Home  »  library  »  poem  »  The Victory of Orpheus

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Victory of Orpheus

By The Argonautic Legend

From ‘The Life and Death of Jason’

The Sirens:
OH, happy seafarers are ye,

And surely all your ills are past,

And toil upon the land and sea,

Since ye are brought to us at last.

To you the fashion of the world,

Wide lands laid waste, fair cities burned,

And plagues, and kings from kingdoms hurled,

Are naught, since hither ye have turned.

For as upon this beach we stand,

And o’er our heads the sea-fowl flit,

Our eyes behold a glorious land,

And soon shall ye be kings of it.

A little more, a little more,

O carriers of the Golden Fleece,

A little labor with the oar,

Before we reach the land of Greece.

E’en now perchance faint rumors reach

Men’s ears of this our victory,

And draw them down unto the beach

To gaze across the empty sea.

But since the longed-for day is nigh,

And scarce a god could stay us now,

Why do ye hang your heads and sigh,

And still go slower and more slow?

The Sirens:
Ah, had ye chanced to reach the home

Your fond desires were set upon,

Into what troubles had ye come!

What barren victory had ye won!

But now, but now, when ye have lain

Asleep with us a little while

Beneath the washing of the main,

How calm shall be your waking smile!

For ye shall smile to think of life

That knows no troublous change or fear,

No unavailing bitter strife,

That ere its time brings trouble near.

Is there some murmur in your ears,

That all that we have done is naught,

And nothing ends our cares and fears,

Till the last fear on us is brought?

The Sirens:
Alas! and will ye stop your ears,

In vain desire to do aught,

And wish to live ’mid cares and fears,

Until the last fear makes you naught?

Is not the May-time now on earth,

When close against the city wall

The folk are singing in their mirth,

While on their heads the May flowers fall?

The Sirens:
Yes, May is come, and its sweet breath

Shall well-nigh make you weep to-day,

And pensive with swift-coming death

Shall ye be satiate of the May.

Shall not July bring fresh delight,

As underneath green trees ye sit,

And o’er some damsel’s body white,

The noon-tide shadows change and flit?

The Sirens:
No new delight July shall bring,

But ancient fear and fresh desire;

And spite of every lovely thing,

Of July surely shall ye tire.

And now when August comes on thee,

And ’mid the golden sea of corn

The merry reapers thou mayst see,

Wilt thou still think the earth forlorn?

The Sirens:
Set flowers on thy short-lived head,

And in thine heart forgetfulness

Of man’s hard toil, and scanty bread,

And weary of those days no less.

Or wilt thou climb the sunny hill,

In the October afternoon,

To watch the purple earth’s blood fill

The gray vat to the maiden’s tune?

The Sirens:
When thou beginnest to grow old,

Bring back remembrance of thy bliss

With that the shining cup doth hold,

And weary helplessly of this.

Or pleasureless shall we pass by

The long cold night and leaden day,

That song and tale and minstrelsy

Shall make as merry as the May?

The Sirens:
List then, to-night, to some old tale

Until the tears o’erflow thine eyes;

But what shall all these things avail,

When sad to-morrow comes and dies?

And when the world is born again,

And with some fair love, side by side,

Thou wanderest ’twixt the sun and rain,

In that fresh love-begetting tide;

Then, when the world is born again,

And the sweet year before thee lies,

Shall thy heart think of coming pain,

Or vex itself with memories?

The Sirens:
Ah! then the world is born again

With burning love unsatisfied,

And new desires fond and vain,

And weary days from tide to tide.

Ah! when the world is born again,

A little day is soon gone by,

When thou, unmoved by sun or rain,

Within a cold straight house shall lie.

Therewith they ceased awhile, as languidly

The head of Argo fell off toward the sea,

And through the water she began to go;

For from the land a fitful wind did blow,

That, dallying with the many-colored sail,

Would sometimes swell it out and sometimes fail,

As nigh the east side of the bay they drew;

Then o’er the waves again the music flew.

The Sirens:
Think not of pleasure short and vain,

Wherewith, ’mid days of toil and pain,

With sick and sinking hearts ye strive

To cheat yourselves that ye may live

With cold death ever close at hand.

Think rather of a peaceful land,

The changeless land where ye may be

Roofed over by the changeful sea.

And is the fair town nothing then,

The coming of the wandering men

With that long talked-of thing and strange.

And news of how the kingdoms change,

The pointed hands, and wondering

At doers of a desperate thing?

Push on, for surely this shall be

Across a narrow strip of sea.

The Sirens:
Alas! poor souls and timorous,

Will ye draw nigh to gaze at us

And see if we are fair indeed?

For such as we shall be your meed,

There, where our hearts would have you go.

And where can the earth-dwellers show

In any land such loveliness

As that wherewith your eyes we bless,

O wanderers of the Minyæ,

Worn toilers over land and sea?

Fair as the lightning ’thwart the sky,

As sun-dyed snow upon the high

Untrodden heaps of threatening stone

The eagle looks upon alone,

Oh, fair as the doomed victim’s wreath,

Oh, fair as deadly sleep and death,

What will ye with them, earthly men,

To mate your threescore years and ten?

Toil rather, suffer and be free,

Betwixt the green earth and the sea.

The Sirens:
If ye be bold with us to go,

Things such as happy dreams may show

Shall your once heavy lids behold

About our palaces of gold;

Where waters ’neath the waters run,

And from o’erhead a harmless sun

Gleams through the woods of chrysolite.

There gardens fairer to the sight

Than those of the Phæacian king

Shall ye behold; and, wondering,

Gaze on the sea-born fruit and flowers,

And thornless and unchanging bowers,

Whereof the May-time knoweth naught.

So to the pillared house being brought,

Poor souls, ye shall not be alone,

For o’er the floors of pale blue stone

All day such feet as ours shall pass,

And ’twixt the glimmering walls of glass,

Such bodies garlanded with gold,

So faint, so fair, shall ye behold,

And clean forget the treachery

Of changing earth and tumbling sea.

Oh the sweet valley of deep grass,

Where through the summer stream doth pass,

In chain of shadow, and still pool,

From misty morn to evening cool;

Where the black ivy creeps and twines

O’er the dark-armed, red-trunkèd pines,

Whence clattering the pigeon flits,

Or brooding o’er her thin eggs sits,

And every hollow of the hills

With echoing song the mavis fills.

There by the stream, all unafraid,

Shall stand the happy shepherd maid,

Alone in first of sunlit hours;

Behind her, on the dewy flowers,

Her homespun woolen raiment lies,

And her white limbs and sweet gray eyes

Shine from the calm green pool and deep,

While round about the swallows sweep,

Not silent; and would God that we,

Like them, were landed from the sea.

The Sirens:
Shall we not rise with you at night,

Up through the shimmering green twilight,

That maketh there our changeless day,

Then going through the moonlight gray,

Shall we not sit upon these sands,

To think upon the troublous lands

Long left behind, where once ye were,

When every day brought change and fear!

There, with white arms about you twined,

And shuddering somewhat at the wind

That ye rejoiced erewhile to meet,

Be happy, while old stories sweet,

Half understood, float round your ears,

And fill your eyes with happy tears.

Ah! while we sing unto you there,

As now we sing, with yellow hair

Blown round about these pearly limbs,

While underneath the gray sky swims

The light shell-sailor of the waves,

And to our song, from sea-filled caves

Booms out an echoing harmony,

Shall ye not love the peaceful sea?

Nigh the vine-covered hillocks green,

In days agone, have I not seen

The brown-clad maidens amorous,

Below the long rose-trellised house,

Dance to the querulous pipe and shrill,

When the gray shadow of the hill

Was lengthening at the end of day?

Not shadowy or pale were they,

But limbed like those who ’twixt the trees

Follow the swift of goddesses.

Sunburnt they are somewhat, indeed,

To where the rough brown woolen weed

Is drawn across their bosoms sweet,

Or cast from off their dancing feet;

But yet the stars, the moonlight gray,

The water wan, the dawn of day,

Can see their bodies fair and white

As hers, who once, for man’s delight,

Before the world grew hard and old,

Came o’er the bitter sea and cold;

And surely those that met me there

Her handmaidens and subjects were;

And shame-faced, half-repressed desire

Had lit their glorious eyes with fire,

That maddens eager hearts of men.

Oh, would that I were with them when

The risen moon is gathering light,

And yellow from the homestead white

The windows gleam; but verily

This waits us o’er a little sea.

The Sirens:
Come to the land where none grows old,

And none is rash or over-bold

Nor any noise there is or war,

Or rumor from wild lands afar,

Or plagues, or birth and death of kings;

No vain desire of unknown things

Shall vex you there, no hope or fear

Of that which never draweth near;

But in that lovely land and still

Ye may remember what ye will,

And what ye will, forget for aye.

So while the kingdoms pass away,

Ye sea-beat hardened toilers erst,

Unresting, for vain fame athirst,

Shall be at peace for evermore,

With hearts fulfilled of Godlike lore,

And calm, unwavering Godlike love,

No lapse of time can turn or move.

There, ages after your fair fleece

Is clean forgotten, yea, and Greece

Is no more counted glorious,

Alone with us, alone with us,

Alone with us, dwell happily,

Beneath our trembling roof of sea.

Ah! do ye weary of the strife,

And long to change this eager life

For shadowy and dull hopelessness,

Thinking indeed to gain no less

Than this, to die, and not to die,

To be as if ye ne’er had been,

Yet keep your memory fresh and green,

To have no thought of good or ill,

Yet keep some thrilling pleasure still?

Oh, idle dream! Ah, verily

If it shall happen unto me

That I have thought of anything,

When o’er my bones the sea-fowl sing,

And I lie dead, how shall I pine

For those fresh joys that once were mine,

On this green fount of joy and mirth,

The ever young and glorious earth;

Then, helpless, shall I call to mind

Thoughts of the flower-scented wind,

The dew, the gentle rain at night,

The wonder-working snow and white,

The song of birds, the water’s fall,

The sun that maketh bliss of all;

Yea, this our toil and victory,

The tyrannous and conquered sea.

The Sirens:
Ah, will ye go, and whither then

Will ye go from us, soon to die,

To fill your threescore years and ten

With many an unnamed misery?

And this the wretchedest of all,

That when upon your lonely eyes

The last faint heaviness shall fall,

Ye shall bethink you of our cries.

Come back, nor, grown old, seek in vain

To hear us sing across the sea;

Come back, come back, come back again,

Come back, O fearful Minyæ!

Ah, once again, ah, once again,

The black prow plunges through the sea;

Nor yet shall all your toil be vain,

Nor ye forget, O Minyæ!