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Poem by Isabella Valancy Crawford

The Helot


Low the sun beat on the land,
  Red on vine and plain and wood;
With the wine-cup in his hand,
  Vast the Helot herdsman stood.


Quench'd the fierce Achean gaze,
  Dorian foemen paus'd before,
Where cold Sparta snatch'd her bays
  At Achaea's stubborn door.


Still with thews of iron bound,
  Vastly the Achean rose,
Godward from the brazen ground,
  High before his Spartan foes.


Still the strength his fathers knew
  (Dauntless when the foe they fac'd)
Vein and muscle bounded through,
  Tense his Helot sinews brac'd.


Still the constant womb of Earth,
  Blindly moulded all her part;
As, when to a lordly birth,
  Achean freemen left her heart.


Still, insensate mother, bore
  Goodly sons for Helot graves;
Iron necks that meekly wore
  Sparta's yoke as Sparta's slaves.


Still, O God mock'd mother! she
  Smil'd upon her sons of clay:
Nurs'd them on her breast and knee,
  Shameless in the shameful day.


Knew not old Achea's fires
  Burnt no more in souls or veins--
Godlike hosts of high desires
  Died to clank of Spartan chains.


Low the sun beat on the land,
  Purple slope and olive wood;
With the wine cup in his hand,
  Vast the Helot herdsman stood.


As long, gnarl'd roots enclasp
  Some red boulder, fierce entwine
His strong fingers, in their grasp
  Bowl of bright Caecuban wine.


From far Marsh of Amyclae,
  Sentried by lank poplars tall--
Thro' the red slant of the day,
  Shrill pipes did lament and call.


Pierc'd the swaying air sharp pines,
  Thyrsi-like, the gilded ground
Clasp'd black shadows of brown vines,
  Swallows beat their mystic round.


Day was at her high unrest;
  Fever'd with the wine of light,
Loosing all her golden vest,
  Reel'd she towards the coming night.


Fierce and full her pulses beat;
  Bacchic throbs the dry earth shook;
Stirr'd the hot air wild and sweet;
  Madden'd ev'ry vine-dark brook.


Had a red grape never burst,
  All its heart of fire out;
To the red vat all a thirst,
  To the treader's song and shout:


Had the red grape died a grape;
  Nor, sleek daughter of the vine,
Found her unknown soul take shape
  In the wild flow of the wine:


Still had reel'd the yellow haze:
  Still had puls'd the sun pierc'd sod
Still had throbb'd the vine clad days:
  To the pulses of their God.


Fierce the dry lips of the earth
  Quaff'd the subtle Bacchic soul:
Felt its rage and felt its mirth,
  Wreath'd as for the banquet bowl.


Sapphire-breasted Bacchic priest
  Stood the sky above the lands;
Sun and Moon at East and West,
  Brazen cymbals in his hands.


Temples, altars, smote no more,
  Sharply white as brows of Gods:
From the long, sleek, yellow shore,
  Oliv'd hill or dusky sod,


Gaz'd the anger'd Gods, while he,
  Bacchus, made their temples his;
Flushed their marble silently
  With the red light of his kiss.


Red the arches of his feet
  Spann'd grape-gleaming vales; the earth
Reel'd from grove to marble street,
  Mad with echoes of his mirth.


Nostrils widen'd to the air,
  As above the wine brimm'd bowl:
Men and women everywhere
  Breath'd the fierce, sweet Bacchic soul.


Flow'd the vat and roar'd the beam,
  Laugh'd the must; while far and shrill,
Sweet as notes in Pan-born dream,
  Loud pipes sang by vale and hill.


Earth was full of mad unrest,
  While red Bacchus held his state;
And her brown vine-girdl'd breast
  Shook to his wild joy and hate.


Strife crouch'd red ey'd in the vine
  In its tendrils Eros strayed;
Anger rode upon the wine;
  Laughter on the cup-lip play'd.


Day was at her chief unrest--
  Red the light on plain and wood
Slavish ey'd and still of breast,
  Vast the Helot herdsman stood:


Wide his hairy nostrils blew,
  Maddning incense breathing up;
Oak to iron sinews grew,
  Round the rich Caecuban cup.


"Drink, dull slave!" the Spartan said,
  "Drink, until the Helot clod
"Feel within him subtly bred
  "Kinship to the drunken God!


"Drink, until the leaden blood
  "Stirs and beats about thy brain:
"Till the hot Caecuban flood
  "Drown the iron of thy chain.


"Drink, till even madness flies
  "At the nimble wine's pursuit;
"Till the God within thee lies
  "Trampled by the earth-born brute.


"Helot drink--nor spare the wine;
  "Drain the deep, the madd'ning bowl,
"Flesh and sinews, slave, are mine,
  "Now I claim thy Helot soul.


"Gods! ye love our Sparta; ye
  "Gave with vine that leaps and runs
"O'er her slopes, these slaves to be
  "Mocks and warnings to her sons!


"Thou, my Hermos, turn thy eyes,
  "(God-touch'd still their frank, bold blue)
"On the Helot--mark the rise
  "Of the Bacchic riot through


"Knotted vein, and surging breast:
  "Mark the wild, insensate, mirth:
"God-ward boast--the driv'ling jest,
  "Till he grovel to the earth.


"Drink, dull slave," the Spartan cried:
  Meek the Helot touch'd the brim;
Scented all the purple tide:
  Drew the Bacchic soul to him.


Cold the thin lipp'd Spartan smiled:
  Couch'd beneath the weighted vine,
Large-ey'd, gaz'd the Spartan child,
  On the Helot and the wine.


Rose pale Doric shafts behind,
  Stern and strong, and thro' and thro',
Weaving with the grape-breath'd wind,
  Restless swallows call'd and flew.


Dropp'd the rose-flush'd doves and hung,
  On the fountains murmuring brims;
To the bronz'd vine Hermos clung--
  Silver-like his naked limbs


Flash'd and flush'd: rich copper'd leaves,
  Whiten'd by his ruddy hair;
Pallid as the marble eaves,
  Aw'd he met the Helot's stare.


Clang'd the brazen goblet down;
  Marble-bred loud echoes stirr'd:
With fix'd fingers, knotted, brown,
  Dumb, the Helot grasp'd his beard.


Heard the far pipes mad and sweet.
  All the ruddy hazes thrill:
Heard the loud beam crash and beat,
  In the red vat on the hill.


Wide his nostrils as a stag's
  Drew the hot wind's fiery bliss;
Red his lips as river flags,
  From the strong, Caecuban kiss.


On his swarthy temples grew,
  Purple veins like cluster'd grapes;
Past his rolling pupils blew,
  Wine-born, fierce, lascivious shapes.


Cold the haughty Spartan smiled--
  His the power to knit that day,
Bacchic fires, insensate, wild,
  To the grand Achean clay.


His the might--hence his the right!
  Who should bid him pause? nor Fate
Warning pass'd before his sight,
  Dark-robed and articulate.


No black omens on his eyes,
  Sinistre--God-sent, darkly broke;
Nor from ruddy earth nor skies,
  Portends to him mutely spoke.


"Lo," he said, "he maddens now!
  "Flames divine do scathe the clod;
"Round his reeling Helot brow
  "Stings the garland of the God."


"Mark, my Hermos--turn to steel
  The soft tendons of thy soul!
Watch the God beneath the heel
  Of the strong brute swooning roll!


"Shame, my Hermos! honey-dew
  Breeds not on the Spartan spear;
Steel thy mother-eyes of blue,
  Blush to death that weakling tear.


"Nay, behold! breed Spartan scorn
  Of the red lust of the wine;
Watch the God himself down-borne
  By the brutish rush of swine!


"Lo, the magic of the drink!
  At the nimble wine's pursuit,
See the man-half'd satyr sink
  All the human in the brute!


"Lo, the magic of the cup!
  Watch the frothing Helot rave!
As great buildings labour up
  From the corpse of slaughter'd slave,


"Build the Spartan virtue high
  From the Helot's wine-dead soul;
Scorn the wild, hot flames that fly
  From the purple-hearted bowl!


"Helot clay! Gods! what its worth,
  Balanc'd with proud Sparta's rock?
Ours--its force to till the earth;
  Ours--its soul to gyve and mock!


"Ours, its sullen might. Ye Gods!
  Vastly build the Achean clay;
Iron-breast our slavish clods--
  Ours their Helot souls to slay!


"Knit great thews--smite sinews vast
  Into steel--build Helot bones
Iron-marrowed:--such will last
  Ground by ruthless Sparta's stones.


"Crown the strong brute satyr wise!
  Narrow-wall his Helot brain;
Dash the soul from breast and eyes,
  Lash him toward the earth again.


"Make a giant for our need,
  Weak to feel and strong to toil;
Dully-wise to dig or bleed
  On proud Sparta's alien soil!


"Gods! recall thy spark at birth,
  Lit his soul with high desire;
Blend him, grind him with the earth,
  Tread out old Achea's fire!


"Lo, my Hermos! laugh and mark,
  See the swift mock of the wine;
Faints the primal, God-born spark,
  Trodden by the rush of swine!


"Gods! ye love our Sparta--ye
  Gave with vine that leaps and runs
O'er her slopes, these slaves to be
  Mocks and warnings to her sons!"


Cold the haughty Spartan smil'd.
  Madd'ning from the purple hills
Sang the far pipes, sweet and wild.
  Red as sun-pierc'd daffodils


Neck-curv'd, serpent, silent, scaled
  With lock'd rainbows, stole the sea;
On the sleek, long beaches; wail'd
  Doves from column and from tree.


Reel'd the mote swarm'd haze, and thick
  Beat the hot pulse of the air;
In the Helot, fierce and quick,
  All his soul sprang from its lair.


As the drowzing tiger, deep
  In the dim cell, hears the shout
From the arena--from his sleep
  Launches to its thunders out--


So to fierce calls of the wine
  (Strong the red Caecuban bowl!)
From its slumber, deep, supine,
  Panted up the Helot soul.


At his blood-flush'd eye-balls rear'd,
  (Mad and sweet came pipes and songs),
Rous'd at last the wild soul glar'd,
  Spear-thrust with a million wrongs.


Past--the primal, senseless bliss;
  Past--red laughter of the grapes;
Past--the wine's first honey'd kiss;
  Past--the wine-born, wanton shapes!


Still the Helot stands--his feet
  Set like oak roots: in his gaze
Black clouds roll and lightnings meet--
  Flames from old Achean days.


Who may quench the God-born fire,
  Pulsing at the soul's deep root?
Tyrants! grind it in the mire,
  Lo, it vivifies the brute!


Stings the chain-embruted clay,
  Senseless to his yoke-bound shame;
Goads him on to rend and slay,
  Knowing not the spurring flame.


Tyrants, changeless stand the Gods!
  Nor their calm might yielded ye!
Not beneath thy chains and rods
  Dies man's God-gift, Liberty!


Bruteward lash thy Helots--hold
  Brain and soul and clay in gyves;
Coin their blood and sweat in gold,
  Build thy cities on their lives.


Comes a day the spark divine
  Answers to the Gods who gave;
Fierce the hot flames pant and shine
  In the bruis'd breast of the slave!


Changeless stand the Gods!--nor he
  Knows he answers their behest;
Feels the might of their decree
  In the blind rage of his breast.


Tyrants! tremble when ye tread
  Down the servile Helot clods;
Under despot heel is bred
  The white anger of the Gods!


Thro' the shackle-canker'd dust,
  Thro' the gyv'd soul, foul and dark
Force they, changeless Gods and just!
  Up the bright eternal spark.


Till, like lightnings vast and fierce,
On the land its terror smites;
Till its flames the tyrants pierce,
  Till the dust the despot bites!


Day was at its chief unrest,
  Stone from stone the Helot rose;
Fix'd his eyes--his naked breast
  Iron-wall'd his inner throes.


Rose-white in the dusky leaves,
  Shone the frank-ey'd Spartan child;
Low the pale doves on the eaves,
  Made their soft moan, sweet and wild.


Wand'ring winds, fire-throated, stole,
  Sybils whisp'ring from their books;
With the rush of wine from bowl,
  Leap'd the tendril-darken'd brooks.


As the leathern cestus binds
  Tense the boxer's knotted hands;
So the strong wine round him winds,
  Binds his thews to iron bands.


Changeless are the Gods--and bred
  All their wrath divine in him!
Bull-like fell his furious head,
  Swell'd vast cords on breast and limb.


As loud-flaming stones are hurl'd
  From foul craters--thus the gods
Cast their just wrath on the world,
  From the mire of Helot clods.


Still the furious Helot stood,
  Staring thro' the shafted space;
Dry-lipp'd for the Spartan blood,
  He of scourg'd Achea's race.


Sprang the Helot--roar'd the vine,
  Rent from grey, long-wedded stones--
From pale shaft and dusky pine,
  Beat the fury of his groans.


Thunders inarticulate:
  Wordless curses, deep and wild;
Reach'd the long pois'd sword of Fate,
  To the Spartan thro' his child.


On his knotted hands, upflung
  O'er his low'r'd front--all white,
Fair young Hermos quiv'ring hung;
  As the discus flashes bright


In the player's hand--the boy,
  Naked--blossom-pallid lay;
Rous'd to lust of bloody joy,
  Throbb'd the slave's embruted clay.


Loud he laugh'd--the father sprang
  From the Spartan's iron mail!
Late--the bubbling death-cry rang
  On the hot pulse of the gale!


As the shining discus flies,
  From the thrower's strong hand whirl'd;
Hermos cleft the air--his cries
  Lance-like to the Spartan hurl'd.


As the discus smites the ground,
  Smote his golden head the stone;
Of a tall shaft--burst a sound
  And but one--his dying groan!


Lo! the tyrant's iron might!
  Lo! the Helot's yokes and chains!
Slave-slain in the throbbing light
  Lay the sole child of his veins.


Laugh'd the Helot loud and full,
  Gazing at his tyrant's face;
Low'r'd his front like captive bull,
  Bellowing from the fields of Thrace.


Rose the pale shaft redly flush'd,
  Red with Bacchic light and blood;
On its stone the Helot rush'd--
  Stone the tyrant Spartan stood.


Lo! the magic of the wine
  From far marsh of Amyclae!
Bier'd upon the ruddy vine,
  Spartan dust and Helot lay!


Spouse of Bacchus reel'd the day,
  Red track'd on the throbbing sods;
Dead--but free--the Helot lay,
  Just and changeless stand the Gods!

Isabella Valancy Crawford

Isabella Valancy Crawford's other poems:
  1. Bouche-Mignonne
  2. An Interregnum
  3. Late Loved - Well Loved
  4. Malcolm's Katie: A Love Story - Part 1
  5. Said the Wind

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