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    Wilfrid Wilson Gibson

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    The Gorse

      In dream, again within the clean, cold hell
      Of glazed and aching silence he was trapped;
      And, closing in, the blank walls of his cell
      Crushed stifling on him . . . when the bracken snapped,
      Caught in his clutching fingers; and he lay
      Awake upon his back among the fern,
      With free eyes travelling the wide blue day,
      Unhindered, unremembering; while a burn
      Tinkled and gurgled somewhere out of sight,
      Unheard of him; till suddenly aware
      Of its cold music, shivering in the light,
      He raised himself, and with far-ranging stare
      Looked all about him: and with dazed eyes wide
      Saw, still as in a numb, unreal dream,
      Black figures scouring a far hill-side,
      With now and then a sunlit rifle's gleam;
      And knew the hunt was hot upon his track:
      Yet hardly seemed to mind, somehow, just then . . .
      But kept on wondering why they looked so black
      On that hot hillside, all those little men
      Who scurried round like beetles -- twelve, all told . . .
      He counted them twice over; and began
      A third tiem reckoning them, but could not hold
      His starved wits to the business, while they ran
      So brokenly, and always stuck at 'five' . . .
      And 'One, two, three, four, five,' a dozen times
      He muttered. . . . 'Can you catch a fish alive?'
      Sang mocking echoes of old nursery rhymes
      Through the strained, tingling hollow of his head.
      And now, almost remembering, he was stirred
      To pity them; and wondered if they'd fed
      Since he had, or if, ever since they'd heard
      Two nights ago the sudden signal-gun
      That raised alarm of his escape, they too
      Had fasted in the wilderness, and run
      With nothing but the thirsty wind to chew,
      And nothing in their bellies but a fill
      Of cold peat-water, till their heads were light. . . .

      The crackling of a rifle on the hill
      Rang in his ears: and stung to headlong flight,
      He started to his feet; and through the brake
      He plunged in panic, heedless of the sun
      That burned his cropped head to a red-hot ache
      Still racked with crackling echoes of the gun.

      Then suddenly the sun-enkindled fire
      Of gorse upon the moor-top caught his eye:
      And that gold glow held all his heart's desire,
      As, like a witless, flame-bewildered fly,
      He blundered towards the league-wide yellow blaze,
      And tumbled headlong on the spikes of bloom;
      And rising, bruised and bleeding and adaze,
      Struggled through clutching spines; the dense, sweet fume
      Of nutty, acrid scent like poison stealing
      Through his hot blood; the bristling yellow glare
      Spiking his eyes with fire, till he went reeling,
      Stifled and blinded, on -- and did not care
      Though he were taken -- wandering round and round,
      'Jersalem the Golden' quavering shrill,
      Changing his tune to 'Tommy Tiddler's Ground':
      Till, just a lost child on that dazzling hill,
      Bewildered in a glittering golden maze
      Of stinging scented fire, he dropped, quite done,
      A shrivelling wisp within a world ablaze
      Beneath a blinding sky, one blaze of sun.


    Scene: The big tent-stable of a travelling circus. On the
    ground near the entrance GENTLEMAN JOHN,
    stableman and general odd-job man, lies smoking beside
    MERRY ANDREW, the clown. GENTLEMAN JOHN is a little
    hunched man with a sensitive face and dreamy eyes. MERRY ANDREW,
    who is resting between the afternoon and evening performances,
    with his clown's hat lying beside him, wears a crimson wig, and a
    baggy suit of orange-coloured cotton, patterned with purple cats.
    His face is chalked dead-white, and painted with a set grin, so
    that it is impossible to see what manner of man he is. In the
    background are camels and elephants feeding, dimly visible in the
    steamy dusk of the tent.

    Gentleman John
    And then consider camels: only think
    Of camels long enough, and you'ld go mad --
    With all their humps and lumps; their knobbly knees,
    Splay feet, and straddle legs; their sagging necks,
    Flat flanks, and scraggy tails, and monstrous teeth.
    I've not forgotten the first fiend I met:
    'Twas in a lane in Smyrna, just a ditch
    Between the shuttered houses, and so narrow
    The brute's bulk blocked the road; the huge green stack
    Of dewy fodder that it slouched beneath
    Brushing the yellow walls on either hand,
    And shutting out the strip of burning blue:
    And I'd to face that vicious bobbing head
    With evil eyes, slack lips, and nightmare teeth,
    And duck beneath the snaky, squirming neck,
    Pranked with its silly string of bright blue beads,
    That seemed to wriggle every way at once,
    As though it were a hydra. Allah's beard!
    But I was scared, and nearly turned and ran:
    I felt that muzzle take me by the scruff,
    And heard those murerous teeth crunching my spine,
    Before I stopped -- though I dodged safely under.
    I've always been afraid of ugliness.
    I'm such a toad myself, I hate all toads;
    And the camel is the ugliest toad of all,
    To my mind; and it's just my devil's luck
    I've come to this -- to be a camel's lackey,
    To fetch and carry for original sin,
    For sure enough, the camel's old evil incarnate.
    Blue beads and amulets to ward off evil!
    No eye's more evil than a camel's eye.
    The elephant is quite a comely brute,
    Compared with Satan camel, -- trunk and all,
    His floppy ears, and his inconsequent tail.
    He's stolid, but at least a gentleman.
    It doesn't hurt my pride to valet him,
    And bring his shaving-water. He's a lord.
    Only the bluest blood that has come down
    Through generations from the mastodon
    Could carry off that tail with dignity,
    That tail and trunk. He cannot look absurd,
    For all the monkey tricks you put him through,
    Your paper hoops and popguns. He just makes
    His masters look ridiculous, when his pomp's
    Buthcherd to make a bumpkin's holiday.
    He's dignity itself, and proper pride,
    That stands serenely in a circus-world
    Of montebanks and monkeys. He has weight
    Behind him: aeons of primieval power
    Have shaped that pillared bulk; and he stands sure,
    Solid, substantial on the world's foundations.
    And he has form, form that's too big a thing
    To be called beauty. Once, long since, I thought
    To be a poet, and shape words, and mould
    A poem like an elephant, huge, sublime,
    To front oblivion; and because I failed,
    And all my rhymes were gawky, shambling camels,
    Or else obscene, blue-buttocked apes, I'm doomed
    To lackey it for things such as I've made,
    Till one of them crunched my backbone with his teeth,
    Or knocks my wind out with a forthright kick
    Clean in the midriff, crumpling up in death
    The hunched and stunted body that was me --
    John, the apostle of the Perfect Form!
    Jersalem! I'm talking like a book --
    As you would say: and a bad book at that,
    A maundering, kiss-mammy book -- The Hunchback's End
    Or The Camel-Keeper's Reward -- would be its title.
    I froth and bubble like a new-broached cask.
    No wonder you look glum, for all your grin.
    What makes you mope? You've naught to growse about.
    You've got no hump. Your body's brave and straight --
    So shapely even that you can afford
    To trick it in fantastic shapelessness,
    Knowing that there's a clean-limbed man beneath
    Proposterous pantaloons and purple cats.
    I would have been a poet, if I could:
    But better than shaping poems 'twould have been
    To have had a comely body and clean limbs
    Obedient to my bidding.

    Merry Andrew                      I missed a hoop
    This afternoon.

    Gentleman John    You missed a hoop? You mean . . .

    Merry Andrew
    That I'm done, used up, scrapped, on the shelf,
    Out of the running -- only that, no more.

    Gentleman John
    Well, I've been missing hoops my whole life long;
    Though, when I come to think of it, perhaps
    There's little cosolation to be chewed
    From crumbs which I can offer.

    Merry Andrew                            I've not missed
    A hoop since I was six. I'm forty-two.
    This is the first time that my body's failed me:
    But 'twill not be the last. And . . .

    Gentleman John                            Such is life!
    You're going to say. You see I've got it pat,
    Your jaded wheeze. Lord, what a wit I'ld make
    If I'd a set grin painted on my face.
    And such is life, I'ld say a hundred times,
    And each time set the world aroar afresh
    At my original humour. Missed a hoop!
    Why, man alive, you've naught to grumble at.
    I've boggled every hoop wince I was six.
    I'm fifty-five; and I've run round a ring
    Would make this potty circus seem a pinhole.
    I wasn't born to sawdust. I'd the world
    For circus . . .

    Merry Andrew  It's no time for crowing now.
    I know a gentleman, and take on trust
    The silver spoon and all. My teetch were cut
    Upon a horseshoe: and I wasn't born
    To purple and fine linen -- but to sawdust,
    To sawdust, as you say -- brought up on sawdust.
    I've had to make my daily bread of sawdust:
    Ay, and my children's, -- children's, that's the rub,
    As Shakespeare says . . .

    Gentleman John                    Ah, there you go again!
    What a rare wit to set the ring aroar --
    As Shakespeare says! Crowing! A gentleman?
    Man, didn't you say you'd never missed a hoop?
    It's only gentlemen who miss no hoops,
    Clean livers, easy lords of life who take
    Each obstacle at a leap, who never fail.
    You are the gentleman.

    Merry Andrew                    Now don't you try
    Being funny at my expense; or you'll soon find
    I'm not quite done for yet -- not quite snuffed out.
    There's still a spark of life. You may have words:
    But I've a fist will be a match for them.
    Words slaver feebly from a broken jaw.
    I've always lived straight, as a man must do
    In my profession, if he'ld keep in fettle:
    But I'm no gentleman, for I fail to see
    There's any sport in baiting a poor man
    Because he's losing grip at forty-two,
    And sees his livelihood slipping from his grasp --
    Ay, and his children's bread.

    Gentleman John                          Why, man alive,
    Who's baiting you? This winded, broken cur,
    That limps through life, to bait a bull like you!
    You don't want pity, man! The beaten bull,
    Even when the dogs are tearing at his gullet,
    Turns no eye up for pity. I myself,
    Crippled and hunched and twisted as I am,
    Would make a brave fend to stand up to you
    Until you swallowed your words, if you should slobber
    Your pity over me. A bull! Nay, man,
    You're nothing but a bear with a sore head.
    A bee has stung you -- you who've lived on honey.
    Sawdust, forsooth! You've had the sweet of life:
    You've munched the honeycomb till . . .

    Merry Andrew                          Ay! talk's cheap.
    But you've no children. You don't understand.

    Gentleman John
    I have no children: I don't understand!

    Merry Andrew
    It's children make the difference.

    Gentleman John                          Man alive --
    Alive and kicking, though you're shamming dead --
    You've hit the truth at last. It's that, just that,
    Makes all the difference. If you hadn't children,
    I'ld find it in my heart to pity you,
    Granted you'ld let me. I don't understand!
    I've seen you stripped. I've seen your children stripped.
    You've never seen me naked; but you can guess
    The misstiched, gnarled, and crooked thing I am.
    Now, do you understand? I may have words,
    But you, man, do you never burn with pride
    That you've begotten those six limber bodies,
    Firm flesh, and supple sinew, and lithe limb --
    Six nimble lads, each like young Absalom,
    With red blood running lively in his veins,
    Bone of your bone, your very flesh and blood?
    It's you don't understand. God, what I'ld give
    This moment to be you, just as you are,
    Preposterous pantaloons, and purple cats,
    And painted leer, and crimson curls, and all --
    To be you now, with only one missed hoop,
    If I'd six clean-limbed children of my loins,
    Born of the ecstasy of life within me,
    To keep it quick and valiant in the ring
    When I . .. but I . . . Man, man, you've missed a hoop;
    But they'll take every hoop like blooded colts:
    ANd 'twill be you in them that leaps through life,
    And in their children, and their children's children.
    God! doesn't it make you hold your breath to think
    There'll always be an Andrew in the ring,
    The very spit and image of you striped,
    While life's old circus lasts? And I . . . at least
    There is no twisted thing of my begetting
    To keep my shame alive: and that's the most
    That I've to pride myself upon. But, God,
    I'm proud, ay, proud as Lucifer, of that.
    Think what it means, with all the urge and sting,
    When such a lust of life runs in the veins.
    You, with your six sons, and your one missed hoop,
    Put that thought in your pipe and smoke it. Well,
    And how d'you like the flavour? Something bitter?
    And burns the tongue a trifle? That's the brand
    That I must smoke while I've the breath to puff.
    I've always worshipped the body, all my life --
    The body, quick with the perfect health which is beauty,
    Lively, lissom, alert, and taking its way
    Through the world with the easy gait of the early gods.
    The only moments I've lived my life to the full
    And that live again in remembrance unfaded are those
    When I've seen life compact in some perfect body,
    The living God made manifest in man:
    A diver in the Mediterranean, resting,
    With sleeked black hair, and glistening salt-tanned skin,
    Gripping the quivering gunwale with tense hands,
    His torso lifted out of the peacock sea,
    Like Neptune, carved in amber, come to life:
    A stark Egyptian on the Nile's edge poised
    Like a bronze Osiris against the lush, rank green:
    A fisherman dancing reels, on New Year's Eve,
    In a hall of shadowy rafters and flickering lights,
    At St Abbs on the Berwickshire coast, to the skirl of the pipes,
    The lift of the wave in his heels, the sea in his veins:
    A Cherokee Indian, as though he were one with his horse,
    His coppery shoulders agleam, his feathers aflame
    With the last of the sun, descending a gulch in Alaska;
    A brawny Cleveland puddler, stripped to the loins,
    On the cauldron's brink, stirring the molton iron
    In the white-hot glow, a man of white-hot metal:
    A Cornish ploughboy driving an easy share
    Through the grey, light soil of a headland, against a sea
    Of sapphire, gay in his new white corduroys,
    Blue-eyes, dark-haired, and whistling a careless tune:
    Jack Johnson, stripped for the ring, in his swarthy pride
    Of sleek and rippling muscle . . .

    Merry Andrew                     Jack's the boy!
    Ay, he's the proper figure of a man.
    But he'll grow fat and flabby and scant of breath.
    He'll miss his hoop some day.

    Gentleman John                 But what are words
    To shape the joy of form? The Greeks did best
    To cut in marble or to cast in bronze
    Their ecstasy of living. I remember
    A marvellous Hermes that I saw in Athens,
    Fished from the very bottom of the deep
    Where he had lain two thousand years or more,
    Wrecked with a galleyful of Roman pirates,
    Among the white bones of his pluderers
    Whose flesh had fed the fishes as they sank --
    Serene in cold, imperishable beauty,
    Biding his time, till he should rise again,
    Exultant from the wave, for all men's worship,
    The morning-spring of life, the youth of the world,
    Shaped in sea-coloured bronze for everlasting.
    Ay, the Greeks knew: but men have forgotten now.
    Not easily do we meet beauty walking
    The world to-day in all the body's pride.
    That's why I'm here -- a stable-boy to camels --
    For in the circus-ring there's more delight
    Of seemly bodies, goodly in sheer health,
    Bodies trained and tuned to the perfect pitch,
    Eager, blithe, debonair, from head to heel
    Aglow and alive in every pulse, than elsewhere
    In this machine-ridden land of grimy, glum
    Round-shouldered, coughing mechanics. Once I lived
    In London, in a slum called Paradise,
    Sickened to see the greasy pavements crawling
    With puny flabby babies, thick as maggots.
    Poor brats! I'ld soon go mad if I'd to live
    In London with its stunted men and women
    But little better to look on than myself.

    Yet, there's an island where the men keep fit --
    St. Kilda's, a stark fastness of high crag:
    They must keep fit or famish: their main food
    The Solan goose: and it's a chancy job
    To swing down a sheer face of slippery granite
    And drop a noose over the sentinel bird
    Ere he can squawk to rouse the sleeping flock.
    They must keep fit -- their bodies taut and trim --
    To have the nerve: and they're like tempered steel,
    Suppled and fined. But even they've grown slacker
    Through traffic with the mainland, in these days.
    A hundred years ago, the custom held
    That none should take a wife till he had stood,
    His left heel on the dizziest point of a crag,
    His right leg and both arms stretched in mid air,
    Above the sea: three hundred feet to drop
    To death, if he should fail -- a Spartan test.
    But any man who could have failed, would scarce
    Have earned his livelihood or his children's bread
    On that bleak rock.

    Merry Andrew (drowsily)
                      Ay, children -- that's it, children!

    Gentleman John
    St Kilda's children had a chance, at least,
    With none begotten idly of weakling fathers.
    A Spartan test for fatherhood! Should they miss
    Their hoop. 'twas death, and childless. You have still
    Six lives to take unending hoops for you,
    And you yourself are not done yet. . . .

    Merry Andrew (more drowsily)                           Not yet.

    And there's much comfort in the thought of children.
    They're bonnie boys enough; and should do well,
    If I can but keep going a little while,
    A little longer till . . .

    Gentleman John                   Six strapping sons!
    And I have naught but camels.
                                       Yet, I've seen
    A vision in this stable that puts to shame
    Each ecstasy of mortal flesh and blood
    That's been my eyes' delight. I never breathed
    A word of it to man or woman yet:
    I couldn't whisper it now to you, if you looked
    Like any human thing this side of death.
    'Twas on the night I stumbled on the circus.
    I'd wandered all day, lost among the fells,
    Over snow-smothered hills, through blinding blizzard,
    Whipped by a wind that seemed to strip and skin me,
    Till I was one numb ache of sodden ice.
    Quite done, and drunk with cold, I'ld soon have dropped
    Dead in a ditch; when suddenly a lantern
    Dazzled my eyes. I smelt a queer warm smell;
    And felt a hot puff in my face; and blundered
    Out of the flurry of snow and raking wind
    Dizzily into the flowing Arabian night
    Of elephants and camels having supper.
    I thought that I'd gone made, stark, staring mad;
    But I was much too sleepy to mind just then --
    Dropped dead asleep upon a truss of hay;
    And lay, a log, till -- well, I cannot tell
    How long I lay unconscious. I but know
    I slept, and wakened, and that 'twas no dream.
    I heard a rustle in the hay beside me,
    And opening sleepy eyes, scarce marvelling,
    I saw her, standing naked in the lamplight,
    Beneath the huge tent's cavernous canopy,
    Against the throng of elephants and camels
    That champed unwondering in the golden dusk,
    Moon-white Diana, mettled Artemis --
    Her body, quick and tense as her own bowsring,
    Her spirit, an arrow barbed and strung for flight --
    White snowflakes melting in her night-black hair,
    And on her glistening breasts and supple thighs:
    Her red lips parted, her keen eyes alive
    With fierce, far-ranging hungers of the chase
    Over the hills of morn . . . The lantern guttered
    And I was left alone in the outer darkness
    Among the champing elephants and camels.
    And I'll be a camel-keeper to the end:
    Though never gain my eyes . . .
                                       So you can sleep,
    You Merry Andrew, for all you missed your hoop.
    It's just as well, perhaps. Now I can hold
    My secret to the end. Ah, here they come!

    (Six lads, between the ages of three and twelve, clad in pink tights and covered with silver spangles, tumble into the tent.)

    The Eldest Boy
    Daddy, the bell's rung, and . . .

    Gentleman John          He's snoozing sound.
                 (to the youngest boy)
    You just creep quietly, and take tight hold
    Of the crimson curls, and tug, and you will hear
    The purple pussies all caterwaul at once.

The Going


    He's gone.
    I do not understand.
    I only know
    That as he turned to go
    And waved his hand,
    In his young eyes a sudden glory shone,
    And I was dazzled with a sunset glow,
    And he was gone.

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