Ballads of Lost Haven: A Book of the Sea

by Bliss Carman


 

THE KING OF YS


 

Wild across the Breton country,
Fabled centuries ago,
Riding from the black sea border,
Came the squadrons of the snow.

Piping dread at every latch-hole,

5

Moaning death at every sill,
The white Yule came down in vengeance
Upon Ys, and had its will.

Walled and dreamy stood the city,
Wide and dazzling shone the sea,

10

When the gods set hand to smother
Ys, the pride of Brittany.

Morning drenched her towers in purple;
Light of heart were king and fool;
Fair forebode the merrymaking

15

Of the seven days of Yule.

Laughed the king, "Once more, my mistress,
Time and place and joy are one!"
Bade the balconies with banners
Match the splendor of the sun;

20


Eyes of urchins shine with silver,
And with gold the pavement ring;
Bade the war-horns sound their bravest
In The Mistress of the King.

Mountebanks and ballad-mongers

25

And all strolling traffickers
Should block up the market corners
With none other name than hers.

Laughed the fool, "To-day, my Folly,
Thou shalt be the king of Ys!"

30

O wise fool! How long must wisdom
Under motley hold her peace?

Then the storm came down. The valleys
Wailed and ciphered to the dune
Like huge organ pipes; a midnight

35

Stalked those gala streets at noon;

And the sea rose, rocked and tilted
Like a beaker in the hand,
Till the moon-hung tide broke tether
And stampeded in for land.

40


All day long with doom portentous,
Shreds of pennons shrieked and flew
Over Ys; and black fear shuddered
On the hearthstone all night through.

Fear, which freezes up the marrow

45

Of the heart, from door to door
Like a plague went through the city,
And filled up the devil’s score;

Filled her tally of the craven,
To the sea-wind’s dismal note;

50

While a panic superstition
Took the people by the throat.

As with morning still the sea rose
With vast wreckage on the tide,
And their pasture rills, grown rivers,

55

Thundered in the mountain side,

"Vengeance, vengeance, gods to vengeance!"
Rose a storm of muttering;
And the human flood came pouring
To the palace of the king.

60


"Save, O king, before we perish
In the whirlpools of the sea,
Ys thy city, us thy people!"
Growled the king then, "What would ye?"

But his wolf’s eyes talked defiance,

65

And his bearded mouth meant scorn.
"O our king, the gods are angry;
And no longer to be borne"

Is the shameless face that greets us
From thy windows, at thy side,

70
Smiling infamy. And therefore
Thou shalt take her up, and ride

"Down with her into the sea’s mouth,
And there leave her; else we die,
And thy name goes down to story

75

A new word for cruelty."

Ah, but she was fair, this woman!
Warm and flaxen waved her hair;
Her blue Breton eyes made summer
In that bleak December air.

80


There she stood whose burning beauty
Made the world’s high rooftree ring,
A white poppy tall and wind-blown
In the garden of the king.

Her throat shook, but not with terror;

85

Her eyes swam, but not with fear;
While her two hands caught and clung to
The one man they had found dear.

"Lord and lover,"—thus she smiled him
Her last word,—"it shall be so,

90
Only the sea’s arms shall hold me,
When from out thine arms I go."

Swore he, "By the gods, my mistress,
Thou shalt have queen’s burial.
Pearls and amber shall thy tomb be;

95
Shot with gold and green thy pall.

"And a million-throated chorus
Shall take up thy dirge to-night;
Where thy slumber’s starry watch-fires
Shall a thousand years be bright."

100


Then they brought the coal-black stallion,
Chafing on the bit. Astride
Sprang the young king; shouted, "Way there!"
Caught the girl up to his side;

And a path through that scared rabble

105

Rode in pageant to the sea.
And the coal-black mane was mingled
With gold hair against his knee.

Sure as the wild gulls make seaward,
From the west gate to the beach

110

Rode these two for whom now freedom
Landward lay beyond their reach.

And the great horse, scenting peril,
Snorted at the flying spume,
Flicked with courage, as how often,

115

When the tides were racing doom,

Ridden, he had plunged to rescue
From that seething icy hell
Some poor sailor wrecked a-fishing
On the coast. What fears should quell

120


That high spirit? Knee to shoulder,
King and stallion reared and sprang
Clear above the long white combers
And that turmoil’s iron clang.

What a launching! For a moment,

125

While the tempest held its breath
And a thousand eyes looked wonder,
Swimming in that trough of death,

Steering seaward through the welter,
Ere they settled out of sight,

130

Waved above them one gold streamer.
Valor, bid the world good-night! . . . 

Not a trace, while the long summers
Warm the heart of Brittany,
Save one stone of Ys, as remnant,

135
For a white mark in the sea.