Verse > Oscar Wilde > Poems

Oscar Wilde (1854–1900).  Poems.  1881.

25. The Burden of Itys

THIS English Thames is holier far than Rome, 
  Those harebells like a sudden flush of sea 
Breaking across the woodland, with the foam 
  Of meadow-sweet and white anemone 
To fleck their blue waves,—God is likelier there,         5
Than hidden in that crystal-hearted star the pale monks bear! 
Those violet-gleaming butterflies that take 
  Yon creamy lily for their pavilion 
Are monsignores, and where the rushes shake 
  A lazy pike lies basking in the sun  10
His eyes half-shut,—He is some mitred old 
Bishop in partibus! look at those gaudy scales all green and gold. 
The wind the restless prisoner of the trees 
  Does well for Palæstrina, one would say 
The mighty master’s hands were on the keys  15
  Of the Maria organ, which they play 
When early on some sapphire Easter morn 
In a high litter red as blood or sin the Pope is borne 
From his dark House out to the Balcony 
  Above the bronze gates and the crowded square,  20
Whose very fountains seem for ecstasy 
  To toss their silver lances in the air, 
And stretching out weak hands to East and West 
In vain sends peace to peaceless lands, to restless nations rest. 
Is not yon lingering orange afterglow  25
  That stays to vex the moon more fair than all 
Rome’s lordliest pageants! strange, a year ago 
  I knelt before some crimson Cardinal 
Who bare the Host across the Esquiline, 
And now—those common poppies in the wheat seem twice as fine.  30
The blue-green beanfields yonder, tremulous 
  With the last shower, sweeter perfume bring 
Through this cool evening than the odorous 
  Flame-jewelled censers the young deacons swing, 
When the grey priest unlocks the curtained shrine,  35
And makes God’s body from the common fruit of corn and vine. 
Poor Fra Giovanni bawling at the mass 
  Were out of tune now, for a small brown bird 
Sings overhead, and through the long cool grass 
  I see that throbbing throat which once I heard  40
On starlit hills of flower-starred Arcady, 
Once where the white and crescent sand of Salamis meets sea. 
Sweet is the swallow twittering on the eaves 
  At daybreak, when the mower whets his scythe, 
And stock-doves murmur, and the milkmaid leaves  45
  Her little lonely bed, and carols blithe 
To see the heavy-lowing cattle wait 
Stretching their huge and dripping mouths across the farmyard gate. 
And sweet the hops upon the Kentish leas, 
  And sweet the wind that lifts the new-mown hay,  50
And sweet the fretful swarms of grumbling bees 
  That round and round the linden blossoms play; 
And sweet the heifer breathing in the stall, 
And the green bursting figs that hang upon the red-brick wall. 
And sweet to hear the cuckoo mock the spring  55
  While the last violet loiters by the well, 
And sweet to hear the shepherd Daphnis sing 
  The song of Linus through a sunny dell 
Of warm Arcadia where the corn is gold 
And the slight lithe-limbed reapers dance about the wattled fold.  60
And sweet with young Lycoris to recline 
  In some Illyrian valley far away, 
Where canopied on herbs amaracine 
  We too might waste the summer-trancèd day 
Matching our reeds in sportive rivalry,  65
While far beneath us frets the troubled purple of the sea. 
But sweeter far if silver-sandalled foot 
  Of some long-hidden God should ever tread 
The Nuneham meadows, if with reeded flute 
  Pressed to his lips some Faun might raise his head  70
By the green water-flags, ah! sweet indeed 
To see the heavenly herdsman call his white-fleeced flock to feed. 
Then sing to me thou tuneful chorister, 
  Though what thou sing’st be thine own requiem! 
Tell me thy tale thou hapless chronicler  75
  Of thine own tragedies! do not contemn 
These unfamiliar haunts, this English field, 
For many a lovely coronal our northern isle can yield, 
Which Grecian meadows know not, many a rose, 
  Which all day long in vales Æolian  80
A lad might seek in vain for, overgrows 
  Our hedges like a wanton courtezan 
Unthrifty of her beauty, lilies too 
Ilissus never mirrored star our streams, and cockles blue 
Dot the green wheat which, though they are the signs  85
  For swallows going south, would never spread 
Their azure tents between the Attic vines; 
  Even that little weed of ragged red, 
Which bids the robin pipe, in Arcady 
Would be a trespasser, and many an unsung elegy  90
Sleeps in the reeds that fringe our winding Thames 
  Which to awake were sweeter ravishment 
Than ever Syrinx wept for, diadems 
  Of brown bee-studded orchids which were meant 
For Cytheræa’s brows are hidden here  95
Unknown to Cytheræa, and by yonder pasturing steer 
There is a tiny yellow daffodil, 
  The butterfly can see it from afar, 
Although one summer evening’s dew could fill 
  Its little cup twice over ere the star 100
Had called the lazy shepherd to his fold 
And be no prodigal, each leaf is flecked with spotted gold 
As if Jove’s gorgeous leman Danaé 
  Hot from his gilded arms had stooped to kiss 
The trembling petals, or young Mercury 105
  Low-flying to the dusky ford of Dis 
Had with one feather of his pinions 
Just brushed them!—the slight stem which bears the burden of its suns 
Is hardly thicker than the gossamer, 
  Or poor Arachne’s silver tapestry,— 110
Men say it bloomed upon the sepulchre 
  Of One I sometime worshipped, but to me 
It seems to bring diviner memories 
Of faun-loved Heliconian glades and blue nymph-haunted seas, 
Of an untrodden vale at Tempe where 115
  On the clear river’s marge Narcissus lies, 
The tangle of the forest in his hair, 
  The silence of the woodland in his eyes, 
Wooing that drifting imagery which is 
No sooner kissed than broken, memories of Salmacis 120
Who is not boy or girl and yet is both, 
  Fed by two fires and unsatisfied 
Through their excess, each passion being loth 
  For love’s own sake to leave the other’s side 
Yet killing love by staying, memories 125
Of Oreads peeping through the leaves of silent moon-lit trees, 
Of lonely Ariadne on the wharf 
  At Naxos, when she saw the treacherous crew 
Far out at sea, and waved her crimson scarf 
  And called false Theseus back again nor knew 130
That Dionysos on an amber pard 
Was close behind her, memories of what Maeonia’s bard 
With sightless eyes beheld, the wall of Troy, 
  Queen Helen lying in the carven room, 
And at her side an amorous red-lipped boy 135
  Trimming with dainty hand his helmet’s plume, 
And far away the moil, the shout, the groan, 
As Hector shielded off the spear and Ajax hurled the stone; 
Of wingèd Perseus with his flawless sword 
  Cleaving the snaky tresses of the witch, 140
And all those tales imperishably stored 
  In little Grecian urns, freightage more rich 
Than any gaudy galleon of Spain 
Bare from the Indies ever! these at least bring back again, 
For well I know they are not dead at all, 145
  The ancient Gods of Grecian poesy, 
They are asleep, and when they hear thee call 
  Will wake and think ’t is very Thessaly, 
This Thames the Daulian waters, this cool glade 
The yellow-irised mead where once young Itys laughed and played. 150
If it was thou dear jasmine-cradled bird 
  Who from the leafy stillness of thy throne 
Sang to the wondrous boy, until he heard 
  The horn of Atalanta faintly blown 
Across the Cumner hills, and wandering 155
Through Bagley wood at evening found the Attic poets’ spring,— 
Ah! tiny sober-suited advocate 
  That pleadest for the moon against the day! 
If thou didst make the shepherd seek his mate 
  On that sweet questing, when Proserpina 160
Forgot it was not Sicily and leant 
Across the mossy Sandford stile in ravished wonderment,— 
Light-winged and bright-eyed miracle of the wood! 
  If ever thou didst soothe with melody 
One of that little clan, that brotherhood 165
  Which loved the morning-star of Tuscany 
More than the perfect sun of Raphael 
And is immortal, sing to me! for I too love thee well, 
Sing on! sing on! let the dull world grow young, 
  Let elemental things take form again, 170
And the old shapes of Beauty walk among 
  The simple garths and open crofts, as when 
The son of Leto bare the willow rod, 
And the soft sheep and shaggy goats followed the boyish God. 
Sing on! sing on! and Bacchus will be here 175
  Astride upon his gorgeous Indian throne, 
And over whimpering tigers shake the spear 
  With yellow ivy crowned and gummy cone, 
While at his side the wanton Bassarid 
Will throw the lion by the mane and catch the mountain kid! 180
Sing on! and I will wear the leopard skin, 
  And steal the moonéd wings of Ashtaroth, 
Upon whose icy chariot we could win 
  Cithæron in an hour e’er the froth 
Has overbrimmed the wine-vat or the Faun 185
Ceased from the treading! ay, before the flickering lamp of dawn 
Has scared the hooting owlet to its nest, 
  And warned the bat to close its filmy vans, 
Some Mænad girl with vine-leaves on her breast 
  Will filch their beechnuts from the sleeping Pans 190
So softly that the little nested thrush 
Will never wake, and then with shrilly laugh and leap will rush 
Down the green valley where the fallen dew 
   Lies thick beneath the elm and count her store, 
Till the brown Satyrs in a jolly crew 195
   Trample the loosestrife down along the shore, 
And where their hornèd master sits in state 
Bring strawberries and bloomy plums upon a wicker crate! 
Sing on! and soon with passion-wearied face 
   Through the cool leaves Apollo’s lad will come, 200
The Tyrian prince his bristled boar will chase 
   Adown the chestnut-copses all a-bloom, 
And ivory-limbed, grey-eyed, with look of pride, 
After yon velvet-coated deer the virgin maid will ride. 
Sing on! and I the dying boy will see 205
   Stain with his purple blood the waxen bell 
That overweighs the jacinth, and to me 
   The wretched Cyprian her woe will tell, 
And I will kiss her mouth and streaming eyes, 
And lead her to the myrtle-hidden grove where Adon lies! 210
Cry out aloud on Itys! memory 
  That foster-brother of remorse and pain 
Drops poison in mine ear,—O to be free, 
  To burn one’s old ships! and to launch again 
Into the white-plumed battle of the waves 215
And fight old Proteus for the spoil of coral-flowered caves! 
O for Medea with her poppied spell! 
  O for the secret of the Colchian shrine! 
O for one leaf of that pale asphodel 
  Which binds the tired brows of Proserpine, 220
And sheds such wondrous dews at eve that she 
Dreams of the fields of Enna, by the far Sicilian sea, 
Where oft the golden-girdled bee she chased 
  From lily to lily on the level mead, 
Ere yet her sombre Lord had bid her taste 225
  The deadly fruit of that pomegranate seed, 
Ere the black steeds had harried her away 
Down to the faint and flowerless land, the sick and sunless day. 
O for one midnight and as paramour 
  The Venus of the little Melian farm! 230
O that some antique statue for one hour 
  Might wake to passion, and that I could charm 
The Dawn at Florence from its dumb despair 
Mix with those mighty limbs and make that giant breast my lair! 
Sing on! sing on! I would be drunk with life, 235
  Drunk with the trampled vintage of my youth, 
I would forget the wearying wasted strife, 
  The riven vale, the Gorgon eyes of Truth, 
The prayerless vigil and the cry for prayer, 
The barren gifts, the lifted arms, the dull insensate air! 240
Sing on! sing on! O feathered Niobe, 
  Thou canst make sorrow beautiful, and steal 
From joy its sweetest music, not as we 
  Who by dead voiceless silence strive to heal 
Our too untented wounds, and do but keep 245
Pain barricadoed in our hearts, and murder pillowed sleep. 
Sing louder yet, why must I still behold 
  The wan white face of that deserted Christ, 
Whose bleeding hands my hands did once enfold, 
  Whose smitten lips my lips so oft have kissed, 250
And now in mute and marble misery 
Sits in his lone dishonoured House and weeps, perchance for me. 
O memory cast down thy wreathèd shell! 
  Break thy hoarse lute O sad Melpomene! 
O sorrow sorrow keep thy cloistered cell 255
  Nor dim with tears this limpid Castaly! 
Cease, cease, sad bird, thou dost the forest wrong 
To vex its sylvan quiet with such wild impassioned song! 
Cease, cease, or if ’tis anguish to be dumb 
  Take from the pastoral thrush her simpler air, 260
Whose jocund carelessness doth more become 
  This English woodland than thy keen despair, 
Ah! cease and let the northwind bear thy lay 
Back to the rocky hills of Thrace, the stormy Daulian bay. 
A moment more, the startled leaves had stirred, 265
  Endymion would have passed across the mead 
Moonstruck with love, and this still Thames had heard 
  Pan plash and paddle groping for some reed 
To lure from her blue cave that Naiad maid 
Who for such piping listens half in joy and half afraid. 270
A moment more, the waking dove had cooed, 
  The silver daughter of the silver sea 
With the fond gyves of clinging hands had wooed 
  Her wanton from the chase, and Dryope 
Had thrust aside the branches of her oak 275
To see the lusty gold-haired lad rein in his snorting yoke. 
A moment more, the trees had stooped to kiss 
  Pale Daphne just awakening from the swoon 
Of tremulous laurels, lonely Salmacis 
  Had bared his barren beauty to the moon, 280
And through the vale with sad voluptuous smile 
Antinous had wandered, the red lotus of the Nile 
Down leaning from his black and clustering hair 
  To shade those slumberous eyelids’ caverned bliss, 
Or else on yonder grassy slope with bare 285
  High-tuniced limbs unravished Artemis 
Had bade her hounds give tongue, and roused the deer 
From his green ambuscade with shrill halloo and pricking spear. 
Lie still, lie still, O passionate heart, lie still! 
  O Melancholy, fold thy raven wing! 290
O sobbing Dryad, from thy hollow hill 
  Come not with such desponded answering! 
No more thou wingèd Marsyas complain, 
Apollo loveth not to hear such troubled songs of pain! 
It was a dream, the glade is tenantless, 295
  No soft Ionian laughter moves the air, 
The Thames creeps on in sluggish leadenness, 
  And from the copse left desolate and bare 
Fled is young Bacchus with his revelry, 
Yet still from Nuneham wood there comes that thrilling melody 300
So sad, that one might think a human heart 
  Brake in each separate note, a quality 
Which music sometimes has, being the Art 
  Which is most nigh to tears and memory, 
Poor mourning Philomel, what dost thou fear? 305
Thy sister doth not haunt these fields, Pandion is not here, 
Here is no cruel Lord with murderous blade, 
  No woven web of bloody heraldries, 
But mossy dells for roving comrades made, 
  Warm valleys where the tired student lies 310
With half-shut book, and many a winding walk 
Where rustic lovers stray at eve in happy simple talk. 
The harmless rabbit gambols with its young 
  Across the trampled towing-path, where late 
A troop of laughing boys in jostling throng 315
  Cheered with their noisy cries the racing eight; 
The gossamer, with ravelled silver threads, 
Works at its little loom, and from the dusky red-eaved sheds 
Of the lone Farm a flickering light shines out 
  Where the swinked shepherd drives his bleating flock 320
Back to their wattled sheep-cotes, a faint shout 
  Comes from some Oxford boat at Sandford lock, 
And starts the moor-hen from the sedgy rill, 
And the dim lengthening shadows flit like swallows up the hill. 
The heron passes homeward to the mere, 325
  The blue mist creeps among the shivering trees, 
Gold world by world the silent stars appear, 
  And like a blossom blown before the breeze, 
A white moon drifts across the shimmering sky, 
Mute arbitress of all thy sad, thy rapturous threnody. 330
She does not heed thee, wherefore should she heed, 
  She knows Endymion is not far away, 
’Tis I, ’tis I, whose soul is as the reed 
  Which has no message of its own to play, 
So pipes another’s bidding, it is I, 335
Drifting with every wind on the wide sea of misery. 
Ah! the brown bird has ceased: one exquisite trill 
  About the sombre woodland seems to cling, 
Dying in music, else the air is still, 
  So still that one might hear the bat’s small wing 340
Wander and wheel above the pines, or tell 
Each tiny dewdrop dripping from the blue-bell’s brimming cell. 
And far away across the lengthening wold, 
  Across the willowy flats and thickets brown, 
Magdalen’s tall tower tipped with tremulous gold 345
  Marks the long High Street of the little town, 
And warns me to return; I must not wait, 
Hark! ’tis the curfew booming from the bell at Christ Church gate. 



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