A Canticle of Bacchus by Witter Bynner

07/27/2012

(The First and Second Cantors stand at either side of the stage. Bacchus enters, concealing with a vine-draped arm all of his face below the eyes)

The First Cantor
Why hide your face with vines, lad?
Why stand mysterious?
Show your face and tell us why
And what you want of us.
I wonder if I know you, lad.
I’ve seen your eyes before.
There s a glow in them as genial
As an opening door
With a yellow light behind it
And a handshake and a song
And a welcome to a fellowship
Where happy folk belong.
I wonder why your presence,
Half-hidden, seems to be
The reaching of the redwoods,
The slipping of the sea
And the swaying of the heart of wine
Within the heart of me.
Lad, are you the merry god
Of vine-leaves?

Bacchus (showing his face)
I am he.
Though not so merry nowadays
As I dared to be
In the days of Alexander,
I am Bacchus, I am he
Whom young men choose, old wives chastise
And solemn men abhor,
Because the truth is in my eyes,
Because my mother bore
A light and easy soothsayer,
Natural and wild,
Fierce and happy as the sun,
When Bacchus was her child.
I stole the grapes from her other hand,
She pretended not to look,
And the heat of my fingers turned them to wine
And that was the milk I took,
Till I grew and flourished and became
The most beloved boy
Who ever danced among the leaves
Of elemental joy.
And everybody laughed my name
And pulse was never quicker
Than when the unforbidden hills
Blessed the world with liquor
And everybody drank it
And everybody knew
Festival-hymns and holiday-tunes . . .

The First Cantor
Here are singers too!
“For he’s a jolly good fellow—”
Sing to him — all of you!

The Company (singing and concluding)
“For he’s a jolly good fellow,
Which nobody can deny.”

Bacchus
And how can a jolly good fellow
Bear to say good-bye?
O let me pledge you in a drink
Before I hide my face!

The Second Cantor (refusing the proffered cup)
No, thank you. You have earned too well
Your measure of disgrace.

Bacchus
And who are you who will not drink?

Silenus (entering eagerly)
By the gods, I’ll take his cup!

The First Cantor
He s a tale-telling teetotaller.

Silenus
A meddler and a pup!

The Second Cantor (to Bacchus, indicating Silenus)
Look well at him, if you wonder why
I spurn what you propose —
At the purple viney pattern
Of the veining of his nose!
He followed you and the dryads,
He dreamed a dream in his youth,
And his house has tumbled about him
In ashes — that’s the truth!

Silenus
What do I want of houses
While a cave holds off a storm?
And what do I want of a hearthstone
While there’s wine to keep me warm?

The Second Cantor
You had a wife who pleaded,
With children at her knees!

Silenus
My wife was like Xantippe,
Who scolded Socrates
When he went the way of drinking men
With Alcibiades —
When he went the way of thinking men
And dodged the homely pot,
As I have dodged the missiles
Of the whole confounded lot.
Sir, can you quote me wisdom
From men who never tipple
That has made a stir in the world like his?
No, sir — not a ripple! —
So here’s to poets, philosophers,
By all the seven seas,
Greek, Roman, Gallic, British, Dutch
And Persian and Chinese!
Though it double me rheumatic —
Here’s to Socrates!

Bacchus
You it is, with disregard
Of measure and time and place,
Who have brought on both of us this day
Of exile and disgrace,
Yet, Silenus, you’re forgiven,
For I’d rather live in a hut
Away from all my friends but you
Than have had you learn to shut
A virtuous mouth like a trap for birds
And a fist like a purse for squeeze —
You’ve an open mouth and hand and heart,
And they have none of these.

The Second Cantor
Are you meaning me?

Bacchus
Yes, even you,
Too careful to be bold.
Before you take a step, you look,
Before you’re young, you’re old.
Before you think in your own terms,
You think in other people’s
And stilt your life as orderly
As pulpits and as steeples.
What can the ocean mean to you,
Draining the shore,
And the wind that drinks the redwoods
And waves its arms for more,
And the dogs that romp in the flowers,
And the cats that sing in the alleys,
And the skylarks in the zenith,
And the waterfalls in the valleys?
In this happy, crooked, drunken world
How you can bid us go
As dry as dust and as straight as a corpse
To a graveyard, I don’t know.

The Second Cantor
Do the dogs and the cats and the skylarks
Need booze to make them gay?

Silenus
What about cats and catnip?

Bacchus
Men need more than they! . . .
O the fruit of the tree of knowledge
Was a liquor on the tree —
And when they chose the apple,
Adam and Eve chose me!
And the children of Jehovah,
As well as the children of Zeus,
Were the better for their knowledge
When the godhead turned them loose.
For there’s nothing so sure as freedom
To make the heart rejoice.
The happiness of manhood,
The guerdon of life — is choice!
And a road that is rough is smoother,
So be it the road you choose,
Than a smooth road chosen for you
Where what you win you lose . . .
I am a godly companion,
A touchstone and a test,
And who chooses with the other gods
Bacchus — chooses best.
For what is life itself but wine,
And what am I but life?
And they who cut our kinship
Use a deadly knife.
And even he who, reckless,
Comes too close to a god
Is wiser than he who numbers his bones
To fertilize the sod . . .
Hear the truth from Bacchus —
My blood is spring in the veins,
And he who would deny the spring
Shall perish for his pains . . .

Silenus
There s a place in the woods where wild apples grow
And the feet of young Bacchus shall tread them,
And if venturers find us, they’ll ask us when they go
What nectar it is we have fed them.
We shall hew a rock-hollow and seal it with clay
And mark it with Bacchus’s fillet —
Wild honey and attar of roses and hay
Shall sweeten our wine and distill it.

Bacchus (moving slowly away with Silenus)
There where the sun sets, winey in the mountains,
There where the moon uplifts her frosty cup,
Bacchus shall come and free the merry fountains
And drink the winter down and the springtide up.
And a welcome shall well there for fortunate companions,
From Silenus or from Bacchus, whichever you prefer.
We shall crown you and lead you through the wildgrape canyons
And comfort you with apples and laugh at the cur
Who would harry at your heels and snarl the woods about you,
We shall hear him faintly barking beyond the happy peaks.
Exile is sweet when fools are left without you
And the wild wine of wisdom is the color in your cheeks.
You may learn there of nature, as Bacchus has learned,
How hemlock is deadlier than grapes are to quaff,
Or if you never find us, or have left us and returned,
You still shall hear us echoing the sound of your laugh . . .

So remember us and praise us, though the time be long,
And sing a song of other days when Bacchus came and went.
And so the heart of Bacchus shall be happy in your song
And the foot of Bacchus steal within your tent.
For you who once have known me never can forget me.
Your other friends are mortal, Bacchus is divine.
Now for a little while evil days beset me . . .
But sing me into exile “for auld lang syne”!

The Company (singing, as Bacchus and Silenus leave them)
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot
“And never brought to mind,
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot
“And the days of auld lang syne?”

(Even the Second Cantor joining, with a cup)
“For auld lang syne, my boys,
“For auld lang syne,
“We’ll take a cup and drink it up,
“To the days of auld lang syne.”

 

– Witter Bynner (1881-1968), A Canticle of Bacchus

One Response to “A Canticle of Bacchus by Witter Bynner”


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