Helen of Troy and Other Poems
Sara Teasdale

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© 2000, 2020 S.L. Spanoudis and
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Transcribed for Poets' Corner
July 2000 by S.L.Spanoudis

[This 1920 work is believed to be in the public domain in the US. Please check local restrictions in other geographies.]

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Sara Teasdale


Author of "Sonnets to Duse, and Other Poems"

To Marion Cummings Stanley


    Part I

    Helen of Troy

      WILD flight on flight against the fading dawn
      The flames' red wings soar upward duskily.
      This is the funeral pyre and Troy is dead
      That sparkled so the day I saw it first,
      And darkened slowly after. I am she
      Who loves all beauty -- yet I wither it.
      Why have the high gods made me wreak their wrath --
      Forever since my maidenhood to sow
      Sorrow and blood about me? Lo, they keep
      Their bitter care above me even now.
      It was the gods who led me to this lair,
      That tho' the burning winds should make me weak,
      They should not snatch the life from out my lips.
      Olympus let the other women die;
      They shall be quiet when the day is done
      And have no care to-morrow. Yet for me
      There is no rest. The gods are not so kind
      To her made half immortal like themselves.
      It is to you I owe the cruel gift,
      Leda, my mother, and the Swan, my sire,
      To you the beauty and to you the bale;
      For never woman born of man and maid
      Had wrought such havoc on the earth as I,
      Or troubled heaven with a sea of flame
      That climbed to touch the silent whirling stars
      And blotted out their brightness ere the dawn.
      Have I not made the world to weep enough?
      Give death to me. Yet life is more than death;
      How could I leave the sound of singing winds,
      The strong sweet scent that breathes from off the sea,
      Or shut my eyes forever to the spring?
      I will not give the grave my hands to hold,
      My shining hair to light oblivion.
      Have those who wander through the ways of death,
      The still wan fields Elysian, any love
      To lift their breasts with longing, any lips
      To thirst against the quiver of a kiss?
      Lo, I shall live to conquer Greece again,
      To make the people love, who hate me now.
      My dreams are over, I have ceased to cry
      Against the fate that made men love my mouth
      And left their spirits all too deaf to hear
      The little songs that echoed through my soul.
      I have no anger now. The dreams are done;
      Yet since the Greeks and Trojans would not see
      Aught but my body's fairness, till the end,
      In all the islands set in all the seas,
      And all the lands that lie beneath the sun,
      Till light turn darkness, and till time shall sleep,
      Men's lives shall waste with longing after me,
      For I shall be the sum of their desire,
      The whole of beauty, never seen again.
      And they shall stretch their arms and starting, wake
      With "Helen!" on their lips, and in their eyes
      The vision of me. Always I shall be
      Limned on the darkness like a shaft of light
      That glimmers and is gone. They shall behold
      Each one his dream that fashions me anew; --
      With hair like lakes that glint beneath the stars
      Dark as sweet midnight, or with hair aglow
      Like burnished gold that still retains the fire.
      Yea, I shall haunt until the dusk of time
      The heavy eyelids filled with fleeting dreams.

      I wait for one who comes with sword to slay --
      The king I wronged who searches for me now;
      And yet he shall not slay me. I shall stand
      With lifted head and look within his eyes,
      Baring my breast to him and to the sun.
      He shall not have the power to stain with blood
      That whiteness -- for the thirsty sword shall fall
      And he shall cry and catch me in his arms,
      Bearing me back to Sparta on his breast.
      Lo, I shall live to conquer Greece again!


      Send out the singers -- let the room be still;
      They have not eased my pain nor brought me sleep.
      Close out the sun, for I would have it dark
      That I may feel how black the grave will be.
      The sun is setting, for the light is red,
      And you are outlined in a golden fire,
      Like Ursula upon an altar-screen.
      Come, leave the light and sit beside my bed,
      For I have had enough of saints and prayers.
      Strange broken thoughts are beating in my brain,
      They come and vanish and again they come.
      It is the fever driving out my soul,
      And Death stands waiting by the arras there.

      Ornella, I will speak, for soon my lips
      Shall keep a silence till the end of time.
      You have a mouth for loving -- listen then:
      Keep tryst with Love before Death comes to tryst;
      For I, who die, could wish that I had lived
      A little closer to the world of men,
      Not watching always thro' the blazoned panes
      That show the world in chilly greens and blues
      And grudge the sunshine that would enter in.
      I was no part of all the troubled crowd
      That moved beneath the palace windows here,
      And yet sometimes a knight in shining steel
      Would pass and catch the gleaming of my hair,
      And wave a mailed hand and smile at me,
      Whereat I made no sign and turned away,
      Affrighted and yet glad and full of dreams.
      Ah, dreams and dreams that asked no answering!
      I should have wrought to make my dreams come true,
      But all my life was like an autumn day,
      Full of gray quiet and a hazy peace.

      What was I saying? All is gone again.
      It seemed but now I was the little child
      Who played within a garden long ago.
      Beyond the walls the festal trumpets blared.
      Perhaps they carried some Madonna by
      With tossing ensigns in a sea of flowers,
      A painted Virgin with a painted Child,
      Who saw for once the sweetness of the sun
      Before they shut her in an altar-niche
      Where tapers smoke against the windy gloom.
      I gathered roses redder than my gown
      And played that I was Saint Elizabeth,
      Whose wine had turned to roses in her hands.
      And as I played, a child came thro' the gate,
      A boy who looked at me without a word,
      As tho' he saw stretch far behind my head
      Long lines of radiant angels, row on row.
      That day we spoke a little, timidly,
      And after that I never heard the voice
      That sang so many songs for love of me.
      He was content to stand and watch me pass,
      To seek for me at matins every day,
      Where I could feel his eyes the while I prayed.
      I think if he had stretched his hands to me,
      Or moved his lips to say a single word,
      I might have loved him -- he had wondrous eyes.

      Ornella, are you there? I cannot see --
      Is every one so lonely when he dies?,p>
      The room is filled with lights -- with waving lights --
      Who are the men and women 'round the bed?
      What have I said, Ornella? Have they heard?
      There was no evil hidden in my life,
      And yet, and yet, I would not have them know --

      Am I not floating in a mist of light?
      O lift me up and I shall reach the sun!


      The twilight's inner flame grows blue and deep,
      And in my Lesbos, over leagues of sea,
      The temples glimmer moonwise in the trees.
      Twilight has veiled the little flower face
      Here on my heart, but still the night is kind
      And leaves her warm sweet weight against my breast.
      Am I that Sappho who would run at dusk
      Along the surges creeping up the shore
      When tides came in to ease the hungry beach,
      And running, running, till the night was black,
      Would fall forespent upon the chilly sand
      And quiver with the winds from off the sea?
      Ah, quietly the shingle waits the tides
      Whose waves are stinging kisses, but to me
      Love brought no peace, nor darkness any rest.
      I crept and touched the foam with fevered hands
      And cried to Love, from whom the sea is sweet,
      From whom the sea is bitterer than death.
      Ah, Aphrodite, if I sing no more
      To thee, God's daughter, powerful as God,
      It is that thou hast made my life too sweet
      To hold the added sweetness of a song.
      There is a quiet at the heart of love,
      And I have pierced the pain and come to peace.
      I hold my peace, my Cleis, on my heart;
      And softer than a little wild bird's wing
      Are kisses that she pours upon my mouth.
      Ah, never any more when spring like fire
      Will flicker in the newly opened leaves,
      Shall I steal forth to seek for solitude
      Beyond the lure of light Alcaeus' lyre,
      Beyond the sob that stilled Erinna's voice.
      Ah, never with a throat that aches with song,
      Beneath the white uncaring sky of spring,
      Shall I go forth to hide awhile from Love
      The quiver and the crying of my heart.
      Still I remember how I strove to flee
      The love-note of the birds, and bowed my head
      To hurry faster, but upon the ground
      I saw two winged shadows side by side,
      And all the world's spring passion stifled me.
      Ah, Love, there is no fleeing from thy might,
      No lonely place where thou hast never trod,
      No desert thou hast left uncarpeted
      With flowers that spring beneath thy perfect feet.
      In many guises didst thou come to me;
      I saw thee by the maidens while they danced,
      Phaon allured me with a look of thine,
      In Anactoria I knew thy grace,
      I looked at Cercolas and saw thine eyes;
      But never wholly, soul and body mine,
      Didst thou bid any love me as I loved.
      Now I have found the peace that fled from me;
      Close, close, against my heart I hold my world.
      Ah, Love that made my life a lyric cry,
      Ah, Love that tuned my lips to lyres of thine,
      I taught the world thy music, now alone
      I sing for one who falls asleep to hear.

    Marianna Alcoforando

      (The Portuguese Nun -- 1640-1723)

      The sparrows wake beneath the convent eaves;
      I think I have not slept the whole night through.
      But I am old; the aged scarcely know
      The times they wake and sleep, for life burns down;
      They breathe the calm of death before they die.
      The long night ends, the day comes creeping in,
      Showing the sorrows that the darkness hid,
      The bended head of Christ, the blood, the thorns,
      The wall's gray stains of damp, the pallet bed
      Where little Sister Marta dreams of saints,
      Waking with arms outstretched imploringly
      That seek to stay a vision's vanishing.
      I never had a vision, yet for me
      Our Lady smiled while all the convent slept
      One winter midnight hushed around with snow --
      I thought she might be kinder than the rest,
      And so I came to kneel before her feet,
      Sick with love's sorrow and love's bitterness.
      But when I would have made the blessed sign,
      I found the water frozen in the font,
      And touched but ice within the carved stone.
      The saints had hid themselves away from me,
      Leaving the windows black against the night;
      And when I sank upon the altar steps,
      Before the Virgin Mother and her Child,
      The last, pale, low-burnt taper flickered out,
      But in the darkness, smooth and fathomless,
      Still twinkled like a star the holy lamp
      That cast a dusky glow upon her face.
      Then through the numbing cold peace fell on me,
      Submission and the gracious gift of tears,
      For when I looked, Oh! blessed miracle,
      Her lips had parted and Our Lady smiled!
      And then I knew that Love is worth its pain
      And that my heart was richer for his sake,
      Since lack of love is bitterest of all.

      The day is broad awake -- the first long beam
      Of level sun finds Sister Marta's face,
      And trembling there it lights a timid smile
      Upon the lips that say so many prayers,
      And have no words for hate and none for love.
      But when she passes where her prayers have gone,
      Will God not smile a little sadly then,
      And send her back with gentle words to earth
      That she may hold a child against her breast
      And feel its little hands upon her hair?
      We weep before the Blessed Mother's shrine,
      To think upon her sorrows, but her joys
      What nun could ever know a tithing of?
      The precious hours she watched above His sleep
      Were worth the fearful anguish of the end.
      Yea, lack of love is bitterest of all;
      Yet I have felt what thing it is to know
      One thought forever, sleeping or awake;
      To say one name whose sweetness grows so strange
      That it might work a spell on those who weep;
      To feel the weight of love upon my heart
      So heavy that the blood can scarcely flow.
      Love comes to some unlooked-for, quietly,
      As when at twilight, with a soft surprise,
      We see the new-born crescent in the blue;
      And unto others love is planet-like,
      A cold and placid gleam that wavers not,
      And there are those who wait the call of love
      Expectant of his coming, as we watch
      To see the east grow pallid ere the moon
      Lifts up her flower-like head against the night.
      Love came to me as comes a cruel sun,
      That on some rain-drenched morning, when the leaves
      Are bowed beneath their clinging weight of drops,
      Tears through the mist, and burns with fervent heat
      The tender grasses and the meadow flowers;
      Then suddenly the heavy clouds close in
      And through the dark the thunder's muttering
      Is drowned amid the dashing of the rain.

      But I have seen my day grow calm again.
      The sun sets slowly on a peaceful world,
      And sheds a quiet light across the fields.


      I was a queen, and I have lost my crown;
      A wife, and I have broken all my vows;
      A lover, and I ruined him I loved: --
      There is no other havoc left to do.
      A little month ago I was a queen,
      And mothers held their babies up to see
      When I came riding out of Camelot.
      The women smiled, and all the world smiled too.
      And now, what woman's eyes would smile on me?
      I still am beautiful, and yet what child
      Would think of me as some high, heaven-sent thing,
      An angel, clad in gold and miniver?
      The world would run from me, and yet am I
      No different from the queen they used to love.
      If water, flowing silver over stones,
      Is forded, and beneath the horses' feet
      Grows turbid suddenly, it clears again,
      And men will drink it with no thought of harm.
      Yet I am branded for a single fault.

      I was the flower amid a toiling world,
      Where people smiled to see one happy thing,
      And they were proud and glad to raise me high;
      They only asked that I should be right fair,
      A little kind, and gowned wondrously,
      And surely it were little praise to me
      If I had pleased them well throughout my life.

      I was a queen, the daughter of a king.
      The crown was never heavy on my head,
      It was my right, and was a part of me.
      The women thought me proud, the men were kind,
      And bowed right gallantly to kiss my hand,
      And watched me as I passed them calmly by,
      Along the halls I shall not tread again.
      What if, to-night, I should revisit them?
      The warders at the gates, the kitchen-maids,
      The very beggars would stand off from me,
      And I, their queen, would climb the stairs alone,
      Pass through the banquet-hall, a loathed thing,
      And seek my chambers for a hiding-place,
      And I should find them but a sepulchre,
      The very rushes rotted on the floors,
      The fire in ashes on the freezing hearth.
      I was a queen, and he who loved me best
      Made me a woman for a night and day,
      And now I go unqueened forevermore.
      A queen should never dream on summer eves,
      When hovering spells are heavy in the dusk: --
      I think no night was ever quite so still,
      So smoothly lit with red along the west,
      So deeply hushed with quiet through and through.
      And strangely clear, and deeply dyed with light,
      The trees stood straight against a paling sky,
      With Venus burning lamp-like in the west.

      I walked alone amid a thousand flowers,
      That drooped their heads and drowsed beneath the dew,
      And all my thoughts were quieted to sleep.
      Behind me, on the walk, I heard a step --
      I did not know my heart could tell his tread,
      I did not know I loved him till that hour.
      Within my breast I felt a wild, sick pain,
      The garden reeled a little, I was weak,
      And quick he came behind me, caught my arms,
      That ached beneath his touch; and then I swayed,
      My head fell backward and I saw his face.

      All this grows bitter that was once so sweet,
      And many mouths must drain the dregs of it.
      But none will pity me, nor pity him
      Whom Love so lashed, and with such cruel thongs.


      They sent you in to say farewell to me,
      No, do not shake your head; I see your eyes
      That shine with tears. Sappho, you saw the sun
      Just now when you came hither, and again,
      When you have left me, all the shimmering
      Great meadows will laugh lightly, and the sun
      Put round about you warm invisible arms
      As might a lover, decking you with light.
      I go toward darkness tho' I lie so still.
      If I could see the sun, I should look up
      And drink the light until my eyes were blind;
      I should kneel down and kiss the blades of grass,
      And I should call the birds with such a voice,
      With such a longing, tremulous and keen,
      That they would fly to me and on the breast
      Bear evermore to tree-tops and to fields
      The kiss I gave them. Sappho, tell me this,
      Was I not sometimes fair? My eyes, my mouth,
      My hair that loved the wind, were they not worth
      The breath of love upon them? Yet he passed,
      And he will pass to-night when all the air
      Is blue with twilight; but I shall not see.
      I shall have gone forever. Hold my hands,
      Hold fast that Death may never come between;
      Swear by the gods you will not let me go;
      Make songs for Death as you would sing to Love --
      But you will not assuage him. He alone
      Of all the gods will take no gifts from men.
      I am afraid, afraid.

                                 Sappho, lean down.
      Last night the fever gave a dream to me,
      It takes my life and gives a little dream.
      I thought I saw him stand, the man I love,
      Here in my quiet chamber, with his eyes
      Fixed on me as I entered, while he drew
      Silently toward me -- he who night by night
      Goes by my door without a thought of me --
      Neared me and put his hand behind my head,
      And leaning toward me, kissed me on the mouth.
      That was a little dream for Death to give,
      Too short to take the whole of life for, yet
      I woke with lips made quiet by a kiss.
      The dream is worth the dying. Do not smile
      So sadly on me with your shining eyes,
      You who can set your sorrow to a song
      And ease your hurt by singing. But to me
      My songs are less than sea-sand that the wind
      Drives stinging over me and bears away.
      I have no care what place the grains may fall,
      Nor of my songs, if Time shall blow them back,
      As land-wind breaks the lines of dying foam
      Along the bright wet beaches, scattering
      The flakes once more against the laboring sea,
      Into oblivion. What care have I
      To please Apollo since Love hearkens not?
      Your words will live forever, men will say
      "She was the perfect lover" -- I shall die,
      I loved too much to live. Go Sappho, go --
      I hate your hands that beat so full of life,
      Go, lest my hatred hurt you. I shall die,
      But you will live to love and love again.
      He might have loved some other spring than this;
      I should have kept my life -- I let it go.
      He would not love me now tho' Cypris bound
      Her girdle round me. I am Death's, not Love's.
      Go from me, Sappho, back to find the sun.

      I am alone, alone. O Cyprian . . .

    On to the next poem.

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