The Forest Mother

By George Sterling

Athlon the king bade silence to his harps,
Which murmured for a little, and were mute.
Then, gazing shrewdly on his men-of-war,
Whose armor, scattered in the banquet-hall,
Cast back the lurching torch-light, hoarsely spake:
"Methinks where War drew bronze athwart your
        cheeks
Love hath sown lilies, and your sinews shrink,
Lax with the feast. And not with lutes and wine
Won ye my strongholds and the guarded hills.
Your horses please you not, but daintier steeds,
And strife of happy loins. So grow ye soft.
Wherefore, this month, when dawn beholds the moon
A ghost, I call your swords to cleaner war,
To peril, and high battle with its toils.
But lest ye think I chide unwitting, list!
I tell a happening of younger years.
"I, Athlon, as ye know, be mountain-born,
And suckled at the torrent. Of our blood
Was never sage nor priest. Not seaward roamed
A stormier breed. Nor is it strange we wrought
Ever to-north dominion, and with steel,
And herald arrow whispering our law,
Pushed out our straining borders, till at last
Corvannon fell, and all our foeman's line.
Thereafter, my red father at that sack
Being fallen, I was king, and held my state
In Gurth his treasure-city. Such the fear
Our lances bred, that for a prudent space
The land had quiet, while with crafts and lore
I labored, and was Beauty's servitor
In pleasant places, being likewise chief
Of wary councils, and with cunning pact,
Statecraft, and grey disposal of mine arts
Wrought kingship. As the elder of you learnt,
I made carousal nightly, and was long
At banqueting, and amorous, for these
Were joys withholden from my youth. Wherefore
The days ran merrily. At times, forsooth,
My captains craved incitements of old war,
But I constrained their furies. Then they held
Plot tournament, and vigors of the chase;
Yet would I none of these, but, month by month,
Sat slothful, wasting me my needful nights
With wine and transient loves. I grew o'erfond
Of luscious viands, and did hold my fool
Above mine armorer. For silken robes
I bargained often with sea-faring men,
And drowsed o'er written tales. So flew my years.

"One summer, when a people had been bold,
My border guards made foray. Of their spoil
Was little precious save a splendid girl,
Held to my pleasure. Wherefore, late one eve,
I sought her vigiled chamber. At my touch,
This yellow-haired barbarian of the hills,
Upstarting, flung me from her scornful breast.
Young-bosomed, virginal, she stood and laughed,
(A mountain-eagle glorious in her strength),
Held my desire at arm's-length, and made mock
At me, so fain to close with her. Behold!
She stood the stronger! Sneering then, she cried:
'Thine eyes are sick! Thy breath is foul with wine!
Go nest thee with thy harlots! Soft thy limbs—
Kiss softer, an thou find'st them! Northern mail
Would flay thy skin, and outland winds thy cheek!
Get hither! I, remembering past might—
How once I could have held her helpless—raged,
Yet in the end departed, vainly wroth.

"Then thought I of my mother of the hills,
Of that calm strength wherefrom mine own had birth,
Her hands so blest with healing, and her lips
Silent with wisdom. Yea! I would go forth,
Regain that younger home, abide in peace,
And haunt the quietude of ancient woods,
Then seek my city even as once I came,
The war-horse mad beneath me, in my grasp
The shearing axe, and on my head the helm,
Red-gleaming like Arcturus ere he mount
The midnight, when the rain has washed the dark.

"So sought I then my mother's dwelling. She,
Whom other sons had sorrowed, gazed awhile,
And smiling sadly at the lines that Love
And Care had graven, told me all her mind,
Speaking me plain, who was no king to her,
But greedy Athlon, pertest of her brood.

"Thereafter I was guardian and serf
Of that grey house; did hew and draw, did face
Those vaster hills, and swam their coldest streams.
I harried fierce their wild and furry kind,
And sought me mountain sunsets, and the dawn,
Seen beyond eastern snows. My counsellors
Were learned trees, wise-whispering. I grew
As rough as they, as kindly. Their domain
Was fair with holy twilights and the hush
Of night long-lingering. About their feet
The brook remembered legends of their youth,
And younger dawnings. Fitfully they mourned,
Responsive, as the unreturning wind
Cried from their mighty heart-strings, and the dusk
Found kindred voices. Well my mother knew
The hurts of men, what balms had gentlest touch
And wrought the cleanlier. She, faithful, loved
The man within that form which cities shape,
And knew his follies. When I fain had kissed
Her serving-maids, she laughed aloud and said:
'Haste hillward, son, and hug the willing bear!'
And when my hands would steal her cellared wine,
(The blood of niggard slopes), she said: 'Drink first
Our upland lake, fed sweet from distant snows.
That gone, thou shalt have darker vintage.' I,
So counselled, stood a-grin like any oaf.

"Thus with her pure medicaments she wrought;
Then, when the pulse had slacked and sinews drawn,
And saner blood wrought morning on my face,
She said: 'Go hence, my boy, for noble cares
Await thee, and the duties of the crown.
Yet stay not always in thy courts, but come
Often, and seek the music of my home,
Its dews and shadows, fragrances and calm,
Its moonlight, and the stars that watch thy sleep.'
So came I to my halls, and her that dwelt
Therein, well-guarded by my sentinels."
Thus spake the king, and signalled to his harps;
But swiftly on the silence that was come,
"Didst master her?" cried one among his lords.
To whom the king, reminiscent in his beard:
"In twenty years she gat me nine great sons,
Greedy for battle." Then, with mournful voice,
"Our other nine were daughters," quoth the king.

A Wine of Wizardry and Other Poems by George Sterling, A.M Roberston, 1909.

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