Child of the Amazons by Max Eastman
Originally published in 'Child of the Amazons and Other Poems' in 1913.
The Amazons, according to a fable not without historic significance, were a tribe of female warriors who dwelt upon the river Thermodon, near the Euxine Sea. Annually, to perpetuate their race, they joined the men of a fighting nation upon Mount Caucasus; but of the offspring of these unions they saved only the girls. Their patron deity was the virgin Artemis, who is here identified with a star visible at dawn. Their queen, Penthesilea, was slain by Achilles in the fight at Troy.
When in the orient the almighty sun
Sings up his burning shield, and brandishes
A shaft of light against the leagued skies,
When the sea smoketh, and the forest oaks
Forget the storm gone over them and tremble
In the furious rising of the dawn —
Then join her councillors to counsel war!
Then throng they out unto the forest old,
The high and awful chamber of their queen,
Bringing in sinewy hands their iron spears,
Her captains — who are women old and wild,
Homeless, unchaste, worn with the battle anger
And the weight of weapons swung in heat.
No mirth, no music, no barbaric splendor
Doth explain them, or adorn their pride.
Scarred and unloved and terrible they are!
Yet not the experienced earth doth go thro' heaven
With a more tempered majesty and power,
Then they go thro' the verdurous colonnades
And living aisles of their uncovered temple.
For where the trees unveil unto the dawn
A summit old, a windy sanctuary,
There doth the royal warrior summon them.
There by her savage altar doth she stand,
Immense with beauty, like a sexless god,
Imperial oaks lifting their arms behind her,
And the East nourishing her limbs with light.
She, as they come, doth lift her voice to them
In high and ardent music:
'O ye powers,
Free-clad, armed like the sun with javelins!
Deeds would become you well, so well arrayed!
Have ye not lingered by this stream enough,
And paced along the murmurous strand, and dozed,
And watched this bay yawning beside the sea?
O, are ye sick with hunger for events?
Then ye shall have them! Ye shall ride with me
To the adventure on the plains of Troy,
Where now the proudest of the oppressors moors
His ships, and marshals his vainglorious arms,
To capture that which he could never hold —
The cool rebellious soul of her that scorned him!'
So her passion sings, and they with arms
Ring the reply. She lifts a regal spear
For silence, and she saith:
'Who would excel
In war must first excel in government.
Yet here a very child defies our law:
That singer, maker of the battle hymns,
Thyone, whom with every hope we loved —
Always the fleetest of the dancing girls,
And strongest when they wrestle in the meadow —
Even Thyone, out of battle born,
Doth shirk the enterprise of soldiery!
And 'tis the common tale — the mind bewitched
By some high warrior, the body too
Grows lazy and unmuscular with love!
Yet never does she lose her spirit bold,
But dares revolt, and plead against my will,
That she may have the amazing soldier with her,
Dwell with him, as do the nations against whom,
Implacable, we swing the scourge of war!
This hour she comes to you to plead, and feel
She paused; and to them there appeared,
Like a swift spirit from the shadowy trees,
A form as fresh as the remembered winds
Of dawn — Thyone, called the Sea-wild Maid.
Upright and young before the queen, she led
All eyes in silence brief unto her own.
'I come unarmed into the council, Queen.
I prayed not to the unlistening star this morn,
But to a warm God whom I have called Love.
Love hath disarmed me.'
Softly thus she spoke,
Yet in her voice was more of empire than
Of love. And for a breath, no answer — till
The queen, with equal calm, said:
'We have heard
How mellow you have grown these Summer days!
We called you here to sing us a sweet lay,
We being tired of duty. Will you sing?'
Her irony the girl dismayed with candor
When she said, raising her eyes:
To me the morning is not jubilant
Tho' all her wander-winged minstrels sing,
And the sweet insects pipe their joys aloft;
To me the day is dreary, tho' his light
Flows down around me as of old. — But when
The wind herds forward many clouds along
The pastures of the sun, I welcome them;
And in the arms of night my sorrow sleepeth.'
'Yea! But come, the story! Tell us that!
Unto whose power art thou this listless captive?'
'I think thou knowest that he is a king.'
'They say you sit among the meadow grass
And sing to him — is this thy exercise?
Thou big and silly child!'
'Most scornful Queen,
Not long we sat amid the blossoming grass
Before the sea rose and came over us,
And we were drowned, and lay together, still,
Without breath. — Spake I with a child's voice?'
'A voice that angers me — the voice of love
And of a dreamer lost!'
'Yea, I am lost!'
'Hast thou no will, no hunger after deeds
Swift and heroic?'
'O my heart is hungry!
All my life is swift and wild with passion!
It is a flame carried in the wind!'
Unto her cry her body gave
All eloquence; her gestures seemed to move
On infinite curves inherited of gods.
And the dark warriors stirred; but not their queen,
'Darest thou at this shrine defy
Our law, which is the aged word of God?
Fearest thou not the empire of these armed?
They call it traitorous to smuggle in
Outlawed and poisonous thoughts! They know
Your kind! Think you this nation has grown great
Without the trembling public death of traitors?
Think you we drag our cowards on to glory?'
Thyone said: 'Am I a coward, in
That I defy the dreadful laws of God?'
'Ay, they are dreadful!' cried the queen, and shook
Her lofty spear in fury, beautiful.
'And thou shalt swiftly know their dreadfulness!
Ay, thou shalt hear the Law of Amazons,
And learn what romance sleepeth on the tune!
We lie not in the vice of love! We breed
At night, at morn we are away to wars!
O hath thy blood no fiery wish to fight,
To fly with the light-armed over the plain?'
'My blood doth burn against the sacrifice,
To momentary deeds, of passionate
Lifelong desire, and the deep hopes of love!
Is this that famous freedom that thy law
Doth vaunt? O is this liberty, to lose
For liberty all that the heart desires?'
'Thou piteous and pleading soldier! Dost
Thou hope to whirl a spear with lovelorn muscle?
Thou canst dishonor time with languid talk,
O Easy-tongue, but thou wilt alter not
The wish of God. For I am not thy judge,
But Artemis, unpassioned, unsubdued.
'"Have ye the virgin's heart!" — saith Artemis.
"Needs must ye give your bodies, hostages
Unto mortality — give not your souls!
This be the chastity of Amazons!
Exiled, who forfeits this, and from you scourged,
Shall seek among tyrannic nations that
Inactive servitude which ye renounce!" —
'Thus reads the immortal law; the choice is thine.
Thou canst find out thy way unto thy lord,
Succumb to him, thy vigorous spirit all,
To tend his fire and wipe his fireside gods,
And be to him the softness of a couch —
So be he deign thee thy sweet sips of love!
Our souls shall drink the flaming wine of deeds!
And thou not with us? O consult thy heart!
Consult thy heart, and bring thine answer when
The light again is swelling in the East!'
In the mild-mannered beauty of the morn,
When birds sing eastward and their throats are filled
With song, and in a shrill continual chant
The little people of the grass profess
Their wakefulness unto the slumbering earth,
Then doth the sea her song perpetual
Relinquish, and lieth down whispering
Peace to the patient sands, and listeneth.
On such a morn, and at the gentle hour
Of opening eyes, Thyone came unto
The council, armed, and in her hand the spear.
Yet as she stept across the grass her feet
Were languid, and her eyes looked down, lest they
Too tearfully reflect the light of dawn.
Where, O thou soul rebellious, goest thou?
What potentate hath power o'er thee but joy?
Hearest thou not Love wandering forlorn
Upon the mountain meadows calling thee?
Hearest thou not the future calling thee?
Must thy bright hopes expire while they are born,
As dewdrops scatter at the wink of morn?
So sings her mind to her the while she moves
In sorrow, carrying a drooping spear.
Yet when she comes in sight of them, who stand
In cruel panoply around their queen.
Drinking her lust of action, eyeing her,
Holding the solemn jubilee of war —
Then doth Thyone raise her face to meet
The morning light, her limbs spring firm with pride,
And in her eyes the imperial will of God
Flasheth again, as on her arms his signal
Gleams. She lifts her spear against the sun,
And dawns upon that resolute array,
A victor, and a soul compelling them.
'O Queen and stormy counsellors of war —
Unto the temple hall a warrior comes!
I join the music of your concourse wild!
Yet unto thee, thou sovereign cold, I say
That I obey, but honor not, thy will.
Thou art my fate, and with thy iron arm
Dost point to an intolerable choice.
A blazed tree upon the forking road
Thou art; at early morn I pause by thee,
My tearless eyes sending their sight eastward
Up to the mountain pastures of our love,
The hills, the water-meadows, and the woods —
O God in heaven keep them beautiful!
O high farewell to you, ye Summer Hours!
O Romance, idle, sweet, and transitory!
Yea, I can say a strong farewell to you!
I'd learned ere now, in the long hour of gloom,
Your being is to be but vanishing!
Yet O, beyond you, and beyond the hills,
There are the regions of the surely blest!
And travelling onward, I would come like dawn
Into the land of mothers, where the hours
Serene and elevated wait for me!
'Thou, warlike Queen, hast thou ne'er nestled down
To earth with thy blood singing, and thy limbs
Oppressed with joy! Hast thou not sobbed with wonder,
Not known the sudden motion in the night,
The doubt, the expectancy, the terror beautiful?
Yea, thou hast known them! And thou hast brought
A very little body like thine own,
And touched and loved him for the dimple, and
The ring of blue between his half-wide lids!
Yea, thou hast had him torn from thy wild arms
By these unshakable laws, whereon thou stand'st
To judge me! O my Queen, I weep for thee,
Though thou art great, and seasoned against woe!
Thy character is iron, I cannot
Shake thee with memories, nor alter thee
With an incessant quantity of tears!'
'Thyone,' saith the queen, 'thou dost express
A thing the law knows not, remembers not.
And thou dost speak to one who hath long since
Been tempered in the tremulous fires of love,
And hath all passion borne and burned with it,
And issued forth as steely and secure
As the immortals are who fan such flames!
Therefore I counsel thee to scourge from thee
These thoughts, and cease thy woeful eloquence,
And give thy gift of music on the tongue
To praise and sing the conquerors of fire!'
To whom, with quick light-giving eyes, the girl
'With gladness will I sing and praise
Thy company of soldiers whom I love,
Whom I have envied since that windy day
When first they startled me, and set my eyes
In childhood dancing. I have never lost,
Even in the slow warm winds of midnight when
His voice remembered quivered on my ear —
I've never lost my love for thy battalions!
Heroic joys they ever offer me —
Those visions valorous of my young heart!
'O to command the tumult of a troop
Of battle horses! to possess that space
That flees like wind before them to the foe!
To come, with so much thunder at my back,
Into the fainting noise of a drawn battle —
Borne on a stallion uncontrollable
And racing for the lead, to cling to him
With supple limbs that feel his muscles roll,
And with free arms to do the flying deeds
Of cavalry! O God, could I forget
These glories? — Or the more precarious joy,
The exuberance of danger, when at night
I, like the hunting leopard, shall creep forth
In softness, and steal in upon my prey
To capture him, or scout in solitude
About his barracks!
'O I love to live! —
The task and the adventure, toil and rest,
And mirth, and the hot news of accident!
I love to live, impetuous, for joy
And woe, a life of action unto God!
Triumphantly I choose it! I renounce
My wish of love, my hope, my fruitful years!
For who would be the consort of a king,
Subduer of the earth, and be subdued?
Who would bring into this heroic world
A child, before she had gone forth to prove
That she herself was equal to the world?
Too long the heirs of man content themselves
With a divided portion. I will never
Be the idle ornament of time,
Futile and pale and foreign to the earth,
Nor with a weak and fluent life dilute
The heritage of those bright heroes who
Shall yet subdue the world!
'I love that law —
O Artemis, thy seeing law — that saith
No Amazon shall enter motherhood
Until she hath performed such deeds, and wrought
Such impact on the energetic world,
That thou canst it behold and name her thine.
Grant me, O Goddess free, that I may burn
And kindle thro' some drama ere I die!
'O thou divine Intelligence, where thou
Dost wheel thy silver chariot along
The dark perimeter of utmost heaven,
Lean low thine ear to hear my resolution!
No, give me power and I will pray to thee
A prayer that dares ascend, and like a sun
Or streaming meteor, greet and startle thee!
I pray that I shall yet defy thee, thou
Far Deity, and lay the regal hand
Of man upon thy law to alter it;
To herald the far age when men shall cease
Their tyranny, Amazons their revolt.
Renouncing each a sad unnatural dream,
They shall go forth together to subdue
Unto their symmetry the monstrous world,
And with the night lie down in powerful union!
'Henceforth, my sovereign, perfect is my will
To do thy deeds and be thy Amazon —
Though I postpone unto the end my hope.
For if it is an excellence to bear,
Then is it a thing prior, more divine,
To be. I join the counsellors of war.'