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The Tale Of The Tiger-Tree - Poem by Vachel Lindsay

A Fantasy, dedicated to the little poet Alice Oliver Henderson, ten years old.

The Fantasy shows how tiger-hearts are the cause of war in all ages. It shows how the mammoth forces may be either friends or enemies of the struggle for peace. It shows how the dream of peace is unconquerable and eternal.



I

Peace-of-the-Hea rt, my own for long,
Whose shining hair the May-winds fan,
Making it tangled as they can,
A mystery still, star-shining yet,
Through ancient ages known to me
And now once more reborn with me: —

This is the tale of the Tiger Tree
A hundred times the height of a man,
Lord of the race since the world began.

This is my city Springfield,
My home on the breast of the plain.
The state house towers to heaven,
By an arsenal gray as the rain...
And suddenly all is mist,
And I walk in a world apart,
In the forest-age when I first knelt down
At your feet, O Peace-of-the-Heart.

This is the wonder of twilight:
Three times as high as the dome
Tiger-striped trees encircle the town,
Golden geysers of foam.
While giant white parrots sail past in their pride.
The roofs now are clouds and storms that they ride.
And there with the huntsmen of mound-builder days
Through jungle and meadow I stride.
And the Tiger Tree leaf is falling around
As it fell when the world began:
Like a monstrous tiger-skin, stretched on the ground,
Or the cloak of a medicine man.
A deep-crumpled gossamer web,
Fringed with the fangs of a snake.
The wind swirls it down from the leperous boughs.
It shimmers on clay-hill and lake,
With the gleam of great bubbles of blood,
Or coiled like a rainbow shell....
I feast on the stem of the Leaf as I march.
I am burning with Heaven and Hell.


II

The gray king died in his hour.
Then we crowned you, the prophetess wise:
Peace-of-the-Heart we deeply adored
For the witchcraft hid in your eyes.
Gift from the sky, overmastering all,
You sent forth your magical parrots to call
The plot-hatching prince of the tigers,
To your throne by the red-clay wall.

Thus came that genius insane:
Spitting and slinking,
Sneering and vain,
He sprawled to your grassy throne, drunk on The Leaf,
The drug that was cunning and splendor and grief.
He had fled from the mammoth by day,
He had blasted the mammoth by night,
War was his drunkenness,
War was his dreaming,
War was his love and his play.
And he hissed at your heavenly glory
While his councillors snarled in delight,
Asking in irony: "What shall we learn
From this whisperer, fragile and white?"

And had you not been an enchantress
They would not have loitered to mock
Nor spared your white parrots who walked by their paws
With bantering venturesome talk.

You made a white fire of The Leaf.
You sang while the tiger-chiefs hissed.
You chanted of "Peace to the wonderful world."
And they saw you in dazzling mist.
And their steps were no longer insane,
Kindness came down like the rain,
They dreamed that like fleet young ponies they feasted
On succulent grasses and grain.

Then came the black-mammoth chief:
Long-haired and shaggy and great,
Proud and sagacious he marshalled his court:
(You had sent him your parrots of state.)
His trunk in rebellion upcurled,
A curse at the tiger he hurled.
Huge elephants trumpeted there by his side,
And mastodon-chiefs of the world.
But higher magic began.
For the turbulent vassals of man.
You harnessed their fever, you conquered their ire,
Their hearts turned to flowers through holy desire,
For their darling and star you were crowned,
And their raging demons were bound.
You rode on the back of the yellow-streaked king,
His loose neck was wreathed with a mistletoe ring.
Primordial elephants loomed by your side,
And our clay-painted children danced by your path,
Chanting the death of the kingdoms of wrath.
You wrought until night with us all.
The fierce brutes fawned at your call,
Then slipped to their lairs, song-chained.
And thus you sang sweetly, and reigned:
"Immortal is the inner peace, free to beasts and men.
Beginning in the darkness, the mystery will conquer,
And now it comforts every heart that seeks for love again.
And now the mammoth bows the knee,
We hew down every Tiger Tree,
We send each tiger bound in love and glory to his den,
Bound in love...and wisdom...and glory,...to his den."


III

"Beware of the trumpeting swine,"
Came the howl from the northward that night.
Twice-rebel tigers warning was still
If we held not beside them it boded us ill.
From the parrots translating the cry,
And the apes in the trees came the whine:
"Beware of the trumpeting swine.
Beware of the faith of a mammoth."

"Beware of the faith of a tiger,"
Came the roar from the southward that night.
Trumpeting mammoths warning us still
If we held not beside them it boded us ill.
The frail apes wailed to us all,
The parrots reëchoed the call:
"Beware of the faith of a tiger."
From the heights of the forest the watchers could see
The tiger-cats crunching the Leaf of the Tree
Lashing themselves, and scattering foam,
Killing our huntsmen, hurrying home.
The chiefs of the mammoths our mastery spurned,
And eastward restlessly fumed and burned.
The peacocks squalled out the news of their drilling
And told how they trampled, maneuvered, and turned.
Ten thousand man-hating tigers
Whirling down from the north, like a flood!
Ten thousand mammoths oncoming
From the south as avengers of blood!
Our child-queen was mourning, her magic was dead,
The roots of the Tiger Tree reeking with red.


IV

This is the tale of the Tiger Tree
A hundred times the height of a man,
Lord of the race since the world began.

We marched to the mammoths,
We pledged them our steel,
And scorning you, sang: —
"We are men,
We are men."
We mounted their necks,
And they stamped a wide reel.
We sang:
"We are fighting the hell-cats again,
We are mound-builder men,
We are elephant men."
We left you there, lonely,
Beauty your power,
Wisdom your watchman,
To hold the clay tower.
While the black-mammoths boomed —
"You are elephant men,
Men,
Men,
Elephant men."
The dawn-winds prophesied battles untold.
While the Tiger Trees roared of the glories of old,
Of the masterful spirits and hard.

The drunken cats came in their joy
In the sunrise, a glittering wave.
"We are tigers, are tigers," they yowled.
"Down,
Down,
Go the swine to the grave."
But we tramp
Tramp
Trampled them there,
Then charged with our sabres and spears.
The swish of the sabre,
The swish of the sabre,
Was a marvellous tune in our ears.

We yelled "We are men,
We are men."
As we bled to death in the sun....
Then staunched our horrible wounds
With the cry that the battle was won....
And at last,
When the black-mammoth legion
Split the night with their song: —
"Right is braver than wrong,
Right is stronger than wrong,"
The buzzards came taunting:
"Down from the north
Tiger-nations are sweeping along."

Then we ate of the ravening Leaf
As our savage fathers of old.
No longer our wounds made us weak,
No longer our pulses were cold.
Though half of my troops were afoot,
(For the great who had borne them were slain)
We dreamed we were tigers, and leaped
And foamed with that vision insane.
We cried "We are soldiers of doom,
Doom,
Sabres of glory and doom."
We wreathed the king of the mammoths
In the tiger-leaves' terrible bloom.
We flattered the king of the mammoths,
Loud-rattling sabres and spears.
The swish of the sabre,
The swish of the sabre,
Was a marvellous tune in his ears.


V

This was the end of the battle.
The tigers poured by in a tide
Over us all with their caterwaul call,
"We are the tigers,"
They cried.
"We are the sabres,"
They cried.
But we laughed while our blades swept wide,
While the dawn-rays stabbed through the gloom.
"We are suns on fire" was our yell —
"Suns on fire."...
But man-child and mastodon fell,
Mammoth and elephant fell.
The fangs of the devil-cats closed on the world,
Plunged it to blackness and doom.

The desolate red-clay wall
Echoed the parrots' call: —
"Immortal is the inner peace, free to beasts and men.
Beginning in the darkness, the mystery will conquer,
And now it comforts every heart that seeks for love again.
And now the mammoth bows the knee,
We hew down every Tiger Tree,
We send each tiger bound in love and glory to his den,
Bound in love... and wisdom... and glory,... to his den."

A peacock screamed of his beauty
On that broken wall by the trees,
Chiding his little mate,
Spreading his fans in the breeze...
And you, with eyes of a bride,
Knelt on the wall at my side,
The deathless song in your mouth...
A million new tigers swept south...
As we laughed at the peacock, and died.

This is my vision in Springfield:
Three times as high as the dome,
Tiger-striped trees encircle the town,
Golden geysers of foam; —
Though giant white parrots sail past, giving voice,
Though I walk with Peace-of-the-Heart and rejoice.


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