This splendid lyrical poem, which explores elements of the myth of Orpheus and celebrates the mysteries of the Octave, was composed in 1963 by Melita Denning (late Grand Master of the Order Aurum Solis) and issued to the Order in that same year. It was employed as an introduction to a study of the Orphic theogonies, and itself provided material for psychological and magical analysis. It was later included in the preliminary material of book 1 of The Magical Philosophy (Llewellyn, 1974), where it served both as general dedicatory material for the entire series and as specific memorial tribute to astrologer-magician Ernest Page, beloved Guardian of the Order of the Sacred Word from 1959 until his death in 1966. The poem is reproduced here as originally issued and distributed within the Order Aurum Solis.
Copyright © 2002 by Leon Barcynski
I seek a token
Higher than death with breath of fire can abate,
Greater than plant’s enchantment, than secret spoken,
Sweet as song, strong as fate.
Grief’s passion to purpose turning
Lingered the Thracian, musician fingers ever for the dead
Questing upon the strings, un-resting, never discerning
The sounds that from those quivering seven bled:
Music whose skill had he willed, from the walls of the hills a voice
Had called of human tears, or the mirth of earth to rejoice:
Music that held in its power each hour of the planets’ burning:
When suddenly his mind heard, and its burden shed.
He knew his way to tread.
How travels living man to the land where Death is king?
Some unquestioning, no heed giving, sightless go.
But of those who know, there are few that sing
The journeying of the terrible road to show.
In the chasm where the traveller descends,
Half down the riven pit, on the steep
Crumbling cliff where drift of the daylight ends
A tree is rooted deep,
Reaching its mere bare greyness towards the air:
And the twigs that are nearest the day are called Despair.
As far beneath, where breathing is pent by wraiths of night,
With ravelled shadow closed about, the traveller goes
In doubt of living, perceiving without sight:
And there it is the silent river flows
Oblivious venomous mist for ever weaving:
And there it is, the history truly vouches,
With changeless gaze the triple horror couches:
Lip-slavering hate, fear whimpering, howling, grieving,
And leaden jaws that close.
But here the harper safely passed, nor greatly heeded:
Clear in his heart was the remembered day
When trees entranced had danced to hear him play.
Not yet to win his way a greater art he needed.
Solemn splendour of Hades’ hall!
Sombre columns with golden capitals crowned,
And jewelled throngs attending, languid all,
Pallid as candle flames by the noonday drowned:
Where the dark king with his consort virginal
Still smiles as if he frowned.
O Hades, here at thy throne
In homage the doom I sing of kingdoms of man.
Ringed be a land with pride, or of wider span
Than can in a season ripen what spring beyond spring has sown.
Though high cities besides with store of gold have shone,
Yet when, O king, thou dost but call thine own,
Man’s government is done.
Or shall I sing the fate of ancient things?
Wherever the power, the honour of age is won
And treasure of measured time has greatly grown.
There, when some hour thy pleasure’s message brings –
O strings, falter and moan —
At once all is gone.
Shall learning be our boast?
Short time, a life, for that unearthly reaping!
Nor ever shows some frail earth-questing ghost
More grant of all his hoarded knowledge keeping
Than strife of stuttered words his life could have uttered sleeping.
The wise who learn to die, their prize avails the most.
So sang, so played on the seven strings’ sweetness and pain
The stranger, every hope laying low at Hades’ feet:
Broken, plaintive every tone was made.
Whether of good or of pride, to Death was the gain:
The faithful sailor lost, the trader by storm betrayed,
Glory of courage in war outpoured, vainly scorning retreat.
Then to a stronger cry the music leading
His inmost grief he told.
Of the bride from his long gaze torn — from his tortured pleading —
Beauty that vied with morning, borne alone to the cold
Skyless night of Hades’ hold.
And with his love his life’s harsh overturning.
Not, he sighed, that I sought; although awhile
In her smile I caught more joy than the Fates allow:
But one doom waits, however we make its trial.
Where Zeus has struck, a vine may deck the barren bough
But Hades’ victim is smitten beyond denial
And past adorning.
But mark, O king: hear and heed a deed of mine!
See, my harp has a new thing, the new, the eighth string!
Thine is power on the dower of earth, but this is divine.
Freedom I cry, the birth of freedom I sound and sing:
Greater than fate, the eighth string: O king, do you know its worth?
Seven sounds ring for all the earth has seen.
Weave and change the player may, aspiring
Beyond that range: but the leaping fire of his lay
Falls back, back as if tiring
In mortal weariness its bonds between:
For all the sun has seen is indeed thy prey
But the eighth string makes thy power its mirth.
This is the octave: gate that closes
By opening onward: end that suspends all end.
Here then, O king, is my token:
Phoenix, the scale as a stair of fire to ascend
Where ever higher she hovers, never reposes.
By this, the one thing free in a world at thy feet,
I bid thee behold at last thy sovereignty broken.
My own I claim, not entreat.
So thus his music earned the unheard-of boon
To bring his bride again to sight of the skies:
But how to tell
His faith’s one flaw, one doubt that all was well,
Doubt of ill chance, that glanced about too soon?
She faded from his eyes:
But thus far wise, he knew, though his heart had failed,
The mystery was true and had prevailed
Though never his should be the blissful prize.
How lives the lover by love and by death forsaken?
He lives to rove as if blind to time and place,
But the beloved finding in every face
To a life beyond his life he must awaken.
The harper his way has taken
To slopes of rock and grass where slow flocks move,
Now bent on solitude his sorrow’s bond to sever,
Now with the herd-boys met, matching in mock endeavour –
As if the novice-power of his harp to prove –
Their music’s wild grace shaken,
Their wine-ripe fruit-sweet fluting to the river:
But death was ever present though absent ever,
And never present, never absent was love.
Guessing his name revered, to tell, and bear
Of his fame a listener’s share:
But not the old clear praises could they frame,
So strange the maze he traced from his song’s beginning:
The bride gained yet denied to him, lost yet closer than air,
And death’s gate unbarred, ajar for the winning.
But he welcomed them with laughter, and wrought a splendour of sound —
The sport of after echoes around the mountain meadow —
And the women danced, their spirit seeming as his unbound
And the earth but shadow.
Nearer whirled the dancers, one tossed glance seeking
From him who played of heart’s desire, eyes lost in light of vision:
Till a girl sped to his side, from height of the frenzy breaking,
Grasped his wrist resistless away from the strings, and cried
‘Darkness and nothing is this, or day and the kiss of your bride?
Singer, give proof of the truth of your song: give us life, O magician!’
So the first hands smote: the crowd so loudly calling and shrieking
His own throat’s cry he doubted, or if he panted dumb.
He saw his arm unplanted
His no more to raise though breath were granted.
Then to his neck, death-consented, one struck:
And night was come.
They strewed him to the sobbing winds, to the rain
That dropped on the hills, his head to the flooding river.
And all the land was shrill with shuddering pain.
But so the doom was past:
Day serene has smiled from darkness flying:
One with his love is that child of the lords undying.
Blest at last:
And earth has his song for ever.