Alfred Austin

(30 May 1835 – 2 June 1913 / Headingley)

The Dance At Darmstadt - Poem by Alfred Austin

In the city of Darmstadt, the Sabbath morn
Shone over the broad Cathedral Square,
And to nobly, richly, and lowly born,
The belfry carilloned call to prayer.

Then banker, and burgher, and learn'd in law,
With clean-cut forehead and firm-set jaw,
Master, and prentice, and tradesman trim,
Pikemen stalwart of port and limb,
Pledged to die for their native town,
Scholars stately in cap and gown,
Splendid and simple, halt and hale,
Rosy tapster and student pale,
Stepped from their thresholds, and gravely trod
The streets that lead to the House of God.
And, hurrying after them, maid and dame,
Wives, and daughters, and sweethearts, came,
All in their Sabbath best arrayed,
Delicate ribbon and dainty braid,
Creaseless corset and kirtle clean,
Of sombre homespun or silken sheen,
Rustling by with looks demure,
As bright as posies, and just as pure.
And tight to their kirtles their children clung,
With ambling footstep and nimble tongue,
Prattled and questioned them all the way,
Forgetting quite 'twas the Sabbath Day,
Till they came to the great Cathedral Square,
Where the organ pealed through the House of Prayer.

``Now why do you waste the summer day?''
Cried a velveted stripling with locks of gold,
And eyes like forget-me-nots in May,
When the milch-cows stream from the wintry fold.
``Week after week you troop in there,
To mutter and mumble the self-same prayer,
Through the self-same psalmody drowse and nod;
And that's what you, sooth, call praising God!
Look! the sun is shining on roof and spire,
And the wings of the swallow never tire,
The stork hovers over her callow nest,
And Spring is folded to Summer's breast.
There's a flutter of love in the lime-tree leaves,
And the starlings flute on the Rathhaus eaves.
Come away, come away where the sycamore swings
Its tassels of gold, and the blackbird sings,
Where the river swirls past a tangled ledge
Of willow-weed, meadow-sweet, thyme, and sedge,
Where the veins of the vine are flushed with juice,
And the trout in the stream past the miller's sluice
Cast wavering shadows on stone and sand;
And, when we have rambled through all the land,
We will halt at the Inn with the Jocund Sign,
And freshen our throats with the Mosel wine.
But, ere ever we go, let us, hand in hand,
Be comrades sworn of a joyous band,
And, while they jabber and wail in there,
Have a dance in the sunny Cathedral Square.''

Then tabor and viol began to sound,
And ribald and losel to beat the ground,
Boys who mocked at the Sacred Name,
And wantons brazening out their shame.
With languishing eyes and streaming hair,
They footed it all about the Square,
Footed, and frolicked, and revelled round,
To the viol's twang and the tabor's sound;
Shouted, and clapped their hands for glee;
Was never such madcap company:
Forward, backward, forward once more,
Like ebb and flow on a tidal shore,
Trooped together more near and near,
Like a troop of colts at a sound they fear,
Then scampered away and scattered wide,
Again to draw to each other's side;
Hand within hand, and face to face,
Twirled and circled in lewd embrace,
Hurried, slackened, then swept along,
Trilling and trolling a shameful song,
Hurtful and hateful to godly ears.
Never, I ween, in all the years
Since the Autumn woods waxed sere and brown,
Was danced such a dance in Darmstadt town.

Now the sermon was over, the service done,
And the grave-faced worshippers, one by one,
Poured into the bright Cathedral Square,
And beheld the ungodly dancing there.
Then they cried, ``Now, shame on you! Stay! O stay!
Surely ye know 'tis the Sabbath Day,
The day of the merciful mighty Lord:
If ye flaunt His mercy, yet dread His sword!''
Yet never an instant the dancing stayed,
But ribald stripling, and wanton maid,
Gasped out, ``Don't you see we are nigh to drop
With panting and pain, but we cannot stop.
The demons have entered our limbs, and we
No longer have power to pause or flee.
They force us to hammer the hard hot ground,
And make us pirouette round and round.
Will never some Christian soul advance,
And break the spell of this demon dance!''

Then the sober and godly would fain have heard
Piteous cry and panting word.
But a something stronger than human will
Fettered their feet, and kept them still
Helplessly watching the ghastly crew;
So swiftly they whirled, and so fast they flew,
It made one giddy to see them there.
So, out of the broad Cathedral Square,
Banker and burgher, and learn'd in law,
With clean-cut forehead and firm-set jaw,
Master and prentice, and tradesman trim,
Pikemen stalwart of port and limb,
Sister, and sweetheart, and wife demure,
As fresh as posies, and just as pure,
With children clutching their mother's gown,
Homeward walked through the awestruck town.

But still, when the godly crowd had gone,
The derelict band went dancing on.
The sunlight glittered on roof and spire,
And the wings of the swallow did never tire,
The stork hovered over her callow nest,
And Spring was folded to Summer's breast.
Far away in the woodland the sycamore swung
Its tassels of gold, and the blackbird sung.
The river went swirling past tangled ledge
Of willow-weed, meadow-sweet, thyme, and sedge.
The veins of the vine were flushed with juice,
And the trout poised still by the miller's sluice.
But, though longer and longer the shadows grew,
Still gambolled and anticked the ribald crew,
Wavered and wantoned in broken line,
As though mad-drunk with the Mosel wine,
Reeled and rolled till the sun went down,
And the stars shone over the darkened town,
Golden stars in a dome of blue;
Careered and capered the whole night through,
Till their loose flesh flapped on their creaking bones,
And they staggered and dropped on the hard dry stones.
And when at last in a heap they lay,
Like refuse the scavenger carts away,
They throbbed up still, as at farmyard pyre
The flickering flames of an unfed fire;
Nor yet from their ghastly gambols ceased,
Till the sun ensanguined the pallid East,
And the starlings piped on the Rathhaus eaves.

Never, never since wintry woods waxed brown,
Was danced such a dance in Darmstadt town.


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Poem Submitted: Thursday, April 8, 2010



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