The Poetry Corner

The Bull

By Ralph Hodgson

See an old unhappy bull, Sick in soul and body both, Slouching in the undergrowth Of the forest beautiful, Banished from the herd he led, Bulls and cows a thousand head. Cranes and gaudy parrots go Up and down the burning sky; Tree-top cats purr drowsily In the dim-day green below; And troops of monkeys, nutting, some, All disputing, go and come; And things abominable sit Picking offal buck or swine, On the mess and over it Burnished flies and beetles shine, And spiders big as bladders lie Under hemlocks ten foot high; And a dotted serpent curled Round and round and round a tree, Yellowing its greenery, Keeps a watch on all the world, All the world and this old bull In the forest beautiful. Bravely by his fall he came: One he led, a bull of blood Newly come to lustihood, Fought and put his prince to shame, Snuffed and pawed the prostrate head Tameless even while it bled. There they left him, every one, Left him there without a lick, Left him for the birds to pick, Left him there for carrion, Vilely from their bosom cast Wisdom, worth and love at last. When the lion left his lair And roared his beauty through the hills, And the vultures pecked their quills And flew into the middle air, Then this prince no more to reign Came to life and lived again. He snuffed the herd in far retreat, He saw the blood upon the ground, And snuffed the burning airs around Still with beevish odours sweet, While the blood ran down his head And his mouth ran slaver red. Pity him, this fallen chief, All his splendour, all his strength, All his body's breadth and length Dwindled down with shame and grief, Half the bull he was before, Bones and leather, nothing more. See him standing dewlap-deep In the rushes at the lake, Surly, stupid, half asleep, Waiting for his heart to break And the birds to join the flies Feasting at his bloodshot eyes, - Standing with his head hung down In a stupor, dreaming things: Green savannas, jungles brown, Battlefields and bellowings, Bulls undone and lions dead And vultures flapping overhead. Dreaming things: of days he spent With his mother gaunt and lean In the valley warm and green, Full of baby wonderment, Blinking out of silly eyes At a hundred mysteries; Dreaming over once again How he wandered with a throng Of bulls and cows a thousand strong, Wandered on from plain to plain, Up the hill and down the dale, Always at his mother's tail; How he lagged behind the herd, Lagged and tottered, weak of limb, And she turned and ran to him Blaring at the loathly bird Stationed always in the skies, Waiting for the flesh that dies. Dreaming maybe of a day When her drained and drying paps Turned him to the sweets and saps, Richer fountains by the way, And she left the bull she bore And he looked to her no more; And his little frame grew stout, And his little legs grew strong, And the way was not so long; And his little horns came out, And he played at butting trees And boulder-stones and tortoises, Joined a game of knobby skulls With the youngsters of his year, All the other little bulls, Learning both to bruise and bear, Learning how to stand a shock Like a little bull of rock. Dreaming of a day less dim, Dreaming of a time less far, When the faint but certain star Of destiny burned clear for him, And a fierce and wild unrest Broke the quiet of his breast, And the gristles of his youth Hardened in his comely pow, And he came to fighting growth, Beat his bull and won his cow, And flew his tail and trampled off Past the tallest, vain enough, And curved about in splendour full And curved again and snuffed the airs As who should say Come out who dares! And all beheld a bull, a Bull, And knew that here was surely one That backed for no bull, fearing none. And the leader of the herd Looked and saw, and beat the ground, And shook the forest with his sound, Bellowed at the loathly bird Stationed always in the skies, Waiting for the flesh that dies. Dreaming, this old bull forlorn, Surely dreaming of the hour When he came to sultan power, And they owned him master-horn, Chiefest bull of all among Bulls and cows a thousand strong. And in all the tramping herd Not a bull that barred his way, Not a cow that said him nay, Not a bull or cow that erred In the furnace of his look Dared a second, worse rebuke; Not in all the forest wide, Jungle, thicket, pasture, fen, Not another dared him then, Dared him and again defied; Not a sovereign buck or boar Came a second time for more. Not a serpent that survived Once the terrors of his hoof Risked a second time reproof, Came a second time and lived, Not a serpent in its skin Came again for discipline; Not a leopard bright as flame, Flashing fingerhooks of steel, That a wooden tree might feel, Met his fury once and came For a second reprimand, Not a leopard in the land. Not a lion of them all, Not a lion of the hills, Hero of a thousand kills, Dared a second fight and fall, Dared that ram terrific twice, Paid a second time the price ... Pity him, this dupe of dream, Leader of the herd again Only in his daft old brain, Once again the bull supreme And bull enough to bear the part Only in his tameless heart. Pity him that he must wake; Even now the swarm of flies Blackening his bloodshot eyes Bursts and blusters round the lake, Scattered from the feast half-fed, By great shadows overhead. And the dreamer turns away From his visionary herds And his splendid yesterday, Turns to meet the loathly birds Flocking round him from the skies, Waiting for the flesh that dies.