by George Meredith
Beneath the vans of doom did men pass in.
Heroic who came out; for round them hung
A wavering phantom's red volcano tongue,
With league-long lizard tail and fishy fin:
Old Earth's original Dragon; there retired
To his last fastness; overthrown by few.
Him a laborious thrust of roadway slew.
Then man to play devorant straight was fired.
More intimate became the forest fear
While pillared darkness hatched malicious life
At either elbow, wolf or gnome or knife
And wary slid the glance from ear to ear.
In chillness, like a clouded lantern-ray,
The forest's heart of fog on mossed morass,
On purple pool and silky cotton-grass,
Revealed where lured the swallower byway.
Dead outlook, flattened back with hard rebound
Off walls of distance, left each mounted height.
It seemed a giant hag-fiend, churning spite
Of humble human being, held the ground.
Through friendless wastes, through treacherous woodland, slow
The feet sustained by track of feet pursued
Pained steps, and found the common brotherhood
By sign of Heaven indifferent, Nature foe.
Anon a mason's work amazed the sight,
And long-frocked men, called Brothers, there abode.
They pointed up, bowed head, and dug and sowed;
Whereof was shelter, loaf, and warm firelight.
What words they taught were nails to scratch the head.
Benignant works explained the chanting brood.
Their monastery lit black solitude,
As one might think a star that heavenward led.
Uprose a fairer nest for weary feet,
Like some gold flower nightly inward curled,
Where gentle maidens fled a roaring world,
Or played with it, and had their white retreat.
Into big books of metal clasps they pored.
They governed, even as men; they welcomed lays.
The treasures women are whose aim is praise,
Was shown in them: the Garden half restored.
A deluge billow scoured the land off seas,
With widened jaws, and slaughter was its foam.
For food, for clothing, ambush, refuge, home,
The lesser savage offered bogs and trees.
Whence reverence round grey-haired story grew:
And inmost spots of ancient horror shone
As temples under beams of trials bygone;
For in them sang brave times with God in view.
Till now trim homesteads bordered spaces green,
Like night's first little stars through clearing showers.
Was rumoured how a castle's falcon towers
The wilderness commanded with fierce mien.
Therein a serious Baron stuck his lance;
For minstrel songs a beauteous Dame would pout.
Gay knights and sombre, felon or devout,
Pricked onward, bound for their unsung romance.
It might be that two errant lords across
The block of each came edged, and at sharp cry
They charged forthwith, the better man to try.
One rode his way, one couched on quiet moss.
Perchance a lady sweet, whose lord lay slain,
The robbers into gruesome durance drew.
Swift should her hero come, like lightning's blue!
She prayed for him, as crackling drought for rain.
As we, that ere the worst her hero haps,
Of Angels guided, nigh that loathly den:
A toady cave beside an ague fen,
Where long forlorn the lone dog whines and yaps.
By daylight now the forest fear could read
Itself, and at new wonders chuckling went.
Straight for the roebuck's neck the bowman spent
A dart that laughed at distance and at speed.
Right loud the bugle's hallali elate
Rang forth of merry dingles round the tors;
And deftest hand was he from foreign wars,
But soon he hailed the home-bred yeoman mate.
Before the blackbird pecked the turf they woke;
At dawn the deer's wet nostrils blew their last.
To forest, haunt of runs and prime repast,
With paying blows, the yokel strained his yoke.
The city urchin mooned on forest air,
On grassy sweeps and flying arrows, thick
As swallows o'er smooth streams, and sighed him sick
For thinking that his dearer home was there.
Familiar, still unseized, the forest sprang
An old-world echo, like no mortal thing.
The hunter's horn might wind a jocund ring,
But held in ear it had a chilly clang.
Some shadow lurked aloof of ancient time;
Some warning haunted any sound prolonged,
As though the leagues of woodland held them wronged
To hear an axe and see a township climb.
The forest's erewhile emperor at eve
Had voice when lowered heavens drummed for gales.
At midnight a small people danced the dales,
So thin that they might dwindle through a sieve
Ringed mushrooms told of them, and in their throats,
Old wives that gathered herbs and knew too much.
The pensioned forester beside his crutch,
Struck showers from embers at those bodeful notes.
Came then the one, all ear, all eye, all heart;
Devourer, and insensibly devoured;
In whom the city over forest flowered,
The forest wreathed the city's drama-mart.
There found he in new form that Dragon old,
From tangled solitudes expelled; and taught
How blindly each its antidote besought;
For either's breath the needs of either told.
Now deep in woods, with song no sermon's drone,
He showed what charm the human concourse works:
Amid the press of men, what virtue lurks
Where bubble sacred wells of wildness lone.
Our conquest these: if haply we retain
The reverence that ne'er will overrun
Due boundaries of realms from Nature won,
Nor let the poet's awe in rapture wane.
Last updated January 14, 2019