Orion/Book II/Canto I

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BENEATH a tree, whose heaped-up burthen swayed
In the high wind, and made a hustling sound,
As of a distant host that scale a hill,
Autarces and Encolyon gravely sat.
Sometimes they spake aloud, then murmured low,
Then paused as if perplexed,—looked round and snuffed
The odour of wood-fires in the fresh forest air,—
And then again addressed them to their theme.
Of cloudy-brained Orion they discoursed,
Lost to companionship, and led by dreams.

    "Once," said Autarces, "he was great on earth;
A worker in iron, and a hunter fleet
Who oft ran down the stag; when, by some chance,
He pleaseth Artemis, and in her train,
All his high worth resigning, and his friends,
Dwindles to suit her fancy, and becomes
A giant of lost mind." Encolyon thrust
His heavy heel into the soil, and spake
With serious gesture. "Ever Orion sought
Some new device, some hateful onward deed
Through strange ways hurrying, scorning wise delay.
A victim fell he soon to Artemis
And her cold spells, for of his Ocean-sire
Orion's soul hath many a headlong tide.
But most of all her gleamy illusions fell
Upon his mind, which soon became a maze
For ghostly wanderings, and wild echoes heard
Through mists; and none could comprehend his speech."

    "Methought the orgie had recalled his sense,
So fairly he bespake us to the mirth;
So full and giant-like was his disport
Throughout the night," Autarces now rejoined.
Encolyon raised one hand:—"That orgie's waste
Of energies," he murmured, "and the hours
Far better given to rest, I much deplore.
Why joined I in the mirth?—how was I lost!
But when a regulated mind sedate,
Its perfect poise permits to waver aside
One tittle, certainly the man must fall
Somewhat in dignity, howe'er retrieved.
Hence, when a regulated"—Here his speech
Autarces interrupted hastily,
Since, for his share, no self-reproach felt he.
"I say the orgie, and his high disport,
Shewed in Orion some return to sense:
And when next morn I saw him near a brook,
Where I had stooped to drink—by him unseen—
Down ran he like a panther close pursued,
Then stopped and listened—now looked up on high—
Now stared into the brook as he would drink,
And drain its ripplings to the last white stone—
Then went away forgetful. This methought,
E'en by its wildness and its strenuous throes,
Savoured of hope, and of his safe return
To corporal sense, by shaking off these nets
Of moon-beams from his soul; but when I rose
And crossed his path, and bade him speak to me,
Again 'twas all of vapour and dark thoughts,
Unlike the natural thoughts of bone and thews,
As we of yore were taught, and found enough
For all our needs, and for our songs and prayers.
Yet had he, as it seemed, some plan within,
And ever tended to some central point
In some place—nought more could I understand:
Wherefore I deem that he is surely mad."
"And so deem I,"—rejoined Encolyon:
"Ever advancing—working a new way—
Tasking his heart, forgetful of his life
And present good—of madness the sure sign."

    While thus they talked, Harpax with speed approached,
Shouting his tidings—"Merope loves Orion—
Orion hath gone mad for Merope!"
The twain who had erewhile the cause discerned,
And signs of reason's loss, at this fresh news,
So little dreamed-of from his recent mood,
A minute looked each other in the face
With sheep-like gravity, then backward sank
Against the tree, loud laughing. "This were good,"
Checking his laughter with a straight-lined face,
Encolyon said, "if not too deeply burning,
And that a power within himself he hold
To pause at will." But Harpax quick rejoined,
" I, for myself, would have this Merope,
And force Œnopion render up his crown,
If ye will aid me." "We will give our aid,"
Autarces cried—"and yet methinks this love
Affecting doubly, as by the self-same blow,
Might from some spells in the orgie-fumes arise?
Ye marked, wise Akinetos would not move."
"Doubtless 'twas wise," Encolyon said, "More care
Befits our steps." They rose and strode away.

    There is a voice that floats upon the breeze
From a heathed mountain; voice of sad lament
For love left desolate ere its fruits were known,
Yet by the memory of its own truth sweetened,
If not consoled. To this Orion listens
Now, while he stands within the mountain's shade.

    "The scarf of gold you sent to me, was bright
As any streak on cloud or sea, when morn
Or sun-set light most lovely strives to be.
But that delicious hour can come no more,
When, on the wave-lulled shore, mutely we sat,
And felt love's power, which melted in fast dews
Our being and our fate, as doth a shower
Deep foot-marks left upon a sandy moor.
We thought not of our mountains and our streams,
Our birth-place, and the home of our life's date,
But only of our dreams—and heaven's blest face.
Never renew thy vision, passionate lover—
Heart-rifled maiden—nor the hope pursue,
If once it vanish from thee; but believe
'Tis better thou shouldst rue this sweet loss ever
Than newly grieve, or risk another chill
On false love's icy river, which betraying
With mirrors bright to see, and voids beneath,
Its broken spell should find no faith in thee."

    Thus sang a gentle Oread who had loved
A River-god with gold-reflecting streams,
But found him all too cold—while yet she stood
Scarce ankle-deep—and droopingly retired
To sing of fond hopes past. Orion's hand
A jewelled armlet held, whereon his eyes
Earnestly rested. By a lovely boy,
To him 'twas smiling brought while he reclined
Desponding, o'er a rock. "This gift, still warm,
My mistress sends thee, giant son of Ocean,
Once having seen thee in the hunting train
Of Artemis. Her name, if thou wouldst know,
'Tis Merope, daughter of Chios' king,
The proud Œnopion, lord of an hundred ships."

    Orion to the palace of the king
Forthwith departed. Merope once seen,
His eyes resign their clear external power,
And see through feeling, utterly possessed
With her rare image; and his deep desire,
Deeper by energies so long confused,
When half his earth-born nature was subdued,
Struggled, and bounded onward to the goal.

    Her beauty awed the common race of men.
Hers was a shape made for a serpent dance,
Which charmed to stillness and to burning dreams,
But she herself the illusive charm o'er-ruled
As doth an element, merging for a time,
Ne'er lost; and none could steadily confront
Her sphynx-like bosom, and high watchful head.
Dark were her eyes, and beautiful as Death's,
With a mysterious meaning, such as lurks
In that pale Ecstasy, the Queen of Shades.
All deemed her passion was a mortal flame,
Volcanic, corporal, ending with its hour
Of sacrifice, dissolving in fine air;
Save one bald sage, who said that human nerves,
And what they wrought, were wondrous as the mind,
And in the eye of Zeus none could decide
Which held the higher place. For, to the nerves
Perfect abstraction and pure bliss belonged,
As parent of all life, and might in death
Continuance through some subtler medium find,—
Whence, life renewed, and heaven at length attained.

    Nought of this sage's lore recked Merope,
And, for Orion, he of thought was sick,
Save that which round his present object played
Delicious gambols and high phantasies.
Together they, the groves and templed glades
That, like old Twilight's vague and gleamy abode,
Hung vision-like around the palace towers,
Roved, mute with passion's inward eloquence.
They loitered near the founts that sprang elate
Into the dazzled air, or pouring rolled
A crystal torrent into oval shapes
Of grey-veined marble; and oft gazed within
Profoundly tranquil and secluded pools,
Whose lovely depths of mirrored blackness clear—
Oblivion's lucid-surfaced mystery—
Their earnest faces and enraptured eyes
Visibly, and to each burning heart, revealed.
"And art thou mine to the last gushing drop
Of these high throbbing veins?" each visage said.
Orion straightway to Œnopion sped,
And his life's service to the gloomy king
He proffered for the hand of Merope.

    Œnopion strode about his pillared hall,
And the dun chequers of its marble floor
Counted perplexed, while pondering his reply.
Orion's strength and giant friends he feared;
Nor to accept the alliance, nor refuse,
Seemed wise. Thereto, Poseidon's empire rolled
Too near, and might surround his towers with waves;
Wherefore the king a double face assumed.
"Orion, I consent," mildly he said:
"Thy service I accept, and to thee give,
When thou shalt have performed it, Merope.
Clear me our Chios of its savage beasts,
Dragon and hippogrif, wolves, serpents dire,
Within six days, and Merope is thine."

    Through the high palace gates Orion passed,
Speeding to seek strong aid for this hard task
Among his forest friends. Old memories
Slumbrously hung above the purple line
Of distance, to the east, while odorously
Glistened the tear-drops of a new-fallen shower;
And sun-set forced its beams through strangling boughs,
Gilding green shadows, till it blazed athwart
The giant-caves, and touched with watery fires
The heavy foot-marks which had plashed the sward
On vacant paths, through foliaged vistas steep,
Where gloom was mellowing to a grand repose.
At intervals, as from beneath the ground,
Far in the depth of these primeval cells,
Low respirations came. There, in great shade,
The giants sleep. Lost sons are they of Time.

    There is no hour when rest is sacred held
By him who works and builds; and eve and night,
Alike with day, his toil oftimes will claim.
"Awake companions! 'tis Orion calls!"
And straight the giants rose, and came to him,
Save Akinetos, into whose low cave
They with a torch now entered, there to hold
The conference, for he was very wise,
And ne'er proposed, nor did a thing that failed.

    Orion's tale is told; Autarces then
For Merope proposed the lots to draw,
Whereat Orion glared,—but speech refrained
When Harpax fiercely on Autarces turned
With loud reproach, since he had sworn to him
Far different purpose; so Orion smiled,
And of Rhexergon and Biastor sought
Aid in his heavy task. They promised this—
When each one, by an arm, Encolyon
Grasped, and reminded of the darkness. "Night
Is the fit time," Orion cried, "to dig
The pitfalls, throw up mounds with bristling stakes
At top, as barriers, and the nets and toils
Fix and prepare, and choose our clubs and spears."
But still Encolyon urged a day's delay,
For dignity of movements thus combined,
If not for need. To Akinetos now
All turned with reverence, waiting the result
Of silent wisdom and of calm profound;
But from these small things he had long withdrawn
His godlike mind, and was again abstract.

    Orion took the torch, and led the way
Into the dark damp air. Each to his post
Assigning; one, for the chief mountain pass,
Soon as the grey dawn touched the highest peaks;
One, in the plains below; two, for the woods;
The while Biastor and himself would range
The island, driving to the centre all
That should escape their spears. 'Twas thus resolved.
Meantime Rhexergon and Biastor joined
Orion, who went forth to dig the pits,
Break down high tops of trees, and weave their boughs
In barrier walls, and fix sharp stakes on mounds
And river banks. When they were gone, a yell,
Mocking the wild beasts doomed to be destroyed,
Harpax sent forth. "Mine be the task," he said,
"To ravage the King's pastures—slay his bulls—
And into our own woods and meadows drive
His goats and stags." "Rather collect alive,"
Autarces interposed, "with strong-meshed nets,
All the mad beasts, and loose them suddenly
Within Œnopion's palace! That were sport
Worthy our toil; small joy for us to aid
Orion's freaks for love of Merope,—
Whom yet, methinks, he wisely hath preferred
To crystal-bosomed, wintry Artemis,—
Pale huntress, exiled from our sunny woods,
Had my will power—" "But all her nymphs detained,
And, like our vines, deep rifled through their leaves
Of golden fruit"—Harpax rejoined: "Or placed,"
Encolyon slowly muttered to himself,
"On pedestals, until they changed to stone,"—
"As votive statues to the Goddess famed
For cruel purity and marble heart—"
Autarces shouted, looking up on high.

    All this heard Artemis, who o'er the caves
Rolled her faint orb before the coming dawn,
In lonely sadness; and with an inward cry
Of jealous anguish and of vengeful ire,
Like an electric spark that knows not space,
Shot from her throne into the eastern heaven.