In Leda, Aldous Huxley is back in the old smooth, mythological world, consecrated by a thousand poets. He pays occasional tribute to ugly fact in the course of this poem, but he is at home while describing Leda with her maids bathing in Eurotas, her shining body, and the clear deep pools! The modern terror of the too-perfect world makes him dwell longer, and more humorously, than his predecessors would have done, upon Jove tossing on his Olympian couch, tortured by his continence, and sending the searchlight of his glowing eye traveling over the earth below to find some object worthy of his god-like lust…
55 pages, with a reading time of ~1.0 hour (13,923 words), and first published in 1920. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, 2015.
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BROWN and bright as an agate, mountain-cool, Eurotas singing slips from pool to pool; Down rocky gullies; through the cavernous pines And chestnut groves; down where the terraced vines And gardens overhang; through valleys grey With olive trees, into a soundless bay Of the Ægean. Silent and asleep Lie those pools now: but where they dream most deep, Men sometimes see ripples of shining hair And the young grace of bodies pale and bare, Shimmering far down—the ghosts these mirrors hold Of all the beauty they beheld of old, White limbs and heavenly eyes and the hair’s river of gold, For once these banks were peopled: Spartan girls Loosed here their maiden girdles and their curls, And stooping o’er the level water stole His darling mirror from the sun through whole Rapturous hours of gazing. The first star Of all this milky constellation, far Lovelier than any nymph of wood or green, Was she whom Tyndarus had made his queen For her sheer beauty and subtly moving grace— Leda, the fairest of our mortal race.
Hymen had lit his torches but one week About her bed (and still o’er her young cheek Passed rosy shadows of those thoughts that sped Across her mind, still virgin, still unwed, For all her body was her own no more), When Leda with her maidens to the shore Of bright Eurotas came, to escape the heat Of summer noon in waters coolly sweet. By a brown pool which opened smooth and clear Below the wrinkled water of a weir They sat them down under an old fir-tree To rest: and to the laughing melody Of their sweet speech the river’s rippling bore A liquid burden, while the sun did pour Pure colour out of heaven upon the earth. The meadows seethed with the incessant mirth Of grasshoppers, seen only when they flew Their curves of scarlet or sudden dazzling blue. Within the fir-tree’s round of unpierced shade The maidens sat with laughter and talk, or played, Gravely intent, their game of knuckle-bones; Or tossed from hand to hand the old dry cones Littered about the tree. And one did sing A ballad of some far-off Spartan king, Who took a wife, but left her, well-away! Slain by his foes upon their wedding-day. “That was a piteous story,” Leda sighed, “To be a widow ere she was a bride.” “Better,” said one, “to live a virgin life Alone, and never know the name of wife And bear the ugly burden of a child And have great pain by it. Let me live wild, A bird untamed by man!” “Nay,” cried another, “I would be wife, if I should not be mother. Cypris I honour; let the vulgar pay Their gross vows to Lucina when they pray. Our finer spirits would be blunted quite By bestial teeming; but Love’s rare delight Wings the rapt soul towards Olympus’ height.” “Delight?” cried Leda. “Love to me has brought Nothing but pain and a world of shameful thought. When they say love is sweet, the poets lie; ’Tis but a trick to catch poor maidens by. What are their boasted pleasures? I am queen To the most royal king the world has seen; Therefore I should, if any woman might, Know at its full that exquisite delight. Yet these few days since I was made a wife Have held more bitterness than all my life, While I was yet a child.” The great bright tears Slipped through her lashes. “Oh, my childish years! Years that were all my own, too sadly few, When I was happy—and yet never knew How happy till to-day!” Her maidens came About her as she wept, whispering her name, Leda, sweet Leda, with a hundred dear Caressing words to soothe her heavy cheer. At last she started up with a fierce pride Upon her face. “I am a queen,” she cried, “But had forgotten it a while; and you, Wenches of mine, you were forgetful too. Undress me. We would bathe ourself.” So proud A queen she stood, that all her maidens bowed In trembling fear and scarcely dared approach To do her bidding. But at last the brooch Pinned at her shoulder is undone, the wide Girdle of silk beneath her breasts untied; The tunic falls about her feet, and she Steps from the crocus folds of drapery, Dazzlingly naked, into the warm sun. God-like she stood; then broke into a run, Leaping and laughing in the light, as though Life through her veins coursed with so swift a flow Of generous blood and fire that to remain Too long in statued queenliness were pain To that quick soul, avid of speed and joy. She ran, easily bounding, like a boy, Narrow of haunch and slim and firm of breast. Lovelier she seemed in motion than at rest, If that might be, when she was never less, Moving or still, than perfect loveliness. At last, with cheeks afire and heaving flank, She checked her race, and on the river’s bank Stood looking down at her own echoed shape And at the fish that, aimlessly agape, Hung midway up their heaven of flawless glass, Like angels wait