The Lesser Children
Poem by Ridgely Torrence
A Threnody at the Hunting Season
In the middle of August when the southwest wind
Blows after sunset through the leisuring air,
And on the sky nightly the mythic hind
Leads down the sullen dog star to his lair,
After the feverous vigil of July,
When the loud pageant of the year's high noon
Passed up the ways of time to sing and part,
Grief also wandered by
From out the lovers and the leaves of June,
And by the wizard spices of his hair
I knew his heart was very Love's own heart.
Deep within dreams he led me out of doors
As from the upper vault the night outpours,
And when I saw that to him all the skies
Yearned as a sea asleep yearns to its shores,
He took a little clay and touched my eyes.
What saw I then, what heard?
Multitudes, multitudes, under the moon they stirred!
The weaker brothers of our earthly breed;
Watchmen of whom our safety takes no heed;
Swift helpers of the wind that sowed the seed
Before the first field was or any fruit;
Warriors against the bivouac of the weed;
Earth's earliest ploughmen for the tender root,
All came about my head and at my feet
A thousand, thousand sweet,
With starry eyes not even raised to plead;
Bewildered, driven, hiding, fluttering, mute!
And I beheld and saw them one by one
Pass and become as nothing in the night.
Clothed on with red they were who once were white;
Drooping, who once led armies to the sun,
Of whom the lowly grass now topped the flight:
In scarlet faint, who once were brave in brown;
Climbers and builders of the silent town,
Creepers and burrowers all in crimson dye,
Winged mysteries of song that from the sky
Once dashed long music down.
O who would take away music from the earth?
Have we so much? Or love upon the hearth?
No more -- they faded;
The great trees bending between birth and birth
Sighed for them, and the night wind's hoarse rebuff
Shouted the shame of which I was persuaded.
Shall Nature's only pausing be by men invaded?
Or shall we lay grief's fagots on her shoulders bare?
Has she not borne enough?
Soon will the mirroring woodland pools begin to con her,
And her sad immemorial passion come upon her;
Lo, would you add despair unto despair?
Shall not the Spring be answer to her prayer?
Must her uncomforted heavens overhead,
Weeping, look down on tears and still behold
Only wings broken or a fledgling dead,
Or underfoot the meadows that wore gold
Die, and the leaves go mourning to the mould
Beneath poor dead and desperate feet
Of folk who in next summer's meadows shall not meet?
Who has not seen in the high gulf of light
What, lower, was a bird, but now
Is moored and altered quite
Into an island of unshaded joy?
To whom the mate below upon the bough
Shouts once and brings him from his high employ.
Yet speeding he forgot not of the cloud
Where he from glory sprang and burned aloud,
But took a little of the day,
A little of the colored sky,
And of the joy that would not stay
He wove a song that cannot die.
Then, then -- the unfathomable shame;
The one last wrong arose from out the flame,
The ravening hate that hated not was hurled
Bidding the radiant love once more beware,
Bringing one more loneliness on the world,
And one more blindness in the unseen air.
Nor may the smooth regret, the pitying oath
Shed on such utter bitter any leaven.
Only the pleading flowers that knew them both
Hold all their bloody petals up to heaven.
Winds of the fall that all year to and fro
Somewhere upon the earth go wandering,
You saw, you moaned, you know:
Withhold not then unto all time to tell
Lest unborn others of us see this thing.
Bring our sleek, comfortable reason low:
Recount how souls grown tremulous as a bell
Came forth each other and the day to greet
In morning air all Indian-Summer sweet,
And crept upstream, through wood or field or brake,
Most tremblingly to take
What crumbs that from the Master's table fell.
Cry with what thronging thunders they were met,
And hide not how the least leaf was made wet.
Cry till no watcher says that all is well
With raucous discord through the leaning spheres.
With tears, with tears
How the last man is harmed even as they
Who on these dawns are fire, at dusk are clay.
Record the dumb and wise,
No less than those who lived in singing guise,
Whose choric hearts lit each wild green arcade.
Make men to see their eyes,
Forced to suspect behind each reed or rose
The thorn of lurking foes.
And O, before the daylight goes,
After the deed against the skies,
After the last belief and longing dies,
Make men again to see their eyes
Whose piteous casements now all unafraid
Peer out to that far verge where evermore,
Beyond all woe for which a tear atones,
The likeness of our own dishonor moans,
A sea that has no bottom and no shore.
What shall be done
By you, shy folk who cease thus heart by heart?
You for whose fate such fate forever hovers?
O little lovers,
If you would still have nests beneath the sun
Gather your broods about you and depart,
Before the stony forward-pressing faces
Into the lands bereft of any sound;
The solemn and compassionate desert places.
Give unto men no more the strong delight
To know that underneath the frozen ground
Dwells the warm life and all the quick, pure lore.
Take from our eyes the glory of great flight.
Let us behold no more
People untroubled by a Fate's veiled eyes,
Leave us upon an earth of faith forlorn.
No more wild tidings from the sweet far skies
Of love's long utmost heavenward endeavor.
So shall the silence pour on us forever
The streaming arrows of unutterable scorn.
Nor shall the cry of famine be a shield
The altar of a brutish mood to hide.
Stains, stains, upon the lintels of our doors
Wail to be justified.
Shall there be mutterings at the seasons' yield?
Has eye of man seen bared the granary floors?
Are the fields wasted? Spilled the oil and wine?
Is the fat seed under the clod decayed?
Does ever the fig tree languish or the vine?
Who has beheld the harvest promise fade?
Or any orchard heavy with fruit asway
No, not these things, but grosser things than these
Are the dim parents of a guilt not dim;
Ancestral urges out of old caves blowing,
When Fear watched at our coming and our going
The horror of the chattering face of Whim.
Hates, cruelties new fallen from the trees
Whereto we clung with impulse sad for love,
Shames we have had all time to rid us of,
Disgraces cold and sorrows long bewept,
Recalled, revived, and kept,
Unmeaning quarrels, blood-compelling lust,
And snarling woes from our old home, the dust.
Yet even of these one saving shape may rise;
Fear may unveil our eyes.
For know you not what curse of blight would fall
Upon a land lorn of the sweet sky races
Who day and night keep ward and seneschal
Upon the treasury of the planted spaces?
Then would the locust have his fill,
And the blind worm lay tithe,
The unfed stones rot in the listless mill,
The sound of grinding cease.
No yearning gold would whisper to the scythe,
Hunger at last would prove us of one blood,
The shores of dream be drowned in tides of need,
Horribly would the whole earth be at peace.
The burden of the grasshopper indeed
Weigh down the green corn and the tender bud,
The plague of Egypt fall upon the wheat,
And the shrill nit would batten in the heat.
But you, O poor of deeds and rich of breath,
Whose eyes have made our eyes a hue abhorred,
Red, eager aids of aid-unneeding Death,
Hunters before the Lord,
If on the flinted marge about your souls
In vain the heaving tide of mourning rolls,
If from your trails unto the crimson goals
The weeper and the weeping must depart,
If lust of blood come on you like a fiery dart
And darken all the dark autumnal air,
Then, then -- be fair.
Pluck a young ash tree or a sapling yew
And at the root end fix an iron thorn,
Then forth with rocking laughter of the horn
And passing, with no belling retinue,
All timorous, lesser sippers of the dew,
Seek out some burly guardian of the hills
And set your urgent thew against his thew.
Then shall the hidden wisdoms and the wills
Strive, and bear witness to the trees and clods
How one has dumb lore of the rocks and swales
And one has reason like unto the gods.
Then shall the lagging righteousness ensue,
The powers at last be equal in the scales,
And the man's club and the beast's claw be flails
To winnow the unworthy of the two.
Then on the earth, in the sky and the heavenly court
That broods behind it,
Justice shall be awakened and aware,
Then those who go forth greatly, seeking sport,
Shall doubtless find it,
And all things be fair.
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