Constantius and Helena

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Constantius and Helena

from: Post-Laureate Idyls and Other Poems (Pp. 81 - 87)  1886

ARGUMENT.

      "Old King Cole
      Was a merry old soul,
And a merry old soul was he:
      He called for his pipe
      And he called for his bowl,
And he called for his fiddlers three."



King Coïlus--the first of Britain's kings
Who made the legions sent from overseas
By Rome, with Caesar's eagles at their head,
Pause in their northward marching from the coast--
Upon a stormful night in April forced
His way, with all his warriors at his back,
(In number as the needles of the pine,
And like the pine in sinewy strength and height,)
Past Roman guards and sentinels o'erthrown
And slain, to where the sacred eagles blaz'd,
In fitful glare of torch and beacon ray,
Within the town of Camelodunum call'd,
High on the hill that overlooks the Colne.
So all that stormful night the Roman blood
Incarnadined the Colne, and all the slopes
Were strewn with carnage; and the dawning came
And shot red rays athwart the crimson pools,
And o'er the heaps of Roman dead, and o'er
The joyous horde of Cole victorious,
And red was all the land.
                                      Thus broke the king
The power of distant Rome, or so it seem'd;
And merrily did the Coïlus rebuild
The city, calling to his aid the might
Of Bleys, the great magician, he who made
Brandagoras of Latangor his slave
A twelvemonth's space because of insult done
Some ancient shrine; and on the heights arose
Camelodunum fairer than before,
A mighty city, girdl'd round with walls
That mounted skyward and yet fail'd to hide
The tow'rs and spires that lost themselves in air.
There, in the carv'd stone palace built by Bleys,
King Coïlus liv'd merrily and well:
And with him Helena, his child, the pride
And chief delight of Coïlus, and fair
As maid may be on this our earth and seem
In any wise as one of earth; and oft
The merry king, regarding her, was mute
With memories of one who look'd like her
Some twenty changeful changing seasons back,--
The maiden's mother, and the only child
Of Urien of Wales.
                             Now while the king
Past merry days surrounded by his lords,
And lov'd by all, from Helena his child
To poorest beggar that e'er crav'd an alms,
Far overseas the legions gather'd strength,
And passing with their eagles o'er the strait
That lay between the chalk-white cliffs and Gaul,
Halted before Camelodunum's walls,
And strove, but vainly, 'gainst the might of Cole,
As strives some ardent climber some high cliff
To scale that beetles o'er its base, or waves
That fain would overleap the same sheer height,
And striving ever, ever fail.

                                           Nathless,
Undaunted as the surge, Constantius,
The Roman leader, lay before the walls
With all the flower of Rome within his camp,
Till thrice the summer into autumn past,
And thrice the dead leaves redden'd all the Colne,
And thrice the bitter winds of winter rav'd,
And thrice the lark became "a sightless song."
But when the third springtide was wellnigh past,
Constantius, despairing of success,
Was mov'd to raise the siege, since all his art
Avail'd him not before the walls uprear'd
By Bleys. Yet ere his thought past into act,
It chanced that he one morning heard a voice
Of mellow sweetness falling through the air,
And looking up, he saw fair Helena
Upon the walls, and listening, he heard
The words she sang, and hearing, straightway fell
In longing for the maid, and seeing, blest
The gods who granted him so fair a sight.
But she upon the walls sang on as one
Who sings for joy of heart, not heeding him,
Or seeming not to heed Constantius,
Who, far below, listen'd and look'd and lov'd.

"A star, but one, one only star saw I,
A star, one star, far through the frosty air,
One star, a star that lighten'd all my sky,
One star, my star, that sparkl'd past compare,--
I reck'd not of the cold, the star was there.

"One star, a star that seem'd far off, yet nigh,
One star, one star with rays that shimmer'd fair,
No star but one, none other star saw I.
One star, my star; a star that cannot die,--
They miss who seek it if the moon be there."

"My star, one star, none other star for me,"
Constantius said within himself whenas
The song was ended and the singer gone
From off the walls, and, ere the sun had paus'd
In high mid-heaven, and the noontide hour
Was hammer'd out from tower and spire, the King,
Within the carven palace built by Bleys,
Was told a messenger from Roman camp
Crav'd speedy hearing for his message brought.
Bluster'd King Cole:
                               "Yea, let him in: I fain
Would know what he, my foe, Constantius,
Would say to me by churl of his."
                           Low bow'd
The Roman, entering, at the feet of Cole,
To whom that other spake through frosty beard,
"Thou hast a message: speak, and let me hear."
Thereat the messenger:

                                      "O Coïlus!
Constantius knows thee great, believes thee wise
Beyond the measure of all other men,
And gladly would exchange the name of foe
With thee for that of friend; and therefore he,
My master, offers peace,--such peace as broods
O'er lands where plenteous content is lord,
And one condition only doth this peace
Stand fast upon: that he may have to wife
The princess Helena."
                                  He ceas'd and bow'd
Once more, while Coïus revolv'd in thought
The message of Constantius, inclin'd
The more to grant the Roman leader's prayer,
Since he was much awearied of the siege
Which kept him in Camelodunum pent.
So, turning to the lords about him, spake:
"You heard this Roman: what say you, my lords?"
But staying not for answer, bade one call
His daughter Helena, who straightway came.
To her the King made known the Roman's wish,
And added, "Now what says my Helena
Unto the suit of brave Constantius?"

Now it had chanced that Helen, while she sang,
Had with a sidelong azure-lidded eye
Beheld the Roman leader far below,
Yet not so far but she might see his gaze
Rapt upon her, and seeing lov'd in turn.
Therefore when Cole, the merry, question'd her
What should be said, she rais'd an innocent face
And murmur'd:
                        "Surely peace is sweet to have,
My father: who am I to bar the door
Against it, and prolong the doleful seige?"

So peace was made, and Helena was wed
Unto Constantius, and all the bells
Of great Camelodunum rang, and Cole,
The merry, at the marriage call'd for pipes
And bowl, and flowing bowl and pipes, and while
The pipers drank great draughts from out the bowl,
Call'd loudly for his fiddlers three.