Robert Laurence Binyon

(1869-1943 / England)

The Sibyls - Poem by Robert Laurence Binyon

Rending the waters of a night unknown
The ship with tireless pulses bore me,
On the shadowy deck musing late and lone,
Over waste ocean.
The rustling of the cordage in the dewy wind
And the sound of idle surges
Falling prolonged and for ever again upthrown
Drowsed me; I slept, I dreamed.

Out of the seas that streamed
In ghostly turbulence moving and glimmering about me
I saw the rising of vast and visionary forms.

Like clouds, like continents of cloud, they rose,
August as the shape of storms
In the silence before the thunder, or of mountains
Alone in a sky of sunken light: they rose
Slowly, with shrouded grandeur
Of queenly bosom and shoulder; and afar
Their countenances were lifted, although veiled,
Although heavy as with thought and with silence,
In the heights where dimly gathered
Star upon solitary star.

And it seemed to me, as I dreamed,
That these were the forms of the Sibyls of old,
Prophetesses whose eyes were aflame with interior fire,
Who passionately prophesied and none comprehended,
In the womb of whose thought was quickened the world's desire,
Who saw, and because they saw, chastised
With voices terribly chanting on the wind
The folly of the faithlessness of men.

But not as they haunted then
In cavernous and wild places,
Each inaccessibly sequestered
And sought with furtive steps
Through wizard leaves of whispering laurel feared,
Now to me they appeared.
But rather like Queens of fabulous dominion,
Like Queens, voices of a voiceless people,
Queens of old time, with aweing faces,
With burdened brows but with proud eyes,
Assembled in solemn parley, to shape
Futurity and the nations' glory and doom,
They were met in the night together.

And lo! beneath them
The immeasurable circle of the gloom
Phantasmally disclosed
In apparition all the coasts of the world,
Veined with rivers afar to the frozen mountains.
And I saw the shadow of maniac Death
Like a reveller there stagger glutted and gloating.
I saw murdered cities
That raised like a stiffened arm
One blackened tower to heaven; I saw
Processions of the homeless crawling into the distances;
And sullen leagues of interminable battle;
And peoples arming afar; the very earth,
The very bowels of the earth infected
With the rages and the agonies of men.
For a moment the vision gleamed, and then was gone.
Gloom rushed down like rain.
But out of the midst of the darkness
My flesh was aware of a sound,
The peopled sound of moving millions
And the voices of human pain.

I lifted my gaze to the Sibyls,
The Sibyls of the Continents, where they rose
Looking one on another.
Ancestral Asia, mother of musing mind,
Was there; and over against her
Towered in the gates of the West a shape
Of youth gigantic, troubled and vigilant;
Patient with eager dumbness in dark eyes,
Africa rose; and ardent out of the South
The youngest of those great sisters; and proud,
With fame upon her for mantle, and regal--browed,
The stature of Europe old.
It seemed they listened to the murmur
Of the anguished lands beneath them
In sombre reverberation rising and upward rolled.
Everywhere battle and arming for battle,
Famine and torture, odour of burning and blood,
Doubt, hatred, terror,
Rage and lamenting!

I heard sweet Pity crying between the earth and sky:
But who had leisure for her call? or who hearkened to her cry?

Not with our vision, and not with our horizon
The gaze of the Sibyls was filled.
Their trouble was trouble beyond the shaping of our fear,
Their hope full--sailed upon oceans beyond our ken;
Their thoughts were the thoughts that build
Towers for the dawn unseen.

But nearer than ever before
They drew to each other, sister to shrouded sister,
Queen to superb Queen.
What counsel took they together? or what word
Of power and of parturition
Passed their lips? What saw they,
Conferring among the stars?
My blood tingled, and I heard
Syllables, O too vast
For capacity of my ears; yet within me,
In the innermost bones and caves of my being
I felt a voice like the voice of a sea,
And the sound of it seemed to be crying: ``Endure!
Humble yourselves, O dreamers of dreams,
In whose bosom is peril fiercer than fire or beast,
Humble yourselves, O desolaters of your own dreams,
Then arise and remember!
Though now you cry in astonishment and anguish
`What have we done to the beauty of the world
That ruins about us in ashes and blood?'
Remember the Spirit that moulded and made you
In the beauty of the body
Shaped as the splendour of speech to thought,
The Spirit that wills with one desire,
With infinite else unsatisfied desire,
Peace not made by conquerors and armies,
Peace born in the soul, that asks not shelter or a pillow.
The peace of truth, unshaken amid the thunder,
Unaffrighted by fury of shrivelling fire,
And neither time nor tempest,
Neither slumber nor calamity,
Neither rending of the flesh nor breaking of the heart,
Shall stay you from that desire.''

That sound floated like a cloud in heaven,
Lingering; and like an answer
Came the sound of the rushing of spirits triumphant,
Of young men dying for a cause.

I lifted my eyes in wonder,
And silence filled me.
And with the silence I was aware
Of a breath moving in the glimmer of the air.
The stars had vanished; but again
I beheld those Sibyls august
Over stilled ocean,
And on their faces the dawn.
Even as I looked they lifted up their heads,
They lifted their heads, like eagles
That slowly shake and widen their wondrous wings;
They arose and vanished like the stars.
The light of the changed world, the world new--born,
Brimmed over the silence of the seas;
But even in the rising of its beam
I remembered the light in their eyes.

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Poem Submitted: Wednesday, September 1, 2010

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