Sword Blades and Poppy Seed

by Amy Lowell

A drifting, April, twilight sky,

A wind which blew the puddles dry,

And slapped the river into waves

That ran and hid among the staves

Of an old wharf. A watery light

Touched bleak the granite bridge, and white

Without the slightest tinge of gold,

The city shivered in the cold.

All day my thoughts had lain as dead,

Unborn and bursting in my head.

From time to time I wrote a word

Which lines and circles overscored.

My table seemed a graveyard, full

Of coffins waiting burial.

I seized these vile abortions, tore

Them into jagged bits, and swore

To be the dupe of hope no more.

Into the evening straight I went,

Starved of a day's accomplishment.

Unnoticing, I wandered where

The city gave a space for air,

And on the bridge's parapet

I leant, while pallidly there set

A dim, discouraged, worn-out sun.

Behind me, where the tramways run,

Blossomed bright lights, I turned to leave,

When someone plucked me by the sleeve.

"Your pardon, Sir, but I should be

Most grateful could you lend to me

A carfare, I have lost my purse."

The voice was clear, concise, and terse.

I turned and met the quiet gaze

Of strange eyes flashing through the haze.

The man was old and slightly bent,

Under his cloak some instrument

Disarranged its stately line,

He rested on his cane a fine

And nervous hand, an almandine

Smouldered with dull-red flames, sanguine

It burned in twisted gold, upon

His finger. Like some Spanish don,

Conferring favours even when

Asking an alms, he bowed again

And waited. But my pockets proved

Empty, in vain I poked and shoved,

No hidden penny lurking there

Greeted my search. "Sir, I declare

I have no money, pray forgive,

But let me take you where you live."

And so we plodded through the mire

Where street lamps cast a wavering fire.

I took no note of where we went,

His talk became the element

Wherein my being swam, content.

It flashed like rapiers in the night

Lit by uncertain candle-light,

When on some moon-forsaken sward

A quarrel dies upon a sword.

It hacked and carved like a cutlass blade,

And the noise in the air the broad words made

Was the cry of the wind at a window-pane

On an Autumn night of sobbing rain.

Then it would run like a steady stream

Under pinnacled bridges where minarets gleam,

Or lap the air like the lapping tide

Where a marble staircase lifts its wide

Green-spotted steps to a garden gate,

And a waning moon is sinking straight

Down to a black and ominous sea,

While a nightingale sings in a lemon tree.

I walked as though some opiate

Had stung and dulled my brain, a state

Acute and slumbrous. It grew late.

We stopped, a house stood silent, dark.

The old man scratched a match, the spark

Lit up the keyhole of a door,

We entered straight upon a floor

White with finest powdered sand

Carefully sifted, one might stand

Muddy and dripping, and yet no trace

Would stain the boards of this kitchen-place.

From the chimney, red eyes sparked the gloom,

And a cricket's chirp filled all the room.

My host threw pine-cones on the fire

And crimson and scarlet glowed the pyre

Wrapped in the golden flame's desire.

The chamber opened like an eye,

As a half-melted cloud in a Summer sky

The soul of the house stood guessed, and shy

It peered at the stranger warily.

A little shop with its various ware

Spread on shelves with nicest care.

Pitchers, and jars, and jugs, and pots,

Pipkins, and mugs, and many lots

Of lacquered canisters, black and gold,

Like those in which Chinese tea is sold.

Chests, and puncheons, kegs, and flasks,

Goblets, chalices, firkins, and casks.

In a corner three ancient amphorae leaned

Against the wall, like ships careened.

There was dusky blue of Wedgewood ware,

The carved, white figures fluttering there

Like leaves adrift upon the air.

Classic in touch, but emasculate,

The Greek soul grown effeminate.

The factory of Sevres had lent

Elegant boxes with ornament

Culled from gardens where fountains splashed

And golden carp in the shadows flashed,

Nuzzling for crumbs under lily-pads,

Which ladies threw as the last of fads.

Eggshell trays where gay beaux knelt,

Hand on heart, and daintily spelt

Their love in flowers, brittle and bright,

Artificial and fragile, which told aright

The vows of an eighteenth-century knight.

The cruder tones of old Dutch jugs

Glared from one shelf, where Toby mugs

Endlessly drank the foaming ale,

Its froth grown dusty, awaiting sale.

The glancing light of the burning wood

Played over a group of jars which stood

On a distant shelf, it seemed the sky

Had lent the half-tones of his blazonry

To paint these porcelains with unknown hues

Of reds dyed purple and greens turned blues,

Of lustres with so evanescent a sheen

Their colours are felt, but never seen.

Strange winged dragons writhe about

These vases, poisoned venoms spout,

Impregnate with old Chinese charms;

Sealed urns containing mortal harms,

They fill the mind with thoughts impure,

Pestilent drippings from the ure

Of vicious thinkings. "Ah, I see,"

Said I, "you deal in pottery."

The old man turned and looked at me.

Shook his head gently. "No," said he.

Then from under his cloak he took the thing

Which I had wondered to see him bring

Guarded so carefully from sight.

As he laid it down it flashed in the light,

A Toledo blade, with basket hilt,

Damascened with arabesques of gilt,

Or rather gold, and tempered so

It could cut a floating thread at a blow.

The old man smiled, "It has no sheath,

'Twas a little careless to have it beneath

My cloak, for a jostle to my arm

Would have resulted in serious harm.

But it was so fine, I could not wait,

So I brought it with me despite its state."

"An amateur of arms," I thought,

"Bringing home a prize which he has bought."

"You care for this sort of thing, Dear Sir?"

"Not in the way which you infer.

I need them in business, that is all."

And he pointed his finger at the wall.

Then I saw what I had not noticed before.

The walls were hung with at least five score

Of swords and daggers of every size

Which nations of militant men could devise.

Poisoned spears from tropic seas,

That natives, under banana trees,

Smear with the juice of some deadly snake.

Blood-dipped arrows, which savages make

And tip with feathers, orange and green,

A quivering death, in harlequin sheen.

High up, a fan of glancing steel

Was formed of claymores in a wheel.

Jewelled swords worn at kings' levees

Were suspended next midshipmen's dirks, and these

Elbowed stilettos come from Spain,

Chased with some splendid Hidalgo's name.

There were Samurai swords from old Japan,

And scimitars from Hindoostan,

While the blade of a Turkish yataghan

Made a waving streak of vitreous white

Upon the wall, in the firelight.

Foils with buttons broken or lost

Lay heaped on a chair, among them tossed

The boarding-pike of a privateer.

Against the chimney leaned a queer

Two-handed weapon, with edges dull

As though from hacking on a skull.

The rusted blood corroded it still.

My host took up a paper spill

From a heap which lay in an earthen bowl,

And lighted it at a burning coal.

At either end of the table, tall

Wax candles were placed, each in a small,

And slim, and burnished candlestick

Of pewter. The old man lit each wick,

And the room leapt more obviously

Upon my mind, and I could see

What the flickering fire had hid from me.

Above the chimney's yawning throat,

Shoulder high, like the dark wainscote,

Was a mantelshelf of polished oak

Blackened with the pungent smoke

Of firelit nights; a Cromwell clock

Of tarnished brass stood like a rock

In the midst of a heaving, turbulent sea

Of every sort of cutlery.

There lay knives sharpened to any use,

The keenest lancet, and the obtuse

And blunted pruning bill-hook; blades

Of razors, scalpels, shears; cascades

Of penknives, with handles of mother-of-pearl,

And scythes, and sickles, and scissors; a whirl

Of points and edges, and underneath

Shot the gleam of a saw with bristling teeth.

My head grew dizzy, I seemed to hear

A battle-cry from somewhere near,

The clash of arms, and the squeal of balls,

And the echoless thud when a dead man falls.

A smoky cloud had veiled the room,

Shot through with lurid glares; the gloom

Pounded with shouts and dying groans,

With the drip of blood on cold, hard stones.

Sabres and lances in streaks of light

Gleamed through the smoke, and at my right

A creese, like a licking serpent's tongue,

Glittered an instant, while it stung.

Streams, and points, and lines of fire!

The livid steel, which man's desire

Had forged and welded, burned white and cold.

Every blade which man could mould,

Which could cut, or slash, or cleave, or rip,

Or pierce, or thrust, or carve, or strip,

Or gash, or chop, or puncture, or tear,

Or slice, or hack, they all were there.

Nerveless and shaking, round and round,

I stared at the walls and at the ground,

Till the room spun like a whipping top,

And a stern voice in my ear said, "Stop!

I sell no tools for murderers here.

Of what are you thinking! Please clear

Your mind of such imaginings.

Sit down. I will tell you of these things."

He pushed me into a great chair

Of russet leather, poked a flare

Of tumbling flame, with the old long sword,

Up the chimney; but said no word.

Slowly he walked to a distant shelf,

And brought back a crock of finest delf.

He rested a moment a blue-veined hand

Upon the cover, then cut a band

Of paper, pasted neatly round,

Opened and poured. A sliding sound

Came from beneath his old white hands,

And I saw a little heap of sands,

Black and smooth. What could they be:

"Pepper," I thought. He looked at me.

"What you see is poppy seed.

Lethean dreams for those in need."

He took up the grains with a gentle hand

And sifted them slowly like hour-glass sand.

On his old white finger the almandine

Shot out its rays, incarnadine.

"Visions for those too tired to sleep.

These seeds cast a film over eyes which weep.

No single soul in the world could dwell,

Without these poppy-seeds I sell."

For a moment he played with the shining stuff,

Passing it through his fingers. Enough

At last, he poured it back into

The china jar of Holland blue,

Which he carefully carried to its place.

Then, with a smile on his aged face,

He drew up a chair to the open space

'Twixt table and chimney. "Without preface,

Young man, I will say that what you see

Is not the puzzle you take it to be."

"But surely, Sir, there is something strange

In a shop with goods at so wide a range

Each from the other, as swords and seeds.

Your neighbours must have greatly differing needs."

"My neighbours," he said, and he stroked his chin,

"Live everywhere from here to Pekin.

But you are wrong, my sort of goods

Is but one thing in all its moods."

He took a shagreen letter case

From his pocket, and with charming grace

Offered me a printed card.

I read the legend, "Ephraim Bard.

Dealer in Words." And that was all.

I stared at the letters, whimsical

Indeed, or was it merely a jest.

He answered my unasked request:

"All books are either dreams or swords,

You can cut, or you can drug, with words.

My firm is a very ancient house,

The entries on my books would rouse

Your wonder, perhaps incredulity.

I inherited from an ancestry

Stretching remotely back and far,

This business, and my clients are

As were those of my grandfather's days,

Writers of books, and poems, and plays.

My swords are tempered for every speech,

For fencing wit, or to carve a breach

Through old abuses the world condones.

In another room are my grindstones and hones,

For whetting razors and putting a point

On daggers, sometimes I even anoint

The blades with a subtle poison, so

A twofold result may follow the blow.

These are purchased by men who feel

The need of stabbing society's heel,

Which egotism has brought them to think

Is set on their necks. I have foils to pink

An adversary to quaint reply,

And I have customers who buy

Scalpels with which to dissect the brains

And hearts of men. Ultramundanes

Even demand some finer kinds

To open their own souls and minds.

But the other half of my business deals

With visions and fancies. Under seals,

Sorted, and placed in vessels here,

I keep the seeds of an atmosphere.

Each jar contains a different kind

Of poppy seed. From farthest Ind

Come the purple flowers, opium filled,

From which the weirdest myths are distilled;

My orient porcelains contain them all.

Those Lowestoft pitchers against the wall

Hold a lighter kind of bright conceit;

And those old Saxe vases, out of the heat

On that lowest shelf beside the door,

Have a sort of Ideal, "couleur d'or".

Every castle of the air

Sleeps in the fine black grains, and there

Are seeds for every romance, or light

Whiff of a dream for a summer night.

I supply to every want and taste."

'Twas slowly said, in no great haste

He seemed to push his wares, but I

Dumfounded listened. By and by

A log on the fire broke in two.

He looked up quickly, "Sir, and you?"

I groped for something I should say;

Amazement held me numb. "To-day

You sweated at a fruitless task."

He spoke for me, "What do you ask?

How can I serve you?" "My kind host,

My penniless state was not a boast;

I have no money with me." He smiled.

"Not for that money I beguiled

You here; you paid me in advance."

Again I felt as though a trance

Had dimmed my faculties. Again

He spoke, and this time to explain.

"The money I demand is Life,

Your nervous force, your joy, your strife!"

What infamous proposal now

Was made me with so calm a brow?

Bursting through my lethargy,

Indignantly I hurled the cry:

"Is this a nightmare, or am I

Drunk with some infernal wine?

I am no Faust, and what is mine

Is what I call my soul! Old Man!

Devil or Ghost! Your hellish plan

Revolts me. Let me go." "My child,"

And the old tones were very mild,

"I have no wish to barter souls;

My traffic does not ask such tolls.

I am no devil; is there one?

Surely the age of fear is gone.

We live within a daylight world

Lit by the sun, where winds unfurled

Sweep clouds to scatter pattering rain,

And then blow back the sun again.

I sell my fancies, or my swords,

To those who care far more for words,

Ideas, of which they are the sign,

Than any other life-design.

Who buy of me must simply pay

Their whole existence quite away:

Their strength, their manhood, and their prime,

Their hours from morning till the time

When evening comes on tiptoe feet,

And losing life, think it complete;

Must miss what other men count being,

To gain the gift of deeper seeing;

Must spurn all ease, all hindering love,

All which could hold or bind; must prove

The farthest boundaries of thought,

And shun no end which these have brought;

Then die in satisfaction, knowing

That what was sown was worth the sowing.

I claim for all the goods I sell

That they will serve their purpose well,

And though you perish, they will live.

Full measure for your pay I give.

To-day you worked, you thought, in vain.

What since has happened is the train

Your toiling brought. I spoke to you

For my share of the bargain, due."

"My life! And is that all you crave

In pay? What even childhood gave!

I have been dedicate from youth.

Before my God I speak the truth!"

Fatigue, excitement of the past

Few hours broke me down at last.

All day I had forgot to eat,

My nerves betrayed me, lacking meat.

I bowed my head and felt the storm

Plough shattering through my prostrate form.

The tearless sobs tore at my heart.

My host withdrew himself apart;

Busied among his crockery,

He paid no farther heed to me.

Exhausted, spent, I huddled there,

Within the arms of the old carved chair.

A long half-hour dragged away,

And then I heard a kind voice say,

"The day will soon be dawning, when

You must begin to work again.

Here are the things which you require."

By the fading light of the dying fire,

And by the guttering candle's flare,

I saw the old man standing there.

He handed me a packet, tied

With crimson tape, and sealed. "Inside

Are seeds of many differing flowers,

To occupy your utmost powers

Of storied vision, and these swords

Are the finest which my shop affords.

Go home and use them; do not spare

Yourself; let that be all your care.

Whatever you have means to buy

Be very sure I can supply."

He slowly walked to the window, flung

It open, and in the grey air rung

The sound of distant matin bells.

I took my parcels. Then, as tells

An ancient mumbling monk his beads,

I tried to thank for his courteous deeds

My strange old friend. "Nay, do not talk,"

He urged me, "you have a long walk

Before you. Good-by and Good-day!"

And gently sped upon my way

I stumbled out in the morning hush,

As down the empty street a flush

Ran level from the rising sun.

Another day was just begun.


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