Ruan's Voyage

by Robert Laurence Binyon

Laurence Binyon

The mist has fallen over the isles,
And Ruan turns his boat for home.
The wind is down; with an oar he steers
The narrow races, where at whiles
To left or right through fog he hears
The low roar and short hiss of foam,
As either rock--sharp shore he nears.
Full glad at heart he guides for home,
Full gladly looks ere night to reach
The little haven, twilit beach,
And pleasant smell of the green earth,
That he has left three days ago;
To warm both hands before the glow
Of peats upon the cottage--hearth,
Where his gray father will be mending
The old nets, and his mother, bending
Over the fire, at his step uplook
From the pot that smokes in the ingle--nook.
Is it a sea--mew's cry that calls
Loud through the mist and wailing falls?
Suddenly the white veil lifted,
And in smoking coils was drifted.
Ruan felt a cry ring through him.
There on a jutting rock alone
Stood a woman crying to him;
White her hair was heedless blown;
'Mid gleaming surf the rock rose bare;
Her withered arms were stretched in prayer.
``Fisherman, fisherman, help!'' she cried.
Ruan turned his boat aside
Swiftly in the eddying tide.
``Fisherman, take me in thy boat
And to my own home carry me,
To the isle of Melilot
That lies upon the western sea.''
``How camest thou on this stormy strand,
A barren rock that men avoid?''
``Robbers came upon our land,
Burnt and pillaged and destroyed.
Half our women folk they reft,
And me upon this rock they left.''
``Where is this isle of Melilot?
For of all the isles I know it not.''
``Come hither and take me in with thee
And I will guide thee across the sea.''
Heavily Ruan thought on his home
In Westerness across the foam;
But he turned his oar and glided near;
As it were his mother, he lifted her.
She sat in the stern, cloaked and dim,
And through the chill mist guided him.
It seemed that day had never an end,
It seemed that sea had never a shore,
Such weary hours he seemed to bend
Upon his never--resting oar,
And felt the cold salt on his lip,
And from his hair the vapour drip;
But still the blank fog brooded round
Over an ocean without sound.
At last along the glassy seas
Crept faint upon his face a breeze,
And like a shadow soft and light
Stole up a little wave that knocked
Upon the stern; the boat was rocked;
He looked, and O heart--stilling sight!
She who sat there was not the same!
Before his eyes the winter old
Fell from her; the full hair outrolled
In splendour soft as springing flame,
Breathing out a perfume sweet,
Over her shoulders to her feet.
Now like a bloom her face became,
Her arms and bosom rounded fair,
And even then was Ruan 'ware
Of blueness breaking the white air
And his own shadow trembling there;
And ere his tongue strove into speech
The keel was grating on a beach.
When mortals gaze on goddesses,
So high the hope of our dreaming is,
The wonder loses fear, the charm
Drinks up the wonder; Ruan leapt
Upon a shore in sunshine warm,
And forth with him the Lady stept;
And each to the other lightly talked,
As 'twere their wont so, hand in hand,
To wander through a lovely land.
By solitary slopes they walked.
The mist was scattered, but still before them
Was blown in fleecy tuft and trail;
And tremulous mid the melting cloud,
Upon the bushes low that bore them
Were crimson flowers that danced and bowed,
And green leaves fluttered their edges pale.
In a moment's space behold
The blue noon fell to evening gold.
Suddenly before them stood
A palace silent in a wood.
A dream of the eyes when music fills the ear
By night, and through the lulled brain ebbs and flows,
Might build and colour so unearthly clear
So fair and strange a house as rose
On Ruan's eyes; such gleaming walls,
Delicate towers and airy porticoes.
Pillars of clear jade, whose pale capitals
Like tiger's claws were ivory, smooth and bright,
Upheld a lintel fair like fretted snows.
The carved work by its shadow glowed distinct;
No crevice but was brimmed with brooding light:
Upon the roof a bird of Atlas blinked,
Sun--drowned in splendour from the gorgeous West,
And preened his plumes with languid crest;
Open, beneath, a shadowy doorway stood;
And fragrant smoke from fires of citron wood
Beckoned to happy senses, and the guest
Bade cross the threshold, enter, and be blest.
By now they paused within a spacious room,
Curtained about with glimmering tapestries,
That in the hush and richness of the gloom
Hung like a forest gemmed with fancied eyes.
Pale tendrils twined about the clustered pipe
Of reeds, and black trunks branched above remote
To heavy fruit that hovered over--ripe
Of fiery gold and dull vermilion stripe,
A waste of boughs for wild birds' pillaging:
And over dimness large leaves seemed to float,
That here were spotted like a serpent's throat
And there were greener than a finch's wing.
It seemed to live, though all was whist,
And Ruan gazing seemed to hear
With heart--throb quickened into fear
The drooping briars writhe and twist,
The branches wave with stealthy stir
Of dappled leaves or dappled fur--
A sound as if the tangle hissed!
He trembled as the room he scanned.
The Lady clasped him by the hand.
He looked into her face; she stole
In that moment all his soul.
``Fear not, fear not; all is thine,
Ruan, so thou wilt be mine!
I am Morgaine, whom mortals call Le Fay,
And I have brought thee to my house this day
Because I love thee and will give thee more
Than thou hast dreamed in all thy life before.''
With that she kissed him on the mouth, and he
Was like warm wax before her witchery;
And as she spoke the arras changed to view
Tender and tremulous and clear in hue
As April woods of white anemone;
And in his heart fear died to joy anew.
She led him on with willing feet.
Through many a perfumed hall they glided;
His brain grew giddy with that incense sweet,
But still the smile of Morgaine guided
Betwixt slim pillars, on a floor
Of brindled coromandel wood,
Where now 'twas scented dusk no more
But airy peace calmed all his blood,
For in the wall a window wide
Looked out on magic eventide.
Far, far beneath them a blue lake was cupped
Hollow amid the twilight of a vale,
And over wan mist floating frail
A rosy mountain soared abrupt.
Black pines and gold--green mosses there
On rocks whose distance none could tell
Were pictured in the soundless air
And rivulets that faintly fell
As in some gorge of Saianfu,
Where from her porcelain palace--tower,
Lone on a crag's mist--cradled throne,
A princess leans amid the dew
Of such a marvellous evening hour
O'er balustrade and precipice,
Her lute and woven silk laid by,
Dreaming with a sudden sigh
Of the world--enchanting kiss.
With such a sigh was Ruan's bosom heaving,
With such a sting of beauty past believing,
When soft beside him spoke Morgaine, ``Come, tell:
O Ruan, doth my Kingdom please thee well?''
``Princess, princess,'' he answered, ``I am blest
Beyond all mortals: tell me thy behest
And I will be thy servant.'' But that word
She smiled away; his arms leapt round her, pressed
With mad joy, as she whispered ``Be my lord!''
Morgaine, that lurest the souls of men that are greedy of joy,
What soughtest thou out, Morgaine, in the face of a fisher--boy?
Were the souls of the great ones of earth so easy a prey to thy snare,
Lightly bound to thy hand by a single shining hair,
That the simple heart of a youth, untempted, in hard ways bred,
To thy siren hunger is sweeter than kings or captains dread?
Thou sang'st him songs that lapped him in utter forgetfulness
Of the green hills and the rocks and the waters of Westerness,
Till Time, like a wandering light that is stayed on an opal, shone
Kindled and many--coloured; the charmed days moved not on.
His thoughts were borne as idly as clouds on the slow South,
Or a willow leaf that glides on a wandering summer stream,
And the light that bathed his body, and breathed so sweet to his mouth
Was such as mortals know but in splendid rents of dream
Piercing the cloud of sleep from the dull day--world beguiled.
Together they sailed the calm of evening waters isled
With knolls of gemmy grass, and thickets of nightingales;
They gathered flowers and listened, and moved with drooping sails;
And anon they rose from a feast, from close--embowered delights,
To hunt the timid gazelles on passionate moonlit nights,
Blue nights of milky stars, where fluttering petals snowed
From windswept boughs and scented delicious dusk, and rode
Home by shadowy glades upon soft invisible lawn
Hand in hand through the dews of a shy dove--coloured dawn.
They drank of a fairy wine, till their hearts were weary of earth,
And them, embraced, the mighty wings of Phoenix bore
Up through the light exulting to soar and still to soar,
And the world dropped down beneath them; they clapped their hands in mirth
Mocking the baffled eagle: but how should mortal tell
What wonders Morgaine wove for Ruan in her spell
To charm the nights and days with hopes that never tire,
Morgaine of blissful body and eyes of far desire?
Count the hours that bind and freeze,
That break the breast and shake the knees!
What need of Time's all--patient dial
To him that drinks of this deep phial?
These perfumed hours of white and red
Flowered and were never shed.
It might have been a morning's span
Or twice and thrice the years of man:
For Ruan was not Then nor Now;
He was as young as his desire, as young
As on sweet lips an old song newly sung.
O idle thought to number how
The days onrushed, the morrow flushed,
Thicker than blossoms on an apple--bough.
But on a morn at early dawn awaking
He saw the cold light through the lattice breaking.
A spider there her web had made;
Softly in the air it swayed.
Memory in a drowsy muse
Lost and sought such filmy clues.
Till upon a sudden plain
In Ruan's vision, sharp like pain,
Pictured was his home again,
And the long nets, loosely hung
From the white wall, stirred and swung.
He rose and broke into a mournful cry,
Which Morgaine heard with half--shut eye
And caught him with both hands and strove
To turn him with soft words of love,
But he would not; so sharp a pang
Of desolation in him sprang
For all the dearness long forgot
In his own kind's deserted lot;
A tear fell from his eyelids hot
Upon the marble floor below.
He wept; and in an instant, lo!
Beheld the floor transparent glow.
Yawning, a spectral region shone
Where cold abysses plunged betwixt
Sheer mountain column--peaks whereon
That very palace--floor was fixt.
Ruan shuddered as he gazed.
For toward his eyes were eyes upraised
From human faces, forms that froze
Within the rock--walls as they rose,
A thousand forms, a prisoned host
Imbedded in the mountain frost.
But swift a storm of wind and fire
Up those abysses roared and rushed;
The shapes were stirred; a vain desire--
As they would struggle, nearer, higher,--
Their eyes awoke, their bodies flushed.
And then the blast as sudden passed,
The limbs of torment slowly sank
To ice--green languor, fleshless bone,
And starving ruggedness of stone;
The life within them swooned and shrank
To dungeoned attitudes again,
Their half--closed upturned eyes alone
Were gazing in the gaze of pain.
With eyes of horror opened wide
``Save me, save me!'' Ruan cried.
But Morgaine in her arms hath wound him,
Her panting fierce embrace hath bound him,
Her eyes exulting change and glow
Like lights upon a shaken sword.
She pants as in unearthly throe,
Her arms cling tighter than a cord;
How shall Ruan dare to brook
The demon challenge of her look?
``Listen, Ruan, canst thou hear
How the whole world cries in fear?
Lights not splendour in the air
To dance above the world's despair?
They toil in hunger, grief and night
For our desire, for our delight--
They the twisting roots, and we
The topmost red flower on the tree!''
But Ruan with both hands that pressed
Against the burning of her breast,
Trembled and groaned in that embrace,
And strove from that exultant face,
When soft she melted, sank before him, kneeled
And clung, beseeching him that would not yield.
``They are my flesh, my blood, and I
Must go to seek them, or I die.''
When Morgaine heard that lamentable cry
She knew the heart of joy in him was dead,
Looked in his soul and saw her hour had fled.
``Go then,'' she wept, ``but come again
To thy delight, to thy Morgaine.
Yet if thou go, this casket take with thee;
Hid in thy breast, 'twill guide thee safe to me
Without a rudder o'er the wandering sea,
But O beware thou never open this,
Else art thou lost and all thy hope of bliss.
Farewell!'' she kissed him. ``Farewell,'' Ruan said,
And took the casket with averted head,
Nor turned him back, but swiftly passed the door
Of the charmed house, and came to the seashore.
O what a calm as of old days come back
With their old wont and clear untroubled way
Lifted the heart of Ruan, on the track
Of ocean steering for his native bay!
Over blue waves the morning air sang sweet
Full on his sail; he was all fire to greet
The hearth of home, his father's joyful face,
His mother's tears and tremulous embrace.
He sailed beneath the summer's early noon
With the warm favouring wind; and strangely soon
Rose up the coast, till nearing on the swell
He saw the dark waves glitter as they fell
Against the cliff's worn bases, drained of foam.
Now he is past the headland. There is home!
The boats drawn up, the sands, and the green mound
Beyond them; peaceful, sunned, familiar ground.
It seemed he had not been three days away.
With a light heart he beached amid the spray
His boat, and moored it as of old, and sprang
Ashore; a young girl to a baby sang,
Sitting on fishing--nets spread forth to dry.
She looked up, and her song stopped, and her eye
Was filled with wonder; but impatiently
Ruan ran up the beach, where he might catch
The first glimpse of his father's cottage thatch.
He came, he looked; and the heart in him failed.
The house was not. What lonely strangeness ailed
The world? He thrust his hand within his vest
And felt the casket cold upon his breast.
Helpless he gazed; but lo, there slowly came
An old man with a stick, coughing and lame,
Bowed by his years; then towards him Ruan ran,
With a swift thought of pity, almost scorn,
In his young strength for such old age forlorn,
And cried upon the way, ``Old man, old man,
Where is my father? Surely thou know'st me;
I am Ruan, Ruan! I am home from sea.''
The old man lifted up his faint blue eye
And peered upon him slow and curiously
As on some strange thing from the sea upcast.
``Nay, Ruan's name I know not,'' came at last
The answer. Ruan cried, ``Dwell'st thou not here?''
``Ay, all my life, three--score and fifteen year.''
``And yet thou know'st not Ruan?'' The old man
Puzzled his withered brow as he began
Seeking some far--sunk memory in his brain.
``Ay, so it is,'' he slowly spoke again,
``They told a tale of Ruan; ay, 'tis so.
How he was lost, but that was long ago,
Hundreds of years, I think; he sailed away,
And his old parents died of grief, they say.''
He still spoke on: but Ruan heard no more,
For he was wandering fast along the shore
In the lone sunshine; aimlessly he strayed,
Dazzled and indescribably afraid.
On a sudden flamed a thought
Through his body: straight he sought
Within his breast the casket hid,
Crying, ``Morgaine, thou shalt tell,
Though the answer come from Hell!''
With trembling fingers he undid
The silken cord, the golden lid.
Lo, from the opened casket broke
A stealing skein of purple smoke,
A wandering faint cloud of perfume
That rippled up in filmy plume,
And lingered, faltering like a prayer,
Then melted into sunlit air.
Three hundred years had melted there,
Three hundred years of faery bliss,
Perished sooner than a single kiss!
As Ruan stares upon the empty box,
His outstretched fingers stiffen stark,
His cheek is shrivelled, his eyes grow dark,
Either knee together knocks;
Ere he can pray, ere he can groan.
Swift as grass in a furnace thrown,
Or a crumpled clod in a heedless hand,
He withers into whitened bone.
Where his breathing body stood,
Flushed with life and warm with blood
Is a heap of ashes, a drift of sand,
And the wind blowing, and the silent strand.

Last updated January 14, 2019