Helen of Troy

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Chapter 3

The coming of Aphrodite, and how she told Helen that she must depart in company with Paris, but promised withal that Helen, having fallen into a deep sleep, should awake forgetful of her old life, and ignorant of her shame, and blameless of those evil deeds that the Goddess thrust upon her.



Now in the upper chamber o’er the gate    Lay Menelaus on his carven bed, And swift and sudden as the stroke of Fate    A deep sleep fell upon his weary head.    But the soft-wingèd God with wand of lead Came not near Helen; wistful did she lie,    Till dark should change to grey, and grey to red, And golden thronèd Morn sweep o’er the sky.



Slow pass’d the heavy night: like one who fears    The step of murder, she lies quivering, If any cry of the night bird she hears;    And strains her eyes to mark some dreadful thing,    If but the curtains of the window swing, Stirr’d by the breath of night, and still she wept    As she were not the daughter of a king, And no strong king, her lord, beside her slept.



Now in that hour, the folk who watch the night,    Shepherds and fishermen, and they that ply Strange arts and seek their spells in the star-light,    Beheld a marvel in the sea and sky,    For all the waves of all the seas that sigh Between the straits of Hellé and the Nile,    Flush’d with a flame of silver suddenly, From soft Cythera to the Cyprian isle.



And Hesperus, the kindest star of heaven,    That bringeth all things good, wax’d pale, and straight There fell a flash of white malignant levin    Among the gleaming waters desolate;    The lights of sea and sky did mix and mate And change to rosy flame, and thence did fly    The lovely Queen of Love that turns to hate, Like summer lightnings ’twixt the sea and sky.



And now the bower of Helen fill’d with light,    And now she knew the thing that she did fear Was close upon her (for the black of night    Doth burn like fire, whene’er the Gods are near);    Then shone like flame each helm and shield and spear That hung within the chamber of the King,    But he,—though all the bower as day was clear,— Slept as they sleep that know no wakening.



But Helen leap’d from her fair carven bed    As some tormented thing that fear makes bold, And on the ground she beat her golden head    And pray’d with bitter moanings manifold.    Yet knew that she could never move the cold Heart of the lovely Goddess, standing there,    Her feet upon a little cloud, a fold Of silver cloud about her bosom bare.



So stood Queen Aphrodite, as she stands    Unmoved in her bright mansion, when in vain Some naked maiden stretches helpless hands    And shifts the magic wheel, and burns the grain,    And cannot win her lover back again, Nor her old heart of quiet any more,    Where moonlight floods the dim Sicilian main, And the cool wavelets break along the shore.



Then Helen ceased from unavailing prayer,    And rose and faced the Goddess steadily, Till even the laughter-loving lady fair    Half shrank before the anger of her eye,    And Helen cried with an exceeding cry, “Why does Zeus live, if we indeed must be    No more than sullen spoils of destiny, And slaves of an adulteress like thee?



“What wilt thou with me, mistress of all woe?    Say, wilt thou bear me to another land Where thou hast other lovers?  Rise and go    Where dark the pine trees upon Ida stand,    For there did one unloose thy girdle band; Or seek the forest where Adonis bled,    Or wander, wander on the yellow sand, Where thy first lover strew’d thy bridal bed.



“Ah, thy first lover! who is first or last    Of men and gods, unnumber’d and unnamed? Lover by lover in the race is pass’d,    Lover by lover, outcast and ashamed.    Oh, thou of many names, and evil famed! What wilt thou with me?  What must I endure    Whose soul, for all thy craft, is never tamed? Whose heart, for all thy wiles, is ever pure?



“Behold, my heart is purer than the plume    Upon the stainless pinions of the swan, And thou wilt smirch and stain it with the fume    Of all thy hateful lusts Idalian.    My name shall be a hissing that a man Shall smile to speak, and women curse and hate,    And on my little child shall come a ban, And all my lofty home be desolate.



“Is it thy will that like a golden cup    From lip to lip of heroes I must go, And be but as a banner lifted up,    To beckon where the winds of war may blow?    Have I not seen fair Athens in her woe, And all her homes aflame from sea to sea,    When my fierce brothers wrought her overthrow Because Athenian Theseus carried me—



“Me, in my bloomless youth, a maiden child,    From Artemis’ pure altars and her fane, And bare me, with Pirithous the wild    To rich Aphidna?  Many a man was slain,    And wet with blood the fair Athenian plain, And fired was many a goodly temple then,    But fire nor blood can purify the stain Nor make my name reproachless among men.”



Then Helen ceased, her passion like a flame    That slays the thing it lives by, blazed and fell, As faint as waves at dawn, though fierce they came,    By night to storm some rocky citadel;    For Aphrodite answer’d,—like a spell Her voice makes strength of mortals pass away,—    “Dost thou not know that I have loved thee well, And never loved thee better than to-day?



“Behold, thine eyes are wet, thy cheeks are wan,    Yet art thou born of an immortal sire, The child of Nemesis and of the Swan;    Thy veins should run with ichor and with fire.    Yet this is thy delight and thy desire, To love a mortal lord, a mortal child,    To live, unpraised of lute, unhymn’d of lyre, As any woman pure and undefiled.



“Thou art the toy of Gods, an instrument    Wherewith all mortals shall be plagued or blest, Even at my pleasure; yea, thou shalt be bent    This way and that, howe’er it like me best:    And following thee, as tides the moon, the West Shall flood the Eastern coasts with waves of war,    And thy vex’d soul shall scarcely be at rest, Even in the havens where the deathless are.



“The instruments of men are blind and dumb,    And this one gift I give thee, to be blind And heedless of the thing that is to come,    And ignorant of that which is behind;    Bearing an innocent forgetful mind In each new fortune till I visit thee    And stir thy heart, as lightning and the wind Bear fire and tumult through a sleeping sea.



“Thou shalt forget Hermione; forget    Thy lord, thy lofty palace, and thy kin; Thy hand within a stranger’s shalt thou set,    And follow him, nor deem it any sin;    And many a strange land wand’ring shalt thou win, And thou shalt come to an unhappy town,    And twenty long years shalt thou dwell therein, Before the Argives mar its towery crown.



“And of thine end I speak not, but thy name,—    Thy name which thou lamentest,—that shall be A song in all men’s speech, a tongue of flame    Between the burning lips of Poesy;    And the nine daughters of Mnemosyne, With Prince Apollo, leader of the nine,    Shall make thee deathless in their minstrelsy! Yea, for thou shalt outlive the race divine,



“The race of Gods, for like the sons of men    We Gods have but our season, and go by; And Cronos pass’d, and Uranus, and then    Shall Zeus and all his children utterly    Pass, and new Gods be born, and reign, and die,— But thee shall lovers worship evermore    What Gods soe’er usurp the changeful sky, Or flit to the irremeable shore.



“Now sleep and dream not, sleep the long day through,    And the brief watches of the summer night, And then go forth amid the flowers and dew,    Where the red rose of Dawn outburns the white.    Then shalt thou learn my mercy and my might Between the drowsy lily and the rose;    There shalt thou spell the meaning of delight, And know such gladness as a Goddess knows!”



Then Sleep came floating from the Lemnian isle,    And over Helen crush’d his poppy crown, Her soft lids waver’d for a little while,    Then on her carven bed she laid her down,    And Sleep, the comforter of king and clown, Kind Sleep the sweetest, near akin to Death,    Held her as close as Death doth men that drown, So close that none might hear her inward breath—



So close no man might tell she was not dead!    And then the Goddess took her zone,—where lies All her enchantment, love and lustihead,    And the glad converse that beguiles the wise,    And grace the very Gods may not despise, And sweet Desire that doth the whole world move,—    And therewith touch’d she Helen’s sleeping eyes And made her lovely as the Queen of Love.



Then laughter-loving Aphrodite went    To far Idalia, over land and sea, And scarce the fragrant cedar-branches bent    Beneath her footsteps, faring daintily;    And in Idalia the Graces three Anointed her with oil ambrosial,—    So to her house in Sidon wended she To mock the prayers of lovers when they call.



And all day long the incense and the smoke    Lifted, and fell, and soft and slowly roll’d, And many a hymn and musical awoke    Between the pillars of her house of gold,    And rose-crown’d girls, and fair boys linen-stoled, Did sacrifice her fragrant courts within,    And in dark chapels wrought rites manifold The loving favour of the Queen to win.



But Menelaus, waking suddenly,    Beheld the dawn was white, the day was near, And rose, and kiss’d fair Helen; no good-bye    He spake, and never mark’d a fallen tear,—    Men know not when they part for many a year,— He grasp’d a bronze-shod lance in either hand,    And merrily went forth to drive the deer, With Paris, through the dewy morning land.



So up the steep sides of Taygetus    They fared, and to the windy hollows came, While from the streams of deep Oceanus    The sun arose, and on the fields did flame;    And through wet glades the huntsmen drave the game, And with them Paris sway’d an ashen spear,    Heavy, and long, and shod with bronze to tame The mountain-dwelling goats and forest deer.



Now in a copse a mighty boar there lay,    For through the boughs the wet winds never blew, Nor lit the bright sun on it with his ray,    Nor rain might pierce the woven branches through,    But leaves had fallen deep the lair to strew: Then questing of the hounds and men’s foot-fall    Aroused the boar, and forth he sprang to view, With eyes that burn’d, at bay, before them all.



Then Paris was the first to rush on him,    With spear aloft in his strong hand to smite, And through the monster pierced the point; and dim    The flame fell in his eyes, and all his might    With his last cry went forth; forgetting fight, Forgetting strength, he fell, and gladly then    They gather’d round, and dealt with him aright; Then left his body with the serving men.



Now birds were long awake, that with their cry    Were wont to waken Helen; and the dew Where fell the sun upon the lawn was dry,    And all the summer land was glad anew;    And maidens’ footsteps rang the palace through, And with their footsteps chimed their happy song,    And one to other cried, “A marvel new That soft-wing’d Sleep hath held the Queen so long!”



Then Phylo brought the child Hermione,    And close unto her mother’s side she crept, And o’er her god-like beauty tumbled she,    Chiding her sweetly that so late she slept,    And babbling still a merry coil she kept; But like a woman stiff beneath her shroud    Lay Helen; till the young child fear’d and wept, And ran, and to her nurses cried aloud.



Then came the women quickly, and in dread    Gather’d round Helen, but might naught avail To wake her; moveless as a maiden dead    That Artemis hath slain, yet nowise pale,    She lay; but Aethra did begin the wail, And all the women with sad voice replied,    Who deem’d her pass’d unto the poplar vale Wherein doth dread Persephone abide.



Ah! slowly pass’d the miserable day    In the rich house that late was full of pride; Then the sun fell, and all the paths were grey,    And Menelaus from the mountain-side    Came, and through palace doors all open wide Rang the wild dirge that told him of the thing    That Helen, that the Queen had strangely died. Then on his threshold fell he grovelling,



And cast the dust upon his yellow hair,    And, but that Paris leap’d and held his hand, His hunter’s knife would he have clutch’d, and there    Had slain himself, to follow to that land    Where flit the ghosts of men, a shadowy band That have no more delight, no more desire,    When once the flesh hath burn’d down like a brand, Drench’d by the dark wine on the funeral pyre:



So on the ashen threshold lay the king,    And all within the house was chill and drear; The women watchers gather’d in a ring    About the bed of Helen and her bier;    And much had they to tell, and much to hear, Of happy queens and fair, untimely dead,—    Such joy they took amid their evil cheer,— While the low thunder muttered overhead.

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