Part V: Ex Fumo Dare Lucem
[‘Twixt the Cup and the Lip]
CALM and clear ! the bright day is declining,
The crystal expanse of the bay,
Like a shield of pure metal, lies shining
‘Twixt headlands of purple and grey,
While the little waves leap in the sunset,
And strike with a miniature shock,
In sportive and infantine onset,
The base of the iron-stone rock.
Calm and clear ! the sea-breezes are laden
With a fragrance, a freshness, a power,
With a song like the song of a maiden,
With a scent like the scent of a flower ;
And a whisper, half-weird, half-prophetic,
Comes home with the sigh of the surf ;—
But I pause, for your fancies poetic
Never rise from the level of ‘Turf.’
Fellow-bungler of mine, fellow-sinner,
In public performances past,
In trials whence touts take their winner,
In rumours that circulate fast,
In strains from Prunella or Priam,
Staying stayers, or goers that go,
You’re much better posted than I am,
‘Tis little I care, less I know.
Alas ! neither poet nor prophet
Am I, though a jingler of rhymes—
‘Tis a hobby of mine, and I’m off it
At times, and I’m on it at times ;
And whether I’m off it or on it,
Your readers my counsels will shun,
Since I scarce know Van Tromp from Blue Bonnet,
Though I might know Cigar from The Nun.
With ‘visions’ you ought to be sated
And sicken’d by this time ; I swear
That mine are all myths self-created,
Air visions that vanish in air ;
If I had some loose coins I might chuck one,
To settle this question and say,
Here goes ! ‘this is tails for the black one,
And heads for my fav’rite, the bay.’
And must I rob Paul to pay Peter,
Or Peter defraud to pay Paul ?
My rhymes, are they stale ? if my metre
Is varied, one chime rings through all ;
One chime—though I sing more or sing less,
I have but one string to my lute,
And it might have been better if, stringless
And songless, the same had been mute.
Yet not as a seer of visions,
Nor yet as a dreamer of dreams,
I send you these partial decisions
On hackney’d, impoverish’d themes ;
But with song out of tune, sung to pass time,
Flung heedless to friends or to foes,
Where the false notes that ring for the last time
May blend with some real ones, who knows ?
On the hill they are crowding together,
In the stand they are crushing for room,
Like midge-flies they swarm on the heather,
They gather like bees on the broom ;
They flutter like moths round a candle—
Stale similes, granted, what then ?
I’ve got a stale subject to handle,
A very stale stump of a pen.
Hark ! the shuffle of feet that are many,
Of voices the many-tongued clang—
‘Has he had a bad night ?’ ‘Has he any
Friends left ?’—How I hate your turf slang ;
‘Tis stale to begin with, not witty,
But dull, and inclined to be coarse,
But bad men can’t use (more’s the pity)
Good words when they slate a good horse.
Heu ! heu ! quantus equis (that’s Latin
For ‘bellows to mend’ with the weeds),
They’re off ! lights and shades ! silk and satin !
A rainbow of riders and steeds !
And one shows in front, and another
Goes up and is seen in his place,
Sic transit (more Latin)—Oh ! bother,
Let’s get to the end of the race.
. . . . . . .
See, they come round the last turn careering,
Already Tait’s colours are struck,
And the green in the vanguard is steering,
And the red’s in the rear of the ruck !
Are the stripes in the shade doom’d to lie long ?
Do the blue stars on white skies wax dim ?
Is it Tamworth or Smuggler ? ‘Tis Bylong
That wins—either Bylong or Tim.
As the shell through the breach that is riven
And sapp’d by the springing of mines,
As the bolt from the thunder-cloud driven,
That levels the larches and pines
Through yon mass parti-colour’d that dashes
Goal-turn’d, clad in many-hued garb,
From rear to van, surges and flashes
The yellow and black of The Barb.
Past The Fly, falling back on the right, and
The Gull, giving way on the left,
Past Tamworth, who feels the whip smite, and
Whose sides by the rowels are cleft ;
Where Tim and the chestnut together
Still bear of the battle the brunt,
As if eight stone twelve were a feather,
He comes with a rush to the front.
Tim Whiffler may yet prove a Tartar,
And Bylong’s the horse that can stay,
But Kean is in trouble—and Carter
Is hard on the satin-skinn’d bay ;
And The Barb comes away unextended,
Hard held, like a second Eclipse,
While behind, the hoof-thunder is blended
With the whistling and crackling of whips.
He wins ; yes, he wins upon paper,
He hasn’t yet won upon turf,
And these rhymes are but moonshine and vapour,
Air-bubbles and spume from the surf.
So be it, at least they are given
Free, gratis, for just what they’re worth,
And (whatever there may be in heaven)
There’s little worth much upon earth.
When, with satellites round them, the centre
Of all eyes, hard press’d by the crowd,
The pair, horse and rider, re-enter
The gate, ‘mid a shout long and loud,
You may feel, as you might feel, just landed
Full length on the grass from the clip
Of a vicious cross-counter, right-handed,
Or upper-cut whizzing from hip.
And that’s not so bad if you’re pick’d up
Discreetly, and carefully nursed ;
Loose teeth by the sponge are soon lick’d up,
And next time you may get home first.
Still I’m not sure you’d like it exactly
(Such tastes as a rule are acquired),
And you’ll find in a nutshell this fact lie,
Bruised optics are not much admired.
Do I bore you with vulgar allusions ?
Forgive me, I speak as I feel,
I’ve ponder’d and made my conclusions—
As the mill grinds the corn to the meal ;
So man striving boldly but blindly,
Ground piecemeal in Destiny’s mill,
At his best, taking punishment kindly,
Is only a chopping-block still.
Are we wise ? Our abstruse calculations
Are based on experience long ;
Are we sanguine ? Our high expectations
Are founded on hope that is strong ;
Thus we build an air-castle that crumbles
And drifts till no traces remain,
And the fool builds again while he grumbles,
And the wise one laughs, building again.
‘How came they to pass, these rash blunders,
These false steps so hard to defend ?’
Our friend puts the question and wonders,
We laugh and reply, ‘Ah ! my friend,
Could you trace the first stride falsely taken,
The distance misjudged, where or how,
When you pick’d yourself up, stunn’d and shaken,
At the fence ‘twixt the turf and the plough ?’
In the jar of the panel rebounding !
In the crash of the splintering wood !
In the ears to the earth shock resounding
In the eyes flashing fire and blood !
In the quarters above you revolving !
In the sods underneath heaving high !
There was little to aid you in solving
Such questions—the how or the why.
And destiny, steadfast in trifles,
Is steadfast for better or worse
In great things, it crushes and stifles,
And swallows the hopes that we nurse.
Men wiser than we are may wonder,
When the future they cling to so fast,
To the roll of that destiny’s thunder,
Goes down with the wrecks of the past.
. . . . . . .
The past! the dead past! that has swallow’d
All the honey of life and the milk,
Brighter dreams than mere pastimes we’ve follow’d,
Better things than our scarlet or silk ;
Aye, and worse things—that past is it really
Dead to us who again and again
Feel sharply, hear plainly, see clearly,
Past days with their joy and their pain ?
Like corpses embalm’d and unburied
They lie, and in spite of our will,
Our souls on the wings of thought carried,
Revisit their sepulchres still ;
Down the channels of mystery gliding,
They conjure strange tales, rarely read,
Of the priests of dead Pharaohs presiding
At mystical feasts of the dead.
Weird pictures arise, quaint devices,
Rude emblems, baked funeral meats,
Strong incense, rare wines, and rich spices,
The ashes, the shrouds, and the sheets ;
Does our thraldom fall short of completeness
For the magic of a charnel-house charm,
And the flavour of a poisonous sweetness,
And the odour of a poisonous balm ?
And the links of the past—but, no matter,
For I’m getting beyond you, I guess,
And you’ll call me ‘as mad as a hatter’
If my thoughts I too freely express ;
I subjoin a quotation, pray learn it,
And with the aid of your lexicon tell us
The meaning thereof—’Res discernit
Sapiens, quas confundit asellus.‘
Already green hillocks are swelling,
And combing white locks on the bar,
Where a dull, droning murmur is telling
Of winds that have gather’d afar ;
Thus we know not the day, nor the morrow,
Nor yet what the night may bring forth,
Nor the storm, nor the sleep, nor the sorrow,
Nor the strife, nor the rest, nor the wrath.
Yet the skies are still tranquil and starlit,
The sun ‘twixt the wave and the west
Dies in purple, and crimson, and scarlet,
And gold ; let us hope for the best,
Since again from the earth his effulgence
The darkness and damp-dews shall wipe,
Kind reader, extend your indulgence
To this the last lay of ‘The Pipe.’
Published in ‘Sea Spray and Smoke Drift’ (1867).