The Countess of Pembroke’s Dream


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She was a great lady and wiser than men knew.
Aubrey gossiped about her: gossip which may be true.
They say she fostered poets, but she was a poet too:
“Courtly Love and Sonnets,” she said, “they will not do.

“All this sighing and serving; ten years to harvest a kiss;
These Astrophels and their Stellas, by Charity and St. Gis,
What has become of the Prick and Balls? Marry, and what is this?
Are you men or green-sick maidens that squat on your hams to piss?”

She was a great woman; she knew what women know
Who test the lore they learn above by all they feel below
And laugh and do as they please then, saying: “It may be so,
But I have a voice here tells me a better way to go.”

She was a brave young beauty, born to flourish and please;
She had been bred at Penshurst in all its grace and ease,
Reared with the country children, sharing their bread and cheese,
Ripening like the myrobalans upon their Spanish trees.

She had known games and gallants, so other tongues report,
When as a girl in London she graced the great queen’s court,
Slept with the maids of honour and studied at their sport,
Romping with crook-back Cecil; or so John Aubrey thought.

She who was fire and poetry, learning’s margery pearl,
Fierce and fresh in the lists of love, they married her off to a churl,
Married her fifteen summers to Pembroke’s wilted earl.
What were his forty winters fit for this matchless girl?

Aubrey has told us about her: the peep-hole on the stairs
Where she sat to watch the stallions put to the Wilton mares;
The great, wild battering stallions, she watched their brave affairs:
“Shall I not take my pleasure as the beasts of the field have theirs?”

Off with her gown at a venture, a dazzle of haunch and thigh;
Down on her hands and knees then, to her minion standing by:
“Leap me like the stallions, drive it hard and high;
Butt, butt into the buttocks and scream like a horse as you ‘die’.

“I am all yours, my darling, do with me what you can;
Batter me, master me, crush me as it becomes a man;
Work like the rutting stallions, great hooves stamping the tan;
He who would pleasure a woman must end as he began.”

Aubrey has had his gossip, but what he has not said
Is that the lovers who mounted her on all fours or in bed,
Although she praised their prowess (and left them all for dead)
When she thought of the rearing stallions, she laughed and shook her head.

“Were there a man in England could match that fury and force,
To master and to manage me, and could he stay the course,
I should be his for ever, for better or for worse.
Yet why in her sleep does a woman dream, not of a man but a horse?

“The dreams of these love-sick poets they prate about as well.
But the things a woman dreams of, she guards and does not tell.
Were there a lover in England could bear away the bell,
Stella should write the sonnets, and not to Astrophel.”

There was a night at Wilton, she lay beside her lord;
It seemed the room was drifting; the bed, it seemed unmoored;
The great four-masted Tudor bed moved of its own accord
Softly over the sleeping waves and only she abroad.

Sleep lay heavy upon her, she followed the dolphin dance
But where they led she could not tell, till one of them by chance
Cried in her darling brother’s voice, late come out of France:
“Les centaures, les centaures, ils ont deux fois la chance!”

They came to a land of mountains, ranges wild and high
Thunder-blue in the gorges, snow-caps white in the sky;
“It is my land, I know it, the land of Thessaly;
The ancient land of the centaurs, and of their race am I.”

Forest rose on forest, up from the land-locked bay.
Cataracts leapt from ledge to ledge and dimmed them with their spray;
And there in a windless meadow, a-dancing of the hay,
She found the noble centaurs and joined them at their play.


Where are you, Light? Where, where
Those words remembered from the ivied cave?
Here sheltering from the heat and glare,
Glitter of noon from rock and leaf and wave
Among these last trees crowding to the shore,
Vast Pelion behind
And the blue Pagasaean bay before,
While heads of thunder brooding, blind,
Loom up over the shoulder of the peak,
Still, still I hear him speak
The sage’s prayer:
“Where are you Light and where
The lightning of the mind?”


The hand against the hoof;
The spirit’s struggle against the fathering bone;
Better or worse?
And she who haunts the woods, aloof,
Alone, Hylonome …
My mind is dark, for she
Withholds her light from me.
From darkness into darkness I am led.

Cheiron, my master; master of beasts and men,
Teach me those words again:
What was it that he said,
His wise voice echoing in the roomy cave?
“The creature with two natures and two hearts
Cannot know either, save
In the dark mirror of another’s eyes;
For there the mystery lies,
The secret concord of the warring parts.”

But this is all I know.
My double nature pulls me to and fro;
Sometimes to leap the mares
When, in superb rout flying with flying manes,
They pour from the hill pastures to the plains;
Sometimes a force restrains
My animal, as the slow
Procession of maidens from the sacred wood
Comes singing a paean of the god
Who stands
Denying the hooves, blessing the shaping hands,
From which all human arts arise.
I see their quiet eyes
And the fruition of human mysteries,
Their maiden grace, their maiden cheeks aglow;
And this is all I know

Where are your eyes to teach my eyes to see?
Treading some forest track, she walks alone
And, through the leaves, the sun
Dapples and glosses the rippling chestnut skin.
Her fetlocks fine and thin,
The play of hoof and knee make her advance
A proud and delicate dance;
And from her head the sweep of chestnut hair
Dances along her bare
Fine flanks and leaves the high breasts proud and free.

I search the woods; I scan
Green alps, high pastures crowned with oak and pine;
I see the bay beneath me crawl and shine;
Two natures, horse and man
Thrill to those thunderheads that rise
Fusing the blue and lightning of her eyes.
All green, all blue around me lies
My world, all blue, all green;
But from the brake before me, scarcely seen,
There nods one scarlet bud …

Why should it flash and tremble in this wood
So calm,
So still before the storm?

The rose she gave me late at Ivy Church …

What am I saying? I scan the leaves, I search …

“He sees me; yes, he sees, but does not know
My presence in the thicket; he does not see
My chestnut and my snow;
He marks the rose between my breasts, not me,
My coral buds above, the coralline cleft below,
My body all entire
Burning with double fire
For him, for him alone.
But he shall know before this hour is done,
Fulfil his whole desire;
First coupling breast to breast as humans pair;
Then leap me as the stallion leaps the mare,
For so the centaurs sire
Their young, and breed and bear.
Put off that moment yet
A moment longer; let
My eyes enjoy him, hold him in my gaze:
As great a happiness
To watch the being we love, as to possess.

“He moves a step, and stays
Glancing from side to side,
Alert with grace and nerved with pride.
On chin and cheek the young beard crisps with gold
And the thick curls that tangle to the wide
Bronze of his shoulders frame and mould
Deep chest and muscled back.
All that is man is gold and ivory;
All that is horse a glistening black
Save the great plume of white
Cascading from his crupper to the ground
As from the cliffs of Pelion in the night
The silver cataracts tremble and rebound.

“I can no more hold back from his delight.

Lover of horses, Philip!”

“It is she,
Divine Hylonome!
And yet that name: Is not mine Cyllaros?”

“Yes, Philip, it will be and was,
For here we are and are not what we seem.
You are not Cyllaros nor I divine
For this is all my dream.

At Ivy Church we saw it shine and gleam
Far off, beyond our reach;
But here in Thessaly, in this dream of mine
I come to offer you my bread and wine.
Come, Philip, learn and teach!”

“My only love, my sister, friend,
Think that all dreams, even this, must have an end.
Out of the world, too soon we must return,
And the world meets us then to break and rend.”

“No, take me in your arms and teach and learn,
For here unresting Time, which daunts and wins,
Stands poised: the tide is at its turn
And at that pause we step into our free
The World begins to burn;
And here the dream within the dream begins.”


Above the woods, fronting a little plain,
Hung like a green cloud, gapes the Centaur’s cave,
A mouth drawn back on unendurable pain,
The school of heroes once, the living grave
Of wisdom now, who from the hero’s bow
Received the wound reserved for those that know.

An aged centaur, fixed as a grey stone,
Old Cheiron with his sad, wise, brutal face,
Sits playing on a double flute alone,
His bald head nodding to the notes he plays,
And sees the lightning strike and strike again
High up beyond the haunts of beasts and men.

He plays the lives and fates of man and beast,
Then, each in turn, the deathless gods above,
He plays the double flute, itself the best
Of instruments to figure mortal love;
And like a horse lays back his pointed ears,
But like a man’s his grey eyes fill with tears.

Tears for his own youth and, for long ago,
The wild rape at the Lapith marriage feast,
When Cyllaros, by a nameless shaft brought low,
Fell with its blade protruding through his breast
And young Hylonome, his centaur bride,
Fell on his breast and clasped her love and died.

And from these names, inspired beyond his craft,
The flute itself, as though it played alone,
Tells on; the voice of love from either shaft
Dividing now, and now in unison,
Makes music of these rough Thessalian groves,
The meeting of those centaurs and their loves.

It sings of those young centaurs as they met
In their wild beauty, matched in strength and grace,
Their timid fingers fearing touch, and yet
Their tapping hooves advance an even pace;
The lips trembling to smile, their eyes alight
And their tails arching with assured delight.

Not of their outward shapes and acts it sings
As sculpture shows them, mime or words or dance,
But those unguessed similitudes of things
Which are the heart’s response to circumstance;
Those hidden correspondences among
Which music moves, and is their only tongue.

It sings that breathless, breathing first embrace
When the arms draw the breast against the breasts;
Each in the other’s shoulder hides a face
Which was their go-between till now; each rests
Still at the centre of their world at last,
Longed for so long, imagined and forecast;

And which their bodies now, with wonder, know
So unimaginable in the event:
The flood of grace, the grave, spontaneous flow,
The movement of desire into consent;
The wise hands roving, questing on the skin
Wake the fierce messengers of grace within;

Their mouths join and the hardening nipples kiss;
The bellies melt and feel their pleasures fuse;
Two tongues, darting like snakes, entwine and hiss;
The loins exchange evangels of good news;
Each offers, is and clasps its horn of plenty
And murmurs in its joy: festina lente!

Now touch and pressure for a time become
The whole of being, the speech of mind and heart,
The organ of awareness and the sum
By which each body learns its counterpart;
And for a while wrapt in its peace, each stands
Submissive to the ecstasy of hands.

Then, with a sigh, they raise their heads and each
Searches the dark well of the other’s eyes;
Hands upon shoulders, arms at their full stretch,
And from the ground their slender forelegs rise
And rear and traverse and embrace behind
Just where horse nature joins with human kind.

And as they rise together, they interlock
Their human sexes and begin the dance;
The first, deep, inenarrable, physical shock
Of penetration holds them in its trance;
And then they smile and smiling start the play
And to and fro and up and down they sway,

Each in the other searching for response,
Each in the other’s joy finding its clue,
Each in its rising ecstasy at once
Finding the answer of what next to do.
And each in love and gratitude conspires
To mount the other’s ladder of desires.

All questions there are answered without speech;
New questions smile, assured of their reply,
As pace for pace they move, and mount, and reach
The pause, the threshold of the ecstasy.
But there each finds himself, herself, alone,
A silent moment on the silent throne.

And each perceives the last, the bare surprise:
A human mask, a face not seen before;
A stranger’s blank stare from a stranger’s eyes,
The impersonal, timeless creature at the core
Of every nature, a secret spirit within
Looks out as the great throbbing waves begin.

Then the vast flood of being wells and breaks
Through with a tide that sweeps all things away;
In the great deep their demogorgon wakes
Blindly their bodies lock and rear and sway;
And, as the great wave ebbs, they pant and then
Regain each other’s eyes and smile again.

They loosen their embrace and fall apart,
Their delicate forelegs sever, slide to ground;
A moment in the fullness of the heart
They press together and kiss—but then rebound
Searching each other’s features, in surprise
At first, and then dismay, and then surmise.

For what they thought the ultimate, gives place
To what, beyond the human, neither knew:
The horse, the horse within them, the brute race
Mounts its brute fury and demands its due;
Ears laid back in wild summons, teeth laid bare,
The stallion shrills his challenge to the mare.

She backs, she wheels, and thunders from the grove,
And he pursuing thunders and gives chase;
Out from the shadowing woods to the bare cove
Where the hot noonday burns on back and face
And crystal buskins, flashed from hoof and knee,
Sprout as they meet the blue and burning sea.

And there he catches her and mounts behind,
His hard hooves lashing on her tender flanks;
In, In! His great rod drives into the blind
Mouth of the future. Both in turn give thanks
Praying, to feel the furious seed break loose,
The prayer from Nature and the prayer to Zeus,

Father of gods and men whose presence blends
All natures, god with man and man with beast;
Zeus who himself into a beast descends
That the divine in turn may be released
And in the beast visits a virgin womb
From whence the world-renewing heroes come.

Old Cheiron lays the double flute aside;
He sees the sacred mountain reared above;
He feels the vast pain, roaring like a tide,
Fill him with agony akin to love;
And the just gods at last regard his cries
As, freed from immortality, he dies.

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