by: Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943)

      Argument--Itys, nurtured by centaurs, meets and falls in love with Helen of Troy, before her marriage with Menelaus. What befell therefrom.
      lowly blanch-handed Dawn, eyes half-awake,
      Upraised magnificent the silver urn,
      Heaped with white roses at the trembling lip,
      Flowers that burn with crystalline accord
      And die not ever. Like a pulsing heart
      Beat from within against the fire-loud verge
      A milky vast transparency of light
      Heavy with drowning stars; a swimming void
      Of august ether, formless as the cloud,
      And light made absolute. The mountains sighed,
      Turning in sleep. Dawn held the frozen flame
      And instant high above the shaggy world,
      Then, to the crowing of a thousand cocks,
      Poured out on earth the unconquerable sun!

      The centaurs awoke! they aroused from their beds of pine,
      Their long flanks hoary with dew, and their eyes, deep-drowned
      In the primal slumber of stones, stirred bright to the shine!
      And they stamped with their hooves and their gallop abased the ground!

      Swifter than arrowy birds in an eager sky,
      White-browed kings of the hills where old Titans feast,
      --Cheiron ordered the charge with a neighing cry,
      And the thousand hunters tramped like a single beast!

      Beautiful monstrous dreams they seemed as they ran,
      Trees come alive at the nod of a god grown mute!
      Their eyes looked up to the sun like a valiant man;
      Their bows clashed shrill on the loins and limbs of the brute!

      Laughing, rejoicing, white as a naked birch,
      Slim as a spear in a torrent of moving towers,
      Itys, the prince, ran gay in the storm of their search,
      Silverly shod on feet that outstripped the Hours!

      Over by Sparta bays a horn!
      Ohé, Helena!
      Over by Sparta bays a horn!
      And the black hound grins to his milk-teeth torn;
      And the tall stag wishes he'd never been born!
      Helena hunts on the hills!

      Past the Eurotas the chase sweeps hot!
      Ohé, Helena!
      Past the Eurotas the chase sweeps hot!
      And the pack has nosed a royal slot!
      And a white-armed girl has a magic lot!
      Helena hunts on the hills!

      Echoed at Elis the dogs give tongue!
      Ohé, Helena!
      Echoed at Elis the dogs give tongue!
      The stag flees on but his mort is sung!
      And the world and Helen are very young!
      Helena hunts on the hills!

      Down by Argos the flight is stayed!
      Ohé, Helena!
      Down by Argos the flight is stayed!
      And proud blood stifles the reeking blade!
      And they cut the tongue for the golden maid!
      Helena hunts on the hills!

      Over in Troy by a kingly door,
      Ohé, Helena!
      Over in Troy by a kingly door,
      Hector's sword is asleep from war!
      "Wait!" whines the bitter steel, "Two years more!"
      Helena hunts on the hills!

      So the two molten clamors fused a space
      As silver marries brass to make a bell,
      Then thrust apart and vanished, save for some
      Faint interlocking tentacles of sound
      That chimed to Itys. Something halted him
      From the swift gallop and the embracing air,
      Put in him troubling languor, drove him out
      To rest beside a round coin of a pool,
      Casually flung among a cloud of pines.
      He dreamed as a dog dreams, uneasily.

      The dreams blow North and South.
      Pitiless-bright they gleam.
      Send, Zeus, a flower across my mouth!
      The wing of a silver dream!

      The visions smoke from the deep,
      Bannering East and West.
      Guide, Zeus, the stumbling old feet of Sleep,
      That bring a dream to my breast!

      I have gazed in immaculate eyes!
      My soul is a flame astream!
      Zeus, strike swift from the raging skies,
      That I may die with my dream!

      He waked and saw two hounds, tugging their leash,
      Burst through the covert, and heard laughter bell
      Like a clear stream as Helen followed them.
      They drank, were quiet. Itys stood at gaze;
      Seeing in all things one miraculous face,
      And how her tunic left one bright breast bare,
      And how she smoothed her hair back with one hand....
      But very presently he was aware
      That some one not himself possessed his voice
      And used it now to talk with--babbling words
      Foolish and laughable to that still Beauty.

      Tempest from the valiant sky,
      Music of the shaken reed,
      Can a thousand kisses buy
      You and April, mine indeed?
      Fling the dice and let them lie!

      Not a joy from all your mind
      Will you toss me, beggar's dole,
      And you never would be kind
      Though I kissed your very soul!
      Race the courses up the wind!

      Queen of desperate alarms,
      Though Destruction be the priest
      That must bring me to your arms,
      He shall wed our bones at least!
      Life was vintage, borage-crowned,
      Pour the cup upon the ground!

      Vines grow in my garden;
      Blossoms a snake in size.
      Sun warms and knife-winds harden,
      Till the silk-stained globes arise;
      And men peer over the hedges
      With fury come in their eyes.

      Pears grow in my garden;
      Honey a wild bee clips.
      Robbers afraid of pardon,
      The princes steal from their ships,
      And pluck the fruit of iniquity
      And take it not from their lips.

      Fate grows in my garden;
      Black as a cypress shoot.
      Sleepily smiles the warden,
      Guarding the gorgeous loot,
      Seeing the Tree, Deliciousness,
      And the tall lords dead at its root!

      Their lips broke from the kiss. Helena sighed,
      Then started up, afraid. Straight toward the pool
      Rending the brake with hounds, shouting aloud,
      Crashed like a cast spear the returning chase.
      "Itys!" she said, "My brothers. They will kill."
      He looked down at his hands that held no sword.
      Helena's hounds belled answer to their pack.
      Swift as a closing hand, unreal as dream,
      Danger shut down around them.
      "Dear" he said.
      Pollux, the shining-speared, burst through the leaves.
      * * *
      After the slaying, wide-eyed Helen paused
      To clasp the dead hands loosely, and unhook
      A swaying torque of gold from the white neck
      That it might burn, a sun, between her breasts.
      --The chase passed with hot noon, and in the cool
      A straying centaur came, snuffed the new blood
      And, seeing Itys dead, neighed in loud fear;
      Calling the hairy tramplers of the woods
      To mourn their friend with strange solemnities.

      Close his eyes with the coins; bind his chin with the shroud;
      Carry this clay along, in the time of the westing cloud;
      Lay you the cakes beside, for the three-mouthed dog of Hell;
      Slain on the grass in fight, surely his end is well.

      Love was the wind he sought, ignorant whence it went;
      Now he has clasped it close, silent and eloquent;
      Slow as the stream and strong, answering knee to knee,
      Carry this clay along--it is more wise that we.

      The chanting died away upon the hills,
      Sobbingly slow.
      And Night reversed the urn;
      Drawing all sunlight back to the hot deeps,
      And leaving the high heavens full of stars.

"The First Vision of Helen" is reprinted from Heavens and Earth: A Book of Poems. Stephen Vincent Benet. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1920.




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