Charmides

Contents:
Author: Oscar Wilde  | Date: 1881

I

He was a Grecian lad, who coming home

With pulpy figs and wine from Sicily

Stood at his galley’s prow, and let the foam

Blow through his crisp brown curls unconsciously,

And holding wind and wave in boy’s despite

Peered from his dripping seat across the wet and

stormy night.

Till with the dawn he saw a burnished spear

Like a thin thread of gold against the sky,

And hoisted sail, and strained the creeking gear,

And bade the pilot head her lustily

Against the nor-west gale, and all day long

Held on his way, and marked the rowers’ time with

measured song.

And when the faint Corinthian hills were red

Dropped anchor in a little sandy bay,

And with fresh boughs of olive crowned his head,

And brushed from cheek and throat the hoary spray,

And washed his limbs with oil, and from the hold

Brought out his linen tunic and his sandals

brazen-soled.

And a rich robe stained with the fishes’ juice

Which of some swarthy trader he had bought

Upon the sunny quay at Syracuse,

And was with Tyrian broideries inwrought,

And by the questioning merchants made his way

Up through the soft and silver woods, and when the

laboring day

Had spun its tangled web of crimson cloud,

Clomb the high hill, and with swift silent feet

Crept to the fane unnoticed by the crowd

Of busy priests, and from some dark retreat

Watched the young swains his frolic playmates bring

The firstling of their little flock, and the shy

shepherd fling

The crackling salt upon the flame, or hang

His studded crook against the temple wall

To Her who keeps away the ravenous fang

Of the base wolf from homestead and from stall;

And then the clear-voiced maidens ’gan to sing,

And to the altar each man brought some goodly

offering,

A beechen cup brimming with milky foam,

A fair cloth wrought with cunning imagery

Of hounds in chase, a waxen honeycomb

Dripping with oozy gold which scarce the bee

Had ceased from building, a black skin of oil

Meet for the wrestlers, a great boar the fierce

and white-tusked spoil

Stolen from Artemis that jealous maid

To please Athena, and the dappled hide

Of a tall stag who in some mountain glade

Had met the shaft; and then the herald cried,

And from the pillared precinct one by one

Went the glad Greeks well pleased that they their

simple vows had done.

And the old priest put out the waning fires

Save that one lamp whose restless ruby glowed

For ever in the cell, and the shrill lyres

Came fainter on the wind, as down the road

In joyous dance these country folk did pass,

And with stout hands the warder closed the gates

of polished brass.

Long time he lay and hardly dared to breathe,

And heard the cadenced drip of spilt-out wine,

And the rose-petals falling from the wreath

As the night breezes wandered through the shrine,

And seemed to be in some entranced swoon

Till through the open roof above the full and

brimming moon

Flooded with sheeny waves the marble floor,

When from his nook upleapt the venturous lad,

And flinging wide the cedar-carven door

Beheld an awful image saffron-clad

And armed for battle! the gaunt Griffin glared

From the huge helm, and the long lance of wreck and

ruin flared

Like a red rod of flame, stony and steeled

The Gorgon’s head its leaden eyeballs rolled,

And writhed its snaky horrors through the shield,

And gaped aghast with bloodless lips and cold

In passion impotent, while with blind gaze

The blinking owl between the feet hooted in shrill

amaze.

The lonely fisher as he trimmed his lamp

Far out at sea off Sunium, or cast

The net for tunnies, heard a brazen tramp

Of horses smite the waves, and a wild blast

Divide the folded curtains of the night,

And knelt upon the little poop, and prayed in

holy fright.

And guilty lovers in their venery

Forgat a little while their stolen sweets,

Deeming they heard dread Dian’s bitter cry;

And the grim watchmen on their lofty seats

Ran to their shields in haste precipitate,

Or strained black-bearded throats across the

dusky parapet.

For round the temple rolled the clang of arms,

And the twelve Gods leapt up in marble fear,

And the air quaked with dissonant alarums

Till huge Poseidon shook his mighty spear,

And on the frieze the prancing horses neighed,

And the low tread of hurrying feet rang from the

cavalcade.

Ready for death with parted lips he stood,

And well content at such a price to see

That calm wide brow, that terrible maidenhood.

The marvel of that pitiless chastity,

Ah! well content indeed, for never wight

Since Troy’s young shepherd prince had seen so

wonderful a sight.

Ready for death he stood, but lo! the air

Grew silent, and the horses ceased to neigh,

And off his brow he tossed the clustering hair,

And from his limbs he threw the cloak away,

For whom would not such love make desperate,

And nigher came, and touched her throat, and with

hands violate

Undid the cuirass, and the crocus gown,

And bared the breasts of polished ivory,

Till from the waist the peplos falling down

Left visible the secret mystery

Which no lover will Athena show,

The grand cool flanks, the crescent thighs, the

bossy hills of snow.

Those who have never known a lover’s sin

Let them not read my ditty, it will be

To their dull ears so musicless and thin

That they will have no joy of it, but ye

To whose wan cheeks now creeps the lingering smile,

Ye who have learned who Eros is,- O listen yet a-while.

A little space he let his greedy eyes

Rest on the burnished image, till mere sight

Half swooned for surfeit of such luxuries,

And then his lips in hungering delight

Fed on her lips, and round the towered neck

He flung his arms, nor cared at all his passion’s

will to check.

Never I ween did lover hold such tryst,

For all night long he murmured honeyed word,

And saw her sweet unravished limbs, and kissed

Her pale and argent body undisturbed,

And paddled with the polished throat, and pressed

His hot and beating heart upon her chill and icy breast.

It was as if Numidian javelins

Pierced through and through his wild and whirling brain,

And his nerves thrilled like throbbing violins

In exquisite pulsation, and the pain

Was such sweet anguish that he never drew

His lips from hers till overhead the lark of warning flew.

They who have never seen the daylight peer

Into a darkened room, and drawn the curtain,

And with dull eyes and wearied from some dear

And worshipped body risen, they for certain

Will never know of what I try to sing,

How long the last kiss was, how fond and late his

lingering.

The moon was girdled with a crystal rim,

The sign which shipmen say is ominous

Of wrath in heaven, the wan stars were dim

And the low lightening cast was tremulous

With the faint fluttering wings of flying dawn,

Ere from the silent sombre shrine this lover had

withdrawn.

Down the steep rock with hurried feet and fast

Clomb the brave lad, and reached the cave of Pan,

And heard the goat-foot snoring as he passed,

And leapt upon a grassy knoll and ran

Like a young fawn unto an olive wood

Which in a shady valley by the well-built city stood.

And sought a little stream, which well he knew,

For oftentimes with boyish careless shout

The green and crested grebe he would pursue,

Or snare in woven net the silver trout,

And down amid the startled reeds he lay

Panting in breathless sweet affright, and waited

for the day.

On the green bank he lay, and let one hand

Dip in the cool dark eddies listlessly,

And soon the breath of morning came and fanned

His hot flushed cheeks, or lifted wantonly

The tangled curls from off his forehead, while

He on the running water gazed with strange and

secret smile.

And soon the shepherd in rough woollen cloak

With his long crook undid the wattled cotes,

And from the stack a thin blue wreath of smoke

Curled through the air across the ripening oats,

And on the hill the yellow house-dog bayed

As through the crisp and rustling fern the heavy

cattle strayed.

And when the light-foot mower went a-field

Across the meadows laced with threaded dew,

And the sheep bleated on the misty weald,

And from its nest the wakening corn-crake flew,

Some woodmen saw him lying by the stream

And marvelled much that any lad so beautiful could seem,

Nor deemed him born of mortals, and one said,

"It is young Hylas, that false runaway

Who with a Naiad now would make his bed

Forgetting Herakles," but others, "Nay,

It is Narcissus, his own paramour,

Those are the fond and crimson lips no woman

can allure."

And when they nearer cane a third one cried,

"It is young Dionysos who has hid

His spear and fawnskin by the river side

Weary of hunting with the Bassarid,

And wise indeed were we away to fly,

They live not long who on the gods immortal

come to spy."

So turned they back, and feared to look behind,

And told the timid swain how they had seen

Amid the reeds some woodland God reclined,

And no man dared to cross the open green,

And on that day no olive-tree was slain,

Nor rushes cut, but all deserted was the fair domain.

Save when the neat-herd’s lad, his empty pail

Well slung upon his back, with leap and bound

Raced on the other side, and stopped to hail

Hoping that he some comrade new had found,

And gat no answer, and then half afraid

Passed on his simple way, or down the still and

silent glade.

A little girl ran laughing from the farm

Not thinking of love’s secret mysteries,

And when she saw the white and gleaming arm

And all his manlihood, with longing eyes

Whose passion mocked her sweet virginity

Watched him a-while, and then stole back sadly

and wearily.

Far off he heard the city’s hum and noise,

And now and then the shriller laughter where

The passionate purity of brown-limbed boys

Wrestled or raced in the clear healthful air,

And now and then a little tinkling bell

As the shorn wether led the sheep down to the

mossy well.

Through the gray willows danced the fretful gnat,

The grasshopper chirped idly from the tree,

In sleek and oily coat the water-rat

Breasting the little ripples manfully

Made for the wild-duck’s nest, from bough to bough

Hopped the shy finch, and the huge tortoise crept

across the slough.

On the faint wind floated the silky seeds,

As the bright scythe swept through the waving grass,

The ousel-cock splashed circles in the reeds

And flecked with silver whorls the forest’s glass,

Which scarce had caught again its imagery

Ere from its bed the dusky tench leapt at the dragon-fly.

But little care had he for anything

Though up and down the beech the squirrel played,

And from the copse the linnet ’gan to sing

To her brown mate her sweetest serenade,

Ah! little care indeed, for he had seen

The breasts of Pallas and the naked wonder of the Queen.

But when the herdsman called his straggling goats

With whistling pipe across the rocky road,

And the shard-beetle with its trumpet-notes

Boomed through the darkening woods, and seemed to bode

Of coming storm, and the belated crane

Passed homeward like a shadow, and the dull big drops of

rain

Fell on the pattering fig-leaves, up he rose,

And from the gloomy forest went his way

Past sombre homestead and wet orchard-close,

And came at last unto a little quay,

And called his mates a-board, and took his seat

On the high poop, and pushed from land, and loosed

the dripping sheet,

And steered across the bay, and when nine suns

Passed down the long and laddered way of gold,

And nine pale moons had breathed their orisons

To the chaste stars their confessors, or told

Their dearest secret to the downy moth

That will not fly at noonday, through the foam and

surging froth

Came a great owl with yellow sulphurous eyes

And lit upon the ship, whose timbers creaked

As though the lading of three argosies

Were in the hold, and flopped its wings, and shrieked,

And darkness straightway stole across the deep,

Sheathed was Orion’s sword, dread Mars himself fled down

the steep,

And the moon hid behind a tawny mask

Of drifting cloud, and from the ocean’s marge

Rose the red plume, the huge and horned casque,

The seven cubit spear, the brazen targe!

And clad in bright and burnished panoply

Athena strode across the stretch of sick and

shivering sea!

To the dull sailors’ sight her loosened locks

Seemed like the jagged storm-rack, and her feet

Only the spume that floats on hidden rocks,

And marking how the rising waters beat

Against the rolling ship, the pilot cried

To the young helmsman at the stern to luff to

windward side.

But he, the over-bold adulterer,

A dear profaner of great mysteries,

An ardent amorous idolater,

When he beheld those grand relentless eyes

Laughed loud for joy, and crying out "I come"

Leapt from the lofty poop into the chill and

churning foam.

Then fell from the high heaven one bright star,

One dancer left the circling galaxy,

And back to Athens on her clattering car

In all the pride of venged divinity

Pale Pallas swept with shrill and steely clank,

And a few gurgling bubbles rose where her boy lover sank.

And the mast shuddered as the gaunt owl flew,

With mocking hoots after the wrathful Queen,

And the old pilot bade the trembling crew

Hoist the big sail, and told how he had seen

Close to the stern a dim and giant form,

And like a dripping swallow the stout ship dashed

through the storm.

And no man dared to speak of Charmides

Deeming that he some evil thing had wrought,

And when they reached the strait Symplegades

They beached their galley on the shore, and sought

The toll-gate of the city hastily,

And in the market showed their brown and pictured pottery.

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Chicago: Oscar Wilde, "I," Charmides Original Sources, accessed December 9, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PZWEWTZS1Y2LA4H.

MLA: Wilde, Oscar. "I." Charmides, Original Sources. 9 Dec. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PZWEWTZS1Y2LA4H.

Harvard: Wilde, O, 'I' in Charmides. Original Sources, retrieved 9 December 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PZWEWTZS1Y2LA4H.