It was a day of sombre heat:
The still, dense air was void of sound
And life; no wing of bird did beat
A little breeze through it, the ground
Was like live ashes to the feet.
From the black hills that loomed around
The valley many a sudden spire
Of flame shot up, and writhed, and curled,
And sank again for heaviness:
And heavy seemed to men that day
The burden of the weary world.
For evermore the sky did press
Closer upon the earth that lay
Fainting beneath, as one in dire
Dreams of the night, upon whose breast
Sits a black phantom of unrest
That holds him down. The earth and sky
Appeared unto the troubled eye
A roof of smoke, a floor of fire.
There was no water in the land.
Deep in the night of each ravine
Men, vainly searching for it, found
Dry hollows in the gaping ground,
Like sockets where clear eyes had been,
Now burnt out with a burning brand.
There was no water in the land
But the salt sea tide, that did roll
Far past the places where, till then,
The sweet streams met and flung it back;
The beds of little brooks, that stole
In spring-time down each ferny glen,
And rippled over rock and sand,
Were drier than a cattle-track.
A dull, strange languor of disease,
That ever with the heat increased,
Fell upon man, and bird, and beast;
The thin-flanked cattle gasped for breath;
The birds dropped dead from drooping trees;
And men, who drank the muddy lees
From each near-dry though deep-dug well,
Grew faint; and over all things fell
A heavy stupor, dank as Death.
. . . . .
Fierce Nature, glaring with a face
Of savage scorn at my despair,
Withered my heart. From cone to base
The hills were full of hollow eyes
That rayed out darkness, dead and dull;
Gray rocks grinned under ridges bare,
Like dry teeth in a mouldered skull;
And ghastly gum-tree trunks did loom
Out of black clefts and rifts of gloom,
As sheeted spectres that arise
From yawning graves at dead of night
To fill the living with affright;
And, like to witches foul that bare
Their withered arms, and bend, and cast
Dread curses on the sleeping lands
In awful legends of the past,
Red gums, with outstretched bloody hands,
Shook maledictions in the air.
Fear was around me everywhere:
The wrinkled foreheads of the rocks
Frowned on me, and methought I saw,
Deep down in dismal gulfs of awe,
Where gray death-adders have their lair,
With the fiend-bat, the flying-fox,
And dim sun-rays, down-groping far,
Pale as a dead man’s fingers are,
The grisly image of Decay,
That at the root of Life doth gnaw,
Sitting alone upon a throne
Of rotting skull and bleaching bone.
. . . . .
“There is an end to all our griefs:
Little the red worm of the grave
Will vex us when our days are done.”
So changed my thought: up-gazing then
On gray-piled stones that seemed the cairns
Of dead and long-forgotten chiefs,
The men of old, the poor wild men
Who, under dim lights, fought a brave,
Sad fight of Life, where hope was none,
In the vague, voiceless, far-off years,
It changed again to present pain,
And I saw Sorrow everywhere:
In blackened trees and rust-red ferns,
Blasted by bush-fires and the sun;
And by the salt-flood, salt as tears,
Where the wild apple-trees hung low,
And evermore stooped down to stare
At their drowned shadows in the wave,
Wringing their knotted hands of woe;
And the dark swamp-oaks, row on row,
Lined either bank, a sombre train
Of mourners with down-streaming hair.
© Victor Daley