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As It Was

ONCE upon a time, when man was new in the woods of the world, when his feet were scarred with jungle thorns and his hands were red with the blood of beasts, a great king rose who gathered his neighbors together, and subdued the wandering tribes. Strange cunning was his, for he ground the stones to an edge together, and bound them with thongs to sticks; and he taught his people to pry apart the forest, and beat back the ravenous beasts. And he bade them honeycomb the mountainside with caves, to dwell therein with their women. And the most beautiful women the king took for his own, that his wisdom might not perish from the earth. And he led the young men to war and conquered all the warring tribes from the mountains to the sea. And when fire smote a great tree out of heaven, and raged through the forest till the third sun, he seized a burning brand and lit an altar to his god. And there, beside the everburning fire, he sat and made laws and did justice. And his people loved and feared him.

And the king grew old. And for seven journeys of the sun from morn to morn he moved not, neither uttered word. And the hearts of the people were troubled, but none dared speak to the king's despair; neither wise men nor warriors dared cry out unto him.

Now the youngest son of the king was a lad still soft of flesh, who had never run to battle not sat in council nor stood before the king. And his heart yearned for his father, and he bowed before his mother and said, "Give me thy blessing, for I have words within me for the king; yea, as the sea sings to the night with waves will my words roll in singing unto his grief." And his mother said, "Go, my son; for thou hast words of power and soothing, and the king shall be healed."

So the youth went forth and bowed him toward the king's seat. And the wise men and warriors laid hands upon him, and said, "Who art thou, that thou shouldst go in ahead of us to him who sitteth in darkness?" And the king's son rose, and stretched forth his arms, and said, "Unhand me and let me go, ye silent ones, who for seven sun—journeys have watched in darkness and uttered no word of light! Unhand me, for as a fig-tree with fruit, so my heart is rich with words for the king."

Then he put forth his strength and strode on singing softly, and bowed him before the king. And he spake the king's great deeds in cunning words—his wars and city-carvings and wise laws, his dominion over men and beasts and the thick woods of the earth; his greeting of the gods with fire.

And lo, the king lifted up his head and stretched forth his arms and wept. "Yea, all these things have I done," he said, "and they shall perish with me. My death is upon me, and I shall die, and the tribes I have welded together shall be broken apart, and the beasts shall win back their domain, and the green jungle shall overgrow my mansions. Lo, the fire shall go out on the altar of the gods, and my glory shall be as a crimson cloud that the night swallows up in darkness."

Then the young man lifted up his voice and cried: "Oh, king, be comforted! Thy deeds shall not pass as a cloud, neither shall thy laws be strewn before the wind. For I will carve thy glory in rich and rounded wordsyea, I will string thy deeds together in jewelled beads of perfect words that thy sons shall wear on their hearts forever."

"Verily thy words are rich with song," said the king; "but thou shalt die, and who will utter them? Like twinkling foam is the speech of man's mouth; like foam from a curling wave that vanishes in the sun."

"Nay, let thy heart believe me, oh king my father," said the youth. "For the words of my mouth shall keep step with the ripple of waves and the beating of wings; yea, they shall mount with the huge paces of the sun in heaven, that cease not for my ceasing. Men shall sound them on suckling tongues still soft with milk, they shall run into battle to the tune of thy deeds, and kindle their fire with the breath of thy wisdom. And thy glory shall be ever living, as a jewel of jasper from the earthyea, as the green jewel of jasper carven into a god for the rod of thy power, oh king, and of the power of thy sons forever."

The king sat silent till the going-down of the sun.

Then lifted he his head, and stroked his beard, and spake:

"Verily the sun goes down, and my beard shines whiter than his, and I shall die. Now therefore stand at my right hand, 0 son of my wise years, child of my dreams. Stand at my right hand, and lit thy speech to music, that men may hold in their hearts thy rounded words. Forever shalt thou keep thy place, and utter thy true tale in the ears of the race. And woe be unto them that hear thee not! Verily that generation shall pass as a cloud, and its glory shall be as a tree that withers. For thou alone shalt win the flying hours to thee, and keep the beauty of them for the joy of men forever."

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This poem originally appeared in the October 1912 issue of Poetry magazine

  • As founder and editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, Harriet Monroe became instrumental in the "poetry renaissance" of the early twentieth century by managing a forum that allowed poets and poetry to gain American exposure. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Daniel J. Cahill and Laura Ingram wrote: "The...

Prose from Poetry Magazine

As It Was

  • As founder and editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, Harriet Monroe became instrumental in the "poetry renaissance" of the early twentieth century by managing a forum that allowed poets and poetry to gain American exposure. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Daniel J. Cahill and Laura Ingram wrote: "The...

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