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by Stephen Vincent Benet |


 My friend went to the piano; spun the stool 
A little higher; left his pipe to cool; 
Picked up a fat green volume from the chest; 
And propped it open. 
Whitely without rest, 
His fingers swept the keys that flashed like swords, 
. . . And to the brute drums of barbarian hordes, 
Roaring and thunderous and weapon-bare, 
An army stormed the bastions of the air! 
Dreadful with banners, fire to slay and parch, 
Marching together as the lightnings march, 
And swift as storm-clouds. Brazen helms and cars 
Clanged to a fierce resurgence of old wars 
Above the screaming horns. In state they passed, 
Trampling and splendid on and sought the vast -- 
Rending the darkness like a leaping knife, 
The flame, the noble pageant of our life! 
The burning seal that stamps man's high indenture 
To vain attempt and most forlorn adventure; 
Romance, and purple seas, and toppling towns, 
And the wind's valiance crying o'er the downs; 
That nerves the silly hand, the feeble brain, 
From the loose net of words to deeds again 
And to all courage! Perilous and sharp 
The last chord shook me as wind shakes a harp! 
. . . And my friend swung round on his stool, and from gods we were men, 
"How pretty!" we said; and went on with our talk again.

by Stephen Vincent Benet |

Love in Twilight

 There is darkness behind the light -- and the pale light drips 
Cold on vague shapes and figures, that, half-seen loom 
Like the carven prows of proud, far-triumphing ships -- 
And the firelight wavers and changes about the room, 

As the three logs crackle and burn with a small still sound; 
Half-blotting with dark the deeper dark of her hair, 
Where she lies, head pillowed on arm, and one hand curved round 
To shield the white face and neck from the faint thin glare. 

Gently she breathes -- and the long limbs lie at ease, 
And the rise and fall of the young, slim, virginal breast 
Is as certain-sweet as the march of slow wind through trees, 
Or the great soft passage of clouds in a sky at rest. 

I kneel, and our arms enlace, and we kiss long, long. 
I am drowned in her as in sleep. There is no more pain. 
Only the rustle of flames like a broken song 
That rings half-heard through the dusty halls of the brain. 

One shaking and fragile moment of ecstasy, 
While the grey gloom flutters and beats like an owl above. 
And I would not move or speak for the sea or the sky 
Or the flame-bright wings of the miraculous Dove!

by Stephen Vincent Benet |

Lonely Burial

 There were not many at that lonely place, 
Where two scourged hills met in a little plain. 
The wind cried loud in gusts, then low again. 
Three pines strained darkly, runners in a race 
Unseen by any. Toward the further woods 
A dim harsh noise of voices rose and ceased. 
-- We were most silent in those solitudes -- 
Then, sudden as a flame, the black-robed priest, 

The clotted earth piled roughly up about 
The hacked red oblong of the new-made thing, 
Short words in swordlike Latin -- and a rout 
Of dreams most impotent, unwearying. 
Then, like a blind door shut on a carouse, 
The terrible bareness of the soul's last house.

by Stephen Vincent Benet |

Going Back to School

 The boat ploughed on. Now Alcatraz was past 
And all the grey waves flamed to red again 
At the dead sun's last glimmer. Far and vast 
The Sausalito lights burned suddenly 
In little dots and clumps, as if a pen 
Had scrawled vague lines of gold across the hills; 
The sky was like a cup some rare wine fills, 
And stars came as he watched 
-- and he was free 
One splendid instant -- back in the great room, 
Curled in a chair with all of them beside 
And the whole world a rush of happy voices, 
With laughter beating in a clamorous tide. . . . 
Saw once again the heat of harvest fume 
Up to the empty sky in threads like glass, 
And ran, and was a part of what rejoices 
In thunderous nights of rain; lay in the grass 
Sun-baked and tired, looking through a maze 
Of tiny stems into a new green world; 
Once more knew eves of perfume, days ablaze 
With clear, dry heat on the brown, rolling fields; 
Shuddered with fearful ecstasy in bed 
Over a book of knights and bloody shields . . . 
The ship slowed, jarred and stopped. There, straight ahead, 
Were dock and fellows. Stumbling, he was whirled 
Out and away to meet them -- and his back 
Slumped to the old half-cringe, his hands fell slack; 
A big boy's arm went round him -- and a twist 
Sent shattering pain along his tortured wrist, 
As a voice cried, a bloated voice and fat, 
"Why it's Miss Nancy! Come along, you rat!"

by Stephen Vincent Benet |

Young Blood

 "But, sir," I said, "they tell me the man is like to die!" The Canon shook his head indulgently. "Young blood, Cousin," he boomed. "Young blood! Youth will be served!" 
-- D'Hermonville's Fabliaux. 

He woke up with a sick taste in his mouth 
And lay there heavily, while dancing motes 
Whirled through his brain in endless, rippling streams, 
And a grey mist weighed down upon his eyes 
So that they could not open fully. Yet 
After some time his blurred mind stumbled back 
To its last ragged memory -- a room; 
Air foul with wine; a shouting, reeling crowd 
Of friends who dragged him, dazed and blind with drink 
Out to the street; a crazy rout of cabs; 
The steady mutter of his neighbor's voice, 
Mumbling out dull obscenity by rote; 
And then . . . well, they had brought him home it seemed, 
Since he awoke in bed -- oh, damn the business! 
He had not wanted it -- the silly jokes, 
"One last, great night of freedom ere you're married!" 
"You'll get no fun then!" "H-ssh, don't tell that story! 
He'll have a wife soon!" -- God! the sitting down 
To drink till you were sodden! . . . 
Like great light 
She came into his thoughts. That was the worst. 
To wallow in the mud like this because 
His friends were fools. . . . He was not fit to touch, 
To see, oh far, far off, that silver place 
Where God stood manifest to man in her. . . . 
Fouling himself. . . . One thing he brought to her, 
At least. He had been clean; had taken it 
A kind of point of honor from the first . . . 
Others might do it . . . but he didn't care 
For those things. . . . 
Suddenly his vision cleared. 
And something seemed to grow within his mind. . . . 
Something was wrong -- the color of the wall -- 
The queer shape of the bedposts -- everything 
Was changed, somehow . . . his room. Was this his room? 

. . . He turned his head -- and saw beside him there 
The sagging body's slope, the paint-smeared face, 
And the loose, open mouth, lax and awry, 
The breasts, the bleached and brittle hair . . . these things. 
. . . As if all Hell were crushed to one bright line 
Of lightning for a moment. Then he sank, 
Prone beneath an intolerable weight. 
And bitter loathing crept up all his limbs.

by Stephen Vincent Benet |

Winged Man

 The moon, a sweeping scimitar, dipped in the stormy straits, 
The dawn, a crimson cataract, burst through the eastern gates, 
The cliffs were robed in scarlet, the sands were cinnabar, 
Where first two men spread wings for flight and dared the hawk afar. 

There stands the cunning workman, the crafty past all praise, 
The man who chained the Minotaur, the man who built the Maze. 
His young son is beside him and the boy's face is a light, 
A light of dawn and wonder and of valor infinite. 

Their great vans beat the cloven air, like eagles they mount up, 
Motes in the wine of morning, specks in a crystal cup, 
And lest his wings should melt apace old Daedalus flies low, 
But Icarus beats up, beats up, he goes where lightnings go. 

He cares no more for warnings, he rushes through the sky, 
Braving the crags of ether, daring the gods on high, 
Black 'gainst the crimson sunset, golden o'er cloudy snows, 
With all Adventure in his heart the first winged man arose. 

Dropping gold, dropping gold, where the mists of morning rolled, 
On he kept his way undaunted, though his breaths were stabs of cold, 
Through the mystery of dawning that no mortal may behold. 

Now he shouts, now he sings in the rapture of his wings, 
And his great heart burns intenser with the strength of his desire, 
As he circles like a swallow, wheeling, flaming, gyre on gyre. 

Gazing straight at the sun, half his pilgrimage is done, 
And he staggers for a moment, hurries on, reels backward, swerves 
In a rain of scattered feathers as he falls in broken curves. 

Icarus, Icarus, though the end is piteous, 
Yet forever, yea, forever we shall see thee rising thus, 
See the first supernal glory, not the ruin hideous. 

You were Man, you who ran farther than our eyes can scan, 
Man absurd, gigantic, eager for impossible Romance, 
Overthrowing all Hell's legions with one warped and broken lance. 

On the highest steeps of Space he will have his dwelling-place, 
In those far, terrific regions where the cold comes down like Death 
Gleams the red glint of his pinions, smokes the vapor of his breath. 

Floating downward, very clear, still the echoes reach the ear 
Of a little tune he whistles and a little song he sings, 
Mounting, mounting still, triumphant, on his torn and broken wings!

by Stephen Vincent Benet |

The White Peacock

 (France -- Ancient Regime.) 


Go away! 
Go away; I will not confess to you! 
His black biretta clings like a hangman's cap; under his twitching fingers the beads shiver and click, 
As he mumbles in his corner, the shadow deepens upon him; 
I will not confess! . . . 

Is he there or is it intenser shadow? 
Dark huddled coilings from the obscene depths, 
Black, formless shadow, 
Doors creak; from secret parts of the chateau come the scuffle and worry of rats. 

Orange light drips from the guttering candles, 
Eddying over the vast embroideries of the bed 
Stirring the monstrous tapestries, 
Retreating before the sable impending gloom of the canopy 
With a swift thrust and sparkle of gold, 
Lipping my hands, 
Rippling back abashed before the ominous silences 
Like the swift turns and starts of an overpowered fencer 
Who sees before him Horror 
Behind him darkness, 

The clock jars and strikes, a thin, sudden note like the sob of a child. 
Clock, buhl clock that ticked out the tortuous hours of my birth, 
Clock, evil, wizened dwarf of a clock, how many years of agony have you relentlessly measured, 
Yardstick of my stifling shroud? 

I am Aumaury de Montreuil; once quick, soon to be eaten of worms. 
You hear, Father? Hsh, he is asleep in the night's cloak. 

Over me too steals sleep. 
Sleep like a white mist on the rotting paintings of cupids and gods on the ceiling; 
Sleep on the carven shields and knots at the foot of the bed, 
Oozing, blurring outlines, obliterating colors, 

Father, Father, I must not sleep! 
It does not hear -- that shadow crouched in the corner . . . 
Is it a shadow? 
One might think so indeed, save for the calm face, yellow as wax, that lifts like the face of a drowned man from the choking darkness. 


Out of the drowsy fog my body creeps back to me. 
It is the white time before dawn. 
Moonlight, watery, pellucid, lifeless, ripples over the world. 
The grass beneath it is gray; the stars pale in the sky. 
The night dew has fallen; 
An infinity of little drops, crystals from which all light has been taken, 
Glint on the sighing branches. 
All is purity, without color, without stir, without passion. 

Suddenly a peacock screams. 

My heart shocks and stops; 
Sweat, cold corpse-sweat 
Covers my rigid body. 
My hair stands on end. I cannot stir. I cannot speak. 
It is terror, terror that is walking the pale sick gardens 
And the eyeless face no man may see and live! 
Father, Father, wake! wake and save me! 
In his corner all is shadow. 

Dead things creep from the ground. 
It is so long ago that she died, so long ago! 
Dust crushes her, earth holds her, mold grips her. 
Fiends, do you not know that she is dead? . . . 
"Let us dance the pavon!" she said; the waxlights glittered like swords on the polished floor. 
Twinkling on jewelled snuffboxes, beaming savagely from the crass gold of candelabra, 
From the white shoulders of girls and the white powdered wigs of men . . . 
All life was that dance. 
The mocking, resistless current, 
The beauty, the passion, the perilous madness -- 
As she took my hand, released it and spread her dresses like petals, 
Turning, swaying in beauty, 
A lily, bowed by the rain, -- 
Moonlight she was, and her body of moonlight and foam, 
And her eyes stars. 
Oh the dance has a pattern! 
But the clear grace of her thrilled through the notes of the viols, 
Tremulous, pleading, escaping, immortal, untamed, 
And, as we ended, 
She blew me a kiss from her hand like a drifting white blossom -- 
And the starshine was gone; and she fled like a bird up the stair. 

Underneath the window a peacock screams, 
And claws click, scrape 
Like little lacquered boots on the rough stone. 

Oh the long fantasy of the kiss; the ceaseless hunger, ceaselessly, divinely appeased! 
The aching presence of the beloved's beauty! 
The wisdom, the incense, the brightness! 

Once more on the ice-bright floor they danced the pavon 
But I turned to the garden and her from the lighted candles. 
Softly I trod the lush grass between the black hedges of box. 
Softly, for I should take her unawares and catch her arms, 
And embrace her, dear and startled. 

By the arbor all the moonlight flowed in silver 
And her head was on his breast. 
She did not scream or shudder 
When my sword was where her head had lain 
In the quiet moonlight; 
But turned to me with one pale hand uplifted, 
All her satins fiery with the starshine, 
Nacreous, shimmering, weeping, iridescent, 
Like the quivering plumage of a peacock . . . 
Then her head drooped and I gripped her hair, 
Oh soft, scented cloud across my fingers! -- 
Bending her white neck back. . . . 

Blood writhed on my hands; I trod in blood. . . . 
Stupidly agaze 
At that crumpled heap of silk and moonlight, 
Where like twitching pinions, an arm twisted, 
Palely, and was still 
As the face of chalk. 

The buhl clock strikes. 
Thirty years. Christ, thirty years! 
Agony. Agony. 

Something stirs in the window, 
Shattering the moonlight. 
White wings fan. 
Father, Father! 

All its plumage fiery with the starshine, 
Nacreous, shimmering, weeping, iridescent, 
It drifts across the floor and mounts the bed, 
To the tap of little satin shoes. 
Gazing with infernal eyes. 
Its quick beak thrusting, rending, devil's crimson . . . 
Screams, great tortured screams shake the dark canopy. 
The light flickers, the shadow in the corner stirs; 
The wax face lifts; the eyes open. 

A thin trickle of blood worms darkly against the vast red coverlet and spreads to a pool on the floor.

by Stephen Vincent Benet |

The Quality of Courage

 Black trees against an orange sky, 
Trees that the wind shook terribly, 
Like a harsh spume along the road, 
Quavering up like withered arms, 
Writhing like streams, like twisted charms 
Of hot lead flung in snow. Below 
The iron ice stung like a goad, 
Slashing the torn shoes from my feet, 
And all the air was bitter sleet. 

And all the land was cramped with snow, 
Steel-strong and fierce and glimmering wan, 
Like pale plains of obsidian. 
-- And yet I strove -- and I was fire 
And ice -- and fire and ice were one 
In one vast hunger of desire. 
A dim desire, of pleasant places, 
And lush fields in the summer sun, 
And logs aflame, and walls, and faces, 
-- And wine, and old ambrosial talk, 
A golden ball in fountains dancing, 
And unforgotten hands. (Ah, God, 
I trod them down where I have trod, 
And they remain, and they remain, 
Etched in unutterable pain, 
Loved lips and faces now apart, 
That once were closer than my heart -- 
In agony, in agony, 
And horribly a part of me. . . . 
For Lethe is for no man set, 
And in Hell may no man forget.) 

And there were flowers, and jugs, bright-glancing, 
And old Italian swords -- and looks, 
A moment's glance of fire, of fire, 
Spiring, leaping, flaming higher, 
Into the intense, the cloudless blue, 
Until two souls were one, and flame, 
And very flesh, and yet the same! 
As if all springs were crushed anew 
Into one globed drop of dew! 
But for the most I thought of heat, 
Desiring greatly. . . . Hot white sand 
The lazy body lies at rest in, 
Or sun-dried, scented grass to nest in, 
And fires, innumerable fires, 
Great fagots hurling golden gyres 
Of sparks far up, and the red heart 
In sea-coals, crashing as they part 
To tiny flares, and kindling snapping, 
Bunched sticks that burst their string and wrapping 
And fall like jackstraws; green and blue 
The evil flames of driftwood too, 
And heavy, sullen lumps of coke 
With still, fierce heat and ugly smoke. . . . 
. . . And then the vision of his face, 
And theirs, all theirs, came like a sword, 
Thrice, to the heart -- and as I fell 
I thought I saw a light before. 

I woke. My hands were blue and sore, 
Torn on the ice. I scarcely felt 
The frozen sleet begin to melt 
Upon my face as I breathed deeper, 
But lay there warmly, like a sleeper 
Who shifts his arm once, and moans low, 
And then sinks back to night. Slow, slow, 
And still as Death, came Sleep and Death 
And looked at me with quiet breath. 
Unbending figures, black and stark 
Against the intense deeps of the dark. 
Tall and like trees. Like sweet and fire 
Rest crept and crept along my veins, 
Gently. And there were no more pains. . . . 

Was it not better so to lie? 
The fight was done. Even gods tire 
Of fighting. . . . My way was the wrong. 
Now I should drift and drift along 
To endless quiet, golden peace . . . 
And let the tortured body cease. 

And then a light winked like an eye. 
. . . And very many miles away 
A girl stood at a warm, lit door, 
Holding a lamp. Ray upon ray 
It cloaked the snow with perfect light. 
And where she was there was no night 
Nor could be, ever. God is sure, 
And in his hands are things secure. 
It is not given me to trace 
The lovely laughter of that face, 
Like a clear brook most full of light, 
Or olives swaying on a height, 
So silver they have wings, almost; 
Like a great word once known and lost 
And meaning all things. Nor her voice 
A happy sound where larks rejoice, 
Her body, that great loveliness, 
The tender fashion of her dress, 
I may not paint them. 
These I see, 
Blazing through all eternity, 
A fire-winged sign, a glorious tree! 

She stood there, and at once I knew 
The bitter thing that I must do. 
There could be no surrender now; 
Though Sleep and Death were whispering low. 
My way was wrong. So. Would it mend 
If I shrank back before the end? 
And sank to death and cowardice? 
No, the last lees must be drained up, 
Base wine from an ignoble cup; 
(Yet not so base as sleek content 
When I had shrunk from punishment) 
The wretched body strain anew! 
Life was a storm to wander through. 
I took the wrong way. Good and well, 
At least my feet sought out not Hell! 
Though night were one consuming flame 
I must go on for my base aim, 
And so, perhaps, make evil grow 
To something clean by agony . . . 
And reach that light upon the snow . . . 
And touch her dress at last . . . 
So, so, 
I crawled. I could not speak or see 
Save dimly. The ice glared like fire, 
A long bright Hell of choking cold, 
And each vein was a tautened wire, 
Throbbing with torture -- and I crawled. 
My hands were wounds. 
So I attained 
The second Hell. The snow was stained 
I thought, and shook my head at it 
How red it was! Black tree-roots clutched 
And tore -- and soon the snow was smutched 
Anew; and I lurched babbling on, 
And then fell down to rest a bit, 
And came upon another Hell . . . 
Loose stones that ice made terrible, 
That rolled and gashed men as they fell. 
I stumbled, slipped . . . and all was gone 
That I had gained. Once more I lay 
Before the long bright Hell of ice. 
And still the light was far away. 
There was red mist before my eyes 
Or I could tell you how I went 
Across the swaying firmament, 
A glittering torture of cold stars, 
And how I fought in Titan wars . . . 
And died . . . and lived again upon 
The rack . . . and how the horses strain 
When their red task is nearly done. . . . 

I only know that there was Pain, 
Infinite and eternal Pain. 
And that I fell -- and rose again. 

So she was walking in the road. 
And I stood upright like a man, 
Once, and fell blind, and heard her cry . . . 
And then there came long agony. 
There was no pain when I awoke, 
No pain at all. Rest, like a goad, 
Spurred my eyes open -- and light broke 
Upon them like a million swords: 
And she was there. There are no words. 

Heaven is for a moment's span. 
And ever. 
So I spoke and said, 
"My honor stands up unbetrayed, 
And I have seen you. Dear . . ." 
Sharp pain 
Closed like a cloak. . . . 
I moaned and died. 

Here, even here, these things remain. 
I shall draw nearer to her side. 

Oh dear and laughing, lost to me, 
Hidden in grey Eternity, 
I shall attain, with burning feet, 
To you and to the mercy-seat! 
The ages crumble down like dust, 
Dark roses, deviously thrust 
And scattered in sweet wine -- but I, 
I shall lift up to you my cry, 
And kiss your wet lips presently 
Beneath the ever-living Tree. 

This in my heart I keep for goad! 
Somewhere, in Heaven she walks that road. 
Somewhere . . . in Heaven . . . she walks . . . that . . . road. . . .

by Stephen Vincent Benet |

The Lover in Hell

 Eternally the choking steam goes up 
From the black pools of seething oil. . . . 
How merry 
Those little devils are! They've stolen the pitchfork 
From Bel, there, as he slept . . . Look! -- oh look, look! 
They've got at Nero! Oh it isn't fair! 
Lord, how he squeals! Stop it . . . it's, well -- indecent! 
But funny! . . . See, Bel's waked. They'll catch it now! 

. . . Eternally that stifling reek arises, 
Blotting the dome with smoky, terrible towers, 
Black, strangling trees, whispering obscene things 
Amongst their branches, clutching with maimed hands, 
Or oozing slowly, like blind tentacles 
Up to the gates; higher than that heaped brick 
Man piled to smite the sun. And all around 
Are devils. One can laugh . . . but that hunched shape 
The face one stone, like those Assyrian kings! 
One sees in carvings, watching men flayed red 
Horribly laughable in leaps and writhes; 
That face -- utterly evil, clouded round 
With evil like a smoke -- it turns smiles sour! 
. . . And Nero there, the flabby cheeks astrain 
And sweating agony . . . long agony . . . 
Imperishable, unappeasable 
For ever . . . well . . . it droops the mouth. Till I 
Look up. 
There's one blue patch no smoke dares touch. 
Sky, clear, ineffable, alive with light, 
Always the same . . . 
Before, I never knew 
Rest and green peace. 
She stands there in the sun. 
. . . It seems so quaint she should have long gold wings. 
I never have got used -- folded across 
Her breast, or fluttering with fierce, pure light, 
Like shaken steel. Her crown too. Well, it's queer! 
And then she never cared much for the harp 
On earth. Here, though . . . 
She is all peace, all quiet, 
All passionate desires, the eloquent thunder 
Of new, glad suns, shouting aloud for joy, 
Over fresh worlds and clean, trampling the air 
Like stooping hawks, to the long wind of horns, 
Flung from the bastions of Eternity . . . 
And she is the low lake, drowsy and gentle, 
And good words spoken from the tongues of friends, 
And calmness in the evening, and deep thoughts, 
Falling like dreams from the stars' solemn mouths. 
All these. 
They said she was unfaithful once. 
Or I remembered it -- and so, for that, 
I lie here, I suppose. Yes, so they said. 
You see she is so troubled, looking down, 
Sorrowing deeply for my torments. I 
Of course, feel nothing while I see her -- save 
That sometimes when I think the matter out, 
And what earth-people said of us, of her, 
It seems as if I must be, here, in heaven, 
And she -- 
. . . Then I grow proud; and suddenly 
There comes a splatter of oil against my skin, 
Hurting this time. And I forget my pride: 
And my face writhes. 
Some day the little ladder 
Of white words that I build up, up, to her 
May fetch me out. Meanwhile it isn't bad. . . . 

But what a sense of humor God must have!

by Stephen Vincent Benet |

The Innovator

 (A Pharaoh Speaks.) 

I said, "Why should a pyramid 
Stand always dully on its base? 
I'll change it! Let the top be hid, 
The bottom take the apex-place!" 
And as I bade they did. 

The people flocked in, scores on scores, 
To see it balance on its tip. 
They praised me with the praise that bores, 
My godlike mind on every lip. 
-- Until it fell, of course. 

And then they took my body out 
From my crushed palace, mad with rage, 
-- Well, half the town WAS wrecked, no doubt -- 
Their crazy anger to assuage 
By dragging it about. 

The end? Foul birds defile my skull. 
The new king's praises fill the land. 
He clings to precept, simple, dull; 
HIS pyramids on bases stand. 
But -- Lord, how usual!