Verse > Anthologies > Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. > An American Anthology, 1787–1900
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Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. (1833–1908).  An American Anthology, 1787–1900.  1900.
 
343. From “Rhœcus”
 
By James Russell Lowell
 
 
HEAR now this fairy legend of old Greece,
As full of gracious youth and beauty still
As the immortal freshness of that grace
Carved for all ages on some Attic Frieze.
 
  A youth named Rhœcus, wandering in the wood,        5
Saw an old oak just trembling to its fall,
And, feeling pity of so fair a tree,
He propped its gray trunk with admiring care,
And with a thoughtless footstep loitered on.
But, as he turned, he heard a voice behind        10
That murmured “Rhœcus!” ’T was as if the leaves,
Stirred by a passing breath, had murmured it,
And, while he paused bewildered, yet again
It murmured “Rhœcus!” softer than a breeze.
He started and beheld with dizzy eyes        15
What seemed the substance of a happy dream
Stand there before him, spreading a warm glow
Within the green glooms of the shadowy oak.
It seemed a woman’s shape, yet far too fair
To be a woman, and with eyes too meek        20
For any that were wont to mate with gods.
All naked like a goddess stood she there,
And like a goddess all too beautiful
To feel the guilt-born earthliness of shame.
“Rhœcus, I am the Dryad of this tree,        25
Thus she began, dropping her low-toned words
Serene, and full, and clear, as drops of dew,
“And with it I am doomed to live and die;
The rain and sunshine are my caterers,
Nor have I other bliss than simple life;        30
Now ask me what thou wilt, that I can give,
And with a thankful joy it shall be thine.”
 
  Then Rhœcus, with a flutter at the heart,
Yet by the prompting of such beauty bold,
Answered: “What is there that can satisfy        35
The endless craving of the soul but love?
Give me thy love, or but the hope of that
Which must be evermore my nature’s goal.”
After a little pause she said again,
“But with a glimpse of sadness in her tone,        40
I give it, Rhœcus, though a perilous gift;
An hour before the sunset meet me here.”
And straightway there was nothing he could see
But the green glooms beneath the shadowy oak,
And not a sound came to his straining ears        45
But the low trickling rustle of the leaves,
And far away upon an emerald slope
The falter of an idle shepherd’s pipe.
 
  Now, in those days of simpleness and faith,
Men did not think that happy things were dreams        50
Because they overstepped the narrow bourn
Of likelihood, but reverently deemed
Nothing too wondrous or too beautiful
To be the guerdon of a daring heart.
So Rhœcus made no doubt that he was blest,        55
And all along unto the city’s gate
Earth seemed to spring beneath him as he walked,
The clear, broad sky looked bluer than its wont,
And he could scarce believe he had not wings,
Such sunshine seemed to glitter through his veins        60
Instead of blood, so light he felt and strange.
 
  Young Rhœcus had a faithful heart enough,
But one that in the present dwelt too much,
And, taking with blithe welcome whatsoe’er
Chance gave of joy, was wholly bound in that,        65
Like the contented peasant of a vale,
Deemed it the world, and never looked beyond.
So, haply meeting in the afternoon
Some comrades who were playing at the dice,
He joined them, and forgot all else beside.        70
 
  The dice were rattling at the merriest,
And Rhœcus, who had met but sorry luck,
Just laughed in triumph at a happy throw,
When through the room there hummed a yellow bee
That buzzed about his ear with down-dropped legs        75
As if to light. And Rhœcus laughed and said,
Feeling how red and flushed he was with loss,
“By Venus! does he take me for a rose?”
And brushed him off with rough, impatient hand.
But still the bee came back, and thrice again        80
Rhœcus did beat him off with growing wrath.
Then through the window flew the wounded bee,
And Rhœcus, tracking him with angry eyes,
Saw a sharp mountain-peak of Thessaly
Against the red disk of the setting sun,—        85
And instantly the blood sank from his heart,
As if its very walls had caved away.
Without a word he turned, and, rushing forth,
Ran madly through the city and the gate,
And o’er the plain, which now the wood’s long shade,        90
By the low sun thrown forward broad and dim,
Darkened wellnigh unto the city’s wall.
 
  Quite spent and out of breath he reached the tree,
And, listening fearfully, he heard once more
The low voice murmur “Rhœcus!” close at hand:        95
Whereat he looked around him, but could see
Naught but the deepening glooms beneath the oak.
Then sighed the voice, “O Rhœcus! never-more
Shalt thou behold me or by day or night,
Me, who would fain have blessed thee with a love        100
More ripe and bounteous than ever yet
Filled up with nectar any mortal heart:
But thou didst scorn my humble messenger,
And sent’st him back to me with bruised wings.
We spirits only show to gentle eyes,        105
We ever ask an undivided love,
And he who scorns the least of Nature’s works
Is thenceforth exiled and shut out from all.
Farewell! for thou canst never see me more.”
 
  Then Rhœcus beat his breast and groaned aloud,        110
And cried “Be pitiful! forgive me yet
This once, and I shall never need it more!”
“Alas!” the voice returned, “’t is thou art blind,
Not I unmerciful; I can forgive,
But have no skill to heal thy spirit’s eyes;        115
Only the soul hath power o’er itself.”
With that again there murmured “Never-more!”
And Rhœcus after heard no other sound,
Except the rattling of the oak’s crisp leaves,
Like the long surf upon a distant shore        120
Raking the sea-worn pebbles up and down.
The night had gathered round him: o’er the plain
The city sparkled with its thousand lights,
And sounds of revel fell upon his ear
Harshly and like a curse; above, the sky,        125
With all its bright sublimity of stars,
Deepened, and on his forehead smote the breeze:
Beauty was all around him and delight,
But from that eve he was alone on earth.
 

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