The Hamadryad

A poem by Walter Savage Landor

Rhaicos was born amid the hills wherefrom
Gnidos the light of Caria is discern’d
And small are the white-crested that play near,
And smaller onward are the purple waves.
Thence festal choirs were visible, all crown’d
With rose and myrtle if they were inborn;
If from Pandion sprang they, on the coast
Where stern Athenè rais’d her citadel,
Then olive was entwin’d with violets
Cluster’d in bosses, regular and large;
For various men wore various coronals,
But one was their devotion; ’t was to her
Whose laws all follow, her whose smile withdraws
The sword from Ares, thunderbolt from Zeus,
And whom in his chill caves the mutable
Of mind, Poseidon, the sea-king, reveres,
And whom his brother, stubborn Dis, hath pray’d
To turn in pity the averted cheek
Of her he bore away, with promises,
Nay, with loud oath before dread Styx itself,
To give her daily more and sweeter flowers
Than he made drop from her on Enna’s dell.
Rhaicos was looking from his father’s door
At the long trains that hasten’d to the town
From all the valleys, like bright rivulets
Gurgling with gladness, wave outrunning wave,
And thought it hard he might not also go
And offer up one prayer, and press one hand,
He knew not whose. The father call’d him in
And said, "Son Rhaicos! those are idle games;
Long enough I have liv’d to find them so."
And ere he ended, sigh’d; as old men do
Always, to think how idle such games are.
"I have not yet," thought Rhaicos in his heart,
And wanted proof.
"Suppose thou go and help
Echion at the hill, to bark yon oak
And lop its branches off, before we delve
About the trunk and ply the root with axe:
This we may do in winter."
Rhaicos went;
For thence he could see farther, and see more
Of those who hurried to the city-gate.
Echion he found there, with naked arm
Swart-hair’d, strong-sinew’d, and his eyes intent
Upon the place where first the axe should fall:
He held it upright. "There are bees about,
Or wasps, or hornets," said the cautious eld,
"Look sharp, O son of Thallinos!" The youth
Inclin’d his ear, afar, and warily,
And cavern’d in his hand. He heard a buzz
At first, and then the sound grew soft and clear,
And then divided into what seem’d tune,
And there were words upon it, plaintive words.
He turn’d, and said, "Echion! do not strike
That tree: it must be hollow; for some god
Speaks from within. Come thyself near." Again
Both turn’d toward it: and behold! there sat
Upon the moss below, with her two palms
Pressing it, on each side, a maid in form.
Downcast were her long eyelashes, and pale
Her cheek, but never mountain-ash display’d
Berries of color like her lip so pure,
Nor were the anemones about her hair
Soft, smooth, and wavering like the face beneath.
"What dost thou here?" Echion, half-afraid,
Half-angry, cried. She lifted up her eyes,
But nothing spake she. Rhaicos drew one step
Backward, for fear came likewise over him,
But not such fear: he panted, gasp’d drew in
His breath, and would have turn’d it into words,
But could not into one.
"O send away
That sad old man!" said she. The old man went
Without a warning from his master’s son,
Glad to escape, for sorely he now fear’d
And the axe shone behind him in their eyes.
Hamad. And wouldst thou too shed the most innocent
Of blood? No vow demands it; no god wills
The oak to bleed.
Rhaicos. Who art thou? whence? why here?
And whither wouldst thou go? Among the rob’d
In white or saffron, or the hue that most
Resembles dawn or the clear sky, is none
Array’d as thou art. What so beautiful
As that gray robe which clings about thee close,
Like moss to stones adhering, leaves to trees,
Yet lets thy bosom rise and fall in turn,
As, touch’d by zephyrs, fall and rise the boughs
Of graceful platan by the river-side?
Hamad. Lovest thou well thy father’s house?
Rhaicos. Indeed
I love it, well I love it, yet would leave
For thine, where’er it be, my father’s house,
With all the marks upon the door, that show
My growth at every birthday since the third,
And all the charms, o’erpowering evil eyes,
My mother nail’d for me against my bed,
And the Cydonian bow (which thou shalt see)
Won in my race last spring from Eutychos.
Hamad. Bethink thee what it is to leave a home
Thou never yet hast left, one night, one day.
Rhaicos. No, ’t is not hard to leave it: ’t is not hard
To leave, O maiden, that paternal home
If there be one on earth whom we may love
First, last, for ever; one who says that she
Will love for ever too. To say which word,
Only to say it, surely is enough.
It shows such kindness, if ’t were possible
We at the moment think she would indeed.
Hamad. Who taught thee all this folly at thy age?
Rhaicos. I have seen lovers and have learn’d to love.
Hamad. But wilt thou spare the tree?
Rhaicos. My father wants
The bark; the tree may hold its place awhile.
Hamad. Awhile? thy father numbers then my days?
Rhaicos. Are there no others where the moss beneath
Is quite as tufty? Who would send thee forth
Or ask thee why thou tarriest? Is thy flock
Anywhere near?
Hamad. I have no flock: I kill
Nothing that breathes, that stirs, that feels the air,
The sun, the dew. Why should the beautiful
(And thou art beautiful) disturb the source
Whence springs all beauty? Hast thou never heard
Of Hamadryads?
Rhaicos. Heard of them I have:
Tell me some tale about them. May I sit
Beside thy feet? Art thou not tired? The herbs
Are very soft; I will not come too nigh;
Do but sit there, nor tremble so, nor doubt.
Stay, stay an instant: let me first explore
If any acorn of last year be left
Within it; thy thin robe too ill protects
Thy dainty limbs against the harm one small
Acorn may do. Here ’s none. Another day
Trust me; till then let me sit opposite.
Hamad. I seat me; be thou seated, and content.
Rhaicos. O sight for gods! ye men below! adore
The Aphroditè! Is she there below?
Or sits she here before me? as she sate
Before the shepherd on those heights that shade
The Hellespont, and brought his kindred woe.
Hamad. Reverence the higher Powers; nor deem amiss
Of her who pleads to thee, and would repay,
Ask not how much, but very much. Rise not:
No, Rhaicos, no! Without the nuptial vow
Love is unholy. Swear to me that none
Of mortal maids shall ever taste thy kiss,
Then take thou mine; then take it, not before.
Rhaicos. Hearken, all gods above! O Aphroditè!
O Herè! Let my vow be ratified!
But wilt thou come into my father’s house?
Hamad. Nay: and of mine I cannot give thee part.
Rhaicos. Where is it?
Hamad. In this oak.
Rhaicos. Ay; now begins
The tale of Hamadryad: tell it through.
Hamad. Pray of thy father never to cut down
My tree; and promise him, as well thou mayst,
That every year he shall receive from me
More honey than will buy him nine fat sheep,
More wax than he will burn to all the gods.
Why fallest thou upon thy face? Some thorn
May scratch it, rash young man! Rise up; for shame!
Rhaicos. For shame I cannot rise. O pity me!
I dare not sue for love, but do not hate!
Let me once more behold thee, not once more,
But many days: let me love on, unlov’d!
I aim’d too high: on my own head the bolt
Falls back, and pierces to the very brain.
Hamad. Go, rather go, than make me say I love.
Rhaicos. If happiness is immortality,
(And whence enjoy it else the gods above?)
I am immortal too: my vow is heard,
Hark! on the left, Nay, turn not from me now,
I claim my kiss.
Hamad. Do men take first, then claim?
Do thus the seasons run their course with them?

Her lips were seal’d; her head sank on his breast.
’T is said that laughs were heard within the wood:
But who should hear them? and whose laughs? and why?

Savory was the smell and long past noon,
Thallinos! in thy house; for marjoram,
Basil and mint, and thyme and rosemary,
Were sprinkled on the kid’s well roasted length,
A waiting Rhaicos. Home he came at last,
Not hungry, but pretending hunger keen,
With head and eyes just o’er the maple plate.
"Thou see’st but badly, coming from the sun,
Boy Rhaicos!" said the father. "That oak’s bark
Must have been tough, with little sap between;
It ought to run; but it and I are old."
Rhaicos, although each morsel of the bread
Increas’d by chewing, and the meat grew cold
And tasteless to his palate, took a draught
Of gold-bright wine, which, thirsty as he was,
He thought not of, until his father fill’d
The cup, averring water was amiss,
But wine had been at all times pour’d on kid.
It was religion.
He thus fortified
Said, not quite boldly, and not quite abash’d,
"Father, that oak is Zeus’s own; that oak
Year after year will bring thee wealth from wax
And honey. There is one who fears the gods
And the gods love, that one"
(He blush’d, nor said What one)
"Has promis’d this, and may do more.
Thou hast not many moons to wait until
The bees have done their best; if then there come
Nor wax nor honey, let the tree be hewn."
"Zeus hath bestow’d on thee a prudent mind,"
Said the glad sire: "but look thou often there,
And gather all the honey thou canst find
In every crevice, over and above
What has been promis’d; would they reckon that?"

Rhaicos went daily; but the nymph as oft,
Invisible. To play at love, she knew,
Stopping its breathings when it breathes most soft,
Is sweeter than to play on any pipe.
She play’d on his: she fed upon his sighs;
They pleas’d her when they gently wav’d her hair,
Cooling the pulses of her purple veins,
And when her absence brought them out, they pleas’d.
Even among the fondest of them all,
What mortal or immortal maid is more
Content with giving happiness than pain?
One day he was returning from the wood
Despondently. She pitied him, and said
"Come back!" and twin’d her fingers in the hem
Above his shoulder. Then she led his steps
To a cool rill that ran o’er level sand
Through lentisk and through oleander; there
Bath’d she his feet, lifting them on her lap
When bath’d, and drying them in both her hands.
He dar’d complain; for those who most are lov’d
Most dare it; but not harsh was his complaint.
"O thou inconstant!" said he, "if stern law
Bind thee, or will, stronger than sternest law,
O, let me know henceforward when to hope
The fruit of love that grows for me but here."
He spake; and pluck’d it from its pliant stem.
"Impatient Rhaicos! Why thus intercept
The answer I would give? There is a bee
Whom I have fed, a bee who knows my thoughts
And executes my wishes: I will send
That messenger. If ever thou art false,
Drawn by another, own it not, but drive
My bee away: then shall I know my fate,
And, for thou must be wretched, weep at thine.
But often as my heart persuades to lay
Its cares on thine and throb itself to rest,
Expect her with thee, whether it be morn
Or eve, at any time when woods are safe."

Day after day the Hours beheld them blest,
And season after season: years had past,
Blest were they still. He who asserts that Love
Ever is sated of sweet things, the same
Sweet things he fretted for in earlier days,
Never, by Zeus! lov’d he a Hamadryad.

The nights had now grown longer, and perhaps
The Hamadryads find them lone and dull
Among their woods; one did, alas! She call’d
Her faithful bee: ’t was when all bees should sleep,
And all did sleep but hers. She was sent forth
To bring that light which never wintry blast
Blows out, nor rain nor snow extinguishes,
The light that shines from loving eyes upon
Eyes that love back, till they can see no more.
Rhaicos was sitting at his father’s hearth:
Between them stood the table, not o’er-spread
With fruits which autumn now profusely bore,
Nor anise cakes, nor odorous wine; but there
The draft-board was expanded; at which game
Triumphant sat old Thallinos; the son
Was puzzled, vex’d, discomfited, distraught.
A buzz was at his ear: up went his hand
And it was heard no longer. The poor bee
Return’d (but not until the morn shone bright)
And found the Hamadryad with her head
Upon her aching wrist, and show’d one wing
Half-broken off, the other’s meshes marr’d,
And there were bruises which no eye could see
Saving a Hamadryad’s.
At this sight
Down fell the languid brow, both hands fell down,
A shriek was carried to the ancient hall
Of Thallinos: he heard it not: his son
Heard it, and ran forthwith into the wood.
No bark was on the tree, no leaf was green,
The trunk was riven through. From that day forth
Nor word nor whisper sooth’d his ear, nor sound
Even of insect wing; but loud laments
The woodmen and the shepherds one long year
Heard day and night; for Rhaicos would not quit
The solitary place, but moan’d and died.

Hence milk and honey wonder not, O guest,
To find set duly on the hollow stone.

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