George Meredith

The Shipwreck Of Idomeneus

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Swept from his fleet upon that fatal night
When great Poseidon's sudden-veering wrath
Scattered the happy homeward-floating Greeks
Like foam-flakes off the waves, the King of Crete
Held lofty commune with the dark Sea-god.
His brows were crowned with victory, his cheeks
Were flushed with triumph, but the mighty joy
Of Troy's destruction and his own great deeds
Passed, for the thoughts of home were dearer now,
And sweet the memory of wife and child,
And weary now the ten long, foreign years,
And terrible the doubt of short delay -
More terrible, O Gods! he cried, but stopped;
Then raised his voice upon the storm and prayed.
O thou, if injured, injured not by me,
Poseidon! whom sea-deities obey
And mortals worship, hear me! for indeed
It was our oath to aid the cause of Greece,
Not unespoused by Gods, and most of all
By thee, if gentle currents, havens calm,
Fair winds and prosperous voyage, and the Shape
Impersonate in many a perilous hour,
Both in the stately councils of the Kings,
And when the husky battle murmured thick,
May testify of services performed!
But now the seas are haggard with thy wrath,
Thy breath is tempest! never at the shores
Of hostile Ilium did thy stormful brows
Betray such fierce magnificence! not even
On that wild day when, mad with torch and glare,
The frantic crowds with eyes like starving wolves
Burst from their ports impregnable, a stream
Of headlong fury toward the hissing deep;
Where then full-armed I stood in guard, compact
Beside thee, and alone, with brand and spear,
We held at bay the swarming brood, and poured
Blood of choice warriors on the foot-ploughed sands!
Thou, meantime, dark with conflict, as a cloud
That thickens in the bosom of the West
Over quenched sunset, circled round with flame,
Huge as a billow running from the winds
Long distances, till with black shipwreck swoln,
It flings its angry mane about the sky.
And like that billow heaving ere it burst;
And like that cloud urged by impulsive storm
With charge of thunder, lightning, and the drench
Of torrents, thou in all thy majesty
Of mightiness didst fall upon the war!
Remember that great moment! Nor forget
The aid I gave thee; how my ready spear
Flew swiftly seconding thy mortal stroke,
Where'er the press was hottest; never slacked
My arm its duty, nor mine eye its aim,
Though terribly they compassed us, and stood
Thick as an Autumn forest, whose brown hair,
Lustrous with sunlight, by the still increase
Of heat to glowing heat conceives like zeal
Of radiance, till at the pitch of noon
'Tis seized with conflagration and distends
Horridly over leagues of doom'd domain;
Mingling the screams of birds, the cries of brutes,
The wail of creatures in the covert pent,
Howls, yells, and shrieks of agony, the hiss
Of seething sap, and crash of falling boughs
Together in its dull voracious roar.
So closely and so fearfully they throng'd,
Savage with phantasies of victory,
A sea of dusky shapes; for day had passed
And night fell on their darkened faces, red
With fight and torchflare; shrill the resonant air
With eager shouts, and hoarse with angry groans;
While over all the dense and sullen boom,
The din and murmur of the myriads,
Rolled with its awful intervals, as though
The battle breathed, or as against the shore
Waves gather back to heave themselves anew.
That night sleep dropped not from the dreary skies,
Nor could the prowess of our chiefs oppose
That sea of raging men. But what were they?
Or what is man opposed to thee? Its hopes
Are wrecks, himself the drowning, drifting weed
That wanders on thy waters; such as I
Who see the scattered remnants of my fleet,
Remembering the day when first we sailed,
Each glad ship shining like the morning star
With promise for the world. Oh! such as I
Thus darkly drifting on the drowning waves.
O God of waters! 'tis a dreadful thing
To suffer for an evil unrevealed;
Dreadful it is to hear the perishing cry
Of those we love; the silence that succeeds
How dreadful! Still my trust is fixed on thee
For those that still remain and for myself.
And if I hear thy swift foam-snorting steeds
Drawing thy dusky chariot, as in
The pauses of the wind I seem to hear,
Deaf thou art not to my entreating prayer!
Haste then to give us help, for closely now
Crete whispers in my ears, and all my blood
Runs keen and warm for home, and I have yearning,
Such yearning as I never felt before,
To see again my wife, my little son,
My Queen, my pretty nursling of five years,
The darling of my hopes, our dearest pledge
Of marriage, and our brightest prize of love,
Whose parting cry rings clearest in my heart.
O lay this horror, much-offended God!
And making all as fair and firm as when
We trusted to thy mighty depths of old, -
I vow to sacrifice the first whom Zeus
Shall prompt to hail us from the white seashore
And welcome our return to royal Crete,
An offering, Poseidon, unto thee!

Amid the din of elemental strife,
No voice may pierce but Deity supreme:
And Deity supreme alone can hear,
Above the hurricane's discordant shrieks,
The cry of agonized humanity.

Not unappeased was He who smites the waves,
When to his stormy ears the warrior's vow
Entered, and from his foamy pinnacle
Tumultuous he beheld the prostrate form,
And knew the mighty heart. Awhile he gazed,
As doubtful of his purpose, and the storm,
Conscious of that divine debate, withheld
Its fierce emotion, in the luminous gloom
Of those so dark irradiating eyes!
Beneath whose wavering lustre shone revealed
The tumult of the purpling deeps, and all
The throbbing of the tempest, as it paused,
Slowly subsiding, seeming to await
The sudden signal, as a faithful hound
Pants with the forepaws stretched before its nose,
Athwart the greensward, after an eager chase;
Its hot tongue thrust to cool, its foamy jaws
Open to let the swift breath come and go,
Its quick interrogating eyes fixed keen
Upon the huntsman's countenance, and ever
Lashing its sharp impatient tail with haste:
Prompt at the slightest sign to scour away,
And hang itself afresh by the bleeding fangs,
Upon the neck of some death-singled stag,
Whose royal antlers, eyes, and stumbling knees
Will supplicate the Gods in mute despair.
This time not mute, nor yet in vain this time!
For still the burden of the earnest voice
And all the vivid glories it revoked
Sank in the God, with that absorbed suspense
Felt only by the Olympians, whose minds
Unbounded like our mortal brain, perceive
All things complete, the end, the aim of all;
To whom the crown and consequence of deeds
Are ever present with the deed itself.

And now the pouring surges, vast and smooth,
Grew weary of restraint, and heaved themselves
Headlong beneath him, breaking at his feet
With wild importunate cries and angry wail;
Like crowds that shout for bread and hunger more.
And now the surface of their rolling backs
Was ridged with foam-topt furrows, rising high
And dashing wildly, like to fiery steeds,
Fresh from the Thracian or Thessalian plains,
High-blooded mares just tempering to the bit,
Whose manes at full-speed stream upon the winds,
And in whose delicate nostrils when the gust
Breathes of their native plains, they ramp and rear,
Frothing the curb, and bounding from the earth,
As though the Sun-god's chariot alone
Were fit to follow in their flashing track.
Anon with gathering stature to the height
Of those colossal giants, doomed long since
To torturous grief and penance, that assailed
The sky-throned courts of Zeus, and climbing, dared
For once in a world the Olympic wrath, and braved
The electric spirit which from his clenching hand
Pierces the dark-veined earth, and with a touch
Is death to mortals, fearfully they grew!
And with like purpose of audacity
Threatened Titanic fury to the God.
Such was the agitation of the sea
Beneath Poseidon's thought-revolving brows,
Storming for signal. But no signal came.
And as when men, who congregate to hear
Some proclamation from the regal fount,
With eager questioning and anxious phrase
Betray the expectation of their hearts,
Till after many hours of fretful sloth,
Weary with much delay, they hold discourse
In sullen groups and cloudy masses, stirred
With rage irresolute and whispering plot,
Known more by indication than by word,
And understood alone by those whose minds
Participate;--even so the restless waves
Began to lose all sense of servitude,
And worked with rebel passions, bursting, now
To right, and now to left, but evermore
Subdued with influence, and controlled with dread
Of that inviolate Authority.
Then, swiftly as he mused, the impetuous God
Seized on the pausing reins, his coursers plunged,
His brows resumed the grandeur of their ire;
Throughout his vast divinity the deeps
Concurrent thrilled with action, and away,
As sweeps a thunder-cloud across the sky
In harvest-time, preluded by dull blasts;
Or some black-visaged whirlwind, whose wide folds
Rush, wrestling on with all 'twixt heaven and earth,
Darkling he hurried, and his distant voice,
Not softened by delay, was heard in tones
Distinctly terrible, still following up
Its rapid utterance of tremendous wrath
With hoarse reverberations; like the roar
Of lions when they hunger, and awake
The sullen echoes from their forest sleep,
To speed the ravenous noise from hill to hill
And startle victims; but more awful, He,
Scudding across the hills that rise and sink,
With foam, and splash, and cataracts of spray,
Clothed in majestic splendour; girt about
With Sea-gods and swift creatures of the sea;
Their briny eyes blind with the showering drops;
Their stormy locks, salt tongues, and scaly backs,
Quivering in harmony with the tempest, fierce
And eager with tempestuous delight; -
He like a moving rock above them all
Solemnly towering while fitful gleams
Brake from his dense black forehead, which display'd
The enduring chiefs as their distracted fleets
Tossed, toiling with the waters, climbing high,
And plunging downward with determined beaks,
In lurid anguish; but the Cretan king
And all his crew were 'ware of under-tides,
That for the groaning vessel made a path,
On which the impending and precipitous waves
Fell not, nor suck'd to their abysmal gorge.

O, happy they to feel the mighty God,
Without his whelming presence near: to feel
Safety and sweet relief from such despair,
And gushing of their weary hopes once more
Within their fond warm hearts, tired limbs, and eyes
Heavy with much fatigue and want of sleep!
Prayers did not lack; like mountain springs they came,
After the earth has drunk the drenching rains,
And throws her fresh-born jets into the sun
With joyous sparkles;--for there needed not
Evidence more serene of instant grace,
Immortal mercy! and the sense which follows
Divine interposition, when the shock
Of danger hath been thwarted by the Gods,
Visibly, and through supplication deep, -
Rose in them, chiefly in the royal mind
Of him whose interceding vow had saved.
Tears from that great heroic soul sprang up;
Not painful as in grief, nor smarting keen
With shame of weeping; but calm, fresh, and sweet;
Such as in lofty spirits rise, and wed
The nature of the woman to the man;
A sight most lovely to the Gods! They fell
Like showers of starlight from his steadfast eyes,
As ever towards the prow he gazed, nor moved
One muscle, with firm lips and level lids,
Motionless; while the winds sang in his ears,
And took the length of his brown hair in streams
Behind him. Thus the hours passed, and the oars
Plied without pause, and nothing but the sound
Of the dull rowlocks and still watery sough,
Far off, the carnage of the storm, was heard.
For nothing spake the mariners in their toil,
And all the captains of the war were dumb:
Too much oppressed with wonder, too much thrilled
By their great chieftain's silence, to disturb
Such meditation with poor human speech.
Meantime the moon through slips of driving cloud
Came forth, and glanced athwart the seas a path
Of dusky splendour, like the Hadean brows,
When with Elysian passion they behold
Persephone's complacent hueless cheeks.
Soon gathering strength and lustre, as a ship
That swims into some blue and open bay
With bright full-bosomed sails, the radiant car
Of Artemis advanced, and on the waves
Sparkled like arrows from her silver bow
The keenness of her pure and tender gaze.

Then, slowly, one by one the chiefs sought rest;
The watches being set, and men to relieve
The rowers at midseason. Fair it was
To see them as they lay! Some up the prow,
Some round the helm, in open-handed sleep;
With casques unloosed, and bucklers put aside;
The ten years' tale of war upon their cheeks,
Where clung the salt wet locks, and on their breasts
Beards, the thick growth of many a proud campaign;
And on their brows the bright invisible crown
Victory sheds from her own radiant form,
As o'er her favourites' heads she sings and soars.
But dreams came not so calmly; as around
Turbulent shores wild waves and swamping surf
Prevail, while seaward, on the tranquil deeps,
Reign placid surfaces and solemn peace,
So, from the troubled strands of memory, they
Launched and were tossed, long ere they found the tides
That lead to the gentle bosoms of pure rest.
And like to one who from a ghostly watch
In a lone house where murder hath been done,
And secret violations, pale with stealth
Emerges, staggering on the first chill gust
Wherewith the morning greets him, feeling not
Its balmy freshness on his bloodless cheek, -
But swift to hide his midnight face afar,
'Mongst the old woods and timid-glancing flowers
Hastens, till on the fresh reviving breasts
Of tender Dryads folded he forgets
The pallid witness of those nameless things,
In renovated senses lapt, and joins
The full, keen joyance of the day, so they
From sights and sounds of battle smeared with blood,
And shrieking souls on Acheron's bleak tides,
And wail of execrating kindred, slid
Into oblivious slumber and a sense
Of satiate deliciousness complete.

Leave them, O Muse, in that so happy sleep!
Leave them to reap the harvest of their toil,
While fast in moonlight the glad vessel glides,
As if instinctive to its forest home.
O Muse, that in all sorrows and all joys,
Rapturous bliss and suffering divine,
Dwellest with equal fervour, in the calm
Of thy serene philosophy, albeit
Thy gentle nature is of joy alone,
And loves the pipings of the happy fields,
Better than all the great parade and pomp
Which forms the train of heroes and of kings,
And sows, too frequently, the tragic seeds
That choke with sobs thy singing,--turn away
Thy lustrous eyes back to the oath-bound man!
For as a shepherd stands above his flock,
The lofty figure of the king is seen,
Standing above his warriors as they sleep:
And still as from a rock grey waters gush,
While still the rock is passionless and dark,
Nor moves one feature of its giant face,
The tears fall from his eyes, and he stirs not.

And O, bright Muse! forget not thou to fold
In thy prophetic sympathy the thought
Of him whose destiny has heard its doom:
The Sacrifice thro' whom the ship is saved.
Haply that Sacrifice is sleeping now,
And dreams of glad tomorrows. Haply now,
His hopes are keenest, and his fervent blood
Richest with youth, and love, and fond regard!
Round him the circle of affections blooms,
And in some happy nest of home he lives,
One name oft uttering in delighted ears,
Mother! at which the heart of men are kin
With reverence and yearning. Haply, too,
That other name, twin holy, twin revered,
He whispers often to the passing winds
That blow toward the Asiatic coasts;
For Crete has sent her bravest to the war,
And multitudes pressed forward to that rank,
Men with sad weeping wives and little ones.
That other name--O Father! who art thou,
Thus doomed to lose the star of thy last days?
It may be the sole flower of thy life,
And that of all who now look up to thee!
O Father, Father! unto thee even now
Fate cries; the future with imploring voice
Cries 'Save me,' 'Save me,' though thou hearest not.
And O thou Sacrifice, foredoomed by Zeus;
Even now the dark inexorable deed
Is dealing its relentless stroke, and vain
Are prayers, and tears, and struggles, and despair!
The mother's tears, the nation's stormful grief,
The people's indignation and revenge!
Vain the last childlike pleading voice for life,
The quick resolve, the young heroic brow,
So like, so like, and vainly beautiful!
Oh! whosoe'er ye are the Muse says not,
And sees not, but the Gods look down on both.

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George Meredith