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The Naked
Goddess

By James Thomson

Arcane danze
D'immortal piede i ruinosi gioghi
Scossero e l'ardue selve (oggi romito
Nido de' venti). LEOPARDI

THROUGH the country to the town
Ran a rumour and renown,
That a woman grand and tall,
Swift of foot, and therewithal
Naked as a lily gleaming,
Had been seen by eyes not dreaming,
Darting down far forest glades,
Flashing sunshine through the shades.

With this rumour's swelling word
All the city buzzed and stirred;
Solemn senators conferred;
Priest, astrologer, and mage,
Subtle sophist, bard, and sage,
Brought their wisdom, lore, and wit,
To expound or riddle it:
Last a porter ventured -- 'We
Might go out ourselves to see.'

Thus, upon a summer morn
Lo the city all forlorn;
Every house and street and square
In the sunshine still and bare,
Every galley left to sway
Silent in the glittering bay;
All the people swarming out,
Young and old a joyous rout,
Rich and poor, far-streaming through
Fields and meadows dark with dew,
Crowd on crowd, and throng on throng;
Chatter, laughter, jest, and song
Deafened all the singing birds,
Wildered sober grazing herds.

Up the hillside 'gainst the sun,
Where the forest outskirts run;
On along the level high,
Where the azure of the sky,
And the ruddy morning sheen,
Drop in fragments through the treen
Where the sward surrounds the brake
With a lucid, glassy lake,
Where the ample glades extend
Until clouds and foliage blend;
Where whoever turneth may
See the city and the bay,
And, beyond, the broad sea bright,
League on league of slanting light;
Where the moist blue shadows sleep
In the sacred forest deep.

Suddenly the foremost pause,
Ere the rear discern a cause;
Loiterers press up row on row,
All the mass heaves to and fro;
All seem murmuring in one strain,
All seem hearkening fixed and fain:
Silence, and the lifted light
Of countless faces gazing white.

Four broad beech-trees, great of bole,
Crowned the green, smooth-swelling knoll;
There She leant, the glorious form
Dazzling with its beauty warm,
Naked as the sun of noon,
Naked as the midnight moon:
And around her, tame and mild,
All the forest creatures wild --
Lion, panther, kid, and fawn,
Eagle, hawk, and dove, all drawn
By the magic of her splendour,
By her great voice, rich and tender,
Whereof every beast and bird
Understood each tone and word,
While she fondled and carest,
Playing freaks of joyous zest.

Suddenly the lion stood,
Turned and saw the multitude,
Swelled his mighty front in ire,
Roared the roar of raging fire:
Then She turned, the living light,
Sprang erect, grew up in height,
Smote them with the flash and blaze
Of her terrible, swift gaze;
A divine, flushed, throbbing form,
Dreadfuller than blackest storm.

All the forest creatures cowered,
Trembling, moaning, overpowered;
All the simple folk who saw
Sank upon their knees in awe
Of this Goddess, fierce and splendid,
Whom they witless had offended;
And they murmured out faint prayers,
Inarticulate despairs,
Till her haught and angry mien
Grew more gentle and serene.

Stood the high priest forth, and went
Halfway up the green ascent;
There began a preachment long
Of the great and grievous wrong
She unto her own soul wrought
In thus living without thought
Of the gods who sain and save,
Of the life beyond the grave:
Living with the beasts that perish,
Far from all the rites that cherish
Hope and faith and holy love,
And appease the thrones above:
Full of unction pled the preacher;
Let her come and they would teach her
Spirit strangled in the mesh
Of the vile and sinful flesh,
How to gain the heavenly prize,
How grow meet for Paradise;
Penance, prayer, self sacrifice,
Fasting, cloistered solitude,
Mind uplifted, heart subdued;
‘Thus a Virgin, clean and chaste,
In the Bridegroom's arms embraced.
Vestal sister's hooded gown,
Straight and strait, of dismal brown,
Here he proffered, and laid down
On the green grass like a frown.

Then stood forth the old arch-sage,
Wrinkled more with thought than age:
What could worse afflict, deject
Any well-trained intellect
Than in savage forest seeing
Such a full-grown human being
With the beasts and birds at play,
Ignorant and wild as they?
Sciences and arts, by which
Man makes Nature's poor life rich,
Dominates the world around,
Proves himself its King self-crowned,
She knew nothing of them, she
Knew not even what they be!
Body naked to the air,
And the reason just as bare!
Yet (since circumstance, that can
Hinder the full growth of man,
Cannot kill the seeds of worth
Innate in the Lord of Earth),
Yet she might be taught and brought
To full sovranty of thought,
Crowned with reason's glorious crown.
So he tendered and laid down,
Sober grey beside the brown,
Amplest philosophic gown.

Calm and proud she stood the while
With a certain wondering smile;
When the luminous sage was done
She begin to speak as one
Using language not her own,
Simplest words in sweetest tone:
'Poor old greybeards, worn and bent!
I do know not what they meant;
Only here and there a word
Reached my mind of all I heard;
Let some child come here, I may
Understand what it can say.'

So two little children went,
Lingering up the green ascent,
Hand in hand, but grew the while
Bolder in her gentle smile;
When she kissed them they were free,
Joyous as at mother’s knee.
'Tell me, darlings, now,' said she,
'What they want to say to me.'
Boy and girl then, nothing loth,
Sometimes one and sometimes both,
Prattled to her sitting there
Fondling with their soft young hair:
'Dear kind lady, do you stay
Here with always holiday?
Do you sleep among the trees?
People want you, if you please,
To put on your dress and come
With us to the City home;
Live with us and be our friend:
Oh, such pleasant times we'll spend! ...
But if you can't come away,
Will you let us stop and play
With you and all these happy things
With hair and horns and shining wings?'

She arose and went half down,
Took the vestal sister's gown,
Tried it on, burst through its shroud,
As the sun burns through a cloud:
Flung it from her split and rent;
Said: 'This cerement sad was meant
For some creature stunted, thin,
Breastless, blighted, bones and skin.'

Then the sage's robe she tried,
Muffling in its long folds wide
All her lithe and glorious grace:
'I should stumble every pace!
This big bag was meant to hold
Some poor sluggard fat and old,
Limping, shuffling wearily,
With a form not fit to see!'
So she flung it off again
With a gesture of disdain.

Naked as the midnight moon,
Naked as the sun of noon,
Burning too intensely bright,
Clothed in its own dazzling light;
Seen less thus than in the shroud
Of morning mist or evening cloud;
She stood terrible and proud
O'er the pallid quivering crowd.

At a gesture ere they wist,
Perched a falcon on her wrist,
And she whispered to the bird
Something it alone there heard;
Then she threw it off: when thrown
Straight it rose as falls a stone,
Arrow-swift on high, on high,
Till a mere speck in the sky;
Then it circled round and round,
Till, as if the prey were found,
Forth it darted on its quest
Straight away into the West....
Every eye that watched its flight
Felt a sideward flash of light,
All were for a moment dazed,
Then around intently gazed:
What had passed them?
Where was She,
The offended deity?
O'er the city, o'er the bay,
They beheld her melt away,
Melt away beyond their quest
Through the regions of the west;
While the eagle screamed rauque ire,
And the lion roared like fire.

That same night both priest and sage
Died accursed in sombre rage.
Never more in wild wood green
Was that glorious Goddess seen,
Never more: and from that day
Evil hap and dull decay
Fell on countryside and town;
Life and vigour dwindled down;
Storms in Spring nipped bud and sprout,
Summer suns shed plague and drought,
Autumn's store was crude and scant,
Winter snows beleaguered want;
Vines were black at vintage-tide,
Flocks and herds of murrain died;
Fishing boats came empty home,
Good ships foundered in the foam;
Haggard traders lost all heart
Wandering through the empty mart:
For the air hung thick with gloom,
Silence, and the sense of doom.

But those little children she
Had caressed so tenderly
Were betrothed that self-same night,
Grew up beautiful and bright,
Lovers through the years of play
Forward to their marriage-day.
Three long moons of bridal bliss
Overflowed them; after this,
With his bride and with a band
Of the noblest in the land,
Youths and maidens, wedded pairs
Scarcely older in life's cares,
He took ship and sailed away
Westward Ho from out the bay:
Portioned from their native shrine
With the Sacred Fire divine,
They will cherish while they roam,
Quintiles 'mid the salt sea foam,
Till it burns beneath a dome
In some new and far-off home.

As they ventured more and more
In that ocean without shore,
And some hearts were growing cold
At the emprise all too bold,
It is said a falcon came
Down the void blue swift as flame;
Every sunset came to rest
On the prow's high curving crest,
Every sunrise rose from rest
Flying forth into the west;
And they followed, faint no more,
Through that ocean without shore.

Three moons crescent fill and wane
O'er the solitary main,
When behold a green shore smile:
It was that Atlantic isle,
Drowned beneath the waves and years,
Whereof some faint shadow peers
Dubious through the modern stream
Of Platonic legend-dream.
High upon that green shore stood
She who left their native wood;
Glorious, and with solemn hand
Beckoned to them there to land.
Though She forthwith disappeared
As the wave-worn galley neared,
They knew well her presence still
Haunted stream and wood and hill.
There they landed, there grew great,
Founders of a mighty state:
There the Sacred Fire divine
Burned within a wondrous shrine
Which Her statue glorified
Throughout many kingdoms wide.
There those children wore the crown
To their children handed down
Many and many a golden age
Blotted now from history's page;
Till the last of all the line
Leagued him with the other nine
Great Atlantic kings whose hosts
Ravaged all the Mid Sea coasts:
Then the whelming deluge rolled
Over all those regions old;
Thrice three thousand years before
Solon questioned Egypt's lore.

1866-1867

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