The Childhood Of Apollo by George William Russell

Story type: Essay

It was long ago, so long that only the spirit of earth remembers truly. The old shepherd Admetus sat before the door of his hut waiting for his grandson to return. He watched with drowsy eyes the eve gather, and the woods and mountains grow dark over the isles–the isles of ancient Greece. It was Greece before its day of beauty, and day was never lovelier. The cloudy blossoms of smoke, curling upward from the valley, sparkled a while high up in the sunlit air, a vague memorial of the world of men below. From that, too, the color vanished, and those other lights began to shine which to some are the only lights of day. The skies dropped close upon the mountains and the silver seas like a vast face brooding with intentness. There was enchantment, mystery, and a living motion in its depths, the presence of all-pervading Zeus enfolding his starry children with the dark radiance of aether.

“Ah!” murmured the old man, looking upward, “once it was living; once it spoke to me. It speaks not now; but it speaks to others I know–to the child who looks and longs and trembles in the dewy night. Why does he linger now? He is beyond his hour. Ah, there now are his footsteps!”

A boy came up the valley driving the gray flocks which tumbled before him in the darkness. He lifted his young face for the shepherd to kiss. It was alight with ecstasy. Admetus looked at him with wonder. A golden and silvery light rayed all about the child, so that his delicate ethereal beauty seemed set in a star which followed his dancing footsteps.

“How bright your eyes!” the old man said, faltering with sudden awe. “Why do your limbs shine with moonfire light?”

“Oh, father,” said the boy Apollo, “I am glad, for everything is living tonight. The evening is all a voice and many voices. While the flocks were browsing night gathered about me. I saw within it and it was everywhere living.

“The wind with dim-blown tresses, odor, incense, and secret falling dew, mingled in one warm breath. They whispered to me and called me ‘Child of the Stars,’ ‘Dew Heart,’ and ‘Soul of Light.’ Oh, father, as I came up the valley the voices followed me with song. Everything murmured love. Even the daffodils, nodding in the olive gloom, grew golden at my feet, and a flower within my heart knew of the still sweet secret of the flowers. Listen, listen!”

There were voices in the night, voices as of star-rays descending.

Now the roof-tree of the midnight spreading
Buds in citron, green, and blue:
From afar its mystic odors shedding,
Child, on you.

Then other sweet speakers from beneath the earth, and from the distant waters and air, followed in benediction, and a last voice like a murmur from universal nature:

Now the buried stars beneath the mountains
And the vales their life renew,
Jetting rainbow blooms from tiny fountains,
Child, for you.

As within our quiet waters passing
Sun and moon and stars we view,
So the loveliness of life is glassing,
Child, in you.

In the diamond air the sun-star glowing
Up its feathered radiance threw;
All the jewel glory there was flowing,
Child, for you.

And the fire divine in all things burning
Yearns for home and rest anew,
From its wanderings far again returning,
Child, to you.

“Oh, voices, voices,” cried the child, “what you say I know not, but I give back love for love. Father, what is it they tell me? They enfold me in light, and I am far away even though I hold your hand.”

“The gods are about us. Heaven mingles with the earth,” said Admetus, trembling. “Let us go to Diotima. She has grown wise brooding for many a year where the great caves lead to the underworld. She sees the bright ones as they pass by, though she sits with shut eyes, her drowsy lips murmuring as nature’s self.”

That night the island seemed no more earth set in sea, but a music encircled by the silence. The trees, long rooted in antique slumber, were throbbing with rich life; through glimmering bark and drooping leaf a light fell on the old man and boy as they passed, and vague figures nodded at them. These were the hamadryad souls of the wood. They were bathed in tender colors and shimmering lights draping them from root to leaf. A murmur came from the heart of every one, a low enchantment breathing joy and peace. It grew and swelled until at last it seemed as if through a myriad pipes Pan the earth spirit was fluting his magical creative song.

They found the cave of Diotima covered by vines and tangled trailers at the end of the island where the dark-green woodland rose up from the waters. Admetus paused, for he dreaded this mystic prophetess; but a voice from within called them:

“Come, child of light: come in, old shepherd, I know why you seek me!”

They entered, Admetus trembling with more fear than before. A fire was blazing in a recess of the cavern, and by it sat a majestic figure robed in purple. She was bent forward, her hand supporting her face, her burning eyes turned on the intruders.

“Come hither, child,” she said, taking the boy by the hands and gazing into his face. “So this pale form is to be the home of the god. The gods Choose wisely. They take no wild warrior, no mighty hero to be their messenger, but crown this gentle head. Tell me, have you ever seen a light from the sun falling on you in your slumber? No, but look now. Look upward.”

As she spoke she waved her hands over him, and the cavern with its dusky roof seemed to melt away, and beyond the heavens the heaven of heavens lay dark in pure tranquility, in a quiet which was the very hush of being. In an instant it vanished, and over the zenith broke a wonderful light.

“See now,” cried Diotima, “the Ancient Beauty! Look how its petals expand, and what comes forth from its heart!” A vast and glowing breath, mutable and opalescent, spread itself between heaven and earth, and out of it slowly descended a radiant form like a god’s. It drew nigh, radiating lights, pure, beautiful, and star-like. It stood for a moment by the child and placed its hand on his head, and then it was gone. The old shepherd fell upon his face in awe, while the boy stood breathless and entranced.

“Go now,” said the Sybil, “I can teach thee naught. Nature herself will adore you, and sing through you her loveliest song. But, ah, the light you hail in joy you shall impart in tears. So from age to age the eternal Beauty bows itself down amid sorrows, that the children of men may not forget it, that their anguish may be transformed, smitten through by its fire.”

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