The Poetry Corner

A Strange City

By William Henry Davies

A wondrous city, that had temples there More rich than that one built by David's son, Which called forth Ophir's gold, when Israel Made Lebanon half naked for her sake. I saw white towers where so-called traitors died, True men whose tongues were bells to honest hearts, And rang out boldly in false monarch's ears. Saw old black gateways, on whose arches crouched Stone lions with their bodies gnawed by age. I looked with awe on iron gates that could Tell bloody stones if they had our tongues. I saw tall mounted spires shine in the sun, That stood amidst their army of low streets. I saw in buildings pictures, statues rare, Made in those days when Rome was young, and new In marble quarried from Carrara's hills; Statues by sculptors that could almost make Fine cobwebs out of stone, so light they worked. Pictures that breathe in us a living soul, Such as we seldom feel come from that life The artist copies. Many a lovely sight, Such as the half sunk barge with bales of hay, Or sparkling coals, employed my wondering eyes. I saw old Thames, whose ripples swarmed with stars Bred by the sun on that fine summer's day; I saw in fancy fowl and green banks there, And Liza's barge rowed past a thousand swans. I walked in parks and heard sweet music cry In solemn courtyards, midst the men-at-arms; Which suddenly would leap those stony walls And spring up with loud laughter into trees. I walked in busy streets where music oft Went on the march with men; and ofttimes heard The organ in cathedral, when the boys Like nightingales sang in that thunderstorm; The organ, with its rich and solemn tones, As near a God's voice as a man conceives; Nor ever dreamt the silent misery That solemn organ brought to homeless men. I heard the drums and soft brass instruments, Led by the silver cornets clear and high, Whose sounds turned playing children into stones. I saw at night the City's lights shine bright, A greater milky way; how in its spell It fascinated with ten thousand eyes; Like those sweet wiles of an enchantress who Would still detain her knight gone cold in love; It was an iceberg with long arms unseen, That felt the deep for vessels far away. All things seemed strange, I stared like any child That pores on some old face and sees a world Which its familiar granddad and his dame Hid with their love and laughter until then. My feet had not yet felt the cruel rocks Beneath the pleasant moss I seemed to tread. But soon my ears grew weary of that din, My eyes grew tired of all that flesh and stone; And, as a snail that crawls on a smooth stalk, Will reach the end and find a sharpened thorn, So did I reach the cruel end at last. I saw the starving mother and her child, Who feared that Death would surely end its sleep, And cursed the wolf of Hunger with her moans. And yet, methought, when first I entered there, Into that city with my wondering mind, How marvellous its many sights and sounds; The traffic with its sound of heavy seas That have and would again unseat the rocks. How common then seemed Nature's hills and fields Compared with these high domes and even streets, And churches with white towers and bodies black. The traffic's sound was music to my ears; A sound of where the white waves, hour by hour, Attack a reef of coral rising yet; Or where a mighty warship in a fog, Steams into a large fleet of little boats. Aye, and that fog was strange and wonderful, That made men blind and grope their way at noon. I saw that City with fierce human surge, With millions of dark waves that still spread out To swallow more of their green boundaries. Then came a day that noise so stirred my soul, I called them hellish sounds, and thought red war Was better far than peace in such a town. To hear that din all day, sometimes my mind Went crazed, and it seemed strange, as I were lost In some vast forest full of chattering apes. How sick I grew to hear that lasting noise, And all those people forced across my sight, Knowing the acres of green fields and woods That in some country parts outnumbered men; In half an hour ten thousand men I passed, More than nine thousand should have been green trees. There on a summer's day I saw such crowds That where there was no man man's shadow was; Millions all cramped together in one hive, Storing, methought, more bitter stuff than sweet. The air was foul and stale; from their green homes Young blood had brought its fresh and rosy cheeks, Which soon turned colour, like blue streams in flood. Aye, solitude, black solitude indeed, To meet a million souls and know not one; This world must soon grow stale to one compelled To look all day at faces strange and cold. Oft full of smoke that town; its summer's day Was darker than a summer's night at sea; Poison was there, and still men rushed for it, Like cows for acorns that have made them sick. That town was rich and old; man's flesh was cheap, But common earth was dear to buy one foot. If I must be fenced in, then let my fence Be some green hedgerow; under its green sprays, That shake suspended, let me walk in joy, As I do now, in these dear months I love.