Canto IX


Even as he heard the wicket clash behind
Came a great wind beneath that seemed to tear
The solid graves apart; and deaf and blind
Whirled him upright, like smoke, through towering air
Whose levels were as steps of a sky stair.
The parching cold roughened his throat with thirst
And pricked him at the heart. This was the first.


And as he soared into the next degree,
Suddenly all round him he could hear
Sad strings that fretted inconsolably
And ominous horns that blew both far and near.
There broke his human heart, and his last tear
Froze scalding on his chin. But while he heard
He shot like s sped dart into the third.


And its first stroke of silence could destroy
The spring of tears forever and compress
From off his lips the curved bow of the boy
Forever. The sidereal loneliness
Received him, where no journeying leaves the less
Still to be journeyed through: but everywhere,
Fast though you fly, the centre still is there.


And here the well-worn fabric of our life
Fell from him. Hope and purpose were cut short,
—Even the blind trust that reaches in mid-strife
Towards some heart of things. Here blew the mort
For the world spirit herself. The last support
Was fallen away⁠—Himself, one spark of soul,
Swam in unbroken void. He was the whole,


And wailing: “Why hast Thou forsaken me?
Was there no world at all, but only I
Dreaming of gods and men?” Then suddenly
He felt the wind no more: he seemed to fly
Faster than light but free, and scaled the sky
In his own strength⁠—as if a falling stone
Should wake to find the world’s will was its own.


And on the instant, straight before his eyes
He looked and saw a sentry shape that stood
Leaning upon its spear, with hurrying skies
Behind it and a moonset red as blood.
Upon its head were helmet and mailed hood,
And shield upon its arm and sword at thigh,
All black and pointed sharp against the sky.


Then came the clink of metal, the dry sound
Of steel on rock and challenge: “Who comes here?”
And as he heard it, Dymer at one bound
Stood in the stranger’s shadow, with the spear
Between them. And his human face came near
That larger face. “What watch is this you keep,”
Said Dymer, “on edge of such a deep?”


And answer came, “I watch both night and day
This frontier⁠ ⁠… there are beasts of the upper air
As beasts of the deep sea⁠ ⁠… one walks this way
Night after night, far scouring from his lair,
Chewing the cud of lusts which are despair
And fill not, while his mouth gapes dry for bliss
That never was.”⁠—“What kind of beast is this?”


“A kind of things escaped that have no home,
Hunters of men. They love the spring uncurled,
The will worn down, the wearied hour. They come
At night-time when the mask is off the world
And the soul’s gate ill-locked and the flag furled
—Then, softly, a pale swarm, and in disguise,
Flit past the drowsy watchman, small as flies.”


—“I’ll see this aerish beast whereof you speak.
I’ll share the watch with you.”⁠—“Nay, little One,
Begone. You are of earth. The flesh is weak⁠ ⁠…”
—“What is the flesh to me? My course is run,

All but some deed still waiting to be done,
Some moment I may rise on, as the boat
Lifts with the lifting tide and steals afloat.


“You are a spirit, and it is well with you,
But I am come out of great folly and shame,
The sack of cities, wrongs I must undo⁠ ⁠…
But tell me of the beast, and whence it came;
Who were its sire and dam? What is its name?”
—“It is my kin. All monsters are the brood
Of heaven and earth, and mixed with holy blood.”


—“How can this be?”⁠—“My son, sit here awhile.
There is a lady in that primal place
Where I was born, who with her ancient smile
Made glad the sons of heaven. She loved to chase
The springtime round the world. To all your race
She was a sudden quivering in the wood
Or a new thought springing in solitude.


“Till, in prodigious hour, one swollen with youth,
Blind from new-broken prison, knowing not
Himself nor her, nor how to mate with truth,
Lay with her in a strange and secret spot,
Mortal with her immortal, and begot
This walker-in-the-night.”⁠—“But did you know
This mortal’s name?”⁠—“Why⁠ ⁠… it was long ago.


“And yet, I think, I near the name in mind;
It was some famished boy whom tampering men
Had crippled in their chains and made him blind
Till their weak hour discovered them: and then
He broke that prison. Softly!⁠—it comes again,
I have it. It was Dymer, little One,
Dymer’s the name. This spectre is his son.”


Then, after silence, came an answering shout
From Dymer, glad and full: “Break off! Dismiss!
Your watch is ended and your lamp is out.
Unarm, unarm. Return into your bliss.
You are relieved, Sir. I must deal with this
As in my right. For either I must slay
This beast or else be slain before the day.”


“So mortal and so brave?” that other said,
Smiling, and turned and looked in Dymer’s eyes,
Scanning him over twice from heel to head
—Like an old sergeant’s glance, grown battle-wise
To know the points of men. At last, “Arise,”
He said, “and wear my arms. I can withhold
Nothing; for such an hour has been foretold.”


Thereat, with lips as cold as the sea-surge,
He kissed the youth, and bending on one knee
Put all his armour off and let emerge
Angelic shoulders marbled gloriously
And feet like frozen speed and, plain to see,
On his wide breast dark wounds and ancient scars,
The battle honours of celestial wars.


Then like a squire or brother born he dressed
The young man in those plates, that dripped with cold
Upon the inside, trickling over breast
And shoulder: but without, the figured gold
Gave to the tinkling ice its jagged hold,
And the icy spear froze fast to Dymer’s hand.
But where the other had stood he took his stand.


And searched the cloudy landscape. He could see
Dim shapes like hills appearing, but the moon
He sunk behind their backs. “When will it be?”
Said Dymer: and the other, “Soon now, soon.
For either he comes past us at night’s noon
Or else between the night and the full day,
And down there, on your left, will be his way.”


—“Swear that you will not come between us two
Nor help me by a hair’s weight if I bow.”
—“If you are he, if prophecies speak true,
Not heaven and all the gods can help you now.
This much I have been told, but know not how
The fight will end. Who knows? I cannot tell.”
“Sir, be content,” said Dymer. “I know well.”


Thus Dymer stood to arms, with eyes that ranged
Through aching darkness: stared upon it, so
That all things, as he looked upon them, changed
And were not as at first. But grave and slow
The larger shade went sauntering to and fro,
Humming at first the snatches of some tune
That soldiers sing, but falling silent soon.


Then came steps of dawn. And though they heard
No milking cry in the fields, and no cock crew,
And out of empty air no twittering bird
Sounded from neighbouring hedges, yet they knew.
Eastward the hollow blackness paled to blue,
Then blue to white: and in the West the rare,
Surviving stars blinked feebler in cold air.


For beneath Dymer’s feet the sad half-light
Discovering the new landscape oddly came,
And forms grown half familiar in the night
Looked strange again: no distance seemed the same.
And now he could see clear and call by name
Valleys and hills and woods. The phantoms all
Took shape, and made a world, at morning’s call.


It was a ruinous land. The ragged stumps
Of broken trees rose out of endless clay
Naked of flower and grass: the slobbered humps
Dividing the dead pools. Against the grey
A shattered village gaped. But now the day
Was very near them and the night was past,
And Dymer understood and spoke at last.


“Now I have wooed and won you, bridal earth,
Beautiful world that lives, desire of men.
All that the spirit intended at my birth
This day shall be born into deed⁠ ⁠… and then
The hard day’s labour comes no more again
Forever. The pain dies. The longings cease.
The ship glides under the green arch of peace.


“Now drink me as the sun drinks up the mist.
This is the hour to cease in, at full flood,
That asks no gift form following years⁠—but, hist!
Look yonder! At the corner of that wood⁠—
Look! Look there where he comes! It shocks the blood,
The first sight, eh? Now, sentinel, stand clear
And save yourself. For God’s sake come not near.”


His full-grown spirit had moved without command
Or spur of the will. Before he knew, he found
That he was leaping forward spear in hand
To where that ashen brute wheeled slowly round
Nosing, and set its ears towards the sounds,
The pale and heavy brute, rough-ridged behind,
And full of eyes, clinking in scaly rind.


And now ten paces parted them: and here
He halted. He thrust forward his left foot,
Poising his straightened arms, and launched the spear,
And gloriously it sang. But now the brute
Lurched forward: and he saw the weapon shoot
Beyond it and fall quivering on the field.
Dymer drew out his sword and raised the shield.


What now my friends? You get no more from me
Of Dymer. He goes from us. What he felt
Or saw from henceforth no man knows but he
Who has himself gone through the jungle belt
Of dying, into peace. That angel knelt
Far off and watched them close but could not see
Their battle. All was ended suddenly.


A leap⁠—a cry⁠—flurry of steel and claw,
Then silence. As before, the morning light
And the same brute crouched yonder; and he saw
Under its feet, broken and bent and white,
The ruined limbs of Dymer, killed outright
All in a moment, all his story done.
… But that same moment came the rising sun;


And thirty miles to westward, the grey cloud
Flushed into answering pink. Long shadows streamed
From every hill, and the low-hanging shroud
Of mist along the valleys broke and steamed
Gold-flecked to heaven. Far off the armour gleamed
Like glass upon the dead man’s back. But now
The sentinel ran forward, hand to brow.


And staring. For between him and the sun
He saw that country clothed with dancing flowers
Where flower had never grown; and one by one
The splintered woods, as if from April showers,
Were softening into green. In the leafy towers
Rose the cool, sudden chattering on the tongues
Of happy birds with morning in their lungs.


The wave of flowers came breaking round his feet,
Crocus and bluebell, primrose, daffodil
Shivering with moisture: and the air grew sweet
Within his nostrils, changing heart and will,
Making him laugh. He looked, and Dymer still
Lay dead among the flowers and pinned beneath
The brute: but as he looked he held his breath;


For when he had gazed hard with steady eyes
Upon the brute, behold, no brute was there,
But someone towering large against the skies,
A wing’d and sworded shaped, whose foam-like hair
Lay white about its shoulders, and the air
That came from it was burning hot. The whole
Pure body brimmed with life, as a full bowl.


And from the distant corner of day’s birth
He heard clear trumpets blowing and bells ring,
A noise of great good coming into earth
And such a music as the dumb would sing
If Balder had led back the blameless spring
With victory, with the voice of charging spears,
And in white lands long-lost Saturnian years.