The Human Music

A poem by John Frederick Freeman

At evening when the aspens rustled soft
And the last blackbird by the hedge-nest laughed,
And through the leaves the moon's unmeaning face
Looked, and then rose in dark-blue leafless space;
Watching the trees and moon she could not bear
The silence and the presence everywhere.
The blackbird called the silence and it came
Closing and closing round like smoke round flame.
Into her heart it crept and the heart was numb,
Even wishes died, and all but fear was dumb--
Fear and its phantoms. Then the trees were enlarged,
And from their roundness unguessed shapes emerged,
Or no shape but the image of her fear
Creeping forth from her mind and hovering near.
If a bat flitted it was an evil thing;
Sadder the trees grew with every shadowy wing--
Their shape enlarged, their arms quivered, their thought
Stirring in the leaves a silent anguish wrought.
"What are they thinking of, the evil trees,
Nod-nodding, standing in malignant ease?
Something against man's mortal heart was sworn
Once, when their dark Powers were conceived and born;
And in such fading or such lightless hours
The world is delivered to these plotting Powers."
No physical swift blow she dreaded, not
Lightning's quick mercy; but her heart grew hot
And cold and hot with uncomprehended sense
Of an assassin spiritual influence
Moving in the unmoving trees....
Till, as she stared,
Her eyes turned cowards at last, and no more dared.
Yet could she never rise and shut the door:
Perhaps those Powers would batter at the door,
And that were madness. So right through the house
She set the doors all wide when she could arouse
The body's energy to serve the mind.
Then the air would move, and any little wind
Would cleanse awhile the darkness and diminish
Her fear, and the dumb shadow-war would finish.

But it was not the trees, the birds, the moon;
Birds cease, months fly, green seasons wither soon:
Nature was constant all the seasons through,
Sinister, watchful, and a thick cloud drew
Over the mind when its simplicity
Challenged what seemed with thought of what must be....
She wondered, seeing how a child could play
Lightly in a shady field all day:
For in that golden, brief, benignant weather
When spring and summer calling run together
And the sun's fresh and hot, she saw deep guile
In the sweetness of that unconditioned smile.
Sweetness not sweetness was but indifference
Or wantonness disguised, to her grave sense;
And if she could have seen the things she felt
She'd looked for darkness, and lit shapes that knelt
Appealing, unregarded, at a high
Altar uprising from the pit to the sky....
Had the trees consciousness, with flowers and clouds
And winds that hung like thin clouds in the woods,
And stars and silence:--had they each a mind
Bending on hers, clear eyes on her eyes blind?
In the green dense heights--elm, oak, ash, yew or beech
She scarce saw--was there not a brain in each,
An undiscovered centre of quick nerves
By which (like man) the tree lives, masters, serves,
Waxes and wanes? Oppressed her mind would shrink
From thought, and into her trembling body sink.

Something of this had childhood taught her when
Sickly she lay and peered again and again
At gray skies and white skies and void bright blue,
And watched the sun the bare town-tree boughs through,
And then through leafy boughs and once more bare.
Or in the west country's heavy hill-drawn air
Had felt the green grass pushing within her veins,
Tangling and strangling: and the warm spring rains
Tapping all night upon her childish head:
She shivered, lying lonely on her bed,
With all that life all round and she so weak,
Longing to speak--yet what was there to speak?
And as she grew and health came and love came
And life was happier, happier, still the same
Inhuman spirit rose whenever she
Held in her thoughts more than her eyes could see.
Behind the happiest hours the dark cloud hung
Distant or nearing, and its dullness flung
On the south meadows of her thought, the fairest
Shrinking in shadow; aspirations rarest
Falling, like shot birds in a reedy fen,
Slain by the old Enemy of men.
Life ebbed while men strove for the means of life;
The grudging earth turned labour into strife.
The moving hosts within the heavy clod
Seemed infinite in malice; frost and flood,
Season and inter-season, were conspired
In smiling or sour mockery; and untired
And undelighted, man scratched and scratched on,
And what he did, by Nature was undone.
She saw men twisted more than rocks or trees,
Bruised, numbed, by age and labour and the disease
Of labour in the cold fields; women worn
By many child-bearings, and their self-scorn
Because of time and their lost woman's powers.
Bitter was Nature to women; for those hours
Of the spirit's and the body's first delight
Passed soon, and the long day, evening, night
Of life uncherished; bitterest when even
That brief hour was denied, of dancing heaven,
Dewy love, and fulfilled desires.
But age
Of all ills made her pity and anger rage.
To see and smell the calm months bud and bloom,
April's first warmth, June's hues and slow perfume,
The sweetness drifting by in those long hours
While, out of her she nursed, the vital powers
Were pressed by pain and pressed by pain renewed,
Till, closing the life-long vicissitude,
Came starving death with full-heaped summer, and
Wrung the last pangs that spirit could withstand ...
Or to see age in its prison slowly freeze
With impotence more disastrous than disease,
While trees flowered on, or all the winter through
Upheld brave arms and with spring flowered anew
Above those living graves and graves of the dead;--
'Twas all such bitterness, but she nothing said.
She saw men as courageous boats that sailed
On all the seas, and some a far port hailed
Perhaps to sail again, or anchor there
Forever; some would quietly disappear
In stormless waters, and some in storms be broken
And all be hidden and no clear meaning spoken,
Nor any trace upon the waters linger.
Where the boat went the wind with hasty finger,
Savage and sly as aught of land could be,
Erased the little wrinkling of the sea.
O, in such enmity was man enisled,
Such loneliness, by foolish shades beguiled,
That it was bravery to see and live,
But cowardice to see and to forgive,
The wrong of evil, the wrong of death to life,
The defeat of innocence, the waste of strife,--
The heavy ills of time, injustice, pain--
In field and forest and flood rose huge and plain,
Brushing her mind with darkness, till she thought
Not with her brain, but all her nerves were wrought
Into an apprehension burning strong,
Unslackening, of mortality's old wrong.
But if her eyes she raised to those clear lonely
Altitudes of stars and ether only,
Her eyes fell and rebuked her as forbidden
With human mind to question what was hidden.
At summer dusk the broad moon rising high
Put gentleness in the vast strength of the sky,
Easing its weight; or the hot summer sun
Made noonday kind, and the hours lightly run.
But in those blazing midnights of the stars
Gathered and brightening for immortal wars
With spears and darts and arrows of sharp light,
She read the indifference of the infinite,
The high strife flashing through eternity
While on the earth stared mortals but as she.

O 'twas a living world that rose around
And in her sentience burned a hollow wound.
Such easy brightness as the poets see,
Or easy gloom, or hues of faerie,
She never saw, but into her own heart peered
To find what spirit indeed it was she feared:--
Whether in antique days a divine foe
Sprung branchlike from dense woods had wrought her woe;
Whether in antique days a pagan rite
(Herself a pagan still) unfilmed her sight
And taught her secrets never to be forgot,
And by man's generation pardoned not....
The same blood in ancestral veins ran fleet
As now made hers a road for pain's quick feet.
Into the marrow of her hidden life
Had poured the agony of their termless strife
With immaterial and material things;
And as a bird an unlearned music sings
Because a million generations sang,
So in her breast the old alarum rang,
So the old sorrowfulness in her thought
Renewed, and apprehensions all untaught;
As if indeed a creature primitive
Still did she in the world's dim morning live,
That wanted human warmth and gentleness
To make its solitude a little less.

Kindness gave solitude the lovely light
She loved, and made less terrible black midnight.
Even as a bird its unlearned music pours
Though windows all be blind and shut the doors,
And sings on still though no faint sound be heard
But wind and leaves and another lonely bird:
So poured she untaught kindness all around
And in that human music comfort found--
Music her own and music heard from others,
Prime music of all lovers, children, mothers,
Precarious music between all men sounding,
The horror of silent and dark Powers confounding.
Singing that music she could bravely live;
Hearing it, find less sorrow to forgive.

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