King Saul at Gilboa

A poem by Henry Kendall

With noise of battle and the dust of fray,
Half hid in fog, the gloomy mountain lay;
But Succoth’s watchers, from their outer fields,
Saw fits of flame and gleams of clashing shields;
For, where the yellow river draws its spring,
The hosts of Israel travelled, thundering!
There, beating like the storm that sweeps to sea
Across the reefs of chafing Galilee,
The car of Abner and the sword of Saul
Drave Gaza down Gilboa’s southern wall;
But swift and sure the spears of Ekron flew,
Till peak and slope were drenched with bloody dew.
“Shout, Timnath, shout!” the blazing leaders cried,
And hurled the stone and dashed the stave aside.
“Shout, Timnath, shout! Let Hazor hold the height,
Bend the long bow and break the lords of fight!”

From every hand the swarthy strangers sprang,
Chief leaped on chief, with buckler buckler rang!
The flower of armies! Set in Syrian heat,
The ridges clamoured under labouring feet;
Nor stayed the warriors till, from Salem’s road,
The crescent horns of Abner’s squadrons glowed.
Then, like a shooting splendour on the wing,
The strong-armed son of Kish came thundering;
And as in Autumn’s fall, when woods are bare,
Two adverse tempests meet in middle air,
So Saul and Achish, grim with heat and hate,
Met by the brook and shook the scales of Fate.
For now the struggle swayed, and, firm as rocks
Against the storm-wind of the equinox,
The rallied lords of Judah stood and bore,
All day, the fiery tides of fourfold war.

But he that fasted in the secret cave
And called up Samuel from the quiet grave,
And stood with darkness and the mantled ghosts
A bitter night on shrill Samarian coasts,
Knew well the end of how the futile sword
Of Israel would be broken by the Lord;
How Gath would triumph, with the tawny line
That bend the knee at Dagon’s brittle shrine;
And how the race of Kish would fall to wreck,
Because of vengeance stayed at Amalek.
Yet strove the sun-like king, nor rested hand
Till yellow evening filled the level land.
Then Judah reeled before a biting hail
Of sudden arrows shot from Achor’s vale,
Where Libnah, lapped in blood from thigh to heel,
Drew the tense string, and pierced the quivering steel.
There fell the sons of Saul, and, man by man,
The chiefs of Israel, up to Jonathan;
And while swift Achish stooped and caught the spoil,
Ten chosen archers, red with sanguine toil,
Sped after Saul, who, faint and sick, and sore
With many wounds, had left the thick of war.
He, like a baffled bull by hunters pressed,
Turned sharp about, and faced the flooded west,
And saw the star-like spears and moony spokes
Gleam from the rocks and lighten through the oaks
A sea of splendour! How the chariots rolled
On wheels of blinding brightness manifold!
While stumbling over spike and spine and spur
Of sultry lands, escaped the son of Ner
With smitten men. At this the front of Saul
Grew darker than a blasted tower wall;
And seeing how there crouched upon his right,
Aghast with fear, a black Amalekite,
He called, and said: “I pray thee, man of pain,
Red from the scourge, and recent from the chain,
Set thou thy face to mine, and stoutly stand
With yonder bloody sword-hilt in thy hand,
And fall upon me.” But the faltering hind
Stood trembling, like a willow in the wind.
Then further Saul: “Lest Ashdod’s vaunting hosts
Should bear me captive to their bleak-blown coasts,
I pray thee, smite me! seeing peace has fled,
And rest lies wholly with the quiet dead.”
At this a flood of sunset broke, and smote
Keen, blazing sapphires round a kingly throat,
Touched arm and shoulder, glittered in the crest,
And made swift starlights on a jewelled breast.
So, starting forward, like a loosened hound,
The stranger clutched the sword and wheeled it round,
And struck the Lord’s Anointed. Fierce and fleet
Philistia came, with shouts and clattering feet;
By gaping gorges and by rough defile
Dark Ashdod beat across a dusty mile;
Hot Hazor’s bowmen toiled from spire to spire,
And Gath sprang upwards, like a gust of fire;
On either side did Libnah’s lords appear,
And brass-clad Timnath thundered in the rear.
“Mark, Achish, mark!” South-west and south there sped
A dabbled hireling from the dreadful dead.
“Mark, Achish, mark!” The mighty front of Saul,
Great in his life and god-like in his fall!
This was the arm that broke Philistia’s pride,
Where Kishon chafes his seaward-going tide;
This was the sword that smote till set of sun
Red Gath, from Michmash unto Ajalon,
Low in the dust. And Israel scattered far!
And dead the trumps and crushed the hoofs of war!

So fell the king, as it was said by him
Who hid his forehead in a mantle dim
At bleak Endor, what time unholy rites
Vexed the long sleep of still Samarian heights;
For, bowed to earth before the hoary priest,
Did he of Kish withstand the smoking feast,
To fast, in darkness and in sackcloth rolled,
And house with wild things in the biting cold,
Because of sharpness lent to Gaza’s sword,
And Judah widowed by the angry Lord.

So silence came. As when the outer verge
Of Carmel takes the white and whistling surge,
Hoarse, hollow noises fill the caves, and roar
Along the margin of the echoing shore,
Thus war had thundered; but as evening breaks
Across the silver of Assyrian lakes,
When reapers rest, and through the level red
Of sunset, peace, like holy oil, is shed,
Thus silence fell. But Israel’s daughters crept
Outside their thresholds, waited, watched, and wept.

Then they that dwell beyond the flats and fens
Of sullen Jordan, and in gelid glens
Of Jabesh-Gilead chosen chiefs and few
Around their loins the hasty girdle drew,
And faced the forests, huddled fold on fold,
And dells of glimmering greenness manifold.
What time Orion in the west did set
A shining foot on hills of wind and wet;
These journeyed nightly till they reached the capes
Where Ashdod revelled over heated grapes;
And while the feast was loud and scouts were turned,
From Saul’s bound body cord by cord they burned,
And bore the king athwart the place of tombs,
And hasted eastward through the tufted glooms;
Nor broke the cake nor stayed the step till morn
Shot over Debir’s cones and crags forlorn.

From Jabesh then the weeping virgins came;
In Jabesh then they built the funeral flame;
With costly woods they piled the lordly pyre,
Brought yellow oils and fed the perfect fire;
While round the crescent stately elders spread
The flashing armour of the mighty dead,
With crown and spear, and all the trophies won
From many wars by Israel’s dreadful son.
Thence, when the feet of evening paused and stood
On shadowy mountains and the roaring flood,
(As through a rushing twilight, full of rain,
The weak moon looked athwart Gadara’s plain),
The younger warriors bore the urn, and broke
The humid turf about a wintering oak,
And buried Saul; and, fasting, went their ways,
And hid their faces seven nights and days.

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