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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Sale of Saint Thomas by Lascelles Abercrombie

A quay with vessels moored 

To India! Yea, here I may take ship; 
From here the courses go over the seas, 
Along which the intent prows wonderfully 
Nose like lean hounds, and tack their journeys out, 
Making for harbours as some sleuth was laid 
For them to follow on their shifting road. 
Again I front my appointed ministry. -- 
But why the Indian lot to me? Why mine 
Such fearful gospelling? For the Lord knew 
What a frail soul He gave me, and a heart 
Lame and unlikely for the large events. -- 
And this is worse than Baghdad! though that was 
A fearful brink of travel. But if the lots, 
That gave to me the Indian duty, were 
Shuffled by the unseen skill of Heaven, surely 
That fear of mine in Baghdad was the same 
Marvellous Hand working again, to guard 
The landward gate of India from me. There 
I stood, waiting in the weak early dawn 
To start my journey; the great caravan's 
Strange cattle with their snoring breaths made steam 
Upon the air, and (as I thought) sadly 
The beasts at market-booths and awnings gay 
Of shops, the city's comfortable trade, 
Lookt, and then into months of plodding lookt. 
And swiftly on my brain there came a wind 
Of vision; and I saw the road mapt out 
Along the desert with a chalk of bones; 
I saw a famine and the Afghan greed 
Waiting for us, spears at our throats, all we 
Made women by our hunger; and I saw 
Gigantic thirst grieving our mouths with dust, 
Scattering up against our breathing salt 
Of blown dried dung, till the taste eat like fires 
Of a wild vinegar into our sheathèd marrows; 
And a sudden decay thicken'd all our bloods 
As rotten leaves in fall will baulk a stream; 
Then my kill'd life the muncht food of jackals. -- 
The wind of vision died in my brain; and lo, 
The jangling of the caravan's long gait 
Was small as the luting of a breeze in grass 
Upon my ears. Into the waiting thirst 
Camels and merchants all were gone, while I 
Had been in my amazement. Was this not 
A sign? God with a vision tript me, lest 
Those tall fiends that ken for my approach 
In middle Asia, Thirst and his grisly band 
Of plagues, should with their brigand fingers stop 
His message in my mouth. Therefore I said, 
If India is the place where I must preach, 
I am to go by ship, not overland. 
And here my ship is berthed. But worse, far worse 
Than Baghdad, is this roadstead, the brown sails, 
All the enginery of going on sea, 
The tackle and the rigging, tholes and sweeps, 
The prows built to put by the waves, the masts 
Stayed for a hurricane; and lo, that line 
Of gilded water there! the sun has drawn 
In a long narrow band of shining oil 
His light over the sea; how evilly move 
Ripples along that golden skin! -- the gleam 
Works like a muscular thing! like the half-gorged 
Sleepy swallowing of a serpent's neck. 
The sea lives, surely! My eyes swear to it; 
And, like a murderous smile that glimpses through 
A villain's courtesy, that twitching dazzle 
Parts the kind mood of weather to bewray 
The feasted waters of the sea, stretched out 
In lazy gluttony, expecting prey. 
How fearful is this trade of sailing! Worse 
Than all land-evils is the water-way 
Before me now. -- What, cowardice? Nay, why 
Trouble myself with ugly words? 'Tis prudence, 
And prudence is an admirable thing. 
Yet here's much cost -- these packages piled up, 
Ivory doubless, emeralds, gums, and silks, 
All these they trust on shipboard? Ah, but I, 
I who have seen God, I to put myself 
Amid the heathen outrage of the sea 
In a deal-wood box! It were plain folly. 
There is naught more precious in the world than I: 
I carry God in me, to give to men. 
And when has the sea been friendly unto man? 
Let it but guess my errand, it will call 
The dangers of the air to wreak upon me, 
Winds to juggle the puny boat and pinch 
The water into unbelievable creases. 
And shall my soul, and God in my soul, drown? 
Or venture drowning? -- But no, no; I am safe. 
Smooth as believing souls over their deaths 
And over agonies shall slide henceforth 
To God, so shall my way be blest amid 
The quiet crouching terrors of the sea, 
Like panthers when a fire weakens their hearts; 
Ay, this huge sin of nature, the salt sea, 
Shall be afraid of me, and of the mind 
Within me, that with gesture, speech and eyes 
Of the Messiah flames. What element 
Dare snarl against my going, what incubus dare 
Remember to be fiendish, when I light 
My whole being with memory of Him? 
The malice of the sea will slink from me, 
And the air be harmless as a muzzled wolf; 
For I am a torch, and the flame of me is God. 

A Ship's Captain 
You are my man, my passenger? 

Thomas I am. 
I go to India with you. 

Captain Well, I hope so. 
There's threatening in the weather. Have you a mind 
To hug your belly to the slanted deck, 
Like a louse on a whip-top, when the boat 
Spins on an axlie in the hissing gales? 

Fear not. 'Tis likely indeed that storms are now 
Plotting against our voyage; ay, no doubt 
The very bottom of the sea prepares 
To stand up mountainous or reach a limb 
Out of his night of water and huge shingles, 
That he and the waves may break our keel. Fear not; 
Like those who manage horses, I've a word 
Will fasten up within their evil natures 
The meanings of the winds and waves and reefs. 

You have a talisman? I have one too; 
I know not if the storms think much of it. 
I may be shark's meat yet. And would your spell 
Be daunting to a cuttle, think you now? 
We had a bout with one on our way here; 
It had green lidless eyes like lanterns, arms 
As many as the branches of a tree, 
But limber, and each one of them wise as a snake. 
It laid hold of our bulwarks, and with three 
Long knowing arms, slimy, and of a flesh 
So tough they'ld fool a hatchet, searcht the ship, 
And stole out of the midst of us all a man; 
Yes, and he the proudest man upon the seas 
For the rare powerful talisman he'd got. 
And would yours have done better? 

Thomas I am one 
Not easily frightened. I'm for India. 
You will not putme from my way with talk. 

My heart, I never thought of frightening you. -- 
Well, here's both tide and wind, and we may not start. 

Not start? I pray you, do. 

Captain It's no use praying; 
I dare not. I've not half my cargo yet. 

What do you wait for, then? 

Captain A carpenter. 

You are talking strangely. 

Captain But not idly. 
I might as well broach all my blood at once, 
Here as I stand, as sail to India back 
Without a carpenter on board; -- O strangely 
Wise are our kings in the killing of men! 

But does your king then need a carpenter? 
Yes, for he dreamed a dream; and(like a man 
Who, having eaten poison, and with all 
Force of his life turned out the crazing drug, 
Has only a weak and wrestled nature left 
That gives in foolishly to some bad desire 
A healthy man would laught at; so our king 
Is left desiring by his venomous dream. 
But, being a king, the whole land aches with him. 
What dream was that? 

Captain A palace made of souls; -- 
Ay, there's a folly for a man to dream! 
He saw a palace covering all the land, 
Big as the day itself, made of a stone 
That answered with a better gleam than glass 
To the sun's greeting, fashioned like the sound 
Of laughter copied into shining shape: 
So the king said. And with him in the dream 
There was a voice that fleered upon the king: 
'This is the man who makes much of himself 
For filling the common eyes with palaces 
Gorgeously bragging out his royalty: 
Whereas he hath not one that seemeth not 
In work, in height, in posture on the ground, 
A hut, a peasant's dingy shed, to mine. 
And all his excellent woods, metals, and stones, 
The things he's filched out of the earth's old pockets 
And hoisted up into walls and domes; the gold, 
Ebony, agate stairs, wainscots of jade, 
The windows of jargoon, and heavenly lofts 
Of marble, all the stuff he takes to be wealth, 
Reckons like savage mud and wattle against 
The matter of my building.' -- And the king, 
Gloating upon the white sheen of that palace, 
And weeping like a girl ashamed, inquired 
'What is that stone?' And the voice answered him, 
'Soul.' 'But in my palaces too,' said he, 
'There should be soul built: I have driven nations, 
What with quarrying, what with craning, down 
To death, and sure their souls stay in my work.' 
And 'Mud and wattle' sneered the voice again; 
But added, 'In the west there is a man, 
A slave, a carpenter, whose heart has been 
Apprenticed to the skill that built my reign, 
This beauty; and were he master of your gangs, 
He'ld build you a palace that would look like mine.' -- 
So now no ship may sail from India, 
Since the king's scornful dream, unless it bring 
A carpenter among its homeward lading: 
And carpenters are getting hard to find. 

And have none made for the king his desire? 

Many have tried, with roasting living men 
In queer huge kilns, and other sleights, to found 
A glass of human souls; and others seek 
With marvellous stone to please our desperate king. 
Always at last their own tormented bodies 
Delight the cruelty of the king's heart. 

Well then, I hope you'll find your carpenter, 
And soon. I would not that we wait too long; 
I loathe a dallying journey. -- I should suppose 
We'ld have good sailing at this season, now? 

Why, you were looking, a few minutes gone, 
For rare wild storms: I hope we'll have them too; 
I want to see you work that talisman 
You boast about: I've a great love for spells. 

Let it be storm or calm, so we be sailing. 
I long have wished to voyage into mid sea, 
To give my senses rest from wondering 
On this preplexèd grammar of the land 
Written in men and women, the strange trees, 
Herbs, and those things so like to souls, the beasts. 
My wilful senses will keep perilously 
Employed with these my brain, and weary it 
Still to be asking. But on the high seas 
Such throng'd reality is left behind, -- 
Only vast air and water, and the hue 
That always seems like special news of God. 
Surely 'tis half way to eternity 
To go where only size and colour live; 
And I could purify my mind from all 
Worldly amazement by imagining 
Beyond my senses into God's great Heaven, 
If I were in mid sea. I have dreamed of this. 
Wondrous too, I think, to sail at night 
While shaols of moonlight flickers dance beside, 
Like swimming glee of fishes scaled in gold, 
Curvetting in thwart bounds over the swell; 
The perceiving flesh, in bliss of such a beauty, 
Must sure feel fine as spiritual sight. -- 
Moods have been on me, too, when I would be 
Sailing recklessly through wild darkness, where 
Gigantic whispers of a harassed sea 
Fill the whole world of air, and I stand up 
To breast the danger of the loosen'd sky, 
And feel my immortality like music, -- 
Yea, I alone in the broken world, firm things 
All gone to monstrous flurry, knowing myself 
An indestructible word spoken by God. -- 
This is a small, small boat? 

Captain Small is nothing, 
A bucket will do, so it know how to ride 
Top upward: cleverness is the thing in boats. 
And I wish this were cleverer: she goes crank 
At times just when she should go sober. 
But what? Boats are but girls for whimsies: men 
Must let them have their freaks. 

Thomas Have you good skill 
In seamanship? 

Captain Well, I am not drowned yet, 
Though I'm a grey man and have been at sea 
Longer than you've been walking. My old sight 
Can tell Mizar from Alcor still. 

Thomas Ay, so; 
Doubtless you'll bring me safe to India. 
But being there -- tell me now of the land: 
How use they strangers there? 

Captain Queerly, sometimes 
If the king's moody, and tired of feeling nerves 
Mildly made happy with soft jewels of silk, 
Odours and wines and slim lascivious girls, 
And yearns for sharper thrills to pierce his brain, 
He often finds a stranger handy then. 

Why, what do you mean? 

Captain There was a merchant came 
To Travancore, and could not speak our talk; 
And, it chanced, he was brought before the throne 
Just when the king was weary of sweet pleasures. 
So, to better his tongue, a rope was bent 
Beneath his oxters, up he was hauled, and fire 
Let singe the soles of his feet, until his legs 
Wriggled like frying eels; then the king's dogs 
Were set to hunt the hirpling man. The king 
Laught greatly and cried, 'But give the dogs words they know, 
And they'll be tame.' -- Have you the Indian speech? 

Not yet: it will be given me, I trust. 

You'd best make sure of the gift. Another stranger, 
Who swore he knew of better gods than ours, 
Seemed to the king troubled with fleas, and slaves 
Were told to groom him smartly, which they did 
Thoroughly with steel combs, until at last 
They curried the living flesh from his bones 
And stript his face of gristle, till he was 
Skull and half skeleton and yet alive. 
You're not for dealing in new gods? 

Thomas Not I. 
Was the man killed? 

Captain He lived a little while; 
But the flies killed him. 

Thomas Flies? I hope India 
Is not a fly-plagued land? I abhor flies. 

You will see strange ones, for our Indian life 
Hath wonderful fierce breeding. Common earth 
With us quickens to buzzing flights of wings 
As readily as a week-old carcase here 
Thrown in a sunny marsh. Why, we have wasps 
That make your hornets seem like pretty midges; 
And there be flies in India will drink 
Not only blood of bulls, tigers, and bears, 
But pierce the river-horses' creasy leather, 
Ay, worry crocodiles through their cuirasses 
And prick the metal fishes when they bask. 
You'll feel them soon, with beaks like sturdy pins, 
Treating their stinging thirsts with your best blood. 
A man can't walk a mile in India 
Without being the business of a throng'd 
And moving town of flies; they hawk at a man 
As bold as little eagles, and as wild. 
And, I suppose, only a fool will blame them. 
Flies have the right to sink wells in our skin 
All as men to bore parcht earth for water. 
But I must do a job on board, and then 
Search the town afresh for a carpenter. 

Thomas (alone) 
Ay, loose tongue, I know how thou art prompted. 
Satan's cunning device thou art, to sap 
My heart with chatter'd fears. How easy it is 
For a stiff mind to hold itself upright 
Against the cords of devilish suggestion 
Tackled about it, though kept downward strained 
With sly, masterful winches made of fear. 
Yea, when the mind is warned what engines mean 
To ply it into grovelling, and thought set firm, 
The tugging strings fail like a cobweb-stuff. 
Not as in Baghdad is it with me now; 
Nor canst thou, Satan, by a prating mouth, 
Fell my tall purpose to a flatlong scorn. 
I can divide the check of God's own hand 
From tempting such as this: India is mine! -- 
Ay, fiend, and if thou utter thy storming heart 
Into the ocean sea, as into mob 
A rebel utters turbulence and rage, 
And raise before my path swelling barriers 
Of hatred soul'd in water, yet will I strike 
My purpose, and God's purpose, clean through all 
The ridges of thy power. And I will show 
This mask that the devil wears, this old shipman, 
A thing to make his proud heart of evil 
Writhe like a trodden snake; yea, he shall see 
How godly faith can go upon the huge Fury of forces bursting out of law, 
Easily as a boy goes on windy grass. -- 
O marvel! that my little life of mind 
Can by mere thinking the unsizeable 
Creatures of sea enslave! I must believe it. 
The mind hath many powers beyond name 
Deep womb'd within it, and can shoot strange vigours: 
Men there have been who could so grimly look 
That soldiers' hearts went out like candle flames 
Before their eyes, and the blood perisht in them. -- 
But I -- could I do that? Would I not feel 
The power in me if 'twas there? And yet 
'Twere a child's game to what I have to do, 
For days and days with sleepless faith oppress 
And terrorise the demon sea. I think 
A man might, as I saw my Master once, 
Pass unharmed through a storm of men, yet fail 
At this that lies before me: men are mind, 
And mind can conquer mind; but how can it quell 
The unappointed purpose of great waters? -- 
Well, say the sea is past: why, then, I have 
My feet but on the threshold of my task, 
To gospel India, -- my single heart 
To seize into the order of its beat 
All the strange blood of India, my brain 
To lord the dark thought of that tann'd mankind! -- 
O, horrible those sweltry places are, 
Where the sun comes so close, it makes the earth 
Burn in a frenzy of breeding, -- smoke and flame 
Of lives burning up from agoniz'd loam! 
Those monstrous sappy jungles of clutcht growth, 
What can such fearful increase have to do 
With prospering bounty? A rage works in the ground, 
Incurably, like frantic lechery, 
Pouring its passion out in crops and spawns. 
'Tis as the mighty spirit of life, that here 
Walketh beautifully praising, glad of God, 
Should, stepping on the poison'd Indian shore, 
Breathing the Indian air of fire snd steams, 
Fling herself into a craze of hideous dancing, 
The green gown whipping her swift limbs, all her body 
Writhen to speak inutterable desire, 
Tormented by a glee of hating God. 
Nay, it must be, to visit India, 
That frantic pomp and hurrying forth of life, 
As if a man should enter at unawares 
The dreaming mind of Satan, gorgeously 
Imagining his eternal hell of lust. -- 

They say the land is full of apes, which have 
Their own gods and worship: how ghastly, this! -- 
That demons (for it must be so) should build, 
In mockery of man's upward faith, the souls 
Of monkeys, those lewd mammets of mankind, 
Into a dreadful farce of adoration! 
And flies! a land of flies! where the hot soil 
Foul with ceaseless decay steams into flies! 
So thick they pile themselves in the air above 
Their meal of filth, they seem like breathing heaps 
Of formless life mounded upon the earth; 
And buzzing always like the pipes and strings 
Of solemn music made for sorcerers. -- 
I abhor flies, -- to see them stare upon me 
Out of their little faces of gibbous eyes; 
To feel the dry cool skin of their bodies alight 
Perching upon my lips! -- O yea, a dream, 
A dream of impious obscene Satan, this 
Monstrous frenzy of life, the Indian being! 
And there are men in the dream! What men are they? 
I've heard, naught relishes their brains so much 
As to tie down a man and tease his flesh 
Infamously, until a hundred pains 
Hound the desiring life out of his body, 
Filling his nerves with such a fearful zest 
That the soul overstrained shatters beneath it. 
Must I preach God to these murderous hearts? 
I would my lot had fallen to go and dare 
Death from the silent dealing of Northern cold! -- 

O, but I would face all these Indian fears, 
The horror of the huge power of life, 
The beasts all fierce and venomous, the men 
With cruel souls, learned to invent pain, 
All these and more, if I had any hope 
That, braving them, Lord Christ prosper'd through me. 
If Christ desired India, He had sent 
The band of us, solder'd in one great purpose, 
To strike His message through those dark vast tribes. 
But one man! -- O surely it is folly, 
And we misread the lot! One man, to thrust, 
Even though in his soul the lamp was kindled 
At God's own hands, one man's lit soul to thrust 
The immense Indian darkness out of the world! 
For human flesh there breeds as furiously 
As the green things and the cattle; and it is all, 
All this enormity of measureless folk, 
Penn'd in a land so close to the devil's reign 
The very apes have faith in him. -- No, no; 
Impetuous brains mistake the signs of God 
Too easily. God would not have me waste 
My zeal for Him in this wild enterprise, 
Of going alone to swarming India; -- one man, 
One mortal voice, to charm those myriad ears 
Away from the fiendish clamour of Indian gods, 
One man preaching the truth against the huge 
Bray of the gongs and horns of the Indian priests! 
A cup of wine poured in the sea were not 
More surely lost in the green and brackish depths, 
Than the fire and fragrance of my doctrine poured 
Into that multitudinous pond of men, 
India. -- Shipman! Master of the ship! -- 
I have thought better of this journey; now 
I find I am not meant to go. 

Captain Not meant? 

I would say, I had forgotten Indian air 
Is full of fevers; and my health is bad 
For holding out against fever. 

Captain As you please. 
I keep your fare, though. 

Thomas O,{ 'tis yours. -- Good sailing! 

As he makes to depart, a Noble Stranger is seen approaching along the quay. 

Well, here's a marvel: 'Tis a king, for sure! 
'Twould take the taxes of a world to dress 
A man in that silken gold, and all those gems. 
What a flash the light makes of him, nay, he burns; 
And he's here on the quay all by himself, 
Not even a slave to fan him! -- Man, you're ailing! 
You look like death; is it the falling sickness? 
Or has the mere thought of the Indian journey 
Made your marrow quail with a cold fever? 

The Stranger (to the Captain) 
You are the master of this ship? 

Captain I am. 

This huddled man belongs to me: a slave 
Escaped my service. 

Captain Lord, I knew not that. 
But you are in good time. 

Stranger And was the slave 
For putting out with you? Where are your bound? 

To India. First he would sail, and then 
Again he would not. But, my Lord, I swear 
I never guesst he was a runaway. 

Well, he shall have his mind and go with you 
To India: a good slave he is, but bears 
A restless thought. He has slipt off before, 
And vexes me still to be watching him. 
We'll make a bargain of him. 

Captain I, my Lord? 
I have no need of slaves: I am too poor. 

For twenty silver pieces he is yours. 

That's cheap, if he has a skill. Yes, there might be 
Profit in him at that. Has he a trade? 

He is a carpenter. 

Captain A carpenter! 
Why, for a good one I'ld give all my purse. 

No, twenty silver pieces is the price; 
Though 'tis a slave a king might joy to own. 
I've taught him to imagine palaces 
So high, and tower'd so nobly, they might seem 
The marvelling of a God-delighted heart 
Escaping into ecstasy; he knows, 
Moreover, of a stuff so rare it makes 
Smaragdus and the dragon-stone despised; 
And yet the quarries whereof he is wise 
Would yield enough to house the tribes of the world 
In palaces of beautiful shining work. 

Lo there! why, that is it: the carpenter 
I am to bring is needed for to build 
The king's new palace. 

Stranger Yea? He is your man. 

Come on, my man. I'll put your cunning heels 
Where they'll not budge more than a shuffled inch. 
My lord, if you'll bide with the rascal here 
I'll get the irons ready. Here's your sum. -- 

Now, Thomas, know thy sin. It was not fear; 
Easily may a man crouch down for fear, 
And yet rise up on firmer knees, and face 
The hailing storm of the world with graver courage. 
But prudence, prudence is the deadly sin, 
And one that groweth deep into a life, 
With hardening roots that clutch about the breast. 
For this refuses faith in the unknown powers 
Within man's nature; shrewdly bringeth all 
Their inspiration of strange eagerness(
To a judgment bought by safe experience; 
Narrows desire into the scope of thought. 
But it is written in the heart of man, 
Thou shalt no larger be than thy desire. 
Thou must not therefore stoop thy spirit's sight 
To pore only within the candle-gleam 
Of conscious wit and reasonable brain; 
But search into the sacred darkness lying 
Outside thy knowledge of thyself, the vast 
Measureless fate, full of the power of stars, 
The outer noiseless heavens of thy soul. 
Keep thy desire closed in the room of light 
The labouring fires of thy mind have made, 
And thou shalt find the vision of thy spirit 
Pitifully dazzled to so shrunk a ken, 
There are no spacious puissances about it. 
But send desire often forth to scan 
The immense night which is thy greater soul; 
Knowing the possible, see thou try beyond it 
Into impossible things, unlikely ends; 
And thou shalt find thy knowledgeable desire 
Grow large as all the regions of thy soul, 
Whose firmament doth cover the whole of Being, 
And of created purpose reach the ends.

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