Saul

A poem by Robert Browning

Said Abner, “At last thou art come!
“Ere I tell, ere thou speak,
“Kiss my cheek, wish me well!” Then I wished it,
And did kiss his cheek.
And he, “Since the King, O my friend,
“For thy countenance sent,
Nor drunken nor eaten have we;
Nor until from his tent
Thou return with the joyful assurance
The King liveth yet,
Shall our lip with the honey be brightened,
The water be wet.

“For out of the black mid-tent’s silence,
A space of three days,
No sound hath escaped to thy servants,
Of prayer nor of praise,
To betoken that Saul and the Spirit
Have ended their strife,
And that, faint in his triumph, the monarch
Sinks back upon life.

“Yet now my heart leaps, O beloved!
God’s child with his dew
On thy gracious gold hair, and those lilies
Still living and blue
As thou brak’st them to twine round thy harp-strings,
As if no wild heat
Were now raging to torture the desert!”
Then I, as was meet,
Knelt down to the God of my fathers,
And rose on my feet,
And ran o’er the sand burnt to powder.
The tent was unlooped;
I pulled up the spear that obstructed,
And under I stooped;
Hands and knees on the slippery grass-patch,
All withered and gone,
That extends to the second enclosure,
I groped my way on
Till I felt where the foldskirts fly open;
Then once more I prayed,
And opened the foldskirts and entered,
And was not afraid
And spoke, “Here is David, thy servant!”
And no voice replied.
At the first I saw nought but the blackness;
But soon I descried
A something more black than the blackness;
The vast, the upright
Main prop which sustains the pavilion,
And slow into sight
Grew a figure against it, gigantic,
And blackest of all;
Then a sunbeam, that burst thro’ the tent-roof,
Showed Saul.
He stood as erect as that tent-prop;
Both arms stretched out wide
On the great cross-support in the centre
That goes to each side:
So he bent not a muscle, but hung there
As, caught in his pangs
And waiting his change, the king-serpent
All heavily hangs,
Far away from his kind, in the pine,
Till deliverance come
With the spring-time, so agonized Saul,
Drear and stark, blind and dumb.

Then I tuned my harp, took off the lilies
We twine round its chords
Lest they snap ‘neath the stress of the noon-tide
Those sunbeams like swords!
And I first played the tune all our sheep know,
As, one after one,
So docile they come to the pen-door
Till folding be done;
They are white and untorn by the bushes,
For lo, they have fed
Where the long grasses stifle the water
Within the stream’s bed:
And now one after one seeks its lodging,
As star follows star
Into eve and the blue far above us,
So blue and so far!
Then the tune, for which quails on the cornland
Will each leave his mate
To fly after the player; then, what makes
The crickets elate
Till for boldness they fight one another:
And then, what has weight
To set the quick jerboa a-musing
Outside his sand house
There are none such as he for a wonder,
Half bird and half mouse!
God made all the creatures and gave them
Our love and our fear,
To give sign, we and they are his children,
One family here.

Then I played the help-tune of our reapers,
Their wine-song, when hand
Grasps at hand, eye lights eye in good friendship,
And great hearts expand
And grow one in the sense of this world’s life;
And then, the low song
When the dead man is praised on his journey,
“Bear, bear him along
“With his few faults shut up like dead flowerets;
“Are balm-seeds not here
“To console us? The land has left none such
“As he on the bier,
“Oh, would we might keep thee, my brother!”
And then, the glad chaunt
Of the marriage, first go the young maidens,
Next, she whom we vaunt
As the beauty, the pride of our dwelling:
And then, the great march
Where man runs to man to assist him
And buttress an arch
Nought can break . . . who shall harm them, our friends?
Then, the chorus intoned
As the Levites go up to the altar
In glory enthroned.
But I stopped here, for here in the darkness,
Saul groaned.

And I paused, held my breath in such silence!
And listened apart;
And the tent shook, for mighty Saul shuddered,
And sparkles gan dart
From the jewels that woke in his turban
At once with a start,
All its lordly male-sapphires, and rubies
Courageous at heart.
So the head, but the body still moved not,
Still hung there erect.
And I bent once again to my playing,
Pursued it unchecked,
As I sang, “Oh, our manhood’s prime vigour!
No spirit feels waste,
Not a muscle is stopped in its playing
No sinew unbraced;
Oh, the wild joys of living! The leaping
From rock up to rock,
The rending of their boughs from the palm-tree,
The cool silver shock
Of the plunge in a pool’s living water,
The hunt of the bear,
And the sultriness showing the lion
Is couched in his lair:
And the meal, the rich dates, yellowed over
With gold dust divine,
And the locust-flesh steeped in the pitcher,
The full draught of wine,
And the sleep in the dried river-channel
Where bulrushes tell
That the water was wont to go warbling
So softly and well,
How good is man’s life, the mere living!
How fit to employ
“All the heart and the soul and the senses
For ever in joy!
Hast thou loved the white locks of thy father
Whose sword thou didst guard
When he trusted thee forth with the armies
For glorious reward?
Didst thou see the thin hands of thy mother
Held up as men sung
The low song of the nearly-departed
And heard her faint tongue
Joining in while it could to the witness
‘Let one more attest,
‘I have lived, seen God’s hand thro’ that life-time,
And all was for best . . . ”
Then they sung thro’ their tears, in strong triumph,
Not much, but the rest!
And thy brothers, the help and the contest,
The working whence grew
Such result, as from seething grape-bundles
The spirit so true:
And the friends of thy boyhood, that boyhood
With wonder and hope,
Present promise, and wealth of the future,
The eye’s eagle scope,
Till lo, thou art grown to a monarch,
A people is thine;
Oh all gifts the world offers singly,
On one head combine!
On one head, all the joy and the pride,
Even rage like the throe
That opes the rock, helps its glad labour,
And lets the gold go,
And ambition that sees a sun lead it,
Oh, all of these, all
Combine to unite in one creature
- Saul!

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