“Which of you, knight or squire, will dare
Plunge into yonder gulf?
A golden beaker I fling in it—there!
The black mouth swallows it like a wolf!
Who brings me the cup again, whoever,
It is his own—he may keep it for ever!”
‘Tis the king who speaks. He flings from the brow
Of the cliff, that, rugged and steep,
Hangs out o’er the endless sea below,
The cup in the whirlpool’s howling heap:—
“Again I ask, what hero will follow,
What hero plunge into yon dark hollow?”
The knights and the squires the king about
Hear, and dumbly stare
Into the wild sea’s tumbling rout;
To win the beaker they hardly care!
The king, for the third time, round him glaring—
“Not one soul of you has the daring?”
Speechless all, as before, they stand.
Then a squire, young, gentle, gay,
Steps from his comrades’ shrinking band,
Flinging his girdle and cloak away;
And all the women and men that surrounded
Gazed on the noble youth, astounded.
And when he stepped to the rock’s rough brow
And looked down on the gulf so black,
The waters which it had swallowed, now
Charybdis bellowing rendered back;
And, with a roar as of distant thunder,
Foaming they burst from the dark lap under.
It wallows, seethes, hisses in raging rout,
As when water wrestles with fire,
Till to heaven the yeasty tongues they spout;
And flood upon flood keeps mounting higher:
It will never its endless coil unravel,
As the sea with another sea were in travail!
But, at last, slow sinks the writhing spasm,
And, black through the foaming white,
Downward gapes a yawning chasm—
Bottomless, cloven to hell’s wide night;
And, sucked up, see the billows roaring
Down through the whirling funnel pouring!
Then in haste, ere the out-rage return again,
The youth to his God doth pray,
And—ascends a cry of horror and pain!—
Already the vortex hath swept him away,
And o’er the bold swimmer, in darkness eternal,
Close the great jaws of the gulf infernal!
Then the water above grows smooth as glass,
While, below, dull roarings ply;
And trembling they hear the murmur pass—
“High-hearted youth, farewell, good-bye!”
And hollower still comes the howl affraying,
Till their hearts are sick with the frightful delaying.
If the crown itself thou in should fling,
And say, “Who back with it hies
Himself shall wear it, and shall be king,”
I would not covet the precious prize!
What Ocean hides in that howling hell of it
Live soul will never come back to tell of it!
Ships many, caught in that whirling surge,
Shot sheer to their dismal doom:
Keel and mast only did ever emerge,
Shattered, from out the all-gulping tomb!—
Like the bluster of tempest, clearer and clearer,
Comes its roaring nearer and ever nearer!
It wallows, seethes, hisses, in raging rout,
As when water wrestles with fire,
Till to heaven the yeasty tongues they spout,
Wave upon wave’s back mounting higher;
And as with the grumble of distant thunder,
Bellowing it bursts from the dark lap under.
And, see, from its bosom, flowing dark,
Something heave up, swan-white!
An arm and a shining neck they mark,
And it rows with never relaxing might!
It is he! and high his golden capture
His left hand waves in success’s rapture!
With long deep breaths his path he ploughed,
And he hailed the heavenly day;
Jubilant shouted the gazing crowd,
“He lives! he is there! he broke away!
Out of the grave, the whirlpool uproarious,
The hero hath rescued his life victorious!”
He comes; they surround him with shouts of glee;
At the king’s feet he sinks on the sod,
And hands him the beaker upon his knee;
To his lovely daughter the king gives a nod:
She fills it brim-full of wine sparkling and playing,
And then to the king the youth turned him saying:
“Long live the king!—Well doth he fare
Who breathes in this rosy light,
But, ah, it is horrible down there!
And man must not tempt the heavenly Might,
Or ever seek, with prying unwholesome,
What he graciously covers with darkness dolesome!
“It tore me down with a headlong swing;
Then a shaft in a rock outpours,
Wild-rushing against me, a torrent spring;
It seized me, the double stream’s raging force,
And like a top, with giddy twisting,
It spun me round—there was no resisting!
“Then God did show me, sore beseeching
In deepest, frightfullest need,
Up from the bottom a rock-ledge reaching—
At it I caught, and from death was freed!
And, behold, on spiked corals the beaker suspended,
Which had else to the very abyss descended!
“For below me it lay yet mountain-deep
The purply darksome maw;
And though to the ear it was dead asleep,
The ghasted eye, down staring, saw
How with dragons, lizards, salamanders crawling,
The hell-jaws horrible were sprawling.
“Black swarming in medley miscreate,
In masses lumped hideously,
Wallowed the conger, the thorny skate,
The lobster’s grisly deformity;
And bared its teeth with cruel sheen a
Terrible shark, the sea’s hyena.
“And there I hung, and shuddering knew
That human help was none;
One thinking soul mid the horrid crew,
In the ghastly solitude I was alone—
Deeper than man’s speech ever sounded,
By the waste sea’s dismal monsters surrounded.
“I thought and shivered. Then something crept near,
Moved at once a hundred joints!
Now it will have me!—Frantic with fear
I lost my grasp of the coral points!
Away the whirl in its raging tore me,
But it was my salvation, and upward bore me!”
The king at the tale is filled with amaze:—
“The beaker, well won, is thine;
And this ring I will give thee too,” he says,
“Precious with gems that are more than fine,
If thou dive yet once, and bring me the story—
What thou sawst in the sea’s lowest repertory.”
His daughter she hears with a tender dismay,
And her words sweet-suasive plead:
“Father, enough of this cruel play!
For you he has done an unheard-of deed!
And can you not master your soul’s desire,
‘Tis the knights’ turn now to disgrace the squire!”
The king he snatches and hurls the cup
Into the swirling pool:—
“If thou bring me once more that beaker up,
My best knight I hold thee, most worshipful;
And this very day to thy home thou shall lead her
Who there for thee stands such a pitying pleader.”
A heavenly passion his being invades,
His eyes dart a lightning ray;
He sees on her beauty the flushing shades,
He sees her grow pallid and sink away!
Determination thorough him flashes,
And downward for life or for death he dashes!
They hear the dull roar!—it is turning again,
Its herald the thunderous brawl!
Downward they bend with loving strain:
They come! they are coming, the waters all!—
They rush up!—they rush down!—up, down, for ever!
The youth again bring they never.
© George MacDonald
READ MORE POEMS BY THIS POET:
- Sir Lark and King Sun
- A Spiritual Song, Concerning Our Holy Baptism, Wherein Is Briefly, Who Has Instituted, Whereto It Serves &C.
- A Book Of Strife In The Form Of The Diary Of An Old Soul – September
- Marriage Songs
- Said and Did
- Little Bo-Peep
- A Book Of Strife In The Form Of The Diary Of An Old Soul – January
- Hope Deferred: “Where is thy crown…”