Lollingdon Downs and other poems

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Lollingdon Downs and other poems, Masefield, 1917 008.jpg

John Masefield








New York



All rights reserved

Copyright, 1917




So I have known this life,
These beads of coloured days,
This self the string.
What is this thing?

Not beauty; no; not greed,
O, not indeed;
Not all, though much;
Its colour is not such.

It has no eyes to see,
It has no ears,
It is a red hour's war
Followed by tears.

It is an hour of time,
An hour of road,
Flesh is its goad,
Yet, in the sorrowing lands,
Women and men take hands.

O earth, give us the corn,
Come rain, come sun,
We men who have been born
Have tasks undone.
Out of this earth
Comes the thing birth,
The thing unguessed, unwon.


O wretched man, that, for a little mile
Crawls beneath heaven for his brother's blood,
Whose days the planets number with their style,
To whom all earth is slave, all living, food;

O withering man, within whose folded shell
Lies yet the seed, the spirit's quickening corn,
That Time and Sun will change out of the cell
Into green meadows, in the world unborn;

If Beauty be a dream, do but resolve
And fire shall come, that in the stubborn clay
Works to make perfect till the rocks dissolve,
The barriers burst and Beauty takes her way,

Beauty herself, within whose blossoming Spring
Even wretched man shall clap his hands and sing.


Out of the special cell's most special sense
Came the suggestion when the light was sweet;
All skill, all beauty, all magnificence
Are hints so caught, man's glimpse of the complete.

And, though the body rots, that sense survives,
Being of life's own essence it endures
(Fruit of the spirit's tillage in men's lives)
Round all this ghost that wandering flesh immures.

That is our friend, who, when the iron brain
Assails, or the earth clogs, or the sun hides,
Is the good God to whom none calls in vain,
Man's Achieved Good, which, being Life, abides,

The man-made God, that man in happy breath
Makes in despite of Time and dusty death.


You are the link which binds us each to each.
Passion, or too much thought, alone can end
Beauty, the ghost, the spirit's common speech,
Which man's red longing left us for our friend.

Even in the blinding war I have known this,
That flesh is but the carrier of a ghost
Who, through his longing, touches that which is
Even as the sailor knows the foreign coast.

So, by the bedside of the dying black
I felt our uncouth souls subtly made one,
Forgiven, the meanness of each other's lack,
Forgiven, the petty tale of ill things done.

We were but Man, who for a tale of days
Seeks the one city by a million ways.


I could not sleep for thinking of the sky,
The unending sky, with all its million suns
Which turn their planets everlastingly
In nothing, where the fire-haired comet runs.

If I could sail that nothing, I should cross
Silence and emptiness with dark stars passing,
Then, in the darkness, see a point of gloss
Burn to a glow, and glare, and keep amassing,

And rage into a sun with wandering planets
And drop behind, and then, as I proceed,
See his last light upon his last moon's granites
Die to a dark that would be night indeed.

Night where my soul might sail a million years
In nothing, not even Death, not even tears.


How did the nothing come, how did these fires,
These million-leagues of fires, first toss their hair,
Licking the moons from heaven in their ires
Flinging them forth for them to wander there?

What was the Mind? Was it a mind which thought?
Or chance? Or law? Or conscious law? Or Power?
Or a vast balance by vast clashes wrought?
Or Time at trial with Matter for an hour?

Or is it all a body where the cells
Are living things supporting something strange
Whose mighty heart the singing planet swells
As it shoulders nothing in unending change?

Is this green earth of many-peopled pain
Part of a life, a cell within a brain?


It may be so; but let the unknown be.
We, on this earth, are servants of the sun.
Out of the sun comes all the quick in me,
His golden touch is life to everyone.

His power it is that makes us spin through space,
His youth is April and his manhood bread,
Beauty is but a looking on his face,
He clears the mind, he makes the roses red.

What he may be, who knows? But we are his,
We roll through nothing round him, year by year,
The withering leaves upon a tree which is
Each with his greed, his little power, his fear.

What we may be, who knows? But everyone
Is dust on dust a servant of the sun.


The Kings go by with jewelled crowns,
Their horses gleam, their banners shake, their spears are many.
The sack of many-peopled towns
Is all their dream:
The way they take
Leaves but a ruin in the break,
And, in the furrow that the ploughmen make,
A stampless penny; a tale, a dream.

The merchants reckon up their gold,
Their letters come, their ships arrive, their freights are glories:
The profits of their treasures sold
They tell and sum;
Their foremen drive
The servants starved to half-alive
Whose labours do but make the earth a hive
Of stinking stories, a tale, a dream.

The priests are singing in their stalls,
Their singing lifts, their incense burns, their praying clamours;
Yet God is as the sparrow falls;
The ivy drifts,
The votive urns
Are all left void when Fortune turns,
The god is but a marble for the kerns
To break with hammers; a tale, a dream.

O Beauty, let me know again
The green earth cold, the April rain, the quiet waters figuring sky,
The one star risen.

So shall I pass into the feast
Not touched by King, merchant or priest,
Know the red spirit of the beast,
Be the green grain;
Escape from prison.


What is this life which uses living cells
It knows not how nor why, for no known end,
This soul of man upon whose fragile shells
Of blood and brain his very powers depend?
Pour out its little blood or touch its brain
The thing is helpless, gone, no longer known,
The carrion cells are never man again,
No hand relights the little candle blown.
It comes not from Without, but from the sperm
Fed in the womb, it is a man-made thing,
That takes from man its power to live a term
Served by live cells of which it is the King.
Can it be blood and brain? It is most great,
Through blood and brain alone it wrestles Fate.


Can it be blood and brain, this transient force
Which, by an impulse, seizes flesh and grows
To man, the thing less splendid than the horse,
More blind than owls, less lovely than the rose?
O, by a power unknown it works the cells
Of blood and brain; it has the power to see
Beyond the apparent thing the something else
Which it inspires dust to bring to be.
O, blood and brain are its imperfect tools,
Easily wrecked, soon worn, slow to attain,
Only by years of toil the master rules
To lovely ends, those servants blood and brain.
And Death, a touch, a germ, has still the force
To make him ev'n as the rose, the owl, the horse.


Not only blood and brain its servants are,
There is a finer power that needs no slaves
Whose lovely service distance cannot bar
Nor the green sea with all her hell of waves,
Nor snowy mountains, nor the desert sand,
Nor heat, nor storm, it bends to no control,
It is a stretching of the spirit's hand
To touch the brother's or the sister's soul;
So that from darkness in the narrow room
I can step forth and be about her heart,
Needing no star, no lantern in the gloom,
No word from her, no pointing on the chart,
Only red knowledge of a window flung
Wide to the night, and calling without tongue.


Drop me the seed, that I, even in my brain
May be its nourishing earth. No mortal knows
From what immortal granary comes the grain,
Nor how the earth conspires to make the rose;

But from the dust and from the wetted mud
Comes help, given or taken; so with me
Deep in my brain the essence of my blood
Shall give it stature until Beauty be.

It will look down, even as the burning flower
Smiles upon June, long after I am gone.
Dust-footed Time will never tell its hour,
Through dusty Time its rose will draw men on,

Through dusty Time its beauty shall make plain
Man, and, Without, a spirit scattering grain.


Ah, but Without there is no spirit scattering;
Nothing but Life, most fertile but unwise,
Passing through change in the sun's heat and cloud's watering,
Pregnant with self, unlit by inner eyes.

There is no Sower, nor seed for any tillage;
Nothing but the grey brain's pash, and the tense will
And that poor fool of the Being's little village
Feeling for the truth in the little veins that thrill.

There is no Sowing, but digging, year by year,
In a hill's heart, now one way, now another,
Till the rock breaks and the valley is made clear
And the poor Fool stands, and knows the sun for his brother

And the Soul shakes wings like a bird escaped from cage
And the tribe moves on to camp in its heritage.


You are too beautiful for mortal eyes,
You the divine unapprehended soul;
The red worm in the marrow of the wise
Stirs as you pass, but never sees you whole.

Even as the watcher in the midnight tower
Knows from a change in heaven an unseen star,
So from your beauty, so from the summer flower,
So from the light, one guesses what you are.

So in the darkness does the traveller come
To some lit chink, through which he cannot see,
More than a light, nor hear, more than a hum,
Of the great hall where Kings in council be.

So, in the grave, the red and mouthless worm
Knows of the soul that held his body firm.


Is it a sea on which the souls embark
Out of the body, as men put to sea?
Or do we come like candles in the dark
In the rooms in cities in eternity?

Is it a darkness that our powers can light?
Is this, our little lantern of man's love,
A help to find friends wandering in the night
In the unknown country with no star above?

Or is it sleep, unknowing, outlasting clocks
That outlast men, that, though the cockcrow ring,
Is but one peace, of the substance of the rocks,
Is but one space in the now unquickened thing,

Is but one joy, that, though the million tire,
Is one, always the same, one life, one fire?



The blacksmith in his sparky forge
Beat on the white-hot softness there;
Even as he beat he sang an air
To keep the sparks out of his gorge.

So many shoes the blacksmith beat,
So many shares and links for traces,
So many builders' struts and braces,
Such tackling for the chain-fore-sheet,

That, in his pride, big words he spake;
"I am the master of my trade,
What iron is good for I have made,
I make what is in iron to make."

Daily he sang thus by his fire,
Till one day, as he poised his stroke
Above his bar, the iron spoke,
"You boaster, drop your hammer, liar."

The hammer dropped out of his hand,
The iron rose, it gathered shape,
It took the blacksmith by the nape,
It pressed him to the furnace, and

Heaped fire upon him till his form
Was molten, flinging sparks aloft,
Until his bones were melted soft,
His hairs crisped in a fiery storm.

The iron drew him from the blaze
To place him on the anvil, then
It beat him from the shape of men,
Like drugs the apothecary brays;

Beat him to ploughing-coulters, beat
Body and blood to links of chain,
With endless hammerings of pain,
Unending torment of white heat;

And did not stop the work, but still
Beat on him while the furnace roared;
The blacksmith suffered and implored,
With iron bonds upon his will.

And, though he could not die nor shrink,
He felt his being beat by force
To horse shoes stamped on by the horse,
And into troughs whence cattle drink.

He felt his blood, his dear delight,
Beat into shares, he felt it rive
The green earth red; he was alive,
Dragged through the earth by horses' might.

He felt his brain, that once had planned
His daily life, changed to a chain
Which curbed a sail or dragged a wain,
Or hoisted ship-loads to the land.

He felt his heart, that once had thrilled
With love of wife and little ones,
Cut out and mingled with his bones
To pin the bricks where men rebuilt.

He felt his very self impelled
To common uses, till he cried,
"There's more within me than is tried,
More than you ever think to weld.

"For all my pain I am only used
To make the props for daily labor;
I burn, I am beaten like a tabor
To make men tools; I am abused.

"Deep in the white heat where I gasp
I see the unmastered finer powers,
Iron by cunning wrought to flowers,
File-worked, not tortured by the rasp.

"Deep in this fire-tortured mind
Thought bends the bar in subtler ways,
It glows into the mass, its rays
Purge, till the iron is refined.

"Then, as the full moon draws the tide
Out of the vague uncaptained sea,
Some moon power there ought to be
To work on ore; it should be tried.

"By this fierce fire in which I ache
I see new fires not yet begun,
A blacksmith smithying with the sun,
At unmade things man ought to make.

"Life is not fire and blows, but thought,
Attention kindling into joy,
Those who make nothing new destroy,
O me, what evil I have wrought.

"O me," and as he moaned he saw
His iron master shake, he felt
No blow, nor did the fire melt
His flesh, he was released from law.

He sat upon the anvil top
Dazed, as the iron was dazed, he took
Strength, seeing that the iron shook,
He said, "This cruel time must stop."

He seized the iron and held him fast
With pincers, in the midmost blaze,
A million sparks went million ways,
The cowhorn handle plied the blast.

"Burn, then," he cried; the fire was white,
The iron was whiter than the fire.
The fireblast made the embers twire,
The blacksmith's arm began to smite.

First vengeance for old pain, and then
Beginning hope of better things,
Then swordblades for the sides of Kings
And corselets for the breasts of men.

And crowns and such like joys and gems,
And stars of honour for the pure,
Jewels of honour to endure,
Beautiful women's diadems.

And coulters, sevenfold-twinned, to rend,
And girders to uphold the tower,
Harness for unimagined power,
New ships to make the billows bend,

And stores of fire-compelling things
By which men dominate and pierce
The iron-imprisoned universe
Where angels lie with banded wings.






Their Chief



Would God the route would come for home.
My God, this place, day after day,
A month of heavy march from Rome.
This camp, the troopers' huts of clay,
The horses tugging at their pins,
The roaring brook and then the whins
And nothing new to do or say.


They say the tribes are up.


Who knows?


Our scouts say that they saw their fires.


Well, if we fight it's only blows
And bogging horses in the mires.


Their raiders crossed the line last night,
Eastward from this, to raid the stud,
They stole our old chief's stallion, Kite.
He's in pursuit.


That looks like blood.


Well, better that than dicing here
Beside this everlasting stream.


My God, I was in Rome last year,
Under the sun, it seems a dream.


Things are not going well in Rome,
This frontier war is wasting men
Like water, and the Tartars come
In hordes.


We beat them back again.


So far we have, and yet I feel
The Empire is too wide a bow
For one land's strength.


The stuff's good steel.


Too great a strain may snap it though.
If we were ordered home. . . .


Good Lord . . .


If . . . Then our friends, the tribesmen there
Would have glad days.


This town would flare
To warm old Foxfoot and his horde.


We have not been forethoughtful here,
Pressing the men to fill the ranks
Centurions sweep the province clear.






We get no thanks.


We strip the men for troops abroad
And leave the women and the slaves
For merchants and their kind. The graves
Of half each province line the road.
These people could not stand a day
Against the tribes, with us away.






Here comes the Chief.


Sir, did your riders catch the thief?


No, he got clear and keeps the horse
But bad news always comes with worse.
The frontier's fallen, we're recalled,
Our army's broken, Rome's appalled,
My God, the whole world's in a blaze.
So now, we've done with idle days
Fooling on frontiers. Boot and start.
It gives a strange feel in the heart
To think that this, that Rome has made,
Is done with. Yes, the stock's decayed.
We march at once. You mark my words,
We're done, we're crumbled into sherds,
We shall not see this place again
When once we go.


Do none remain?


No, none, all march. Here ends the play.
March, and burn camp. The order's gone,
Your men have sent your baggage on.


My God, hark how the trumpets bray.


They do. You see the end of things.
The power of a thousand kings
Helped us to this, and now the power
Is so much hay that was a flower.


We have been very great and strong.


That's over now.


It will be long
Before the world will see our like.


We've kept these thieves beyond the dyke
A good long tune, here on the Wall.


Colonel, we ought to sound a call
To mark the end of this.


We ought.
Look. There's the hill top where we fought
Old Foxfoot. Look, there in the whin.
Old ruffian knave. Come on. Fall in.


Night is on the downland, on the lonely moorland,
On the hills where the wind goes over sheep-bitten turf,
Where the bent grass beats upon the unploughed poorland
And the pine woods roar like the surf.

Here the Roman lived on the wind-barren lonely,
Dark now and haunted by the moorland fowl;
None comes here now but the peewit only,
And moth-like death in the owl.

Beauty was here, on this beetle-droning downland;
The thought of a Cæsar in the purple came
From the palace by the Tiber in the Roman townland
To this wind-swept hill with no name.

Lonely Beauty came here and was here in sadness,
Brave as a thought on the frontier of the mind,
In the camp of the wild upon the march of madness,
The bright-eyed Queen of the blind.

Now where Beauty was are the wind-withered gorses
Moaning like old men in the hill-wind's blast,
The flying sky is dark with running horses
And the night is full of the past.



The fox came up by Stringer's Pound,
He smelt the south west warm on the ground,
From west to east a feathery smell
Of blood on the wing-quills tasting well.
A buck's hind feet thumped on the sod,
The whip-like grass snake went to clod,
The dog-fox put his nose in the air
To taste what food was wandering there.
Under the clover down the hill
A hare in form that knew his will.
Up the hill, the warren awake
And the badger shewing teeth like a rake.
Down the hill the two twin thorpes
Where the crying night owl waked the corpse,
And the moon on the stilly windows bright
Instead of a dead man's waking light.
The cock on his perch that shook his wing
When the clock struck for the chimes to ring,
A duck that muttered, a rat that ran
And a horse that stamped, remembering man.


Up on the downs the red-eyed kestrels hover
Eyeing the grass.
The field mouse flits like a shadow into cover
As their shadows pass.

Men are burning the gorse on the down's shoulder,
A drift of smoke
Glitters with fire and hangs, and the skies smoulder,
And the lungs choke.

Once the tribe did thus on the downs, on these downs, burning
Men in the frame,
Crying to the gods of the downs till their brains were turning
And the gods came.

And to-day on the downs, in the wind, the hawks, the grasses,
In blood and air,
Something passes me and cries as it passes,
On the chalk downland bare.


No man takes the farm,
Nothing grows there,
The ivy's arm
Strangles the rose there.

Old Farmer Kyrle
Farmed there the last;
He beat his girl;
(It's seven years past).

After market it was
He beat his girl;
He liked his glass,
Old Farmer Kyrle.

Old Kyrle's son
Said to his father,
"Now, dad, you ha' done,
I'll kill you rather.

"Stop beating sister
Or by God I'll kill you."
Kyrle was full of liquor.
Old Kyrle said, "Will you?"

Kyrle took his cobb'd stick
And beat his daughter.
He said, "I'll teach my chick
As a father oughter."

Young Will, the son,
Heard his sister shriek,
He took his gun
Quick as a streak.

He said, "Now, dad,
Stop, once for all."
He was a good lad,
Good at kicking the ball.

His father clubbed
The girl on the head.
Young Will upped
And shot him dead.

"Now, sister," said Will,
"I've a-killed father,
As I said I'd kill.
O my love, I'd rather

"A kill him again
Than see you suffer.
my little Jane,
Kiss goodbye to your brother.

I won't see you again,
Nor the cows homing,
Nor the mice in the grain,
Nor the primrose coming,

Nor the fair, nor folk,
Nor the summer flowers
Growing on the wold
Nor aught that's ours.

Not Tib the cat,
Not Stub the mare,
Nor old dog Pat
Never anywhere.

For I'll be hung
In Gloucester prison
When the bell's rung
And the sun's risen.


They hanged Will
As Will said,
With one thrill
They choked him dead.

Jane walked the wold
Like a grey gander;
All grown old
She would wander.

She died soon.
At high tide
At full moon
Jane died.

The brook chatters
As at first,
The farm it waters
Is accurst;

No man takes it,
Nothing grows there,
Blood straiks it,
A ghost goes there.


A hundred years ago, they quarried for the stone here;
The carts came through the wood by the track still plain;
The drills shew in the rock where the blasts were blown here,
They shew up dark after rain.

Then the last cart of stone went away through the wood,
To build the great house for some April of a woman,
Till her beauty stood in stone, as her man's thought made it good,
And the dumb rock was made human.

The house still stands, but the April of its glory
Is gone, long since, with the beauty that has gone,
She wandered away west, it is an old sad story,
It is best not talked upon.

And the man has gone, too, but the quarry that he made,
Whenever April comes as it came in old time,
Is a dear delight to the man who loves a maid,
For the primrose comes from the lime. . . .

And the blackbird builds below the catkin shaking
And the sweet white violets are beauty in the blood,
And daffodils are there, and the blackthorn blossom breaking
Is a wild white beauty in bud.


Here the legion halted, here the ranks were broken,
And the men fell out to gather wood,
And the green wood smoked, and bitter words were spoken,
And the trumpets called to food.

And the sentry on the rampart saw the distance dying
In the smoke of distance blue and far,
And heard the curlew calling and the owl replying
As the night came cold with one star;

And thought of home beyond, over moorland, over marshes,
Over hills, over the sea, across the plains, across the pass,
By a bright sea trodden by the ships of Tarshis,
The farm, with cicadæ in the grass.

And thought, as I, "Perhaps I may be done with living
To-morrow, when we fight. I shall see those souls no more.
O, beloved souls, be beloved in forgiving
The deeds and the words that make me sore."


We danced away care till the fiddler's eyes blinked,
And at supper, at midnight, our wine-glasses chinked,
Then we danced till the roses that hung round the wall
Were broken red petals that did rise and did fall
To the ever-turning couples of the bright-eyed and gay,
Singing in the midnight to dance care away.

Then the dancing died out and the carriages came,
And the beauties took their cloaks and the men did the same,
And the wheels crunched the gravel and the lights were turned down,
And the tired beauties dozed through the cold drive to town.

Nan was the belle and she married her beau,
Who drank, and then beat her, and she died long ago,
And Mary, her sister, is married and gone
To a tea planter's lodge, in the plains, in Ceylon.

And Dorothy's sons have been killed out in France,
And May lost her man in the August advance,
And Em, the man jilted, and she lives all alone
In the house of this dance which seems burnt in my bone.

Margaret and Susan and Marian and Phyllis
With red lips laughing and the beauty of lilies
And the grace of wild swans and a wonder of bright hair,
Dancing among roses with petals in the air.

All, all are gone, and Hetty's little maid
Is so like her mother that it makes me afraid.
And Rosalind's son, whom I passed in the street,
Clinked on the pavement with the spurs on his feet.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.

The author died in 1967, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.