“For the love of nature is a passion for those in whom it once lodges. It can never be quenched. It cannot change. It is a furious, burning, physical greed, as well as a state of mystical exaltation. It will have its own.”
– Mary Webb from The House in Dormer Forest (circa 1921)
The Ancient Gods – Mary Webb
Certainly there were splashings in the water,
Certainly there were shadows on the hill,
Dark with the leaves of purple-spotted orchis;
But now all’s still.
It may be that the catkin-covered sallow,
With her illusive, glimmering surprise,
Pale golden-tinted as a tall young goddess,
Deceived my eyes;
And the white birches wading in the margin,
Each one a naked and a radiant god,
Dazzled me; and the foam was flung by currents
Where no feet trod.
Only I know I saw them–stately, comely,
Within the leafy shadows of the stream;
They woke amid the shallow, singing water
A fading gleam.
They left no trail for any beast to follow,
No track upon the moss for man to trace;
In a long, silent file up-stream they vanished
With measured pace.
The hollow water curved about their ankles
Like amber; splashes glistened on their thighs;
Sun barred their lifted heads and their far-seeing
Yet sightless eyes.
Some were like women, with deep hair of willows,
Bare breasts and gracious arms and long, smooth hips,
And the red roses of desire half frozen
Upon their lips:
But most were massive-browed and massive-shouldered
And taller than the common height of men.
They went as those that have not home nor kindred,
Nor come again.
Still, where the birches fingered their reflection,
The thrushes chanted to the evening sky;
Still the grey wagtails raced across the shingle
As they went by.
Beyond the furthest of the saffron shallows
I lost them in the larches’ rainy green,
And only saw the stretches of marsh-mallows
Where they had been.
You say the sallow and the birch deceived me:
But I know well that I beheld to-day
The ancient gods, unheralded, majestic,
Upon their way.