, pinnacled on man's subserviency,
Through the thick sacrificial haze discern
Unheeding lives and loves, as some cold peak
Through icy mists may enviously descry
Warm vales unzoned to the all-fruitful sun.
So they along an immortality
Of endless-vistaed homage strain their gaze,
If haply some rash votary, empty-urned,
But light of foot, with all-adventuring hand,
Break rank, fling past the people and the priest,
Up the last step, on to the inmost shrine,
And there, the sacred curtain in his clutch,
Drop dead of seeing while the others prayed !


Yea, this we wait for, this renews us, this

Incarnates us, pale people of your dreams,

Who are but what you make us, wood or stone,

Or cold chryselephantine hung with gems,

Or else the beating purpose of your life,

Your sword, your clay, the note your pipe pursues,

The face that haunts your pillow, or the light

Scarce visible over leagues of labouring sea !

O thus through use to reign again, to drink

The cup of peradventure to the lees,

For one dear instant disimmortalised

In giving immortality!

So dream the gods upon their listless thrones.

Yet sometimes, when the votary appears,

With death-affronting forehead and glad eyes,

Too young, they rather muse, too frail thou art,

And shall we rob some girl of saffron veil

And nuptial garland for so slight a thing?

And so to their incurious loves return.

Not so with thee; for some indeed there are
Who would behold the truth and then return
To pine among the semblances but I
Divined in thee the questing foot that never
Revisits the cold hearth of yesterday


Or calls achievement home. I from afar
Beheld thee fashioned for one hour's high use,
Nor meant to slake oblivion drop by drop.
Long, long hadst thou inhabited my dreams,
Surprising me as harts surprise a pool,
Stealing to drink at midnight; I divined
Thee rash to reach the heart of life, and lie
Bosom to bosom in occasion's arms,
And said : Because I love thee thou sJialt die!

For immortality is not to range
Unlimited through vast Olympian days,
Or sit in dull dominion over time;
But this to drink fate's utmost at a draught,
Nor feel the wine grow stale upon the lip,
To scale the summit of some soaring moment,
Nor know the dulness of the long descent,
To snatch the crown of life and seal it up
Secure forever in the vaults of death!

And this was thine: to lose thyself in me,
Relive in my renewal, and become
The light of other lives, a quenchless torch
Passed on from hand to hand, till men are dust
And the last garland withers from my shrine.



AY, lift me to thy lips, Life, and once more
Pour the wild music through me

I quivered in the reed-bed with my kind,
Rooted in Lethe-bank, when at the dawn
There came a groping shape of mystery
Moving among us, that with random stroke
Severed, and rapt me from my silent tribe,
Pierced, fashioned, lipped me, sounding for a voice,
Laughing on Lethe-bank and in my throat
I felt the wing-beat of the fledgeling notes,
The bubble of godlike laughter in my throat.

Such little songs she sang,
Pursing her lips to fit the tiny pipe,
They trickled from me like a slender spring
That strings frail wood-growths on its crystal thread,
Nor dreams of glassing cities, bearing ships.
She sang, and bore me through the April world
Matching the birds, doubling the insect-hum
In the meadows, under the low-moving airs,
And breathings of the scarce-articulate air


When it makes mouths of grasses but when the sky
Burst into storm, and took great trees for pipes,
She thrust me in her breast, and warm beneath
Her cloudy vesture, on her terrible heart,
I shook, and heard the battle.

But more oft,

Those early days, we moved in charmed woods,
Where once, at dusk, she piped against a faun,
And one warm dawn a tree became a nymph
Listening; and trembled; and Life laughed and passed.
And once we came to a great stream that bore
The stars upon its bosom like a sea,
And ships like stars; so to the sea we came.
And there she raised me to her lips, and sent
One swift pang through me; then refrained her hand,
And whispered: "Hear " and into my frail flanks,
Into my bursting veins, the whole sea poured
Its spaces and its thunder; and I feared.

We came to cities, and Life piped on me
Low calls to dreaming girls,

In counting-house windows, through the chink of gold,
Flung cries that fired the captive brain of youth,
And made the heavy merchant at his desk


Curse us for a cracked hurdy-gurdy; Life
Mimicked the hurdy-gurdy, and we passed.

We climbed the slopes of solitude, and there

Life met a god, who challenged her and said:

"Thy pipe against my lyre ! " But "Wait ! " she laughed,

And in my live flank dug a finger-hole,

And wrung new music from it. Ah, the pain!

We climbed and climbed, and left the god behind.
We saw the earth spread vaster than the sea,
With infinite surge of mountains surfed with snow,
And a silence that was louder than the deep;
But on the utmost pinnacle Life again
Hid me, and I heard the terror in her hair.

Safe in new vales, I ached for the old pang,
And clamoured "Play me against a god again!"
"Poor Marsyas-mortal he shall bleed thee yet,"
She breathed and kissed me, stilling the dim need.
But evermore it woke, and stabbed my flank
With yearnings for new music and new pain.
"Another note against another god!"
I clamoured; and she answered: "Bide my tune.
Of every heart-wound I will make a stop,


And drink thy life in music, pang by pang.

But first thou must yield the notes I stored in thee

At dawn beside the river. Take my lips."

She kissed me like a lover, but I wept,
Remembering that high song against the god,
And the old songs slept in me, and I was dumb.

We came to cavernous foul places, blind
With harpy-wings, and sulphurous with the glare
Of sinful furnaces where hunger toiled,
And pleasure gathered in a starveling prey,
And death fed delicately on young bones.

"Now sing!" cried Life, and set her lips to me.
"Here are gods also. Wilt thou pipe for Dis ?"
My cry was drowned beneath the furnace roar,
Choked by the sulphur-fumes; and beast-lipped gods
Laughed down on me, and mouthed the flutes of hell.

"Now sing!" said Life, reissuing to the stars;
And wrung a new note from my wounded side.

So came we to clear spaces, and the sea.
And now I felt its volume in my heart,


And my heart waxed with it, and Life played on me
The song of the Infinite. "Now the stars," she said.

Then from the utmost pinnacle again

She poured me on the wild sidereal stream,

And I grew with her great breathings, till we swept

The interstellar spaces like new worlds

Loosed from the fiery ruin of a star.

Cold, cold we rested on black peaks again,

Under black skies, under a groping wind ;

And Life, grown old, hugged me to a numb breast,

Pressing numb lips against me. Suddenly

A blade of silver severed the black peaks

From the black sky, and earth was born again,

Breathing and various, under a god's feet.

A god ! A god ! I felt the heart of Life

Leap under me, and my cold flanks shook again.

He bore no lyre, he rang no challenge out,

But Life warmed to him, warming me with her,

And as he neared I felt beneath her hands

The stab of a new wound that sucked my soul

Forth in a new song from my throbbing throat.

"His name his name?" I whispered, but she shed
The music faster, and I grew with it,


Became a part of it, while Life and I

Clung lip to lip, and I from her wrung song

As she from me, one song, one ecstasy,

In indistinguishable union blent,

Till she became the flute and I the player.

And lo ! the song I played on her was more

Than any she had drawn from me; it held

The stars, the peaks, the cities, and the sea,

The faun's catch, the nymph's tremor, and the heart

Of dreaming girls, of toilers at the desk,

Apollo's challenge on the sunrise slope,

And the hiss of the night-gods mouthing flutes of hell

All, to the dawn-wind's whisper in the reeds,

When Life first came, a shape of mystery,

Moving among us, and with random stroke

Severed, and rapt me from my silent tribe.

All this I wrung from her in that deep hour,

While Love stood murmu ring : ' ' Play the god , poor grass !

Now, by that hour, I am a mate to thee
Forever, Life, however spent and clogged,
And tossed back useless to my native mud !
Yea, groping for new reeds to fashion thee
New instruments of anguish and delight,
Thy hand shall leap to me, thy broken reed,


Thine ear remember me, thy bosom thrill
With the old subjection, then when Love and I
Held thee, and fashioned thee, and made thee dance
Like a slave-girl to her pipers yea, thou yet
Shalt hear my call, and dropping all thy toys
Thou 'It lift me to thy lips, Life, and once more
Pour the wild music through me




OET wide the window. Let me drink the day.

^ I loved light ever, light in eye and brain

No tapers mirrored in long palace floors,

Nor dedicated depths of silent aisles,

But just the common dusty wind-blown day

That roofs earth's millions.

O, too long I walked

In that thrice-sifted air that princes breathe,
Nor felt the heaven-wide jostling of the winds
And all the ancient outlawry of earth!
Now let me breathe and see.

This pilgrimage

They call a penance let them call it that !
I set my face to the East to shrive my soul
Of mortal sin ? So be it. If my blade
Once questioned living flesh, if once I tore
The pages of the Book in opening it,
See what the torn page yielded ere the light
Had paled its buried characters and judge!
w See note p. 90.


The girl they brought me, pinioned hand and foot

In catalepsy say I should have known

That trance had not yet darkened into death,

And held my scalpel. Well, suppose I knew?

Sum up the facts her life against her death.

Her life ? The scum upon the pools of pleasure

Breeds such by thousands. And her death ? Perchance

The obolus to appease the ferrying Shade,

And waft her into immortality.

Think what she purchased with that one heart-flutter

That whispered its deep secret to my blade!

For, just because her bosom fluttered still,

It told me more than many rifled graves;

Because I spoke too soon, she answered me,

Her vain life ripened to this bud of death

As the whole plant is forced into one flower,

All her blank past a scroll on which God wrote

His word of healing so that the poor flesh,

Which spread death living, died to purchase life!

Ah, no ! The sin I sinned was mine, not theirs.
Not that they sent me forth to wash away
None of their tariffed frailties, but a deed
So far beyond their grasp of good or ill
That, set to weigh it in the Church's balance,


Scarce would they know which scale to cast it in.
But I, I know. I sinned against my will,
Myself, my soul the God within the breast:
Can any penance wash such sacrilege ?

When I was young in Venice, years ago,
I walked the hospice with a Spanish monk,
A solitary cloistered in high thoughts,
The great Loyola, whom I reckoned then
A mere refurbisher of faded creeds,
Expert to edge anew the arms of faith,
As who should say, a Galenist, resolved
To hold the walls of dogma against fact,
Experience, insight, his own self, if need be!
Ah, how I pitied him, mine own eyes set
Straight in the level beams of Truth, who groped
In error's old deserted catacombs
And lit his tapers upon empty graves !
Ay, but he held his own, the monk more man
Than any laurelled cripple of the wars,
Charles's spent shafts; for what he willed he willed,
As those do that forerun the wheels of fate,
Not take their dust that force the virgin hours,
Hew life into the likeness of themselves
And wrest the stars from their concurrences.


So firm his mould; but mine the ductile soul
That wears the livery of circumstance
And hangs obsequious on its suzerain's eye.
For who rules now? The twilight- flitting monk,
Or I, that took the morning like an Alp ?
He held his own, I let mine slip from me,
The birthright that no sovereign can restore;
And so ironic Time beholds us now
Master and slave he lord of half the earth,
I ousted from my narrow heritage.

For there's the sting! My kingdom knows me not.

Reach me that folio my usurper's title!

Fallopius reigning, vice nay, not so:

Successor, not usurper. I am dead.

My throne stood empty; he was heir to it.

Ay, but who hewed his kingdom from the waste,

Cleared, inch by inch, the acres for his sowing,

Won back for man that ancient fief o' the Church,

His body ? Who flung Galen from his seat,

And founded the great dynasty of truth

In error's central kingdom ?

Ask men that,

And see their answer: just a wondering stare
To learn things were not always as they



The very fight forgotten with the fighter;
Already grows the moss upon my grave!
Ay, and so meet hold fast to that, Vesalius.
They only, who re-conquer day by day
The inch of ground they camped on over-night,
Have right of foothold on this crowded earth.
I left mine own; he seized it; with it went
My name, my fame, my very self, it seems,
Till I am but the symbol of a man,
The sign-board creaking o'er an empty inn.
He names me true! " Oh, give the door its due
I entered by. Only, I pray you, note,
Had door been none, a shoulder-thrust of mine
Had breached the crazy wall" he seems to say.
So meet and yet a word of thanks, of praise,
Of recognition that the clue was found,
Seized, followed, clung to, by some hand now dust-
Had this obscured his quartering of my shield ?

How the one weakness stirs again ! I thought
I had done with that old thirst for gratitude
That lured me to the desert years ago.
I did my work and was not that enough ?
No; but because the idlers sneered and shrugged,
The envious whispered, the traducers lied,


And friendship doubted where it should have cheered,

I flung aside the unfinished task, sought praise

Outside my soul's esteem, and learned too late

That victory, like God's kingdom, is within.

(Nay, let the folio rest upon my knee.

I do not feel its weight.) Ingratitude ?

The hurrying traveller does not ask the name

Of him who points him on his way; and this

Fallopius sits in the mid-heart of me,

Because he keeps his eye upon the goal,

Cuts a straight furrow to the end in view,

Cares not who oped the fountain by the way,

But drinks to draw fresh courage for his journey.

That was the lesson that Ignatius taught

The one I might have learned from him, but would not

That we are but stray atoms on the wind,

A dancing transiency of summer eves,

Till we become one with our purpose, merged

In that vast effort of the race which makes

Mortality immortal.

" He that loseth

His life shall find it": so the Scripture runs.
But I so hugged the fleeting self in me,
So loved the lovely perishable hours,
So kissed myself to death upon their lips,


That on one pyre we perished in the end
A grimmer bonfire than the Church e'er lit !
Yet all was well or seemed so till I heard
That younger voice, an echo of my own,
And, like a wanderer turning to his home,
Who finds another on the hearth, and learns,
Half-dazed, that other is his actual self
In name and claim, as the whole parish swears,
So strangely, suddenly, stood dispossessed
Of that same self I had sold all to keep,
A baffled ghost that none would see or hear!
"Vesalius? Who's Vesalius? This Fallopius
It is who dragged the Galen-idol down,
Who rent the veil of flesh and forced a way
Into the secret fortalice of life"
Yet it was I that bore the brunt of it!

Well, better so! Better awake and live
My last brief moment as the man I was,
Than lapse from life's long lethargy to death
Without one conscious interval. At least
I repossess my past, am once again
No courtier med'cining the whims of kings
In muffled palace-chambers, but the free
Friendless Vesalius, with his back to the wall


And all the world against him. O, for that

Best gift of all, Fallopius, take my thanks

That, and much more. At first, when Padua wrote:

"Master, Fallopius dead, resume again

The chair even he could not completely fill,

And see what usury age shall take of youth

In honours forfeited" why, just at first,

I was quite simply credulously glad

To think the old life stood ajar for me,

Like a fond woman's unforgetting heart.

But now that death waylays me now I know

This isle is the circumference of my days,

And I shall die here in a little while

So also best, Fallopius!

For I see

The gods may give anew, but not restore;
And though I think that, in my chair again,
I might have argued my supplanters wrong
In this or that this Cesalpinus, say,
With all his hot-foot blundering in the dark,
Fabricius, with his over-cautious clutch
On Galen (systole and diastole
Of Truth's mysterious heart!) yet, other ways,
It may be that this dying serves the cause.
For Truth stays not to build her monument


For this or that co-operating hand,

But props it with her servants' failures nay,

Cements its courses with their blood and brains,

A living substance that shall clinch her walls

Against the assaults of time. Already, see,

Her scaffold rises on my hidden toil,

I but the accepted premiss whence must spring

The airy structure of her argument;

Nor could the bricks it rests on serve to build

The crowning finials. I abide her law :

A different substance for a different end

Content to know I hold the building up;

Though men, agape at dome and pinnacles,

Guess not, the whole must crumble like a dream

But for that buried labour underneath.

Yet, Padua, I had still my word to say!

Let others say it! Ah, but will they guess

Just the one word ? Nay, Truth is many-tongued .

What one man failed to speak, another finds

Another word for. May not all converge

In some vast utterance, of which you and I,

Fallopius, were but halting syllables ?

So knowledge come, no matter how it comes!

No matter whence the light falls, so it fall !

Truth's way, not mine that I, whose service failed


In action, yet may make amends in praise.
Fabricius, Cesalpinus, say your word,
Not yours, or mine, but Truth's, as you receive it!
You miss a point I saw ? See others, then !
Misread my meaning ? Yet expound your own !
Obscure one space I cleared ? The sky is wide,
And you may yet uncover other stars.
For thus I read the meaning of this end:
There are two ways of spreading light; to be
The candle or the mirror that reflects it.
I let my wick burn out there yet remains
To spread an answering surface to the flame
That others kindle.

Turn me in my bed.

The window darkens as the hours swing round;
But yonder, look, the other casement glows!
Let me face westward as my sun goes down.


A PAOLO, since they say the end is near,
And you of all men have the gentlest eyes,
Most like our father Francis; since you know
How I have toiled and prayed and scourged and striven,
Mothered the orphan, waked beside the sick,
Gone empty that mine enemy might eat,
Given bread for stones in famine years, and channelled
With vigilant knees the pavement of this cell,
Till I constrained the Christ upon the wall
To bend His thorn-crowned Head in mute forgiveness . . .
Three times He bowed it ... (but the whole stands writ,
Sealed with the Bishop's signet, as you know),

Once for each person of the Blessed Three

A miracle that the whole town attests,

The very babes thrust forward for my blessing,

And either parish plotting for my bones

Since this you know: sit near and bear with me.

I have lain here, these many empty days

I thought to pack with Credos and Hail Marys

So close that not a fear should force the door

But still, between the blessed syllables



That taper up like blazing angel heads,

Praise over praise, to the Unutterable,

Strange questions clutch me, thrusting fiery arms,

As though, athwart the close-meshed litanies,

My dead should pluck at me from hell, with eyes

Alive in their obliterated faces ! . . .

I have tried the saints' names and our blessed Mother's,

Fra Paolo, I have tried them o'er and o'er,

And like a blade bent backward at first thrust

They yield and fail me and the questions stay.

And so I thought, into some human heart,
Pure, and yet foot-worn with the tread of sin,
If only I might creep for sanctuary,
It might be that those eyes would let me rest. . .

Fra Paolo, listen. How should I forget
The day I saw him first ? (You know the one.)
I had been laughing in the market-place
With others like me, I the youngest there,
Jostling about a pack of mountebanks
Like flies on carrion (I the youngest there!),
Till darkness fell; and while the other girls
Turned this way, that way, as perdition beckoned,
I, wondering what the night would bring, half hoping:
If not, this once, a child's sleep in my garret,


At least enough to buy that two-pronged coral
The others covet 'gainst the evil eye,

Since, after all, one sees that I'm the youngest

So, muttering my litany to hell

(The only prayer I knew that was not Latin) ,

Felt on my arm a touch as kind as yours,

And heard a voice as kind as yours say "Come."

I turned and went; and from that day I never

Looked on the face of any other man.

So much is known; so much effaced; the sin

Cast like a plague-struck body to the sea,

Deep, deep into the unfathomable pardon

(The Head bowed thrice, as the whole town attests).
What more, then ? To what purpose ? Bear with me !

It seems that he, a stranger in the place,
First noted me that afternoon and wondered:
How grew so white a bud in such black slime,
And why not mine the hand to pluck it out ?

Why, so Christ deals with souls, you cry what then ?

Not so ! Not so ! When Christ, the heavenly gardener,
Plucks flowers for Paradise (do I not know?),
He snaps the stem above the root, and presses
The ransomed soul between two convent walls,

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Online LibraryEdith WhartonArtemis to Actæon, and other verse → online text (page 1 of 3)