The Sailing of Hell Race

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The Sailing of Hell Race
written by John Masefield
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WHEN Arthur came from warring, having won
A name in Britain and a peace secure,
He felt the red horizon cast her lure
To set him hunting of the setting sun,
To take a ship and sail
West, through the grassless pastures of the whale,
West, to the wilderness of nothing sure
But tests for manhood in the deeds undone.

So, in his ship, the Britain, with her crew,
He sailed at all adventure for the west:
The Severn glittered at the Britain's breast
As first her set sail wrinkled and then drew;
She dropped down with the tide,
Then, ere the changing, leaned upon her side
And smote the spindrift from the billow-crest
And strode from raddled waters into blue.

Westward she sailed, beyond familiar seas,
Beyond the landmarks and the ships of home,
To seas where never ship had broken foam,
Past all encounter with man's argosies.
The skies shone blue; the sun
Burned hotter at each marking of the run;
Out of the sea the summer islands clomb;
For many happy days they passt by these.

And there, between the surf-break and the snow
Bright on the pinnacles of crags, the land
Grew fruits of blessing ready to man's hand,
In deathless green an ever-golden glow:
And brown-skinned Indians came
Bringing them wreaths of flowers red as flame,
And plaques of gold-leaf beaten from the sand,
And begged them stay and wept to see them go.

But on they stood, until the sea-most peak
Was sunken as Polaris; till the day
No longer burned with summer but was grey
With iron snow-clouds over waters bleak.
A granite coast appeared,
Beaten by breakers; thither Arthur steered
Into the desolation of a bay
Where the scared seahawks made the echoes shriek.

All still it was, save for the seabird's cry
And for the thunder when the glacier broke
Her seaward iceberg in a spray like smoke.
All iron-grey the land was, like the sky;
But on the beach were heapt
The harvest wreckage which the sea had reapt,
Mastings of pine, fir plankings, ribs of oak;
The bones of ships, suckt bloodless, flung up dry.

There lay the helm, the yard, the figurehead;
Nay, even a ship that had been painted green;
Nay, all the wreckings that had ever been
Seemed to have stored that dockyard of the dead.
And there a cairn of stones
Rose as a tomb above the broken bones,
And on the cairn a wooden box was seen
Which held a script in heart's blood. Thus it read:

"Beyond this harbour are the granite rocks
Which are the gates of Hell, where courage dies.
Brother, I call upon you to be wise;
Return, before the Key turns in the locks.
Return, and do not dare
Death beyond death, the cities of despair.
Return, to where the lark sings in the skies
And on the Down the shepherd keeps his flocks."

Then Arthur said: "We have adventured far,
And tread upon the bones of what has failed;
The door of hell is dark until assailed,
But every night of blackness hides a star.
Come: even if we end,
Courage will bring immortals to befriend,
By whom the precipices shall be scaled
And bolted doors forever flung ajar."

Then: "On," they cried, "good captain, let us go."
Onward they sailed, till sunset, when they neared
Two forms (or were they goddesses?) upreared
On crags with wrack above and foam below,
And from their granite lips
A laughter cackled like the death of ships.
Into the race between them Arthur steered,
Dreading lest they should murder him. But no . . .

Under those awful fizures and between
He passed into a race of toppling seas
That broke and back-lasht at the granite knees
And scurft with salt the figures of each queen.
Those Furies' shadows fell
Dark on that channel of the way to hell;
But Arthur's ship was built of sacred trees,
She stood, although the billows swept her clean.

On, through the turmoil of Hell Race, she swept;
The darkness, with her rooky wings of fear,
Covered the starless sunset's crimson smear;
Into the midnight of the sky there crept
Ahead, a glare, as though
The world were all afire smouldering slow.
Black towers on the glaring stood up sheer,
Lit windows in them sleepless vigil kept.

"Friends," Arthur cried, "we have adventured well:
Ahead is all the glittering and pride
Of power of the devils satisfied,
The triple city where destructions dwell.
We will adventure on
And face their death together." Then anon
Furling their sail, they made the Britain glide
Safe to a pier below the citadel.

Hell Race, the channel of the ocean, thrust
Tongue-like throughout the city: her two banks
Glittered and glowed with lamplight, ranks on ranks,
Higher than March's madness flings the dust;
Within some topmost towers
Flames out of cressets tosst like scarlet flowers
'Where some exultant devil uttered thanks
For will indulged in executed lust.

Where Arthur lay, the city's dreadful joy
Came to him from the streets, for devils dirled
Pan upon iron pan, for glee; or hurled
Crockery crash, to shatter and destroy;
With shrieking horns they sped;
Explosions burst; the fire rusht up red;
Devils of discord, dancing, shriekt and skirled,
Beating at doors their brothers to annoy.

The naked women devils lured their prey
To dens or corners where, alert, in wait,
Murder stood tiptoe by the side of Hate;
Vice stole in flusht, and, glutted, slunk out grey.
And all life went at speed,
Each for himself and let the other heed.
Life was a fury roaring like a spate,
To fall, and to keep falling, or to slay.

And, drunk with vanity, their poets barkt
The glory of great Hell, the joy, the pride,
Of being devil-born in Hell to bide,
As devil-spawn by other devils sharkt.
The shrieks of women sped:
"Bring us your brother's blood if you would wed;
Blood, that our day-old mantles may be dyed,
That Mammon may be snared and we be markt."

Within his vast and dirty temple sat
Mammon, the god and monarch of that hell,
With sharp suspicion blinking through his fell,
Toad-throated, hooft, yet pinioned like a bat.
Athwart the temple's span,
Across the walls, a fire writing ran,
Blazing the prices of the souls to sell
For all to read, the devils yelled thereat.

Multitudes trampled in the temple nave,
Fighting like wolves in quarrel for a bone;
The brazen forehead with the heart of stone,
Rat with hyena, murderer with knave;
Then from a gallery's height
The tiger devils cast into the fight
Spirits of men like dirty papers blown
That raved in dropping down as madmen rave.

And at the dropping down, the mob beneath
Leapt, like starved dogs at feeding time, to snatch
Each one a dropping from the tempter's catch;
With filthy claws they clutcht, or filthy teeth;
They tattered into rags
Those faded floatings that had once been flags;
Roaring they fought for them with kick and scratch:
They trod the quivering anguish underneath.

Yet more than Mammon, Lady Self was lord
Within that city of the lust for gold,
The jewelled thing, bespiced, bepainted, cold,
Whom Mammon purchased for his bed and board.
A varnisht shell was she,
Exquisite emptiness of vanity,
Unbodied and unminded and unsouled,
The mirror Self, whom all who saw adored.

She, and her mighty husband, and the game,
The roar, the glitter, and the zest of sin,
The prices offered by the Mammon Kin,
The gold all chinking when the moment came,
All these temptations drew
Some of the seamen of King Arthur's crew;
They stole ashore to Mammon, there to win
The worm's eternity in lasting flame.

So ere they all should leave him, and because
The Mammon people, hating foreign breeds,
Denounced him as perverter of their creeds,
One fit for burning by their holy laws,
King Arthur cut his ropes
And thrust to seaward, leaving to their hopes
His nine deserters, there to reap their seeds.
He sailed, with bubbling water at his hawse.

Soon in Hell Race a city loomed ahead,
Unlit, unlovely, under a dark star,
Girded by forts, each scaled with many a scar,
And topped by cloud where fire glittered red.
A roaring filled the air
With thunder and destruction and despair,
As engines flung the fireballs afar
And fireballs Hell's dissolution shed.

And here the Searcher-Devils, grim with steel,
Boarded them out at sea and led them in
Within defences jaw-tootht like a gin
That kept without the port the foeman's keel.
"We are at war," they said,
"The justest war that devils ever made,
Waged as a vengeance on our neighbours' sin,
To blast them into carrion till they kneel.

'Why are we fighting? That's forgotten now;
No matter why; we are, let that suffice . . .
Yes, and those cannibals shall pay the price
Before we end, nor shall we scruple how.
And you . . . remember here . . .
We end all question-askers with the spear.
Wisdom is treason not committed twice;
We make it Death with branding on the brow."

Then did those devils prison ship and crew
Under grim guard, where, natheless, they could tell
The progress of that war of nether hell:
No peace nor any joy that city knew.
The trumpet called the hours,
Trampling of troops had trodden out the flowers,
The trees were rampikes blasted by the shell;
Babes starved and women maddened, and men slew.

Bright-eyed with sharp starvation and with hate,
Twitching their bitter mouths from nerves gone mad,
With homes long since destroyed, in rags half clad,
(No craft save war being practist in the state)
They lusted, like the stoat,
To meet their teeth within a foeman's throat,
Or, like the wolf, to see the corpses shrad
With even thirsty Earth blood-satiate.

All day, all night, the shrieking and the crash
Of battle shook the town, as hate grew worse.
The elements were peopled with the fierce;
Insanity was captain of the rash.
Then cries arose: "Kill, kill! . . .
Those foreigners are workers of our ill,
Spies to a man and bringers of the curse;
Brothers, come slay and burn them to an ash."

Then some of Arthur's crew were killed; and all
Would have been killed, had not the stunt and wizen
Starved doers of the slaughtering arisen
Against their Emperor and General,
And forkt to hideous ends
Those profiters by battle and their friends.
They hurried Arthur and his crew from prison,
Then made their town a pyre of funeral.

As Arthur sailed, he saw a lightning run
Along that city's ramparts with the thirst
Of fire licking up those bricks accurst;
Then thunder blasted from it and did stun;
Then its immense strength shot
Skywards in sooty fire withering hot,
Where trembling planks and figures were immerst
In glare that slowly darkened into dun.

Then as that fiery cloud came scattering down,
Blackness oppresst that city from the sight;
The foeman's fireballs came flaming bright
Into the crater that had been a town;
The devils' laughter cackled,
As fever laughs, like fetters being shackled.
King Arthur's ship drove on into the night;
A darkness toppt the battle like a crown.

Throughout the night they sailed, till morning showed
Mudbanks and salted marshes with sparse hair
Or stubble-stalks, of herbage blasted bare.
Then, the wind failing, up the creek they rowed:
Grey wisps of vapour curled
Above that marish of the underworld;
A droning and a whining filled the air
As though small devils in the mist abode.

Then, as the sullen sun rose, they beheld
Smoke rising up from pyres of the dead;
A granite statue sat there without head;
Beyond, arose a city grey with eld,
Nay, green with dropping mould;
That which had ruined her had made her old;
Cricketless were her ovens without bread;
A wind-stirred jangle from her ruins knelled.

There the pale fevers issued from the fen
To yellow human cheeks and cloud the mind;
There tetters dwelt, that writhel skin to rind,
Or rash the forehead with a savage pen;
Palsies, that twitch the lips
Or hamstring men with anguish in the hips;
These, too, were there, and sloughings that make blind,
And all the madnesses that unmake men.

They forct those Britons to that city's queen,
A winged and browless fierceness on the throne,
Vert-adamantine in her hail of bone,
Fang'd, sting'd and mail'd in metal gleaming green:
No thought was in her eyes;
In where her victims' blood ran she was wise;
Her death-horns filled the palace with their drone,
Her dart of death out-quivered and was keen.

"Arthur," she said, "you stand in Nether Hell
Upon the sediments of greed and pride,
The rotted dust of nations that have died,
Amidst the foulness where destructions dwell.
Here the strong hand grows faint;
Here poison saps the manhood of the saint;
Here beauty sickens, joy goes hollow-eyed;
What else of glory is, my minions quell.

I slay the nations, one by one, that stood
Fierce-eyed in rapine and the fire of sacks,
Bright-eyed in ringing breaches in attacks,
Glad-eyed in glory from the beauty good.
I am the final Death,
Unseen and unsuspected as the breath,
Yet fatal as the crashing of the axe.
I am the ender of all hardihood.

You, too, with your adventurers, are sealed
As mine already: see, your cheeks are pale,
Your scarlet currents in their courses fail;
However lusty, they will swiftly yield,
And you will dwindle down
To beg among the ruins of the town."
Then Arthur felt a weariness assail,
Nor could he struggle, nor oppose a shield.

And there with yellowing skins his seamen drooped,
Their arms too sick to pull upon the oar,
Forgetting how the sail rose to the roar
Of singing, as the gleaming dipper swooped.
"We've done enough," they cried,
"Leave us alone." There seven of them died:
Their burials were the vulture and the boar,
Whose scavengings the shallow graveyards scooped.

There Arthur saw the chickweed green the deck,
The halliard rot, the anchor-cable rust;
Gone was all order, gone were hope and lust,
The sick mind stared contented with the wreck.
Then in a midnight drear,
As Arthur tossed, a brightness hurried near,
A sudden glory on his senses thrust,
A terror prickt the hair upon his neck.

There, in her blue robe, the immortal queen
His Helper, stood, the cairn one, the benign,
Crowned with forget-me-not and columbine,
And speedwells blue and never-withering green;
No darkness nor disgrace
Could bide the beauty of that steadfast face.
"Arthur," she said, "from birth devoted mine,
Now flung as straw for devils' hands to glean,

Take power from my touch; arise, arise,
Cast loose these prison-tacklings and begone
Forth from these dens where sunlight never shone,
Nor flower throve, nor spirit saw the skies.
My power gives you strength."
Then spirit kindled Arthur, and at length
It stirred his seamen from the malison
Of that third monarchy of the unwise.

So, with that Helper at the helm, they stood
Clear from that city's mudbanks, and away,
To seas where flying fishes skimmed the spray
And every blowing air gave hardihood.
Homeward the Britain deft,
Of all her company but seven left.
Soon the blue water dimmed into the grey
And bright Polaris rose as they pursued.

Till, as they sailed, they saw the seaweed float
And felt a changing tide. 'When darkness came
They watched for sight of land or beacon-flame,
Or any friendly sail or fisher's boat.
The steering lantern purred;
Then through the haze before the dawn they heard
Triumphantly a red cock call his dame,
Making a stallion challenge with full throat.

Then as the haze blew seaward, they beheld
The hills of home, the country green with corn,
Blossom upon the blackness of the thorn,
The hedgerows with the pretty primrose stelled;
They heard the blackbird sing,
They heard the chiff-chaff and the birds of spring,
The early cuckoo wandering forlorn
In woods whose millioned green was still unshelled.

Till noon they coasted, reach by lovely reach,
Beyond King Dyved's, past King Ryence' lands,
Past mountains casting shadows on the sands
And river water shining over beach.
Then lo, a brazen-poled
Bright chariot driving, all aflame with gold,
A chariot driven by princesses' hands:--
A princess drove to welcome them with speech.

Two stallions dragged that chariot like a spate,
White stallions lovely as the leaping pard,
Pickt stallions of King Ocvran's bodyguard,
Urged by a green-clad woman, who, elate,
With streaming red-gold hair
And eyes like stars illumined and aware,
Croucht watchful, to the grippt reins straining hard,
As one who lifts a winner up the Straight.

There did the giant Ocvran leave the car
And welcome Arthur to the shining shore;
There Arthur furled the sail and tosst the oar
And dragged the ship where billows could not mar.~
The red-gold lady dear
Was Ocvran's daughter, princess Gwenivere,
Whom Arthur worshippt then and evermore,
As in the night the traveller the star.

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