Canto IV


First came the peal that split the heavens apart
Straight overhead. Then silence. Then the rain;
Twelve miles of downward water like one dart,
And in one leap were launched along the plain,
To break the budding flower and flood the grain,
And keep with dripping sound an undersong
Amid the wheeling thunder all might long.


He put his hands before his face. He stooped,
Blind with his hair. The loud drops’ grim tattoo
Beat him to earth. Like summer grass he drooped,
Amazed, while sheeted lightning large and blue
Blinked wide and pricked and quivering eyeball through.
Then, scrambling to his feet, with downward head
He fought into the tempest as chance led.


The wood was mad. Soughing of branch and straining
Was there: drumming of water. Light was none,
Nor knowledge of himself. The trees’ complaining
And his own throbbing heart seemed mixed in one,
One sense of bitter loss and beauty undone;
All else was blur and chaos and rain-stream
And noise and the confusion of a dream.


Aha!⁠ ⁠… Earth hates a miserable man:
Against him even the clouds and winds conspire.
Heaven’s voice smote Dymer’s ear-drum as he ran,
Its red throat plagued the dark with corded fire
—Barbed flame, coiled flame that ran like living wire
Charged with disastrous current, left and right
About his path, hell-blue or staring white.


Stab! Stab! Blast all at once. What’s he to fear?
Look there⁠—that cedar shrivelling in swift blight
Even where he stood! And there⁠—ah, that came near!
Oh, if some shaft would break his soul outright,
What ease so to unload and scatter quite
On the darkness this wild beating in his skull
Too burning to endure, too tense and full.


All lost: and driven away: even her name
Unknown. O fool, to have wasted for a kiss
Time when they could have talked! An angry shame
Was in him. He had worshipt earth, and this
—The venomed clouds fire spitting from the abyss,
This was the truth indeed, the world’s intent
Unmasked and naked now, the thing it meant.


The storm lay on the forest a great time
—Wheeled in its thundery circuit, turned, returned.
Still through the dead-leaved darkness, through the slime
Of standing pools and slots of clay storm-churned
Went Dymer. Still the knotty lightning burned
Along black air. He heard the unbroken sound
Of water rising in the hollower ground.


He cursed it in his madness, flung it back,
Sorrow as wild as young men’s sorrows are,
Till, after midnight, when the tempest’s track
Drew off, between two clouds appeared one star.
Then his mood changed. And this was heavier far,
When bit by bit, rarer and still more rare,
The weakening thunder ceased from the cleansed air;


When the leaves began to drip with dying rain
And trees showed black against the glimmering sky,
When the night-birds flapped out and called again
Above him: when the silence cool and shy
Came stealing to its own, and streams ran by
Now audible amid the rustling wood
—Oh, then came the worst hour for flesh and blood.


It was no nightmare now with fiery stream
Too horrible to last, able to blend
Itself and all things in one hurrying dream;
It was the waking world that will not end
Because hearts break, that is not foe nor friend,
Where sane and settled knowledge first appears
Of work-day desolation, with no tears.


He halted then, foot-sore, weary to death,
And heard his heart beating in solitude,
When suddenly the sound of sharpest breath
Indrawn with pain and the raw smell of blood
Surprised his sense. Near by to where he stood
Came a long whimpering moan⁠—a broken word,
A rustle of leaves where some live body stirred.


He groped towards the sound. “What, brother, brother,
Who groaned?”⁠—“I’m hit. I’m finished. Let me be.”
—“Put out your hand, then. Reach me. No, the other.”
—“Don’t touch. Fool! Damn you! Leave me.”⁠—“I can’t see.
Where are you?” Then more groans. “They’ve done for me.
I’ve no hands, Don’t come near me. No, but stay,
Don’t leave me⁠ ⁠… O my God! Is it near day?”


—“Soon now, a little longer. Can you sleep?
I’ll watch for you.”⁠—“Sleep, is it? That’s ahead,
But none till then. Listen: I’ve bled too deep
To last out till the morning. I’ll be dead
Within the hour⁠—sleep then. I’ve heard it said
They don’t mind at the last, but this is Hell.
If I’d the strength⁠—I have such things to tell.”


All trembling in the dark and sweated over
Like a man reared in peace, unused to pain,
Sat Dymer near him in the lightless cover,
Afraid to touch and shamefaced to refrain.
Then bit by bit and often checked again
With agony the voice told on. (The place
Was dark, that neither saw the other’s face.)


“There is a City which men call in scorn
The Perfect City⁠—eastward of this wood⁠—
You’ve heard about the place. There I was born.
I’m one of them, their work. Their sober mood,
The ordered life, the laws, are in my blood
—A life⁠ ⁠… well, less than happy, something more
Than the red greed and lusts that went before.


“All in one day, one man an at one blow
Brought ruin on us all. There was a boy
—Blue eyes, large limbs, were all he had to show,
You need no greater prophets to destroy.
He seemed a man asleep. Sorrow and joy
Had passed him by⁠—the dreamiest, safest man,
The most obscure, until this curse began.


“Then⁠—how or why it was, I cannot say⁠—
This Dymer, this fool baby pink-and-white,
Went mad beneath his quiet face. One day,
With nothing said, he rose and laughed outright
Before his master: then, in all our sight,
Even where we sat to watch, he struck him dead
And screamed with laughter once again and fled.


“Lord! how it all comes back. How still the place is,
And he there lying dead⁠ ⁠… only the sound
Of a bluebottle buzzing⁠ ⁠… sharpened faces
Strained, gaping from the benches all around⁠ ⁠…
The dead man hunched and quiet with no wound,
And minute after minute terror creeping
With dreadful hopes to set the wild heart leaping.


“Then one by one at random (no word spoken)
We slipt out to the sunlight and away.
We felt the empty sense of something broken
And comfortless adventure all that day.
Men loitered at their work and could not say
What trembled at their lips or what new light
Was in girls’ eyes. Yet we endured till night.


“Then⁠ ⁠… I was lying awake in bed,
Shot through with tremulous thought, lame hopes, and sweet
Desire of reckless days⁠—with burning head.
And then there came a clamour from the street,
Came nearer, nearer, nearer⁠—stamping feet
And screaming song and curses and a shout
Of ‘Who’s for Dymer, Dymer?⁠—Up and out!’


“We looked out from our window. Thronging there
A thousand of our people, girls and men,
Raved and reviled and shouted by the glare
Of torches and bonfire blaze, And then
Came tumult from the street beyond: again
‘Dymer!’ they cried. And farther off there came
The sound of gun-fire and the gleam of flame.


“I rushed down with the rest. Oh, we were mad!
After this, it’s all nightmare. The black sky
Between the housetops framed was all we had
To tell us that the old world could not die
And that we were no gods. The flood ran high
When first I came, but after was the worse,
Oh, to recall⁠ ⁠… ! On Dymer rest the curse!


“Our leader was a hunchback with red hair
—Bran was his name. He had that kind of force
About him that will hold your eyes fast there
As in ten miles of green one patch of gorse
Will hold them⁠—do you know? His lips were coarse,
But his eyes like a prophet’s⁠—seemed to fill
The whole face. And his tongue was never still.


“He cried: ‘As Dymer broke, we’ll break the chain.
The world is free. They taught you to be chaste
And labour and bear orders and refrain.
Refrain? From what? All’s good enough. We’ll taste
Whatever is. Life murmurs from the waste
Beneath the mind⁠ ⁠… who made the reasoning part
The jailer of the wild gods in the heart?’


“We were a ragtail crew⁠—wild-haired, half-dressed,
All shouting, ‘Up, for Dymer! Up away!’
Yet each one always watching all the rest
And looking to his back. And some were gay
Like drunk man, some were cringing, pinched and grey
With terror dry on the lip. (The older ones
Had had the sense enough to bring their guns.)


“The wave where I was swallowed swelled and broke,
After long surge, into the open square.
And here there was more light: new clamour woke.
Here first I heard the bullets sting the air
And went hot round the heart. Our lords were there
In barricade with all their loyal men.
For every one man loyal Bran led ten.


“Then charge and cheer and bubbling sobs of death,
We hovered on their front. Like swarming bees
Their spraying bullets came⁠—no time for breath.
I saw men’s stomachs fall out on their knees;
And shouting faces, while they shouted, freeze
Into black, bony masks. Before we knew
We’re into them⁠ ⁠… ‘Swine!’⁠—‘Die, then’⁠—‘That’s for you.’


“The next that I remember was a lull
And sated pause. I saw an old, old man
Lying before my feet with shattered skull,
And both my arms dripped red. And then came Bran
And at his heels a hundred murderers ran,
With prisoners now, clamouring to take and try them
And burn them, wedge their nails up, crucify them.


“God!⁠ ⁠… Once the lying spirit of a cause
With maddening words dethrones the mind of men,
They’re past the reach of prayer. The eternal laws
Hate them. Their eyes will not come clean again,
But doom and strong delusion drive them then,
Without ruth, without rest⁠ ⁠… the iron laughter
Of the immortal mouths goes hooting after.


“And we had firebrands too. Tower after tower
Fell sheathed in thundering flame. The street was like
A furnace mouth. We had them in our power!
Then was the time to mock them and to strike,
To flay men and spit women on the pike,
Bidding them dance. Wherever the most shame
Was done the doer called on Dymer’s name.


“Faces of men in torture⁠ ⁠… from my mind
They will not go away. The East lay still
In darkness when we left the town behind
Flaming to light the fields. We’d had our will:
We sang, ‘Oh, we will make the frost distil
From Time’s grey forehead into living dew
And break whatever has been and build new.’


“Day found us on the border of this wood,
Blear-eyed and pale. Then the most part began
To murmur and to lag, crying for food
And shelter. But we dared not answer Bran.
Wherever in the ranks the murmur ran
He’d find it⁠—‘You, there, whispering. Up, you sneak,
Reactionary, eh? Come out and speak.’


“Then there’d be shrieks, a pistol shot, a cry,
And someone down. I was the third he caught.
The others pushed me out beneath his eye,
Saying, ‘He’s here; here, Capture.’ Who’d have thought⁠—
My old friends? But I know now. I’ve been taught⁠ ⁠…
They cut away my two hands and my feet
And laughed and left me for the birds to eat.


“Oh, God’s name! If I had my hands again
And Dymer here⁠ ⁠… it would not be my blood.
I am stronger now than he is, old with pain,
One grip would make him mine. But it’s no good,
I’m dying fast. Look stranger, where the wood
Grows lighter. It’s the morning. Stranger dear,
Don’t leave me. Talk a little while. Come near.”


But Dymer, sitting hunched with knee to chin,
Close to the dying man, answered no word.
His face was stone. There was no meaning in
His wakeful eyes. Sometimes the other stirred
And fretted, near his death; and Dymer heard,
Yet sat like one that neither hears nor sees.
And the cold East whitened beyond the trees.