Edward Shanks

Fête Galante

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Aristonoë, the fading shepherdess,
Gathers the young girls round her in a ring,
Teaching them wisdom of love,
What to say, how to dress,
How frown, how smile,
How suitors to their dancing feet to bring,
How in mere walking to beguile,
What words cunningly said in what a way
Will draw man's busy fancy astray,
All the alphabet, grammar and syntax of love.
The garden smells are sweet,
Daisies spring in the turf under the high-heeled feet,
Dense, dark banks of laurel grow
Behind the wavering row
Of golden, flaxen, black, brown, auburn heads,
Behind the light and shimmering dresses
Of these unreal, modern shepherdesses;
And gaudy flowers in formal patterned beds
Vary the dim long vistas of the park,
Far as the eye can see,
Till at the forest's edge the ground grows dark
And the flowers vanish in the obscurity.
The young girls gather round her,
Remembering eagerly how their fathers found her
Fresh as a spring-like wind in February,
Subtler in her moving heart than sun-motes that vary
At every waft of an opening and shutting door;
They gather chattering near,
Hush, break out in laughter, whisper aside,
Grow silent more and more,
Though she will never chide.
Now through the silence sounds her voice still clear,
And all give ear.
Like a silver thread through the golden afternoon,
Equably the voice discloses
All that age-old wisdom; like an endless tune
Aristonoë's voice wavers among the roses,
Level and unimpassioned,
Telling them how of nothing love is fashioned,
How it is but a movement of the mind,
Bidding Celia mark
That light skirts fluttering in the wind,
Or white flowers stuck in dark
Glistening hair, have fired the dull beholder,
Or telling Anais
That faint indifference ere now hath bred a kiss
Denied to flaunted snowy breast or shoulder.
The girls attend,
Each thinking on her friend,
Whether he be real or imaginary,
Whether he be loving or cold;
For each ere she grows old
Means to pursue her joy, and the whole unwary
Troop of their wishes has this wild quarry in cry,
That draws them ineluctably,
More and more as the summer slippeth by.
And Celia leans aside
To contemplate her balck-silked ankle on the grass;
In remote dreaming pride,
Rosalind recalls the image in her glass;
Phillis through all her body feels
How divine energy steals,
Quiescent power and resting speed,
Stretches her arms out, feels the warm blood run
Ready for pursuit, for strife and deed,
And turns her flowing face up to the sun.
Phillida smiles,
And lazily trusts her lazy wit,
A slow arrow that hath often hit;
Chloe, bemused by many subtle wiles,
Grows not more dangerous for all of it,
But opens her red lips, yawning drowsily,
And shows her small white teeth,
Dimpling the round chin beneath,
And stretches, moving her young body deliciously.
And still the lesson goes on,
For this is an old story that is never done;
And now the precept is of ribbon and shoe,
What with linens and silks love finds to do,
And how man's heart is tangled in a string
Or taken in gauze like a weak and helpless thing.
Chloe falls asleep; and the long summer day
Drifts slowly past the girls and the warm roses,
Giving in dreams its hours away.
Now Stella throws her head back, and Phillis disposes
Her strong brown hands quietly in her lap,
And Rose's slender feet grow restless and tap
The turf to an imaginary tune.
Now all this grace of youthful bodies and faces
Is wrought to a glow by the golden weather of June;
Now, Love, completing grace of all the graces,
Strong in these hearts thy pure streams rise,
Transmuting what they learn by heavenly alchemies,
Swift from the listeners the spell vanishes,
And through the tinkling, empty words,
True thoughts of true love press,
Flying and wheeling nearer;
As through a sunny sky a flock of birds
Against the throbbing blue grows clearer and clearer,
So closer come those thoughts and dearer.
Helen rises with a laugh;
Chloe wakes;
All the enchantment scatters off like chaff;
The cord is loosened and the spell breaks.
Rosalind
Resolves that to-night she will be kind to her lover,
Unreflecting, warm and kind.
Celia tells the lessons over,
Counting on her fingers -- one and two . . .
Ribbon and shoe,
Skirts, flowers, song, dancing, laughter, eyes . . .
Through the whole catalogue of formal gallantry
And studious coquetries,
Counting to herself maliciously.
But the old, the fading shepherdess, Aristonoë
Rises stiffly and walks alone
Down the broad path where densely the laurels grow,
And over a little lawn, not closely mown,
Where wave the flowering grass and the rich meadow-sweet.
She seems to talk painfully now and slow,
And drags a little on her high-heeled feet.
And stops at last below
An old and twisted plum-tree, whose last petal is gone,
Leans on the comfortable, rugged bole,
And stares through the green leaves at the drooping sun.
The tree and the warm light comfort her ageing soul.
The long day closes;
The last light fades in the amber sky;
Warm through the warm dusk glow the roses,
And a heavier shade drops slowly from the trees,
While through the garden as all colours die
The scents come livelier on the quickening breeze.
The world grows larger, vaguer, dimmer,
Over the dark laurels a few faint stars glimmer;
The moon, that was a pallid ghost,
Hung low on the horizon, faint and lost,
Comes up, a full and splendid golden round
By black and sharp-cut foliage overcrossed.
The girls laugh and whisper now with hardly a sound,
Till all sound vanishes, dispersed in the night,
Like a wisp of cloud that fades in the moon's light,
And the garden grows silent and the shadows grow
Deeper and blacker below
The mysteriously moving and murmuring trees,
That stand out darkly against the star-luminous sky;
Huge stand the trees,
Shadowy, whispering immensities,
That rain down quietude and darkness on heart and eyes.
None move, none speak, none sigh
But from the laurels comes a leaping voice
Crying in tones that seem not man's nor boy's,
But only joy's,
And hard behind a loud tumultuous crying,
A tangled skein of noise,
And the girls see their lovers come, each vying
Against the next in glad and confident poise,
Or softly moving
To the side of the chosen with gentle words and loving
Gifts for her pleasure of sweetmeats and jewelled toys.
Dear Love, whose strength no pedantry can stir,
Whether in thine iron enemies,
Or in thine own strayed follower
Bemused with subtleties and sophistries,
Now dost thou rule the garden, now
The gatherers' hands have grasped the scented bough.
Slow the sweet hours resolve, and one by one are aped.
The garden lieth empty. Overhead
A nightjar rustles by, wing touching wing,
And passes, uttering
His hoarse and whirring note.
The daylight birds long since are fled,
Nor has the moon yet touched the brown bird's throat,
All's quiet, all is silent, all around
The day's heat rises gently from the ground,
And still the broad moon travels up the sky,
Now glancing through the trees and now so high
That all the garden through her rays are shed,
And from the laurels one can just descry
Where in the distance looms enormously
The old house, with all its windows black and dead.

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Edward Shanks