by: Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943)

      Argument--Helen, after the fall of Troy, departs to Egypt with ghostly companions, as in the old tale. She encounters the Sphinx and a marvel is wrought upon her.
      easureless sand ... interminable sand ...

      The smooth hide of that yellow lion, Earth,
      Ruffled a little and was dark again
      Beneath the descending torrents of the night,
      Plunging like cobalt from the cliffs of the sky,
      Blotting the stiff wedge of each pyramid
      With the slow gurgle of a rising wave,
      A wave burning with stars....
      The Sphinx alone
      Couched on her forepaws like a sleepy hound
      Under the weight of a caress of rock
      And smiled her woman's and chimera's smile
      Inexorably, drowned with the savage dark.

      The black tide filled the heavens up and ceased,
      A little tongueing flame ran on the sand
      Bright as a fire of paper, swift and light
      As a bird's restless eyes. It rose. It bloomed,
      An angry dream before the Sphinx's feet,
      The exhalation of a furious thought,
      Tall as the ghosts of Heaven's battlements,
      The apparition that had once been Troy!

      A girl went out in the summer skies,
      (The dice lie white for the throwing!)
      A girl went out in the summer skies
      And the sunlight laughed as it kissed her eyes!
      (And the wind of Fate is blowing!)

      She was ruddy and gold as a changing leaf
      When gilded Autumn gathers the sheaf.

      She was lily and pale as a sleeping moth
      When the full moon bleaches the skies like cloth.

      The grass was glad to be under her shoe,
      The poppy proud to be flour unto
      The silvering dance of her feet like dew!

      ... But her lord walks chill as a cloud of snow
      Where the kings of the earth are bending the bow.

      They are roaring the fame of the flying dart,
      But he whispers low, in a place apart,
      With the evil ice of his freezing heart.

      "Helena, Helena, mouth of wine,
      Two more days for your sun to shine!

      Helena, Helena, mouth of musk,
      Two more days and I make you dusk.

      Two more nights on your silky bed,
      And your lover over it, bloody and dead,
      And your body broken as I break bread!"

      His lips are writhing, sucking and cold,
      His hands are twitching like trees grown old,
      He shivers as if he had trod on mold.

      The Golden Queen at her anchor strains.
      (Sails on the sapphire, snowing)
      Paris walks on the deck like a man in chains.
      (And the wind of Fate is blowing.)

      He wastes in his love like leaves in a flame,
      But his mind is a spear in a dauntless game,
      And the face of his doom has a girl's soft name.

      The fifty sailors are whetting their swords.
      The brown sun beats on the tarry boards.

      And Helena skims by the rolling sand
      And waves with the fleck of a foam-white hand.

      And the blood of Youth pounds hot in the throat
      As the long oars lash from the lunging boat.

      Richly she came through the leaping green,
      Like the shrine of a god, like a sun first seen,
      And they cried "Hurrah for the Golden Queen!"

      The white sails soar like a rising gull,
      The water spins by the speeding hull.

      She smiles with her chin cupped into her hand
      At the drowning shadow of fading land
      --And Paris shakes like a torching brand.

      And Paris crushes her, breath to breath,
      And she gives him her honey of love and death.

      But chill Menelaus a Fury hath,
      He has thawed his hate to a roaring wrath!
      He is loosing his hounds on the ocean-path!

      The blooms of the years are withered and fall.
      (Dawn--and a red flame crowing)
      And Time's cracked fingers number them all.
      (And the wind of Fate is blowing.)

      And a wooden horse is trampling Troy
      As a hoof-thrust crushes a crumpling toy.

      Ruddy and gold where the torches stare
      Helena sits in her carven chair.

      Lovely and strange as a moonlit cloud--
      But her head droops down like a petal bowed.

      Beneath her the blood and the wine run deep
      --But her eyes are seas more quiet than sleep.

      The drunkards brawl and the cup goes round;
      But she gives no sign and she makes no sound.

      Red Menelaus has poured her drink;
      And she does not sip and she does not shrink.

      And her mouth is a flower that says "Depart!"
      And the hilt of a knife is under her heart.

      The kings of the world have finished their chase,
      They dash their wine in the glorious face.

      And Paris is dead in a sickly land;
      And they wrench the rings from the plume-white hand.

      They dice for her rings and the game is sweet
      And lean Menelaus is smiling sleet.

      And the captains chuckle, counting their scars,
      For the hosts of the earth have finished their wars
      And Helen and Troy are cold as the stars.

      Waves in the dusk with a sound like tears
      (And the deep tide foaming and flowing)
      Saying one name for a thousand years!
      (And the wind of Fate is blowing!)

      Like air beaten by swords, like the long cry
      Of an old trumpet harsh with rust and gold
      The ballad rose assaulting, struck and died
      Into a clamorous echo.
      The Sphinx stirred,
      Shaking the drifted moonlight from her coat
      As a dog shakes water, rising mountainously;
      Then from that drum of terrible stone, her throat,
      Rolled back her answer at the enormous sky.

      The arrow of Eros flies
      In the dark, in the trembling dark;
      Piercing and sweet is the song it cries
      And the cup of the heart its mark!
      And the cup of the heart is dust,
      And the wine of the heart is spilled.
      And the barb flings whimpering back to Lust
      With "Master, see--I have killed!"
      It was thus and thus that you were begot!
      I am Death's bright arrow! Forgive me not!

      The ribbon of Fate unreels
      In the road of the days and nights;
      There are flute-voiced airs for the dancing heels,
      But over them hang the kites!
      And the path grows dark as the laws
      And the kites drop down in a ring,
      Till a blind stag torn by the slashing claws
      Is the end of the trumpeting!
      It is there and there that your fathers rot!
      I am Destiny's halter! Unloose me not!

      The mirrow of Wisdom shines
      Like a face in a troubled pool.
      Like the eyes of a snake are its weaving signs
      To the eyes of an anxious fool.
      For the secret form of the soul
      Is there in its terror shown
      --And it rends the sight like a crumbling coal
      Till the eyes of the fool are stone!
      It was this and this that your ardor sought!
      I am Wisdom's mirror! Behold me not!

      Then, like a forgotten tumult of the heart,
      The multitude of men who died for Helen,
      Vague, terrible, wounded forms began to chant.

      Glance at us once from your sacred tower,
      Helen divine!
      The cutworm crawls in the almond-flower,
      The rats are eating the thrones of power,
      Yet glance at us once and the clouds will shower
      Our lips with wine!

      Loosen your hair to the storm again,
      To the whistling brine!
      We are very desperate men,
      Reeds when fire goes over the fen,
      Lighten our dark with your marvel then,
      Helen divine!

      Give us drink for our bitter thirst,
      Helen divine!
      bless you the thieves that each priest has cursed,
      Queen of us, queen of us, last and first,
      Flame we followed and child we nursed,
      Star at trine!

      Open the heaven of your embrace,
      Oh burning sign!
      This is the end of the bloody race,
      Whispering sea and the stars like lace,
      You gather our souls to your shining place,
      Helen divine!

      The thunder ebbed away into a sigh,
      Died into sand, was calm.
      And suddenly
      Helen of anguish, Helen of the song,
      Helen the victory on the lips of Zeus,
      Helen the princely word, the proud despair,
      The voiceless cry of the ecstatic dream,
      Shone with the radiance of a consuming wish
      Upon the desert, and stretched out her arms
      As if to take that whole great ghost of Troy,
      Pennon and panoply, champion and car,
      Back to its home, her breast.

      Would there ever be a bud
      If the sap considered storm?
      It would stay in happy mud,
      Damned and sleepy, safe and warm!
      Who would want to be a rose
      If its petals thought of snows?

      Why I lived I never knew.
      Life--I took it like a toy,
      Something like a worship, too,
      To adore and to enjoy.
      Then the gods began to play
      --And the toy was put away.

      Like a perfume made intense,
      Like the planet of a dark,
      I became magnificence
      For my hour, in my spark,
      There is rapture in my ghost,
      Telling all my least and most.

      Fate and Wisdom, judging loud,
      These are shadows I can mock
      With the thoughtlessness of cloud,
      With the indolence of rock.
      Let them air the inn they keep!
      I am tired. I would sleep.

      So, with the pause, all earth and sky were still
      As if they had just been made--and the Sphinx lay
      Silent, engulfed in silence.
      Then she moved
      Uneasily, and settled back again,
      And in a low harshness of diminished sound
      Spoke out her final judgment.

      Zeus of the silver dawning took the scarf of a cloud,
      He quickened the wraith with fire till the life cried out aloud,
      He called Desire from his lightning, Despair from her weaving old,
      And they fashioned the shape to a woman that men might die to behold!

      Golden Zeus of the sunbeam slapped his hand on his thigh
      As the swords ran out of their scabbards and the arrows sang in the sky,
      And the woman like leafy April was the chant that an archer sings
      Over sands grown bloody with purple that has come from the hearts of kings!

      Zeus of the brazen twilight, nodding his eyes awake,
      Armed him a doom for Helen lest Earth burn up for her sake;
      Chill on the heart of incense, the hands that desired so much,
      Fell the snow-like veil of his wisdom, till the flesh was still at its touch!

      Iron Zeus of the night-time, watching the chariot moon
      Trample the skies to whiteness, turns like a moving dune
      To gaze at the shade of Helen. His eyes as the skies are vast;
      Seeing her sleep like a swallow in Death's wide bed at last.

      Helen stood
      Within the tremendous circle of the paws,
      Moving like light towards the dark secret heart.
      The Sphinx cried terribly with a wordless sound
      Of birth and anguish struggling to be heard ...
      And the light vanished ...
      And Helen and the Sphinx
      Were one forever, stone and ghost and dream--
      And Troy was gone like vapor in the dark.

      So the dawn came, and toiling caravans,
      Whose princes halted, arrogant as hawks,
      To stare but once into the Sphinx's eyes
      ... And so were staring till Death breathed on them
      With the slant feathers of his ruffling wing,
      Seeking within the rock, the stubborn rock,
      The gaze and burning of their Lost Desire.

"The Last 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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