The Wild Bees


Potnia, thesmophore, chrysanion.…

Mistress of bees, guardian of rites and forms,
On a high bank by the prophetic stream
Which runs past Thespiai down from Helikon,
A lad from Dog’s Head, sleeping in the sun,
First saw her picking flowers in his dream
While the wild bees behind her wheeled in swarms.

A tall girl, tossing back her corn-gold hair,
She strode towards him through the grass knee-deep;
A meadow of Sicily, and reed-fringed pond
With a steep palisade of woods beyond,
Burned, glittered and wavered round him in his sleep.
She stood and held him with her violet stare

And said: “Why do you lie there, graceless boy?
Get up and worship me: I am a god.”
But Pindar laughed and, rising on one knee,
Wound strong arms round her virgin thighs: “To me
You are just a girl, well-met beside the road;
To worship your body shall be my act of joy.”

She smiled and said: “For a still beardless youth
You indeed show mettle; but you come too late
For love; and though henceforward you are mine,
We must meet in another place. The Nine
Have marked your manhood for a different fate.”
She bent and kissed him lightly on the mouth,

Crying: “Golden reins! Remember what I say!”
Darkness. A roar. The earth shook. He awoke
To find his lips sealed with the waxen cells
Which wild bees swarming in the asphodels
Had moulded while he slept; and when he broke
That seal, he sang, and singing, went his way.

That was the first of all his songs. He went
Towards Hippocrene and did not look behind
Nor saw, seated among the ancient trees,
A black-veiled form, her hands upon her knees,
Who, standing, seemed taller than womenkind,
Nor earth absorb her, as her element.

Boys forget dreams, and Pindar, it is said,
Forgot Persephone. But he became
The glory of Greece; cities and men and gods
He made immortal in still living odes.
Yet, when he was old and full of years and fame,
She came one night and stood beside his bed.

She stood unveiled in her full majesty:
“I made you a poet, Pindar,” she began,
“All other gods you honour, but me you wrong;
You have never written me a single song
—A graceless boy and an ungrateful man—
Yet you shall make one when you come to me.”

She vanished and, if Pausanias’ tale is true,
The tenth day afterwards the poet died.
An aged kinswoman of his, whose art
Had been to learn all Pindar’s songs by heart,
Woke in the night to find him at her side,
Saying: “Learn this paean which I shall sing to you!”

Then the dead man opened his mouth and sang
The chariot of Dis, the golden reins,
The virgin goddess ravished underground
And her divinity with amaranth crowned.
The door-frames rattled at the dreadful strains
And the whole house with triumph and terror rang.

He sang that Delphic priestess called the Bee
Who had made him partner in Apollo’s share;
He sang dead heroes in their beehive tombs;
He sang the tasting of the honeycombs
Which the wild bees in their dark caves prepare,
The food of those the Muses hold in fee,

And the old woman sang it back again
To bare walls, for the poet’s shade had fled;
And next she rose and wrote it word for word.
This was the very paean Pausanias heard
In Thebes, with Pindar then six centuries dead;
And even today three words of it remain.

Goddess of the wild bees, renewer of rites,
I have this curious story much in mind.
I too am old, I too have practised verse
The ancient superstitions I rehearse
Stir intuitions, though of another kind,
Such as I feel when visiting those sites.

Do other beings inhabit our biosphere
Whose life is one and whole? I cannot tell.
I only know at moments everywhere
I sense their presences in earth and air,
Mountain and cave, river and sacred well.
Pausanias has been dead this many a year;

I too must die—nor would I be reborn,
But offer my death to quicken other lives,
Trusting, if in my turn I bring my song,
Deep underground my shade may taste that strong,
Black honey from which alone our art revives,
And share its resurrection with the corn.

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