The Song of Silenus

Namque canebat, uti magnum per inane coacta
Semina terrarumque animæque marisque fuissent,
Et liquidi simul ignis; ut his exordia primis
Omnia et ipse tener mundi concreverit orbis;
Tum durare solum et discludere Nerea ponto
Cœperit, et rerum paulatim sumere formas;
Iamque novum terræ stupeant lucescere solem,
Altius atque cadant submotis nubibus imbres;
Incipiant silvæ cum primum surgere, cumque
Rara per ignaros errent animalia montis.

VIRGIL, ECL. VI. 31-40.


WHAT old reveler, what monster, riding hither on an ass,
Bald, and fat, and red of visage ? Say, you, shall we let him pass ?
He is drunken, he is swinging by the handle his canteen, —
Hist! it is the god Silenus ! Quick to cover, or be seen !
Wait till from his ass he tumbles on the greensward, and erelong
We shall have him at our mercy, we shall win from him a song.
For he is not half the dullard that he seems, with his queer ways;
We it is that are the dullards, if we hear and do not praise.
He will sing, if so his mood is, sweetly as a great god can ;
If he chooses, he will charm you with the seven pipes of Pan.
Twist a chain of flowers and follow, softly through the shadows creep,
Till beside some rock or fountain you shall find him sound asleep.


So we gathered long-stemmed lilies, bluebells from their rocky shelf,
Roses blooming first that morning, each a little morn itself ;
And the flowers the name still bearing which Apollo’s favorite bore,
With the syllable of sorrow marked upon them evermore.
Then a potent chain we twisted, and, to please him unaware,
Wrought a crown of tender vine-leaves, since the old man’s head was bare.
And within the hour we held him in the charmèd, flowery knot,
While we shouted, Ho ! Silenus ! till he owned that he was caught;
Till the reeds that by the river once in voiceless shadows grew,
And are now a power on earth, he lifted to his lips and blew.
Loud and mirthful, weird and solemn, low and tender, came the strain ;
Pausing oft he changed the measure, blew, and paused, then blew again.
And amid the many pauses, as if from the leaves he twirled,
He retold the famous story of the making of the world.
Wind and tree forgot their murmur, and the nisy brook its tongue,
While he mingled truth and legend in his music, for he sung:


“ Mark you how the bright Aurora through the golden gateway steals,
And the Night as swiftly follows on her silent-running wheels ?
“ Mark you how the constellations roll through heaven’s arch by night,
All the noiseless alternations of the darkness and the light ?
“ Have you marked the change of seasons, and the tides that rise and fall,
And the wind that ever varies, and the law that runs through all?
“ How one thing another follows, and not very far away ;
After waking comes the slumber, after life and growth decay?
“ Know that through the framework of the universe a soul,
All-pervading, all-foreseeing, lives and regulates the whole.
“ Know that as in æons perished all from a beginning rose,
So in æons uncreated waits for all a final close.


“ Once there were no lands nor waters, and no glorious rolling air,
And no sunlight breaking earthward, and no starlight anywhere :
“ Only nothingness, an ocean that extended more and more,
With its billows that were silence and that broke upon no shore ;
“ And the many-figured atoms, rough, and smooth, and round, and square,
Falling in the void in silence, just as snow-flakes in the air,
“ Till a single atom, shaken by an unknown impulse, swerves,
Sends its thrill through all the others, crossing parallels with curves.
“ Round, in ever narrowing circles, were the nebulous masses whirled;
Centred in the inmost spiral lay the seed that is the world.


“ There in mist it lay and hardened slowly to a granite core,
Whereon dropped the ceaseless atoms as on the eternal floor.
“ Afterwards, the heaven, pressing with its mighty hemisphere,
Rose, the thinner from the denser, like a bubble, crystal-clear;
“ And the luminous globular wonders, — one by day, the rest by night,
Floating in the liquid ether. And the world was filled with light.
“ Next, the mighty flood of waters outward from the centre rolled,
, Wrapped the earth, o’er all its surface, in a blue and trembling fold ;
“ Till the hollows were created, and adown the mountain steeps
Fell the waves to roar forever in their dark and lonely deeps.


“ Fell the waves and rose the mountains, and the windy reach of shore,
Wading outward, far and farther beat away the foam and roar.
“ Streaming clouds began to gather, ’gan the scathing fire-balls fly,
And the elemental tempest shook the great frame of the sky.
“ Land and water were at warfare, earth and air were racked with pains ;
Earth was furrowed into valleys, pounded here and there to plains.


“ Then the land was filled with beauty, all its undulating sweep
Silver-threaded with the waters flashing backward to the deep ;
“ Belted o’er with shining forests that began to drink the breeze,
Fanning silence into music with their millions of great trees.
Came and went the gorgeous seasons, sang the breezes, sang the brook ;
Passed the grand primeval splendors, with no human eye to look!
“ By the river-marge the ripples fondled with the tuneless reeds ;
On the ground, for countless ages, trees in silence dropped their seeds.
“ Inland from the distant ocean rolled the murmur of his lips,
While as yet he recked no navies, felt the burden of no ships.
“ Oh, the mighty preparation for the lord that was to be !
Oh, the waiting of the forest! oh, the solemn, solemn sea !


“ First, the noisy waves were peopled, and a race of monsters seen,
Dying in their generations, and an æon passed between.
“ To the air came flying reptiles, — came and went, and left their bones,
Which to those who read the ages are as letters in the stones.
“ To the hills came walking creatures, of a less repulsive mien ;
But they died, as died the others, and an æon passed between.
“ Thus the forms of being followed in succession slow, each race
Somewhat fairer than the former and more perfect in its place.
“ Last of all her many children which the common parent bore,
Man appeared, a god in figure, lord of all her boundless store.”


Mute we sat; the skilled Silenus filled our ears with heaven’s tide,
As he sang the great creation and a thousand things beside, —
Sang the interstellar spaces where the blest immortals dwell
In a sacred calm together, while the world goes ill or well ;
Where they bask in pleasant sunshine, counting not the days or years,
And the sound of human sorrow never finds their blessed ears ;
And the mystery of the mountains, and the wonder of the sea,
And the power of floods and earthquakes, all the changes that would be :
How the race of men would perish, when our mother Earth no more
Can sustain the teeming millions that must feed upon her store ;
How the sun would slowly darken to a cinder till destroyed,
And with all his burnt-out planets still keep falling down the void;
How the sky would fall in ruins, and the earth into decay,
With the dead sun dropping downward like a pebble thrown away ;
And at last how every atom would resume its separate form,
Through the gulfs of darkness falling, just as in the primal storm.


So he sang till on the water melted evening’s golden bar,
Till the fire died on the hilltops, sang until the evening star,
Till we saw the silent Archer climb his zenith-winding stair,
And across the northern heavens stream the dark Egyptian’s hair.
Then he paused as if to listen, half in earnest, half in fun,—
But he grasped his empty wine-bag, and the old man’s song was done.


Homeward as we carried in our hearts a new delight,
Much we mused upon the story, much upon the seer, that night, —
How the ugliest of bodies may contain the keenest soul,
As the richest wine may sparkle in a very common bowl.
And the wind that journeyed with us shook the dewdrops on the grass,
While we heard far down the valley some one shouting for his ass.
Samuel V Cole.