Verse > Anthologies > T. R. Smith, ed. > Poetica Erotica: A Collection of Rare and Curious Amatory Verse
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T. R. Smith, comp.  Poetica Erotica: Rare and Curious Amatory Verse.  1921–22.
 
The Altar of Artemis
By Aleister Crowley (1875–1947)
 
(From The Soul of Osiris, 1901)

WHERE, in the coppice, oak and pine
  And mystic yew and elm are found,
Sweeping the skies, that grow divine
  With the dark wind’s despairing sound,
  The wind that roars from the profound,        5
And smites the mountain-tops, and calls
Mute spirits to black festivals,
  And feasts in valleys iron-bound,
  Desolate crags, and barren ground;—
There in the strong storm-shaken grove        10
Swings the pale censer-fire for love.
 
The foursquare altar, rightly hewn,
  And overlaid with beaten gold,
Stands in the gloom; the stealthy tune
  Of singing maidens overbold        15
  Desires mad mysteries untold,
With strange eyes kindling, as the fleet
Implacable untiring feet
  Weave mystic figures manifold
  That draw down angels to behold        20
The moving music, and the fire
Of their intolerable desire.
 
For, maddening to fiercer thought,
  The fiery limbs requicken, wheel
In formless furies, subtly wrought        25
  Of swifter melodies than steel
  That flashes in the fight: the peal
Of amorous laughters choking sense,
And madness kissing violence,
  Ring like dead horsemen; bodies reel        30
  Drunken with motion; spirits feel
The strange constraint of gods that clip
From Heaven to mingle lip and lip.
 
The gods descend to dance; the noise
  Of hungry kissings, as a swoon,        35
Faints for excess of its own joys,
  And mystic beams assail the moon,
  With flames of their infernal noon;
While the smooth incense, without breath,
Spreads like some scented flower of death,        40
  Over the grove; the lovers’ boon
  Of sleep shall steal upon them soon,
And lovers’ lips, from lips withdrawn,
Seek dimmer bosoms till the dawn.
 
Yet on the central altar lies        45
  The sacrament of kneaded bread,
With blood made one, the sacrifice
  To those, the living, who are dead—
  Strange gods and goddesses, that shed
Monstrous desires of secret things        50
Upon their worshippers, from wings
  One lucent web of light, from head
  One labyrinthine passion-fed
Palace of love, from breathing rife
With secrets of forbidden life.        55
 
But not the sunlight, nor the stars,
  Nor any light but theirs alone,
Nor iron masteries of Mars,
  Nor Saturn’s misconceiving zone,
  Nor any planet’s may be shown,        60
Within the circle of the grove,
Where burn the sanctities of love:
  Nor may the foot of man be known,
  Nor evil eyes of mothers thrown
On maidens that desire the kiss        65
Only of maiden Artemis.
 
But horned and huntress from the skies,
  She bends her lips upon the breeze,
And pure and perfect in her eyes,
  Burn magical virginity’s        70
  Sweet intermittent sorceries.
When the slow wind from her sweet word
In all their conchéd ears is heard.
  And like the slumber of the seas,
  There murmur through the holy trees        75
The kisses of the goddess keen,
And sighs and laughters caught between.
 
For, swooning at the fervid lips
  Of Artemis, the maiden kisses
Sob, and the languid body slips        80
  Down to enamelled wildernesses.
  Fallen and loose the shaken tresses;
Fallen the sandal and girdling gold,
Fallen the music manifold
  Of moving limbs and strange caresses,        85
  And deadly passion that possesses
The magic ecstasy of these
Mad maidens, tender as blue seas.
 
Night spreads her yearning pinions,
  The baffled day sinks blind to sleep;        90
The evening breeze outswoons the sun’s
  Dead kisses to the swooning deep.
  Upsoars the moon; the flashing steep
Of Heaven is fragrant for her feet;
The perfume of the grove is sweet        95
  As slumbering women furtive creep
  To bosoms where small kisses weep,
And find in fervent dreams the kiss
Most memoried of Artemis.
 
Impenetrable pleasure dies        100
  Beneath the madness of new dreams;
The slow sweet breath is turned to sighs
  More musical than many streams
  Under the moving silver beams,
Fretted with stars, thrice woven across.        105
White limbs in amorous slumber toss,
  Like sleeping foam, whose silver gleams
  On motionless dark seas; it seems
As if some gentle spirit stirred
Their lazy brows with some swift word.        110
 
So, in the secret of the shrine,
  Night keeps them nestled, so the gloom
Laps them in waves as smooth as wine,
  As glowing as the fiery womb
  Of some young tigress, dark as doom,        115
And swift as sunrise. Love’s content
Builds its own monument,
  And carves above its vaulted tomb
  The Phoenix on her fiery plume,
To their own souls to testify        120
Their kisses’ immortality.
 
 
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