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James Whitcomb Riley - Orlie Wilde

A goddess, with a siren's grace,--
A sun-haired girl on a craggy place
Above a bay where fish-boats lay
Drifting about like birds of prey.

Wrought was she of a painter's dream,--
Wise only as are artists wise,
My artist-friend, Rolf Herschkelhiem,
With deep sad eyes of oversize,
And face of melancholy guise.

I pressed him that he tell to me
This masterpiece's history.
He turned--REturned--and thus beguiled
Me with the tale of Orlie Wilde:--

"We artists live ideally:
We breed our firmest facts of air;
We make our own reality--
We dream a thing and it is so.
The fairest scenes we ever see
Are mirages of memory;
The sweetest thoughts we ever know
We plagiarize from Long Ago:
And as the girl on canvas there
Is marvelously rare and fair,
'Tis only inasmuch as she
Is dumb and may not speak to me!"
He tapped me with his mahlstick--then
The picture,--and went on again:

"Orlie Wilde, the fisher's child--
I see her yet, as fair and mild
As ever nursling summer day
Dreamed on the bosom of the bay:
For I was twenty then, and went
Alone and long-haired--all content
With promises of sounding name
And fantasies of future fame,
And thoughts that now my mind discards
As editor a fledgling bard's.

"At evening once I chanced to go,
With pencil and portfolio,
Adown the street of silver sand
That winds beneath this craggy land,
To make a sketch of some old scurf
Of driftage, nosing through the surf
A splintered mast, with knarl and strand
Of rigging-rope and tattered threads
Of flag and streamer and of sail
That fluttered idly in the gale
Or whipped themselves to sadder shreds.
The while I wrought, half listlessly,
On my dismantled subject, came
A sea-bird, settling on the same
With plaintive moan, as though that he
Had lost his mate upon the sea;
And--with my melancholy trend--
It brought dim dreams half understood--
It wrought upon my morbid mood,--
I thought of my own voyagings
That had no end--that have no end.--
And, like the sea-bird, I made moan
That I was loveless and alone.
And when at last with weary wings
It went upon its wanderings,
With upturned face I watched its flight
Until this picture met my sight:
A goddess, with a siren's grace,--
A sun-haired girl on a craggy place
Above a bay where fish-boats lay
Drifting about like birds of prey.

"In airy poise she, gazing, stood
A machless form of womanhood,
That brought a thought that if for me
Such eyes had sought across the sea,
I could have swum the widest tide
That ever mariner defied,
And, at the shore, could on have gone
To that high crag she stood upon,
To there entreat and say, 'My Sweet,
Behold thy servant at thy feet.'
And to my soul I said: 'Above,
There stands the idol of thy love!'

"In this rapt, awed, ecstatic state
I gazed--till lo! I was aware
A fisherman had joined her there--
A weary man, with halting gait,
Who toiled beneath a basket's weight:
Her father, as I guessed, for she
Had run to meet him gleefully
And ta'en his burden to herself,
That perched upon her shoulder's shelf
So lightly that she, tripping, neared
A jutting crag and disappeared;
But she left the echo of a song
That thrills me yet, and will as long
As I have being! . . .


. . . "Evenings came
And went,--but each the same--the same:
She watched above, and even so
I stood there watching from below;
Till, grown so bold at last, I sung,--
(What matter now the theme thereof!)--
It brought an answer from her tongue--
Faint as the murmur of a dove,
Yet all the more the song of love. . . .

"I turned and looked upon the bay,
With palm to forehead--eyes a-blur
In the sea's smile--meant but for her!--
I saw the fish-boats far away
In misty distance, lightly drawn
In chalk-dots on the horizon--
Looked back at her, long, wistfully;--
And, pushing off an empty skiff,
I beckoned her to quit the cliff
And yield me her rare company
Upon a little pleasure-cruise.--
She stood, as loathful to refuse,
To muse for full a moment's time,--
Then answered back in pantomime
'She feared some danger from the sea
Were she discovered thus with me.'
I motioned then to ask her if
I might not join her on the cliff
And back again, with graceful wave
Of lifted arm, she anwer gave
'She feared some danger from the sea.'

"Impatient, piqued, impetuous, I
Sprang in the boat, and flung 'Good-by'
From pouted mouth with angry hand,
And madly pulled away from land
With lusty stroke, despite that she
Held out her hands entreatingly:
And when far out, with covert eye
I shoreward glanced, I saw her fly
In reckless haste adown the crag,
Her hair a-flutter like a flag
Of gold that danced across the strand
In little mists of silver sand.
All curious I, pausing, tried
To fancy what it all implied,--
When suddenly I found my feet
Were wet; and, underneath the seat
On which I sat, I heard the sound
Of gurgling waters, and I found
The boat aleak alarmingly. . . .
I turned and looked upon the sea,
Whose every wave seemed mocking me;
I saw the fishers' sails once more--
In dimmer distance than before;
I saw the sea-bird wheeling by,
With foolish wish that _I_ could fly:
I thought of firm earth, home and friends--
I thought of everything that tends
To drive a man to frenzy and
To wholly lose his own command;
I thought of all my waywardness--
Thought of a mother's deep distress;
Of youthful follies yet unpurged--
Sins, as the seas, about me surged--
Thought of the printer's ready pen
To-morrow drowning me again;--
A million things without a name--
I thought of everything but--Fame. . . .

"A memory yet is in my mind,
So keenly clear and sharp-defined,
I picture every phase and line
Of life and death, and neither mine,--
While some fair seraph, golden-haired,
Bends over me,--with white arms bared,
That strongly plait themselves about
My drowning weight and lift me out--
With joy too great for words to state
Or tongue to dare articulate!

"And this seraphic ocean-child
And heroine was Orlie Wilde:
And thus it was I came to hear
Her voice's music in my ear--
Ay, thus it was Fate paved the way
That I walk desolate to-day!" . . .

The artist paused and bowed his face
Within his palms a little space,
While reverently on his form
I bent my gaze and marked a storm
That shook his frame as wrathfully
As some typhoon of agony,
And fraught with sobs--the more profound
For that peculiar laughing sound
We hear when strong men weep. . . . I leant
With warmest sympathy--I bent
To stroke with soothing hand his brow,
He murmuring--"Tis over now!--

And shall I tie the silken thread
Of my frail romance?" "Yes," I said.--
He faintly smiled; and then, with brow
In kneading palm, as one in dread--
His tasseled cap pushed from his head
" 'Her voice's music,' I repeat,"
He said,--" 'twas sweet--O passing sweet!--
Though she herself, in uttering
Its melody, proved not the thing
Of loveliness my dreams made meet
For me--there, yearning, at her feet--
Prone at her feet--a worshiper,--
For lo! she spake a tongue," moaned he,
"Unknown to me;--unknown to me
As mine to her--as mine to her." 

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Poet: James Whitcomb Riley
Poem: Orlie Wilde
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