Selections from The Charnel Rose: A Symphony

Conrad Aiken

on this page:

I. Part 1
I. Part 2
I. Part 3
I. Part 4
I. Part 5

II. Part 1

IV. Part 6

Poets' Corner Scripting
© 2008 S.L. Spanoudis and
All rights reserved worldwide.

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. The Charnel Rose: A Symphony

     I. Part 1

    She rose in moonlight, and stood, confronting sea,
    With her bare arms uplifted,
    And lifted her voice in the silence foolishly:
    And her face was small, and her voice was small.
    'O moon!' she cried, 'I think how you must tire
    Forever circling earth, so silently;
    Earth, who is dark and makes you no reply.'
    She only heard the little waves rush and fall;
    And saw the moon go quietly down the sky.

    Like a white figurehead in the seafaring wind,
    She stood in the moonlight,
    And heard her voice cry, ghostly and thinned,
    Over the seethe of foam,
    Saying, 'O numberless waters, I think it strange
    How you can always shadow her face, and change
    And yet never weary of her, having no ease.'
    But the sea said nothing, no word at all:
    Unquietly, as in sleep, she saw it rise and fall;
    And the moon spread a net of silver over the foam.

    She lifted her hands and let them fall again,
    Impatient of the silence. And in despair,
    Hopeless of final answer against her pain,
    She said, to the stealthy air,
    'O air, far traveler, who from the stars are blown,
    Float pollen of suns, you are an unseen sea
    Lifting and bearing the words, eternally.
    O air, do you not weary of your task?'
    -- She stood in the silence, frightened and alone,
    And heard her syllables ask and ask.

    And then, as she walked in the moonlight, so alone,
    Lost and small in a soulless sea,
    Hearing no voice make answer to her own,
    From that infinity, --
    Suddenly she was aware of a low whisper,
    A dreadful heartless sound; and she stood still, --
    There in the beach grass, on a sandy hill, --
    And heard the stars, making a ghostly whisper;
    And the soulless whisper of sun and moon and tree;
    And the sea, rising and falling with a blind moan.

    And as she faded into the night,
    A glimmer of white,
    With her arms uplifted and her face bowed down;
    Sinking, again, into the sleep of sands,
    The sea-sands white and brown;
    Or among the sea-grass rustling as one more blade,
    Pushing before her face her cinquefoil hands;
    Or sliding, stealthy as foam, into the sea,
    With a slow seethe and whisper:

    Too late to find her, yet not too late to see,
    Came he, who sought forever unsatisfied,
    And saw her enter and shut the darkness,
    Desired and swift,
    And caught at the rays of the moon, yet found but darkness,
    Caught at the flash of his feet, to fill his hands
    With the sleepy pour of sands.

    'O moon!' he said: 'was it you I followed?
    You, who put silver madness into my eyes? --'
    But he only heard, in the dark, a stifled laughter,
    And the rattle of dead leaves blowing.
    'O wind! --' he said -- 'was it you I followed?
    Your hand I felt against my face? --'
    But he only heard, in the dark, a stifled laughter,
    And shadows crept past him. with furtive pace,
    Breathing night upon him; and one by one
    The ghosts of leaves flew past him, seeking the sun.

    And a silent star slipped golden down the darkness,
    Down the great wall, leaving no trace in the sky,
    And years went with it, and worlds. And he dreamed still
    Of a fleeter shadow among the shadows running,
    Foam into foam, without a gesture or cry,
    Leaving him there, alone, on a lonely hill.

     I. Part 2

    Evening: in the twilight town
    One by one the stars stepped down,
    Each to assume his destined place:
    And there he saw the destined face.

    Her eyes were void, here eyes were deep:
    She came like one who moved in sleep:
    And when she looked across the night
    Beneath, among, those points of light,
    Into his heart she shot a pang,
    As if a voice within him sang,
    Sang and was silent. Down the street,
    And lost in darkness, fled the feet;
    Ambiguous, the street-lamp's gleam
    Mocked at her eyes, and then the dream
    From shuttered window, shadowed hall,
    Chuckled beyond a lampless wall.

    Among the crowding lights he went,
    Where faces massed like lilies blent,
    And this time plucked and made his own
    Above snarled music's undertone:
    Breathing the perfume of her hair,
    He touched her arm, but suddenly there
    As in a dance of shadows fleeing
    (His eyes were shut for fear of seeing)
    He watched red roses dropt apart
    Each to disclose a charnel heart.

    Ghostly with powder in the night,
    Her hand upon his arm was white:
    Her gown was light, and lightly blew,
    A gauze of flame it burned him through.
    Under the singing lamp she stood,
    And smiled in subtly fugitive mood,
    From depth to depth of wingless skies
    Withdrawing batlike down her eyes:
    And in his heart an echo came
    Of quick dust quaking under flame.

    Pale walls enclosed them. One light shed
    A yellow flicker across the bed.
    Loud steps rang through the street, and then
    The hush of night grew deep again.
    Two shadows on the wall made one --
    What human walls were here flung down,
    The light extinguished as in pain,
    The weak light dying in the brain?
    Green leaves pushed up through yielding air
    Greedy for life she loosed her hair
    With conscious and indifferent hands.
    . . . High on his cliff, above hard sands,
    He saw the moonlit ocean come
    In ever-inward rings of foam,
    Heard them break to shoot and seethe
    Ever inward far beneath:
    The ringed horizon rhythmic coming
    And in the moonlight silent foaming:
    But the dream changed: thick minutes dripped:
    Between his fingers a fleet light slipped:
    Was gone, was lost:
    And on the sand, or in his brain,
    He saw red roses fall again:
    Rose-wreathed skeletons advanced
    And clumsily lifted foot and danced:
    And he saw the roses drop apart
    Each to disclose a charnel heart.

    Whose were these loathed and empty eyes?
    Who, falling, in these wingless skies?
    This was not she: he rose, withdrew:
    One shadow on the wall made two,
    The human walls stood up again:
    Far in the night, or in his brain,
    He heard her whisper, felt her pass,
    Shadow of spirit over glass.

     I. Part 3

    And a silent star slipped golden down the darkness,
    Taking his life with it, like a little cloud
    Consumed in fire and speed, diffused in darkness:
    Tangled and caught together, the days, the years,
    His voice, his lifted hands,
    Were raveled and sped; where, by the sea, he bowed
    And dreamed of the foam that crept back into the sea,
    And the wandering leaves that crept back into the tree.

     I. Part 4

    Roses, he thought, were kin to her,
    Pure text of dust; and learning these
    He might more surely win to her,
    Speak her own tongue to pledge and please.
    What vernal kinship, then, was this
    That spoke and perished in a breath?
    In leaves, she was near enough to kiss,
    And yet, impalpable as death.
    Spading dark earth, he tore apart
    Exquisite roots: she fled from him.
    Her stigma, in the crocus heart,
    Probed for delicately, would swim
    Lazily faint away on air,
    Not to be caught or held: she fled
    Before him, wavering, everywhere,
    A summer's secret behind he shed.
    Music? He found it under earth,
    Quick veins of fire: he heard her sing.
    Upward it broke, a springing mirth,
    A fugitive and amazing thing,
    It flashed before his crazy feet,
    He danced upon it, it would not stay,
    His hands against its brightness beat,
    But still it broke in light away.
    O bird -- he cried -- if bird you are,
    Keep still those frantic wings a while! . . .
    Thus dancing for the evening star,
    In hope to capture it by guile.

     I. Part 5

    The moon rose, and the moon set;
    And the stars rushed up and whirled and set;
    And again they swarmed, after a shaft of sunlight;
    And the dark blue dusk closed above him, like an ocean of regret.

    White trident fires were lit on the tops of towers;
    Monstrous and black the towers broke the sky.
    The ghostly fountain shot and tumbled in showers;
    Gaunt leaves turned down above it, thirstily.
    The gold fish, and the fish with fins of silver,
    Quivered in lamplight, rose with sinister eye,
    And darted into the darkness, silently.

    The faces that looked at him were his own faces,
    They streamed along the streets, they licked like fire,
    Flowed with undulant paces,
    Reflected in the darkness stared at him,
    Contemplative, despairing,
    Swept silently aside, becoming dim,
    With a vague impotent gesture at the sky,
    Uncontrolled and little caring;
    And he watched them with an introspective eye.

    To shape this world of leaderless ghostly passions --
    Or else be mobbed by it -- there was the question:
    Green leaves above him whispered the slow question,
    Black ripples on the pool chuckled of passions.
    And between the uneasy shoulders of two trees,
    Huge, against impalpable gust of blue,
    A golden star slid down to leafy seas,
    A star he somehow knew.

    Youths tripped after him, laughing, but he fled them:
    He heard them mock him, in affected tones.
    Their lamia mouthes, so smiling, bade him fear them.
    His own face leered at him, with timid lust,
    Was overwhelmed in night.
    He turned aside, and walked in graveyard dust, --
    In the dew-dabbled, clinging dust, --
    And terror seized him, seeing the stones so white;
    And the wet grass, frozen and motionless in the moonlight;
    And the green-tongued moonlight, crawling in thick dust.

    Was it murky vapor, here, that dulled the stars? --
    Or his own guilty breath that clouded heaven? --
    Pale hands struck down with spades.
    And it was he, with dew upon his face,
    Who dug the foul earth in that dripping place,
    Turning his back on heaven.
    And it was he who found the desired dead;
    And kissed the languid head;
    While shadows frisked about him in moonlight,
    Whirled and capered and leapt,
    Caught each other and mimicked lust in the moonlight,
    In the dew-wet dust, above the dead who slept.

    But this -- was it this he rose from and desired?
    Black mould of leaves clung wetly about his feet.
    He was lost, and alone, and tired,
    A mist curled round him coldly, touched his face,
    Shadows with eyes were gathering in that place;
    And he dreamed of a lamplit street.
    But roses fell through the darkness,
    They writhed before him out of the mould,
    Opened their hearts to pour out darkness,
    Darkness of flesh, of lust grown old.
    He struggled against them, beat,
    Broke them with hands to feel the blood flow warm,
    Reeled, when they opened their hearts,
    Feeling them with their eyes closed push and swarm,
    Thronging about his throat, pressing his mouth,
    Beating his temples, choking his breath . . .
    Help, you stars! -- wet darkness showered upon him.
    He was dissolved in a deep cold dream of death.

    White fires were lit upon the tops of towers,
    The towers shouldered the sky:
    The ghostly fountain shot and tumbled in showers,
    Gaunt leaves leaned down above it, thirstily.
    And he looked with laughter upon the lamplit ripples
    Each with its little image of the light,
    And thought the minds of men were like black ripples,
    Ripples of darkness, darkly huddled in night,
    Each of them with its image of lamp or star,
    Thinking itself the star.

    And it seemed to him, as he looked upon them, laughing,
    That he was the star they all in light reflected.
    He was the god who had been rejected,
    Stoned and trampled upon a filthy street,
    Hung up in lamplight for young men to beat,
    Cursed and spat upon; and all for saying
    There was no life save life of fast and praying.
    Or had he been a beggar, with bare feet?
    Or a cruel ascetic, trampling roses down? . . .
    Roses are death! he cried. He turned in hatred,
    And saw red fires burst up above the town;
    And a swarm of faces rising, green with hatred.

    And silence descended, on dripping trees:
    And dew-spats slowly spat from leaves to stones.
    He had walked these gardens, he thought, before.
    The fountain chuckled;
    The leaves rustled, in whispers, along a shore.
    And the moon rose, and the moon set;
    And the stars rushed up, and swarmed, and set;
    And again they swarmed, after a shaft of sunlight;
    And the blue dusk closed above him, like an ocean of regret.

     II. Part 1

    And at times it seemed,
    Walking with her of whom he subtly dreamed,
    That her young body was ringed with flame,
    Hover of fire,
    And that she went and came,
    Impalpable fiery blossom of desire,
    Into his heart and out of his heart again,
    With every breath, and every breath was pain.
    And if he touched her hand, she drew away,
    Becoming something vast; and stretched her hair
    Suddenly, like black rain, across the sun.
    Till he grew fearful, seeing her there,
    To think that he loved such a one,
    Who rose against the sky to shut out day.

    But at times it seemed,
    Walking with her of whom he subtly dreamed,
    (Music beneath the sea)
    That she was texture of earth no less than he;
    Among the leaves her face
    Gleamed with familiar grace;
    And walking slowly through old gardens,
    Among the cool blue cedars,
    Spreading her hands in the silent dazzle of sunlight,
    Her voice and the air were sweetly married;
    Her laughter trembled like music out of the earth;
    her body was like the cool blue cedars,
    Fragrant in sunlight.
    And he quivered, to think that he was the blade, in sunlight,
    To flash, and strip these boughs, and spill their fragrance.

    Wind hurried the last year's leaves, their shadows hurried,
    And clouds blew down the sky.
    Where would they be with a year gone by?
    Let us be quick: there is time to overcome:
    The earth grows old, the moon is already dead,
    But you are young, you tremble because you love me,
    It is all we have. Let nothing more be said.

    What do we care for a star that floats down heaven,
    That fiery tear of time?
    It spoke to us once, it will not speak again,
    It will be no more remembered than last year's rain;
    There will be other dusks for us to walk through,
    And other stars will float down heaven.
    Time is undone: Between our hands it slips,
    Goes out between us, the breath upon our lips.

    Do not look over your shoulder to see it falling!
    Shadows gather and brood, under the trees.
    The world grows silent, it listens to hear us walking;
    Let the star perish: we wander as we please.
    Or is the earth beneath us an old star falling,
    Falling through twilight to leafy seas?
    The night grows damp: I will take your arm.
    Follow the lanterns, lest we come to harm.

     IV. Part 6

    Twilight: a cold green sky.
    Low massed clouds, with dazzling sinister edges,
    And a sea gull, falling in high pale sunlight.

    Dusk, -- the encroachment of poisonous shadows,
    The leisurely lighting of lamps;
    And a gradual silence of restless trees.

    Mist of twilight in my heart:
    I who was always catching at fire.
    Mould of black leaves under my feet;
    I, whose star was desire.

    Earth spins in her shadow.
    Let us turn and go back
    To the first of out loves --
    The one who was moonlight and the fall of white roses!

    We are struck down, we hear no music.
    The moisture of night is in our hands.
    Time takes us. We are eternal.

    Conrad Aiken

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Poets' Corner Scripting © 2008 S.L. Spanoudis and theotherpages.org.
All rights reserved worldwide.