The Phases of the Moon

AN old man cocked his ear upon a bridge;    
He and his friend, their faces to the South,    
Had trod the uneven road. Their boots were soiled,    
Their Connemara cloth worn out of shape;    
They had kept a steady pace as though their beds,          
Despite a dwindling and late risen moon,    
Were distant. An old man cocked his ear.
Aherne   What made that sound?    
Robartes    A rat or water-hen    
Splashed, or an otter slid into the stream.    
We are on the bridge; that shadow is the tower,    
And the light proves that he is reading still.    
He has found, after the manner of his kind,    
Mere images; chosen this place to live in    
Because, it may be, of the candle light    
From the far tower where Milton’s platonist    
Sat late, or Shelley’s visionary prince:    
The lonely light that Samuel Palmer engraved,    
An image of mysterious wisdom won by toil;    
And now he seeks in book or manuscript    
What he shall never find.    
Aherne   Why should not you    
Who know it all ring at his door, and speak    
Just truth enough to show that his whole life    
Will scarcely find for him a broken crust    
Of all those truths that are your daily bread;    
And when you have spoken take the roads again?    
Robartes    He wrote of me in that extravagant style    
He had learnt from Pater, and to round his tale    
Said I was dead; and dead I chose to be.    
Aherne   Sing me the changes of the moon once more;    
True song, though speech: ‘mine author sung it me.’    
Robartes    Twenty-and-eight the phases of the moon,    
The full and the moon’s dark and all the crescents,    
Twenty-and-eight, and yet but six-and-twenty    
The cradles that a man must needs be rocked in:    
For there’s no human life at the full or the dark.    
From the first crescent to the half, the dream    
But summons to adventure and the man    
Is always happy like a bird or a beast;    
But while the moon is rounding towards the full    
He follows whatever whim’s most difficult    
Among whims not impossible, and though scarred    
As with the cat-o’-nine-tails of the mind,    
His body moulded from within his body    
Grows comelier. Eleven pass, and then    
Athenae takes Achilles by the hair,    
Hector is in the dust, Nietzsche is born,    
Because the heroes’ crescent is the twelfth.    
And yet, twice born, twice buried, grow he must,    
Before the full moon, helpless as a worm.    
The thirteenth moon but sets the soul at war    
In its own being, and when that war’s begun    
There is no muscle in the arm; and after    
Under the frenzy of the fourteenth moon    
The soul begins to tremble into stillness,    
To die into the labyrinth of itself.    
Aherne   Sing out the song; sing to the end, and sing    
The strange reward of all that discipline.    
Robartes    All thought becomes an image and the soul  
Becomes a body: that body and that soul    
Too perfect at the full to lie in a cradle,    
Too lonely for the traffic of the world:    
Body and soul cast out and cast away    
Beyond the visible world.    
Aherne   All dreams of the soul    
End in a beautiful man’s or woman’s body.    
Robartes    Have you not always known it?    
Aherne   The song will have it    
That those that we have loved got their long fingers  
From death, and wounds, or on Sinai’s top,    
Or from some bloody whip in their own hands.    
They ran from cradle to cradle till at last    
Their beauty dropped out of the loneliness    
Of body and soul.    
Robartes    The lovers’ heart knows that.    
Aherne   It must be that the terror in their eyes    
Is memory or foreknowledge of the hour    
When all is fed with light and heaven is bare.    
Robartes    When the moon’s full those creatures of the full  
Are met on the waste hills by country men    
Who shudder and hurry by: body and soul    
Estranged amid the strangeness of themselves,    
Caught up in contemplation, the mind’s eye    
Fixed upon images that once were thought,    
For separate, perfect, and immovable    
Images can break the solitude    
Of lovely, satisfied, indifferent eyes.    
And thereupon with aged, high-pitched voice    
Aherne laughed, thinking of the man within,    
His sleepless candle and laborious pen.    
Robartes    And after that the crumbling of the moon.    
The soul remembering its loneliness    
Shudders in many cradles; all is changed,    
It would be the World’s servant, and as it serves,  
Choosing whatever task’s most difficult    
Among tasks not impossible, it takes    
Upon the body and upon the soul    
The coarseness of the drudge.    
Aherne   Before the full  
It sought itself and afterwards the world.    
Robartes    Because you are forgotten, half out of life,    
And never wrote a book your thought is clear.    
Reformer, merchant, statesman, learned man,    
Dutiful husband, honest wife by turn,    
Cradle upon cradle, and all in flight and all    
Deformed because there is no deformity    
But saves us from a dream.    
Aherne   And what of those    
That the last servile crescent has set free?
Robartes    Because all dark, like those that are all light,    
They are cast beyond the verge, and in a cloud,    
Crying to one another like the bats;    
And having no desire they cannot tell    
What’s good or bad, or what it is to triumph  
At the perfection of one’s own obedience;    
And yet they speak what’s blown into the mind;    
Deformed beyond deformity, unformed,    
Insipid as the dough before it is baked,    
They change their bodies at a word.  
Aherne   And then?    
Robartes    When all the dough has been so kneaded up    
That it can take what form cook Nature fancy    
The first thin crescent is wheeled round once more.    
Aherne   But the escape; the song’s not finished yet.  
Robartes     Hunchback and saint and fool are the last crescents.    
The burning bow that once could shoot an arrow    
Out of the up and down, the wagon wheel    
Of beauty’s cruelty and wisdom’s chatter,    
Out of that raving tide is drawn betwixt  
Deformity of body and of mind.    
Aherne   Were not our beds far off I’d ring the bell,    
Stand under the rough roof-timbers of the hall    
Beside the castle door, where all is stark    
Austerity, a place set out for wisdom  
That he will never find; I’d play a part;    
He would never know me after all these years    
But take me for some drunken country man;    
I’d stand and mutter there until he caught    
‘Hunchback and saint and fool,’ and that they came  
Under the three last crescents of the moon,    
And then I’d stagger out. He’d crack his wits    
Day after day, yet never find the meaning.    
And then he laughed to think that what seemed hard    
Should be so simple—a bat rose from the hazels
And circled round him with its squeaky cry,    
The light in the tower window was put out.

The Wild Swans at Coole. 1919.


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