Lascelles Abercrombie

(9 January 1881 – 27 October 1938 / Ashton)

The Sale of Saint Thomas


A quay with vessels moored


Thomas
To India! Yea, here I may take ship;
From here the courses go over the seas,
Along which the intent prows wonderfully
Nose like lean hounds, and tack their journeys out,
Making for harbours as some sleuth was laid
For them to follow on their shifting road.
Again I front my appointed ministry. --
But why the Indian lot to me? Why mine
Such fearful gospelling? For the Lord knew
What a frail soul He gave me, and a heart
Lame and unlikely for the large events. --
And this is worse than Baghdad! though that was
A fearful brink of travel. But if the lots,
That gave to me the Indian duty, were
Shuffled by the unseen skill of Heaven, surely
That fear of mine in Baghdad was the same
Marvellous Hand working again, to guard
The landward gate of India from me. There
I stood, waiting in the weak early dawn
To start my journey; the great caravan's
Strange cattle with their snoring breaths made steam
Upon the air, and (as I thought) sadly
The beasts at market-booths and awnings gay
Of shops, the city's comfortable trade,
Lookt, and then into months of plodding lookt.
And swiftly on my brain there came a wind
Of vision; and I saw the road mapt out
Along the desert with a chalk of bones;
I saw a famine and the Afghan greed
Waiting for us, spears at our throats, all we
Made women by our hunger; and I saw
Gigantic thirst grieving our mouths with dust,
Scattering up against our breathing salt
Of blown dried dung, till the taste eat like fires
Of a wild vinegar into our sheathèd marrows;
And a sudden decay thicken'd all our bloods
As rotten leaves in fall will baulk a stream;
Then my kill'd life the muncht food of jackals. --
The wind of vision died in my brain; and lo,
The jangling of the caravan's long gait
Was small as the luting of a breeze in grass
Upon my ears. Into the waiting thirst
Camels and merchants all were gone, while I
Had been in my amazement. Was this not
A sign? God with a vision tript me, lest
Those tall fiends that ken for my approach
In middle Asia, Thirst and his grisly band
Of plagues, should with their brigand fingers stop
His message in my mouth. Therefore I said,
If India is the place where I must preach,
I am to go by ship, not overland.
And here my ship is berthed. But worse, far worse
Than Baghdad, is this roadstead, the brown sails,
All the enginery of going on sea,
The tackle and the rigging, tholes and sweeps,
The prows built to put by the waves, the masts
Stayed for a hurricane; and lo, that line
Of gilded water there! the sun has drawn
In a long narrow band of shining oil
His light over the sea; how evilly move
Ripples along that golden skin! -- the gleam
Works like a muscular thing! like the half-gorged
Sleepy swallowing of a serpent's neck.
The sea lives, surely! My eyes swear to it;
And, like a murderous smile that glimpses through
A villain's courtesy, that twitching dazzle
Parts the kind mood of weather to bewray
The feasted waters of the sea, stretched out
In lazy gluttony, expecting prey.
How fearful is this trade of sailing! Worse
Than all land-evils is the water-way
Before me now. -- What, cowardice? Nay, why
Trouble myself with ugly words? 'Tis prudence,
And prudence is an admirable thing.
Yet here's much cost -- these packages piled up,
Ivory doubless, emeralds, gums, and silks,
All these they trust on shipboard? Ah, but I,
I who have seen God, I to put myself
Amid the heathen outrage of the sea
In a deal-wood box! It were plain folly.
There is naught more precious in the world than I:
I carry God in me, to give to men.
And when has the sea been friendly unto man?
Let it but guess my errand, it will call
The dangers of the air to wreak upon me,
Winds to juggle the puny boat and pinch
The water into unbelievable creases.
And shall my soul, and God in my soul, drown?
Or venture drowning? -- But no, no; I am safe.
Smooth as believing souls over their deaths
And over agonies shall slide henceforth
To God, so shall my way be blest amid
The quiet crouching terrors of the sea,
Like panthers when a fire weakens their hearts;
Ay, this huge sin of nature, the salt sea,
Shall be afraid of me, and of the mind
Within me, that with gesture, speech and eyes
Of the Messiah flames. What element
Dare snarl against my going, what incubus dare
Remember to be fiendish, when I light
My whole being with memory of Him?
The malice of the sea will slink from me,
And the air be harmless as a muzzled wolf;
For I am a torch, and the flame of me is God.

A Ship's Captain
You are my man, my passenger?

Thomas I am.
I go to India with you.

Captain Well, I hope so.
There's threatening in the weather. Have you a mind
To hug your belly to the slanted deck,
Like a louse on a whip-top, when the boat
Spins on an axlie in the hissing gales?

Thomas
Fear not. 'Tis likely indeed that storms are now
Plotting against our voyage; ay, no doubt
The very bottom of the sea prepares
To stand up mountainous or reach a limb
Out of his night of water and huge shingles,
That he and the waves may break our keel. Fear not;
Like those who manage horses, I've a word
Will fasten up within their evil natures
The meanings of the winds and waves and reefs.

Captain
You have a talisman? I have one too;
I know not if the storms think much of it.
I may be shark's meat yet. And would your spell
Be daunting to a cuttle, think you now?
We had a bout with one on our way here;
It had green lidless eyes like lanterns, arms
As many as the branches of a tree,
But limber, and each one of them wise as a snake.
It laid hold of our bulwarks, and with three
Long knowing arms, slimy, and of a flesh
So tough they'ld fool a hatchet, searcht the ship,
And stole out of the midst of us all a man;
Yes, and he the proudest man upon the seas
For the rare powerful talisman he'd got.
And would yours have done better?

Thomas I am one
Not easily frightened. I'm for India.
You will not putme from my way with talk.

Captain
My heart, I never thought of frightening you. --
Well, here's both tide and wind, and we may not start.

Thomas
Not start? I pray you, do.

Captain It's no use praying;
I dare not. I've not half my cargo yet.

Thomas
What do you wait for, then?

Captain A carpenter.

Thomas
You are talking strangely.

Captain But not idly.
I might as well broach all my blood at once,
Here as I stand, as sail to India back
Without a carpenter on board; -- O strangely
Wise are our kings in the killing of men!

Thomas
But does your king then need a carpenter?
Captain
Yes, for he dreamed a dream; and(like a man
Who, having eaten poison, and with all
Force of his life turned out the crazing drug,
Has only a weak and wrestled nature left
That gives in foolishly to some bad desire
A healthy man would laught at; so our king
Is left desiring by his venomous dream.
But, being a king, the whole land aches with him.
Thomas
What dream was that?

Captain A palace made of souls; --
Ay, there's a folly for a man to dream!
He saw a palace covering all the land,
Big as the day itself, made of a stone
That answered with a better gleam than glass
To the sun's greeting, fashioned like the sound
Of laughter copied into shining shape:
So the king said. And with him in the dream
There was a voice that fleered upon the king:
'This is the man who makes much of himself
For filling the common eyes with palaces
Gorgeously bragging out his royalty:
Whereas he hath not one that seemeth not
In work, in height, in posture on the ground,
A hut, a peasant's dingy shed, to mine.
And all his excellent woods, metals, and stones,
The things he's filched out of the earth's old pockets
And hoisted up into walls and domes; the gold,
Ebony, agate stairs, wainscots of jade,
The windows of jargoon, and heavenly lofts
Of marble, all the stuff he takes to be wealth,
Reckons like savage mud and wattle against
The matter of my building.' -- And the king,
Gloating upon the white sheen of that palace,
And weeping like a girl ashamed, inquired
'What is that stone?' And the voice answered him,
'Soul.' 'But in my palaces too,' said he,
'There should be soul built: I have driven nations,
What with quarrying, what with craning, down
To death, and sure their souls stay in my work.'
And 'Mud and wattle' sneered the voice again;
But added, 'In the west there is a man,
A slave, a carpenter, whose heart has been
Apprenticed to the skill that built my reign,
This beauty; and were he master of your gangs,
He'ld build you a palace that would look like mine.' --
So now no ship may sail from India,
Since the king's scornful dream, unless it bring
A carpenter among its homeward lading:
And carpenters are getting hard to find.

Thomas
And have none made for the king his desire?

Captain
Many have tried, with roasting living men
In queer huge kilns, and other sleights, to found
A glass of human souls; and others seek
With marvellous stone to please our desperate king.
Always at last their own tormented bodies
Delight the cruelty of the king's heart.

Thomas
Well then, I hope you'll find your carpenter,
And soon. I would not that we wait too long;
I loathe a dallying journey. -- I should suppose
We'ld have good sailing at this season, now?

Captain
Why, you were looking, a few minutes gone,
For rare wild storms: I hope we'll have them too;
I want to see you work that talisman
You boast about: I've a great love for spells.

Thomas
Let it be storm or calm, so we be sailing.
I long have wished to voyage into mid sea,
To give my senses rest from wondering
On this preplexèd grammar of the land
Written in men and women, the strange trees,
Herbs, and those things so like to souls, the beasts.
My wilful senses will keep perilously
Employed with these my brain, and weary it
Still to be asking. But on the high seas
Such throng'd reality is left behind, --
Only vast air and water, and the hue
That always seems like special news of God.
Surely 'tis half way to eternity
To go where only size and colour live;
And I could purify my mind from all
Worldly amazement by imagining
Beyond my senses into God's great Heaven,
If I were in mid sea. I have dreamed of this.
Wondrous too, I think, to sail at night
While shaols of moonlight flickers dance beside,
Like swimming glee of fishes scaled in gold,
Curvetting in thwart bounds over the swell;
The perceiving flesh, in bliss of such a beauty,
Must sure feel fine as spiritual sight. --
Moods have been on me, too, when I would be
Sailing recklessly through wild darkness, where
Gigantic whispers of a harassed sea
Fill the whole world of air, and I stand up
To breast the danger of the loosen'd sky,
And feel my immortality like music, --
Yea, I alone in the broken world, firm things
All gone to monstrous flurry, knowing myself
An indestructible word spoken by God. --
This is a small, small boat?

Captain Small is nothing,
A bucket will do, so it know how to ride
Top upward: cleverness is the thing in boats.
And I wish this were cleverer: she goes crank
At times just when she should go sober.
But what? Boats are but girls for whimsies: men
Must let them have their freaks.

Thomas Have you good skill
In seamanship?

Captain Well, I am not drowned yet,
Though I'm a grey man and have been at sea
Longer than you've been walking. My old sight
Can tell Mizar from Alcor still.

Thomas Ay, so;
Doubtless you'll bring me safe to India.
But being there -- tell me now of the land:
How use they strangers there?

Captain Queerly, sometimes
If the king's moody, and tired of feeling nerves
Mildly made happy with soft jewels of silk,
Odours and wines and slim lascivious girls,
And yearns for sharper thrills to pierce his brain,
He often finds a stranger handy then.

Thomas
Why, what do you mean?

Captain There was a merchant came
To Travancore, and could not speak our talk;
And, it chanced, he was brought before the throne
Just when the king was weary of sweet pleasures.
So, to better his tongue, a rope was bent
Beneath his oxters, up he was hauled, and fire
Let singe the soles of his feet, until his legs
Wriggled like frying eels; then the king's dogs
Were set to hunt the hirpling man. The king
Laught greatly and cried, 'But give the dogs words they know,
And they'll be tame.' -- Have you the Indian speech?

Thomas
Not yet: it will be given me, I trust.

Captain
You'd best make sure of the gift. Another stranger,
Who swore he knew of better gods than ours,
Seemed to the king troubled with fleas, and slaves
Were told to groom him smartly, which they did
Thoroughly with steel combs, until at last
They curried the living flesh from his bones
And stript his face of gristle, till he was
Skull and half skeleton and yet alive.
You're not for dealing in new gods?

Thomas Not I.
Was the man killed?

Captain He lived a little while;
But the flies killed him.

Thomas Flies? I hope India
Is not a fly-plagued land? I abhor flies.

Captain
You will see strange ones, for our Indian life
Hath wonderful fierce breeding. Common earth
With us quickens to buzzing flights of wings
As readily as a week-old carcase here
Thrown in a sunny marsh. Why, we have wasps
That make your hornets seem like pretty midges;
And there be flies in India will drink
Not only blood of bulls, tigers, and bears,
But pierce the river-horses' creasy leather,
Ay, worry crocodiles through their cuirasses
And prick the metal fishes when they bask.
You'll feel them soon, with beaks like sturdy pins,
Treating their stinging thirsts with your best blood.
A man can't walk a mile in India
Without being the business of a throng'd
And moving town of flies; they hawk at a man
As bold as little eagles, and as wild.
And, I suppose, only a fool will blame them.
Flies have the right to sink wells in our skin
All as men to bore parcht earth for water.
But I must do a job on board, and then
Search the town afresh for a carpenter.

Thomas (alone)
Ay, loose tongue, I know how thou art prompted.
Satan's cunning device thou art, to sap
My heart with chatter'd fears. How easy it is
For a stiff mind to hold itself upright
Against the cords of devilish suggestion
Tackled about it, though kept downward strained
With sly, masterful winches made of fear.
Yea, when the mind is warned what engines mean
To ply it into grovelling, and thought set firm,
The tugging strings fail like a cobweb-stuff.
Not as in Baghdad is it with me now;
Nor canst thou, Satan, by a prating mouth,
Fell my tall purpose to a flatlong scorn.
I can divide the check of God's own hand
From tempting such as this: India is mine! --
Ay, fiend, and if thou utter thy storming heart
Into the ocean sea, as into mob
A rebel utters turbulence and rage,
And raise before my path swelling barriers
Of hatred soul'd in water, yet will I strike
My purpose, and God's purpose, clean through all
The ridges of thy power. And I will show
This mask that the devil wears, this old shipman,
A thing to make his proud heart of evil
Writhe like a trodden snake; yea, he shall see
How godly faith can go upon the huge Fury of forces bursting out of law,
Easily as a boy goes on windy grass. --
O marvel! that my little life of mind
Can by mere thinking the unsizeable
Creatures of sea enslave! I must believe it.
The mind hath many powers beyond name
Deep womb'd within it, and can shoot strange vigours:
Men there have been who could so grimly look
That soldiers' hearts went out like candle flames
Before their eyes, and the blood perisht in them. --
But I -- could I do that? Would I not feel
The power in me if 'twas there? And yet
'Twere a child's game to what I have to do,
For days and days with sleepless faith oppress
And terrorise the demon sea. I think
A man might, as I saw my Master once,
Pass unharmed through a storm of men, yet fail
At this that lies before me: men are mind,
And mind can conquer mind; but how can it quell
The unappointed purpose of great waters? --
Well, say the sea is past: why, then, I have
My feet but on the threshold of my task,
To gospel India, -- my single heart
To seize into the order of its beat
All the strange blood of India, my brain
To lord the dark thought of that tann'd mankind! --
O, horrible those sweltry places are,
Where the sun comes so close, it makes the earth
Burn in a frenzy of breeding, -- smoke and flame
Of lives burning up from agoniz'd loam!
Those monstrous sappy jungles of clutcht growth,
What can such fearful increase have to do
With prospering bounty? A rage works in the ground,
Incurably, like frantic lechery,
Pouring its passion out in crops and spawns.
'Tis as the mighty spirit of life, that here
Walketh beautifully praising, glad of God,
Should, stepping on the poison'd Indian shore,
Breathing the Indian air of fire snd steams,
Fling herself into a craze of hideous dancing,
The green gown whipping her swift limbs, all her body
Writhen to speak inutterable desire,
Tormented by a glee of hating God.
Nay, it must be, to visit India,
That frantic pomp and hurrying forth of life,
As if a man should enter at unawares
The dreaming mind of Satan, gorgeously
Imagining his eternal hell of lust. --

They say the land is full of apes, which have
Their own gods and worship: how ghastly, this! --
That demons (for it must be so) should build,
In mockery of man's upward faith, the souls
Of monkeys, those lewd mammets of mankind,
Into a dreadful farce of adoration!
And flies! a land of flies! where the hot soil
Foul with ceaseless decay steams into flies!
So thick they pile themselves in the air above
Their meal of filth, they seem like breathing heaps
Of formless life mounded upon the earth;
And buzzing always like the pipes and strings
Of solemn music made for sorcerers. --
I abhor flies, -- to see them stare upon me
Out of their little faces of gibbous eyes;
To feel the dry cool skin of their bodies alight
Perching upon my lips! -- O yea, a dream,
A dream of impious obscene Satan, this
Monstrous frenzy of life, the Indian being!
And there are men in the dream! What men are they?
I've heard, naught relishes their brains so much
As to tie down a man and tease his flesh
Infamously, until a hundred pains
Hound the desiring life out of his body,
Filling his nerves with such a fearful zest
That the soul overstrained shatters beneath it.
Must I preach God to these murderous hearts?
I would my lot had fallen to go and dare
Death from the silent dealing of Northern cold! --

O, but I would face all these Indian fears,
The horror of the huge power of life,
The beasts all fierce and venomous, the men
With cruel souls, learned to invent pain,
All these and more, if I had any hope
That, braving them, Lord Christ prosper'd through me.
If Christ desired India, He had sent
The band of us, solder'd in one great purpose,
To strike His message through those dark vast tribes.
But one man! -- O surely it is folly,
And we misread the lot! One man, to thrust,
Even though in his soul the lamp was kindled
At God's own hands, one man's lit soul to thrust
The immense Indian darkness out of the world!
For human flesh there breeds as furiously
As the green things and the cattle; and it is all,
All this enormity of measureless folk,
Penn'd in a land so close to the devil's reign
The very apes have faith in him. -- No, no;
Impetuous brains mistake the signs of God
Too easily. God would not have me waste
My zeal for Him in this wild enterprise,
Of going alone to swarming India; -- one man,
One mortal voice, to charm those myriad ears
Away from the fiendish clamour of Indian gods,
One man preaching the truth against the huge
Bray of the gongs and horns of the Indian priests!
A cup of wine poured in the sea were not
More surely lost in the green and brackish depths,
Than the fire and fragrance of my doctrine poured
Into that multitudinous pond of men,
India. -- Shipman! Master of the ship! --
I have thought better of this journey; now
I find I am not meant to go.

Captain Not meant?

Thomas
I would say, I had forgotten Indian air
Is full of fevers; and my health is bad
For holding out against fever.

Captain As you please.
I keep your fare, though.

Thomas O,{ 'tis yours. -- Good sailing!

As he makes to depart, a Noble Stranger is seen approaching along the quay.

Captain
Well, here's a marvel: 'Tis a king, for sure!
'Twould take the taxes of a world to dress
A man in that silken gold, and all those gems.
What a flash the light makes of him, nay, he burns;
And he's here on the quay all by himself,
Not even a slave to fan him! -- Man, you're ailing!
You look like death; is it the falling sickness?
Or has the mere thought of the Indian journey
Made your marrow quail with a cold fever?

The Stranger (to the Captain)
You are the master of this ship?

Captain I am.

Stranger
This huddled man belongs to me: a slave
Escaped my service.

Captain Lord, I knew not that.
But you are in good time.

Stranger And was the slave
For putting out with you? Where are your bound?

Captain
To India. First he would sail, and then
Again he would not. But, my Lord, I swear
I never guesst he was a runaway.

Stranger
Well, he shall have his mind and go with you
To India: a good slave he is, but bears
A restless thought. He has slipt off before,
And vexes me still to be watching him.
We'll make a bargain of him.

Captain I, my Lord?
I have no need of slaves: I am too poor.

Stranger
For twenty silver pieces he is yours.

Captain
That's cheap, if he has a skill. Yes, there might be
Profit in him at that. Has he a trade?

Stranger
He is a carpenter.

Captain A carpenter!
Why, for a good one I'ld give all my purse.

Stranger
No, twenty silver pieces is the price;
Though 'tis a slave a king might joy to own.
I've taught him to imagine palaces
So high, and tower'd so nobly, they might seem
The marvelling of a God-delighted heart
Escaping into ecstasy; he knows,
Moreover, of a stuff so rare it makes
Smaragdus and the dragon-stone despised;
And yet the quarries whereof he is wise
Would yield enough to house the tribes of the world
In palaces of beautiful shining work.

Captain
Lo there! why, that is it: the carpenter
I am to bring is needed for to build
The king's new palace.

Stranger Yea? He is your man.

Captain
Come on, my man. I'll put your cunning heels
Where they'll not budge more than a shuffled inch.
My lord, if you'll bide with the rascal here
I'll get the irons ready. Here's your sum. --

Stranger
Now, Thomas, know thy sin. It was not fear;
Easily may a man crouch down for fear,
And yet rise up on firmer knees, and face
The hailing storm of the world with graver courage.
But prudence, prudence is the deadly sin,
And one that groweth deep into a life,
With hardening roots that clutch about the breast.
For this refuses faith in the unknown powers
Within man's nature; shrewdly bringeth all
Their inspiration of strange eagerness(
To a judgment bought by safe experience;
Narrows desire into the scope of thought.
But it is written in the heart of man,
Thou shalt no larger be than thy desire.
Thou must not therefore stoop thy spirit's sight
To pore only within the candle-gleam
Of conscious wit and reasonable brain;
But search into the sacred darkness lying
Outside thy knowledge of thyself, the vast
Measureless fate, full of the power of stars,
The outer noiseless heavens of thy soul.
Keep thy desire closed in the room of light
The labouring fires of thy mind have made,
And thou shalt find the vision of thy spirit
Pitifully dazzled to so shrunk a ken,
There are no spacious puissances about it.
But send desire often forth to scan
The immense night which is thy greater soul;
Knowing the possible, see thou try beyond it
Into impossible things, unlikely ends;
And thou shalt find thy knowledgeable desire
Grow large as all the regions of thy soul,
Whose firmament doth cover the whole of Being,
And of created purpose reach the ends.

Submitted: Sunday, May 06, 2001
Edited: Sunday, May 06, 2001

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