Two Kings, After Yeats
Bendigeidfran came at dawn to a forgotten wood,
east of Tara, where the sea is green.
Outridden, had he, all folly and foe
that compounded smaller men like briars,
and where the oak and pine stood long in light
upon the ground of fallen sky, he saw a stag.
Darker than the day in winter’s hand
it stood upon his path and seemed
more span in height than any other than he.
He stopped, and tightened rein on Rhiannon’s borrowed mare
whose ears lay flat as the stillest pool
but the stag did not stoop, or run them down, but passed
the horse’s flank as if a ghost, caught busy in a sailor’s fog.
Bendigeidfran drew his sword to hold its bevelled point
at the oblivious haunch - but when horn and steel were met
the world was rung as though sound were blood,
a sweet and miraculous, liquid arc of moon song
silver in the trembling air,
resonant as if a god had met his shadow
amongst the elaborate wilderness
of a musician’s thorny lair.
The voice was low yet pierced
through armour like an enchanted spear.
Dropping the blade, Bendigeidfran grabbed at antlers
in his mammoth hands, and stared
into those majestic eyes, where all was born
until the pace and dissonance of men
grew thinner than the wind. Across this faltering might
the two kings thus were met, where time had lost its form
with hoof and horn, a ground sucking at their speed
their frame and channels deep with bone
in liminal copse and bog brush, waiting.
There, where beach stones once struck fire
and nine leaves sheltered hazelnuts like maidens on a distant hill,
they drew themselves as lightning
uncertain if to strike or bow, hope balanced on the judgement of a storm.
The stag grew silken with a crown of birds
and on the instant of their indecision, tall as stars,
he vanished, evaporating like a newborn cry
with harmony, longing, in black seagulls, high
such that it felt the very earth had paled
with grief at some unimaginable treasure, gone,
transient between the green and blue,
climbing into spray, tumbling away.
Till all had seemed a vision, cast
but for the trodden mire and tide
where reflections swam with a morgen’s grace
beside the patient horse, her mane so grey.
Bendigeidfran knelt upon a breath
and listened to the echoes fading into day
knowing that silence brings no good to kings
he beat his heart to the rhythm of the apparition’s wing
and knew himself to be now blessed
in the company of sea trees, dreaming; and the singing of a stag.
Two Kings, W.B.Yeats, 1916
(From 'Responsabilities and Other Poems')
KING EOCHAID came at sundown to a wood
Westward of Tara. Hurrying to his queen
He had outridden his war-wasted men
That with empounded cattle trod the mire,
And where beech-trees had mixed a pale green light
With the ground-ivy's blue, he saw a stag
Whiter than curds, its eyes the tint of the sea.
Because it stood upon his path and seemed
More hands in height than any stag in the world
He sat with tightened rein and loosened mouth
Upon his trembling horse, then drove the spur;
But the stag stooped and ran at him, and passed,
Rending the horse's flank. King Eochaid reeled,
Then drew his sword to hold its levelled point
Against the stag. When horn and steel were met
The horn resounded as though it had been silver,
A sweet, miraculous, terrifying sound.
Horn locked in sword, they tugged and struggled there
As though a stag and unicorn were met
Among the African Mountains of the Moon,
Until at last the double horns, drawn backward,
Butted below the single and so pierced
The entrails of the horse. Dropping his sword
King Eochaid seized the horns in his strong hands
And stared into the sea-green eye, and so
Hither and thither to and fro they trodTill all the place was beaten into mire.
The strong thigh and the agile thigh were met,
The hands that gathered up the might of the world,
And hoof and horn that had sucked in their speed
Amid the elaborate wilderness of the air.
Through bush they plunged and over ivied root,
And where the stone struck fire, while in the leaves
A squirrel whinnied and a bird screamed out
But when at last he forced those sinewy flanks
Against a beech-bole, he threw down the beast
And knelt above it with drawn knife. On the instant
It vanished like a shadow, and a cry
So mournful that it seemed the cry of one
Who had lost some unimaginable treasure
Wandered between the blue and the green leaf
And climbed into the air, crumbling away,
Till all had seemed a shadow or a vision
But for the trodden mire, the pool of blood,
The disembowelled horse.
King Eochaid ran
Toward peopled Tara, nor stood to draw his breath
Until he came before the painted wall,
The posts of polished yew, circled with bronze,
Of the great door; but though the hanging lamps
Showed their faint light through the unshuttered windows,
Nor door, nor mouth, nor slipper made a noise,
Nor on the ancient beaten paths, that wound
From well-side or from plough-land, was there noisc;
Nor had there been the noise of living thing
Before him or behind, but that far off
On the horizon edge bellowed the herds.
Knowing that silence brings no good to kings,
And mocks returning victory, he passed
Between the pillars with a beating heart
And saw where in the midst of the great hall
pale-faced, alone upon a bench, Edain
Sat upright with a sword before her feet.
Her hands on either side had gripped the bench.
Her eyes were cold and steady, her lips tight.
Some passion had made her stone. Hearing a foot
She started and then knew whose foot it was;
But when he thought to take her in his arms
She motioned him afar, and rose and spoke:
'I have sent among the fields or to the woods
The fighting-men and servants of this house,
For I would have your judgment upon one
Who is self-accused. If she be innocent
She would not look in any known man's face
Till judgment has been given, and if guilty,
Would never look again on known man's face.'
And at these words hc paled, as she had paled,
Knowing that he should find upon her lips
The meaning of that monstrous day.
'You brought me where your brother Ardan sat
Always in his one seat, and bid me care him
Through that strange illness that had fixed him there.
And should he die to heap his burial-mound
And catve his name in Ogham.' Eochaid said,
'He lives?' 'He lives and is a healthy man.'
'While I have him and you it matters little
What man you have lost, what evil you have found.'
'I bid them make his bed under this roof
And carried him his food with my own hands,
And so the weeks passed by. But when I said,
''What is this trouble?'' he would answer nothing,
Though always at my words his trouble grew;
And I but asked the more, till he cried out,
Weary of many questions: ''There are things
That make the heart akin to the dumb stone.''
Then I replied, ''Although you hide a secret,
Hopeless and dear, or terrible to think on,
Speak it, that I may send through the wide world
Day after day you question me, and I,
Because there is such a storm amid my thoughts
I shall be carried in the gust, command,
Forbid, beseech and waste my breath.'' Then I:
Although the thing that you have hid were evil,
The speaking of it could be no great wrong,
And evil must it be, if done 'twere worse
Than mound and stone that keep all virtue in,
And loosen on us dreams that waste our life,
Shadows and shows that can but turn the brain.''
but finding him still silent I stooped down
And whispering that none but he should hear,
Said, ''If a woman has put this on you,
My men, whether it please her or displease,
And though they have to cross the Loughlan waters
And take her in the middle of armed men,
Shall make her look upon her handiwork,
That she may quench the rick she has fired; and though
She may have worn silk clothes, or worn a crown,
She'II not be proud, knowing within her heart
That our sufficient portion of the world
Is that we give, although it be brief giving,
Happiness to children and to men.''
Then he, driven by his thought beyond his thought,
And speaking what he would not though he would,
Sighed, ''You, even you yourself, could work the cure!''
And at those words I rose and I went out
And for nine days he had food from other hands,
And for nine days my mind went whirling round
The one disastrous zodiac, muttering
That the immedicable mound's beyond
Our questioning, beyond our pity even.
But when nine days had gone I stood again
Before his chair and bending down my head
I bade him go when all his household slept
To an old empty woodman's house that's hidden
Westward of Tara, among the hazel-trees --
For hope would give his limbs the power -- and await
A friend that could, he had told her, work his cure
And would be no harsh friend.
When night had deepened,
I groped my way from beech to hazel wood,
Found that old house, a sputtering torch within,
And stretched out sleeping on a pile of skins
Ardan, and though I called to him and tried
To Shake him out of sleep, I could not rouse him.
I waited till the night was on the turn,
Then fearing that some labourer, on his way
To plough or pasture-land, might see me there,
Among the ivy-covered rocks,
As on the blue light of a sword, a man
Who had unnatural majesty, and eyes
Like the eyes of some great kite scouring the woods,
Stood on my path. Trembling from head to foot
I gazed at him like grouse upon a kite;
But with a voice that had unnatural music,
''A weary wooing and a long,'' he said,
''Speaking of love through other lips and looking
Under the eyelids of another, for it was my craft
That put a passion in the sleeper there,
And when I had got my will and drawn you here,
Where I may speak to you alone, my craft
Sucked up the passion out of him again
And left mere sleep. He'll wake when the sun wakes,
push out his vigorous limbs and rub his eyes,
And wonder what has ailed him these twelve months.''
I cowered back upon the wall in terror,
But that sweet-sounding voice ran on: ''Woman,
I was your husband when you rode the air,
Danced in the whirling foam and in the dust,
In days you have not kept in memory,
Being betrayed into a cradle, and I come
That I may claim you as my wife again.''
I was no longer terrified -- his voice
Had half awakened some old memory --
Yet answered him, ''I am King Eochaid's wife
And with him have found every happiness
Women can find.'' With a most masterful voice,
That made the body seem as it were a string
Under a bow, he cried, ''What happiness
Can lovers have that know their happiness
Must end at the dumb stone? But where we build
Our sudden palaces in the still air
pleasure itself can bring no weariness.
Nor can time waste the cheek, nor is there foot
That has grown weary of the wandering dance,
Nor an unlaughing mouth, but mine that mourns,
Among those mouths that sing their sweethearts' praise,
Your empty bed.'' ''How should I love,'' I answered,
''Were it not that when the dawn has lit my bed
And shown my husband sleeping there, I have sighcd,
'Your strength and nobleness will pass away'?
Or how should love be worth its pains were it not
That when he has fallen asleep within my atms,
Being wearied out, I love in man the child?
What can they know of love that do not know
She builds her nest upon a narrow ledge
Above a windy precipice?'' Then he:
''Seeing that when you come to the deathbed
You must return, whether you would or no,
This human life blotted from memory,
Why must I live some thirty, forty years,
Alone with all this useless happiness?''
Thereon he seized me in his arms, but I
Thrust him away with both my hands and cried,
''Never will I believe there is any change
Can blot out of my memory this life
Sweetened by death, but if I could believe,
That were a double hunger in my lips
For what is doubly brief.''
And now the shape
My hands were pressed to vanished suddenly.
I staggered, but a beech-tree stayed my fall,
And clinging to it I could hear the cocks
Crow upon Tara.'
King Eochaid bowed his head
And thanked her for her kindness to his brother,
For that she promised, and for that refused.
Thereon the bellowing of the empounded herds
Rose round the walls, and through the bronze-ringed door
Jostled and shouted those war-wasted men,
And in the midst King Eochaid's brother stood,
And bade all welcome, being ignorant.