Martin Robertson

Now and Then

The Sleeping Beauty’s Prince

Part One

No, not a prince.  The boy we’ll come to know

was born at court but not to royalty.

Where?  When?  Oh, far away and long ago—

farther than swallows in the autumn fly,

I cannot count the generations gone—

but once upon a time, in some demesne,

there lived, in service to a King and Queen,

a poor young widow with an only son.

A mother’s boy (he never knew his father)

beloved and loving, but a lonely child,

timid, he walked his long dreams with a friend

who’d share his joy and pain, who’d lead, or rather

more often be led through the threatening wild

by him, the brave one, to some happy end.

Thus was the field ploughed for the seed to fall

of love, that was his life and is our theme.

It fell in his fourth year.  He could recall

all his long age the scene—clear as a dream

and, like a dream, framed in obscurity.

Out of the positive blackness of the night

under the bright lights, against gold and white,

he watched entranced the colour-sparkling sea:

the King, the Queen, the court, the foreign throng

of princes—the princesses stayed at home.

He did not miss them, heart more than content

with other forms, compulsive as a song

and as incorporeal, sharp as frost or flame:

the fairies, gathering for the grand event.

A crowned white cradlehood, and under it

a pink sleep, while the dowerers bent above.

Beauty one gave her; another kindness; and wit;

charm; and a true heart.  They did not give love.

Love would follow the others presently,

love felt for her, when the pink bud should flower

(even before).  None chose to give her power

to love.  Better, they thought, keep fancy free?

Or thought, that’s in her and need not be given?

Or did not think?  Well satisfied, the five

stand round and look down at the gifted bud.

The little boy, wrapped to a kind of heaven,

loves the whole lot.  So long as he’s alive

this vision is the image of his good.

Cold, and a kind of darkness, which did not drown

the blaze, but seemed to drain it of all power.

A stiff, a frozen silence settled down

like a sea-mist.  A minute or an hour,

a hundred years…  Time, it seemed, had stopped,

as stood against the starry donors—loss,

negation, new-moon darkness—Carabosse!

And words like cave-drips from her cold mouth dropped:

“All remembered but I?  And all so quick

to bless?  Amen!  She shall be brave and wise

and beautiful and happy, and as the bud

is dying into the flower, she shall prick

her thumb, and all these heavenly qualities

shall die into a little bead of blood.”

Silence and darkness.  Darkness, silence and cold.

Cold, silent, dark.  An endless impasse.  No

answer, no possible way out to the old

infinitely distant lost warm hum and glow.

The long-drawn moment, intolerably taut,

suddenly loosens to a blessed light:

a figure by the cradle, white by white—

one more forgotten fairy, but this one not

thereby to malice moved or bitterness.

To Carabosse all things are ground for hate,

but here we meet the other side—pity

and love:  “The spell is cast which must unbless,

but I can half uncurse it.  Needling fate

shall pierce her youth, and yet she shall not die.

“The prick shall bring not death but a long sleep.

A sleep not as you know it, from which you rouse

to your known world, but sleep so long, so deep,

almost a kind of death.  About the house

shall spread and sprawl a thorny wilderness

one hundred years—until her fated love

(if, when he come, he’s brave and true enough)

shall force a way and wake her with a kiss.

And it’s to love that, wakened so, she’ll waken:

love is the gift I brought.  I give it now,

and who can say if that’s the better gift

or the lost sleep among the bush and bracken?”

Silent the throng watched the white sisters go,

each on his silent thoughts alone, adrift.

Told and retold the story, botched, refined,

was with him all his childhood.  He never knew

a time he did not know it; and behind

those words, a wordless image, far more true,

his own white vision burned—and the dark flood

engulfed it—then the triumph of the light,

yet blackness not annulled.  Must that long night

divide the princess from her womanhood?…

The story and the vision.  Latent, though,

later to flower, the love.  Now, from that day,

nine years went on without the boy once more

seeing the girl.  Preferment’s chancy flow

at court washed the poor widow far away

to be a hunting-castle’s housekeeper.

Far among far-spread forests half-ringed by hills,

a distant, lovely, rough and empty land.

Learning from rangers, lost for lonely miles,

he knew at last the tracked woods like his hand.

Later he learned the fords of the broad flow

beneath the nearer hills.  Alone long days

walking, scrambling, he added mountain-ways

to his wood-knowledge.  The forest-plain below

stretched to the farther slopes; far beyond those

he knew the city lay, and the princess,

the fated child of many day-dreams’ yearning

whom he must somehow save.  The vision rose

blotting the world out with its otherness.

But while he dreamed senses and limbs were learning.

The other way the rare-pathed hills spread on

till nothing lay beyond them but the sky.

Half their sweep, though, was blotted out by one

which towered towards him, beckoning threateningly.

Often he wanted, once or twice essayed

its final peak; but reached his fourteenth year

before one summer’s long day saw him there.

Staring from it, not back but far ahead,

he glimpsed remote between blue-distanced downs

a faint flat blue, and knew it for the sea—

and longed to lose for once the wooded plain

and, lying hard and living hard for once,

to make his way there and for once be free…

Supper, bed, mother brought him home again.

His mother, waiting up, met him in wild—

reproach?  Not so—excitement.  Messengers

hot from the Court—the Queen and royal child

expected daily.  


Always, other years,

the King and the male court alone had come,

with princely guests, from the late autumn on

till the New Year to hunt.  Those three months gone

the castle was for nine their quiet home.

But now the Queen, it seemed, had not been well.

The doctors talked of country peace—she ought,

they said, to rest in woods and upland air,

and so…  He went to bed under a spell

and lay awake long on the dancing thought

‘The princess, my princess, is coming here.’

The fairy gifts had worked—if what they gave

in truth had made her what she was in truth.

The Queen was beautiful, the King was brave—

when they were prince and princess in their youth

she had been worthy to be won, and he

to win her; but their autumn’s spring-time daughter

was something more, and ‘what the fairies brought her’

serves at least to express her rarity.

Next morning hooves and grinding wheels awoke him.

He looked down on the yard, straight from above:

carriage-top, horse-backs, backs of stooping men—

one face: hers, lifted sleeping.  So she took him

once more a child asleep, took him in love

that would not leave him till he died, nor then.

Awake she took (all unaware) control

of her new love-kingdom, his conquered being.

Her look, her walk, her laugh, her voice, the whole

informed by her warm spirit—only seeing,

hearing, her life with others fed his joy.

But unhoped chance soon made him one with those:

the princess wished to walk the woods; they chose

to be her guide (oh, well-spent years!) the boy.

So that summer for seven enchanted weeks

they were together in the green forest.

Nettles or brambles, she plunged gaily in

but he feared Carabosse in the thorny brakes

and coaxed her to the ford; soon from the crest

gazed on his kingdom, standing by its Queen.

He loved her, yes.  What did she think of him?

What could she think, the nine-year-old princess?

The circumscription of her small world’s rim

held spreading riches: peace and happiness

and love—as love comes to a happy child:

mother and nurse and father, near and dear,

taken for granted.  Not as yet for her

painful passion obsessively distilled.

Child, happy; princess too.  The boy was only,

at first, a servant—one whose natural state

was being at her bidding.  Then at most

at moments a companion.  More?  Well, lonely

she sometimes was; hardly aware, and yet

glad in the woods to be with one friend lost.

The weather worsened and the Queen got better

or bored, and took her daughter back to town.

The boy, under the drips which did not wet her,

wandered the woods, or from the hill looked down

over dank green dissolving into grey,

dreamed of a dragon or a robber-knight

against her, of his long and terrible fight

finally won.  The monster dead, he lay

wounded to death.  His lady bent above,

the hot tears running down her face, and cried

‘My knight, my prince, my love’, and leaning kissed

his dying mouth.  He died.  Or did her love

raise him to life and set him at her side?

The story shifted like the shifting mist.

Robbers and dragons make an easy dream.

How can a hero find a way to fight

needle or thorn?  The fact would come to him

and put his painted fantasies to flight

leaving him sick, until he fled to them

again—or else took refuge in a new

and subtler one.  You’ve guessed it: cannot true

love fore-defeat the devil’s monstrous game?

Love’s grand illusion ‘Love can master Fate’.

His light should dissipate the looming dark,

while the embodiment of his jealousy,

the bright saviour whom he must love and hate,

would sail perforce upon some other mark—

her fated prince, a hundred years away.

The rains of summer’s draggled end dragged on

washing the autumn out of leaves and grass

till a hard winter clamped suddenly down

in frost and ice.  The black twigs cased in glass

rang on each other in the bitter wind.

A magic of the outer world, for him

to walk in with his world of hidden dreams—

cold, though, and hungry.  These bad seasons thinned

the woods of game.  The hunting being poor

the princes lolled about the draughty hall

shouting for more wood on the fire, for light

and food, wine and more food.  The castle store

was low, replenishment impossible.

The boy went shivering, his belt drawn tight.

The next four years lent him less time to dream

being apprenticed to a tough old man,

huntsman and wood-ranger.  Not quite the same

he found the woods of his day’s work, as when

ranged for delight alone.  Delight he could

stumble on still (as dreamer still he was)

but must do more than watch the seasons pass,

must in their passage make his own work good.

Each time its task: cutting the undergrowth,

keeping down vermin, cherishing the deer.

His dreams shrank further into fantasy.

The hind mates only with the stag.  Plain truth

placed him no better than a badger here—

rough-handed serf in perpetuity.

The seasons in the years went round by rote,

each month for work or less work docketed,

only in the King’s hunting-season not

strictly determined by the season’s need.

Then, four years after the princess’s visit

(the boy a gangling woodman of eighteen)

came news again: this Christmas-time the Queen

comes with the court, and the princess.  What is it?

Why, a great ball in celebration of

her fourteenth Christmas (she was autumn-born).

Why here?  The princess wants it so.  The boy’s

heart leapt—‘She loves…’—then dropped again: a love

for here, not him.  The hind could only scorn

the badger, yield some insolent stag her joys.

It was October.  Work was traversing

the forest, marking movements of the game,

making all ready for the King’s hunting.

He walked drowned in his dreams.  Then a red flame

smote him—light on the leaves across a clear

glade—smote him.  O beauty, delight, love, pain.

A violent longing for the hills again

hustled him to the ford—be hanged the deer!

He made the peak, and in the evening glow

gazed on the marvellous bonfire, which with her

he’d seen a green sea, which soon, bare and black,

she’d see again.  She loved this country, so

at least there was a love for them to share.

He gazed to the blue rim.  Then turned his back.

Sick with the knowledge of a hopeless dream

he looked the other way, towards the sea,

and once again a longing heaved in him

to kick over the traces and be free.

The world is round, fortunes are made, deeds done.

The youngest son sets out with empty hands,

harvests a mint of luck in distant lands,

returns…  The youngest, not the only son.

He dare not hive off on a gambler’s hope

that chance, sown on the wind, might somehow sprout

in love.  His love he dare not venture from.

Feeling his neck jerk on the tautened rope

he turned again.  Descending, to dree out

his weird at home, walked through the black night home.

Past two o’clock.  The ball went on and on.

All the princes were slow of foot and wit.

Deep in a curtained window, quite alone,

the princess drank a moment’s peace from it.

Half the courtyard was moonlit, half a pool

of night, all empty; and the opposite rooms

showed lightless windows, uninvolved as tombs.

The night, she thought, alone is beautiful.

Out of the black a figure moved, strained face

raised to the curtained room, white in the moon—

that youth she met so often in the wood

who stood aside and fixed her with his gaze

troubling her faintly…  Now, suddenly known

her guide of four years back—and understood.

‘He loves me.  That boy loves me’ and she smiled

alone between the curtain and the moon,

felt herself blush, laughed ‘Oh how nice’—half child

still, if already half woman, and soon

to leave childhood behind—if anyone

really does that; and if, for her, the doom

wished on her in the cradle’s overcome—

the threat which burdens all but her alone.

They hoped to keep her hands from thorns and pins

but dared not tell her why.  No hint of fear

clouded her rosy thought of being loved—

a new thought almost; though a smoother prince

had praised her beauty, claimed to worship her,

and made a pass; but left her little moved.

Next day she slept late, but late afternoon

dry and still drew her down a forest-track.

The trunks rose black out of the level brown;

against the blue the patterned twigs were black;

more beautiful than summer’s green tent now

this brown carpet; yet this brown carpet’s not

that summer four years gone—that’s gone to rot

in yielding featureless black mould below.

For the first time Time’s inescapable stream

sensed in that truth, her heart cried out in fear

for some firm rock, rose circling and alit

on love—not the half-child’s romantic dream:

some deep unknown knowledge of love, her rare

spirit made in the cradle one with it.

Out of her thoughts she looked into the wood,

feeling its foredoomed beauty like a pain.

And there of course against a dark trunk stood

that boy, his gaze intent on her again—

loitering, spying on her high griefs—coarse, rude—

crossly she turned her look and step aside.

But felt at once her natural kindness chide

her churlishness; and felt, too, gratitude.

This love was not that dredged from her deep dream,

but any love’s a wind-break when gales bend

the unseasoned heart.  Sidelong she saw him wait,

gaze patiently.  She frowned, but turned to him

smiling:  “You were my kind guide and my friend

a happy summer I shall not forget.”

He blushed.  The thousand things he had to say

went from his mind, water from a cracked pot.

Pitying but irked the princess turned away.

Then, blushing, stammering, he blurted out

“You looked sad as you walked.  If I could do…”

He stopped; and she flushed too, but angrily

(how dare this stuttering yokel spy on me!)

Yet she was grateful to him for that too

and something made her speak.  “Those summer leaves

are sunk to mud.  How should one not be sad

since we must all go under with the green?”

Words found him—“The leaves die but the tree lives

to leaf again.  Trees fall but not the wood.

And though the forest perish, it has been.”

“But what’s the comfort there?” she asked.  “The blight

is just that flat fact that what is must cease.”

“But no.  No.  All that once has been delight,

even if it end, still by that miracle is”—

and then he thought of a pricked finger, of

a sleep that must see him into the ground

before another woke her; and knew drowned

his brave thought in the pain of powerless love,

and was silent and sad.  The princess sighed

and a small bitter wind sighed through the wood

filling with dusk.  She shivered and turned back

home, but smiled as she turned, and said good night…

How can one love and not be understood?

He brooded long, there on the darkening track.

The court went home.  The seasons settled him

into their timeless round of beauty and chore

and the established tyranny of his dream,

more solid and more hopeless than before.

For her, that country deeply called to her.

In autumn (her own mistress, near fifteen)

she came again, to set beside the green

and bare the forest in its hour of fire.

She passed him often, sometimes paused to speak—

she liked his thinking (none of those she knew

were given to thought), but his thought acquiesced

too easily in Fate for her to take.

Her higher spirit burned rather to do

than bear—his seemed at best a second-best.

She liked his love (no word of love was said

by either) but she felt there too that he

took passively the fact of love, instead

of making it a life or breaking free.

One day she broke out—“But you should be gone

away from here, my father’s woods, your mother”

she almost said ‘and me’ but slipped another

phrase in in time “and make some life your own.”

He sighed.  Easy, he thought, for her to say.

She does not know (he thought she did not know)

the bond that holds me without hope.  To lose

my prison and my peace by going away…

Could I?…  But only said:  “How can I go?

My mother needs me here.  I cannot choose.”

They parted, not pleased with each other or

themselves.  She to her room to ply her thread

in secret—work forbidden her, not for

any good reason but because, they said,

the fingers of a princess were not meant

for needlework.  She laughed at that and, clever,

found ways to circumvent them which they never

guessed.  She was sempstress now, and competent.

She was at work on a white handkerchief—

a plain square plainly hemmed, but she would fill,

she thought, the centre with embroidery.

She’d meant it for the young wood-ranger, if…

If nothing—she would give it to him still—

how dare she lecture him so priggishly?

He gazed unseeing at a glowing tree

hating himself, his love, his hopelessness.

And suddenly that vision of the sea

and dreamed escape sprang back to him.  Still less

now than before he felt the power of

breaking away for good, but thought ‘I’ll make

the difficult traverse to that bourne and back,

bring back some token of my labour and love.’

It was her birthday soon.  The court would come.

He’d have no part in that, but fetch a gift

from the unknown coast by the unknown steep

mountains, most rarely dared by any from

the forest, fearful of the cloven and cliffed

wind-naked way.  He went peaceful to sleep.

Up early, off—a letter left to warn

his mother—hoped perhaps within a week

or two or three, at least he would return

within the month.  He asked her, too, to speak

a word for him to the head forester

(partly he hated trouble; more, he knew

she would feel better with a task to do,

a stake in the adventure as it were).

Dark through the woods, he reached the ford with dawn,

and when night came, deep in the mountains stopped,

his water-bottle filled at a cold stream,

a shot bird roasted on a stick-fire.  On

thin rough grass of a valley-alp he dropped

his weariness, and slept without a dream.

The way was harsh but he was viable.

Wind-bitter nights were much the worst of it.

Waking before dawn always, stiff with chill,

still tired, set off simply to stir some heat.

Some afternoons he slept, utterly done,

but grudged all such delays, the daylight’s waste—

not that he had a real reason for haste

but challenged himself always to press on.

This restlessness robbed him of some delight.

Issuing to sunlight from an icy stream,

a dark bush jewelled with flowers and butterflies

shook him with beauty—or the early night,

stars contouring a high black mountain’s rim.

But often mind forgot the joy of eyes.

Valley, col, valley formed his zigzag way

by star and sun bent truly to his goal,

and on the afternoon of the fifth day

he looked down a broad valley from a col

higher than any hill which lay beyond.

The peaks were breaking to the coastal plain.

That night was warmer.  He slept late, and then

half a day’s walking brought him to the sand—

soft sand which rose in a long rampart, crowned

with coarse grass—pricked him and drew blood.  He smiled

thinking of her who now was safe at home.

And then smote on his ears the full, strange sound

muted before—the breakers.  And the wild

sea stretched to the horizon.  He was come.

The even roar, compact of swish and slap

innumerably varied and repeated,

entranced his hearing, as the featureless scape—

blues and greens melting in each other, fretted

with winking, wrinkled flashes—held his gaze.

Still on the sand he sat, in the cool wind,

while time passed and the sun went low behind

levelling the light across the circled space.

Slowly darkness seeped up out of the sea

like something palpable, veiling the meeting

of sea and sky, thickening, till only foam

shone in the black; light imperceptibly

withdrawn from all, to those thin streaks retreating

and to the star-pricks of the velvet dome.

Dazzle of sun out of the sea, loud cries

of fierce white birds circling, fish-plunging, woke him.

He stretched and stripped, plunged too.  The fire-in-ice

and the harsh salt combined almost to choke him.

He struggled out.  Soon, rested, cautiously

tried his fresh-water-swimmer’s limbs again

in this new element to master.  Then

glowing picked up his bow and with sure eye

shot down a seagull for his breakfast, roasted

on old dry driftwood from the high-tide mark.

He ate, and watched the sun change on the wave,

and in a dream was home again, and boasted

to the princess bending intent to mark

the toils and triumphs of her slighted slave.

How could such little liberty send his mind

on such an insolent flight?—the parable

forgotten of the badger and the hind,

and with it the sad facts.  Perhaps we all

are schizophrenes in posse.  He for one

showed the cleft now.  


He looked along the sand

for something for his love—a love-gift and

a proof that this new world was truly won.

Northwards the dunes ran straight between the sea

and broadening plain.  To south, hill crowded hill

against the shore, and the curved surf-line closed

in cliffs and a rock-naked promontory.

That way he trudged, and suddenly—check and chill—

knew himself not alone upon this coast.

She sat where the sand ceased against the rock,

an old, bowed woman, busily engaged.

Black dress, black scarf over her bent head, black

thick gauntlets on her hands.  Most deeply aged

he could not doubt her, though he could not see

anything of her but her sombre wraps.

A knife in one hand, in the other perhaps,

he thought, a hedgehog.  Curiosity

drove him against repulsion.  At her side

a heap of the spined lumps, by it another

of rainbow-varied domes which, he saw now,

her knife had shaved.  She raised her head and eyed

him hard.  He shivered in the sun.  What other

such frozen gaze frighted him long ago?

He dropped his eyes from hers to the gloved hands

which deftly shaved and gutted the gay shell.

That tempted him.  “What are they?”  “Sea-urchins.”

“May I…?”  She laughed (gull’s cry) “To buy and sell

love-presents is unlucky” (that laugh again).

“Get one yourself”, she nodded at the sea.

He looked along the rock, and presently

glimpsed them, clumped low under the water-line.

He waded in and took one in his hand

and knifed it from the stone.  The pricks drew blood,

and this time too he thought of the princess

but in cold fear.  He sat down on the sand,

tried to clean out the shell but cracked it—would

gladly have fled, but stayed from stubbornness.

Next time with bleeding hands he harvested

nine, cleaned up three unbroken, placed them in

his pouch, turned homeward.  The hag, nothing said

worked steadily, but as he left, again

lifted her eyes on him and laughed once more.

Her laughter’s end was lost in a gull’s cry,

repeated, dropped, picked up, interminably

tormenting as he moved along the shore.

His fingers’ festering pain burned up his arm.

Almost blindly he turned towards the hills,

began the long drag.  Day and night and day

(time lost) closed in fever’s bewildering storm.

His arrows one by one lost on missed kills,

memory or instinct somehow kept his way.

Utterly weak but unfevered, aware,

he lay on the home-ridge.  The leaves were blowing

from the brown wood, but the boughs not yet bare

concealed the castle still.  To one not knowing

this might have been an uninhabited wild.

Now, down the mountain through the closing day,

stumbling, shaking, took the familiar way,

hungry for bed, home, mother, like a child.

Hungry too for the sight of the princess.

But at the ford his weakness frightened him—

all but swept off he made the bank just.  Quite

spent, he could only drag his feebleness

to a known woodman’s hut there by the stream

to beg food and a shelter for the night.

The hut was dark, and silent to his knock.

He pushed the door and struck a light.  No one.

Empty the single room.  On a rough block

were cheese and bread, a jug of water.  Down

in one corner he saw a few hides spread.

He did not wait his host—drank and fell to

on the hard victuals (they were far from new

did cross his mind) and dropped flat on the bed.

Next morning, fit and fresh, the mystery

puzzled him of the empty room, stale food

but other thoughts took over.  Combed and cleaned

he threw out two shells (broken) of the three,

wrapped up the last in red leaves from the wood

and took the track he could have followed blind.

His head was clear, his heart strangely at peace.

‘I know my way’ he thought.  ‘As it has been

all through my life, for all my life it is:

I am her servant and she is my queen.

I am to love her, serve her, all my life

in what I can.  I am her forester.’

It came unnaturally calm and clear.

‘She is my lady and a prince’s wife.’

He stumbled, looked up, did not know the place.

Turning bewildered, the old well-known road

stretched where he’d come—but turning again, grew

a monstrous hill of thorn before his face

just where a sudden thinning of the wood

should mark him near the castle.  Then he knew.

He hurled himself against the armoured mass

hardly in hope (even though unexpressed)

to break its spell-rooted defence, and pass

in, but because the blind pain in his breast

drove him into the teeth of any pain

which might distract him.  So with naked hands

he tore at the barbed tightly-woven strands

which yielded only to tear deeper.  Then,

dropped in a daze, he bled on the leaf-mould

uncaring, when his eye lit on the shell

dropped there unharmed.  Vaguely he touched it—leapt

suddenly, knowing for what she was the old

woman.  As though it bore itself the spell

he flung it from him in the thorns, and wept.

The blood clotted and the tears ceased to come,

the sun climbed and declined, but he lay on—

the princess and his mother and his home,

his occupation and his dream, all gone.

Would he, from lack of will to live, have let

death take him there under the thorns?  Who knows?

But the last word is not with Carabosse,

or in this story was not, or not yet.

Dusk was already filling up the wood

when an awareness seeped to his numbed life

of someone there.  He stared dully.  Then, late,

smarted into himself.  Before him stood

an old woman in black.  He snatched his knife

and rose at her with all his pain in hate.

And then he saw her eyes and knew his error

and dropped the knife and backed against the thorn

his heart contracting in a kind of terror

at hope out of complete despair reborn.

The image of the christening rose once more

before him in its primal clarity—

and could that last best apparition be

here but to lay some ointment to his sore?

And yet, what could she do?  By her own spell

a hundred years, a hundred years, were laid—

a hundred years to lay him in the grave

and raise a prince to rouse the bride.  The knell

‘a hundred years’ turned to a voice.  She said

“The hundred years’ sleep was not all I gave.

“My gift was love.  And where love is, I am.

You love the princess, and you think your love

is lost, but love is never lost.  I came

to tell you this.  It may seem little enough

or nothing to you now, but it’s far from

nothing, or little.  And I offer too

what may seem nothing or seem all to you

but is a hope to which you yet may come.

If you dare live on, while the princess sleeps

in timeless youth, love on through ageing time

till with your hundredth year your life is done,

you shall be born the prince for whom time keeps

the keys of this thorn fortress”—smiled at him.

His eyes closed, and he opened them alone.

‘To be her prince and have her for my bride’

his heart was flooded with unreasoning joy.

The age of time between, life and death, died

into a handsgrasp for the yearning boy.

And then a patch of doubt formed suddenly

‘How will the young price know that he is I?

Or will he know?  He will not, certainly.

My only joy to know I shall be he’—

or might be he…  The doubt spread to eclipse

the joy.  But no.  The fairy’s word was bond,

should he love out his life.  Yet what, in truth,

had she to offer?  Not these hands and lips

to take my love, but others formed beyond

the grave.  ‘A sacrifice, my love, my youth.’

Among these words the bleak fact of his loss,

dropped sharp as new, contorted him with pain,

its black authority cutting across

all argument; and slowly ebbed again.

Numb, cold and utterly worn out, he found

that he was walking back down the dark road

and could no more.  He dropped flat where he stood

and slept like death on the uneven ground.

Like death, but in the dawn touched by a dream

half apprehended as he woke.  He moved

through the mountains towards the untrammelled sea

but heard his mother calling, calling him,

and turned—with dreadful pain, for what he loved

lay on, away from her, and yet was she.

Waking, he knew the pain for what it was

and knew the supposed choice already made.

Freedom he’d half so longed for was now his

total and dead.  The world before him laid

was his and nothing.  Now he’d journey far

and make himself a life, but not a new

heart-life, since to the old he must be true.

Not courage nor the offered avatar

guided his thought to a deliberate choice

of dedication.  The offering of his life

had been made and accepted long ago.

A better might dare now go free, rejoice

in a new land in a new love, a wife

perhaps, children.  For him it was not so.

He made his way to the head forester’s house

and found it, as he guessed, empty—all gone

together to the castle?  Carabosse

had seen to that?—or else the other one?

He washed and patched and looted.  Clean and clad,

his bow restrung, his quiver once more full,

he set out through the winter-beautiful

woods for the hills.  And there we leave the lad.

Later there’s more of him that may be heard

from one who knew him in his exiled age,

but now we take a new hero—or say

him rebegotten by the fairy’s word?

A prince—the same or not?  Well, turn the page

and meet his parents on their wedding-day.


Down the white hill-road, high above the sea

the six white horses swept the golden carriage.

The young queen looked, and a curve suddenly

gave her the sea-lapped city where this marriage

should make her life.  Strange, and most beautiful,

and frightening.  Shaken by a hot tear-shower

she turned to the firm shoulder there, a tower

founded on rock above her quivering pool.

It was a love-match (though most suitable)

yet he was frightening too—yet comforting

against her wider fears.  She wept a bit,

then, feeling better, dried her eyes—as well

she did—“The Queen—Long live the King—The King

and Queen—Long live the Queen.”  So, this was it.

The horses swerved as the skilled driver swung

the heeling coach home through a needle’s eye

into the court—but was there something wrong?

A bump, a flurry, and a choked-down cry

lost in the cheers of the domestic mass

as they drew still, and out the welcomed pair

stepped in their beauty down, stepped up the stair,

the moment’s shadow vanished.  


So it was

that just at midnight, when at last the Queen

felt pain crown her initiation’s joy,

an old forester whom a wheel had crushed

died.  Eighty years, they said, and more he’d been

about the place, coming a stranger boy.

They closed his eyes.  Now the palace was hushed.

Part Two

Born in the purple?  Well, not quite imperial—

our stage is not so wide—but born a prince.

No doubt compounded of the same material

as others are, yet there’s a difference.

The forester, the poor court-lady’s son

we knew before, could not with a like eye

view a like world.  And incidentally

the prince’s child-world was a different one.

A hunting-wood his father’s kingdom held

but poor and tame our forester had found it

beside the great-treed miles of memory.

Seldom by that was the young prince enspelled—

but the white shore, the wide horizon round it:

action and dream were centred on the sea.

His nurse would carry him along the shore.

He crowed against the seagulls and the wind

or simply smiled.  “Well, you’ve been born before,

young man,” she’d say.  He crowed again and grinned.

And once when a great wind-gust caught the water

and spooned a pint of brine over his head,

his chokes and sputters ended, the nurse said,

not in the tears she looked for but in laughter.

Later, the boy walked on the sounding beach

miles, hours.  He loved to swim, and learned the tide,

coaxed from his parents early a trim boat

and an old long-shore fisherman to teach

the basic skills; those mastered, knew the pride

of deeper skill.  He almost lived afloat.

Gurgle and clop and slap and hiss, water

moving along the moving hollow shell.

Sigh or high song of wind in rigging, air

on rope and wood, in canvas, clap, rattle.

His arm along the tiller, the live thing

moving with him, extension of muscle and bone,

lightly responding to his lean, or thrown

his whole weight’s strength against the buffeting.

Half blind with blown spray, or with the white blaze

of light on water—dark cloud, sweeping showers—

or the whole ring an unflawed clarity—

he learnt the infinite variation of days,

season’s return, and in the season’s hour’s,

the same and not the same continually.

The sun struck as it lifted from the sea

flat on the climbing land, flat on the coast

the rock-piled and the sandy promontory

alike in his foreshortened vision lost.

Their sweep enclosed the harbour-city’s bay—

rock rising to a mountain, to a range,

sand stretched out from the flat green plain.  The change

in land-structure intrigued his thoughts today.

South up the coast, miles to his left, a second

and longer cape, almost sunk in the blue,

reached out from a remoter range, which curled

back to the first (this he less saw than reckoned)

bounding the plain, and the small kingdom too.

The mountains and the sea enclosed his world.

For years he’d sailed the bay and the bare reaches

clear of the heads, for sailing’s sake alone,

his mind content to mark the cliffs and beaches

scanned by the eye, the seen one with the known.

But now (he was, or would be soon, eighteen)

restlessness played on him in many shapes.

Today he eyed the coast between the capes

and felt constricted, narrowly hedged in.

West, his mother’s tramontane kingdom reached

leagues north, she told him, to the sea again

and all between huge cliffs fronted the sea.

No spot there where a small boat might be beached?

Probably not.  He looked along the plain.

South from the southern cape lay mystery.

Home, he found fuss and news, a messenger

arrived, announcing the immediate visit

of his king-uncle, with his wife and their

children.  He scowled and went to bed.  What is it

that makes an adolescent dream all day

of warm companionship, friendship and love,

but when some actual company’s offered, move

heaven and earth to keep out of its way?

The young prince liked his cousins well enough,

but never had the sea and the far shores

called him so coaxingly.  He sensed also

an unvoiced elders’ plot to pair him off

with one of the two sisters.  ‘Little bores’

he thought.  And suddenly laid plans to go.

His elder cousin was by no means plain

or stupid, and was not averse to him,

but—princesse insufficiently lointaine

she simply had no footing in his dream.

The little one perhaps was prettier,

certainly sharper, and inclined to laugh

and laugh at him—which, while of course it half

annoyed him, also made him more aware…

But they were not the point.  


Long before dawn

he’d foraged round the kitchens, wine and food

at least a week’s supply—written a note

to tell his mother he was gone, and gone.

The sky was clear, the dawn-wind light but good,

as he moved outwards in his loaded boat.

Most of the morning he stood out to sea

against the sun, but somewhere round midday

the wind shifted into the north, and he

turned the bow south.  Dim to the starboard lay

a thin blue ribbon, merging past unravelling

detail of trees and harbour, city and beach,

against the rising, broken range, through which

(he smiled) his cousins were already travelling.

Far ahead still the south cape’s silhouette,

darker and hard on the bright water, marked

the end of seen and known.  His eyelids dropping

against the glare, he drowsed, half dreaming yet

guiding the tiller—whence he had embarked

withdrawn and lost as where he would be stopping.

The wind at evening veered into the west

then died.  The starry dark was utterly still.

He dropped the sails and lashed the tiller.  Dressed

and wrapped up in a rug he slept until

the summer dawn brightening above the water

woke him—and woke, after the sun was high,

a faint sea-breeze, which shifted presently

and settled steady in the old good quarter.

He was abreast now, nearly, of the cape

and drew in closer.  Huge cliffs black and red,

footed in shifting foam, crowned with thin jade,

broke down to island-rocks.  One took the shape,

he thought, of a girl sleeping on a bed,

then changed, merged, telescoped.  The point was made.

The sky-ring sharp, unbroken, reached and reached

behind the piling rocks.  At last appeared

a great wall of south-facing cliff, which stretched

west, west to the horizon, straightly sheared

from grass to surf, golden against the noon,

lovely, inhospitable.  In the lee

he lost the breeze, and on a quiet sea

the boat drifted from the last impulse on…

So.  This way too…  Suppose the weather changes

what hope for a small boat, what hope for him,

between the wild wind and that wall of rock?…

Suppose he made the shore…  Those barren ranges

climbing from cape and cliff…  He felt the grim

threat, shivered in the sun.  So what?  Go back?

A gust bellied the sail, and then strengthened.

He moved the tiller automatically

to make the most of the recovered wind.

The boat moved rippling forward on the sea,

purposeful.  Suddenly from the cliff-face swept

a flight of white birds, wheeled over the boat

westward, ahead, bright, dwindling.  Were they not

a guide?  At least an omen.  ‘I accept.’

A day, a night—two, three days and their nights

the smooth horizon, the unbroken cliff

held him as in a dream on either side.

And every day at noon came the white flights

fanning out, wheeling west, ahead, as if

meant for him, sent for him—omen, yes, and guide.

The birds, the ruffled sea, changelessly changing,

the changing changeless cliffs, and thoughts and dreams.

More dream than thought, inconsequently ranging

from lunch to love, from the future (which seems

so full and so eternal, so unknown

behind all dreamed impossible precisions)

to the other penny-face of the same visions,



From a deep layer suddenly thrown

up, a clear image: miles of sea-washed sand,

miles, days—crossed by a river hard to cross,

and closed by cliffs.  These cliffs, this promontory.

And all along that flat edge of flat land

a young man journeying.  A sense of loss,

pain deeply felt.  And yet, this was a story.

A story.  What, whose story?  And why, how

this deep acceptance of a story’s pain?

How know the spot’s ahead there, waiting now,

where these cliffs, those cliffs, curb that sand-edged plain?

He groped.  A glimmer, sinking.  If it fails,

darkness…  But no, the light flamed up—of course,

the teller of all stories, his old nurse.

But this was different from her other tales.

Fairies and giants, kings and queens of old,

princesses in the toils of sorcerers—

put out for dragons—in some wild distress.

And always at the fatal hour, the bold

prince to confront the monsters in their lairs,

outwit the witches, win the sweet princess.

The old stories, alike but different,

told yet again and asked for yet again,

each phrase expected where it always went.

But once (he now remembered clearly) when

he asked her for a story—‘just one more’—

a look he didn’t know came in her eyes,

and then she told him, to his shocked surprise,

a story he had never heard before.

It didn’t even start with ‘Once upon

a time’ but “When my mother was a girl”—

particularity, strange and not good—

her parents lived out in the country, down

beside the river where it starts to curl

among the fields, after it leaves the wood.

“Grandfather was the old King’s forester

(your grandfather’s).  When I was very small

my mother used to carry me out there

to see them, but old granny had a fall

and died, and grandpa came to live at our

house here”—it was a long time getting started,

but the child’s straying fancy was alerted

suddenly by “a knocking at the door

one dark night late when they were going to bed.

My mother—she was your age, just about—”

(he must, he thought, then have been eight or nine)

“went and opened the door.  And there, she said,

stood a young forester.  Utterly worn out

he looked, and foreign in his strange-cut green.”

The image of the strange exhausted youth

against the dark, had somehow been conveyed

to strike the boy with a full force of truth,

through time and two discursive tongues relayed.

Much of the rest was vague.  He knew the lad

was taken as a forester, and ever

a loved friend in the household by the river

and favourite uncle to the child who had

first opened to him.  But he told them little

of who he was or where he had come from,

except that when he reached them he had crossed

the southern mountains, steep and bare, with little

water or vegetation and less game,

footsore and starving, worn out, nearly lost.

The girl grew up and married a young groom

in the King’s stables.  To their eldest daughter

the forester stood godfather.  Their home

was always his.  He played with her and taught her

and loved her as his own.  And as she grew

he talked to her, more than he ever had

even to her mother.  “There was something sad,

so sad.  Just what it was I never knew.

But he would talk about the forest-land

where he had lived—that’s why he was so good

at all that craft—there wasn’t tree or track

he didn’t love and have mapped in his mind,

pine for in what he smiled at as our ‘wood’.

And yet, I knew, he never would go back.”

And one day (they were sitting on the shore)

he told her of another beach he knew,

empty—‘Much as this must have been before

they built the city.  Far away—’ he threw

his right arm out.  That beach.  He’d been there first

crossing huge mountains, wandering and wild

‘full of hope, full of hope’ he told the child—

and found there, not the worst, but the next worst

thing in his life.  Afraid, afraid went back,

a dreadful journey, sick and almost mad,

across the dreadful mountains to his home

and found the worst.  Returned on the same track,

not hopeful or afraid or sick, but sad.

“ ‘But one day’ and he smiled ‘the prince will come.’

“I don’t know what he meant.”  He came once more

to the same beach.  Then trudged, a weary way,

the narrow ribbon of the flatland shore

stretching on endlessly.  Until one day

it curved off, merging into mud.  He found

the wide mouth of a sluggish-seeming river.

Beyond, the ribbon stretching out for ever

hardly beckoned; and he’d been nearly drowned

lately, crossing a river he knew well.

He turned along the bank, and certainly

knew this was not his way.  Turned from the plain,

plunged straight in, and the unpredictable

current caught him and forced him out to sea.

He fought it, and knew fear and hope again.

“He had to fight the fairy’s curse to win

the fairy’s promise—that was what he said.

I don’t know what he meant.”  When he won in

at last to land, he lay as good as dead

he didn’t know how long.  He sensed the air,

came to himself, and pulled himself together,

saw with surprise that it was lovely weather,

felt with surprise gladness to be still there.

He walked a little way upstream to get

his bottles full of the near-brackish marsh-

water—the mountain-water, sweet and clean,

was gone before.  “I asked him what he ate—

seagulls he shot and cooked on drift.”  The harsh-

screaming seagulls were all the life he’d seen.

So, drowsing at the tiller, the boy recalled

the nurse’s story told him long ago.

But sharper than the image of her old

face as she drew the memory up, he saw

the beach, the river, with those other eyes,

the boy’s a hundred years perhaps away

heavily travelling.  And saw one day

beyond the ribbon a faint shadow rise

which broke too the horizon of the sea

and grew at length into a cliff-faced range—

mountains!  The river-water was nearly gone

and in the mountains there would surely be

springs—and oh, mountains! what a blessed change

from the flat ribbon stretching on and on.

The nurse’s tale?  Yes, but he felt aware

of much, much more, than she could ever have said.

He almost felt he was the forester,

had lived all this inside that heart and head,

and lived (or died) too that last horrible

reach, among naked, spiny, treacherous stone,

no gull’s sad cry for company, alone.

No game, no streams, hardly a rain-puddle;

and worst a hard blank grey sky over all

(no trees to guide his forest-sense)—east, west,

north, south, all points were sullenly the same.

’The fairy’s curse’—he knew he fought a spell…

Who knew?  Who fought?  


A sudden violent blast

roused the prince brutally from his deep dream.

From the south-east the squall struck his port beam

and heeled the boat all but under a wave.

The lifted water driving over him

he fought the tiller’s will.  At last it gave

and set the righted boat running before

the wind, aslant towards the stretching cliff,

while he wrenched at the sheets, salted and stiff.

Then they gave too, the sails slumped to the floor.

Now he could keep her more into the wind

which shrieked against the straining mast and stays.

The water whitening under the black gale

was scooped up, shaken, broken, shredded, thinned

into a thousand thousand steely rays

which whipped his body with their scalding flail.

The noon was darkness, and the terrible coast

could not be seen.  Even the clap and roar

of water heaved and hurled on rock was lost

in general clamour and din.  But he was sure

though he put all his weight and strength and soul

against the tiller, he was not holding course

but sidling always closer, must perforce

drive on the rocks at last, and that be all.

The boat staggered under a gathered blow

reeling and cracking, and the tiller’s kick

hurled him aside.  He lost control.  Then he

was fighting water.  Nothing he could do

was anything.  The water sucked and struck

and hurled him down.  Life sang from a far tree.

Horrible pain, sickness and horrible pain

ground him.  He groaned, and groaning felt himself

there, somewhere, here, something at least again.

He retched, and felt the salt and bitter gulf

get him hard by the throat again.  He retched

again, and brought up more of the foul brine.

He groaned and retched and vomited again,

and knew himself alive and safely beached

out of the sea.  He heaved up on his hands,

steadied his swimming head, saw it was night,

a moon—behind, the bright sea under it,

and calm.  Miles to his left stretched the cold sands.

With painful care he worked round to his right.

The cliffs.  And under them a fire was lit.

He staggered, crawled, dragged himself to the fire.

A hunched black figure crouching in its light

lifted her head and was his nurse.  Desire

for nothing happier filled him with delight.

“Come here.  Get warm.  I’ve got all that you’ll need

if you’ve the courage for the land-journey.”

She stroked his hair, his head laid on her knee.

“The fairy’s promise is the prince’s bride.”

He fell asleep as she was speaking.  No

dreams, a deep, sweet, long slumber.  When the sun

woke him, he saw by the cold ashes spread

two water-bottles and a woodman’s bow

and full quiver.  But he was quite alone.

Then he remembered that his nurse was dead.

He picked himself up.  He was cold and stiff,

bruised, hungry—but at least could stand and move.

He took the bow.  A gull perched on the cliff.

He aimed and loosed, but the shaft passed above

and shattered on the rock.  One arrow gone.

Be careful.  He looked where the two flasks lay.

A bow, eleven arrows.  And the way

home was the grim mountains…  But the way on?

The words seemed almost spoken more than thought…

‘The prince’s bride’…  That was a fevered dream.

He looked down at the flasks, the bow, the quiver

and the cold ash.  All a dream it was not.

These and the message had been given him.

‘All right’ he thought.  ‘The next test is the river.’

That’s what he thought.  The tests came sooner, though—

came all the time, it seemed, in various ways.

He had been taught to hunt and use the bow

but never practised much, and several days

he didn’t manage to bring down a bird.

Three of his arrows landed in the sea

(though one he did get back); and presently

he took, feeling both wicked and absurd,

to stalking gulls slow-pecking on the sand,

getting quite close before he loosed the string,

the only thing that mattered—not to miss.

Hardly a sport, but he was hungry, and

hunger is answerable for anything—

at any rate (he sighed) for more than this.

And then his feet.  The forester had spent

his days trudging.  The prince grew quickly sore,

but sensibly took off his shoes and went

barefoot through the surf and along the shore.

But all this slowed him, and his flasks were dry

before he reached the river.  Feverish

with thirst and weariness, he felt the wish

to rest torture, having no wish to die.

Home howled for him behind.  But he was pressed

forward by more than the immediate dry

lust for the river.  Far beyond it lay

the fairy-promised girl.  That thought caressed

him still, even while he limped mechanically

into the night of his third waterless day.

He shuffled on under the darkening air

hardly aware that he dared not lie down,

stumbled, tumbled, and then he just lay there

as an inanimate thing lies where it’s thrown.

And images of violent vividness

drained his life to themselves: a river, wet,

shining against a forest.  Then, clearer yet,

her form, her face, the dear unknown princess.

Then darkness.  


Rest and faint warmth of the sun

revived him to his pain.  He lay awhile,

but something made him rouse.  Hardly in him

the force that made him rise and struggle on.

Then his glazed eyes (he might have gone a mile,

two, fifty yards) awoke to the wide stream.

He plunged in where the water met the sand,

dropped in the shallows—kneeling, drank and drank

(the fresh river thrusting the ebb-tide) and

crawled out again, heavy and dizzy, sank

down on the beach.  


Later, killed, cooked and ate

and slept.  He let twenty-four hours pass

before he faced the question how to cross,

regaining strength and learning how to wait.

He watched the river running furiously

outward, saw the forester’s ignorance

(inland bred), waited for the turning tide

and just at the still moment, when the sea

moved again upwards in the endless dance,

he struck out and soon reached the other side.

He had the measure of the sands by now.

His feet were sounder, and he husbanded

the life-blood water with more care.  And though

extreme exhaustion and thirst-sickness did

near-crush him when he came, south always south

watching the mountains rise, to where a valley-

stream turned the dunes, his state was radically

better than when he’d reached the river-mouth.

A new trouble: the choice of right or left,

of wrong or right.  The desert-beach was grim

but was the way, one way and no mistake.

Now, though, the gathering of the valley-cleft

mountains beleaguered him, and offered him

a dozen or a hundred paths to take.

He’d crossed the stream, he could not have said why,

to where the beach-curve ended at the steep

rock.  There dossed down, at first uneasily

but later in a long untroubled sleep.

Awaking in the morning he perceived

the difficulty was not really there.

Just what he sought he did not know, or where;

seek it he did, because he had believed

the fairy’s promise.  And if that were so

he must believe she’d make a guide for him.

He turned inland, thrusting through stiff dune-grass

which speared him till he bled.  Beyond, below

the soft sand, he rejoined the mountain-stream,

turned and began the climb towards the pass.

The mountains brought new muscles into play

with new delights.  He breathed the air’s brightness,

watched light changing on broken rock, as day

climbed and declined.  And dreamed of the princess.

Watched, heard, the water churning round a rock

or falling whitely in a widening pool

from the next cliff.  He stripped and plunged to cool

his sweating body—knew the fiery shock

of snow-water, colder than he had thought

water could be, and sweet, sweet to the taste.

He crawled out gasping, sat there in the sun

and dreamed of the princess, and watched the root

of a green tree grappling the rock.  And dressed

and clambered nimbly up the cliff and on.

High on the col, late in the afternoon,

the rocks to left and right climbed steep and bare

to peak on peak, and on the right spread on

west to a range.  His hope perhaps lay there

but not, that seemed quite clear, to be attained

by climbing now.  A steep glen at his feet

falling away, told him to follow it,

descending to climb further in the end.

An hour or so later and far below

darkness mastered him, every muscle aching,

where the cleeve widened to the junction of

two larger valleys.  Wind from distant snow

struck deeply chill, but too worn-out for waking

curled between two boulders he dreamed of love.

The sun still mountain-hidden in high day,

cramped and cold he stood looking up along

the two valleys, each climbing its own way.

One must be right, he knew, the other wrong,

but nothing told him which.  Below, close by,

the joined streams formed a rock-pool, deep and spread.

He shivered, but he stripped, plunged over head

and out, new-fired.  Then something caught his eye.

A flowered bush, studded among the flowers

with butterflies in scores, which suddenly moved,

wheeled in the air, a sun-caught cloud, and flew

together up the westering fork.  The powers

he trusted had not failed him but had proved

themselves to him, as he to them was, true.

It was that morning from that valley-head

he saw the mountain—a tall flat-topped peak

between two shadowed cliffs sunlit, which said

‘I am your way’ (if butterflies can speak,

why not mountains?).  And from that moment on

through storm and sun, ice-nights and sweating heat

of shadeless, windless noon, he followed it,

lost and recovered, up steep valleys and down,

until, five days’ hard going from the coast,

he reached it.  Just before he made the top

he turned, looked back, and glimpsed, miles to the east,

the sea.  He suddenly felt alone and lost,

homesick, afraid; but turned back, pressed on up.

And there below him lay the great forest.

Acres of leafage unbelievably stretched

almost past sight—only a faint blue rim,

another range.  Light, dark brown, reds, golds, patched

and mingled, were a revelation to him

of autumn.  But he shivered—terrible

the thought of ways crook-tunnelled all about

or no way.  For he knew beyond a doubt

that somewhere in that labyrinth lay his goal.

Not for itself the mountain had commanded

his steps, but that hence he might recognise

the field of his last fight.  But the dense floor

kept all its secrets hidden.  He descended,

foothills.  And evening suddenly showed his eyes

the river of his vision days before.

The other river, once his thirst was slaked,

he’d recognised quite different from that in

the vision—wondered if the girl were faked

too, wholly real as form and face had been.

But here, just so, the river flowed against

the dark forest.  And now he knew the love

he’d been made captive by the image of

was true, and his beyond this last defence.

Waking to water whispering by the bank,

the dark recesses of the sunstruck wood

brought his forebodings back in force.  And yet

he had so much, so very much, to thank

the fairy for, he could not think her good

would fail him—but the fairy’s curse?—Ah, that.

Off to his right the bank was flattened back,

and the far left bank too; and at that spot

there seemed a thinning in the trees.  A track?

Reached by a ford?  The ford he found, but not

the track—or if a track, so overgrown…

Still, he pushed in, and once in the deep shade

the overgrowth was thinner, and he made

progress along what now made itself known

certainly for a way.  But long neglect

had left it more a guide-line than a road.

And then, perhaps a quarter of a mile

within the wood, it forked.  He paused, but checked

his reason’s helpless wondering, and strode

down the right fork.  He felt the fairy smile.

Over the miles, under the leafy light,

at fork or cross-track he went still by whim,

rejecting reason’s query ‘Which is right?’

Till, about noon he thought, there fronted him

no choice, no way—a mountainous barrier

of thorn, lost in the woods each side.  ‘Go through’

he heard his heart.  But ‘It’s not possible to’

came reason—and this time he bowed to her.

Work along for a gap.  Left of the way

bushes and scrub were knotted to the briar.

Right was a space, where a tall pine-tree stood—

the only conifer he’d seen all day

among the beech and oak.  Its thin black spire

was sinister, and boded him no good.

He turned on to the unencumbered ground

between the thorn-wall and the pine.  But soon

a few yards in under the oaks, he found

the undergrowth master again.  The noon

was hidden.  His direction was maintained

by the thorn-bastion only, which stretched still

unbroken, unthinned, quite without change, until

he almost thought that it could have no end.

Still through the hostile growth he pressed and thrust,

clothes torn, skin bloody, but he could not stop.

He gained much ground—but was such ground a gain?

The dim light dimmed further, and soon he must,

he thought, drop on the dead-leaf silt, give up,

give in, lie down and not get up again.

No, he would not die yet.  And to turn back

was meaningless.  He must go on.  And then

he broke through bushes out on to a track…

But thorn-crossed like the last.  He looked again.

A pine…  Oh, fool—full-circle fool.  He wept,

knowing his weariness, knowing his goal

here, here, within the circle.  Oh fool, fool.

Worn out he dropped on the leaf-mould and slept.

Waking, he drank deep from his water-flask

but would not pause to hunt or cook.  Eating

could wait.  He drew his knife, and carefully

began to cut his way.  He forced the task

to be the cutting each thick stem, each string

of spear-thorns.  The vast whole he would not see.

Hour after hour, hacking and dragging clear,

breathing hard, head swimming, while sweat and blood

ran down his face, he fought a mounting fear.

He knew in this last fight against the good

fairy, the bad was rousing all her power.

His strength and purpose flowed and ebbed—now weak,

now firm again, then suddenly deadly sick.

But still he dragged and hacked, hour after hour.

Forced by exhaustion to a moment’s rest

he saw the little tunnel he had made

in the vast mass.  It was impossible.

He gave up.  


Deeper in the thorn, a nest

he thought, an odd one, hung.  His dull mind played

with its likeness to a sea-urchin shell.

Traditional ornament and lucky charm

in every house…  A sea-people…  The sea—

oh for the sea! the sea in storm and calm

raised for him in a wren’s-nest mockery.

A nest?  He peered harder.  It was a shell,

its shaven bright fragility intact.

How could it be? here?  Here it was, a fact,

a sea-gift wished him in this forest-hell.

He found himself again, with greater care,

severing tough stems and more than Gordion-tied

knots.  It was almost in his hand—a few

strands now.  He took it.  


A clotted mass fell clear,

a natural tunnel from the other side

opened to join his own, and he was through.

Beyond an empty space a castle-gate

stood open.  He went in.  No one at all.

No one.  The empty guard-room seemed to wait—

bench, table, brazier, weapons on the wall,

but no one.  He passed to the yard within,

paved, echoing, empty—on to the great hall:

tables, stools, hangings, one great chair, and all

empty.  The play seemed waiting to begin.

Through all the courtyard rooms, up the curled stair,

through bedrooms, boudoirs, everywhere he went

furnished and empty, and—the sense grew strong—

empty an age—‘When that old forester,

who died before my birth, was weeping sent

away, when he as I perhaps was young.’

That floor was empty—up the stair again,

he found himself out on the ramparts.  Down,

searched the first floor a second time in vain—

the ground-floor too, but he was still alone…

The fairy’s curse—a shocking fear possessed him

that after the hard victories of the way

he might, when all seemed won, yet lose the day,

defeated with the fairy who had blessed him.

A third time frantically round the bare

ground-floor, a third time round the upper, and

in a dark corner of a corridor

a small door somehow missed led to a stair,

low, narrow, black, and twisting to its end

his fingers groping felt another door.

He found the handle.  The small room dazzled him

with shafted sunlight falling on a bed.

She seemed to have lain down, dropped into dream,

just now.  Her face was from him, but the head

bright in the sun.  Her slight and lovely form

was all his dream.  He stood and fought his heart

within the door, and mastering it in part

moved, hesitated, afraid to break the charm.

Pausing to quell his heart again, to breathe,

trembling he stood at last by his princess,

heard in the stillness her soft breath, and took

heart, kissed through hair the brow turned off beneath.

She stirred and turned her flower-face—that face.

He kissed her on the mouth and she awoke.

“You?…” a faint trouble in a moment gone,

lost in a smile as warm as sunlight—“You.”

“Ah, you” his heart in answer glowed upon

her glowing heart, his smile on her smile—two

in one.  She raised her face to his face and

kissed his mouth.  Then “This” faltering “is yours if…”

She pressed into his hand a handkerchief.

And he, finding still in his other hand

the shell “And this is yours.”  She looked at it

wondering.  He, lifting the half-worked stuff,

ran the needle deep in his thumb, and bled,

red on the white.  And she cried out, upset,

and dropped the shell, which broke.  It was enough,

she broke into a flood of tears and fled.

He half-noticed the room was filled with light,

and hurrying down saw half-unconsciously

the castle ruined.  But she was there in sight.

He caught her by the gate-house.  “Where am I?

Who am I?”  She clung to him with this moan,

weeping and trembling.  And he held her close

and called aloud, defying Carabosse

“We are together and each other’s own.”

He heard, they heard, the wicked fairy’s laugh,

felt the good smile, began to understand

the necessary double face of fate,

the two in one, the one and other half

which made a whole.  


They kissed, and hand in hand

walked out together through the broken gate.


And how did they get home?  And were his mother

and father fond of her at once?  His cousins,

how did they and the princess like each other?…

Lived happy ever after?…  Children?…  Dozens

of questions where a story finishes

follow of course.  Mostly the answer, though,

leads to another story; but, I know,

how they got home really belongs to this.

The castle ruined, the great thorn-barrier

was breached and withered too.  The track they tried

led to the river straight.  The fairy’s rancour

was stilled for now, and in the other’s care

they walked, indeed they rode—at the bank-side

a trim boat, rigged, provisioned, lay at anchor.

They had no notion where the river ran,

but thinking of the mountains and the coast,

trusting the fairy’s truth, he led her on,

weighed anchor, set sail.  Many days are lost

through which they dreamed their way along that stream,

learning to know each other and their love.

Later, in a swift gorge, rough cliffs above,

shared toil and danger made part of their dream.

Then the hills parted, and the river came

broader and fuller out across a plain

many days more to sand-dunes and the sea.

He knew then the two rivers were the same—

the lesson of the two in one again.

So to the cliffs and round the promontory.