The Voyage of Telegonus

A poem by Henry Kendall

Ill fares it with the man whose lips are set
To bitter themes and words that spite the gods;
For, seeing how the son of Saturn sways
With eyes and ears for all, this one shall halt
As on hard, hurtful hills; his days shall know
The plaintive front of sorrow; level looks
With cries ill-favoured shall be dealt to him;
And this shall be that he may think of peace
As one might think of alienated lips
Of sweetness touched for once in kind, warm dreams.
Yea, fathers of the high and holy face,
This soul thus sinning shall have cause to sob
“Ah, ah,” for sleep, and space enough to learn
The wan, wild Hyrie’s aggregated song
That starts the dwellers in distorted heights,
With all the meaning of perpetual sighs
Heard in the mountain deserts of the world,
And where the green-haired waters glide between
The thin, lank weeds and mallows of the marsh.
But thou to whom these things are like to shapes
That come of darkness thou whose life slips past
Regarding rather these with mute fast mouth
Hear none the less how fleet Telegonus,
The brass-clad hunter, first took oar and smote
Swift eastward-going seas, with face direct
For narrowing channels and the twofold coasts
Past Colchis and the fierce Symplegades,
And utmost islands, washed by streams unknown.

For in a time when Phasis whitened wide
And drove with violent waters blown of wind
Against the bare, salt limits of the land,
It came to pass that, joined with Cytheraea,
The black-browed Ares, chafing for the wrong
Ulysses did him on the plains of Troy,
Set heart against the king; and when the storms
Sang high in thunder and the Thracian rain,
The god bethought him of a pale-mouthed priest
Of Thebae, kin to ancient Chariclo,
And of an omen which the prophet gave
That touched on death and grief to Ithaca;
Then, knowing how a heavy-handed fate
Had laid itself on Circe’s brass-clad son,
He pricked the hunter with a lust that turned
All thoughts to travel and the seas remote;
But chiefly now he stirred Telegonus
To longings for his father’s exiled face,
And dreams of rest and honey-hearted love
And quiet death with much of funeral flame
Far in the mountains of a favoured land
Beyond the wars and wailings of the waves.

So, past the ridges where the coast abrupt
Dips greyly westward, Circe’s strong-armed son
Swept down the foam of sharp-divided straits
And faced the stress of opening seas. Sheer out
The vessel drave; but three long moons the gale
Moaned round; and swift, strong streams of fire revealed
The labouring rowers and the lightening surf,
Pale watchers deafened of sonorous storm,
And dipping decks and rents of ruined sails.
Yea, when the hollow ocean-driven ship
Wheeled sideways, like a chariot cloven through
In hard hot battle, and the night came up
Against strange headlands lying east and north,
Behold a black, wild wind with death to all
Ran shoreward, charged with flame and thunder-smoke,
Which blew the waters into wastes of white,
And broke the bark, as lightning breaks the pine;
Whereat the sea in fearful circles showed
Unpitied faces turned from Zeus and light
Wan swimmers wasted with their agony,
And hopeless eyes and moaning mouths of men.
But one held by the fragments of the wreck,
And Ares knew him for Telegonus,
Whom heavy-handed Fate had chained to deeds
Of dreadful note with sin beyond a name.
So, seeing this, the black-browed lord of war,
Arrayed about by Jove’s authentic light,
Shot down amongst the shattered clouds and called
With mighty strain, betwixt the gaps of storm
“Oceanus! Oceanus!” Whereat
The surf sprang white, as when a keel divides
The gleaming centre of a gathered wave;
And, ringed with flakes of splendid fire of foam,
The son of Terra rose half-way and blew
The triple trumpet of the water-gods,
At which great winds fell back and all the sea
Grew dumb, as on the land a war-feast breaks
When deep sleep falls upon the souls of men.
Then Ares of the night-like brow made known
The brass-clad hunter of the facile feet,
Hard clinging to the slippery logs of pine,
And told the omen to the hoary god
That touched on death and grief to Ithaca;
Wherefore Oceanus, with help of hand,
Bore by the chin the warrior of the North,
A moaning mass, across the shallowing surge,
And cast him on the rocks of alien shores
Against a wintry morning shot with storm.

Hear also, thou, how mighty gods sustain
The men set out to work the ends of Fate
Which fill the world with tales of many tears
And vex the sad face of humanity:
Six days and nights the brass-clad chief abode
Pent up in caverns by the straitening seas
And fed on ferns and limpets; but the dawn,
Before the strong sun of the seventh, brought
A fume of fire and smells of savoury meat
And much rejoicing, as from neighbouring feasts;
At which the hunter, seized with sudden lust,
Sprang up the crags, and, like a dream of fear,
Leapt, shouting, at a huddled host of hinds
Amongst the fragments of their steaming food;
And as the hoarse wood-wind in autumn sweeps
To every zone the hissing latter leaves,
So fleet Telegonus, by dint of spear
And strain of thunderous voice, did scatter these
East, south, and north. ’Twas then the chief had rest,
Hard by the outer coast of Ithaca,
Unknown to him who ate the spoil and slept.
Nor stayed he hand thereafter; but when noon
Burned dead on misty hills of stunted fir,
This man shook slumber from his limbs and sped
Against hoar beaches and the kindled cliffs
Of falling waters. These he waded through,
Beholding, past the forests of the West,
A break of light and homes of many men,
And shining corn, and flowers, and fruits of flowers.
Yea, seeing these, the facile-footed chief
Grasped by the knot the huge Aeaean lance
And fell upon the farmers; wherefore they
Left hoe and plough, and crouched in heights remote,
Companioned with the grey-winged fogs; but he
Made waste their fields and throve upon their toil
As throve the boar, the fierce four-footed curse
Which Artemis did raise in Calydon
To make stern mouths wax white with foreign fear,
All in the wild beginning of the world.

So one went down and told Laertes’ son
Of what the brass-clad stranger from the straits
Had worked in Ithaca; whereat the King
Rose, like a god, and called his mighty heir,
Telemachus, the wisest of the wise;
And these two, having counsel, strode without,
And armed them with the arms of warlike days
The helm, the javelin, and the sun-like shield,
And glancing greaves and quivering stars of steel.
Yea, stern Ulysses, rusted not with rest,
But dread as Ares, gleaming on his car
Gave out the reins; and straightway all the lands
Were struck by noise of steed and shouts of men,
And furious dust, and splendid wheels of flame.
Meanwhile the hunter (starting from a sleep
In which the pieces of a broken dream
Had shown him Circe with most tearful face),
Caught at his spear, and stood like one at bay
When Summer brings about Arcadian horns
And headlong horses mixt with maddened hounds;
Then huge Ulysses, like a fire of fight,
Sprang sideways on the flying car, and drave
Full at the brass-clad warrior of the North
His massive spear; but fleet Telegonus
Stooped from the death, but heard the speedy lance
Sing like a thin wind through the steaming air;
Yet he, dismayed not by the dreadful foe
Unknown to him dealt out his strength, and aimed
A strenuous stroke at great Laertes’ son,
Which missed the shield, but bit through flesh and bone,
And drank the blood, and dragged the soul from thence.
So fell the King! And one cried “Ithaca!
Ah, Ithaca!” and turned his face and wept.
Then came another wise Telemachus
Who knelt beside the man of many days
And pored upon the face; but lo, the life
Was like bright water spilt in sands of thirst,
A wasted splendour swiftly drawn away.
Yet held he by the dead: he heeded not
The moaning warrior who had learnt his sin
Who waited now, like one in lairs of pain,
Apart with darkness, hungry for his fate;
For had not wise Telemachus the lore
Which makes the pale-mouthed seer content to sleep
Amidst the desolations of the world?
So therefore he, who knew Telegonus,
The child of Circe by Laertes’ son,
Was set to be a scourge of Zeus, smote not,
But rather sat with moody eyes, and mused,
And watched the dead. For who may brave the gods?

Yet, O my fathers, when the people came,
And brought the holy oils and perfect fire,
And built the pile, and sang the tales of Troy
Of desperate travels in the olden time,
By shadowy mountains and the roaring sea,
Near windy sands and past the Thracian snows
The man who crossed them all to see his sire,
And had a loyal heart to give the king,
Instead of blows this man did little more
Than moan outside the fume of funeral rites,
All in a rushing twilight full of rain,
And clap his palms for sharper pains than swords.
Yea, when the night broke out against the flame,
And lonely noises loitered in the fens,
This man nor stirred nor slept, but lay at wait,
With fastened mouth. For who may brave the gods?

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