He Heard Her Sing

A poem by James Thomson (BV)

We were now in the midmost Maytime, in the full green flood of the Spring,
When the air is sweet all the daytime with the blossoms and birds that sing;
When the air is rich all the night, and richest of all in its noon;
When the nightingales pant the delight and keen stress of their love to the moon;
When the almond and apple and pear spread wavering wavelets of snow
In the light of the soft warm air far-flushed with a delicate glow;
When the towering chestnuts uphold their masses of spires red or white,
And the pendulous tresses of gold of the slim laburnum burn bright,
And the lilac guardeth the bowers with the gleam of a lifted spear,
And the scent of the hawthorn flowers breathes all the new life of the year,
And the linden's tender pink bud by the green of the leaf is o'errun,
And the bronze-beech shines like blood in the light of the morning sun,
And the leaf-buds seem spangling some network of gossamer flung on the elm,
And the hedges are filling their fretwork with every sweet green of Spring's realm;
And the flowers are everywhere budding and blowing about our feet,
The green of the meadows star-studding and the bright green blades of the wheat.

An evening and night of song. For first when I left the town,
And took the lane that is long and came out on the breeze-swept down,
The sunset heavens were all ringing wide over the golden gorse
With the skylarks' rapturous singing, a revel of larks in full force,
A revel of larks in the raptures surpassing all raptures of Man,
Who ponders the blessings he captures and finds in each blessing some ban.
And then I went on down the dale in the light of the afterglow,
In that strange light green and pale and serene and pathetic and slow
In its fading round to the north, while the light of the unseen moon
From the east comes brightening forth an ever-increasing boon.
And there in the cottage my Alice, through the hours so short and so long,
Kept filed to the brim love's chalice with the wine of music and song;
And first with colossal Beethoven, the gentlest spirit sublime
Of the harmonies interwoven, Eternity woven with Time;
Of the melodies slowly and slowly dissolving away through the soul,
While it dissolves with them wholly and our being is lost in the Whole;
As gentle as Dante the Poet, for only the lulls of the stress
Of the mightiest spirits can know it, this ineffable gentleness;
And then with the delicate tender fantastic dreamer of night,
Whose splendour is starlike splendour and his light a mystic moonlight,
Nocturn on nocturn dreaming while the mind floats far in the haze
And the dusk and the shadow and gleaming of a realm that has no days;
And then she sang ballads olden, ballads of love and of woe,
Love all burningly golden, grief with heart's-blood in its flow;
Those ballads of Scotland that thrill you, keen from the heart to the heart,
Till their pathos is seeming to kill you, with an exquisite bliss in the smart.

And then we went out of the valley and over the spur of the hill,
And down by a woodland alley where the sprinkled moonlight lay still;
For the breeze in the boughs was still and the breeze was still in the sprays,
And the leaves had scarcely a thrill in the stream of the silver rays,
But looked as if drawn on the sky or etched with a graver keen,
Sharp shadows thrown from on high deep out of the azure serene:
And a certain copse we knew, where never in May-time fails,
While the night distils sweet dew, the song of the nightingales:
And there together we heard the lyrical drama of love
Of the wonderful passionate bird which swelleth the heart so above
All other thought of this life, all other care of this earth,
Be it of pleasure or strife, be it of sorrow or mirth,
Saving the one intense imperious passion supreme
Kindling the soul and the sense, making the world but a dream,
The dream of an aching delight and a yearning afar and afar,
While the music thrills all the void night to the loftiest pulsating star:
“Love, love only, for ever; love with its torture and bliss;
All the world's glories can never equal two souls in one kiss.”

And when I had bidden farewell to my Love at the cottage door,
For a night and a day farewell, for a night and a day and no more,
I went down to the shining strand of our own belovèd bay,
To the shore of soft white sand caressed by the pure white spray,
In the arms of the hills serene, clothed from the base to the crest
With garments of manifold green, curving to east and to west;
And high in the pale blue south where the clouds were white as wool,
Over the little bay-mouth the moon shone near the full;
And I walked by the waves' soft moan, for my heart was beyond control,
And I needed to be alone with the night and my love and my soul,
And I could not think of sleep in the moonlight broad and clear,
For a music solemn and deep filled all my spirit's sphere,
A music interwoven of all that night I had heard,
From the music of mighty Beethoven to the song of the little brown bird.

And thus as I paced the shore beneath the azure abyss,
And my soul thrilled more and more with a yearning and sadness of bliss,
A voice came over the water from over the eastern cape,
Like the voice of some ocean daughter wailing a lover's escape,
A voice so plaintive and distant, as faint as a wounded dove,
Whose wings are scarcely resistant to the air beneath and above,
Wavering, panting, urging from the farthest east to the west,
Over some wild sea surging in the hope forlorn of its nest;
A voice that quivered and trembled, with falls of a broken heart,
And then like that dove reassembled its forces to play out its part;
Till it came to a fall that was dying, the end of an infinite grief,
A sobbing and throbbing and sighing that death was a welcome relief;
And so there was silence once more, and the moonlight looked sad as a pall,
And I stood entranced on the shore and marvelled what next would befall.

And thus all-expectant abiding I waited not long, for soon
A boat came gliding and gliding out in the light of the moon,
Gliding with muffled oars, slowly, a thin dark line,
Round from the shadowing shores into the silver shine
Of the clear moon westering now, and still drew on and on,
While the water before its prow breaking and glistering shone,
Slowly in silence strange; and the rower rowed till it lay
Afloat within easy range deep in the curve of the bay;
And besides the rower were two; a Woman, who sat in the stern,
And Her by her fame I knew, one of those fames that burn,
Startling and kindling the world, one whose likeness we everywhere see;
And a man reclining half-curled with an indolent grace at her knee,
The Signor, lord of her choice; and he lightly touched a guitar;–
A guitar for that glorious voice! Illumine the sun with a star!
She sat superb and erect, stately, all-happy, serene,
Her right hand toying unchecked with the hair of that page of a Queen;
With her head and her throat and her bust like the bust and the throat and the head
Of Her who has long been dust, of Her who shall never be dead,
Preserved by the potent art made trebly potent by love,
While the transient ages depart from under the heavens above,
Preserved in the colour and line on the canvas fulgently flung
By Him the Artist divine who triumphed and vanished so young:
Surely there rarely hath been a lot more to be envied in life
Than thy lot, O FORNARINA, whom RAPHAEL's heart took to wife.

There was silence yet for a time save the tinkling capricious and quaint,
Then She lifted her voice sublime, no longer tender and faint,
Pathetic and tremulous, no! but firm as a column it rose,
Rising solemn and slow with a full rich swell to the close,
Firm as a marble column soaring with noble pride
In a triumph of rapture solemn to some Hero deified;
In a rapture of exultation made calm by its stress intense,
In a triumph of consecration and a jubilation immense.
And the Voice flowed on and on, and ever it swelled as it poured,
Till the stars that throbbed as they shone seemed throbbing with it in accord;
Till the moon herself in my dream, still Empress of all the night,
Was only that voice supreme translated into pure light:
And I lost all sense of the earth though I still had sense of the sea;
And I saw the stupendous girth of a tree like the Norse World-Tree;
And its branches filled all the sky, and the deep sea watered its root,
And the clouds were its leaves on high and the stars were its silver fruit;
Yet the stars were the notes of the singing and the moon was the voice of the song,
Through the vault of the firmament ringing and swelling resistlessly strong;
And the whole vast night was a shell for that music of manifold might,
And was strained by the stress of the swell of the music yet vaster than night.
And I saw as a crystal fountain whose shaft was a column of light
More high than the loftiest mountain ascend the abyss of the night;
And its spray filled all the sky, and the clouds were the clouds of its spray,
Which glittered in star-points on high and filled with pure silver the bay;
And ever in rising and falling it sang as it rose and it fell,
And the heavens with their pure azure walling all pulsed with the pulse of its swell,
For the stars were the notes of the singing and the moon was the voice of the song
Through the vault of the firmament ringing and swelling ineffably strong!
And the whole vast night was a shell for that music of manifold might,
And was strained by the stress of the swell of the music yet vaster than night:
And the fountain in swelling and soaring and filling beneath and above,
Grew flushed with red fire in outpouring, transmuting great power into love,
Great power with a greater love flushing, immense and intense and supreme,
As if all the World's heart-blood outgushing ensanguined the trance of my dream;
And the waves of its blood seemed to dash on the shore of the sky to the cope
With the stress of the fire of a passion and yearning of limitless scope.
Vast fire of a passion and yearning, keen torture of rapture intense,
A most unendurable burning consuming the soul with the sense:

“Love, love only, for ever; love with its torture of bliss;
All the world's glories can never equal two souls in one kiss:
Love, and ever love wholly; love in all time and all space;
Life is consummate then solely in the death of a burning embrace.”

And at length when that Voice sank mute, and silence fell over all
Save the tinkling thin of that lute, the deep heavens rushed down like a pall,
The stars and the moon for a time with all their splendours of light,
Were quenched with that Voice sublime, and great darkness filled the night. ...
When I felt again the scent of the night-flowers rich and sweet,
As ere my senses went, and knew where I stood on my feet,
And saw the yet-bright bay and the moon gone low in my dream,
The boat had passed away with Her the Singer supreme;
She was gone, the marvellous Singer whose wonderful world-wide fame
Could never possibly bring her a tithe of her just acclaim.
And I wandered all night in a trance of rapture and yearning and love,
And saw the dim grey expanse flush far with the dawning above;
And I passed that copse in the night, but the nightingales all were dumb
From their passionate aching delight, and perhaps whoever should come
On the morrow would find, I have read, under its bush or its tree
Some poor little brown bird dead, dead of its melody,
Slain by the agitation, by the stress and the strain of the strife,
And the pang of the vain emulation in the music yet dearer than life.
And I heard the skylarks singing high in the morning sun,
All the sunrise heavens ringing as the sunset heavens had done:
And ever I dreamed and pondered while over the fragrant soil,
My happy footsteps wandered before I resumed my toil:
Truly, my darling, my Alice, truly the whole night long
Have I filled to the brim love's chalice with the wine of music and song.
I have passed and repassed your door from the singing until the dawn
A dozen times and more, and ever the curtains drawn;
And now that the morn is breaking out of the stillness deep,
Sweet as my visions of waking be all your visions of sleep!
Could you but wake, O my dearest, a moment, and give one glance,
Just a furtive peep the merest, to learn the day's advance!
For I must away up the dale and over the hill to my toil,
And the night's rich dreams grow pale in the working day's turmoil;
But tonight, O my darling, my Alice, till night it will not be long,
We will fill to the brim love's chalice with the wine of music and song;
And never the memory fails of what I have learnt in my dream
From the song of the nightingales and the song of the Singer supreme:

“Love, love only, for ever; love with its torture of bliss;
All the world's glories can never equal two souls in one kiss:
Love, love ever and wholly; love in all time and all space;
Life is consummate then solely in the death of a burning embrace.”

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