From the Book of Valentines

by Bliss Carman


 

BALLAD OF THE YOUNG KING'S MADNESS


 

In a Kingdom long ago, as the story comes to me,
There lived a sturdy folk by the borders of the sea;
The snow-tipped mountains behind them guarding the East and the North,
While open to Southward and Westward, were the sea-gates bidding them
  forth.  

Launching their boats through the breakers, casting their nets in the tide,
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The sea had given them daring, strength and endurance and pride;
Watching their sheep with the eagles on many a lonely hill,

The stars had given them knowledge and insight and ghostly skill;
For wisdom comes to the waiting as water comes to a mill,
From unsluiced sources of silence where the chatter of life grows still.

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I

 

Over this sturdy people there ruled without favour or greed
A man with the arm and heart of the olden kingly breed.
There was never a sport nor contest, there was never a horse to tame,
But the King would meet all comers, and was ever first in the game.
A speaker of truth to all men, he carried his will with a word;
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And Justice dwelt in his borders, nor ever unsheathed her sword.
Likable, open and reckless, he neither bullied nor feared,
When over the rim of his empire threatening danger appeared,
But in the face of his council laughed in his yellow beard.

Yet his light-heart ways were a scandal to the seemly and the sage,

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He would turn from the weightiest business to rally a love-sick page,
Twitting him for a laggard, making him blush with a jest,
Shaming him for a waster by the good wine spilt on his vest.

Never a band of minstrels passed, but he bade them in,
Haling the lads by the shoulder, taking the maids by the chin;

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Till the courtyard gleamed with motley, and the palace rang with din.

Courtiers lived on his bounty, lights-of-love supped at his board.
Merry the time he gave them, priceless the wine he poured,
Lavish of all his substance for the gay and careless horde;
Till long lips groaning abhorrence had evil things to foretell.

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But always the children loved him, and the women—passing well.

 

II

 

So time wore on, and the King awoke one day with a start,
To hear a strange new whisper of discontent in his heart.
Pleasure he had in plenty, health, and companions, and power;
Yet what is all this life but a void and empty hour?
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Fair was the golden morning with April over the hill.
He strolled to the gate of the palace and stood there grave and still,
Watching the mountain shadows, then shut his teeth on his will.
"Bring me a horse," he ordered. They saddled his favourite bay;
And down through the watered valley the young King rode away;
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Down through the flowery orchards, where the river babbles and shines,
Past ford and smithy and farm, and up where the narrowing lines
Of tillage and pasture vanish in the dusk of the purple pines.
How speculation and rumour fluttered his folk that day!
"Who can fathom his fancies? Mad as a hare!" said they.
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In a cleft of the solemn mountains, like a thought in earth's green heart,
Stood a hospice of recluse men, quiet, secluded, apart,
Having forgotten the world and left distraction behind,
For care of the troublous want and hunger of the mind.

There as the night was falling, the King on his red mare came,
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And they have welcomed the stranger, asking not station nor name.
Who bides at the house of God needs neither money nor fame.

Never an eyelid flickered, never a word betrayed
They knew the habit and bearing accustomed to be obeyed;
But after the rule of their order, equal in everything,

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With kingly love for a brother the brothers served their King.

They gave him his seat at table, cell and habit and stall.
The scanty fare and the hours of prayer, meekly he took them all;
Nor ever they found him wanting in duties great or small.

Lowly he sat before them and many a lecture heard,

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Questioned and reasoned and listened, argued, proved and conferred,
And by many a lonely candle pondered the printed word.

Daily the power of knowledge grew and spread in his face;
Daily the look of the scholar glowed with a finer trace;
Daily the tan-flush faded and ever he grew in grace,

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As understanding within him climbed to her lawful place.

So from the man of sinew they made a student at last,
Thoughtful and grave as he had been brave; till, lo, three years had passed,
And the young King yawned one day, stretching himself in the sun,
And murmured: "Now let's see what their book-learning has done!

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The arms grow feeble, alack! The foot and eye grow slow;
Let's put their lore to the test. Good friends, this day I go."

So said, so done. Mused the Brothers, watching him down the hill:
"Feeble must be our virtue, if this hope comes to ill."
They saw him lost in dust; and the sundown's dying rose

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Kindled their lofty hill-crest in its eternal snows.

 

III

 

Now well the Kingdom prospered while the young King was away,
For wise were the heads of his council, leaders of men in their day,
Stubborn at fronting clamour, strong to govern and sway,
Of tested honour and flawless tried in the world's assay.
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Yet there was joy at his coming, throngs that laughed with delight,
Cheers as he passed and waving, children held in his sight,
Flags hung out at the windows, and bonfires lit in the night.
Comrades met on the corner, cronies talked in the door, 
"The merry times are returning; we shall have revels once more."
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But they reckoned without their host, if they thought the glorious days
Of the King's wild youth had returned with their drinking and masques and

  plays.  

Sober he sat at council, wisely he judged and decreed,
Till the frivolous gaped and muttered: "A paragon indeed!"

Tireless, toiling and thoughtful, steadfast, kingly and tall,

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But lonely he lived, unloving, blameless before them all,
With never a rose in his bower nor a bosom-friend in his hall.

And ever his brow grew whiter, his eye more hungry bright,
For the blessing of peace escaped him, though he toiled by day and night.
By lamplight and daylight he laboured, till his visage grew lean and grim,

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While his people saw and wondered, and their hearts went out to him.

So he strove for a year or more, and never was seen to fail
In the least or the greatest matter where diligence might avail.
Yet ever he grew more restless, and ever his cheek more pale.

 

IV

 

Now it chanced on another morning like that when he rode away,
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The King must come to his seaboard, where a foreign galleon lay,
Black hull and gleaming canvas, with her decks in trim array;
Long and graceful and speedy as a flying fish was she,
Showing the scarlet pennon of the gypsies of the sea.

There in a dream he stood; watching the surf and the sand;

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Then all of a sudden he laughed, as the rowers rowed to land.
"God of my fathers," he cried. "What manner of fool am I?
A landsman all my life, a sea-king will I die."

Needs must they humour him then, whispering, "Mad once more!"
As they heard him speak to the sailors, and saw him rowed from the shore.

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Small room to parley or caution, and smaller use to deplore;
When a strong man comes to his stronghold, fate must yield him the door.

Lightly he stood in the boat, when the bending rowers rowed;
And the wind and the tide and the sun freshened and sparkled and glowed.
There lay the sea before him fair as an open road.

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Last they saw of the King was at the helmsman's side,
Gay in the light of adventure, while the vessel swung on the tide.
With a song they hove her anchor; the sails drew taut and free;
And she heeled to the wind and lessened on the long blue slope of the sea.

 

V

 

The sun came up, the sun went down, the tide drew out and in,
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But never a word that seaport heard from foreigner or kin,
Rower, merchant, or sailorman, or the gypsies of the sea,
Whither their prince had vanished, or what his fate might be;
Till a thousand suns had circled, and twice a thousand tides
Had swung the swaying harbour buoys and brimmed through the channel
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  guides.  

Then through a winter twilight when the sun was a disk of red,
The keen-eyed watcher beheld, as he gazed from the harbour-head,
A moving speck like a seahawk crossing that targe of flame;
And beating up from the sea-rim the gypsy galleon came.

And why is she decked with pennons, and trimmed with cloth of gold?

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And what are these scarlet trappings the harbour folk behold?
What means her glory of banners fluttering on the breeze,
Brave as the colored autumn that is the pride of the trees?
Has she rifled a sea-king's treasure and plundered the isles of the seas?

Slowly she passed the entry, the white sails lowered and furled,

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And there was our long-lost truant from the other side of the world.
On the deck he stood, the figure of a man to make men bold,
A browned and hardy master, as debonair as of old,
The strength of his hands as aforetime, the scholar's light on his brow,
But something passing knowledge in his look and bearing now,
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The calm of a radiant purpose, the joy of unerring quest,
The poise of perfected being when the soul attains her best.
He had ruled with power and pleasure, he had searched and found out lore;
And now his unfainting spirit had discovered the one thing more.

But the curious eye forsook him to greet with amazed regard

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Another who stood at the taffrail by the sheet of the great main-yard;
Fine as a mast in stature, eager, unflinching, and free,
With hair like the sun's raw gold and eyes like crumbs of the sea;
Straight-browed—the imperial bearing of one who is born to sway,
Deep-bosomed with all the ardour that kindles our wondrous clay;
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Regent of glad dominions, a sea-trove out of the vast
Wide welter of life. "A hostage fit for our king at last!"

Threefold is the search for perfection that leads through creation's plan—
Through immemorial nature and the restless heart of man;
Beauty of shape and colour to gladden and profit the eye,

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Truth beyond cavil or question to answer the reason why,
And the blameless spirit's portion—the joy that shall not die.

The dauntless soul must wander to accomplish and attain
This balance of all her powers by the lead of love, or remain
A stranger to peace forever in sorrow, defeat, and pain.

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Flushed with the cheers of welcome, lightly the king, all pride,
Handed the girl, all beauty, over the vessel's side.
Then in a lull of their salvos, to the wondering crowd that rings
The pierhead, eager to question, "Our queen," said the sanest of kings.