An Altar of the West

By George Sterling

(Point Lobos, the southern boundary of Carmel Bay)

    Beauty, what dost thou here?
Why hauntest thou this empery of pain
        Where men in vain
    Long for another sphere?
    Art not an exile shy,
    A dreamer 'mid the swords,
Upon this iron world where men defy
    Time and its hidden lords?
Thou waitest with a splendor on thy brow.
And seem'st to watch with compensating eyes
  Each jest our dwarfing Fates devise;
    And after all the strife,
      'Tis thou
Who standest where the slayers' feet have trod—
Perchance a portion of this dream of God
    That will not go from life.

All that man's yearning finds beyond its reach
Thou hast in promise, giving to his heart
A rapturous sadness all too wild for specch.—
A glory past the thresholds of his art,
    Tho Nature tell it with the wind
      And beckon him to find.
    Thou dost reward our barren years:
        Our very tears—
      The dews of memory—
Were lovely as the dew, could Grief but see.
        What marvel fills
      Thine evenings, dawns and noons!—
      The dryad-haunted hills
And gold of reeds that wait the lips of Pan;

Silence and silver one in wasting moons;
        The stains
Of mornings beautiful ere Time began,
And wine-souled Autumn and the ghostly rains;
        A bird
In moonlit valleys of enchantment heard;
  The fall of sunsets past the sea,
And shadow of celestial pearls to be
    Where meet in day
The night's last star, the morning's youngest ray.

On thine incarnate face could we but look,
        Would not we die,
      Desiring overmuch?
        And yet we sigh,
Who find on land and sea thy radiant touch
And dream thou hast on earth a secret nook—
      A glade supremely blest
In woodlands where thou wanderest unseen.
    Hath not the snowy North
Or star-concealing ocean of the West
  A court wherein thou sittest queen,
  A temple whence thou goest forth,
    An altar for our quest?
    Goddess, one such I know,
      And fain would praise,
  Tho less the gift my words bestow
    Than tapers 'mid the blaze
Of peaceless stars that gather at thy throne.
    Yet seems it most thine own.

Past Carmel lies a headland that the deep—
    A Titan at his toil—
Has graven with the measured surge and sweep
Of waves that broke ten thousand years ago.
      Here winds assoil
        That blow
    From unfamiliar skies
And isolating waters of the West.
Deep-channelled by the billows' rage it lies,
        As tho the land
  Thrust forth a vast, tree-shaggy hand
To bar the furious ocean from its breast.
    Here Beauty would I seek,
    For this I deem her home,
        And surely here
    The sea-adoring Greek,
    Poseidon, unto thee
Thy loftiest temple had been swift to rear,
Of chosen marble and chalcedony,
Pure as irrecoverable foam.

Ere evening from this granite bulwark gaze,
Above the deeper sapphire that the winds
      Drag to and fro.
        A zone
    Of coldest chrysoprase
    Tells where the sunlight finds
      The glimmering shoal.
        How slow
  Yon clouds, like giants overthrown
  Sink to the ocean's western verge,
    From whence incessant roll
    Thro unresponding years
The waves whose anthem challenges the soul—
    The everlasting surge
Whose ancient salt is in our blood and tears.
    Listen, with sight made blind,
And dream thou hearest on the according wind
  The music of the gods again,
    The murmur of their slain
And firmamental echo of great wars.
See how the wave in sudden anger flings
White arms about a rock to drag it down!
        No siren sings,
But in that pool of crystal gleams her crown,
      Flung on a rocky shelf—
Grey jewels cold and agates of the elf
That in yon scarlet cavern still is hid,
      'Mid shells that mock the dawn.
  Here, where the northern surge is swayed
Upon a beach of amber where a faun
Might clasp the beauty of a Nereid,
Translucent waters cover loops of jade.
  Beyond, the sea-scourged walls uphold
A mount of granite, steep and harsh, where cling
      Along its rugged length
The cypress legions, melancholy, old.
      O'er wasting cliff and strand
  In terraced emerald they stand
        Against the sky,
      Each elder tree a king
Whose fame the wordless billows magnify.
A thousand winters of achieving storm
      Moulded each might form
      To beauty and to strength:
A thousand more shall raven ere they die.

  But wander to the verge again
  Where the immeasurable main
Below the red horizon rears its wall,
    The day's enormous pyre
Whence oft, in mighty sunsets of the West,
The world seems menaced by invading fire.
      Dost hear no call
From these hesperian Islands of the Blest
      That wait the quest
Of galleys of adventure, launched at dawn
And seaward on the tides of peril drawn?
The sky-line's crimson harbors seem to hold,
    At dusk, their prows of gold.
Now, ere the stars come out along the wind,
    The veering sea-birds find
    The refuge that they crave
  On cliffs above the weedy mouth
    Of some reverberant cave
In which the ocean's monstrous chuckle wakes.
      Fast comes the night;
    The west witholds at last
Those last red relics of departing light
      That once were noon.
    Hark how the billow breaks,
      Forever cast
On reefs round which wild waters and the moon
Weave silver garlands—foamy fillets strewn
Along her shining pathway to the South!
      The stars arise,
And westward now the Eagle hold their van.
    See how the Pleiades,
Like hounds in leash before Aldebarab,
    Strain up the shifting skies!
      The cypress trees,
Drenched in the milk o' the moon, conspirant seem,
The surf a chant of giants heard afar,
      While seaward gleam
The lamps of Lyra and the evening starů..

    The midnight hushes all;
      The winds are dumb;
Eastward, Orion treads the mountain-wall.
But lo! what visitant is on the gloom?
Beauty and mystery and terror meet
    At this her chosen seat:
    The writhing fog is come,
    White as the moon's cold hands
    Laid on a marble tomb.
    Slow swarm the dragon-bands—
Those pallid monsters of the mist that nose
      The granite bare
    And glide along the flanks
Of hill and headland where the cypress ranks
    Are crouched like silent foes,
    Relentless and aware.
  Far to the somber hills they roam
    Like winds that have no home,
      And creep,
    Unhasting and intent,
    Along the muffled deep,
    As tho malignly sent
From Lethe's murmur and the starless foam.
They pass, and now again the moon is free,
Slow pacing with the Signs about her head;
Soon shall the dawn arise and find her fled
    From yon blue  battlement,
As tho a pearl were hidden by the sea.

    Beauty, what dost thou here?
Why hauntest thou the House where Death is lord
    And o'er thy crown appear
The inexorable shadow and the sword?
Art not a mad mirage above a grave?
The foam foredriven of a perished wave?
    A clarion afar?
A lily on the waters of despond?
A ray that leaping from out whitest star
    Shows but the night beyond?
And yet thou seemest more than all the rest
    That eye and ear attest—
A watch-tower on the mountains whence we see
      On future skies
    The rose of dawn to be;
The altar of an undiscovered shore;
A dim assurance and a proud surmise;
          A gleam
      Upon the bubble, Time;
      The vision, fleet, sublime,
Of sorrowed man, the brute that dared to dream.
        Ah! those, and more!
Made veritable tho the heart descry
    No path to thy demesne
    And Music builds, unseen,
Her Heaven we shall not enter tho we die.
      Still must thou speak,
    August and consecrate,
Of that Reality we can but seek,
      Tho seeking fail—
That Sun eternal and inviolate,
Whereof thou art the portent and the veil.

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