The Ballad of Iskander

Sultan Iskander sat him down
On his golden throne, in his golden crown,
And shouted ‘Wine and flute-girls three,
And the Captain, ho! of my ships at sea.

He drank his bowl of wine; he kept
The flute-girls dancing till they wept,
Praised and kissed their painted lips,
And turned to the Captain of All his Ships.

And cried, ‘O Lord of my Ships that go
From the Persian Gulf to the Pits of Snow,
Inquire for men unknown to man!’
Said Sultan Iskander of Yoonistan.

‘Daroosh is dead, and I am King
Of Everywhere and Everything:
Yet leagues and leagues away for sure
The lion-hearted dream of war.

‘Admiral, I command you sail!
Take you a ship of silver mail,
And fifty sailors, young and bold,
And stack provision deep in the hold.

‘And seek out twenty men that know
All babel tongues which flaunt and flow;
And stay! Impress those learned two,
Old Aflatun, and Aristu.

‘And set your prow South-western ways
A thousand bright and dimpling days,
And find me lion-hearted Lords
With breasts to feed Our rusting swords.’

The Captain of the Ships bowed low.
‘Sir,’ he replied, ‘I will do so.’
And down he rode to the harbor mouth,
To choose a boat to carry him South.

And he launched a ship of silver mail,
With fifty lads to hoist the sail,
And twenty wise—all tongues they knew,
And Aflatun, and Aristu.

There had not dawned the second day
But the glittering galleon sailed away,
And through the night like one great bell
The marshalled armies sang farewell.

In twenty days the silver ship
Had passed the Isle of Serendip,
And made the flat Araunian coasts
Inhabited, at noon, by Ghosts.

In thirty days the ship was far
Beyond the land of Calcobar,
Where men drink Dead Men’s Blood for wine,
And dye their beards alizarine.

But on the hundredth day there came
Storm with his windy wings aflame,
And drave them out to that Lone Sea
Whose shores are near Eternity.

For seven years and seven years
Sailed those forgotten mariners,
Nor could they spy on either hand
The faintest level of good red land.

Bird or fish they saw not one;
There swam no ship beside their own,
And day-night long the lilied Deep
Lay round them, with its flowers asleep.

The beams began to warp and crack,
The silver plates turned filthy black
And drooping down on the carven rails
Hung those once lovely silken sails.

And all the great ship’s crew who were
Such noble lads to do and dare
Grew old and tired of the changeless sky
And laid them down on the deck to die.

And they who spake all tongues there be
Made antics with solemnity,
Or closely huddled each to each
Talked ribald in a foreign speech.

And Aflatun and Aristu
Let their Beards grow, and their Beards grew
Round and about the mainmast tree
Where they stood still, and watched the sea.

And day by day their Captain grey
Knelt on the rotting poop to pray:
And yet despite ten thousand prayers
They saw no ship that was not theirs.

When thrice the seven years had passed
They saw a ship, a ship at last!
Untarnished glowed its silver mail,
Windless bellied its silken sail.

With a shout the grizzled sailors rose
Cursing the years of sick repose,
And they who spake in tongues unknown
Gladly reverted to their own.

The Captain leapt and left his prayers
And hastened down the dust-dark stairs,
And taking to hand a brazen Whip
He woke to life the long dead ship.

But Aflatun and Aristu,
Who had no work that they could do,
Gazed at the stranger Ship and Sea
With their beards around the mainmast tree.

Nearer and nearer the new boat came,
Till the hands cried out on the old ship’s shame—
‘Silken sail to a silver boat,
We too shone when we first set float!’

Swifter and swifter the bright boat sped,
But the hands spake thin like men long dead—
‘How striking like that boat were we
In the days, sweet days, when we put to sea.’

The ship all black and the ship all white
Met like the meeting of day and night,
Met, and there lay serene dark green
A twilight yard of the sea between.

And the twenty masters of foreign speech
Of every tongue they knew tried each;
Smiling, the silver Captain heard,
But shook his head and said no word.

Then Aflatun and Aristu
Addressed the silver Lord anew,
Speaking their language of Yoonistan
Like countrymen to a countryman.

And ‘Whence’ they cried, ‘O Sons of Pride,
Sail you the dark eternal tide?
Lie your halls to the South or North,
And who is the King that sent you forth?’

‘We live,’ replied that Lord with a smile,
A mile beyond the millionth mile.
We know not South and we know not North,
And Sultan Iskander sent us forth.’

Said Aristu to Aflatun—
‘Surely our King, despondent soon,
Has sent this second ship to find
Unconquered tracts of humankind.’

But Aflatun turned round on him
Laughing a bitter laugh and grim.
‘Alas,’ he said, ‘O Aristu,
A white weak thin old fool are you.

‘And does yon silver Ship appear
As she had journeyed twenty year?
And has that silver Captain’s face
A mortal or Immortal grace?

‘Theirs is the land (as well I know)
Where live the Shapes of Things Below:
Theirs is the country where they keep
The Images men see in Sleep.

‘Theirs is the Land beyond the Door,
And theirs the old ideal shore.
They steer our ship: behold our crew
Ideal, and our Captain too.

‘And lo! beside that mainmast tree
Two tall and shining forms I see,
And they are what we ought to be,
Yet we are they, and they are we.’

He spake, and some young Zephyr stirred,
The two ships touched: no sound was heard;
The Black Ship crumbled into air;
Only the Phantom Ship was there.

And a great cry rang round the sky
Of glorious singers sweeping by,
And calm and fair on waves that shone
The Silver Ship sailed on and on.