You know what it is to be born alone, Baby tortoise! The first day to heave your feet little by little from the shell, Not yet awake, And remain lapsed on earth, Not quite alive. A tiny, fragile, half-animate bean. To open your tiny beak-mouth, that looks as if it would never open Like some iron door; To lift the upper hawk-beak from the lower base And reach your skinny neck And take your first bite at some dim bit of herbage, Alone, small insect, Tiny bright-eye, Slow one. To take your first solitary bite And move on your slow, solitary hunt. Your bright, dark little eye, Your eye of a dark disturbed night, Under its slow lid, tiny baby tortoise, So indomitable. No one ever heard you complain. You draw your head forward, slowly, from your little wimple And set forward, slow-dragging, on your four-pinned toes, Rowing slowly forward. Wither away, small bird? Rather like a baby working its limbs, Except that you make slow, ageless progress And a baby makes none. The touch of sun excites you, And the long ages, and the lingering chill Make you pause to yawn, Opening your impervious mouth, Suddenly beak-shaped, and very wide, like some suddenly gaping pincers; Soft red tongue, and hard thin gums, Then close the wedge of your little mountain front, Your face, baby tortoise. Do you wonder at the world, as slowly you turn your head in its wimple And look with laconic, black eyes? Or is sleep coming over you again, The non-life? You are so hard to wake. Are you able to wonder? Or is it just your indomitable will and pride of the first life Looking round And slowly pitching itself against the inertia Which had seemed invincible? The vast inanimate, And the fine brilliance of your so tiny eye, Challenger. Nay, tiny shell-bird. What a huge vast inanimate it is, that you must row against, What an incalculable inertia. Challenger, Little Ulysses, fore-runner, No bigger than my thumb-nail, Buon viaggio. All animate creation on your shoulder, Set forth, little Titan, under your battle-shield. The ponderous, preponderate, Inanimate universe; And you are slowly moving, pioneer, you alone. How vivid your travelling seems now, in the troubled sunshine, Stoic, Ulyssean atom; Suddenly hasty, reckless, on high toes. Voiceless little bird, Resting your head half out of your wimple In the slow dignity of your eternal pause. Alone, with no sense of being alone, And hence six times more solitary; Fulfilled of the slow passion of pitching through immemorial ages Your little round house in the midst of chaos. Over the garden earth, Small bird, Over the edge of all things. Traveller, With your tail tucked a little on one side Like a gentleman in a long-skirted coat. All life carried on your shoulder, Invincible fore-runner.
A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.
In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before me.
He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,
Someone was before me at my water-trough,
And I, like a second-comer, waiting.
He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.
The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.
And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.
But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?
Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?
Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?
Was it humility, to feel honoured?
I felt so honoured.
And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid you would kill him.
And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid,
But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth.
He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.
And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered further,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.
I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.
I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste,
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.
And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursèd human education.
And I thought of the albatross,
And I wished he would come back, my snake.
For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.
And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
And I have something to expiate: