WHEN on the West broke light from out the East,
Then from the splendour and the shame of Rome--
Renouncing wealth and pleasure, game and feast,
And all the joys of his polluted home,
Desiring not the gifts his world could give,
If haply he might save his soul and live--
Into the desert's heart a man had come.

His God had died for love of him, and he
For love of God would die to all of these
Sweet sins he had not known for sins, and be
Estranged for evermore from rest and ease;
His days in penance spent might half atone
For the iniquity of days bygone,
And in the desert might his soul find peace.

Crossing wide seas, he reached an alien land:
By mighty harbours and broad streams he passed
Into an arid, trackless waste of sand,
And journeying ever faster and more fast,
Left men behind, and onward still did press
To a ruined city in the wilderness,
And there he stayed his restless feet at last.

There stood long lines of columns richly wrought,
Colossal statues of forgotten kings,
Vast shadowy temples, court within dim court,
Great shapes of man-faced beasts with wide firm wings;
And in and out each broken colonnade
The bright-eyed, swift, green-gleaming lizards played,
In that still place the only living things.

But when the moon unveiled her still, white face,
And over sand and stone her glory shed--
Another life awoke within the place,
And great beasts stalked, with silent heavy tread,
Through pillared vista, over marble floor,
And the stern menace of the lion's roar
Made horrible the city of the dead.

Like a great bird soft sinking on its nest,
Too lightly to disturb its tender brood,
The night, with dark spread wings and cloudy breast,
Sank on the desert city's solitude
As he drew near. The shadows grew more dense,
The silence stronger; weariness intense
Fell on him then, and only rest seemed good.

He passed between tall pillars' sculptured gloom,
And entered a deserted, lightless fane,
And knew not if it temple were, or tomb,
But slept and slept, till over all the plain
The level sunbeams spread, and earth was bright
With morning's radiant resurrection-light;
Then he awoke, refreshed and strong again.

Through empty courts he passed, and lo! a wall
Whereon was imaged all the languid grace
Of fairest women, and among them all
Shone like a star one lovely Eastern face:
Undimmed by centuries the colours were,
Bright as when first the painter found her fair,
And set her there to glorify the place.

All he had fled from suddenly drew near,
And from her eyes a challenge seemed down-thrown;
'Ah, fool!' she seemed to say, 'what dost thou here?
How canst thou bear this stern, sad life alone,
When I--not just this face that copies me,
But I myself--stretch arms and lips to thee,
From that same world whose joys thou hast foregone?'

His heart leaped up like flame--she was so fair;
Then with a start he hid his eyes and fled
Into the hotness of the outer air.
His pulse beat quickly. 'Oh, my God!' he said,
'These be the heart made pure, and cleansèd brain!
I vow to Thee to never look again
On women, real or painted, quick or dead!'

So lest within the city he should find,
To tempt his soul, still some accursèd thing,
He left the palaces and courts behind,
Found a green spot, with date-palms and a spring
And built himself a rough stone shelter there
And saw no more the face, so strange and fair
That had begot such vain imagining.

He tilled the patch of land, and planted seeds
Which from his own far country he had brought;
And, caring little for his body's needs,
Strove still by blind belief to strangle thought,
By ceaseless penance to deny desire,
To quench in prayer and fast all human fire,
And wrest from Heaven the blessings that he sought.

And there peace found him, and he dwelt alone,
And gladly gave his life to God. Behind
Lay the long dim arcades of graven stone;
Before him lay the desert, burning blind
Sometimes with the dread dance of its own sand,
That wildly whirled in shadowy columns, fanned
By the hot breath of the fierce desert wind.

Each day passed by as had passed other days,
And days gone by were as the days to come,
Save that on some days he was wild with praise,
And weak with vigil and with fast on some;
And no man saw he for long months and years,
But ever did he penance with hot tears,
And but for prayer and praise his lips were dumb.

Sometimes at first, when spent with watch and prayer,
He saw again the Imperial City's towers,
Where, in a mist of music and sweet air,
Thais and Phryne crowned his cup with flowers--
He saw the easeful day, the festal night,
The life that was one dream of long delight,
One rose-red glow of rapture and fair hours.

He heard old well-remembered voices cry,
'Come back to us! Think of the joys you miss;
Each moment floats some foregone rapture by,
A cup, a crown, a song, a laugh, a kiss!
Cast down that crown of thorns, return, and be
Once more flower-crowned, love-thrilled, wine-warmed, and see
The old sweet life--how good a thing it is!'

But his soul answered, 'Nay, I am content;
Ye call in vain; the desert shuts me in.
Your flowers are sere, your wine with gall is blent,
Your sweets have all the sickening taste of sin;
Such sin I expiate with ceaseless pain,
And world and flesh and devil strive in vain
Back from its sanctuary my soul to win.

'Fair are the Imperial City's towers to see?
I seek the City with the streets of gold.
Beside the lilies God has grown for me
Faint are the roses that your fingers hold.
Ear hath not heard the music I shall hear,
Eye hath not seen the joys that shall appear,
Nor heart conceived the things I shall behold.'

After long days a stranger halted there,
For some far distant monastery bound.
The hermit fed and lodged, nor could forbear
To tell his guest what rest his soul had found
How with the world he long ago had done,
How the hard battle had been fought and won,
And he found peace, pure, perfect and profound.

The stranger answered, 'Thou hast watched an hour,
But many hours go to make up our day,
And some of these are dark with fateful power,
And Satan watches for our souls alway;
The spirit may be willing, but indeed
The flesh is weak, and so much more the need
To pray and watch, my brother, watch and pray.'

The Roman bowed his head in mute assent,
And, having served the stranger with his best,
Bade him God-speed, and down the way he went--
Gazed sadly after, but within his breast
A pale fire of resentment sprang to flame
Was he not holy now, and void of blame,
And certain of himself, and pure, and blest?

That night a new-born desolation grew
Within his heart as he made fast the stone
Against the doorway of his hut, and knew
How more than ever he was now alone.
He was in darkness, but the moon without
Made a new tender daylight round about
The hut, the palms, the plot with millet sown.

Hark!--what was that?--For many months and years
He had not heard that faint uncertain noise,
Broken, and weak, and indistinct with tears--
A voice--a human voice--a woman's voice.
'Oh, let me in,' it wailed, 'before I die!
Oh, let me in, for Holy Charity!
For see--my life or death is at thy choice!'

Unthinking, swift he rolled the stone away:
There stood a woman, trembling, shrinking, thin;
Her pale hair by the moon's white light looked grey,
And grey her hands and grey her withered skin.
'Oh, save me--lest I die among the beasts
Who roam, and roar, and hold their fearful feasts!
Oh, save me,' she besought him, 'let me in!'

Troubled, he answered, 'Nay, I have a vow
Never again a woman's face to see!'
'But, ah,' she cried, 'thy vow is broken now,
For at this moment thou beholdest me.
I cannot journey farther. Help!' she said,
'Or I before the dawning shall be dead,
And thou repent to all eternity!'

His soul was gentle and compassionate.
'Thou shalt not perish--enter here,' he said;
'My vow is broken, and thy need is great.'
She staggered forward to the dry leaf bed,
And sank upon it, cold and still and white.
'Perhaps she may not live until the light,'
He thought, and lifted up her drooping head,

And gave her wine from out a little store
Which he had kept untouched since first he came;
He rolled the stone again before his door
To keep the night air from her wasted frame;
And, though his vow was broken, somehow knew
That he was doing what was right to do,
Yet felt a weight of unacknowledged blame.

And many a day he tended her and fed;
But ever after that first night's surprise
With earnest vigilance he held his head
Averted, and downcast he kept his eyes.
His vow, though broken once, was still his law;
He looked upon her face no more, nor saw
Her whom he cared for in such kindly wise.

She never spoke to him, nor he to her--
That she was sick and sad was all he knew;
He never asked her what her past days were,
Nor of the future, what she meant to do.
So dwelt they, till the full moon's yellow light
Flooded the world once more. Then came the night
Which all his life had been a prelude to.

The stone was moved a little from the door,
And near it he was kneeling rapt in prayer
Upon the cold uneven earthen floor;
The moonbeams passed him by, and rested where
The woman slept--her breathing soft and slow,
With rhythmic cadence even, restful, low,
Stirring the stillness of the cool night air

His prayer being ended, as he turned to rest,
He chanced to let his eyes fall carelessly
Upon the figure that the moon caressed,
The woman that his care had not let die.
And now no more he turned his face aside,
But gazed, and gazed, and still unsatisfied
His eager look fed on her, hungrily.

On her? On whom? The suppliant he had saved,
Thin, hollow-cheeked and sunken-eyed had been,
With shrunken brow whereon care-lines were graved,
With withered arms, dull hair, and fingers lean.
'Has my blind care transformed her so?' he said;
For she was gone, and there lay in her stead
The loveliest woman he had ever seen.

The rags she wore but made her seem more sweet,
Since in despite of them she was so fair;
The rough brown leaves quite covered up her feet,
But left one ivory arm and shoulder bare,
The other lay beneath the little head,
And over all the moonlit couch was spread
The sunlight-coloured wonder of her hair.

He could not move, nor turn away his gaze:
How long he stood and looked he could not guess.
At last she faintly sighed, and in her face
Trembled the dawn of coming consciousness;
The eyelids quivered, and the red lips stirred,
As if they tried to find some sweet lost wo

And then her eyelids lifted, and he met
Full in his dazzled eyes the glorious light
Of eyes that he had struggled to forget
Since he had broken from their spells of might--
The Eastern eyes that from the painted wall
Had lightened down upon him, to enthral
Senses and soul with fetters of delight.

He knew her now, his love without a name,
Who in his dreams had looked on him and smiled,
And almost back to his old world of shame
His unconsenting manhood had beguiled!
There was no world now any more. At last
He knew that all--his future, present, past--
In her sole self was fused and reconciled.

The moments fled as in a dream divine:
Fire filled his veins--there beat within his brain
The madness that is born of love or wine;
And her eyes gleamed--softened and gleamed again,
And in those stormy seas he gazed, until
Her beauty seemed the whole vast night to fill,
And all, save her, seemed valueless and vain.

Then, with her eyes still deep in his, she rose
And moved towards him, and a wave of bliss
Flooded his sense with the wild joy that goes
Before a longed-for, almost granted kiss,
And slowly she drew nearer to his side--
Then, with a smile like mid-June's dawn, she sighed,
And turned to him, and laid her hand on his.

And at the touch, all he had deemed effaced--
All the heart-searing passions of his past--
Surged up, and their destroying wave laid waste
The ordered garden of his soul. At last
The spell of silence broke, and suddenly
The man's whole heart found voice in one low cry,
As round her perfect head his arms he cast--

And did not clasp her, for his foiled arms crossed
Only upon his own tumultuous breast!
His wrecked heart, tempest driven, passion tossed,
Beat fierce against his own hand on it pressed.
As on June fields might fall December frost,
In one cold breath he knew that she was lost--
Eternally foregone and unpossessed.

For even as he clasped she had seemed to melt,
And fade into the misty moonlit air;
His arms were empty, yet his hand still felt
The touch of her hand that had rested there:
But she was gone, with all her maddening grace--
The solitude and silence, in her place,
Like a chill searching wind crept everywhere.

Silence--at first. Then suddenly outbroke
A little laugh. And then, above, around,
A hideous peal of laughter, shout on shout,
Re-echoing from sky, and air, and ground;
And in his devastated soul had birth
A horrid echo of that demon mirth,
And with his human voice he swelled its sound.

'Tricked, fooled!' he laughed. 'We laugh, the fiends and I,
They for their triumph, I to feel my fall!
From snares like these is no security,
In desert wild or close-built city wall:
And since I must be tempted, let me go
And brave the old temptations that I know;
Not these, that are but phantoms after all--

'Phantoms, not living women, warm and real,
As the fair Roman women were. And yet
The phantom only is my soul's ideal,
Longed for through all the years and never met
Till now; and only now to make hell worse--
To fan my fires of infinite remorse
With the cold wind of infinite regret.

'Back to the world, the world of love and sin!
For since my soul is lost, I claim its price!
Prayers are not heard. The God I trusted in
Has failed me once--He shall not fail me twice!
No more of that wild striving and intense
For irrecoverable innocence--
No more of useless, vain self-sacrifice!

'Life is too potent and too passionate,
Against whose force I all these years have striven
In vain, in vain! Our own lives make our Fate;
And by our Fate our lives are blindly driven!
There is no refuge in the hermit's cell
From memories enough to make a hell--
Of chances lost that might have made a heaven!'

Back to his world he went, and plunged anew
Into the old foul life's polluted tide;
But ever in his sweetest feast he knew
A longing never to be satisfied:
This strange wild wickedness, that new mad sin,
Might be the frame to find her picture in;
And if that failed, some other must be tried.

And in the search, soul, body, heart, and brain
Were blasted and destroyed, and still his prize,
Ever untouched, seemed always just to gain,
And just beyond his reach shone Paradise.
So followed he, too faithfully, too well,
Through death, into the very gate of hell,
The love-light of those unforgotten eyes!


About Edith Nesbit


Edith Nesbit (married name Edith Bland) was an English author and poet whose children's works were published under the name of E. Nesbit. She wrote or collaborated on over 60 books of fiction for children, several of which have been adapted for film and television. She was also a political activist and co-founded the Fabian Society, a precursor to the modern Labour Party. Biography Nesbit was born in 1858 at 38 Lower Kennington Lane in Kennington, Surrey (now part of Greater London), the daughter of an agricultural chemist, John Collis Nesbit, who died in March 1862, before her fourth birthday.... Read more...

Poet of the day

Malay Roy Choudhury (Bengali: মলয় রায়চৌধুরী) is a Bengali poet and novelist who founded the "Hungryalist Movement" in the 1960s. His literary works have been reviewed by sixty critics in HAOWA 49, a quarterly magazine which devoted its January 2001 special issue to Roy Choudhury's life and works. Commemorative issues...
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Poem of the day


À d'autres l'Italie et ses mers azurées,
Et ses villes toujours d'un chaud soleil dorées,
Venise qu'on dirait, avec ses grands palais,
Une flotte échouée au bord de sa lagune,
Où le pêcheur croit prendre, aux clartés de la lune,
Les étoiles dans ses filets...
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