Richard Wilbur

Castles and Distances

     From blackhearted water colder
Than Cain’s blood, and aching with ice, from a gunmetal bay
  No one would dream of drowning in, rises
  The walrus: head hunched from the oxen shoulder,
   The serious face made for surprises
      Looks with a thick dismay

     At the camera lens which takes
Him in, and takes him back to cities, to volleys of laughter
  In film palaces, just as another, brought
  By Jonas Poole to England for the sakes 
   Of James First and his court, was thought
     Most strange, and died soon after.

     So strangeness gently steels
Us, and curiosity kills, keeping us cool to go
  Sail with the hunters unseen to the walrus rock
  And stand behind their slaughter: which of us feels
   The harpoon’s hurt, and the huge shock
     When the blood jumps to flow?

     Oh, it is hunters alone
Regret the beastly pain, it is they who love the foe
   That quarries out their force, and every arrow
   Is feathered soft with wishes to atone;
   Even the surest sword in sorrow
     Bleeds for its spoiling blow.

     Sometimes, as one can see
 Carved at Amboise in a high relief, on the lintel stone
   Of the castle chapel, hunters have strangely come
   To a mild close of the chase, bending the knee
   Instead of the bow, struck sweetly dumb
     To see from the brow bone

     Of the hounded stag a cross
Grown, and the eyes clear with grace. Perfectly still
   Are the cruising dogs as well, their paws aground
   In a white hush of lichen. Beds of moss
   Spread, and the clearing wreathes around
     The dear suspense of will.

          But looking higher now
To the chapel steeple, see among points and spines of the
  Vanishing godbound stone, ringing its sped
   Thrust as a target tatters, a round row
   Of real antlers taken from dead
     Deer. The hunt goes on.

     They built well who made
Those palaces of hunting lords, the grounds planned
  As ruled reaches, always with a view
  Down tapered aisles of trees at last to fade
   In the world’s mass. The lords so knew
     Of land beyond their land.
     If, at Versailles, outdrawn
By the stairs or the still canals, by the gradual shrink of an urn
  Or the thousand fountains, a king gave back his gaze
  To the ample balance windows vantaged on
   The clearness near, and the far haze,
     He learned he must return.

     Seen from a palace stair
The wilderness was distance; difference; it spoke
  In the strong king’s mind for mercy, while to the weak,
  To the weary of choice, it told of havens where
   The Sabbath stayed, and all were meek,
     And justice known a joke.

     Some cast their crowns away
And went to live in the distance. There was nothing
  Remotely strange to them, their innocence
  Shone in the special features of the prey
   They would not harm. The dread expense
     Of golden times they dreamed
 Was that their kingdoms fell
The deeper into tyranny, the more they stole
  Through Ardens out to Eden isles apart,
  Seeking a shore, or shelter of some spell
   Where harmlessly the hidden heart
     Might hold creation whole.

     When to his solitude
The world became as island mists, then Prospero,
  Pardoning all, and pardoned, yet aware
  The full forgiveness cannot come, renewed
   His reign, bidding the boat prepare
     From mysteries to go

     Toward masteries less sheer,
And Duke again, did rights and mercies, risking wrong,
  Found advocates and enemies, and found
  His bounded empire good, where he could hear
   Below his walls the baying hound
     And the loud hunting-song.