Basil Moss

A poem by Henry Kendall

Sing, mountain-wind, thy strong, superior song
Thy haughty alpine anthem, over tracts
Whose passes and whose swift, rock-straitened streams
Catch mighty life and voice from thee, and make
A lordly harmony on sea-chafed heights.
Sing, mountain-wind, and take thine ancient tone,
The grand, austere, imperial utterance.
Which drives my soul before it back to days
In one dark hour of which, when Storm rode high
Past broken hills, and when the polar gale
Roared round the Otway with the bitter breath
That speaks for ever of the White South Land
Alone with God and Silence in the cold,
I heard the touching tale of Basil Moss,

A story shining with a woman’s love!
And who that knows that love can ever doubt
How dear, divine, sublime a thing it is;
For while the tale of Basil Moss was one
Not blackened with those stark, satanic sins
Which call for superhuman sacrifice,
Still, from the records of the world’s sad life,
This great, sweet, gladdening fact at length we’ve learned,
There’s not a depth to which a man can fall,
No slough of crime in which such one can lie
Stoned with the scorn and curses of his kind,
But that some tender woman can be found
To love and shield him still.

What was the fate
Of Basil Moss who, thirty years ago,
A brave, high-minded, but impetuous youth,
Left happy homesteads in the sweetest isle
That wears the sober light of Northern suns?
What happened him, the man who crossed far, fierce
Sea-circles of the hoarse Atlantic who,
Without a friend to help him in the world,
Commenced his battle in this fair young land,
A Levite in the Temple Beautiful
Of Art, who struggled hard, but found that here
Both Bard and Painter learn, by bitter ways,
That they are aliens in the working world,
And that all Heaven’s templed clouds at morn
And sunset do not weigh one loaf of bread!

This was his tale. For years he kept himself
Erect, and looked his troubles in the face
And grappled them; and, being helped at last
By one who found she loved him, who became
The patient sharer of his lot austere,
He beat them bravely back; but like the heads
Of Lerna’s fabled hydra, they returned
From day to day in numbers multiplied;
And so it came to pass that Basil Moss
(Who was, though brave, no mental Hercules,
Who hid beneath a calmness forced, the keen
Heart-breaking sensibility which is
The awful, wild, specific curse that clings
Forever to the Poet’s twofold life)
Gave way at last; but not before the hand
Of sickness fell upon him not before
The drooping form and sad averted eyes
Of hectic Hope, that figure far and faint,
Had given all his later thoughts a tongue
“It is too late too late!”

There is no need
To tell the elders of the English world
What followed this. From step to step, the man
Now fairly gripped by fierce Intemperance
Descended in the social scale; and though
He struggled hard at times to break away,
And take the old free, dauntless stand again,
He came to be as helpless as a child,
And Darkness settled on the face of things,
And Hope fell dead, and Will was paralysed.

Yet sometimes, in the gloomy breaks between
Each fit of madness issuing from his sin,
He used to wander through familiar woods
With God’s glad breezes blowing in his face,
And try to feel as he was wont to feel
In other years; but never could he find
Again his old enthusiastic sense
Of Beauty; never could he exorcize
The evil spell which seemed to shackle down
The fine, keen, subtle faculty that used
To see into the heart of loveliness;
And therefore Basil learned to shun the haunts
Where Nature holds her chiefest courts, because
They forced upon him in the saddest light
The fact of what he was, and once had been.

So fared the drunkard for five awful years
The last of which, while lighting singing dells,
With many a flame of flowers, found Basil Moss
Cooped with his wife in one small wretched room;
And there, one night, the man, when ill and weak
A sufferer from his latest bout of sin
Moaned, stricken sorely with a fourfold sense
Of all the degradation he had brought
Upon himself, and on his patient wife;
And while he wrestled with his strong remorse
He looked upon a sweet but pallid face,
And cried, “My God! is this the trusting girl
I swore to love, to shield, to cherish so
But ten years back? O, what a liar I am!”
She, shivering in a thin and faded dress
Beside a handful of pale, smouldering fire,
On hearing Basil’s words, moved on her chair,
And turning to him blue, beseeching eyes,
And pinched, pathetic features, faintly said
“O, Basil, love! now that you seem to feel
And understand how much I’ve suffered since
You first gave way now that you comprehend
The bitter heart-wear, darling, that has brought
The swift, sad silver to this hair of mine
Which should have come with Age which came with Pain,
Do make one more attempt to free yourself
From what is slowly killing both of us;
And if you do the thing I ask of you,
If you but try this once, we may indeed
We may be happy yet.”

Then Basil Moss,
Remembering in his marvellous agony
How often he had found her in the dead
Of icy nights with uncomplaining eyes,
A watcher in a cheerless room for him;
And thinking, too, that often, while he threw
His scanty earnings over reeking bars,
The darling that he really loved through all
Was left without enough to eat then Moss,
I say, sprang to his feet with sinews set
And knotted brows, and throat that gasped for air,
And cried aloud “My poor, poor girl, I will.”

And so he did; and fought this time the fight
Out to the bitter end; and with the help
Of prayers and unremitting tenderness
He gained the victory at last; but not
No, not before the agony and sweat
Of fierce Gethsemanes had come to him;
And not before the awful nightly trials,
When, set in mental furnaces of flame,
With eyes that ached and wooed in vain for sleep,
He had to fight the devil holding out
The cup of Lethe to his fevered lips.
But still he conquered; and the end was this,
That though he often had to face the eyes
Of that bleak Virtue which is not of Christ
(Because the gracious Lord of Love was one with Him
Who blessed the dying thief upon the cross),
He held his way with no unfaltering steps,
And gathered hope and light, and never missed
To do a thing for the sake of good.
And every day that glided through the world
Saw some fine instance of his bright reform,
And some assurance he would never fall
Into the pits and traps of hell again.
And thus it came to pass that Basil’s name
Grew sweet with men; and, when he died, his end
Was calm was evening-like, and beautiful.

Here ends the tale of Basil Moss. To wives
Who suffer as the Painter’s darling did,
I dedicate these lines; and hope they’ll bear
In mind those efforts of her lovely life,
Which saved her husband’s soul; and proved that while
A man who sins can entertain remorse,
He is not wholly lost. If such as they
But follow her, they may be sure of this,
That Love, that sweet authentic messenger
From God, can never fail while there is left
Within the fallen one a single pulse
Of what the angels call humanity.

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