Thomas Sturge Moore
Aforetime - Poem by Thomas Sturge Moore
Dear exile from the hurrying crowd,
At work I muse to you aloud;
Thought on my anvil softens, glows,
And I forget our art has foes;
For life, the mother of beauty, seems
A joyous sleep with waking dreams.
Then the toy armoury of the brain
Opining, judging, looks as vain
As trowels silver gilt for use
Of mayors and kings, who have to lay
Foundation stones in hope they may
Be honoured for walls others build.
I, in amicable muse,
With fathomless wonder only filled,
Whisper over to your ear
Listening two hundred odd miles north,
And give thought chase that, were you here,
Our talk would never run to earth.
Man can answer no momentous question:
Whence comes his spirit? Has it lived before?
Reason fails; hot springs of feeling spout
Their snowy columns high in the dim land
Of his surmise — violent divine decisions
That often rule him: and at times he views
Portraits of places he has never been to,
Yet more minute and vivid than remembrance,
Of boyhood homes, sail between sleep and waking
Like some mirage, refuting all experience
With topsy-turvy ships,
That steals by in dead calms through tropic haze:
And many a man in his climacteric years,
Thoughts and remembered words have roused from sleep
With knowledge that he lacked on lying down:
And I, lapped in a trance of reverie, doubt
Some spore of episodes
Anterior far beyond this body's birth,
Dispersed like puffs of dust impalpable,
Wind-carried round this globe for centuries,
May, breathed with common air, yet swim the blood,
And striking root in this or that brain, raise
One such seems half-implied in all I am,
And many times re-pondered shapes like this:
A child myself I watched a woman loll
Like to a clot of seaweed thrown ashore;
Heavy and limp as cloth soaked in black dye,
She glooms the noontide dazzle where a bay
Bites into vineyarded flats close-fenced by hills,
Over whose tops lap forests of cork and fir
And reach in places half down their rough slopes.
Lower, some few cleared fields square on the thickets
Of junipers and longer thorns than furze
So clumped that they are trackless even for goats
I know two things about that woman: first
She is a slave and I am free, and next
As mothers need their sons' love she needs mine.
Longings to utter fond compassionate sounds
Stir through me, checked by knowing wiser folk
Reprobate such indulgence. Ill at ease,
Mute, yet her captive, I thrust brown toes through
Loose sand no daily large tides overwhelm
To cake and roll it firm and smooth and clean
As the Atlantic remakes shores, you know.
But there, like trailing skirts, long flaws of wind
Obliterate the prints feet during calms
Track over and over its always lonely stretch,
Till some will have, it ghosts must rove at night;
For folk by day are rare, yet a still week
Leaves hardly ten yards anywhere uncrossed;
Tempest spreads all revirginate like snow,
Half burying dead wood snapped off from tossed trees,
Since right along the foreshore, out of reach
Of furious driven waves, three hundred pines
Straggle the marches between sand and soil.
Like maps of stone-walled fields their branching roots
Hold the silt still so that thin grass grows there,
Its blades whitened with travelling powdery drift
The besom of the lightest breeze sets stirring.
That woman's gaze toils worn from remote years,
Yet forward yearns through the bright spacious noon,
Beyond the farthest isle, whose filmy shape
Floats faint on the sea-line.
I, scooping grains up with the frail half-shell
Pale green and white-lined of sea-urchin, knew
What her eyes sought as often children know
Of grief or sin they could not name or think of
Yet sooth or shrink from, so I saw and longed
To heal her tender wound and yet said naught.
The energy of bygone joy and pain
Had left her listless figure charged with magic
That caught and held my idleness near hers.
Resentful of her power, my spirit chafed
Against its own deep pity, as though it were
Raised ghost and she the witch had bid it haunt me.
What's more I knew this slave by rights should glean
And faggot drift-wood, not lounge there and waste
My father's food dreaming his time away.
For then as now the common-minded rich
Grudged ease to those whose toil brought them in means
For every waste of life. At length I spoke,
Insulting both my inarticulate soul
And her with acted anger: 'Lazy wretch,
Is it for eyes like yours to watch the sea
As though you waited for a homing ship?
My father might with reason spend his hours
Scanning the far horizon; for his Swan
Whose outward lading was full half a vintage
Is now months overdue.' She turned on me
Her languor knit and, through its homespun wrap,
Her muscular frame gave hints of rebel will,
While those great caves of night, her eyes, faced mine,
Dread with the silence of unuttered wrongs:
At last she spoke as one who must be heeded.
Truly I am not clear
Whether her meaning was conveyed in words
(She mingled accents of an eastern tongue
With deformed phrases of our native Latin)
Or whether thought from her gaze poured through mine.
The gravity of recollected life
Was hers, condensed and, like a vision, flashed
Suddenly on the guilty mind, a whole
Compact, no longer a mere tedious string
Of moments negligible, each so small
As they were lived, but stark like a slain man
Who would alive have been ourself with twice
The skill, the knowledge, the vitality
Actually ours. Yea, as a tree may view
With fingerless boughs and lorn pole impotent,
An elephant gorged upon its leaves depart,
Men often have reviewed an unwieldy past,
That like a feasted Mammoth, leisured and slow,
Turned its back on their warped bones. Even thus,
Momentous with reproach, her grave regard
Made me feel mean, cashiered of rank and right,
My limbs that twelve good years had nursed were numbed
And all their fidgety quicksilver grew stiff,
Novel and fevering hallucinations
Invaded my attention. So daylight
When shutters are thrown back spreads through a house;
As then the dreams and terrors of the night
Decamp, so from my mind were driven
All its own thoughts and feelings. Close she leant
Propped on a swarthy arm, while the other helped
With eloquent gesture potent as wizard wand,
Veil the world off as with an airy web,
Or flowing tent a-gleam with pictured folds.
These tauten and distend — one sea of wheat,
Islanded with black cities, borders now
The voluminous blue pavilion of day.
There-under to the nearest of those towns
This woman younger by ten years made haste
While at her side ran a small boy of six.
They neared the walls, half a huge double gate
Lay prostrate, though the other by stone hinges
Hung to its flanking tower. The path they followed
Threaded an old paved road whose flags were edged
With dry grass and dry weeds, even cactuses
Had pushed the stones up or found root in muck heaps:
The path struck up the slope of the fallen door,
Basalt like midnight, o'er which dusty feet
Had greyed a passage, for it rested on
Some débris fallen from the left-hand tower,
And from its upper edge rude blocks like steps
Led down into the straight main street, that ran
Past eyeless buildings mined as it were from coal,
And earthquake-raised to light. Palaces and
Roofless wide-flighted colonnaded temples,
The uncemented walls piled-plumb with blocks
Squared, polished, fitted with daemonic patience.
Each gaping threshold high again as need be
Waited a nine-foot lord to enter hall,
Where the least draughty corner sheltered now
Half-tented hut or improvised small home
For Arab, brown, light-footed and proud-necked
As was this woman with the compelling voice.
Their present hutched and hived within that past
As bees in the parchment chest of Samson's lion;
And all seem conscious that their life was sweet,
Like mice who clean their faces after meals
And have such grace of movement, when unscared,
As wins the admiration even of those
Whose stores they rob and soil. I saw her eyes
Young with contentment in her son
And smaller babe and in their handsome sire,
And knew that many a supper had been relished
With hearts as joyous as waited while she cooked
And served upon returning to their cot
In hall where once far other hearts caroused.
They and their tribe could never reap a tithe
Of the vast harvest rustling round those ruins,
And over which a half-moon soon set forth
From black hills mounded up both east and south,
While north-west her light played on distant summits;
All the huge interspace floored with standing corn
Which kings afar send soldiery to reap,
Who now, beside a long canal cut straight
In ancient days, have pitched their noisy camp
Which on that vast staid silence makes a bruise
Of blare and riot that its robust health
Will certainly heal in a brief lapse of time.
One night, re-thought on after ten whole years,
Is like the condor high above the Andes,
A speck with difficulty found again
Once the attention quits it. And I next
Descried our woman under breathless noon,
Bathing in a clear lane of gliding water
Whose banks seem lonely as the path of light
Crossing mid ocean south of Capricorn.
Her son steals warily after a butterfly
And is as hushed with hope to capture it
As are the birds with heat. An insect hum
Circles the spot as round a cymbal's rim,
Long after it has clanged, tingles a throb
Which in a dream forgets the parent sound,
Oppressed by this protracted and awe-filled pause,
She hardly dares to wade the stream and moves
As though in dread to wake some sleeping god,
Yet still she nears and nears the further bank
Where there is shade under a shumac's eaves.
The brilliant surface cut her right in two,
And the reflection of her bronzed torso
Hid all beneath the polished gliding mirror;
How her face listened to that sleep divine
Whose audible breath was tuned to dreams of bliss!
Sudden, as though the woof of heaven were torn,
A strident shout rang from some neighbour shrubs
Three Nubian soldiers ran upon her with
Delighted oily faces. Screaming first
Commands to her small son to make for home,
She laboured to recross the current as when
In nightmares the scared soul expects to die
Tortured by mutiny in limbs like lead,
But as the playful lion of the sea
Climbs the rock ledges hard by Fingal's cave
To throw himself down into deep green baths,
While others barking follow his vigorous lead,
The foremost Abyssinian threw his weight
Before her with a splash that hid them both,
As the explosion of light-filled liquid parcels
Shot forth in all directions. In his arms
She re-appeared, a tragic terrified face
Beside his coarse one laughing with success.
Squeezing her with a pantomime of love,
He turns to follow an arrow with his eyes
That his companion, still upon the bank,
Has aimed towards her son's small head that bobbed
Like a black cork across the basking corn.
But from the level of the sunk stream bed
Neither he nor she could see the target aimed at,
Yet in the pause they heard the poor child scream;
A second arrow, second scream; she fought,
But soon like bundle bound, hung o'er his shoulder,
Helpless as a mouse in cat's mouth carried off
In search of quiet, there to play with it.
Those arrows missed? — or did they not? The child
Shrieked twice, yet scarcely like a wounded thing
She thought and hoped and still but thinks and hopes.
Where is that boy? Where is her husband now?
While she submitted body to force and soul
To the great shuddering violence of despair
How had their life progressed in that far place?
Compassion fused my consciousness with hers
And second-sighted eloquence arose
To claim my mind for rostrum,
But obstinately tranced
My eyes clung to their vision;
For regions to explore allure the boy
No stretch of thought or sea of feeling tempts.
Entranced, the mind I then had, haunted
Those basalt ruins. High on sable towers
Some silky patriarchal goat appears
And ponders silent streets, or suddenly
Some nanny, her huge bag swollen with milk,
Trots out on galleries that unfenced run
Round vacant courts, there, stopped by plaintive kids,
Lets them complete their meal. While always, always,
Throughout, those mazed, sullen and sun-soaked walls,
The steady, healthy wind,
Which often blows for weeks without a lull
Across that upland plain,
Flutes staidly. Moaning
Continuously as seas
Or forests before storm,
And, gathering moment,
Articulated by her woe, begins
With second-sighted eloquence
To wail through me,
Nigh as unheeded,
As though it still had been
For ah! the heart is cowed
And dares not use her strength,
Hears the kind impulse plead
Against the common avaricious fear,
Grants it but life, though sovereignty was due
Or doles it sway but one day out of seven
Or one a year.
So, so, and ever, so
In the close-curtained court
Those causes are deferred
Which most import;
These wait man's leisure.
These daily matters elbow;
His panic meanness
Jibs blindly ere it hear
What wisdom has prepared,
Bolts headlong ere it see
Her face unfold its smile.
Man after man, race after race
Drops jaded by the iterancy
Of petty fear.
Even as horses on the green steppes grazing,
Hundreds scattered through lonely peacefulness,
If shadow of cloud or red fox breaking earth
Delude but one with dream of a stealthy foe,
All are stampeded.
Their frantic torrent draws in,
With dire attraction, cumulative force,
Stragglers grazing miles from where it started;
On it thunders quite devoid of meaning.
The tender private soul
Thus takes contagion from the sordid crowd,
And shying at mere dread of loss,
Loses the whole of life.
Thus, in the vortex of a base turmoil,
Those myriad million energies wear down
That might have raised mankind
To live the life of gods.
Had but my soul been his,
As his was mine,
Those wind-resembling accents
Had found fit auditor.
Their second-sighted eloquence,
Welcomed with acclamation,
Had fired action.
But that was ages since: he was not then
What now I am,
Who have no longer
The opportunity then mine, then missed, —
Who still am dazed and troubled
Surmising others mine, others missed.
Passionate, never-wearied voice,
Tombed in thy brittle shell,
This human heart
Thou croonest age on age,
'Give and ask not,
Help and blame not,'
Heeded less than large and mottled cowry
The which at least some child may hold to ear
All smiles to listen.
Thou findest parables;
With fond imagination
For the successive
This boy, myself that was,
Musing visions by that woman raised,
Watched that land she came from, towned with ruins
Send mile-long files of laden camels out
With grain to hostile cities, —
Knew too the blue entrancing plain of waters
Teemed with fresh shoals, buoyed up indifferently,
Fisher — trader — pirate bark, —
Even the straight thought whispered at his ear,
'Thy lips might join with hers as with some cousin's,
Here, now, at noon,
Hugging her bereavéd sadness close,
And still, to-night, with equal satisfaction,
Thy mother's blind contentment with her son.'
While half-seduced, half-chafed, his mind was shaken
As with conflicting gusts a choppy sea,
His eyes, still greedy of their visions,
Fastened a swarthy town enisled in wheat,
And to the ebon threshold of each house,
Conjured forth the man that each was planned for:
Great creatures smiling with his father's smile,
Muscular, wealthy and self-satisfied,
Wearing loud-coloured raiment, earrings, chains,
Armlet and buckle, all of clanking gold.
His spirit drank from theirs great draughts of pride
And read their minds more clearly than his own;
All, with one counsel like a chorus, dinned
His soul that then was mine,
With truths well-proved in action.
'Love is chaos,
For order's sake
Whatever must be, should be,'
Roared those bulls of Bashan.
Then their proud chant argued,
'How should this woman know
Her little lad again,
Who either now is bones
Under the fertile field,
Or well nigh a grown man?
Say they should cross at market
Both slaves would pass on, not a start the wiser.
What is she then to him
Or he to her
After these years?
To drag a life that might have been but is not
With toil of mind and heart,
Through dreary year on year,
Neglecting for its sake the life that is,
Spells folly and ingratitude to those
Who treat their slaves well.
Thy father's household and thyself should be
More to her now than those who may be dead,
The place she lives in dearer
Than any unattainable far land
Where she is more forgotten than old dreams.
Why make the day of evil worse
By dwelling on it after it has past?
Near things alone are real,
Now is the whole of time:
Places beyond the horizon are but pictures;
Memory cheats the eye with an illusion!'
'Your thoughts are sound, bold builders,
I am my father's son.
Behold this home-shore, these our hills, this bay,
And this our slave! —
Up, work, look sharp about it!'
Bounding a foot and fast retiring from her,
I stoop for stones strewn thick about the sand,
Aim them, fling them,
And, as my idle arm resumes the knack,
Score a hit and laugh
To see her stumble hurt, behind the pine trunks.
'Unless you work, I throw again,
To it and steady at it.
Mark me, drab, we Camilli
Mean what we say.'
Stone after stone still flies,
But aimed to knock chips from the pine-boles now;
For she is busy gathering sticks, increasing
Her distance as she may. The noon is sultry,
Heated and clammy, I,
Towards the live waves turning, slip my tunic,
Then run in naked.
Cooled and soothed by swimming,
Both mind and heart from their late tumult tuned
To placid acquiescent health,
I float, suspended in the limpid water,
Passive, rhythmically governed;
So tranced worlds travel the dark shoreless ether.
'Where should this stream of pictures tend?'
No, Bottomley, you will not ask;
To you I am quite free to send
The unexpected, unexplained,
You will not take me thus to task.
So they be painted well, they live;
If ill, they yet may cling to fame
Associated with your name.
In which case you, and not I, give
That we are both contented with.
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