Edith Wharton

Here you will find the Long Poem Summer Afternoon (Bodiam Castle, Sussex) of poet Edith Wharton

Summer Afternoon (Bodiam Castle, Sussex)

THOU couldst not look on me and live: so runs 
The mortal legend -- thou that couldst not live 
Nor look on me (so the divine decree)! 
That sawst me in the cloud, the wave, the bough, 
The clod commoved with April, and the shapes 
Lurking 'twixt lid and eye-ball in the dark. 
Mocked I thee not in every guise of life, 
Hid in girls' eyes, a naiad in her well, 
Wooed through their laughter, and like echo fled, 
Luring thee down the primal silences 
Where the heart hushes and the flesh is dumb? 
Nay, was not I the tide that drew thee out 
Relentlessly from the detaining shore, 
Forth from the home-lights and the hailing voices, 
Forth from the last faint headland's failing line, 
Till I enveloped thee from verge to verge 
And hid thee in the hollow of my being? 
And still, because between us hung the veil, 
The myriad-tinted veil of sense, thy feet 
Refused their rest, thy hands the gifts of life, 
Thy heart its losses, lest some lesser face 
Should blur mine image in thine upturned soul 
Ere death had stamped it there. This was thy thought. 
And mine? 
The gods, they say, have all: not so! 
This have they -- flocks on every hill, the blue 
Spirals of incense and the amber drip 
Of lucid honey-comb on sylvan shrines, 
First-chosen weanlings, doves immaculate, 
Twin-cooing in the osier-plaited cage, 
And ivy-garlands glaucous with the dew: 
Man's wealth, man's servitude, but not himself! 
And so they pale, for lack of warmth they wane, 
Freeze to the marble of their images, 
And, pinnacled on man's subserviency, 
Through the thick sacrificial haze discern 
Unheeding lives and loves, as some cold peak 
Through icy mists may enviously descry 
Warm vales unzoned to the all-fruitful sun. 
So they along an immortality 
Of endless-vistaed homage strain their gaze, 
If haply some rash votary, empty-urned, 
But light of foot, with all-adventuring hand, 
Break rank, fling past the people and the priest, 
Up the last step, on to the inmost shrine, 
And there, the sacred curtain in his clutch, 
Drop dead of seeing -- while the others prayed! 
Yea, this we wait for, this renews us, this

Incarnates us, pale people of your dreams, 
Who are but what you make us, wood or stone, 
Or cold chryselephantine hung with gems, 
Or else the beating purpose of your life, 
Your sword, your clay, the note your pipe pursues, 
The face that haunts your pillow, or the light 
Scarce visible over leagues of laboring sea! 
O thus through use to reign again, to drink 
The cup of peradventure to the lees, 
For one dear instant disimmortalized 
In giving immortality! 
So dream the gods upon their listless thrones. 
Yet sometimes, when the votary appears, 
With death-affronting forehead and glad eyes, 
Too young, they rather muse, too frail thou art, 
And shall we rob some girl of saffron veil 
And nuptial garland for so slight a thing? 
And so to their incurious loves return. 

Not so with thee; for some indeed there are 
Who would behold the truth and then return 
To pine among the semblances -- but I 
Divined in thee the questing foot that never 
Revisits the cold hearth of yesterday 
Or calls achievement home. I from afar 
Beheld thee fashioned for one hour's high use, 
Nor meant to slake oblivion drop by drop. 
Long, long hadst thou inhabited my dreams, 
Surprising me as harts surprise a pool, 
Stealing to drink at midnight; I divined 
Thee rash to reach the heart of life, and lie 
Bosom to bosom in occasion's arms, 
And said: Because I love thee thou shalt die! 

For immortality is not to range 
Unlimited through vast Olympian days, 
Or sit in dull dominion over time; 
But this -- to drink fate's utmost at a draught, 
Nor feel the wine grow stale upon the lip, 
To scale the summit of some soaring moment, 
Nor know the dulness of the long descent, 
To snatch the crown of life and seal it up 
Secure forever in the vaults of death! 

And this was thine: to lose thyself in me, 
Relive in my renewal, and become 
The light of other lives, a quenchless torch 
Passed on from hand to hand, till men are dust 
And the last garland withers from my shrine.